Here’s a well-known fact, or at least it would be well-known if it were given a moment’s thought. Most of the people who work for a living, at least in the so-called developed world, don’t actually produce anything. They don’t grow anything, they don’t mine anything, they don’t make anything, they don’t fix anything, they don’t move anything from one place to another, be it from here to there or from the stockroom to the shelves. Rather what they do is produce chicken-scratches on a computer screen, as I’m doing now.
Producing chicken-scratches on a computer screen can be done pretty much anywhere. So yes, most people, at least in the so-called developed world, can work from home. But it’s the ones who can’t do what they do from home who are keeping us alive. So when we talk about shutting down the economy or starting it up again, we’re talking about shutting down or starting up again what those people do. Everything else is just domestic organization-itis writ large.
Governments around the world are designating some of these workers as ‘essential’. Right now that means they don’t have to stay home. But very soon now – I give it another couple of weeks tops – they won’t be allowed to. That’s going to radically alter the fundamental nature of living in a liberal democracy.
It’s already beginning to happen. As things worsen it’ll accelerate. As it does some people will say that we’re facing a fundamental choice. No we’re not. There’ll be no opportunity for this ‘we’ to get together and deliberate. It’ll just happen, because Marx was right. The material always dictates the political.
But can’t the political also dictate the material? Of course it can. That’s what most of us are doing right now, by staying home, so that matters don’t come to that. Well, most of us, yes. But not those whose work involves producing things other than chicken-scratches on a computer screen.