Revolution by Unemployment
History books create an image of revolution that involves masses in the streets, banners and barricades. They also tend to proclaim the march of history as punctuated by these upheavals, implying that societies only change in sudden surges.
Disappointed radicals may bemoan the absence of revolutions like this, because they’ve been, apparently, replaced by digital petitions and impotent rage tapped into a social media app. This is an idea of revolution that is conflated with political change, and is then coopted by politicians leveraging constituents’ desire for change and a sense of participation in history. Those types of revolutions, however, may be more of a history-book myth than a real mechanism of the way human society develops.
In the first two weeks of the coronavirus shutdown, almost 10 million people in the US filed for unemployment. Maybe this is what a revolution looks like today. The third week, almost 7 million more joined. This is a whole nation’s worth of people, unable to march in the streets, making a declaration of common purpose:
“We should all be paid to stay home and care for one another.”
I’m among those millions, storming the Bastille that is the website of my state’s Department of Labor website.
They forced us into the gig economy and then they don’t let us gig —
Cat Tyc “A World in Vertigo”
However, rather than seeking public relief to just tide us over until things become ‘normal’ once more, what if we never come off unemployment again?
Part of what makes this mass movement revolutionary is that it requires these millions of Americans to abandon the bootstrapping, individualist mentality that systemically discourages us from using our social safety nets. Being unemployed, on welfare, needing public assistance of any kind runs directly against the poisonous economic culture of the USA, the one that invented the myth of the ‘self made man’ and that keeps people striving for personal wealth and accumulation even as their bodies fail and their lives are wrecked by the effort.
Desperation within such a system keeps 4–10% of us pretty consistently declaring ourselves unemployed, in need of help. We’re given a few weeks of prorated income (withdrawn from our previous paychecks) in order to ‘get us on our feet again.’ The ‘stern father’ model of our social system expects us, by then, to swallow whatever pride we may have, and get back to supporting ourselves. This stigma and shame system tends to leave a significant number of people — millions — perennially underemployed, but not reporting themselves as such. Beyond that number, then there are the millions more doing jobs that have nothing to do with their work. More on that in a minute.
Now, in the course of a month, we may see a quarter or more of the population declaring themselves unemployed. Food banks, once a last resort for the desperately poor, have gone mainstream, and are serving populations 10 and 20 times their normal size. This is a popular uprising, an overthrow of shame and stigma around needing help, a declaration of rights — the right to food and an income simply on the basis of our humanity.
At the same time, strangers, with no job to attend to, are delivering their elderly neighbors’ groceries. Caring for one another’s kids. Offering free lessons to the public. It turns out that unemployed people use their time and energy in very kind ways…
Even beyond gaining acceptance for Universal Basic Income, this uprising is a shift in what it is that we fundamentally value in one another. One of the question marks around UBI is that if it was just an influx of money as we all currently understand it, then it might simply prompt inflation and the old economics of hierarchy and class would simply expand and consume the new income in our bank accounts (as opposed to a Universal Basic Assets model). Our concepts of currency need to become far more pliable.
I think I should be paid for it. For being alive.
Imagine if we all got salaried for breathing, I imagine the taxes would be be pretty high.
We can’t even afford to keep each ourselves alive.
-Cat Tyc, ”The World in Vertigo”
What’s revealed in this revolution is how little our jobs really mean. (Not our work — which is all-important — but our jobs. If this distinction is unfamiliar to you, ask an artist about it.) No government can simply put 20, 25, or even 50 million people back into jobs without fundamentally transforming itself as a government and fundamentally transforming the society that forms that government. The question I’m asking is, Do we even need it to?
