Valencia, Spain. 26 March, 2020. Photo: mediamasmedia /

Essential workers of the world unite!

  • April 17, 2020

Work & Workers

The “heroes” who sustain our lives during this crisis, are barely able to sustain theirs. A heterogeneous working class movement of frontline workers can change this.

Ironically, the global pandemic which threatens our lives has put a spotlight on the infrastructures that sustain them. The workers who have always been saving lives, caring for the ill, cleaning and sorting waste, producing goods and providing services essential for the uninterrupted running of lives have been made “heroes.” The same capitalist actors who considered these workers easily replaceable and often dismissed their work as “unskilled” are now cynically hailing them as “warriors.”

The classification of certain workers as “essential” has created conditions which allow for disparate groups of workers to think about themselves as part of a collective. The nature of this crisis has made the infrastructural labor that sustains everyday life evident. On the one hand, this conjuncture has revealed, and will exacerbate the shared vulnerabilities of “essential workers.” On the other, it has altered the public perception of this work, paving the way for its social and economic valorization. These new circumstances open up possibilities for the articulation of a heterogeneous working-class movement.

The sudden glorification of essential workers can be considered an epiphanic moment in which the ideology that shapes our world views, notions of ourselves, our aspirations and desires can no longer obscure what is really essential. Neoliberal ideology has loudly denied the vulnerability and the interdependence which sustain our lives, sedating us into an alienating, individualistic sense of normality. However, our slumber has been disturbed and we have been abruptly awakened from our complacent fictions to collectively confront a reality that is more crude than usual, yet more real than what we call normality.

Our two-faced governments encourage us to clap for essential workers from our homes, while insisting that we need to get the same economy which has been ostracizing these very same workers back on its feet: a return to “normality.” In so doing, they turn our former precarious lives into an aspiration. We are witnessing an iteration of what Mark Fisher called capitalist realism — the idea that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. In this interregnum, the only thinkable alternative to what is perceived as a literal confrontation with the end of the world seems to be the longing for a nostalgic return to a crappy past. Will essential workers continue to be clapped for and worshiped as heroes once we go back to the new, old “normal”?

If returning to a nostalgic idea of the past is the only alternative, we will be handed a reinvented — undoubtedly worse — version of it. As Lampedusa brilliantly put it in The Leopard, in times of crisis the dominant classes accommodate to the new conjuncture, understanding that in order to retain their power “everything must change so that everything can stay the same.”

We obviously want this to end. We cannot wait to hug our comrades and loved ones again, we are eager to fill the squares with chatter, we need our public spaces back and we want to do meaningful work. However, before this, we were already losing connection with each other; our leisure had been reduced to individualized, alienating consumerism; public space was mere appearance, masking the commodification of everyday life; and, for many of us, our jobs were tedious, meaningless, insecure and poorly paid. Going back to normal means letting the same corporations which will benefit immensely from this crisis use our lives as a means to advance their economic interests.

The Recomposition of Capitalism

The situation before this global crisis was far from desirable. In the Global South, processes of dispossession and immiseration continue to threaten livelihoods based on land and agriculture. The dominance of financial capital over processes of accumulation has exacerbated the maldistribution of value that is structurally inherent to capital. Financial capital relies on the extraction of rents from the productive labor process, so does not produce any new use values. The astronomic financial profits of the last three decades are therefore contingent upon the increase in the rate of exploitation across the world and the transfer of value from the asset-poor to the asset-rich.

Similarly, the neoliberal project is underpinned by disinvestment in public services, which can only be satisfactorily funded through progressive taxation. This is also a global phenomenon predicated on obstructing and/or preventing the process of value redistribution through taxation: the process whereby workers recover part of the surplus value that has been expropriated from them in the form of public services, benefits, pensions, etc.

