One on level, the coronavirus pandemic holds out the potential to shift America’s dominant cultural mentality to finally re-think—indeed come to terms with—how our political, economic, and moral systems value the work on which our lives most depend.
Presumably, the pandemic conditions are making clear to us Americans what kinds of work are most essential, and hence putatively most valuable, to our lives.
These days, the real estate developer, car dealer, Hollywood film producer, plastic surgeon, and professional athlete, to name just a few typically highly-remunerated professions, may not seem as essential as agricultural workers laboring in the fields to grow and pick our food supply, as grocery store workers, hospital staff, those working in food-processing plants, and so forth—those we have come to call these days “frontline workers.”
In the nomenclature of the pandemic, these essential workers, for the most part very far from the highest-paid in our labor force, have been identified as “heroes.” But “heroes” are supposed to be valued, right? I wonder how they feel.
Karleigh Frisbie Brogan gives us some insight, writing recently in The Atlantic, “I work in a grocery store. All this grandiose praise rings insincere.”
In fact, she finds it “pernicious,” seeing this “hero talk” as simply a “label perpetuated by those who wish to gain something—money, goods, a clean conscience—from my jeopardization.”
Sure, she acknowledges some satisfaction from this momentary recognition, writing, “Working in a grocery store has earned me and my co-workers a temporary status. After years of being overlooked, we suddenly feel a sense of responsibility, solidarity, and pride.”
But their feelings about themselves aside, she views this larger social recognition as not just fleeting but as serving the more dangerous psychological purpose of absolving consumers of guilt and enabling the same system of exploitation to continue:
Cashiers and shelf-stockers and delivery-truck drivers aren’t heroes. They’re victims. To call them heroes is to justify their exploitation. By praising the blue-collar worker’s public service, the progressive consumer is assuaged of her cognitive dissonance. When the world isn’t falling apart, we know the view of us is usually as faceless, throwaway citizens. The wealthy CEO telling his thousands of employees that they are vital, brave, and noble is a manipulative strategy to keep them churning out profits.
Put simply, Brogan highlights a lack of alignment between our cultural expressions of value and our economic materialization of those cultural values. There is lack of translation.
Brogan’s insights from the front line suggest that when we collectively come out on the other side of this pandemic, as a culture we will have learned and changed nothing at all.
Do we see any signs of hope that the pandemic may shift our cultural mentality and spur a greater alignment or translation between our cultural expressions of value and their realization in economic terms?
Well, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer arguably took a small but hardly insignificant step recently in proposing a series of initiatives she calls “Futures for Frontliners” which, among other benefits, would provide tuition-free higher education for those we have come to see as “essential workers” in this moment, offering some kind of longer-term and not just temporary acknowledgment—and remuneration—of the real social value these workers’ provide and create. In Whitmer’s proposal these workers include hospital and nursing home staff, grocery store employees, child care workers, those manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE), and more.
As Wesley Whistle, writing for Forbes explains, Whitmer identified this initiative as “the first program of its kind. But it comes as some are calling for related ideas to help those on the frontlines. For example, some are calling student loan forgiveness for doctors. Governor Whitmer said she hoped other states will consider initiatives like it to help those frontline employees during this time.”
What needs to be stressed, however, is that Whitmer’s proposal isn’t just designed to help these employees “during this time.” The recognition isn’t temporary; it’s longer term.
Ideally, Whitmer’s proposal will foster larger and longer-term thinking, but even as it stands, at the state level in Michigan, what she proposes could have the local impact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s GI Bill had after World War II. The bill did significantly alter America’s economic landscape, giving veterans the ability to attend college tuition-free while receiving a living stipend, to receive unemployment benefits, and to secure federally-guaranteed loans to buy a home or a farm or open a business.
Roosevelt’s policy created an economy and an experience for veterans far different from that which World War I veterans suffered. In 1924, Congress did pass a Bonus Act for veterans, but this act would provide any payout to veterans for twenty years. During the Depression, veterans marched on Washington demanding this bonus pay, only to have President Hoover call on the U.S. Army to turn them away, pitting solider against veteran in an ugly scene.
Just as Roosevelt wanted to treat veterans better and open opportunities for them, transforming the economy and its values, so does Whitmer’s “Futures for Frontliners.”
Admittedly, while such a policy honors the value of the worker, it may not do much to transform how we value the work itself, and it is still very necessary that we challenge what Harry Braverman, in his 1974 book Labor and Monopoly Capital termed “the degradation of labor.” By this term, Braverman is referring to two phenomena.
First, the term describes the way an intensified division of labor has eroded craft and artisanal expertise by taking work and breaking it into smaller and smaller tasks, thus de-skilling the worker. Where before, for example, one chef might have produced a delicious hamburger, at McDonald’s the production of the hamburger is broken down into a series of simplified and repetitive operations performed by an assembly line of people. The effects of this division of labor from the business perspective are that the worker can be easily replaced as supposedly the skill required is easily learned and that the work “merits” a lower wage.
Second, the term refers to the way this process then supposedly enables us to de-value the necessary work people do; we come to refer to such types of work as “unskilled,” justifying the low wage at which the work is remunerated and, hence, in social terms, valued and appreciated.
When our nation puts its money where its mouth is, we will transform how we value the work itself. For now, Whitmer is moving us in that direction.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.