The Mediation of Labor in the Time of Corona

The picture is adorable: a harassed-looking mother, her hair disheveled, bends over to scan a laptop screen as her daughter hangs gleefully from her back, like a baby koala. But I like the print-edition title of the April 28th NYT article better, “Frazzled Parents Are Learning a Difficult Lesson: Teaching is Hard.”

The tone is probably slightly off for the national mood. The nation is mourning over 50,000 dead, and millions face dire circumstances, including unemployment, austerity, and hunger. However, it strikes me that, as millions of Americans remain stuck at home, COVID-19 is producing the sort of social experiment we could never otherwise devise. In regards to labor, for those who still have it, Corona is bringing Americans face-to-face with exactly who is doing what, and how discrete tasks, from grocery work, to elder care, to teaching, contribute to people’s real lives.

As the Brookings Institute put it in the article linked above: “COVID-19 has laid bare the enormous gap between the value that frontline workers bring to society and the low wages — and lack of respect — many earn in return.” The issue goes beyond the claim, often repeated by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, that every full-time worker deserves a living wage. It reaches the roots of how we see the world: who we see, and how we assign value, status, and social power.

“I think that $15 an hour should be the minimum, and stay there. We are heroes every day, and we deserve to be paid as such. We haven’t gone from unskilled labor to essential personnel. We always were essential personnel.”

Another way to say this is that the people doing the most important work to maintain society are not necessarily the most visible, or the most valued. This is partially because “society” — that amorphous word that evokes nineteenth-century political thought — is a hard thing to visualize. It seems like it should be roughly interchangeable with other, equivalent abstractions, perhaps “law and order” or “the economy.” I mean neither of those things, however, certainly not in today’s America. By “society,” I mean the vast majority of people and families as they go about their daily lives, eating food, drinking water that is free from toxins, breathing clean air, utilizing roads, highways, and trains, buying clothing and entertainment locally or online (a sense that probably has a lot more in common with the popular eighteenth century term “community” — but that’s a topic for another time).

The people who guarantee the material infrastructure that is absolutely necessary for humans to live and flourish in society are, ironically, the ones least recognized by society. Think of the cashiers at Wallmart or McDonalds, or Amazon’s warehouse workers, still fighting for $15 an hour and paid medical leave; the delivery men and women designated “independent contractors” by mobile apps; nursery school and public school teachers; aides and janitorial staff in elder homes and hospitals; construction workers, farm laborers (largely immigrant), electricians; technicians at power plants and water purification facilities. (For the moment, lets put civil servants — some 20 million of them in federal, state, and local government offices — to the side). It seems obvious that these workers do not receive public recognition commensurate to their contribution to our daily lives, especially if we compare their status in society to the glory granted to Elon Musk for coming out with his latest toy.

The problem of how social value is distributed is an old one. Plato already noted that “only what is rare is valuable; and ‘water,’ which as Pindar says, is the ‘best of all things’ is also the cheapest.” One might argue, to play devil’s advocate for the moment, that something’s value depends not on its inherent usefulness, but on its scarcity, and that low skilled professions can be filled by any number of people. This is wrong, however, for several reasons. First, because much of what we call (for some reason) ‘unskilled’ work takes training and practice to perform efficiently and is also physically demanding — and so, is hardly something ‘most people’ are equipped to do. Or else, it may require a great deal of skill and sometimes years of schooling to be accomplished well, like education or child care. Whose skills get valued, and whose effort is noticed is part of the problem of labor’s (in)visibility.

(One might wonder, if good labor is scarce, why workers have not succeeded in gaining higher wages before now. That, also, is another conversation; but a glance at union membership in these sectors goes a long way towards explaining laborers’ failure to realize their potential market power).

Scarcity or Precarity?

However, the deeper fallacy with the Pindar claim is that the logic of scarcity sacrifices a different measure of value: precarity. The social goods that are sustained by millions of workers, and which most of us take for granted, are only as stable as the labor force that produces them. If we have abundant, nourishing food, we owe it to agricultural production, and to the numerous government offices that ensure we don’t end up with damaging chemicals in our bodies. If we have ready access to that food, we owe it to the long supply chain that stocks the shelves, removes expired products, mans the cashiers, and makes deliveries. If we have running water and electricity, we owe it to electric and water plant technicians, and to the teachers and child care professionals who watch their children so that they can go to work. In other words, while scarcity attributes worth based on a presumed demand for any item one might value— be it a cookie, or a trip to the moon — precarity attributes value based on the definite needs whose upkeep is essential for one’s life and security.

“What do they call us? Hometown heroes or whatever. But they don’t acknowledge us. The only way they’re going to make an impact with us is if they pay us what we deserve.”

Life under COVID has brought the most precarious of our needs out into the open. In Hegel’s terms, we could say it has provided a new lens of mediation: a way of taking the bare fact that millions of people work to provide the infrastructure for us to live our daily lives, and contextualizing it within a larger world view and an actionable framework of visibility. This visibility is apparent both to essential laborers themselves, who chafe under the lack of hazard pay and a lack of protective -equipment, and to the average American who tunes in to TV-commentators and radio hosts calling these workers “heroes.” But the gesture falls flat if, as Wholefoods did, we respond merely by giving workers a t-shirt that says “Hero,” instead of providing hazard pay, protective equipment, or the right to unionize. As Sharon Goen, a delivery woman in Las Vegas, told NPR: “What do they call us? Hometown heroes or whatever. But they don’t acknowledge us. The only way they’re going to make an impact with us is if they pay us what we deserve.”

