Workingman’s Blues (COVID 19 Version)

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

I went back to work last week. Even though neither I most of my fellow workers are convinced library books are an essential service, the fact that we are once again loaning them out appeals to a certain pretense that they are. This is despite the fact that libraries—both public and academic—are often the first entities to be cut during times of austerity. That in itself, seems to indicate their non-essentialness in the minds of the politicians and their paymasters. Indeed, this might be why so many public libraries across the US are providing some level of curbside service in spite of the risks the COVID-19 pandemic presents. Perhaps if their borrowing statistics are at least equal to those statistics prior to the various quarantine orders, libraries will not suffer as much from the layoffs and cutbacks sure to come in the new fiscal year.

I have to be honest. I am glad to be back in the library building I work at. The database maintenance work I was being tasked with while I worked from home is not something I like doing. In essence, it was little more than busywork that would never have been done if the building had not been closed. One assumes the city administration was unwilling to just keep us on the payroll without doing some kind of work, no matter how pointless. Naturally, I am thankful that I continued to get paid and could keep my health insurance. At the same time, I am quite mindful that, since the money was already budgeted for salaries and health insurance, there was no real reason for the fairly meaningless work we were assigned.

Although I am glad to be back in the library building working with actual books, my fellow workers and I are a bit nervous about the health issues involved. As it stands right now, there are no patrons in the building and only three staffers at any time. We keep our distance while working and patrons can only come to the door of the building to pick up their book requests. In other words, our process is similar to that in place for many restaurants, marijuana dispensaries, pharmacies and other retail businesses. Furthermore, the pressure to re-open interiors of these establishments in Vermont is still minimal. The one right wing rally to open for business in Vermont drew no more than a dozen participants. A car rally two days later demanding better protection for essential workers, guaranteed income for all those unemployed due to the virus, prisoner release and residences for the houseless (among other demands) attracted close to five hundred vehicles and many sidewalk supporters. The governor, despite his GOP membership and ALEC-inspired politics, listened at first to medical experts more than Trumpists and libertarians. Consequently, like his fellow GOP governor in Maryland, he mostly erred on the side of caution. In recent days however, he is pushing harder to re-open businesses without insisting on precautions like customers wearing masks or free testing for anyone requesting it. His true colors will become ever more apparent when the state government begins implementing austerity measures.

Already, municipal and state workers are wondering if they will be laid off permanently. Restaurant and microbrewery workers fear their employers will not re-open and musicians wonder when it will be okay for them to perform again. Undocumented workers fear a crackdown on their status is in the works as pressures from the anti-immigrant administration in DC demands that any jobs that do come back be filled by US citizens. Small businesspeople are beginning to understand that—just like in 2008—the federal government is much more interested in propping up banks and financial houses deemed to big to fail than it is in helping them restart. Students maintain a youthful optimism and hope their future is considerably better than the Spring 2020 semester was.

Cracks that were once fissures continue to expand. The US capitalist experiment is struggling to reinvent itself once again. Neoliberalism—which was merely the latest stage of monopoly capitalism—is looking for more public services to consume in the name of recovery. The Trumpist approach is one that ramps up the war of words with Washington’s capitalist rivals overseas, while continuing to do business with them. Profits once again validate the theory that profiteers have no allegiances to anything but more profit. Politicians in the service of the profiteers scramble for ways to keep their paymasters solvent. Those with some semblance of a conscience introduce legislation to help out workers, while those whose selfishness is their only motivation reject everything but the most basic assistance all the while searching for ways to deny that, too. As a friend of mine likes to say: It’s the least they could do, and don’t let it ever be said that they didn’t do the least they could do. Mitch McConnell, you know I’m talking about you (for starters).

If neoliberalism is the ultimate expression of capitalism—where everything has a price and nothing has any intrinsic value—the response to the pandemic in uber-capitalist nations like the United States confirms that this ultimately immoral economic philosophy considers human life just another mark on its ledger. The only value in human lives is in the profit that can be squeezed from each and every one.

So, wish me and everyone else told to go back to work to earn a living some good luck. It’s quite apparent that US capitalism isn’t going to cut us any slack. We’re not really in this all together, after all.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: