COVID-19: The Great Social Equalizer and Liberator from Unnecessary Work

The Coronavirus plague should be putting everything in perspective for us all. It should make us ask what life’s really about, no matter if we’re rich or middle class. (The poor are another story.) That’s because COVID-19 has forced everyone who’s solvent into something like the same boat. It’s made us realize that the vessel has just sprung a huge leak that threatens to take us all down collectively and personally – unless we make some fundamental changes on both fronts. The possibilities for change are endless, hopeful and encouraging.

Our Shared Reality

First of all, think about our shared boat. All of us have been born into a consumerist culture that tells us life’s about money, beautiful clothes, luxury automobiles, travel to exotic places, entertainment, and eating in fine restaurants.

Suddenly though, none of that has much meaning.

In my own case, since the springing of the Coronavirus leak, I don’t even have anywhere to spend the money I already have. My two old Volvos have been parked in our driveway for 2 weeks; I haven’t used a drop of gasoline; there’s no place for us to go. I can spend all day in my pajamas, and nobody will know the difference. I live a 70-minute train ride from Broadway, but it’s all been shut down. I can’t even watch March Madness or Lebron on TV. There’s no spring training or the prospect of a baseball season. And as for fine restaurants, I can’t even buy a donut and java at “Coffee An’,” our local hangout, or even at Starbucks.

And I imagine it’s like that for billionaires too. I mean, what do they do all day? Like me, they’re confined as they shelter in place. Like me, they get up in the morning, read the newspaper or some online source, eat breakfast, maybe go for a run, take a shower, eat lunch, nap for a while, talk with some friends or associates on the phone, read a chapter or two in a book or an article in a magazine, have a drink for happy hour, eat supper with family, watch a Netflix movie, have a nightcap, and go to bed. That’s it.

And tomorrow will be the same. What else can they do? What more can their money buy them? I mean, it’s pretty much the same for all of us who are lucky enough not to be homeless or in prison. Under the Coronavirus regime, Jeff Bezos’ life can’t be that much different from my own.

So, as I watch financiers thrilled at the prospect of a surging stock market stimulated by a number I can’t even imagine, I wonder what for? Where are they going to spend the profits they anticipate? Who’s going to buy the stuff they imagine will be produced? Their situation is the same as mine.

And where did all that money come from anyway? (They didn’t have it for Bernie’s Medicare for All.) What does it mean? Why is green paper – or fiat numbers someone decided to put on investors’ computer screens – so powerful? And what did any of those Wall Streeters do to earn it? In present circumstances, how does it make their lives better than mine?

It all seems somehow made up. And in a very real sense, so does the rest of the stuff I’ve mentioned so far.

Solutions

And then there’s Mr. Trump’s solution to this health crisis. In a word, it’s DENIAL. Of course, that’s one way of dealing with our sinking ship. Just ignore the problem and get back to normal. Or as Trump puts it: “Open the country for business again. Right now! Start driving those cars and buying that junk. Eat up those Big Macs and put some fat on those bones of yours. Fire up those plants and darken the skies with smoke again. Bury those pipelines and frack like fu*k. (I’m sure he puts it that way.) Cut down some more rainforests. Fill up those plastic shopping bags and throw them in the ocean. Get on with the business of poisoning the planet. Above all, produce those bombs, planes, tanks, and missiles. And be sure to use them. There are so many sh*t-hole countries to destroy and so little time.

“And, by the way, be sure to ignore the scientists (again!). Hell, if we left it up to the doctors and their hypochondriacal tendencies, the stores, stadiums, shows and showrooms would be shuttered for two years. And then what?

“So, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, and for the sake of our grandchildren, let the old people and other weaklings die – even if millions expire prematurely. Who cares? With the market in the tank, there’s nothing for them to live for anyway. Better dead than bored and broke.”

That’s the Trump many of us know and loathe. Thankfully however, his denial’s not the only way of dealing with the problem – although (disappointingly) the congressional bail-out package shows that ALL of our politicians (including Sandberg and Warren) pretty much agree with the president!

For the rest of us however, it’s high time to move in another direction – to reassess what we take as “normal,” cut our losses, and get back to the basics that lockdown has forced upon our awareness. In fact, COVID-19 might be the Process of Life, it might be Mother Nature, it might even be God (!) telling us to review and revise our entire way of life – the way environmentalists have been suggesting since Francis of Assisi, Henry David Thoreau, and Jacques Cousteau.  

But our world has gone beyond them too. I mean, given the beneficial developments unforeseen by those proto-ecologists, we might finally be able to transcend their insights and pressure our politicians to move towards the prospects that futurists described for us in the 1960s and ‘70s. Remember their speculations about “the leisure society” that computers and “cybernation” would make inevitable? What will we do, they asked, with all that free time?

Now’s the time to stop and answer their question. Despite our dear leader’s recommendations, it would clearly be insane to return to the suicidal “normal” that seemed inescapable just two weeks ago. We have to make everyone understand that.