If recent predictions about the future of our economies are any indication of the days ahead, the prospects are not looking good. The unfolding economic crisis is likely to bring about the near collapse of the steadily burgeoning services sector, which estimated to employ 50 percent of the global working force. In the last few weeks, we have seen an unprecedented destruction of jobs across the world. Some governments have deployed fiscal stimulus packages of various sizes for furloughed workers and those who have lost their livelihoods due to lockdowns. Small and medium size businesses do not have the same capacity for indebtedness as large corporations, which are considered too big to fall and, consequently, will be bailed out and/or nationalized if necessary. These reinforced corporations will fill the market gaps left by smaller firms.

The scenario we are faced with is a combination of high unemployment rates and the emergence of corporate monopolies, which will be able to set whatever working conditions and prices suit their interests. Unemployment will be used as a coercive weapon to erode working conditions. This, together with the recent rise — and establishment — of far-right parties in several countries will be used to divide workers along racial, ethnic, religious and citizenship lines.

Against this background, state-monopoly capitalism is likely to be the next gown that capital will pick from its endless dressing room. A new disarticulated reserve army of unemployed workers arising from the ashes of this crisis will service unlimited sources of exploitation.

The future looks grim, but the grim prognosis does not have to be quietly accepted: there are objective conditions for the articulation of a plural working class which mirrors the changing, complex composition of late capitalism. A working class which continues to include industrial workers, but is larger than them.

While the demographic composition of essential workers is highly heterogeneous, encompassing middle-aged former factory workers, rural and international migrants and educated young people without decent job opportunities, heterogeneity also exists in the nature of employment. Informal and temporary workers, the self-employed and “gig” economy workers have been hit particularly hard by this pandemic. The sudden social valorization of these workers could create the subjective conditions for the constitution of a broad, heterogeneous working-class movement which demands the economic valorization of this work.

The Infra-Structures that Sustain Life

Vinay Gidwani’s concept of “infra-structural labor” is valuable in providing a theoretical and empirical common ground, becoming the metaphorical glue that could be useful in forging alliances among atomized workers. Infra-structural labor encompasses all those forms of work that are crucial for the sustenance and reproduction of everyday life, but which, at the same time, have been rendered invisible and thus devalued. It is a particularly pertinent formulation for this juncture as the pandemic has brought visibility to the range of — devalued — human labor and resources that sustain the necessities of life, crucially revealing the dependencies of capital on such forms of labor.

Perversely, the workers that produce basic needs and deliver essential services — and now risk their lives to do so — are the ones who struggle the most to access them. The “heroes” of this crisis, those who are sustaining our lives, are barely able to sustain theirs. As social reproduction theorists argue, highly asymmetrical processes of capital accumulation paradoxically undermine and compromise the livelihoods of the same workers who sustain those processes.

The period following the 2008 crisis accentuated these dynamics. Private losses in the real estate/financial complex were socialized and translated into public debt, austerity policies, dispossession of public and working class’ wealth, and a further erosion of working conditions. This means that, before the eruption of the COVID-19 crisis, there was already an unbearable pressure on the lives of working-class people.

A recurrent question which arises in moments of crisis is whether capitalists can get away with imposing a new round of dispossession, austerity, precarity and brutal working conditions. While acknowledging that there are biological limits to the exploitation of human life, the general considerations which render certain living conditions either tolerable or inacceptable are not an ahistorical constant: they are contingent upon the given balance of power among classes.

The nature of this crisis has brought about a very particular conjuncture, which creates the conditions to challenge certain elements of neoliberal common sense. Firstly, it makes it difficult to continue an ongoing process of dispossession through the privatization of public health care systems — where they exist — and creates the subjective conditions to demand a universal public health system across the globe.

Secondly, the abrupt interruption of a great deal of consumer-based forms of ideological leisure, as well as alienating jobs, has revealed the structural importance of certain kinds of workers, while also exposing the everyday insecurities with which they live.

People have become aware that the work of nurses, paramedics, carers, domestic workers, sanitation workers, teachers and agricultural workers sustain our biological and social lives; while that of drivers, security guards, warehouse and delivery workers, waiters/waitresses, street vendors, shop assistants, supermarket employees reproduce everyday urban life.

