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© for the artwork: Florencia Vespignani

Living (and Working) in Pandemic Times. Labour, Care Work, and Struggles in, Against, and Beyond the (Capitalist) Pandemic

In PerspectiveThe COVID-19 crisis has put our whole lives on pause. Not because life has stopped or ended but because our world as we knew it seems to be coming to an end. We are at the beginning of a new era. This is a capitalist crisis, not a health crisis. This is the latest crisis in the era of capital; the Capitalocene has put us on the verge of annihilation. This crisis has hit us hard and in multiple ways. The resulting global financial crash is hitting every territory, country, and city in a different way. Changes abound in our way of living and working. Social reproduction as a whole is changing and so are social struggles.

It is in this context that we wonder how this crisis is changing our lives and whether collective political imagination will be able to convert it into an opportunity for radical social change. In this short piece, I will present some ideas around these issues with a global view but with a closer look at what is happening in Argentina. In South America, the capitalist pandemic is just now showing its most ferocious side. In Argentina, a newly-elected government (in office since December 2019) has taken on the task of dealing with the effects of this global crisis as it attempts to cope with an economic and social crisis of its own. In a continent plagued with conservative and neo-fascist governments (such as Bolsonaro in Brazil, Piñera in Chile, or Yáñez in Bolivia), president Alberto Fernández’s (AF) government in Argentina staggers between progressive social policies and increasing social policing.

Labour, Value, and Use-Value in the Pandemic

As the world economy comes to a halt, millions of workers are forced into seeming idleness. The global production and circulation of capital stops, as exploitation of labour cannot go on as planned. The general lockdown, in a kind of domino effect, disrupts mostly feminized activities at first: tourism, shops and restaurants, childcare, schools, and waged domestic labour. At the same time, women in health-related services are permanently on call (together with their male colleagues). The ongoing crisis expresses itself in a reduction in value production, and in falling incomes. It seems as if production is just disappearing. Factories close, suspending or firing their workers, shops are shuttered, and the mass transportation of people and goods has fallen dramatically. In Argentina, as in other countries, this is partly compensated for with direct subsidies for lost wages and subsidized credit to businesses, in an attempt to avoid the complete collapse of basic consumption and the disappearance of incomes. However, together with the reduction in the direct exploitation of labour in general (and thus production of value and surplus value), there is also a huge increase in production and work done within homes and communities. Food production, cooking, care work, and cleaning, amongst other generally neglected (or hidden) tasks have all multiplied. Home-schooling and community organizing have skyrocketed. At the same time, there is a huge reduction in commuting time from home to work and back. Social reproduction has changed in shape and form, but its result is not registered via typical economic statistics; GDP may be plunging, but work and production of use values are not. Much of this—now increased—workload (mostly essential for the reproduction of life) is done by women and feminized bodies; the burden still falls on their shoulders.

Capital Seizing the Moment

The ongoing crisis is turning into an acceleration of the tendency to continuous primitive accumulation by capital. As Rosa Luxemburg explained, capital needs the continual occupation of noncapitalist territories for its own expansion, and this tendency is exacerbated in times of crisis. The increasing difficulties in valorizing value push capital to find new ways to exploit labour within factories as well as in society as a whole. Tendencies already present are pushed forward as a means to restructure a system of appropriation of labour that is spinning out of (their) control. As the crisis deepens, lockdown after lockdown, one virus outbreak after another, transnational corporations attempt to impose working from home as the new normal for the majority of administrative staff. In Argentina, many big corporations have closed their offices for the year (regardless of the government’s future decisions on the lockdown). Teachers and professors alike have also gone into online education par force, with no training and no adequate means of labour. On the other side of the equation, children are compelled into online learning and families into homeschooling; this is generally done without the necessary means for the task (e.g. internet access, home computer, adequate space, and—of course—time that parents can afford to divert from other essential activities).

Digital technologies import a new form of value production and control. Corporations such as Google, Apple, and the like, take advantage of the situation to further their reign over the internet and thus increase their ability to appropriate value produced elsewhere. Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies are becoming a new source of remote control of consumption and labour processes: robots (physical and digital) are replacing humans at key tasks while personal information flows uncontrolled to private databanks to customize future consumption. Remote work increases the political fracture of the working classes, opening a void where traditional union organizing should be. Non-human interfacing and growing online socializing will require new forms of collective action, especially at the centre of capitalist production and reproduction. Capital attempts to displace its inner antagonist (i.e. people) from the middle. Of course, it cannot. Capital needs our abstract labour for its expanded reproduction.

Sovereign states take advantage of these dynamics and push forward with new institutions and legislation that further these processes. New forms of flexibilization of labour practices are passed into law, as are new regulations of administrative procedures that bypass some (if not most) human-to-human interaction. In Argentina, for example, universities are beginning to plan for a future with fewer—or even no—professors! Face-to-face courses might not come back this year. A new form of the state seems to be in the making. This is the beginning of a future struggle for a new austerity, as many sections within state offices appear to be useless. Even when states come in as helpers, their role is contradictory. In many countries, massive expenditures are being made to compensate for the destruction of value and income. In Argentina, a new Emergency Family Income (IFE) reaches a quarter of the population; together with other cash-transfer programmes, almost 90 percent of the population is on state benefits. The IFE is being presented as the basis for a possible Universal Basic Income (UBI). However, it is only a basic support falling far below the official poverty line, and exacerbates the commodification of life while free public services (even health and education which are most important at this time) remain grossly underfunded. In fact, while some countries are spending over five percent of GDP in emergency expenditures, Argentina’s national government has provided just three percent of extra GDP outlays while it is still paying off more than that for its disputed foreign debt (in the midst of renegotiations).