The Aesthetic Dimension

I’m about to get a little more abstract, but bear with me, because I think there’s something deeper here. There’s something missing in our precarity/scarcity dichotomy. If we look a little closer, we see that neither of these is a reductive source of value. The bottle-cap-and-hot-glue model in my bedroom might be the only one in the world, but that doesn’t make it particularly valuable (except maybe to me). Scarcity can only increase a thing’s value; it is not itself a principle of value. Likewise precarity, or every stack of cards would be worth millions. The difference between these two lenses of mediation is in the sort of value each of these terms can amplify. Scarcity, by definition, doesn’t touch public goods that everyone can free-load on, like clean air. It links value to desire and purchasing power — the familiar market logic —that is, to one’s ability or inability to get something. Precarity, on the other hand, targets need and vulnerability, the susceptibility of an important good to being corrupted or destroyed. Its logic runs: that which is needed and fragile is valuable and so worth preserving. It naturally focuses on long-term, rather than short-term thinking. (The precarity of a marriage, for example, is a reason why someone won’t cheat on their spouse, even if it meets a short-term desire.) In short, while scarcity amplifies the value of power, precarity amplifies the value of need.

Need might seem like a pretty impoverished source for value, especially if we think in aesthetic terms. Kant, for one, thought that aesthetic appreciation should be completely “disinterested” — removed from all material considerations; in Kantian ethics, morality (which we can think of as valuable behavior) and necessity (or meeting natural need) are direct opposites. To value something aesthetically means coming from a place of generosity, satiety, or excess — so the logic seems to go. An alternative logic, however, is suggested by J.C.F. Schiller, Kant’s younger contemporary and the author of the celebrated Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. Schiller writes that aesthetic behavior, or attributing value, is the result of two immanent processes: sensation and form. For our purposes, “form” is equivalent to mediation: it means giving something meaning and investing it with a certain distinct place, vis-a-vis the rest of reality. Form, one might say, is the phenomenal structure of a reality that has been given value. Sensation, on the other hand, is much rawer and more inchoate: it is the bare awareness that something is the case, without any attempt at particular definition or value attribution.

Because of their biological determination and involuntary nature, “sensations” in Schiller are close kin to Kant’s “nature.” But, as Schiller tells us, it is precisely sensations that ground us in reality, “bind[ing] us down to the world of sense,” as he puts it in “Letter 12.” And, as Schiller notes, we cannot really value something unless we can situate it in the real word — otherwise, it becomes abstract and irrelevant. To value something, in other words, is to find a transcendent meaning within the real — something that we attribute to great moral action, to human kindness, or to works of art. Thus, for Schiller, there’s no contradiction in finding value in the precarious goods that we need to carry out our daily lives. On the contrary, transcendence is impossible without due diligence to need.

Lukács and Social Meaning

The social implications of this become clearer if we turn to Georg Lukács, a twentieth- century Marxist thinker. In Marxist thought, the sense of “reality” that characterizes our material needs— the equivalent of Schillerian sensations that bind us to the world of necessity — is active through the social forms that gives us the ability to meet them. We are, that is, in part, made aware of our needs by and in the form of our ability to satisfy them. (If this sounds strange, think of the endless “I never knew I needed this until now” memes).

The awareness of a social world, variably accessible or inaccessible to our wants and needs, is what produces, for Lukács, the overall sense of a life-world (what many modern philosophers would call a Lebenswelt), which Lukács calls a “social totality,” the framework of meaning within which individuals live their lives. The social totality is, for Marx on Lukács’ reading, the direct aesthetic context within which people work, relax, eat, play, talk, have sex, and do all the things that people do. And Lukács, like Schiller and unlike most Marxist thinkers, saw the social totality as primarily an aesthetic phenomenon. That is, he was interested in society as a framework of meaning within which people attributed value and dis-value, meaning and meaninglessness. The absurdity of much of society — the overwhelming sense that it simply is there, without bearing any real value or practical worth, led Lukács to coin the term “reification”: the perception of a social practice as something ossified, and without relevance to “real” human life. Most of the economy, for Lukács, had become reified by modern capitalism — driven by abstract processes that operate within the realm of necessity, but never touch the world of meaning.

I think the agitation for greater work benefits for those who contribute most to society is driven by reification — by the sense of absurdity that the only people absolutely necessary for life to continue not only face unprecedented risks, but are continuing to be treated as second class citizens. We are asked to applaud them, to thank them, as a sort of noblesse oblige. But these workers are not providing a luxury; they provide our basic necessities. And their position will remain absurd, or “reified,” until we stop calling them heroes and start treating them as valuable.

Further Reading

For further reading on the aesthetic and moral points discussed, see Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man, especially Letters 12–14, and Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, Part I, Theorum 3, Comment 2; and Critique of Judgement, Book I, Section 2, “The Liking that Determines a Judgement is Devoid of All Interest.”

For the specifically Marxist and social theoretical elements, see Lukács’ essay, “Class Consciousness” in History and Class Consciousness, and Agnes Heller’s short book, The Theory of Need in Marx, especially Chapter 2, “The General Philosophical Concept of Need and the Alienation of Needs.”

Occasional journalist; constantly curious; formerly @YUCommentator and @theharlembee; MA Phil University College Dublin