Friday, December 17, 2021


Updated to remove my misuse of the term "late capitalism."

At Vox, in a piece titled "The World as We Know It Is Ending. Why Are We Still at Work?," Anna North writes:
For a moment in early 2020, it seemed like we might get a break from capitalism.

A novel coronavirus was sweeping the globe, and leaders and experts recommended that the US pay millions of people to stay home until the immediate crisis was over. These people wouldn’t work. They’d hunker down, take care of their families, and isolate themselves to keep everyone safe. With almost the whole economy on pause, the virus would stop spreading, and Americans could soon go back to normalcy with relatively little loss of life.

Obviously, that didn’t happen.
Did anyone really believe this would happen -- that "we might get a break from capitalism" as a result of the pandemic? At my day job, we spent a couple of weeks in late February early March 2020 hastily familiarizing ourselves with software we'd need to work remotely -- the fact that we'd continue working, and be expected to make the transition seamlessly, was never in question. And we were supposed to see ourselves as the lucky ones -- we wouldn't have to commute on disease-carrying subway cars, we wouldn't be trapped all day in an office building where no windows could be opened, people who had weekend houses or homes in far-flung suburbs could hunker down far from the city ... But the work couldn't stop. And it clearly wouldn't stop for most blue-collar and service workers, either.

North writes:
Instead, white-collar workers shifted over to Zoom (often with kids in the background), and everybody else was forced to keep showing up to their jobs in the face of a deadly virus. Hundreds of thousands died, countless numbers descended into depression and burnout, and a grim new standard was set: Americans keep working, even during the apocalypse.

Now it’s been nearly two years since the beginning of the pandemic — a time that has also encompassed an attempted coup, innumerable extreme weather events likely tied to climate change, and ongoing police violence against Black Americans — and we’ve been expected to show up to work through all of it. “I don’t think people are well,” says Riana Elyse Anderson, a clinical and community psychologist and professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. “We are moving along but we are certainly not well.”
Were there past crises when capitalism actually did stop? If so, I don't remember them. I was too young to be in the workforce for the wave of political assassinations in the 1960s, but it's my understanding that life mostly went on as usual. Crime waves, blackouts, 9/11 -- maybe some New Yorkers were told to take it easy after the Twin Towers fell, but my wife and I were back at our jobs the next day. If capitalism didn't stop for 9/11, why would it stop for COVID or George Floyd?

Updated to remove my misuse of the term "late capitalism."

The vast majority of ordinary schlubs understand this. Who questions it? Elite, Substacked knowledge workers:
“This is the black heart of productivity culture: the maniacal focus on the individual capacity to produce elides the external forces that could (and should!) short-circuit our concentration and work ethic,” Anne Helen Petersen, co-author of the book Out of Office, wrote at the time. “If we had time and space to process the tragedies of daily life, if we gave ourselves permission for deep empathy — then maybe we’d have the fortitude and will to fight for the changes that would actually make the world less traumatic.”
I love that: if we gave ourselves permission for deep empathy. The "permission" isn't ours to grant or withhold. Our employers decide, and they rarely decide that empathy is appropriate, except in very small doses. (I can't tell you how many transparently phony email messages of alleged empathy my co-workers and I received from our white bosses last year in response to the murder of Floyd.)

But employers could do more, couldn't they? North writes:
Companies can start by taking the onus off individual employees and offering time off to everyone in difficult times. Even if management encourages people to take time off, employees may fear repercussions if they actually do it, Anderson pointed out — plus they’ll be coming back to a mountain of work on their return. A better strategy is to simply give time off to all employees without requiring them to request it. Nike, for example, gave all office employees a week off earlier this year, and Bumble and LinkedIn enacted similar policies.
Trust me on this: An extra week off on short notice could just mean that you have to do twice as much work between now and the week off to keep all of your projects on their current schedules, because the deadlines never move.

One problem is that we think we can confront capitalism through normal political means -- we think the system will totter, or at least change significantly, if we vote for Democrats (or Bernie, or members of the Squad, or, if you're delusional, Donald Trump), or if we form a union or two at elite magazines or independent bookstores, or if we give money to groups fighting good fights. In reality, we need to do more. At the very least, we need to tap into the widespread contempt for fat cats -- they need to be held up as the enemies of progress that they are; we need to talk about precisely how they control the system, with an eye toward weakening that control. But talk probably won't be enough. The victories of the labor movement a century ago were won with violence, or at least the threat of it. I don't want violent revolution, but I question whether true progress is possible without it. I hope so, but I don't see any reason to believe it.

In any case, capitalism isn't going to let us take a breather, no matter how many virus strains threaten our health, no matter how many tornadoes are approaching our workplaces. Capitalism doesn't care what happens to us, as long as it doesn't have to pay significant costs associated with our suffering. We have to make capitalism care, and I don't know if we're up for the fight.

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