All of this writing and data analysis is a lot of work! So after more than five years of posting, I've finally launched a Patreon to help pay the bills.


No, you should probably tip

For some time, I have been under the impression that our economy is defined by bourgeois control of the means of production. This was Karl Marx’s essential insight, and it goes a long way towards explaining the injustices endemic to our capitalist economy.

So I was surprised to learn in Jacobin that it is actually something about tipping that’s responsible for the plight of low-income service workers. “So long as the karmic tip jar clouds our perceptions,” Ian Svenonius writes in Against Tipping, “the insane injustice of an underpaid labor force reimbursed through only the guilty feelings of their coworkers will persist.”

It’s an interesting theory. But I’m not sure that it actually holds up! And if you look at it too closely, it even starts to look like a standard capitalistic prescription for consumer action – albeit one that’s unusually cruel to workers, even by capitalistic standards.

Tipping is not extortion

Svenonius elaborates at such length on the symbolic meaning and perverse outcomes of tipping that it can be difficult to tease out the basic mechanics of his theory. For instance, we are told that tipping is “erotic,” “highly kinky” and “practically psychadlic” – all undoubtedly true, but difficult to incorporate into a coherent, rigorous economic model.

Nevertheless, we do have the outlines of a simple economic model, relying on a few specific empirical claims. Tipping, we are told, “began essentially as a way to stave off violence by the indigent…adhered to by the privileged class who fear and disdain the less fortunate.”

This -- substantiated for some reason by the author’s travel anecdotes -- does not have much basis in the historic record. Scholars typically trace tipping back to feudal Europe, when as Segrave writes “the master or lord of the manor might give his servant or laborer a few extra coins”.  Since the power of feudal aristocracy was based on its control of arable land, it is difficult to imagine how serfs might have engaged in the “thinly veiled extortion” Svenonius identifies as the origin of tipping. The street urchin in his example is “someone who is not an employee of an establishment but works as an adjunct or as a free agent” – but the feudal serf was in the exact opposite situation, entirely dependent on the good graces of his lord.

So there is little reason to suppose that the “street urchin’s implied violence still hovers over the interaction” when tipping. Control of the land, established in law and enforced by the overwhelming brute strength of the warrior nobility, nullified opportunities for institutionalized extortion by the serfs.

Control of the means of production gives the bourgeoisie the same power today. Because of that control, it can determine the amount of variable capital to invest in wages – including money available to the proletariat for tipping each other. Note how this is functionally just another form of wage distribution laundered through a third party. Of course, service workers are also subject to more direct controls – hiring and firing, tip-pooling arrangements, adjustments in supplemental wages, shift scheduling and assignments – which can all impact individual incomes directly.  In all of this, the underlying circular course of capital – out of the pocket and back into the hands of the bourgeoisie – remains unchanged.

The tip boycott

To illustrate, consider the most likely outcomes of an actual tip boycott. With real unemployment hovering near 13% and a massive reserve labor army hoping for a job, service employees have little immediate leverage to bargain for higher wages. Fortunately, however, we do have a historic barometer to gauge how low wages can drop in the US tipping economy before service workers begin making significant political demands for compensation: the minimum wage. That’s where employers have been forced to adjust wages.

In other words, a tip boycott is unlikely to even begin placing demands on the bourgeoisie until we’ve managed to dramatically slash the incomes of service workers all the way to our nation’s despicably miserly minimum wage.

Suppose, then, that the tip boycott becomes so successful that employers are finally forced to pay the full wage. They will do this first by simply cutting payroll in other ways – laying off workers or reducing hours – keeping the financial consequences of the boycott on the very service workers it was meant to help. Or, the bourgeoisie will shift the consequences onto everyone else by raising prices. This effectively cancels out the surplus wages that they had previously paid non-service workers to be passed along as tips.

What, then, has the tip boycott accomplished? Service workers have exchanged wages that are variable but modest for wages that are static and extremely low – not necessarily an advantageous trade. More importantly, the essential relationship between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie remains unchanged.

The first barista

So we come to to the article’s second – and central – empirical claim: “When the first barista refuses the enforced gesture of happy-go-lucky largesse by their off-work co-worker, then the whole stinking system will collapse in a mound of idiocy and be revealed for the indentured servitude that it is.”

This, to Svenonius’s credit, is a specific and completely falsifiable claim. But again, unfortunately, it’s demonstrably false.

To test it, I asked a good friend who works as a barista at a local coffee shop to reject a tip during her next shift. A good comrade, she played along – but the results were underwhelming. The customer was initially flustered and even persistent, but eventually just shrugged and walked away. Her comrades were mildly irritated since they pool their tips, even after she explained her logic. And of course, rather than collapsing, the tipping system resumed immediately.

In retrospect, it’s pretty easy to understand why the experiment failed.

For one thing, everyone involved was already perfectly well aware of the pros and cons of tipping. Svenonius proposes that service workers are “placated by the idea of chance,” but no one at her coffee shop is actually expecting “a Saudi Sheik to tip them a million dollars”. Just listen to service workers talk to each other about incomes: they’re usually acutely aware of what they can actually expect to make, not just at any given workplace but at any given time of day and on any given day of the week. They do not talk about their jobs like one talks about buying lottery ticket. Moreover, service workers aren’t somehow blind to the fact that their customers are typically their comrades. They’re often extremely perceptive about the finances of potential tippers, and develop a refined sense of what they can expect from who. They get that economic hard times can lead to lower tips from fellow workers, and they’re acutely class conscious when obviously bourgeois customers don’t leave better tips.

Customers, meanwhile, are themselves under no illusions. They get that an assumed tip has been factored into the bourgeoisie’s wage and price-setting calculus. They get that stiffing comrades on a tip amounts to leveraging their incidental position in the tips-as-laundered-wages scheme to personal advantage. So of course they experience “guilty feelings” for further exploiting an already exploitive system – but that doesn’t mean that they’re responsible for anyone else’s tips, or for the system of tipping in general.

That’s because – and this is the main reason why our experiment failed – it is not some failure to understand our “simulated affluence” as “the indentured servitude that it is” which forestalls the end of tipping and the end of capitalism. What forestalls the end of capitalism is a failure to seize the means of production.This, and only this, is what will bring an end to the ruthless exploitation of workers, of which the tipping system is but one expression.

Service workers who live on tips don’t generally think of themselves as affluent. They don’t need lectures about their poverty and economic insecurity, and they certainly don’t need some overly clever contrarian campaign to bring down their income.