“PROTESTORS ARE ESSENTIAL WORKERS.” Among the multitude of makeshift signs I saw on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) marches of 2020, this one stuck in my mind. It was hastily scrawled on a scrap of cardboard and held aloft by a middle-aged Black woman, in a nurse’s uniform, who looked as if she was on her work break. Needless to say, she got a rousing cheer as we passed by. With this sign, she turned what was typically a one-way flow of appreciation for frontline workers as “heroes” into an alliance. By early June, when I saw her, it had become clear how and why Black lives mattered in workplaces like hers that were obliged to stay open during the pandemic lockdown. The demonstrators in the street were marching for her as well as for victims of police brutality. Nurses themselves were joining the protests in large numbers, and their union was in full support.
With the growth-driven engines of capitalism at a standstill, the care economy was revealed as the only one that really mattered . . .
The outburst of mass protest during the pandemic pause brought new hope to the abolitionist cause—one of the oldest struggles in the Americas. Nor did the energy dwindle; the BLM movement’s sustained challenge to white supremacy was a primary battleground of the 2020 election and its aftermath. But the employment crisis around which the insurgency grew proved to be consequential in another way. The pandemic economy’s reliance on “essential workers,” like that nurse at the protest, highlighted how indispensable care work is to the day-to-day operations of our lives. Long taken for granted and dominated by women and/or workers of color, these occupational roles were thrust into the limelight. With the growth driven engines of capitalism at a standstill, the care economy was revealed as the only one that really mattered, and the centrality of its workers pointed the way forward to a more sustainable social ecology.
If planetary life is to survive, care needs to be elevated to a top priority of our societies, for the long term and not simply in times of public health emergencies. This essential work can no longer be a marginal sector of waged (or unwaged, household) labor, it will have to be undertaken by everyone. Part of that common enterprise will involve bringing new meaning to the old call for the dignity of labor. In this regard, it is perhaps fitting that nurses’ unions have emerged as among the most progressive voices in the labor movement.
Racial Disparities in Plain View
Everyone remembers the pictures of New York City nurses wearing garbage bags at a time when there was an acute shortage of personal protective equipment. Overnight, these images became an emblem of the chronic dysfunctionality of America’s profit-maximizing health care system. High rates of infection had been reported among the workforce segments deemed essential, and the hazards were being borne by minority employees who are disproportionately represented in these sectors—food preparation and agriculture, deliveries, grocery retail, critical manufacturing and infrastructure, public services, health care, and childcare. While one in nine workers in the U.S. workforce are Black, they accounted for one in six of all frontline industry workers. Just as significant, one in three jobs held by women were designated as essential. Of course, these numbers vary for localities; in New York City, for example, 75 percent of frontline workers were people of color, and 60 percent were women..
While one in nine workers in the U.S. workforce are Black, they accounted for one in six of all frontline industry workers.
Had they been laid off or furloughed, many workers in these primarily low-paying jobs (even those who received a “hero pay” supplement) would have enjoyed more income from unemployment benefits boosted by the $600 per week bump from the first Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) stimulus bill. Instead, they were compelled to labor in high-risk environments, often without adequate protections and with limited capacity to distance from fellow workers and customers, so they contracted Covid-19 in large numbers. The foreign-born employees who staffed meatpacking plants, industrial farms, nursing homes, and warehouses and delivery vans were the most vulnerable of all.
As the data accumulated, evidence suggested that white peer workers were less likely to get sick and more likely to recover. In common with other superficially “natural disasters” like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, Covid-19 exposed an acute racial imbalance among the populations most susceptible to impact. Early on in the pandemic, preexisting medical conditions were diagnosed as risk factors for anyone who contracted the virus. But, for minority populations, the range of these conditions was magnified considerably. Intergenerational disparities in health care coverage, household wealth, food security, and stable employment made it more difficult for Black and Brown workers, and especially those in frontline jobs, to survive the emergency. These longstanding inequities took a heavy toll and were all too visible in the demographic statistics generated during the pandemic.
