What the COVID-19 relief bill offers is a little survival, as a treat. It’s time for a counterproposal.
When I read about the temporary hospitals Chinese localities were setting up to house coronavirus patients with mild and moderate symptoms, my first thought was that America can’t follow their lead because too many people would want to go. That’s not because I’ve swallowed the Chinese state messaging about happy sing-alongs in quarantine, but because I know that millions of Americans are, on a day-to-day basis, desperate. The offer of a single room in a hotel with free meals and access to medical care would find no shortage of takers, even at the cost of exposure. Some uninfected Americans would grow jealous of the lucky freeloaders and their group dances. And when we compare it to working all day at a grocery store for low wages, only to come home coughing to a lonely quarantine night, they’re not exactly wrong.
Why has the American response to COVID-19 been so exceptionally bad? While other wealthy countries (and even much poorer countries) rein in their national epidemics, the United States bumbles. We can’t blame the unique incompetence of the Trump administration or the Spring Break! culture of American individualism, at least not exclusively. They’re contributing factors, but we can’t be exceptionalists even here: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been posting misinformation on Facebook, and the UK attempted a botched “chicken pox” strategy of infecting as many people as possible before changing course. And yet, twenty days from our one hundredth case, America has sprinted ahead of the world by a margin that’s hard to appreciate on a log scale — and that’s if you believe the official numbers, which you shouldn’t.
The American viral advantage is a result of the country’s economic relation to care. For decades it has been the position of America’s political and intellectual leadership that any public provision of care is counterproductive because it acts as a disincentive to wage labor. If you get free healthcare, you’re less likely to hustle for a new gig when you’re unemployed. If you’re eligible for adequate cash welfare, you’re more likely to quit your awful job. If you have guaranteed public housing, you don’t need to fear for shelter in the event you’re laid off. We saw this line pathetically at work when venerable conservative economists came out to warn politicians not to pass any COVID-19 recovery bill that might discourage work, at a time when much of the American workforce was prevented from working. Commentators across the spectrum chuckled at Reagan-era economist Art Laffer and co. and their single-tool box: Why would we want to encourage people to find jobs at a time when employers had none to offer? When they were already involuntarily laying off workers? It’s absurd.
The Laffer line makes no sense when we think of employment as a binary state (employed or unemployed), but employment isn’t a binary state. “Work incentives” also help govern the conditions under which workers are willing to sell their labor. At the margin that looks like employment + or -, but the balance of incentives also determines workplace safety, labor intensity, and wages.
The conservative economists aren’t saying that if the state gives everyone three thousand dollars we’ll all sit at home and eat bonbons, they’re saying that we won’t be willing to work under these conditions, at these prices. This should make sense to anyone familiar with how things are going at low-wage workplaces deemed essential by authorities. Employers are refusing to slow throughput regardless of crowding hazards, withholding personal protective equipment, and continuing to pay poorly despite acknowledging that workers are essential to the continued functioning of our society.
Laffer’s warning isn’t about a rise in unemployment, it’s about a grocery-worker strike. If the government were willing to offer American workers a level of unconditional support that allowed them to be sure they could care for themselves and their families for the next few months, capital would be forced to negotiate a whole new labor bargain, with a gun to its head. The powers that be can’t afford that.
If there’s one thing most Marxists know about the Black Death it’s that it raised wages. The pestilence that ravaged Europe’s population also significantly reduced its labor supply, which forced urban employers to increase pay and rural lords to lower rents. It is a textbook example in economics of supply and demand. The goal of a strong relief program is obviously the opposite (i.e. to keep people alive), but the impact for employers is theoretically similar to mass worker death: a reduced supply of labor, not in the absolute in this case, but relative to current prevailing conditions and wages. So why can’t capital just suck it up and pay some raises? They’ve successfully repressed wage growth for decades, couldn’t they take a small loss now, under these exceptional circumstances? I don’t think so.
