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Essential Work

Above photo: Makenna Entrikin on Unsplash.

IS SEEKING OUT in Prospect Park Brooklyn. So in a few days it’s my birthday and I’m mega depressed enough as it is already spending isolation alone. Now I’ll have to spend my bday alone too. Can anyone help me get stuff to make Mac and cheese and a small cake for myself. I’m just trying to do anything from going into full blown depression mode. – Anna

In the midst of the COVID-19 quarantine, Anna* wrote to a neighborhood facebook page, asking for help. Within hours, dozens of people had responded offering to buy groceries, donate cash to pay for a birthday dinner, bake a cake, host an online birthday party, take a socially-distant walk in the park, or just to talk.

This wasn’t unusual. During this pandemic lots of people need help and have turned to neighbors (usually strangers). Even more people have stepped up to offer assistance.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Many writers have told stories of how people step in quickly to assist in times of disaster. Rebecca Solnit observed this in the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco and in post-Katrina New Orleans in 2005; she learned of similar responses in earlier disasters like the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. After Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, activists from Occupy Wall Street quickly mobilized into “Occupy Sandy” to get food and medical care to residents in hard-hit neighborhoods.

Solnit wrote that the extraordinary thing is not only that so many rise to assist during a disaster but that the experience of doing so gives them meaning. Helping others is not a chore but a source of joy.

What is also apparent in the time of lockdown is the incredible potential of another kind of society: one where people are allowed to pursue their passions, develop their skills, and care for one another as our daily work.

The everyday meaning of work

In “normal times” most of us need to work for a paycheck. We clock in and clock out, spending the majority of our waking hours performing tasks for a boss because we need it to purchase food and shelter. Those are the lucky amongst us: plenty of people have no job at all, or too few hours, and they must scramble to find other ways to pay the bills.

The luckiest of us are able to enjoy our work. We may find satisfaction by teaching or educating others, healing the sick, designing buildings or writing code. We may have an outlet for our creativity in our jobs or enjoy interacting with customers or co-workers. Some of us even like our bosses!

But capitalism is built on the principle of profit-maximization. Our bosses must watch their budgets and push us to do what we can most efficiently (at the cheapest price). It isn’t just those who work for corporations; even public sector workers are pushed constantly to speed up the work and do more for less. We don’t get the luxury of providing the quality service we are there to provide: we are pushed to fit more students in a classrooms, to see more patients per hour, to reduce the time we spend with customers.

Marx wrote that capitalism deforms us. As a system, it produces “a person with the need to buy things, a person with one real need— the need for money.” What if we had a different system? One that nurtured us and helped us develop our human capacity?

How the Corona-crisis reveals an alternative

In the midst of lockdown we are getting a vision of an alternative. We are seeing incredible developments.

First, millions of people are looking to help. Whether it is because they are now unemployed with more time on their hands, or because, as Solnit observed, assisting others gives them joy, we are seeing people all over the world participate in mutual aid networks and solidaristic activities in their communities. When I contacted residents in my apartment building about setting up a mutual aid network I got many offers of help: people were ready and eager to offer what they could, from shopping trips and errands to sharing food and supplies, exchanging books and jigsaw puzzles.  In the neighborhood network, any one request for help is met with multiple offers of help. People need care and people want to offer care.

Second, the lockdown is bringing to light the enormous creativity and skill set that already exists amongst us. Bakers, gardeners, computer programmers, lawyers, house cleaners, teachers and more are all stepping up to offer their services to those in need. Others are quickly learning new skills: now that they may have time to spare in lockdown, they can pursue interests that seemed impossible only a month ago. People are teaching one another, and our collective skill set grows.

This also means people have a moment to pursue meaningful work. It may not be for a paycheck but it is in the service of our collective human development. Instead of a system that deforms us, we are enriched through pursuing our passions.

Of course, it isn’t just in a pandemic that people are creative. Scratch the surface in any workplace and you will learn the incredible range of hobbies and skills that workers have off the job. In her recent memoir of her time as a steelworker, Eliese Collette Goldbach wrote, “Many of my coworkers possessed a creative side…There was a man who made stained-glass windows, and there was a woman who made jewelry out of animal bones. Some people built furniture and gazebos for their families, and there was one crane operator who made elaborate sculptures out of recycled silverware.”

The economist Michael Lebowitz writes that while work must produce the goods and services we need to survive it should also develop our selves. Imagine if we had an economy that prioritized this instead of profit.

Finally, the pandemic exposes the reality of “essential work”: what we really need to do in society to take care of ourselves. We need food and shelter, health care, education, and social work. We need recreation, music and arts. We need purpose and we need space and time to pursue our passions. Many of the workers who serve our basic needs, such as farmworkers, grocery store workers, nurse’s aides, home care workers, delivery workers and EMTs, are not rewarded by a capitalist labor market leaving them to rely on charity or public services to make ends meet. In a differently-organized society we could start first with making sure these kinds of jobs are adequately staffed and those who do them are treated justly. And “essential work” is also that which allows us to develop our collective human capacity. All workers are essential but under capitalism, the only real essential work is that which makes a profit.