Evidence that Black and Brown people were dying in larger numbers than whites reinforced the moral urgency of the anti-racist uprising in the streets. What began as an eruption of rage at police brutality mushroomed into a sweeping condemnation of racial injustice in every corner of the society. After so many failed efforts at a racial reckoning, the BLM insurgency of 2020 felt like a breakthrough, pushing back final against the crushing weight of generations of cumulative discrimination. Notwithstanding the likelihood of a backlash—because White America always delivers one—the protests ushered in changes in laws (policing powers and budgeting), institutional culture (anti-racist education), public representation (takedown of racist monuments), and everyday conduct (widespread questioning of white privilege) that were unimaginable just months before.
Racial Capitalism and the Real Economy
But how should the impetus of the BLM protests carry over into progressive changes in our thinking about labor itself? And what did we learn from the treatment of essential workers about the need for such changes? At the macro level, the pandemic solved the “problem,” for employers, of tightening labor supply and rising wages. In February 2020, the official unemployment rate stood at 3.5 percent, and in many states it had fallen to historically low levels, well below the 5 percent rate once designated by monetarist economists as the “natural rate of unemployment” (aka the most profitable for capital). Pay was rising fastest for the lowest earners, in part because of minimum wage hikes won by the Living Wage and Fight for $15 campaigns. By sending jobless rates through the roof, the coronavirus restored the balance in favor of employers who can now rely on worker desperation to fill jobs at depressed wages. As the White House and many states began to lift their temporary housing protections, the imminent threat of evictions and foreclosures further sharpened the obligation to find employment at any price. Wage increases are more difficult to come by in a recession, and this one will likely limit workers’ abilities to make economic demands that draw on the energies released by the protests.
This past June, corporations scrambled to declare themselves as “allies” of BLM, and almost every large institution declared its commitment to root out and rinse away its own legacies of colonialism and segregation. Why were these impassioned statements met with widespread ridicule? For one thing, most people recognize public relations spin when they see it, and they know that corporations in particular are not designed or structured to respect human rights. In truth, the dependence of large enterprises on racial capitalism is too powerful to terminate without cutting deeply into profits. The ability to stratify and exploit ethnoracial differences among workforce segments in different parts of the world is fundamental to the business structure of global capitalism, and it is firmly supported by the international trade rules that govern capital’s freedom of movement. How realistically could corporate America ally itself with the BLM when its earnings rely on playing off non-white workforces against each other in the United States and in different regions of the global economy?
The labeling of essential employees at the onset of the Covid-19 lockdown reinforced this point. Those who do the most indispensable work—meeting our material needs and maintaining society’s vital functions—are among the lowest paid, most vulnerable, and least respected on account of their race and gender. By contrast, those in better-paid, whiter occupations were able to transition to working safely from their homes. Aside from those employed in the caring professions, like teaching or social work, many of their jobs are not only nonessential, they deliver little, if any, benefit to the general population. Anthropologist and activist David Graeber has called these “bullshit jobs,” overly concentrated in the fields of finance, law, human resources, public relations, and consultancy:
a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employees cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.
These occupations are the most highly rewarded, but, when their input dwindled during the pandemic pause, the vital functions of the economy rolled along without them. Apparently, they were quite dispensable.
In another indicator of how badly skewed the allocation of value is in twenty-first century capitalism, stocks and other non-productive investments enjoyed a bonanza at a time when joblessness climbed to levels not seen since the Great Depression. This detachment from the “real” economy was a stark illustration of the finance industry’s bid to abscond from the world in which we take care of each other and strive to pursue meaningful lives. In the midst of the pandemic suffering and hardship, Wall Street’s con game of betting on the future has seldom seemed so contemptible. Even less tenable was the notion that the Dow’s performance is a barometer of the economy’s fundamental health.
. . . [T]he hefty bonuses doled out to financial industry employees are worth comparing to the meager hazard pay offered by many large employers to frontline workers during the March and April lockdown months.
In this regard, the hefty bonuses doled out to financial industry employees are worth comparing to the meager hazard pay offered by many large employers to frontline workers during the March and April lockdown months. The majority of firms ended the policy shortly thereafter, and a proposal to include retroactive hazard pay ($13 an hour, and up to $25,000 for the year) in the second stimulus bill never made it through Congress in August 2020. As for those finance industry bonuses, there was little hand-wringing on Wall Street about whether to distribute hefty payouts at a time of great hardship among most American workers.
