Among the myriad contradictions revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most suggestive is the difference between “essential” and “nonessential” workers and the work they do. While there seem to be significant differences about who falls into which group, what’s interesting is the apparent ease with which most people take the categories themselves for granted. What makes it possible — at least under the admittedly exigent circumstances of the pandemic — for millions (or billions on a global scale) of workers to be informed that what they do day in and day out can suddenly be forgone? What does this say about how these millions actually spend their time?
In his 2018 book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, American anthropologist David Graeber asserts that over half of all jobs are meaningless, pointless and psychologically damaging. Even though we might disagree on the precise proportion, it is difficult to argue with the main point: Most of us perform work that leaves us feeling utterly empty, a phenomenon that the pandemic is illustrating with a vengeance. What is also made crystal clear by the pandemic is that the loss of even these “bullshit” jobs comes with a heavy cost to individuals, families, communities and larger economies.
Around the globe, most people have little choice for surviving except by renting themselves as wage slaves to those willing to shell out coin for their labor power. Once rented, these workers have virtually no say in the kind of work they will do during their contracted rental time. Those decisions — about what to produce, how to produce it, what to do with products — are all made by the renter, the capitalist. And, of course, the only thing driving these decisions is the maximization of profit, shareholder “value” and personal aggrandizement. It doesn’t matter, except incidentally, whether the products (goods or services) are worthwhile as long as they can eventually be sold. Equally, and as the pandemic has also highlighted, it doesn’t much matter what conditions workers face in carrying out the essential tasks of maximizing profit, shareholder value and capitalists’ enrichment.
A logical extension of this line of thought is to examine the role of our current so-called leaders in both government and business before, during and “after” the pandemic. Given the widespread glaring greed, ineptitude, callousness and gratuitous cruelty which has characterized the more typical lack of preparedness and the subsequent response to the pandemic, it is an opportune time to think about how essential these “leaders” really are. In the arguments for “opening up the economy,” how can sentiments like President’s Trump’s “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” his insistence that “We have to be warriors,” or Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s quip that “Everyone will die someday” be interpreted as anything but evil? How ridiculous is it to keep letting people like these oversee how most of us “spend” (and the term is used deliberately) our lives?
We might also speculate here for just a moment about the kinds of profit-maximizing decisions that have increased the likelihood of such pandemics at all. In pursuit of cheaper resources and labor, neoliberal and fossil fuel-based capitalism has accelerated the climate catastrophe, which, among other effects, has fostered more frequent and closer contacts between virus-carrying species and humans, which in turn has heightened the possibilities for zoonotic contagion. In addition, this phase of capitalism has developed extensive globalized commodity chains and international commerce that virtually guarantee rapid and widespread transmission.
In contrast, we wonder how these arrangements might look if workers were actually in control of these processes. What would work consist of if decisions about what to produce, how to produce it, and what to do with the goods and services were based on criteria that were communally and democratically determined? If such decisions were based on what people need and want, rather than on profit maximization (the possibilities of which have also been unveiled, at least inadvertently, by the exigencies of the pandemic), these processes would look dramatically different. Under such circumstances, all work and all workers, by definition, would be essential. Rather than just providing means for subsistence, work (as opposed to traditional waged labor) would provide dignity and fulfilment. Work would cease to be a means to somebody else’s ends. Work would no longer be a bunch of “bullshit.”
If that were the case, what would the preparation for and response to the pandemic have looked like? What decisions would be made if the people who are most likely to have to bear the consequences were in charge? What kinds of work would be deemed as vital, necessary and urgent under these unusual circumstances? And for work that met these criteria, would workers be facing the wrenching choices of life or livelihood posed by unsafe workplaces? Would workers be begging uncaring employers for necessary protective equipment, appropriate social distancing, paid sick and family leave, health care, hazard pay (not to mention a living wage under “normal” circumstances) and unemployment compensation?
What would rescue packages look like? How “essential” are the giant financial institutions, fulfilment centers, or the cruise, hotel, airline and fossil fuel industries — and by extension, the CEOs who run them? Why, to pick just one egregious example, when Jeff Bezos’s personal fortune has increased by more than $24 billion since the beginning of the pandemic, should workers in his warehouses (Amazon) and grocery stores (Whole Foods) have to stage wildcat strikes just to survive? How much of the U.S. bailouts would have gone to these nonessentials rather than to those who really are (or could be) essential to a humanely functioning society?
Rather than a return to dysfunctional “normal” circumstances, this is a moment when the fundamental categories of “essential” and “nonessential” work and workers should be thoroughly rethought and recast. When the existing arrangements have produced such dire conditions for so many, it is high time for the majority to systematically and strategically withhold our labor, our consumption and our consent to this genocidal machine. It is urgent that we move beyond its barbarism to a set of arrangements that prioritizes our humanity, our planet and our future.