Netflix’s ‘Maid’ is a Smart and Subtle Indictment of Neoliberalism

by Keaton Weiss

“We need somewhere to live,” says Alex to her social worker in episode 6 of Netflix’s Maid, “I’m on seven different types of government assistance right now, and I’m working the maximum amount of hours I can work without getting my benefits cut. But after food and gas and daycare co-pay, we have a total of nine dollars extra every week. . .How am I supposed to afford rent, even subsidized rent. . .How is this assistance assisting me?”

Based on a memoir by Stephanie Land, Maid is a drama series about a young housecleaner named Alex who escapes an abusive relationship with her alcoholic partner and struggles to create a better life for herself and her toddler daughter. Keeping afloat means carefully navigating an increasingly labyrinthine network of social and professional relationships while extracting as much assistance as she can from an impossibly complicated and bureaucratic “social safety net.”

Since the wait list for Section 8 is too long, Alex is offered TBRA vouchers, which are practically unusable as virtually no landlords are willing to accept them, given all of the red tape they would need to cut through in order to do so. Because of this, she’s forced to rent an apartment off the books and supplement her cheap rent by doing free yard work for the homeowner.

This scenario is one of many in the series that illustrates in precise detail the seemingly inescapable trap of poverty in America. A running tally of Alex’s bank balance appears on screen at various moments, including one when she goes into the red after being distracted for a brief moment at the gas station and unwittingly putting an extra gallon in the tank. She then has to ask another customer for the three dollars she over-pumped so she’s able to pay her bill and go home.

Throughout the show, people try and help her as best they can. Her friend Nate convinces an expensive daycare center to accept her daughter, and one of her wealthy clients hooks her up with a powerhouse family lawyer who tries to win her sole custody so she can move them both to Missoula, Montana, where she’s been accepted into a prestigious university’s writing program. But even these efforts are challenged in unpredictable ways. Residency requirements complicate her ability to receive tuition assistance at the daycare center. Washington State’s unfair laws regarding domestic abuse make Alex’s custody battle much more difficult than it ought to be. And because her college’s family housing program is only available under very specific and time-sensitive circumstances, Alex is under immense pressure to make the various moving parts of her life quickly come together, lest she forfeit her spot.

So despite the best intentions of many of Alex’s friends and acquaintances, their good will is hardly a match for the neoliberal system in which they live. Meager public assistance is doled out only to those who can prove their “eligibility” after completing mountains of paperwork and enduring demeaning scrutiny, and at the end of the day, everything is for sale. In perhaps the cringiest example, Alex is forced to pay six of her remaining nine dollars to the private daycare center to reimburse them for the pricey ice cream they bought her daughter earlier that day.

Towards the end of the series, when Alex is readmitted into her domestic violence shelter, she visits the facility’s “boutique,” a room full of donated clothes available free of charge. Alex, who has had to both toil at her low wage job and jump through endless hoops to receive welfare benefits in order to survive, is shocked by the existence of such a place where something is simply provided to those who need it, no strings attached.

It seems too good to be true, which is why, even in this space, blank price tags are placed on each article of clothing just for show, and the counter boasts a dummy cash register to make the space feel more “normal.” Nothing better illustrates the pervasiveness of capitalist hegemony and market-oriented “charity” than that the shelter feels a need to disguise this clothing bank as a commercial store in order to make its patrons feel comfortable. Because to be a recipient of such voluntary giving doesn’t seem “normal” to people in Alex’s shoes. Feeling “normal” means feeling like a consumer, a customer, a shopper.

Being that Maid is based on the autobiography of a now successful writer, it ought not be too much of a spoiler to say that things generally work out in the end for Alex. But instead of reveling in the peace of what is a relatively happy ending, the audience is baffled by just how incredibly and unnecessarily difficult her journey was. We also ponder how much harder it likely would have been were Alex not a white English-speaking woman; or were she not such a talented writer who got accepted to a Fine Arts school based on merit; or were she not mentally and physically capable of juggling her college applications, her work schedule, her government assistance paperwork, and her responsibilities as a parent.

Maid doesn’t wear its politics on its sleeve. In fact, on a textual level, it’s decidedly apolitical. But after a fruitless months-long struggle to pass a robust “human infrastructure” package through Congress, it’s impossible to watch the show and not view it as an indictment of our neoliberal order in which a person’s worth is defined by their running bank balance, and even the smallest crumbs of assistance are so begrudgingly spared that they’re barely worth the time and effort it takes to beg for them.