Possibilities for a Re-Making of the Working Class

Various groups of workers from all over the globe have been organizing and demanding better work conditions in the past few weeks. The recent protests and calls for action from medical workers, health workers, platform-dependent warehouse and delivery workers in different parts of the world expose the poor working conditions of essential workers and the lack of resources they are faced with while having to be on the frontline of the struggle against a deadly virus. In gaining control over what they produce, industrial workers have successfully forced their employers into manufacturing medical equipment. Similarly, rent and debt strikes, unimaginable forms of protest three weeks ago, are becoming commonsensical demands. Homeless people are reclaiming vacant homes, challenging the very sanctity of private property on which capitalism rests.

In the last few years, protests demanding fair prices for produce, better remuneration and social protection have erupted among farmers, teachers, garment workers, workers in the food industry, health workers and sanitation workers in several parts of the world. The recent spate of protests which took place in Iran, Iraq, France, Chile, Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon and Ecuador, among many other places, may also point to the potential for a broad-based political organization. These protests were underpinned by people’s growing frustration with austerity and increasing costs of living.

This kaleidoscopic combination of struggles led by a seemingly disparate range of workers around the world are articulated around two fundamental pillars: demands for better working conditions and the right to meet basic needs and access essential services. This pandemic has revealed the absurdity of valuing work using categories such as “skilled” and “unskilled.” The provision of a living wage, irrespective of “skill” or educational qualification, together with stronger labor laws, is the need of the hour.

Shrinking public spending on basic services together with stagnating real wages means a large portion of incomes is being spent on meeting expenses related to everyday survival. The unfolding large-scale loss of jobs and how this affects people’s ability to meet basic needs provides an opportune moment to demand universal, public services. The state’s guaranteeing of basic services will provide the material and emotional security that enables workers to reject unjust and exploitative working conditions. Calling for publicly-funded basic services also detaches welfare from the “worker” identity, a category in which a significant number of people do not belong — informal workers, undocumented migrants, the elderly, disabled, unemployed, etc.

Marx differentiated between an objective and subjective working class. The former is a class in itself, the latter a class for itself. Without the latter, there is no such thing as a working-class movement. In other words, class politics begins when we imagine ourselves as part of a collective and we create new ideas of a better future. Political practice is to turn these aspirations into (a) movement and make it together as we walk.

This crisis has made the objective conditions tying these disparate struggles and workers together more evident. It has also produced new subjective conditions which force essential workers to think about themselves as a collective, on the one hand, and has changed our perception about the social value of this work, on the other.

Today’s frontline workers have an opportunity to become the frontline of a working-class movement in the making; a working class articulated around strategies, tactics, institutions, values and lifestyles which reflect its heterogeneous makeup. Property-less, educated individuals for whom “essential jobs” are no longer transitional but the only alternative in the labor market have an opportunity to march behind the frontline. Perhaps this could break the spell which renders them part of a phantasmic middle class.

We do not see this union as a coalition, a temporary alliance for combined action, but as a potential, coherent process of working-class formation: a collective force which expands the notions of what is possible and puts them in motion.

Moments of crisis radically alter the temporality of political change by disturbing the seemingly solid. The conditions presented by this crisis are an opportunity to build a movement which creates a firm ground upon which we can struggle for direct control over our labor. Only then can we collectively define how we produce and deliver what we consider essential. As Marx once said, only when we leave behind the realm of necessity can we walk together towards the realm of freedom.

Santiago Leyva del Río

Santiago Leyva del Río is a PhD researcher in Urban Geography at Birkbeck College. His research focuses on collective forms of housing and alternative modes of dwelling.

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Kaveri Medappa

Kaveri Medappa is a PhD researcher in the dept of International Development at the University of Sussex. Her research focuses on the changing experiences of work and mobilization among platform/”gig” workers in India.

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