Coronavirus and the Collapse of Our Imaginations

Right now, millions of people throughout North America and Europe are living through an unprecedented situation and making unprecedented demands. Formerly meek white-collar workers content to schlep to and from the office every day are demanding the right to telecommute. Blue-collar workers told they are essential are demanding raises- here in Washington, our grocery workers just secured two dollars an hour through their union. And workers across trades and professions and political persuasions, finding themselves laid off, are demanding the right to a living, whether or not the economy currently requires their services. To say we have arrived at a revolutionary moment is perhaps an understatement.

And how are we responding? Our ghoulish leaders are fretting over how many lives a point on the Dow Jones is worth. Congressional Democrats want to ensure the boards of the corporations sucking down “relief” are adequately diverse. The Atlantic, in a typical bit of inadvertent hilarity, is anguished because the plague might separate women from the neoliberal capitalist order into which they have been so painstakingly integrated.

But the moment remains. The people, for the first time in memory, are unabashedly demanding cash relief- not tax incentives or credits, not rejiggering of fine details, but cash on the nail. Even libertarian Congressman Justin Amash, not typically amenable to government largesse, is calling for the entire stimulus to be divided among the American people, rather than reserved primarily for corporate coffers.

Now is our time. Now is when we present the ideal of a society ordered to human well-being to our friends and neighbors. We need not fret about the details of a new order. The future is created in the making; the methods are discovered in the process. What we must do is insist that the fearsome Economy be devoted to the people, that our families are more important than our jobs.

But are we capable of imagining such a thing? Just insisting that people turned out of work by a plague receive state aid is a bold step for most of us; we make the demand giddily, with a sense of unreality and memes about “securing the bag” and “money printer go brrrrr.” Can we envision a completely changed world?

Start with telecommuting. Millions of us have what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs,” jobs that produce nothing, create no wealth, but exist merely to help circulate money so goods can be distributed. Even white-collar workers with real jobs are chained to 19th-century notions of work, with a desk in a building and appointed hours at which they must sit there. We rise to alarm clocks, get into cars, belch carbon into the atmosphere, and alternate between working and goofing off as we wait for the time to pass.

But not under coronavirus. Under coronavirus, we wake with the sun, we take leisurely morning strolls, we fit our work around our children and our spouses. Instead of furtively scrolling Facebook when we get bored working, we play or make love or create. For many of us, coronavirus has been liberating amidst the quarantines. How ghastly that it has taken the threat of a global pandemic for our bosses to take advantage of technology that has existed for twenty years, at least. How cowardly of us not to demand it sooner.

What if we never went back? Imagine roads clear of traffic around the clock. Imagine air cleansed of the emissions of millions of cars. Imagine the demand for gas dropping first the price, then the environmentally devastating production. For my fellow office drones, imagine every morning waking up naturally, not to an alarm clock, and spending each day doing at each moment what you most wanted to do, not whatever would pass the time while waiting for five o’clock. That could be ours, if only we insist on it.

And what more could we imagine? Could we imagine, as my former colleague Kevin Carson has described in his work, a world of decentralized production, where “going to work” is for almost everyone a strange anachronism from a dimly remembered past? Could we imagine a world of automation that serves people rather than displaces them? Or will we be content to fritter with the margins of neoliberal capitalism, pushing for “oversight” on massive giveaways to corporations while villains like Ben Sasse clutch their pearls at the idea of a fast-food worker making more on unemployment than she does flipping burgers?

Don’t let go of this moment. For decades now we have expended our energies finding ways to integrate people more fully into neoliberalism and congratulated ourselves on our inclusiveness and tolerance. Now is our chance to smash the whole thing up, and demand better. Make the money printer go brrrrr. Work from home. Don’t work at all. We are worth more than our jobs, and we deserve better than we have.

Jonathan Carp is an engineer in Port Orchard, WA. He is working on a memoir of his time in Iraq