The proximate concern for capital outside of “essential” industries is a demand crisis. That makes sense even in non-technical terms; people have reduced their consumption to the essentials. There aren’t enough buyers to buy all the stuff that capital has been producing, which means they’ll be forced to scale back production until they can regain the rate of profit they’re looking for. This means a recession if not a depression. But capital has already been facing a global demand crisis, as Aaron Benanav has detailed in a pair of long pieces at the New Left Review. Having reached a ceiling, capital has been unable to keep expanding output at a satisfactory rate of profit. Benanav writes:
Since the early 1970s, productivity-growth rates have fallen less severely than output-growth rates: firms have continued to raise their productivity levels as best they can despite falling rates of output growth (or else have gone under, disappearing from statistical averages). As manufacturing-output growth rates slipped below productivity-growth rates in one country after another, deindustrialization spread worldwide.
What does it mean to raise productivity faster than output? This isn’t the job-killing automation Andrew Yang worried about. Automating production means investing a lot of cash up front, and although automation theoretically juices productivity numbers per worker, it increases the denominator on other important productivity metrics, like fixed asset utilization. Many investors place a premium on firm “flexibility,” which means light investments in both labor and machinery. But there are ways for capitalists to reduce their labor costs besides reducing the amount of labor they’re using; they can also reduce wages directly and indirectly. The result is that instead of the promised, feared, and anticipated wave of technological unemployment, we’ve seen a tsunami of underemployment. Capital has forced a decrease in living standards for the American working class and a decrease in the share of growth for the global working class.
If we’re trying to understand how capital is responding to the COVID-19 demand crisis, we need only look at the ways it’s managing the larger demand crisis. Capital, especially in America, can’t afford to increase labor’s access to the social product because decreasing labor’s share is how they’re maintaining productivity growth, and that’s already the only thing worth investing in.
There’s an acute challenge here. Capital (via the state) has to backstop a certain level of consumer demand through the crisis, which is another way of saying that they have to take care of people. However, taking care of people does disincentivize work, and capitalists can’t afford to renegotiate their deal with labor when they’re at a disadvantage. How can capital take care of only those workers it doesn’t need right now, without improving the bargaining position for the ones who are “essentially” employed at non-negotiably low wages?
Early relief discussion centered on two popular demands: universal cash payments and a freeze on rents. Even Mitt Romney was calling for a monthly check to every American, and landlords prepared themselves to negotiate with tenants who simply could not—and therefore would not—pay. As Congress comes to consensus on the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), they’ve reduced the universal support to a single $1200 check that will arrive at some point. Instead, they have—rather ingeniously—mediated the majority of direct support through the unemployment insurance (UI) system. UI pays laid off workers a portion of their former salary for a limited period of time while they look for new work. What’s so smart about using UI is that it leaves cash relief aid eligibility to the discretion of employers. You can’t traditionally get UI benefits when you quit a job, only when you’re fired. Underemployed essential workers can’t rely on these benefits if they want to walk off the job, and unwaged and undocumented (in the broadest sense) workers are usually ineligible.
CARES includes provisions to cover gig workers and the self-employed, wedging them into a UI system that was not built for them. There’s even a provision to include people who quit as a direct result of COVID-19. Whether they’re willing to foot the bill for a bunch of Uber drivers as long as it’s only thirteen weeks (the CARES limit) or whether onerous compliance measures will all but negate the $600 a week in emergency benefits, but by using the UI system the federal government is signaling the latter. For how it might work in practice, take the case of Amazon warehouse workers quarantined with COVID. The firm has offered sick pay for the two weeks they’ll spend away, but they’re making the process difficult, and declining to pay until workers return. CARES is supposed to pay workers in quarantine who aren’t getting paid, but workers aren’t eligible if they can receive sick pay. Could such a worker quit and feel sure they’ll be covered by CARES? Maybe if they are also a lawyer in their off time. How many workers will fall through the holes in this legislative patchwork?
In a way, workers receiving unemployment are not “unemployed” insofar as the state pays them on behalf of capital to serve in the front lines of the reserve army of labor, keeping them applying for work (and thereby ensuring wages remain competitive) in their previous industries. They may be unemployed at the moment, but they are not unemployable. The unemployable don’t get UI benefits. By using UI, the capitalist state also avoids inadvertently paying wages for housework or for any of the other unwaged reproductive labor that’s swelling under quarantine. And as soon as an employer decides it’s ready to have you back, you get your CARES cut off. The state is just keeping workers on ice until their bosses want them back, or thirteen weeks, whichever comes first. At a delayed single payment of $1200 (plus $500 per kid—ha!), the cash relief serves more as a bailout for landlords than a concession to the working class. One renter posted consecutive text messages from her landlord’s property management company on Twitter (all errors in original):
Your rent is due on the 1st of the month. We are not giving any discounts or help. It is up to you find a new job if you are effected by lay offs. If you do not feel you can get a job, they we suggest you move OUT.
