The “heroes” who sustain our lives during this crisis, are barely able to sustain theirs. A heterogeneous working class movement of frontline workers can change this.
Authors: Santiago Leyva del Río, Kaveri Medappa
Ironically, the global pandemic which threatens our lives has put a spotlight on the infrastructures that sustain them. The workers who have always been saving lives, caring for the ill, cleaning and sorting waste, producing goods and providing services essential for the uninterrupted running of lives have been made “heroes.” The same capitalist actors who considered these workers easily replaceable and often dismissed their work as “unskilled” are now cynically hailing them as “warriors.”
The classification of certain workers as “essential” has created conditions which allow for disparate groups of workers to think about themselves as part of a collective. The nature of this crisis has made the infrastructural labor that sustains everyday life evident. On the one hand, this conjuncture has revealed, and will exacerbate the shared vulnerabilities of “essential workers.” On the other, it has altered the public perception of this work, paving the way for its social and economic valorization. These new circumstances open up possibilities for the articulation of a heterogeneous working-class movement.
The sudden glorification of essential workers can be considered an epiphanic moment in which the ideology that shapes our world views, notions of ourselves, our aspirations and desires can no longer obscure what is really essential. Neoliberal ideology has loudly denied the vulnerability and the interdependence which sustain our lives, sedating us into an alienating, individualistic sense of normality. However, our slumber has been disturbed and we have been abruptly awakened from our complacent fictions to collectively confront a reality that is more crude than usual, yet more real than what we call normality.
Our two-faced governments encourage us to clap for essential workers from our homes, while insisting that we need to get the same economy which has been ostracizing these very same workers back on its feet: a return to “normality.” In so doing, they turn our former precarious lives into an aspiration. We are witnessing an iteration of what Mark Fisher called capitalist realism — the idea that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. In this interregnum, the only thinkable alternative to what is perceived as a literal confrontation with the end of the world seems to be the longing for a nostalgic return to a crappy past. Will essential workers continue to be clapped for and worshiped as heroes once we go back to the new, old “normal”?