New Directions

So, if not in Trump’s and our senators’ direction, where should we go? How about:

  • For sure, nationalizing health care into a single payer system. If nothing else, the present pandemic has revealed the absolute inadequacy and intolerability of the healthcare status quo. Medicare for All needs to be the sine qua non element of effective response.
  • Break up any business that’s “too big to fail.” (Aren’t you tired of bailing out the rich?) Breaking up corporate giants makes sense even according to strict free market principles. Adam Smith himself saw monopolies as counterproductive. If businesses make inadvisable decisions, they should be allowed to crash, burn and be replaced by more efficient firms.
  • Mimic the success of FDR by implementing a Green New Deal (GND) to absolutely restructure our economy in ways that take seriously the crisis of climate chaos. Besides redirecting production away from carbon and towards green technology, the GND would provide enhanced unemployment insurance, forgiveness of college loans, paid maternity leave, free childcare, higher minimum wages. . .
  • Almost as certainly, our country also needs some form of Universal Basic Income (UBI). As we’ll see immediately below, the work furloughs forced upon us by COVID-19 have made it clear that many of our jobs are pretty close to busywork. So many of those jobs can be safely eliminated.

Yes, when you think about it, so much of the work we do is unnecessary. Do we really need advertising, health insurance companies, defense contractors, malls and retail outlets, oil giants, and businesses that destroy our health and environment? Do we really need McDonalds and Burger King?

What we’re learning now is that we can get along without any of them.

And certainly, we don’t have to do all that traveling – the hours upon hours spent in morning and evening rush hour traffic. And then there’s all that time that road warriors waste in airports traveling to meetings that might just as well take place via Skype or Zoom.

The same is true for a lot of our schooling. Do we really need to maintain all those expensive campus plants, when present experience teaches us that remote learning is quite effective, inexpensive and time saving?

And above all, worldwide focus on real national security problems like pandemics and lack of adequate medical care has put in perspective those other completely manufactured problems connected with our endless wars. Is our national security really served by them? Or is that make-work – is it busywork too?

So, how about eliminating those 300 foreign military bases and the millions of soldiers, independent contractors, and related jobs as well? Again, it’s busywork – make-work that’s completely unnecessary and wasteful of taxpayer money.

Additionally, the release of non-violent inmates from Rikers and other prisons brings to light the fact that if we’d legalize drugs and treat addiction as the health problem it is, we wouldn’t need all those penal institutions either.

Conclusion

So, the present pandemic, at least in some respects, might be the proverbial blessing in disguise.

It’s suggesting that we eliminate all the jobs now revealed as unnecessary. Doing so will suddenly make it possible for us to reduce the time we all spend trying to “look busy.”  Suddenly, it becomes possible for us to share the decreasing number of jobs that can’t be done cybernetically. We could share the remaining jobs working just 4 hours each day, or 3 days a week. We could work 6 months each year and have 6 months off. Or we could spend 1 year on the job and take 2 off.

The list of changes suggested by our current crisis is endless. And I’m sure any of us could add to the list of labor-saving discoveries the current lockdown has brought to light.  

In summary, our forced retreat invites us to realize that we’re all in the same boat and (and as someone else said) once our basic needs have been met, the best things in life are free.

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

6 thoughts on “COVID-19: The Great Social Equalizer and Liberator from Unnecessary Work”

  1. A very excellent and timely piece. I wish we were (all) capable of absorbing the lesson this episode is teaching us.
    Someone told me when I was 19 “Once you have enough money to pay your bills, money is overrated.” Throughout my life I have found that to be true. Of course I have farmed most of my life so an excess of money has never been a problem. 😎
    The other nugget of wisdom I got at age 19 was from my father-in-law who worked at the Carnation milk condensery and was a Teamsters Union member: “A man who works for a living can not afford to vote for a Republican.” I forgot that advice in 1980 and ‘84 but learned it again the hard way in 1991, which is how I came to be a student at Berea in 1992 at age 46. 😎
    It’s also quite true that those of us who are relatively financially secure are experiencing this event differently that the poor and the insecure (and now underemployed) working classes. Most of them do not have the luxury of boredom or wondering what to do with the $$ they’re saving by suddenly not being able to be “consumers”.
    Hope you and yours are well.

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    1. Thanks, Larry. All your points are well-taken. We’re all being taught important life lessons here. I think something like a universal basic income might be coming. It would give to so many time to pursue what’s truly important. It would help us see that the best things in life are free.

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  2. On the other hand, I’ve never been busier!
    In addition to working half time as a home health caregiver to seniors & handicapped, I also manage matters for an elderly neighbor with a broken leg & metastasized cancer thinking of entering palliative care. Then there is another friend with eye problems whom I drive to medical & other appts, as well as my own. I also try to maintain ties with family & cousins.
    Rather than worrying about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, the memories of my parents starting their lives as young adults during the Great Depression of the 1930s sustains me.
    They chose to go forward into whatever would be their future, rather than bemoaning the past.

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  3. Great ideas Mike. But I am afraid most of our fellow slaves of the system are only praying for their chains to be reattached, so that they can take up their meaningless jobs, stupid racism, love of militarism, and unsatisfying lives which have been harshly interrupted for a time.

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