The government is issuing checks to every adult soon so you can help pay expenses. Keep listening to when that will be.
This echoes Matthew Demond’s finding in his 2016 book Evicted that landlords who rent to the poor tend to know the contours of housing vouchers and other assistance programs better than the beneficiaries themselves. This leads owners to tailor rents to the voucher limits in areas with a lot of voucher holders, driving up rents in general. Desmond cites Scott Susin’s 1999 UC Berkeley study of rent vouchers, which projected that “vouchers have caused an $8.2 billion increase in the total rent paid by low-income non-recipients, while only providing a subsidy of $5.8 billion to recipients, resulting in a net loss of $2.4 billion to low-income households.” It’s a good example of how a supposed subsidy for the poor successfully increases overall demand—so where does the extra money come from? Increasingly desperate work, and cutting back on other kinds of consumption, contributing to that same decrease in living standards. There is a decent chance that the $1200 payment, if it breaks down momentum for a rent strike, will end up passing through over 100 percent to landlords too. The bill’s semi-unconditional cash payment is enough to let landlords and landlords alone breathe a sigh of relief.
The bottom line is that with CARES, the American state has found a way to prop up demand while changing as little about our social relations as possible. Instead of the leveling power of a universal payment, unemployment insurance is awarded to each according to their wage, recording and reserving everyone’s place in the labor hierarchy like a save button. For capital, containing the crisis means retaining as many inequalities as possible in the face of a quickly universal disease—and, perhaps, preparing some new ones.
Even though the economy is largely shut down, it’s not easy to say there’s less labor going on. Where waged industries have collapsed, unwaged domestic work swells. As food service contracts, cooking expands. Daycares close, home childcare explodes. Offices empty, kitchen sinks fill. The case of schools is particularly instructive. By immediately imposing tele-education, districts have separated their educating function from their childcare function, trying to find a way to fulfil the first while shrugging off the second, leaving it to families. Now not only does each household have to supply an adult for full-time childcare responsibilities, they’re conscripted as unpaid teaching assistants at PS Zoom. There has already been a gigantic increase of teaching and childcare labor, even if it first appears as a decrease, for example, in the case of a laid-off daycare worker at home with their kids. What is all this extra work for? In today’s crisis, we’re building tomorrow’s normal.
Of course a certain amount of this work is childcare—teachers maintain an unrivaled adult to child ratio, and they depend on a whole physical and symbolic school infrastructure to do it. (Go ahead and ask a babysitter what their hourly rate is for twenty kids at once.) We’re losing a lot of efficiency there. But there’s something else going on as well. In my book Kids These Days, I argue that kids at school are workers, working on their own ability to do wage labor. If we look at Zoom school as job training, it’s clear what all the work is about: learning how to stay productive during a disaster.
It should be obvious why it’s important to employers that this generation of future workers be able to keep producing uninterruptedly while hell rains down all around them. Hell is pretty much the ecological forecast for the coming decades, and if work as a system is going to keep working, then workers are going to have to be able to work under those conditions. Next year when the fires hit in California, the displaced students will know what to do. And in twenty years, when it’s too hot to go outside for months at a time, they won’t miss a beat.
“The bill’s semi-unconditional cash payment is enough to let landlords and landlords alone breathe a sigh of relief.”
Companies are planning to get rich in the quarantine economy. Maybe they’ll follow the model of for-profit “treatment centers” that, in the wake of Obamacare and the midst of the opioid epidemic, started using addicts as livestock, harvesting their urine for unnecessary but nonetheless billable tests. Money for those tests shows up in the budget as state care for the vulnerable. Government spending is fine with capitalists as long as it ends up in their pockets, so that’s the type of spending we’re likely to see. It’s the only care they can afford to offer, not because we’re too expensive to keep alive, but because the American system only functions if workers are living on the brink of disaster.
One of the things revealed by COVID-19 is the role of coercion in the labor market. If employees in essential industries had agreed to their job contracts freely, because they were fair deals, then except those with unusual loyalty or love for their work, and barring large raises, all of them would have quit. Their working conditions just got much, much worse, to the point of mortal danger, and yet there haven’t been many walkouts or strikes yet.
Many of us are familiar with the rather contested statistic that 40 percent of Americans couldn’t afford a $400 emergency expense; we can’t underrate the role that has in structuring labor relations. It’s that national withholding of care that drives the American economy, which is why stocks rose even as the worst unemployment numbers on record hit the news. That structural carelessness has made us uniquely vulnerable to the virus, and as a result, it’s likely that hundreds of thousands will die unnecessarily. This is also an attack on the working class, even though a disproportionate number of the dead that we read about will be rich. Their bodies are almost always louder. Almost.
There have been some COVID-19 counterattacks. At the Perdue Chicken plant in Kathleen, Georgia, workers told a reporter their wildcat strike was about more than weak coronavirus safety protections. “We’re told there’s going to be more promotions and more pay for the company, but no one has seen that,” a worker named Diamond Gray told local news station 13WMAZ. “I think a lot of people are just tired and with the virus involved . . . I think it’s just gotten to the point where enough is enough.” That “enough is enough” is the opposite of the relief bill, whose slogan might as well be: “A little care, as a treat.”
We have to embrace “enough is enough.” We can’t hope for a return to normalcy, a recovery, green or otherwise. From the character of CARES, it’s clear that, despite whatever the successes of the Bernie campaign, the working class doesn’t have the power to press its demands through representational channels at the national level. Any “return” will be on capital’s terms, which means the only way to go forward is to deepen and prolong the crisis in the hope of making it terminal. Voyou Désœuvré, writing in his blog on March 16 was right: “A better world does not exist in the thwarted ideals of the present, but in the real processes that might abolish that present.” It’s them or us, they’ve made that abundantly clear. But I take comfort in a line from John Berger’s novel G.: “When once death is invoked, the choice of who must die may seem oddly arbitrary.” Capitalists have invoked death, publicly offering up millions of lives for a path back to normalcy. It’s time for a counterproposal.
The first part of the counterproposal is “No.” We decline their offer to die. We decline their invitation to sacrifice our elderly, our sick, our “essential” workers. No. If capital’s plan is to pile costs on the most vulnerable until they literally can’t take it anymore, then we will undermine that strategy by sharing and diminishing those costs through solidarity. Community resilience, including mutual aid and yes even the dreaded charity, are growing parts of our lives, no matter what. It turns out that has less to do with GoFundMe and other platforms, and more to do with the underemployment strategy, which forces us all to find our own combinations of market and pseudo-market ways to scrape by. We’re going to be spending an increasing amount of our time and energy caring for each other because the alternatives are unthinkable. That means sharing the childcare burden even with the risk that doing so entails, as I argued here. It means finding safe ways to collectively handle, prepare, and distribute food. And it means supporting workers like those in Kathleen who choose this moment to say enough is enough, even though the government has been careful not to provide them a reliable safety net.
The second part of the counterproposal is, “Why don’t you die instead?” By capitalist measurements it’s the poor and the sick who aren’t worth saving, but they’re not the ones putting the “in” in inequality. Let’s place not saving the rich on the table too; let’s see how that all weighs out.
“How many of the poor and sick must die?” is always one of capitalism’s calculations, but even to pose the question, “How many of the rich and powerful must die?” takes some work. That means thinking it, repeating it, writing it on walls. It means implicit threats, rent strikes, and the destruction of Amazon and Google’s neighborhood surveillance systems. It means sabotage, theft, leaking, doxing. Socially distanced group demonstrations are more trouble than they’re worth, and you can’t canvas door to door in a pandemic. But those aren’t the only tools we have, and the systems are exceptionally fragile right now. It’s time to put them on the defensive.
“I really don’t care,” a member of the Trump regime once told us, followed with, “Do U?” We know they don’t care, not just because they’ve told and shown us very clearly, but because they can’t. In this moment of crisis, the whole American house of cards would come crashing down if the state offered the smallest measure of real care without checking a tax return first. But we do care, we care a lot. We care all day, every day. Some of us have already died of it, and more will tomorrow.
We care; let that help define us, and them. And let us take care of us. And then let us take care of them.