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The Pret A Manger Personality Debate: Round Two

Yes, a bad government is worse than a bad boss. But that's not the point.

"Even Tim knows that [it's] not exactly my style," Andrew Sullivan writes, to desire "the replication of Downton Abbey in Pret-A-Manger." Correct. I never took Andrew for a Lord Grantham type. But in this instance he sure argues like one.

In case you haven't followed this pissing match: Sullivan says that because I am creeped out by the incursion of "emotional labor" into new areas of the low-wage economy, this makes me a "Marxist," one "filled with lefty condescension." It's perfectly acceptable, he argues, to be compelled to engage in "fawning" behavior (his word; also mine) if your boss is a private company or individual. Or rather, it is more than okay; it's "an actual virtue inculcated by capitalism." It is only degrading to be so compelled if your boss is the government.

Sullivan maintains that I recognize no distinction between oppression by the state and oppression by an employer. His evidence is my "nutty" statement that "Pret [a Manger] keeps its sales clerks in a state of enforced rapture through policies vaguely reminiscent of the old East German Stasi." But of course I do recognize, like any good New Republic liberal, that oppression by government is worse than oppression by a private employer. The historic evidence on this point would be hard to refute. That's why I said Pret's policies were "vaguely reminiscent" of the Stasi. If I felt otherwise I'd have said they were "precisely the same."

Totalitarianism: bad. Authoritarianism: bad. Freedom and democracy: good. Can we move on?

Where Sullivan and I part company is on the question whether recognition of these sterling principles constitutes a blank check for private employers. It would be worse for me to knife you in the heart than to punch you in the stomach. But if I were to punch you in the stomach, I wouldn't expect you to compliment my comparative leniency. I don't happen to like it when private employers compel their employees to fawn over customers like me—and again, "fawn" does not mean "behave in an appropriately friendly manner," it means "fawn." My characteristically "Marxist" method of expressing this distaste is to write an article about it for a brainy magazine. I don't think that puts America's democratic freedoms in significant danger.

Sullivan argues that my brief is worthless because if Pret employees don't like being compelled to fawn over customers and to touch each other all the time, they can always try to find a job somewhere else. But does the voluntary nature of employment (albeit in a slack labor market) condone—indeed, absolve from any criticism—every unreasonable demand a boss might ever make? For the eight people who toil in obscurity for a website devoted to the opinions and crotchets of one Andrew Sullivan, I certainly hope not.