Earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund declared the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic to be the greatest downturn since the Great Depression. The shockwaves have reverberated across all domains of life, especially in the labor market, where arguably every worker has experienced disruption of one kind or another. Millions throughout the world now find themselves unemployed or furloughed, others are adjusting to the demands of working from home, while still others continue to go to work but under conditions of heightened risk to their health. Obviously the pandemic affects more than just people’s working lives—social distancing has made in-person socializing and most leisure activities impossible. But in the employment-centered neoliberal society, work is not only most people’s main source of income; it is also one of the main avenues for social interaction and cooperation, as well as a major constituent of individual sense of self and self-worth. The effects of the pandemic on employment therefore extend far beyond the matter of personal finances—as important as that is—and are tugging at the threads of the entire social fabric.
Given the centrality of paid work to our individual lives and to society as a whole, what sort of policies might we expect governments to enact? The answer seems obvious: keeping people physically healthy means providing adequate financial support to every member of society, so that no-one needs to go to work and risk exposing themselves and spreading the virus. Once the pandemic is under control, people could go back to their jobs and resume “normal” life. Some governments, like the UK’s, have taken this sort of approach by providing salary replacement (up to 80%) for furloughed workers. However, a simpler and more just approach would involve providing an unconditional basic income (UBI) to all members of society, at least for the duration of the pandemic. While it might seem that the UBI is anathema to the work society, in my book Undoing Work, Rethinking Community, I show that much depends on the amount provided and the justifications for doing so, and that we can distinguish between pro- and anti-work society versions of the scheme. In some cases, the UBI is touted as a job-promoting measure. In the current context, a version of the UBI could be presented as an exceptional measure without coming close to challenging the ideology of the work society. So why have governments fallen so far short of supporting workers?
Because these are capitalist work societies. This means that the state must respond not only to the needs of the people, but also and primarily to the insatiable demands of capital. Of course, employment figures remain a concern for politicians, and capital still needs workers. But under neoliberalism, states long ago gave up taking an active governmental role in ensuring full employment, aiming instead to produce and maintain “business-friendly” environments. It would now be up to individuals themselves to make sure that they succeeded in hyper-competitive labor markets through a process of continuous training and self-entrepreneurialism. The ideology of work might reflect certain deep seated-ideas we hold about civilization and fairness. But under capitalism, and especially in the hyper-individualist and competitive environment of neoliberalism, the ideology of work serves to keep people willing to sacrifice themselves at the altar of exploitative, deadening and dangerous work.
It might seem that the only options before us are either measures that humanely stabilize the work society, allowing it to weather the current storm with the minimum possible loss of life, or measures that expose workers to an ever-deeper degree of precarity. While the former is clearly preferable, it fails to take advantage of the opportunity that the current pandemic presents to reflect on and challenge the ideology of work and its celebration of “productive” labor. For example, scenes from around the world have shown us how the suspension of economic activities has quickly encouraged wildlife to reclaim previously inhospitable environments, providing a vivid illustration of the damage our way of life is wreaking on the planet. Moreover, while under present conditions only a relatively privileged minority of “knowledge workers” can enjoy working more autonomously at home and spending more time with their families (which is in no way to romanticize either home work or the nuclear family), a more robust mechanism of income support would generalize that experience. Finally, despite social distancing measures limiting physical contact, mutual aid activities have flourished, showing that, contrary to the ideology of work, people do not in fact need the compulsion of the market to take part in socially useful activities. Articulating these experiences together into a structural critique of productivism and capitalism will take work, but the payoff could be that we exit the pandemic as more just societies than when we entered it.
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