The Dress-Suit Bribe

There’s a theme in the works of Upton Sinclair called the “dress-suit bribe” which he returns to over and over. It’s the the name of a play written by a character in Dragon’s Teeth, a throwaway line in his essay Mammonart, and called out as a corrupting force in his expose on the American university system. But it’s mostly clearly defined in a chapter of The Brass Check on how good people get turned around. It goes something like this:

You pay a shoeshine $5 to shine your shoes. But do you know what you got paid to have your shoes shined? You might buy a suit for $500, but do you know how much you get paid to be well-dressed? Or to drive a nice car, to shave and get your hair cut a certain way, to orient your life around an arbitrary schedule of this hour to this hour for this many days a year?

The dress-suit bribe works particularly well because it doesn’t seem like a bribe. People can’t say no, because it wasn’t directly proffered so much as sublimated inside ordinary things. Think about the first nice business lunch someone took you to. This was the offer. How long did it take you to work your way back up to sitting in a chair at that same restaurant for a purely social occasion? This was when you took the bribe.

Forget answering: my salary is ________. This is about all the little things that you think are your preferences but were actually given to you like gifts. People like nice things so they’ll lease themselves the car it becomes OK to have. People want to be recognized so of course they’ll join you at the right events and press flesh with the right folks. People need to be responsible so they’re going to save up for a down payment on a house. It is, after all, an investment. When I was younger I didn’t realize that these acts were bridges, and that there would come a time where you were pressured to cross them. And that in many cases, it wasn’t clear that you’d done so until after you were on the other side.

What Sinclair meant to provoke with his question was an understanding that seemingly benign decisions trigger commitments to larger ideas than we might imagine. In the case of something like a mortgage they are literal contracts that require decades of a very particular kind of lifestyle. Which should explain the forces that act on a person to ring that bell.

On the lower rungs of the system, we can clearly see the relationship between service and payment—like in the case of a shoeshine. However our own position in the scheme remains in a fog of rationalization and unintentional obfuscation. The things we have to do as employees, as a member of a class, as a certain type of professional are tacit extracurricular duties that not only coincide with the amount in our paychecks but make us dependent on getting one every week. If we really calculated this labor, we’d realize it not only wasn’t cheap but if we stripped away the illusions, we’d see that we weren’t asked very nicely if we felt like doing them. They were as mandatory as wearing a uniform and saying “Yes, sir, let me know if I can get your anything else.”

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