An increasingly rare example of a work of art that’s as subtle as it is incisive, Maid is well worth watching and discussing.

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Photo: Maid, Netflix

Is Bubbles From ‘The Wire’ More Socially Responsible Than a Hedge Fund Manager?

by James Neggie

“McNulty: I’ve gotta ask you: if every time Snot Boogie would grab the money and run away… why’d you even let him in the game?

Kid: What?

McNulty: Well, if every time, Snot Boogie stole the money, why’d you let him play?

Kid: Got to. It’s America, Man

Opening scene of The Wire, HBO, 2002

Every couple of years or so, I make it a point to rewatch one of my all-time favorite series, HBO’s masterpiece inner-city drama The Wire. A few months ago, I was studying the exploits of one of the most memorable characters of the show, Reginald Cousins, a.k.a. “Bubbles.”

Suffice to say that Bubbles is an endearing drug addict with a heart of gold who has an exceptionally poignant arc over the course of the series as he traverses from addiction to recovery. 

However, early in the series, before he achieves sobriety, Bubbles is sort of a wandering Taoist in West Baltimore seeking out ways to score cash or drugs (which for him are of interchangeable value) to feed his habit. He either happens upon, devises, or improvises several different schemes, scams, and ploys designed to yield him cash or drugs. 

He sneaks up on a rooftop where drug dealers are operating below him and with a fishhook surreptitiously lifts bags of heroin from a stash in an old tire; he scavenges scrap metal and discarded cell phones (with active minutes remaining) which he is able to resell; he takes advantage of an unattended ambulance while the crew is on a call to raid their store of syringes, needles, and liquid morphine.

This past binge was my fifth time watching the series when the thought struck me: Bubbles is a street-level, rapacious late-stage capitalist looking to turn circumstances to his advantage at a moment’s notice, heedless of any damage he may be wreaking on the social fabric around him. In fact, Bubbles has at least as much (and quite probably more) conscientiousness and ethical responsibility than real life capitalist speculators and financial operatives.

Let’s examine his scheme of passing counterfeit money to buy drugs from the Barksdale drug crew in Season One. Bubbles and his young apprentice Johnny make black and white photocopies of several $10 bills. Bubbles then goes about soiling the bills with dirt and coffee. After he puts together three fake $10 bills, he asks Johnny for “the real” (meaning the one $10 bill they had left between them). They were using a real bill on the outside to cover up the fakes. 

Including assets of real value along with others to cover and mask the worthlessness of other elements. . .Does this sound familiar? Sounds quite a bit like the mortgage-backed securities of the 2006-2008 era, doesn’t it? 

You remember those don’t you, the ones that nearly collapsed the entire world financial system? They famously featured some few AAA, AA, and A rated mortgages that were bundled with BBB and BB rated mortgages (which by the end of the subprime fiasco were as worthless as Bubbles’ counterfeit) and sold to unwitting pension funds as safe investments. Of course, Wall Street’s perpetrators were ultimately not held culpable for any of that mischief, whereas the consequences for Bubbles, and particularly his young protégé, are considerably more dire. 

Young Johnny is caught and beaten so severely that he is left relying on a colostomy bag. If only divine providence had visited that sort of retribution upon the perpetrators of the 2008 financial crisis.

In the penultimate season of the series, Bubbles partners with another young protégé from the streets, Jerrod, and the two operate a shopping cart mobile convenience store /peddling business he dubs “Bubbles Depot.” 

Personally, I see similarities between Bubbles growing his cart enterprise to Jeff Bezos and Amazon. The variable that comes into play in both cases is a reliant, time-pressed consumer base. 

Bubble’s business grows exponentially when he happens upon a rogue police-sanctioned open air drug market dubbed “Hamsterdam” featuring drug crews that cannot leave their location for fear of losing their spot to a rival crew, and thus are essentially stuck operating in place 24/7. They need T-shirts, socks, toilet paper, food, water and other supplies that they can’t go out and shop for. 

So, Bubbles has a captive clientele that needs him to bring the necessities of life directly to their front stoop. Similarly, even before the pandemic, the working poor in this country were well beyond the 40-hour work week and had ventured in some cases into the 70 or 80-plus hour a week range. As a result, they have little choice but to rely on the convenience offered by Mr. Bezos and Amazon. 

Although they might be cognizant of its deleterious effects on their wages, working conditions, and the health of manufacturing and retail industries, they are pressed by absolute need for convenience and lower prices. Just like the drug crews stuck within Hamsterdam need Bubbles, so too do America’s working poor need Bezos.

