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COVID-19 and the Working Class in the United States

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COVID-19 and the Working Class in the United States

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By Lambert Strether of Corrente

In my last post, I considered how globalization set the stage for the #COVID pandemic in the United States, and how globalizers contributed to its spread among themselves and among the working class. In this post — which will turn out to be shorter than I planned, because I had a brainwave I want to get to — I’ll consider the working class alone. Let’s start by looking at one person, Ceci Dominguez, described by Bloomberg in “Coronavirus Shock Is Destroying Americans’ Retirement Dreams“:

Ceci Dominguez celebrated her 67th birthday alone in her home in the Elysian Valley neighborhood of Los Angeles. The threat of coronavirus kept her from friends and family—and from the part-time jobs and informal gigs that keep her frugal budget balanced.

As her few investments were plunging in value, she’d thought about driving down to the Census Bureau, where a job was waiting if she just got her picture taken and picked up an employee ID. The Census Bureau would pay $25 an hour, almost $11 more than the rate she earned working 19 hours a week at a private school that abruptly closed the week before. But the virus news was insisting she stay in.

“I’m always looking for a job. Always,” she says. “This time, I think I’m going to pass.” Once a middle manager at a food company, Dominguez used to consider herself upper middle class. Then her employer was bought. She lost her job and, at 59, discovered no one would hire her for comparable work. She never thought that in her late 60s she’d be contemplating risking her health for the chance at a part-time job. “I’m right there at the edge,” Dominguez says. “The next couple months are going to be tough.”

The article’s theme is the madness of the 401(k), which makes a “comfortable retirement” a matter of market timing. But Ceci’s case illustrates another theme: Ceci, when you strip away her good luck of a management job, strip away her few investments, and strip away her privilege of worrying her health, is somebody The Bearded One would recognize instantly: She sells her labor power to survive (“I’m always looking for a job. Always”). Ceci is, therefore, a member of the working class, like the great majority of all Americans. “The next couple months are going to be tough” is not her plight alone. There are tens and tens of millinos of Cecis, of all genders, races, ages, nationalities, religions, musical tastes, and so forth — some luckier than others, but all united in reality, if not “identiyfing as,” by that single fact of life.

It’s worth taking a moment to realize that one thing that the Bailout bill — entitled, with rich irony, the CARES Act — did not do, in any way, was relax the pressure to the Ceci’s of this world to “always look for a job. Always.” The much-ballyhooed $1200 payment is at least two months out, because our failed state can’t cut checks or issue cash cards. Further, it’s delivered through the IRS to a bank account, which leaves out 55 million Americans who are un- or underbanked. (Elizabeth Warren used to be big on that. Oh well.) Unemployment benefits are the primary mechanism for delivering relief, which leaves out many gig workers and the entire informal economy. There is no thought of a monthly payments, even temporarily. There is no help for renters (although there’s a metric fuck-ton of money for rentiers). In short, the CARES Act offers no relief to members of the working class because they are members of the working class. One account remarks:

True, but incomplete. I would say that the CARES Act contains a shamefully small smidgeon of mitigation for the condition of being waged in the United States (amelioration in the form of “decent govt benefits” being part, but only a part). Everybody is being nice to Sanders now because improving unemployment benefits reinforces the wage relation, not because they care about relieving human suffering.

What I was planning to do in this post was divide the working class, for expositional purposes, into two buckets: The waged, and the culled. The Bearded One would have called the latter “the reserve army of the unemployed,” considering them an object lesson of the Hell to those who cannot or will not sell their labor will fall into, but I think modern capitalism has worked out ways to extract profit from their bodies as well (as for example in nursing homes, or in jail) even if they have not entered into a proper wage relation. I would have considered, for the waged, the privileges of remote labor, the difficulty of social distancing in cramped houses and workplaces, the plight of informal workers, and the general predicament of no way to sell one’s labor, bills to pay, rent due on the first of the month, and relief a long, long way off. (Adding to the grim amusement many must feel is the House and the Senate shutting down. Easy for them!) For the culled, I would have considered the effects of the virus on nursing home patients , the homeless, those in jail or prison, and detained migrants. But then I got a bright idea.

The great conondrum of the 2020 campaign is the failure of the Sanders Theory of Change. Fools like Chait chirp that “Democrat voters didn’t want Sanders,” but the point of the Sanders campaign was always to change who Democrat voters were, by bringing working class voters into the fold (“the multiracial, multigenerational working class, as the formula had it, in my view a concession to idpol goons, but you go to war with the staffers you have). I speculated on the reasons for that failure here (and here), but we may in fact never know, until the books come out, and the best we’ll get this year is some Times bigfoot going out and sitting in a diner somewhere. Maybe the working class hates Democrats for their betrayals, so the brand is irretrievably poisoned for them; heaven knows they have reason enough. Regardless, to complete a hostile takeover of the Democrat Party, the Sanders campaign would have had to engage successfully with the working class, and they did not. Worse, they got owned by the Democrat Establishment on Obama’s Night of the Long Knives. Where the Sanders movement is headed at this point, I don’t think anyone knows. (It’s worth remembering that the List, the media operation, and the canvassing operation (including the Bern App) are still powerful assets.) And, to be fair, Joe Biden might slip a cog at any time, and people might start looking at Cuomo’s record.

All that said, I listen a lot to Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast, and even though Duncan is hardly a devotee of The Bearded One, he really does have a genius for conveying the broad sweep of historical events, and deftly sketching in the players; I recommend it. (It starts with the English Revolution in 1625 (!); a key take-away from the series is that revolutions are not rare events (which isn’t advocacy, since results can be tragic)).

In Duncan’s podcast, we are now in Russian Revolution of 1905: 10:37, the General Strike. There’s one big lesson to be learned from the episode: The workers were way ahead of the “organizers” (Marxist and otherwise); “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader,” as Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin said in 1848. The background for the general unrest and the strike, besides horrid material conditions, was an enormous March on the Czar’s Winter Place under the theory — which the workers and the peasants believed — that “the Czar is good, and he will help us.” Then a large number of the marchers got shot, which put paid to that theory.

What if we were not in 1856 (dissolution of the Whigs) but 1905 (mass strikes in Russia). We’ve just had two enormous collapses, followed by two enormous bailouts, in less than a decade. In each case, the working class got nothing. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me, eh? Yes, I know that “We must have a general strike!” is on a par with “We must take the streets!” in the left virtue signaling sweepstakes, but — hear me out — maybe there’s a way forward with scaled down expectations. Suppose instead of a general strike, which takes an enormous amount of planning, workers throughout the United States[1] simultaneously with-held their labor for one-half hour at a set time — say, 4:20PM on April 20 — and then started working again? Truckers, longshoremen, taxi drivers, delivery people, machinists, grocery workers, Walmart stackers, everyone (but especially those at key points in the supply chain, whose fragility is now open and obvious). The analogy would be the CIO sit-down strikes of the 30s. There would need to be a demand: To meet the current crisis, $2000 a month basic income would seem a minimum. That’s something that easily become, well, viral. And 420/420/2000 is a pretty good slogan, easily spray-paintable, and so forth. The object would be for the working class to send its own shock and to know its own power; something that the Sanders campaign, for all its brilliance as a campaign, did not do.

Well, that was my brainwave. Of course, I know that by virtue of my class position, I too am a Ledru-Rollin. So what I hope is that this post is a spark in the right kind of kindling, somewhere. De l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace…

NOTES

[1] If that’s too ambitious, do a city. I’d say New York, but you know, Brooklyn.

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