All of our jobs have evaporated but we’re still alive, for now. We’re still in our homes, we’re still moving food around, ensuring — to the best of our ability — the people are fed, sheltered, clothed, and as much as possible, healthy. When our jobs went *poof*, our society didn’t — not instantly anyway. What we were doing there at the office all this time? Other than spending time apart from our family and friends, postponing other plans and projects, laboring on others’ behalf. If you liked your job, and find purpose in it, that’s just as well: in your case your job and your work coincided. For millions and millions, that wasn’t the case, and it turns out maybe we didn’t have to be doing all those jobs in the first place. Maybe our labor economy was wildly overheated, and millions upon millions of us worked for work’s own sake, without direction, purpose, or care. Now that’s all come to a screeching halt.
The planet is certainly better off for it. Mindless transit to and from job-places, and jammed highways have disappeared. In the midst of this shutdown, people are only moving out of need. Now, purpose motivates our drives, train rides, and plane trips — not routines and habits of busyness that are both destructive to the planet but also so hard to break out of on an individual basis.
We might feel like we’re just waiting for things to go back to ‘normal,’ and then we’ll all find new jobs, owe debts, and sit in traffic. The regimes in power will try and restore that ‘normal’ set of conditions. But there isn’t any normal anymore. We’re never going back, nor should we. Whether from an ecological or an economic standpoint, what coronavirus has made perfectly clear is that the systems we were living by are not sustainable, they are not resilient, and they must be transformed.
Let’s not let daily media obsessing over the performance of ‘the market’ distract us from the reality we live, and accept that the ‘market’ is a rigged casino game that bears no connection to our lives or wellbeing.
After this pandemic, there will be a sustained depression.
During that depression, there will continue to be a series of climate-related catastrophes, because the planet has been destabilized and such emergencies are coming more and more frequently. (Coronavirus itself is a lethal example of nature’s ingenuity in seeking equilibrium out of instability.) Our politics will be divisive and even deadly — as they’ve been already. There will be new crises — we can be assured of this — because we have pushed the planet to the brink of its tolerance for us, and we have pushed ourselves to the brink of dignified existence. Coronavirus is just one of many expressions of the Earth telling us that our economy is not suitable for our survival.
Four weeks ago, with the coronavirus pandemic just roaring ashore, all my income-generating work for the foreseeable future disappeared in a flurry of cancellations and closures. Feelings of insecurity and angst were mixed with something else: a kind of self-flagellation, a vacuum of self-worth that emerges from a cultural stigma against the idle or unemployed. Certainly right-wing economic attitudes that have taken root around the world, and with horrible fervor in the United States, contribute to this. Decades of rhetoric against the poor, underemployed, and others outside conventional norms of work (artists among them) create instant anxiety when the money stops trickling in. Being unable to pay one’s bills is stressful; compounding that with culturally-imposed judgements about carrying debt or failing to ‘fulfill obligations’ deepens the stress to existential levels. Capitalism has leveraged that stress to control us, to keep us in jobs that were separate from our work because according to bootstrap capitalism, first you have to pay your debts before doing anything that might give meaning to your life or bring you a sense of purpose or dignity.
That stress and fear given to us by right-wing economic ideologies might, in some cases, drive people back out to look for work, accepting jobs at any cost of dignity or hardship. We might expend more time and energy ‘pounding pavement’ than we ever would in normal employment.
That is, if we even have the capacity to do the hunting. But in this circumstance, that capacity didn’t exist. Now I was homeschooling my children, waiting on 2 hour grocery lines, and otherwise confined to quarters. Every occupation in which I might have once earned income required people to come together in ways that was forbidden in the name of public health — so the jobs I’ve earned decades of experience to do no longer exist. There is no time for the hunt, after all the caregiving; and organizations that might once have been doing the hiring are themselves dissolving.
Yet at the end of the day, I’m exhausted. Here’s something women in capitalism have known forever: the purposeful work of caregiving is never rewarded monetarily. The coronavirus pandemic, among many perspectives may force us to look at the value of caregiving work in a new way — because it is the only kind of work that needs to be done. Whether that caregiving is from a medical provider or a parent or a neighbor, mutual care is the only thing that binds us. Western economies have simply never compensated the work of care before, even while paying lip service to its sanctity.
