Letting workers get sick and die is acceptable; letting workers get sick and threaten the accumulation process is not.
A virus isn’t just a biological phenomenon, but a social one. The vulnerabilities it exploits to propagate itself aren’t just the properties of human cells, but how human societies are organized. Societies that organize themselves around the accumulation of capital—that is to say, capitalist ones—place themselves at risk, especially societies like the US, where accumulation takes a particularly brutal form.
For decades, the service sector has played an essential role in stabilizing the labor market. Because services are more difficult to automate—it’s harder to automate the production of a haircut than the production of an automobile—they have lower rates of productivity growth, which means they need more labor. This is what has enabled the service sector to absorb the workers that the manufacturing sector began shedding in the 1970s as a global crisis of overcapacity set in. Services can’t serve as the growth engine that manufacturing did, as the worsening performance of the US economy since the 1970s makes clear. But they have provided a steady supply of jobs.
The pandemic shuts off this safety valve. With the service sector in freefall, there is no longer anywhere for the surplus labor generated by decades of economic stagnation to go.
We were not prepared to drop everything in defense of a system that was, to us, like oxygen: used constantly, never noted. We were spoiled, I think I am trying to say. As were those on the other side: willing to tear it all down because they had been so thoroughly nourished by the vacuous plenty in which we all lived, a bountiful condition that allowed people to thrive and opine and swagger around like kings and queens while remaining ignorant of their own history.
I just want to say that history, when it arrives, may not look as you expect, based on the reading of history books. Things in there are always so clear. One knows exactly what one would have done.
There has always been something a little obscene about the cult of the hustle, the treadmill of alienated insecurity that tells you that if you stop running for even an instant, you’ll be flung flat on your face—but the treadmill is familiar. The treadmill feels normal. And right now, when the world economy has jerked to a sudden, shuddering stop, most of us are desperate to feel normal.
It’s hardly surprising that so many of us are processing this immense, unknowable collective catastrophe by escaping into smaller, everyday emergencies. A crisis you create for yourself, after all, is a crisis you might be able to control.
“No problem ever exists in complete isolation. Every problem interacts with every other problem and is therefore part of a set of interrelated problems, a system of problems.”