The new issue of Catalyst journal is out now. Subscribe today!

In Defense of Soviet Waiters

Sometimes bad service is class struggle.

A worker on the kitchen staff at the Willard Hotel in Washington DC takes a break during a 1937 sit-down strike. Washington Area Spark / Flickr

There’s been a bit of a discussion about affective labor going around. Paul Myerscough in the London Review of Books describes the elaborate code with which the Pret a Manger chain enforces an ersatz cheerfulness and dedication on the part of its employees, who are expected to be “smiling, reacting to each other, happy, engaged.” Echoing a remark of Giraudoux and George Burns, the most important thing to fake is sincerity: “authenticity of being happy is important.”

Tim Noah and Josh Eidelson elaborate on this theme, and Sarah Jaffe makes the point that this has always been an extremely gendered aspect of labor (waged and otherwise). She notes that “women have been fighting for decades to make the point that they don’t do their work for the love of it; they do it because women are expected to do it.” Employers, of course, would prefer equality to be established by imposing the love of work on both genders.

Noah describes the way Pret a Manger keeps “its sales clerks in a state of enforced rapture through policies vaguely reminiscent of the old East German Stasi.” I was reminded of the Soviet model too, but in a different way. I’m just old enough to remember when people talked about the Communist world as a really existing place rather than a vaguely defined bogeyman.

And one of the mundane tropes that always came up in foreign travelogues from behind the Iron Curtain concerned the notoriously surly service workers, in particular restaurant waiters. A 1977 newspaper headline reads “Soviet Union Takes Hard Look At Surly Waiters, Long Lines.” In a 1984 dispatch in the New York Times, John Burns reports that “faced with inadequate supplies, low salaries and endless lines of customers, many Russians in customer-service jobs lapse into an indifference bordering on contempt.”

One can find numerous explanations of this phenomenon, from the shortcomings of the planned economy to the institutional structure of the Soviet service industry to the vagaries of the Russian soul to the legacy of serfdom.

But one factor was clearly that Soviet workers, unlike their American counterparts, were guaranteed jobs, wages, and access to essential needs like housing, education, and health care. The fear that enforces fake happiness among capitalist service workers — culminating in the grotesquery of Pret a Manger — was mostly inoperative in the Soviet Union. As an article in the Moscow Times explains:

During the perestroika era, the American smile was a common reference point when the topic of rude Soviet service was discussed. In an often-quoted exchange that took place on a late-1980s television talk show, one participant said, “In the United States, store employees smile, but everyone knows that the smiles are insincere.” Another answered, “Better to have insincere American smiles than our very sincere Soviet rudeness!”

With the collapse of the USSR and the penetration of Western capital into Russia, employers discovered a workforce that adapted only reluctantly to the norms of capitalist work discipline. A 1990 article in USA Today opens with a description of the travails facing the first Pizza Hut in the Soviet Union:

To open the first Pizza Hut restaurants in the Soviet Union, US managers had to teach Soviet workers how to find the “you” in USSR.

“We taught them the concept of customer service,” says Rita Renth, just back from the experience. “Things that come naturally to employees here we had to teach them to do: -smiling, interacting with customers, eye contact.”

In no time, however, the managers hit on what I’ve described as the third wave form of the work ethic. Rather than appealing to religious salvation or material prosperity, workers are told that they should find their drudgery intrinsically enjoyable:

The five US managers — and colleagues from Pizza Huts in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Australia and other nations — spent 12 to 14 hours a day drilling the Russians on service and food preparation, Pizza Hut style.

As a way of “motivating them to be excited about what they were doing, we made (tasks) like folding boxes into a contest,” Rae says. “When they finished, they said they couldn’t believe they would ever have fun at their jobs.”

That feeling, rare in Soviet workplaces, has been noticed. “A comment made by a lot of customers was that as soon as they walked in, they sensed a feeling of warmth,” Rae says.

It’s the Pret a Manger approach to enforced cheerfulness (which had better be authentic!), combined with gamification, 1990-style. Along the same lines is this blog post from a business school professor, who recounts the experience of the first Russian McDonald’s:

After several days of training about customer service at McDonald’s, a young Soviet teenager asked the McDonald’s trainer a very serious question: “Why do we have to be so nice to the customers? After all, WE have the hamburgers, and they don’t!”

True enough. But while they may have had the hamburgers, with the collapse of Communism they no longer had steady access to the means of payment.

The brusqueness of customer service interactions has typically been interpreted as an indication of Communism’s shortcomings, their low quality understood as a mark of capitalism’s superiority. And it does indicate a contradiction of the Soviet model, which preserved the form of wage labor while removing many of the disciplinary mechanisms — the threat of unemployment, of destitution — that force workers to accept the discipline of the employer or the customers.

That contradiction comes to a head in a restaurant where both employees and customers are miserable. As the old saying goes, “they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.”

In his recent essay, Seth Ackerman cautions that present-day socialists shouldn’t overlook the material shortcomings of the planned economies, and he notes that “the shabbiness of consumer supply was popularly felt as a betrayal of the humanistic mission of socialism itself.” But service work is a bit different from the kind of material shabbiness he discusses, since the product and the worker are inseparable.

To demand what we’ve come to think of as “good service” is ultimately to demand the kind of affective — and affected — labor that we see throughout the service industry and especially in female-gendered occupations. Paul Myerscough is clearly unsettled by a system in which, “To guard against the possibility of Pret workers allowing themselves to behave even for a moment as if they were ‘just here for the money,’ the company maintains a panoptical regime of surveillance and assessment.” But thirty years ago, journalists like Myerscough were the sort of people grousing about rude Moscow waiters.

In a system based on wage labor (or its approximation), the choice between company-enforced cheerfulness or authentic resentment is unavoidable. In other words, fake American smiles or sincere Soviet rudeness.

The customer service interaction under capitalism can hardly avoid the collision between fearful resentment and self-deluding condescension, of the sort Tim Noah enacts in his opening: “For a good long while, I let myself think that the slender platinum blonde behind the counter at Pret A Manger was in love with me.” Perhaps it’s time to look back with a bit of nostalgia on the surly Communist waiters of yore, whose orientation toward the system was at least transparent.

I have argued many times that the essence of the social-democratic project — and for the time being, the socialist project as well — is the empowerment of labor. By means of full employment, the separation of income from employment, and the organization of workers, people gain the ability to resist the demands of the boss.

But the case of affective labor is another example that shows why this supposedly tepid and reformist project is ultimately radical and unstable. Take away the lash of the boss, and you are suddenly forced to confront service employees as human beings with human emotions, without their company-supplied masks of enforced good cheer.

Revealing the true condition of service work can be a de-fetishizing experience, one just as jarring — and quite a bit closer to home — than finding out how your iPhone was manufactured. In both cases, we are made to confront unpleasant truths about the power relations that structure all of our experiences as consumers.