The Wall Street bonuses are a reward for stoking up the economy of unearned income, dependent, as it is, on revenue from debt service and debt leveraging. As we endure the coronavirus recession, all classes of debt—household, public, and corporate—are at record highs. It remains to be seen whether this level of indebtedness is sustainable when local governments, small companies, universities, and middle-class households are put under extreme stress. But who (other than hedge fund managers, of course) would bet against the abiding capacity of the creditor class to exploit this misery and extract ever larger income streams? Never was there a greater need for debtors’ unions. The rent strikes that popped up during the pandemic (see the “Roots of Rebellion” column, “From Universal Rent Control to Cancel Rent: Tenant Organizing in New York State” by Celia Weaver in this issue) and the growing calls for student debt abolition were the first steps on the road to organizing such unions that lies ahead.
The Caring Economy Takes Center Stage
In contrast to the debt economy, driven by gross domestic product (GDP)-indexed growth and resource exploitation, a new paradigm of the care economy is beginning to emerge. The pandemic was its coming-out moment, if only because health care was front and center. In stark defiance of neoliberal mentality, societies all over the world decided to shut down the economy and reorganize themselves around the need to stay safe and look after those who got sick. Almost overnight, attention was focused on care work that is ordinarily taken for granted and chronically undercompensated, or that is sequestered from the labor marketplace in the form of household and family labor. Whether formal or informal, paid or not, this occupational work is indispensable to a capitalist labor regimen that produces high rates of physical and mental injury among its workforces and undervalues the well-being of non-productive populations like children and the elderly. The vast majority of this work is performed by women, whether in childcare, nursing, midwifery, community health, domestic labor, or care for the elderly or disabled, and minority workers are disproportionately represented.
During the pandemic, care work was not only frontline, and officially essential, but its net of informal participants expanded, as did the range of work falling under its rubric. Confined to homes and limited in activities, more and more of the general population contributed to the tasks of cooking, feeding, cleaning, educating, tending, consoling, entertaining, maintaining, and repairing, while mutual aid networks flourished in every community. Over time, it became clear (especially to males not usually called upon) how central these functions and responsibilities are to a truly sustainable economy. Care work is not a secondary, supportive sector. To all intents and purposes, it is the primary one, and it remains to be seen whether it will generate the same umbrella of rights as the original, male-dominated, primary manufacturing sector.
By contrast, the drive to reopen businesses and resume the cycle of unsustainable consumption presented a choice between preserving life and earning a livelihood by staffing the machinery of profit. One of the starkest illustrations of this contempt for life (both human and animal) occurred when President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act at the end of April 2020 to keep meat processing plants open. Large numbers of these workers had tested positive for Covid-19, and dozens of facilities had to be shut down. The resulting mass euthanasia of hogs and chickens shed further, damning light on the atrocities involved in the industrial farming of animals. In the meantime, the return of wildlife to uncongested cities and the clearing of polluted skies were breathtaking reminders to people—told for so long that “there is no alternative”—that another world was possible after all.
Care work is not a secondary, supportive sector . . . and it remains to be seen whether it will generate the same umbrella of rights as the
original, male-dominated, primary manufacturing sector.
Even the labor actions taken by essential workers during the pandemic were most often directed at breakdowns in adequate care. In the United States, more than one hundred walkouts, sickouts, and callouts occurred at brand name companies, including Amazon, Walmart, McDonald’s, Uber, Whole Foods, Domino’s, and Instacart, and among farmworkers. In most cases, the mobilizing factor was a lack of protective equipment and paid sick days, though it was often coupled with calls to end racial discrimination in the workplace, in accordance with the Strike for Black Lives (in July 2020). Their focus on blatant employer disrespect for the physical safety of employees (at a time when essential workers were being applauded nightly in national shows of appreciation) differed from the large-scale worker strikes at Marriott, General Motors, Stop & Shop, and in the Red for Ed movement during the previous eighteen months. This attention to workplace protections in the face of a deadly threat added a new dimension to the drive for better pay and benefits behind the recent strike wave. It also brought to the fore the sacrificial character of labor demanded by employers, like Jeff Bezos and the Waltons, who made a killing out of the pandemic economy.
In the United States, more than one hundred walkouts, sickouts, and callouts occurred at brand name companies . . .