Meanwhile, according to the old system, we’re all still racking up debts even as we look out for each other, pro bono. Our rent, our credit cards, our mortgages, all of which we’re using now to pay our way and stay alive, are poised to be shackles of debt put around us for the rest of our lives. Yet we’re doing what’s asked of us — caring, feeding, healing.
Giving care should be a paying job. And one worth well more than $1200. It should provide our full livelihood.
My circumstances are but a sample. As my work was evaporating, I saw the same thing happening to my peers, friends, and fellow precarity workers both within creative practices and beyond them. All around the country people who already don’t make ends meet — due to healthcare debt, housing debt, educational debt, childcare debt — are now doing this caregiving work to the best of their capacities while those debts grow deeper and those illnesses worsen. Life and death are very much in the balance for so many of us. And around us all, a new currency is emerging wherever it can: sharing of resources, sharing of time, sharing of care. Whether you’ve lent someone some money, offered some free education online, delivered groceries, or simply made calls to friends and family that in our other economy you didn’t have time to make, you’re a part of this revolutionary care economy.
The fact is, money itself is simply a social agreement. There’s nothing in my bank account and yet for the time being, I can exchange the promise of my credit card for food. A promise that I’ll figure it out, I’ll balance the ledgers somehow. When that debt is defaulted, it’s bought and sold into another and another. The air doesn’t stop filling my lungs, the walls don’t cave in all around. We all just agree that money is a thing, that there is an abstract currency of value that we can exchange. Whether it’s based on labor or patronage or precious metals or massive spreadsheets (I see you, Bitcoin), it’s just pure social will. It’s a perversion of mutual care. It forgets the source of its power.
Now, we’re stuck in our homes and cities together, with nothing to do but take care of each other, and no money to do it with. I’m not holding my breath for a ditch-digging job from the government to keep me locked into the physical labor-as-currency system, one where debt remains a thing and where inevitably our bodies will fail and our capacity to earn disappears again. I don’t want to be found a cog’s place in some huge employment scheme, that takes me away again from my capacity to bring food and support to my neighbors, and to take part in my children’s education. The Federal response so far is offering us loans to float our businesses, and eviction moratoriums are in place to keep us in our homes for the time being. All these approaches are just debt time-bombs, if they aren’t turned in to outright relief. And relief implies a right to income. A right to housing. A salary for breathing.
I can either hustle during the lockdown to line up a job for whenever jobs are allowable again, and strain myself applying for loans and try and minimize imminent debts. Or I can take over the education of my children, support my loved ones, and contribute to my immediate community. That’s frankly what I’m more interested in being supported in. I want to be credited for the care I give to the individuals around me, for the care I give to my more extended community, and for the care I show as a human (and as an artist), making things of purpose that contribute some value to the life experience of my fellow humans. Not simply because it feels like a better way to be a human being right now, but because I don’t think the old economy even has a chance of ever standing back up.
15 million or more of us are a revolutionary movement. It is not just a paycheck we need - whether that comes from qualified labor or UBI. It’s a new economy of human value, rooted in care, that ensures we can all do our work on one another’s behalf. We require that we are free of fear for the turbulent future. We require protection from cycles of collapse, where perverse abstractions of human value like jobs or currency can evaporate, as it just has this Spring, and leave us all flailing and fearful. We require security that comes not from retirement accounts, but the simple presence of other people.
Another aspect of revolutions, obscured by their telling in history books: they aren’t planned, they aren’t intentional. They are inevitabilities. They are circumstantial.
This one has arrived. We aren’t going back to ‘normal.’ Millions have been forcibly ejected from the economy of labor for hire, and will not be paying into the economy of debt. Millions have come in contact with the discrepancy between the monetary measure of their worth, and their true value as humans. Under the circumstances, we either care for each other using the systems and governments we have in place, or we change those.