Daniel Bristow on the need for class politics in the midst of coronavirus and why we need to remember the often exploited key worker long after the end of the crisis.
In much work in the field of psychology, the ‘subject’ – ourselves – is described as divided, or split (famously so in Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, R. D. Laing, etc.). In relation to class, we read this through Karl Marx’s conception of ‘alienation’: that is, workers’ alienation with regard to what they produce. Such alienation acts as a link-to and separation-from said production/productivity. Class further divides its subjects from one another, and subjects them to different exposures.
As with so much else, the present crisis of global pandemic – and countrywide epidemic – has thrown these insuppressible realities into sharp relief. Subjects’ subjection to possible infection is suddenly stratified. We are imminently plugged into an accelerated timeline: celebrities are some of the first to broadcast the trials and tribulations of their ‘self-isolation’; boredom early becomes bemoaned as a great adversity to face (Mark Fisher talked of the condition of boredom rife in the 1970s – and pits it against the condition of the boring that fills today’s conjuncture – and that created punk: ‘the vacancy of boredom was a challenge, an injunction and an opportunity: if we are bored, then it is for us to produce something that will fill up the space’); as Skype and Zoom are mass-migrated-to, activities and innovations to conquer inertia spring up left, right and centre; upper management rungs in businesses begin to self-isolate and work remotely, whilst those on lower rungs of the hierarchy feel compelled to continue on – the irony not being lost on them – often in positions of being much more at-risk of becoming transmitters and contractors of covid-19.
Difference is suddenly everywhere, in high-visibility (if one looks for it: in a Black Mirror-image one might imagine a grey world outside, being constantly fumigated by figures in hazmat suits, whilst busloads of unmasked workers zip past, as those indoors starjump to multicoloured workout routines); a sudden evisceration of space and in-betweenness weirdly occurs as social distance is encouraged, and a new vectoral class is quickly born. McKenzie Wark’s concept of the ‘vectoralist class’ refers to internet virality: a class that ‘does not control land or industry anymore, just information. It does not claim its share of the surplus as rent or profit, but as interest’. The material virality of the epidemic creates another class, of workers, whose continued work puts them in potential positions of becoming viral vectors.
Certain divided subjects are further split: juggling acts within families are demanded, in relation to work situations, school closures, child custody, isolation from one another if involved in frontline services, etc.; those who work more than one job are affected, for whom one of their jobs can be done from home, whilst the other requires attendance in congregational spaces, for whom becoming sick in one line of work will impact another detrimentally, whilst not attending the former will inflict economic hardships impacting the viability of the latter, etc. Finally, keyworker status is granted, and is ongoingly being defined; those in these professions beg others to stay home. On the pandemic scale, much severer division of class, within the ‘global south’ – which is so often treated by its ‘northern’ beneficiaries as an invisible warehouse the conditions of which remain out of sight, out of mind – stands to suffer unthinkable devastations.
Slavoj Žižek writes in ‘Is Barbarism with a Human Face Our Fate?’:
It is not enough just to isolate and survive – for some of us to do this, basic public services have to function: electricity, food, and medical supplies. . . (We’ll soon need a list of those who recovered and are at least for some time immune, so that they can be mobilized for the urgent public work.) It is not a utopian communist vision, it is a communism imposed by the necessities of bare survival. It is unfortunately a version of what, in the Soviet Union in 1918, was called “war communism.”
In terms of employment, of jobs, he is talking of what we now know to designate as ‘keywork’; that through which the provisioning of what is essential (to survival) can be maintained. The key to all other (physically close) nonessential work is for it either to be done from home, or to cease (and to become furloughed), as it is the case, quite simply, that the congregational space (of work) is where the potentiality and reality of contagion multiplies. To remove this potentiality and reality is what is essential to the suppression of infection, and to the mitigation of the overloading of the health service. As Alain Badiou has said: ‘adhering to a strict discipline on this point[, of ‘isolat[ing] myself at home [and] encourag[ing] everyone else to do the same’,] is all the more necessary in that it provides support and fundamental protection for all those who are most exposed:’ the keyworkers.
Wilhelm Reich (in whose early career could be classified as a Communist psychoanalyst) formulated a concept of ‘work-democracy’ in the 1930s, which is described in the glossary to The Mass Psychology of Fascism as being:
The sum total of all functions of life governed by the rational interpersonal relations that have come into being, grown and developed in a natural and organic way[.] This democracy is born by the functions of love, work and knowledge and is developed organically. It fights mysticism and the idea of the totalitarian state not through political attitudes but through practical functions of life, which obey their own laws. In short, natural work-democracy is a newly discovered bio-sociologic and basic function of society.
How much certain structures of society have got in the way of this ‘bio-sociologic’ functioning! They have stood in the way of it all along, and Reich was clear in demonstrating so. Pressures perpetrators of the capitalist order have been applying, to continue (nonessential) work – effectively, for the working-class to continue on, as transmitters of disease – have been an early indication of the drive of greed and profit (and a further confirmation of something in Reich’s break with Freud: he did not believe the death-drive was biologically within the human organism, as the libido is. Indeed, it shows itself outside, in the zombified march of capital). Keywork might be seen as an intersection of work-democracy – organic preservation of life, based on principles derived from love, work and knowledge – and war communism, the necessity of action: healthcare, food provision, seeking and providing shelter, staying home, avoiding transmission. Out of this emerges a division in subjects and their subjection to risk.