Bubbles is definitely more socially responsible and ethical in his worldview than Mr. Bezos in one vital way: he pays his taxes. After being arrested for shoplifting, he is told by the series lead McNulty that he is going to have to “pay taxes on this,” meaning that he is going to work off his debt to society by acting as a paid police informant. When his young friend Johnny tries to talk Bubbles out of it, he insists that everyone needs to pay their taxes. This is a life lesson and outlook that is most sorely needed by the 1%. 

In fact, I really must apologize to the fictional character of Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins for my unfair comparison of him to the rapacious capitalists currently wreaking havoc on our non-fictional reality. Bubbles’ victims are largely drug dealers, slumlords whose scrap metal he loots, city budgets that bear the brunt of pilfered medical supplies, and chain retail establishments whose goods he shoplifts. He never engages in any activity that particularly hurts working and struggling individuals. Certainly, he never holds employees to such a rigid time frame that they stroke out or can’t find time to urinate as they struggle to keep up with a pace designed to optimize profits.  

Bubbles’ excuse for his crimes is that he is addicted to cocaine and heroin. Our current capitalist operatives are likewise addicted; they are addicted to marshaling and leveraging their resources to accrue money that they haven’t worked to earn. 

By the end of The Wire, Bubbles has overcome his addictions and found redemption. But for Bezos, Musk, Gates, et al, it doesn’t seem as if anything short of pitchforks and torches followed up by several years of Cultural Revolution-style struggle sessions are going to lead them to similarly change their ways.

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Why the Capitalist Class Got Caught Off Guard by The Current Wave of Labor Strikes

by Keaton Weiss

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

You may not have been familiar with that quote until now, but it’s more likely that you’ve seen this viral image of a striking Nebraska Kellogg’s worker holding down the picket line in the pouring rain:

Though arguably the most determined, he’s hardly the only American worker emboldened and enraged enough to finally assert the value of his labor against an increasingly petulant capitalist class whose refrain these past six months has been “No one wants to work.”

Of course, recent and ongoing strikes like those at Kellogg’s, Nabisco, and John Deere (just to name a few), aren’t organized simply because employees no longer “want to work,” but because they no longer care to work in lousy conditions for lousy wages.

Their newfound defiance has taken employers by surprise, as many business owners expected that a “return to normalcy” was upon us as vaccines found their way into the arms of millions of Americans, and businesses began to reopen after a year of lockdowns and quarantines.

During such time, as was pointed out quite often in conservative circles, many workers were indeed making more on unemployment than they had been at their jobs. The additional UE benefits allowed millions of working class people to put food on their tables, pay their bills, and maybe even have a few bucks leftover, without having to toil at exhausting dead-end jobs for most of their waking hours.

Once padded unemployment checks and eviction moratoriums could no longer be taken for granted, owners and managers across the country assumed that their employees would have no choice but to return to work, and that over these next few months, things would start to look just as they did in February of 2020.

But what the capitalist class didn’t realize is that while they were itching to get back in business during the still and silent period of the coronavirus shutdowns, many of their employees were finally getting a taste of what life is like without the physical strain and psychological stress of working 60 hours a week for $11.50 an hour and still having barely enough in the bank to make rent at the beginning of the month.

Having been afforded some time away from the daily grind, the working class was finally given the opportunity reflect on whether such a seemingly endless and inescapable struggle ought to be their destiny.

This period of introspection, combined with headlines reporting “labor shortages” and “supply chain issues,” has led workers to realize that they do in fact deserve better, and that circumstances have aligned such that better work in better conditions for better wages are all demands that they are better positioned to leverage than ever before in their lifetimes. And they’re seizing the opportunity.

The virtues of capitalism once seen as virtually “divine” are now being exposed for the lies they’ve always been, as this supposedly unimpeachable economic system is unable to dig itself out of the hole its found itself in.

After all, the obvious market-based solution to a labor shortage can be summed up using simple supply and demand logic: the higher the demand for a product or service, the higher its price. But rather than satisfy such a demand by increasing wages, the ownership class is choosing instead to cry foul at the very system they’ve exploited their entire lives, and falsely complain that “no one wants to work anymore.”

And so while their bosses throw their tantrums, laborers are learning firsthand that despite the dominance of capitalist hegemony, as Le Guin said, “any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings,” and they’re mobilizing to make these changes happen.

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Photo: Twitter