Resistance to these tendencies is growing all over. This comes in several forms such as, for example, resistance to 24/7 working hours, and demands for new regulations to limit the intensity and extension of online work; research shows that about one third of all work could be done from home in Argentina. Collective bargaining is at the centre of this debate, as corporations attempt to force the forfeiture of many labour rights (such as payment for overtime, for example), taking advantage of a lack of appropriate legislation. Besides, talk of a proposed ‘right to disconnect’ becomes more pressing than ever. However, political participation is being restricted by the quarantine: as street protests are forbidden for the most part, social organizations and movements are missing. The proliferation of online delivery of commodities seems to be here to stay, as well as the precariousness that characterizes this line of work. Many bicycle delivery workers have been killed in traffic during the crisis, while corporations such as Uber or Glovo remain untouched by governmental controls. At the same time when economies go into lockdown, capitalist enterprises pressure factory workers to keep producing. Workers want to keep healthy and stay at home, but they need to work for money in an increasingly monetized society.

People Struggling Against Labour (Capitalist Work)

However, the main struggles during this crisis appear in the terrain of social reproduction. Families and communities have become the centre of disputes. Forced homeschooling with online tutoring puts greater strain on parents who need to reinforce the work of teachers from afar. Parents have to become full-time teachers, and in most cases keep on working online at the same time. Simultaneously, many are ‘essential workers’ (health workers, food producers, and transport workers) that in Argentina are allowed to work outside their homes with restrictions, or precarious workers with no alternative but to work. In precarious settlements around most large and medium-sized cities, community organizing has become essential, more so than ever. With women at the centre, social reproduction in those territories falls upon their bodies, already under existential stress. With little income and next to nothing in terms of state support, community centres provide children, the elderly, and almost everyone else with one or two meals a day; this is financed mainly by individual and collective donations and lots of volunteer work. This is all done while attempting to keep safe with little water, no sewage or proper trash collection services, and little to no access to safety equipment or elements to maintain the cleanliness of common spaces. In Argentina, it is several months into the quarantine, and the state is still unable to provide communities with the indispensable: no surprise, then, that there has been increasing contagion in the population living in several of these settlements in recent days.

Besides, these places of community organizing are the centre of social change and collective rebellion. That is why political and military structures are always keen to ‘stay close’, more so in times of what increasingly seems to be a permanent state of exception. In Argentina, even with a seemingly progressive government by comparison, there are reports of increasing violations of human rights as repressive forces of the state become ever more present (see Julieta Mira’s work in this dossier). In a recent outbreak in a precarious settlement in Greater Buenos Aires in Argentina, security forces cordoned off the population, forbidding their movement in and out of the neighbourhood. This put immense pressure on the living conditions of these people, who are already cramped in their small houses, with no in-house drinking water, and who have no alternative but to work in precarious conditions for sustenance.

Commons Beyond Capitalist Common Sense

All over, resistance from below is mounting. In Argentina, for example, social organizations are demanding more resources from the state and are mobilizing on the streets—even in quarantine. The crisis has put social reproduction centre stage. All (hidden) care and reproductive work comes to the fore as being key, even if social statistics do not recognize it. From applauding healthcare workers to celebrating the work of publicly-funded research on COVID-19, debate on the necessary radical reforms is growing. There are proposals for new forms of production and distribution of food, including new collective farming in cities. Some social organizations in Argentina are themselves helping producers by giving them social microloans, or are working on new cooperative projects to distribute the produce from small cooperative farms. Firms that previously ‘recovered’ thanks to their workers are demanding financial aid from the state, aid that is already being given to big capitalist firms.

While capital is attempting to forge a new form of social exploitation, in many communities and movements in Argentina, the debate moves in two parallel lines. On the one hand, some movements are more inclined to push for ‘more state’ intervention. Sectors within the current national government and allied forces in social movements are pressing in this direction. A ‘New Deal’ is on their minds with massive income transfers, further state intervention and regulation, and (some) higher taxation on the rich. Not much else is on their radar, as they frame discussions within the Latin-American developmentalist tradition that puts the state at the centre of everything. Care and reproductive work appear mainly as a state-provided system of care. The state appears to be the universal solution (some talk of a ‘maternal state’), while organized communities appear in these debates as mere nuisances. On the contrary, many movements are struggling to force a radical transformation at this juncture. Building from their collective experiences in organizing day-to-day reproduction and care in their communities, there is much talk about the need to strengthen anti-capitalist commoning. These proposals put the reproduction of life at the centre of the debate, not the (capitalist) state. As we have shown, there are many pertinent examples in the Argentine situation: several social organizations are working in popular neighbourhoods to provide food and health check-ups while the state comes in late and mostly in the form of control and repression.

Time for Change

The current crisis is an opportunity to overturn a rotten system. In Argentina, popular organizations are struggling to sustain social reproduction in a context where capitalism attempts to take it all. Mainly led by women, social commoning as a radical praxis has become the main support for communities and provides the prefigurative practices needed to overcome the advancement of a new authoritarian politics of capital. Those transformational practices are multiplying globally through the new circulation of struggles from below, as the COVID-19 crisis has brought to the fore the need for radical imagination to avoid the disarticulation of social reproduction as we know it. There are many examples being built around the world. In most cases, women lead these movements not due to an essentialist ability for care but because they have historically occupied those positions within the reproduction of this societal form. Commoning is not an abstract process (as value production is, through capitalist abstraction) but it works through actual solidarity and transformational praxis. Zapatista women and female Kurdish fighters are current examples of such attempts at a radical transformation of societal rules. They both provide beacons of new forms of social organization where life is at the centre. These are the struggles, voices, and experiences coming from the frontiers of capitalist rule. They are on the front lines of the future of these struggles and are building blocks for a possible future with justice and freedom for all. History has not been written yet; hopefully our political imagination will be up to the task.

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