If the sociologist, Max Weber, is to be believed, the success of the Western world is due to the Puritan need to justify their presence among the Elect by working hard without enjoying the resulting wealth or giving it to the needy. Following, presumably, the parable of the talents, these Protestant workers invested their money to make more money and thereby created the capitalist economy.
And thus one of the driving conceptions of American culture received a name, the Protestant work ethic. This tissue of ideology includes the notions of the dignity of work and the belief that one can defy figurative gravity through manipulating one’s footwear. These carry with them the temptation to blame anyone who does not succeed, to mark such people down as moral in addition to economic failures.
This way of seeing the world is all very well for those who find themselves in the higher tiers of society. It might be argued that labor lost any dignity when money was invented, and Karl Marx’s term, the alienation of labor, expresses the nature and effects of selling one’s work to others for pay, an estrangement from any sense of accomplishment or purpose. For millions of Americans, once again we are having drawn the contrast between the capitalist ethic and the reality of labor as COVID-19 is shutting down more and more of the country — with a potential for a thirty percent unemployment rate in the second quarter, a rate which would be the highest since America began keeping records with the 1929 stock crash.
As with the Great Recession of 2008, once again, the government is contemplating bailouts of corporations. Former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, Robert Reich, has taken to Twitter to explain the flaws in this policy. Corporations have a pattern of using tax dollars given to them to buy back stocks, of shifting funds around to maintain extravagant executive salaries despite weak attempts to regulate such things, and of taking advantage of a crisis to break up union power. The working class remain the pawns in this political game, despite being the foundation on which the economy is built, though receiving a small share of the wealth that they make possible to create through their labor and consumption.
While Obama’s centrist policies stabilized the situation for corporations, the more productive strategy is found in the New Deal programs that Franklin Roosevelt threw at the last great economic decline. The lasting effect of this, continued in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, was a shift in thinking toward the acceptance that we owe each other some guarantee against grinding poverty, some step upward out of it. If we are willing to learn this particular lesson of history, we can make the COVID-19 pandemic the impetus of a better economic system.
My support for Medicare for All shows up frequently in these articles, and I am not alone in believing that guaranteeing healthcare to all is a duty of our wealthy society. But as COVID-19 has become the center of the country’s attention, Americans are waking up to the good sense of a universal care system. Forty-one percent are now saying that the pandemic makes them more likely to support this key plank of the political platform that they have so far neglected to support in the primaries. Support is predictably soft among Republicans, even a quarter of poll respondents on the right said they have had their stance shifted. The other obvious solution is paid sick leave, something that we are almost unique in denying to all workers. With close to eighty percent of Americans saying that they live from paycheck to paycheck, it is unrealistic to tell the country to save against potential disaster. Stagnant spending power since the 80s has erased the sting of calls for responsibility, and, to modify a line from Hamlet, poverty hath made cowards of us all when it comes to entrepreneurship, given the high risks of stepping out on one’s own with such weak social services.
These two solutions have the attention of the public, given the crisis, but if we are to move beyond the risk of disaster that an event like this poses, we need to accept structural changes that will rebalance wealth in America, through conventional proposals like a wealth tax and through efforts to give workers greater agency with worker cooperatives and society more social capital in benefit corporations. What the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated to us is that the malignant isolation of right-wing thinking cannot survive the reality of an interconnected planet. Modern medicine is beyond the reach of individual effort, and corporations take advantage of any regulatory vacuums to deny autonomy to their workers. It is to be hoped that the sense of danger, coupled with enforced social distancing, will deliver the message to American voters that we do in fact have obligations to each other, obligations that we can fulfill through collective action.