April 1st, 2020

"Stay home" as class struggle

If you live anywhere on planet Earth, you've probably seen and heard the phrase literally countless times by now: "Stay home". It's not worth endangering yourself and other people, we're told: Even if you have no symptoms, you may be contagious. It's not just for you, it's for everyone. Staying home is something everyone can do for everyone, right?

Well, no. In fact, "stay home" is actually a good illustration of what Marxists call class struggle, because it very clearly divides the world into two classes of people: Those who can afford to stay home, and those who can't.

Simply put, staying home is something only the wealthy can afford to do. How many people could afford to spend a few weeks or months without income? Not many, and as the economic effects of this crisis deepen, the number of people who can afford to live without income will steadily dwindle. Let's be honest: How many people really believed, when the shutdowns and lockdowns started, that the closures would only last for two weeks, as so many people promised us they would? We'll be lucky if people are back to work by this summer, and one thing is very certain at this point: We will not return to economic normalcy in the year 2020. The ripple effects of a historic economic recession and the massive losses of business and employment will stretch well into next year. So even if you can afford two weeks without getting paid (and bear in mind that there are many people who can't), it should be readily apparent by now that this crisis is going to go on for much longer than two weeks.

So many people--so, so many people--have suggested working from home as a solution, and this only shows how out of touch people are: How many jobs can actually be done from a person's home? How do you propose that people who work in construction, manufacturing, repair, security, medicine, food preparation, cleaning, transportation, or any other physical industry do their work from home? How do you imagine that a construction worker, a factory worker, a plumber, a police officer, a doctor, a food server, a janitor, a garbage collector, or a bus driver could do any of these jobs from their residence? If you look at anyone--anyone--who is working from home, ask yourself: Are they providing some kind of food, medicine, household good, security, or anything else that people actually need and use, or are they spending their work time producing company documents and marketing graphics?

I've seen so much hypocrisy in the "stay home" advertising that it's shocking to think that people don't realize how ridiculous it all is. Movie and TV stars appear in public-service announcements telling people to stay home because staying home can save lives. Do these people suppose that the whole world is in the same economic class as them? An actor who gets paid to appear in some movie or TV show might be able to afford going without income for a few months, but how many people have that financial luxury? There's a commonly-advertised picture showing two nurses in a hospital saying "We stay in the hospital for you. Please stay at home for us!" So, wait, you're saying that you get to go to work and get paid for it, and for that reason... we shouldn't? What kind of logic is that? Yes, I know that nurses provide an essential service, but so do many other people.

And even among people who don't provide essential services, like retail workers, there's still a very real need to make a living. When the shutdowns started and people were told it would be for two weeks, most retail workers who worked for large chain stores were promised that they would be paid for the time off, and that's all very well and good--to be fair, it is pretty generous of retail chains, many of which make fairly thin profit margins on their sales (retail is often not as profitable as some people seem to think it is), to pay hundreds of thousands of staff for two weeks of not working--but now that the shutdowns are clearly going to stretch for a longer period of time, it is becoming abundantly clear that furloughs are unavoidable. Retail workers will still remain officially employed with their company, but they won't be paid until business reopens and they go back to work. This was inevitable: No business can afford to keep paying people indefinitely when there is no business and thus no revenue. The question now is how long the situation will last. Many retail workers, already at an economic disadvantage because they usually make something close to minimum wage, are desperately seeking temporary employment at one of the few retail places that can stay open, like Wal Mart or local supermarkets. It's well and good that these people still have jobs on paper, but zero income is zero income, regardless of whether you're officially employed or not. Telling these people to "stay home" is telling them to commit suicide.

To be sure, I understand the virological mechanisms behind the spread of the pandemic, and how this spread can be interrupted or at least dramatically reduced by avoiding contact between people, but it seems like many people are just assuming that everyone who's going out is doing so to hang out with friends. There may well be some people who are doing that, and that is social contact which people might be able to do without, but there are a lot of people--indeed, a majority of people--who physically cannot work from home, financially cannot pay for their basic means of living if they go without working for weeks at a time, and are being told that they are endangering others for the simple crime of going to work.

The people who are staying home, and who are telling others to do the same, belong to the privileged class. They might not feel like it right now, but be assured that if you can stay at home, that is a luxury which most people don't have. If you really think that staying at home is so important and that you're in a position to criticize other people for not following this advice, then why don't you pay other people their lost income so that they can stay home? If you're not willing to do this, to take action instead of just spewing empty words, to make use of the extra income which you obviously have since you can afford to not work, then don't complain if other people don't take your advice.