There is a tendency in a crisis to declare that one has been right all along—that the crisis proves one’s previously existing ideology and preferred set of policy solutions. The capital-R Right has been good at this for a while. Naomi Klein dubbed it the Shock Doctrine, this tendency for politicians to push through a set of neoliberal reforms in the period of shock that hits after a disaster, manmade or “natural.”
The people demonized by Trump are part of a vast, low-wage social reproduction workforce.
There must be quotation marks around “natural” because, as the coronavirus is showing us, some disasters may come from nature but are structured and made worse by human society. By taking immediate action, South Korea and Vietnam have managed to contain the pandemic, while in the United Kingdom and the United States, infection rates are spiking and governments are flailing.
The left hasn’t been very good, though, at having its own version of the shock doctrine. Let’s call it disaster collectivism, a counter to disaster capitalism. In 2008, with the financial system in meltdown, mild Keynesianism prevailed despite bigger demands floating around. The banks were bailed out and, as the protest chant went, working people got sold out. I’ve written extensively about that moment elsewhere, and the weakness of social movements of the left precisely when they were needed.
It would be a lie to say those movements are at a moment of historical strength right now. They are still far weaker than they need to be. Just three months ago, Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a landslide election in the United Kingdom. More recently, the Democratic Party consolidated behind Joe Biden, a candidate so entirely unsuited to this moment that any attempt to sum it up in a sentence just sounds laughable.
Yet, the left has been the one with the new ideas lately. Even as its candidates lose ground, our ideas prove not just popular but necessary. What better proof is there of the need for a strong, well-funded public health care system than a fast-spreading, often asymptomatic virus?
While President Donald Trump attempts to double down on his favorite policy solutions—closing borders and deporting people—the reality is that the virus came in via airplane from wealthy world travelers, not Central and South American migrants who are doing the necessary, dangerous, and low-paid work that, as it turns out, is what keeps us all alive.
The people demonized by Trump are part of a vast, low-wage social reproduction workforce: The cleaning workers who come in unseen to keep hospitals, airplanes, offices, and grocery stores sanitized, often without any job security, paid sick time, or health care; the food delivery workers who bring groceries and takeout to the work-from-home brigades or to the exhausted nurses and doctors on the frontlines; the farmworkers who harvest everything we eat; and the Amazon warehouse workers who are packing our panic-ordered wet wipes and toilet paper.
On March 23, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced the shutdown of all “non-life-sustaining” businesses to prevent the spread of the virus. But what’s a life-sustaining business? Whose work matters now?
Wolf’s list covered farming, the postal service, takeout, healthcare, and news publishing (thanks, Governor), while real estate, securities trading and coal mining were all shut down. The United Kingdom created a similar list of “key workers,” which included those working in food distribution, nursery staff, and other care workers—exactly the workforces that fall below Boris Johnson’s new threshold for immigration, which prioritizes high salaries and speaking English.
In this crisis, we are seeing what “essential work” looks like, and it is precisely the work we have systematically undervalued for centuries. It is caring work, reproductive work, logistics work.
Now that the factories in the West have shuttered and moved elsewhere (including to countries that handled their coronavirus outbreaks earlier), our economies are built on the backs of low-wage workers, and the profits are centralized in the hands of a few. This is unlikely to be news, in theory, to most people reading this article.
But at this moment, we are feeling this reality in a way that we perhaps never have before, as many of us are isolated in our homes and others are working twice as hard (to the health care workers, the food service workers, the carers reading this: Thank you).
The coronavirus shock will not be like the financial shock of 2008, economist James Meadway correctly warns us. It is, instead, “a profound dislocation of the essential components of economic and social life itself.” Rather than ramping up “wartime” production, we need to “demobilise much of the economy.”
Work, for us non-essential workers, is the last thing we need to be doing. For those of us long spreading the gospel of shorter hours, this is our shock doctrine moment. It’s revealing that Mitt Romney and other GOP senators have proposed some form of direct cash payments, even if those plans fall far short of a real UBI.
Whether we like it or not, we are about to learn just how much of this thing we call “the economy” we can live without, because the choice is that or our lives and those of our loved ones. Despite the hand-waving of Lloyd Blankfein and his fellow plutocrats, that is not a choice we are willing to make. Though economists like Dean Baker proposed a shorter workday after the 2008 crisis, we now have to experiment on a much grander scale. We can neither work nor consume the way we used to: What does a world without such processes look like?
It looks, in part, like the mutual aid networks forming in neighborhoods in the networks created by the post-2008 social movements; it looks like Occupy Sandy but in higher gear, and on a global level; it looks like staying home as an act of care.
When this crisis abates, we will live in a different world—hopefully, one where we have learned how quickly we can adapt to a life that doesn’t revolve around work and consumption but, instead, around taking care of one another. It could be a world that has had to prove it can address a global catastrophe, and one in which we have no excuse left for failing to tackle climate change.
In that world, the most important question will not be “How do we get everyone back to work?” but “How can we distribute the necessary work more fairly and evenly, and value it according to its contribution to sustaining our lives?”