Over the course of the past 200 years or so, the Leftist thought has repeatedly tried to define for itself the revolutionary unit: is it the factory worker? Or the peasant? Or the oppressed nations of the South? The Italian radicals caught wind of the changing class dynamics but made the honest mistake of abstracting the unit ever further: Agamben spoke of ‘the unrepresentables’; Negri – of ‘the multitude’. In the last decade, we saw the emergence of ‘the 99 per cent’ successfully combining the two elements such a unit demands: one’s ability to identify with it while finding comfort in the fact that many others do as well. It seems as if the political struggle for social justice cannot go on without a definition of who seems to be the most oppressed and who has to do the fighting. The challenge abounds when the class of the oppressed expands, when such oppression gives rise to diverging experiences of it, exacerbating the ability to translate between different worlds. One no longer fights, but does semantics.
The invisible little monster called COVID-19 has made inroads in our language and forced the presence of a new phrase in the public discourse – key workers. It isn’t entirely new of course, but many more know it now than before. Encompassing doctors, nurses, teachers, and even the police, the phrase encapsulates the notion that there is work without which society simply cannot live. Up until recently, it used to be that one can joyously discuss the merits of each profession purely as pastime and even now anyone could insist on being seen as key to society’s well-being but for most people such efforts would soon appear as pretty ridiculous. It turns out that there are at least two kinds of work: essential and illusory. A good indicator of what yours is depends on the level of comfort you enjoy in the pandemic lockdown. The higher up the material ladder one goes, the less likely it is society would notice the absence of your labour.
This is not meant to diminish the value of entrepreneurial activities and of individuals who show themselves to be exceptional providers of needed goods and services, in the process of which, they may very well become materially secure. Nevertheless, the pandemic has uncovered the institutional blindness determining the flow of wealth across societies. It is precisely the inability to see and accurately appreciate the value of work which purpose is to create people (like parenting and teaching) and to maintain people (like treating illnesses and preventing harm) which arrests the defensive reflexes in the face of an external enemy. Led on by the inertia, we still believe that bankers and politicians will somehow save us. And where are the corporate lawyers, the social media experts, the consultants, the hedge fund managers, HR and all the other executives, whose value has been almost unquestioningly taken for granted, now when we need them? Would we consider any of them ‘key workers’? If not – why do we keep rewarding them?
It seems to me then that the search for the revolutionary unit of our age should proceed by asking the question of what is the kind of work without which we will perish and how do we ensure its institutional prestige? This is a philosophical grounding of the issue, but it leads to real decisions that will have to be made now. The political struggle centres on who is responsible for the provisioning of society – the public or the private sector? The balance of the relationship will have to change decidedly in favour of the public. Firstly, it will require a re-thinking of macro-economics. Any arbitrary constraints on the public’s ability to finance itself will have to be lifted. For Europe, this signals the end or at least a radical reform of the Fiscal Compact and all the other monetary agreements. Whether the financing of the social infrastructure is organised federally or nationally is a sub-question – workers in healthcare, education, civil defence, public transport, public infrastructure maintenance have to become the best paid employees as silly as it may sound to all the corporate consultants reading this. Secondly, full employment must become an explicit policy goal again.
The power of the private sector rests on its ability to discipline the workforce with the threat of unemployment as Michal Kalecki argued long ago. Thus, involuntary unemployment simply has to be eradicated like smallpox. It is the only way of ensuring systemic economic stability, genuine social security and ability to withstand external shocks like the one we are experiencing now. Thirdly, if advancing the public interest is really the goal, the tax officer has to cease harassing the poor and use whatever ships necessary to bring the wealth of the world onshore.
We cannot go on fighting over the semantics, spending nights trying to come up with words in a resolution that ensures the political survival of a morally bankrupt class. The revolution is already taking place.
Andris Šuvajevs is a progressive opinion leader from Latvia and a close cooperation partner of the FES in the Baltic states where he works closely with their Riga office.