A repeating image appears in the form of what Freud designated as ‘representation by the opposite’. It is an image of the ‘biorobots’: humans deployed to shovel radioactive debris off of reactor core rooftops during the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster of 1986. Clad in the best available protective armour; for very limited periods of time these people gravely risked their health and their lives to remove highly dangerous materials from positionings in which their threat level became exponentially increased. In this instance, it is an image in the mode of ‘representation by the opposite’ precisely because even the most cursory knowledge of the contagiousness of covid-19 demonstrates that keeping out of the way of the disease is what decreases its spread and transmission: unlike those who risked radiation poisoning, risk here is what is to be avoided to avoid risk. Thus, a discourse of ‘heroism’, in relation to nonessential, physically congregational work, or arising around nonessential contact with potential infection, should be denounced as the mystificatory and insidious phenomenon that it is, and as one at odds with the – however ill-promulgated – governmental advisories; that is, the spread of this disease precisely resists being ‘taken on the chin’, it is not a bullet one can take for queen and country, nor is it something that resilience can be built against by increasing trade, footfall, transit, crowding in public transport (increased by pre-emptive reduction in services), or massified work beyond that which is key.
In the UK, in the timeline of the response to the epidemic, we see
1. That the governmental advice given and the measures taken contradict themselves from one day to the next, and leave far too much to interpretation (often of an exegetic or hermeneutic kind): ‘herd immunity, but wash your hands to prevent transmission’; a confusing oscillation of ‘do get it’/’don’t get it’—‘Prime Ministerial advice against going to pubs, whilst pubs remain open, and the PM’s father champions flouting the suggestion’—‘partial closures to businesses, leaving public spaces half locked-down whilst numbers of the public are not reducing within them, and retail sectors are recording huge spikes in sales’—‘social distancing, but with little explanation of what this is and little recognition of the difficulties involved in enforcing it’—‘cease to work, unless absolutely necessary; increasing commute loads, and leading to mass confusion, specifically around necessity (as work is necessary to one’s – and one’s dependents’ – sustenance)’, etc. There is even the sense that if one missed yesterday’s daily briefing, for which one needed to tune in to BBC1 at a specific hour, one could be going along with information, immediately outdated, from the day before.
2. Businesses being slow to react, or displaying a stubbornness epitomic of ‘bad faith’ (Weatherspoon’s’ boss Tim Martin’s arguing against the closures of pubs, attempting to back out of fair treatment of his staff, etc.; Sports Direct, ASOS); open admissions of increased profitability; self-classifications as ‘essential’; expectations of staff to continue working (whether or not explicitly stated, expectedly felt); soaring sales figures providing direct contradiction of social distancing and essential outings-only guidelines.
3. Self-employed workers left out-to-sea in initial budgetary and furlough considerations, continuing to work, and travelling in herded conditions to jobs, construction sites, etc.; the slower disbursal times involved in this sector’s furlough scheme; other sectors, class positions, legal status, left out of the measures.
4. Confusion rife: the time for deliberation – having been available – it would transpire, inadequately utilised; Dominic Cummings’ unforgettable and unforgivable alleged statement ringing in the ears: ‘herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.’
5. Michael Gove – in his first daily briefing to the nation after the prime minister is downed with coronavirus symptoms – stating: ‘the fact that the prime minister and the health secretary have contracted the virus is a reminder that the virus does not discriminate.’ A response, from one of our anonymous contributors – who wrote a ‘Letter from a Junior Doctor’, published in Politactics – is to ask: ‘is the fact that the prime minister and the health secretary have both been tested while only displaying mild symptoms (against national guidance) a reminder that our society does discriminate?’ Gove uttered this remark as frontline NHS staff were not being granted covid-19 tests, as well as being let down massively in provision of personal protective equipment (PPE); the national guidance concerning mild symptoms was to ‘self-isolate’ only; and figures such as Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock received tests.
Much is at play, and much is at stake. Beyond, or more precisely below, the rigged game of controlled financial capital, and the bourgeois tendencies for conservation of individual interests, the proletarian class strata is made up of vocational vectors, which divaricate along key- and nonkeyworking lines. In this latter category, further vectors find themselves at the whim of luck lotteries and all sorts of structures of privilege (along race, gender, class, legal status, etc., lines), often imposed and maintained by the ruling classes.
The designation of keywork demonstrates which areas of work are necessitous (and – it is hoped this will not be forgotten – not only in times of crisis); and abilities to isolate show up the dictates of the ruling class, as fights to keep nonessential businesses in operation arise during a time when it is a public health catastrophe to do so; greed showing up the health-destruction inherent in ‘wealth-creation’. Within proletarian vectors there is unfortunately now the increased scope for the opening up, and active exploitation, of what Freud identified as ‘the narcissism of small differences’ (in how our work stratifies us now, and even how our ‘leisure’ does: citizens have been calling the cops on neighbours exercising twice-daily); for ressentiment; for division to rule: it has always been so, and it is this that precisely must be resisted. Solidarity is needed more than ever now, and will be the foundation-stone of the more fair and equitable society we should aim to build in the wake of the pandemic; workers of the world should unite, in the mitigation not only of this crisis, but of those future crises for which we can be better provisioned; to flatten not only this curve, but the very curve of the crisis that is capitalism itself.
Daniel Bristow is co-editor of Everyday Analysis.