For those inclined to see the capitalist work ethic as a death cult, the zeal of business and government leaders to reopen provided ample evidence that loss of human life was simply the price to be paid for the enrichment of elites. Trump advanced a case for accepting low casualty rates in exchange for reopening the economy as early as March. “The whole concept of death is terrible . . . but there’s a tremendous difference between one per cent and four or five or even three per cent.” Not long afterward, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) gave voice to a more macabre suggestion when he pronounced that “there are more important things than living,” adding “that there are lots of grandparents out there” who “don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed.” The rush to embrace this grisly sentiment was fueled by flag-waving, armed protests, and wild-eyed appeals to the Constitution and the American way of life on the part of Trump partisans, but there was little doubt about who stood to benefit most from forcing employees back to work. As the net wealth of billionaires soared (increasing by $700 billion from March 2020 to July 2020), executives of companies put on pause during the pandemic fumed at the silent drama of stalled revenue and added their full-throated voices to the chorus for reopening.
After many red states reopened, the virus cut a swathe through the homelands of Trump’s supporters, boosting the already rising mortality levels of white working-class people. In Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, Anne Case and Angus Deaton have profiled this startling jump in midlife morbidity and mortality among low-income whites over the last decade, charting the mounting death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, chronic liver diseases, and cirrhosis. While the White House continued to promote the worth of whiteness, low-income whites could no longer see much in the way of the benefits. But those who stood to lose most from restoring business as usual were Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) populations, whose hospitalization rates from Covid-19 were running four to five times higher than whites through July. Dan Patrick’s gruesome social Darwinist scenario of patriotic grandparents willing to risk death for their country’s economic well-being was widely, and rightly, condemned. There was less attention, in the debate about reopening, to the likely prospect of high fatalities among Black and Brown members of the workforce. As essential workers, they were already being compelled to sacrifice their lives. In the rush to ramp up production and consumption at the beginning of the summer, they were destined, once again, to be treated as disposable.
From the Ashes of the Old
With the whole world focused on Covid-19 morbidity and mortality, and with incipient fascists in power in states as disparate as India, Brazil, Israel, Poland, Turkey, Hungary, the Philippines, and the United States, it is tempting to recall what Antonio Gramsci famously wrote from his prison cell in 1930: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”]13] Although his use of “morbid” is metaphorical, Gramsci was writing about the ascent of fascism and mass outbreak of discontent arising from severe economic depression. The coronavirus pandemic arrived at a moment that seems superficially similar; the death of neoliberalism has already been declared, on several occasions since the 2007 financial crash, and yet a stable successor has not yet come into being.
Under pressure from authoritarian populists, the “globalist” institutions of the liberal international order have eroded. The last two decades have seen sustained mass protests heralding a new world to emerge from the shell of the old—from the anti–World Trade Organization (WTO) Seattle protests in 1999 and the worldwide 2003 mobilization against the war in Iraq through the Color Revolutions, Arab Spring and Winter, Occupy Wall Street, the 2017 Women’s March, the multi-year Hong Kong protests, School Strikes for Climate, the Yellow Vest protests in France, general strikes in India, Spain, and Brazil, and mass student and anti-austerity protests, among countless others.
. . . [T]he death of neoliberalism has already been declared, on several occasions since the 2007 financial crash, and yet a stable successor has not yet come into being.
Covid-19 literally makes people sick, but that is not what makes it a “morbid symptom” in Gramsci’s sense. The virus may not have been concocted in a Wuhan lab, as Trump has declared, but it is fair to see it as a human-made product of new conditions of capitalist production. Novel viruses, like Covid-19, SARS, MERS, and avian flu, have evolved and flourished in recent decades because of unsustainable development practices (deforestation, intensive farming and harvesting) in previously wild parts of the world. The disruption of tropical forests and other previously isolated, microbiological ecosystems has allowed viruses to jump more effectively from animal to human species. The growing prevalence of wild meat in African and Asian diets has accelerated this interspecies transmission, while, in the West, huge factory farms act as incubators for a host of flu viruses.
. . . [T]he role of unsustainable growth in the climate crisis has absorbed much of our attention, but the pandemic reminds us that these conditions are also generating novel viruses that mutate and spread easily.
