On the 26th of March and again on the 2nd of April across the nation, millions in the UK collectively came out of their houses and simultaneously applauded the care workers and staff of the NHS for their continued service treating patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. These staff risked infection for them and their families with even retired doctors and nurses re-registering. It is right that we honour the work of those working in the face of this terrifying disease.
This is particularly so given mounting news about the deaths of nurses and doctors underlining how dangerous this work has become. It is also important to recognise that COVID-19 has hit at a time when the NHS is underfunded and staff are often forced to work extremely long hours. As well as that applause can be extended for those whom the current administration would deem “low-skilled” in its proposed points-based immigration system who are in fact essential in this time of emergency. These can include cleaners, grocery staff and refuse workers, as well as many workers in health and care.
But after this pandemic, we must rethink our relationship with work. These people are essential and yet they are put at risk because they are needed to treat the ill or to run shops or to maintain clean and hygienic environments during lockdowns. But the lockdown in the UK was not instantly enacted even as news kept coming in from China, Iran, Italy and indeed other parts of the UK itself that the virus was spreading and deaths increasing. Schools, universities, restaurants and pubs remained open.
NHS staff are unavoidably at risk because there is no other way to tend to these patients but still do not have personal protective equipment. Also zero-hours workers do not usually have the luxury of working remotely from home considering how low-paid (not “low-skilled”) a lot of these jobs are and, instead, they face the alternative of being automatically laid off.
The initial, disastrous “herd-immunity” strategy was all about keeping business open. The Telegraph thought nothing of running an opinion column about how the pandemic, “from an entirely disinterested economic perspective the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents”. At least the columnist prefixed the statement with it being a possible viewpoint but there is that very lack of regard in the US, where President Trump is still insisting the country can be open for business by Easter, while the number of infections in the US has surpassed China. Going even further Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said that grandparents would be happy to sacrifice themselves to an end to the pandemic for the good of the economy.
It is about time we stop investing in this cult of work which instead of seeing it as a way of supporting ourselves is somehow made into a barometer of moral and even existential worth and unemployment as a negation of that. It is time we rehabilitate ideas about the radical reduction of the working week or maybe entertain the notion of the abolition of work itself. A lot of ideas like nationalisation and stimulus packages that were laughed off for years as unworkable are now appearing in numerous budgets both sides of the Atlantic.
The economist John Maynard Keynes in Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren (1930) believed that automation could lead to higher productivity and hence reduced working hours. Yet despite that we are still expected to work 40 hour work weeks and with zero-hour contracts and email and apps to be more flexible in our hours and possibly well beyond the 40 hour norm.
The French-Cuban Marxist Paul Lafargue in ‘The Right to be Lazy’ (1883) railed against the old civilizational imports of Christianity, liberal political economy, Victorian mores and even trends in socialism that valorised work. This, he believed, was merely support for the deepening and widening capitalist exploitation of the productivity of the proletariat. Lafarge is particularly important to mention because even as we applaud our carers and the low-wage zero-hours contract workers we must be careful not to romanticise this situation as is often done under the common trope of the “Blitz Spirit”. A lot of these frontline workers are terrified of infection as much as we are and are there because the choice is getting sick or poverty. Either situation endangers those who rely on them.
These visions of a world of greatly reduced or even abolished work were delivered with an aim to a future of prosperity and the pursuit of human goods and practices. Even now those who are in self-isolation are being compelled to practices of self betterment with the options to stream free guitar lessons, virtual tours of Museums and Shakespeare plays. Obviously, these are more open to those who have the economic capital for broader bandwidth and thus cultural consumption. But in this emergency it is not for utopian ideals that our age must reshape its labour practices and ideological investment in the ultimate goodness of work. The need to stay home is now a statutory directive with punishments promised if it is disobeyed. Self-isolation is required for survival of older members of the populace or those with underlying health conditions. This is to prevent them coming into contact with a younger and healthier subject only mildly afflicted or entirely asymptomatic. Now is the time to rethink and abolish the cult of work and shaping our identities only around our jobs for the survival of our more vulnerable fellow citizens.
But what about the NHS staff and grocery workers and refuse workers and carers that still need to be operational and active? At this point we must start considering to what degree automation can be embraced as an opportunity. We have been told that in the future robots will do our jobs with drones delivering Amazon packages and possibly stacking shelves and maybe even more complicated functions like self-driving taxis. Even though there is a possibility that some of the capabilities may be over-hyped people have up to this point feared these robots making human labour obsolete and those affected facing destitution.
Instead of hoping like Keynes did that future automation will free us we must struggle to own this automated future to enhance human life rather than render it obsolete through supplanting it in labour markets. We can applaud those who are further putting themselves in harm’s way. But we must also recognise that either for their medical expertise or the support they lend to medical institutions or the fact that their contracts give them no choice, a lot of these workers are still coming into contact with infected people and forming breaches in a national and global containment strategy.
After this pandemic we must consider more and more automation in sectors of the economy but to do this we must completely reshape the nature of the economy from whittling down the Welfare State and unemployment support in some wrongheaded neoliberal technique of holding workers’ feet to the flames and hence be more productive. Automation, lower working weeks and even the Universal Basic Income now have a space to become realistic. We have seen policies such as the Irish State announced a complete nationalisation of all private hospitals during the crisis. As Vladimir Lenin is often quoted, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”.
Now is the time to fundamentally reshape a lot of our cherished notions about work, how reliant we have to be on it and freeing ourselves from the danger it represents in emergencies like this. But our leaders will not do this for us but only the bare minimum. Mass social movements will have to be formed and trade unions should grow and agitate for this as opposed to expecting our leaders to automatically fall in line with us and turning worthy displays into publicity stunts. Not only that but if automation is the answer it must not become another source of exploitation where people are locked out of the economy and faced with punitive welfare measures afterwards. Technological advancement must be seized and directed toward human betterment not seen as an automatically utopian or dystopian process.
Even remotely we must make ourselves aware of the networks and organisations operating near us. COVID-19 is only one major challenge for our age. We still have the socio-economic, political and ecological upheavals of the impending climate devastation coming our way and there is nothing to say another pandemic like this cannot occur again.
Aidan O’Sullivan is Lecturer in Criminology at Birmingham City University.