Coronavirus, Capitalism, and Why That’s the Wrong Question
In America, we determine the value of our lives by the value we provide to to others. Determining that value is usually pretty easy: we work, we get paid, we get to eat, live under a roof, and maybe accumulate some toys and do some things we like. If we don’t work for others, if we don’t create value for some paying customer, we probably don’t eat. We all have to earn a living.
Now somewhere between Eden and history, pay had no part in that process. We didn’t have to work for others; we lived by the sweat of our own brow, by the accuracy of our own flints and the fruits of our own pickings. But even before Daybreak, our ancestor-ancestors evidently tired of fighting for raccoon scraps and decided to cooperate and divide labor. We find tasks we each can do better or with less heartburn than others can. I do my work for you, you do your work for me, and we call it even. If you don’t have an immediate personal need for my specific work—I may hire a plumber to fix my pipes, but my plumber doesn’t have a pressing need right now for me to write him a philosophical essay—we translate work into currency, which you can convert into the goods and services you need elsewhere. that currency becomes the simple, shared measure of the value of the work you can do for others.
We exempt many people from this transactional valuation, though not perfectly. We let children escape work, but not for long: we gradually introduce them to our expectation that they, too, will work for others someday, and we train them to fulfill that expectation. We let old folks withdraw from the workforce, but only if the “earn” their retirement with work in their prime. To some extent, we tolerate the idleness of the young and the old because, in many fields, they cannot add much value. They lack the strength, skill, experience, or endurance that productivity requires.
So we work, and we pay people to work for us. In normal times, this constant exchange of labor and goods and wampum beads works tolerably well. We tolerate certain injustices in this system because we slide into thinking that this system provides not just practical sustenance but justice. We deserve to eat because we work, or because we will work when we grow up, or because we did work for decades before we retired.
So what happens to that justice, what do we deserve, when we cannot work?
Never mind the normal broad exceptions, the young and the old and even the sick and disabled. What about us healthy, working adults, who now, in this strange sudden world of coronavirus, to stay healthy, must not work? How do we earn a living?
In response to this sudden shift in our capitalist, transactional valuation of human life, Smithfield Foods chose a capitalist response. It tried to outbid coronavirus and its workers’ risk assessment, offering them more money to continue working in hazardous conditions. Smithfield Foods labeled those incentive payments “Reponsibility Bonuses,” underscoring the value proposition underlying our whole economic system, the idea that work signals virtue and that sustenance—existence!—is the earned reward of virtuous labor.
That capitalist response, that doubling-down on the idea that individual dignity depends on continual labor, created the fourth-worst concentration of coronavirus cases in the nation.
We could try to preserve the instrumental, transactional view of individual worth by saying that the greatest value we contribute to each other and to the community at large right now is by stopping our usual work and staying away from each other. We are saving two million lives and a functional health care system by shutting down the consumer economy and staying home. No work right now is more important for America than that. So if we must earn our dignity and self-worth and sustenance by fulfilling the needs of others, there’s our work of the moment. We can argue our coronavirus relief checks are simply payment for a job well done, the very different but vital work of not working at the office, of not coming in to slaughter hogs and chickens, of shuttering the café.
But who writes those stay-home checks? Smithfield Foods makes its money chopping and grinding hogs into wieners. People staying home don’t make wieners or make money for Smithfield Foods. Why should Smithfield Foods pay workers for skipping the work at the plant that directly adds value to Smithfield and instead staying home to create value that accrues directly to the community at large, to Smithfield and its competitors and all other businesses and entities in the marketplace alike? The Grand Falls Casino in Larchwood is acting with great decency toward its workers, paying them six weeks’ salary while the casino is closed, but is the casino obliged to keep pouring its money into the general welfare and not its own?
Obviously, to reach every American, coronavirus relief checks have to come from the American government, not from individual companies but from all Americans polling their resources and working together. But if we think of those relief checks as payment for the “work” of not working, of staying home to prevent spread of contagion, do we deny those relief checks to knuckleheads like Oacoma’s Coronavirus Charlie who test positive and heedlessly walk around town putting neighbors at risk?
No. Even prisoners get three squares a day.
To the extent that any of us “deserve” our daily bread (and Hamlet reminds us that all we deserve is whipping), that desert comes from something other than how many wieners or frisbees or sales we can make. As children, old folks, prisoners, and now everyone furloughed by pandemic response demonstrate, our right to eat, our right to exist, is not earned. Our right to exist is inherent in our existence. (Sum, ergo dignum sum?) Our dignity comes from being, not working. Even when we cannot work, we retain the right to exist.
We can each provide according to our ability, but we should each receive according to our needs. Decoupling labor and sustenance—that’s not just Marx; that’s pilgrims settling the New World and following the example of the first Christians:
The whole congregation of believers was united as one—one heart, one mind! They didn’t even claim ownership of their own possessions. No one said, “That’s mine; you can’t have it.” They shared everything. The apostles gave powerful witness to the resurrection of the Master Jesus, and grace was on all of them.
And so it turned out that not a person among them was needy. Those who owned fields or houses sold them and brought the price of the sale to the apostles and made an offering of it. The apostles then distributed it according to each person’s need [Acts 4:32-35, as translated by Eugene H. Peterson, The Message, 1993/2018].
We do not “earn a living.” Even when we cannot earn, when doctors tell us we must not go out to earn, we still get to live. The transactional capitalist economy does not affirm that basic, inherent human dignity. A communitarian, socialist economy does.