The Other Side of Quarantine

Mutual aid and solidarity are only one side of the picture. There are plenty of reports of bad behaviors during the quarantine: people hoarding, refusing to adhere to social distancing, littering rubber gloves and masks on the streets, and withdrawal from society.

Some of this is played up by the media with little investigation. For example, what may look like selfish hoarding is in part just the reality that when forced to stay at home all day our needs for things like toilet paper increase by 40 percent and the just-in-time production system is not prepared to meet that demand. But bad behaviors are out there, and certainly won’t disappear in other systems. But capitalism teaches and encourages individualistic and competitive behavior. Our common narratives tell us that “you can’t trust anyone,” and that most people are lazy and selfish. We are taught that human nature is inherently greedy.

In fact, there is lots of evidence that humans are inherently cooperative, and tend to share from an early age.  But cooperation is also a skill and takes practice and development. There is a documentary about worker cooperatives in Argentina, called The Take. In it, a worker explains how when you get to vote all the time about how to run the workplace you learn that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. You get used to losing sometimes because you know other times you win. Democracy can get easier the more you use it.

If work were designed around different values, our educational system should be too. In a system that encourages and rewards solidarity and community we would see far less selfish behavior.

Making Dreams into Reality

It is one thing to argue that work should serve another purpose, but another thing to make that a reality. How can we seize the moment to push for change?

In her recent piece on the corona crisis, Harmony Goldberg offers guidance on organizing in this moment. She writes “In moments of crisis, people need to be able to make meaning out of their changing reality.” To do that, we should lift up the examples of solidarity and cooperation and explain some of the reasons behind selfish responses. We should share our stories of how we are developing skills and contributing to the common good.

Just as we have massive inequality in the economy, there are great inequalities in the workplace. “Staying home” is a luxury many workers cannot afford and are not offered. But the inanity of the labor market and working schedule cuts across occupation and income level. We should be talking with everyone about reimagining work schedules that allow us to spend time with friends and family, to stay home when sick and even – better! – have time and resources to pursue preventative care. Almost everyone would appreciate more real flexibility in their work schedules, and more security in their economic future. Even the New York Times business section featured a piece arguing that the pandemic opens up space to rethink the nature of work because work just isn’t working for all kinds of people.

We can also use the moment to argue for solutions that decommodify labor. Mass unemployment exposes the problems of a system that requires us to sell our labor power to survive. Even those who had living wages and decent health and pension benefits through a union job will lose those in this coming depression. We need policies that help people meet their basic needs without having to depend on an employer’s paycheck. There are a number of ways we can do that such as health care for all, rent moratoriums and affordable housing, free public transit, and a universal basic income. Some of this has already begun: Spain plans to enact universal basic income to address the crisis, many cities are making bike shares and public transit free, California is renting hotel rooms to house some homeless people.

To the extent that we can shape and influence demands, we should push for bailout/stimulus proposals that bolster public sector jobs and services. Trump has supported bailouts for airlines and cruise ships but opposes it for the postal service. The stimulus for higher education is far too low, yet Betsy DeVos has found money for for-profit schools. For example, the for-profit Christian Grand Canyon University will get over $22 million in aid while public universities across the country face budget crises and potential layoffs in part due to the Trump tax cuts.

Wherever possible, workers must organize against bosses who are taking advantage of the moment to increase the worst tendencies of the workplace. Universities have pushed for increased on-line classes for years as it would allow them to more easily replace full-time faculty and recruit higher-tuition paying out-of-state and international students. Let’s make sure they don’t use the crisis as a way to further that agenda. Employers are cutting corners on safety equipment and training in a variety of workplaces. We must constantly organize in the workplace for practices that protect workers and customers, patients, clients and students.

We can also push to have our work be more focused on serving the public good. GE employees in several states held protests to demand that they be allowed to shift from their regular work (building jet engines) to making ventilators.  In 2018, over 4,000 Google employees protested the company’s plan to work with the Department of Defense. They are part of a growing segment of tech workers who insist that the industry must follow basic ethics and focus on work that makes society better and more just. Nicole Carty and Anthony Torres argue that our message in the pandemic must be “the only way to fight this virus is to come together to confront this crisis head-on as one, united, global community.” We should push for our paid work to be a part of that solution, in the short and long-term.

To rebuild out of the crisis we must push for a Green New Deal that will create public sector jobs that will help us transition to renewable energy. But the Green New Deal should also include care jobs. Health care, education, social work and food supply work are all a part of sustainability and these jobs should be publicly funded and supported.

We are living in a transformative moment. The historian Joel Suarez argues that transformative moments often provoke debates over the meaning of work and freedom. Because work is a site of domination and a potential site of liberation, “Transformations in the world of work entail transformations in the experience of domination, which in turn produce new articulations of and yearnings for freedom.” Let us take this time of lockdown to reimagine work.

*Not her real name.

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