The industrial agro-economy at home and abroad is shaking pathogens loose from their natural hosts and releasing the new zoonotic diseases from environments where they would have remained endemic and sequestered. For good reason, the role of unsustainable growth in the climate crisis has absorbed much of our attention, but the pandemic reminds us that these conditions are also generating novel viruses that mutate and spread easily. Climate change is a deadly threat, but the viruses might kill us sooner. In both cases, the impact on populations is uneven, with the most vulnerable marked out by race and low income. The essential workers of 2020 exposed these inequities, along with the trauma released by facing down the threat. But their attention to tending, protecting, sustaining, and provisioning also showed a way beyond the interregnum. Care work, extended to all species, is now the key to moving forward.
1. Elise Gould and Valerie Wilson, “Black Workers Face Two of the Most Lethal Preexisting Conditions for Coronavirus—Racism and Economic Inequality,” Economic Policy Institute, June 1, 2020, available at https:// www.epi.org/publication/black-workers-covid/.
2. Campbell Robertson and Robert Gebeloff, “How Millions of Women Became the Most Essential Workers in America,” New York Times, April 18, 2020, available at https:// www.nytimes.com/2020/04/18/us/coronaviruswomen-
3. “New York City’s Frontline Workers,” Office of Scott Stringer, NYC Comptroller, March 26, 2020, available at https://comptroller.nyc.gov/ reports/new-york-citys-frontline-workers/.
4. For the CDC’s general data on COVID-19 deaths, see “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 25, 2020, available at https:// www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/needextra- precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html.
5. David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), pp. 9-10.
6. The Debt Collective was formed with the goal of establishing debtors’ unions. See www.debtcollective.org. Hannah Appel, “There is Power in a Debtor’s Union,” Dissent, July 12, 2019, available at https://www.dissentmagazine.org/ online_articles/there-is-power-in-a-debtorsunion#:~: text=Hannah%20Appel%20is%20a%20co,Duke%20University%20Press%2C%202019). Andrew Ross, Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal (New York: OR Books, 2016).
7. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) introduced an Essential Workers’ Bill of Rights bill in April 2020. Also see The Care Collective, The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence (London: Verso, 2020).
8. Steven Greenhouse, “Turning Worker Anger into Worker Power,” The American Prospect, April 29, 2020, available at https://prospect.org/labor/turning-worker-anger-into-worker-power/.
9. Justine Coleman, “Texas Lt. Governor on Reopening State,” The Hill, April 21, 2020, available at https://thehill.com/homenews/statewatch/493879-texas-lt-governor-on-reopeningstate-there-are-more-important-things.
10. Taylor Nicole Rogers, “American Billionaires Have Made an Average of $42 Billion a Week throughout the Pandemic,” Business Insider, July 18, 2020, available at https://www.businessinsider.com/billionaires-profited-averageof-42-billion-weekly-during-pandemic-2020-7.
11. See Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s profile of the startling reversal of midlife mortality among low-income white non-Hispanics, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).
12. Nikhil Pal Singh and Thuy Linh Tu, “Morbid Capitalism,” n + 1, 30 (Winter 2018), available at https://nplusonemag.com/issue-30/essays/morbid-capitalism/.
13. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, eds., Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971), 276.
14. Socio-biological research on the topic ranges from works in the early 1990s like Stephen Morse, Emerging Viruses (London: Oxford University Press, 1993) and Laurie Garrett. The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994) to the recent revision of Mike Davis’s The Monster at Our Door, as The Monster Enters: COVID-19, Avian Flu and the Plagues of Capitalism (New York: OR Books, 2020).
15. Rob Wallace, Big Farms Make Big Flu. Dispatches on Influenza, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016).
16. Astra Taylor and Sunaura Taylor, “Solidarity across Species,” Dissent, Summer 2020, available at https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/solidarity-across-species.
Andrew Ross is professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. A contributor to the Guardian, the New York Times, The Nation, and Al Jazeera, he is the author or editor of more than twenty books, including Stone Men: The Palestinians Who Built Israel (Verso, 2019), Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal (OR Books, 2014), Nice Work If You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times (NYU Press, 2009), and Fast Boat to China: Lessons from Shanghai (Pantheon, 2006).