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n the summer of 2020, Uber in New York City announced that it would be partnering with Clorox to provide wipes to its riders and drivers to clean high-touch surfaces after each ride. These included the steering wheel, door handles, window button, trunk handle, food delivery bags etc. This policy suddenly made the production of a service look like the production of goods, where the process of production was exposed as if one were at a factory shop floor. An Uber ride is typically a fleeting interaction, whereas this new policy reveals the production of a service behind the scenes. One of the drivers reported that it took her three minutes per ride to clean the car and the delay added up and affected how much she earned. Uber sent her masks and Clorox wipes, but she had to buy hand sanitizer and Lysol herself. Some drivers installed a plastic screen to divide the front and back seats as the front seat became out of bounds.
The pandemic has forced capital and the state to reexamine many activities and work processes in terms of their potential to bring together people, their capacity to activate processes that would involve touch and proximity, and in terms of alternative modes of imagining work and consumption. In this essay, I ask: What is the specific moment- a conjuncture in the historical development in the capitalist production process- that the pandemic represents and what are the changes the pandemic has brought into labor and work? There is no single answer to this question; my project here is to think through certain tendencies that we have seen in the past few months.
Two modes of labor during the pandemic
As the pandemic forces us to examine what proximity and touch mean in the context of capitalism, we see that proximity involves sharing air, sharing food and water and their sources, and touching other people and touching things that they have touched. Manufacturing, transport, hotels and restaurants, hospitals, paid care work, massages, teaching, sales, journalism, political and social activism and most forms of working class labor involves physical contact with other people. On the other end of the spectrum, technological innovations, especially Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), have made some of the need for proximity and touch obsolete. Many professionals had started managing and working remotely even before the pandemic, but only sporadically or seasonally. The symbiotic relationship between work and leisure that existed for some professionals had already wedged a divide among the working classes. The more off-site, managerial, technological, and highly paid your labor is, the more you were likely to experience this lack of boundary between leisure and labor.
For example, many tech professionals have been travelling and coordinating work in multiple places and vacationing while working. Some others have been taking sabbaticals. A majority of workers, however, have had no such privilege of combining leisure and work. They are required to work on site and to observe strict time discipline. We can see that this wedge between the working classes, in terms of control over their time and relative freedom to choose when to be present at the workplace, was accentuated during the pandemic but with some tweaks and shifts.
The pandemic has changed the meaning of both touch and tech. It has drawn a line across occupations, work processes, and industries. It is a specific moment where production is separated not into the production of services and goods, but ones that are touch-based and tech-based. Touch-based work are all the forms of labor that involve proximity and touch. Tech-based work, on the other hand, can be performed through a computer screen and does not need immediate contact or proximity. In this sense, tech here refers not to technology but to whether one can perform the work through a computer screen. It is a new iteration of the difference between mental and physical labor.
If Taylorism-Fordism involved a division of labour between conception and execution that segregated workers into managerial and manual (Braverman, 1974) and flexible accumulation (Harvey, 1989) involved a geographical division of labour between regions and sectors, what we have now is a division of labourers - a caste system of workers into people who can work behind screens and people who cannot. Its effect on the specific work processes in a sector is shaped by how much of it can be recast as screen labour that can be performed remotely. For touch based workers, it is not so much as whether they are touching others at all, but whom they are touching and under what conditions. The racialized, gendered forms of vulnerability to contagion and premature death (Gilmore, 2007) that “touch” involves is not merely a result of its “physical” nature, but the specific ways in which labour was retrenched and reorganized during the pandemic. It gives rise to an aspect of the violence and inequality of “physical work” (i.e. exposure to disease) that have not been as visible before.
Within industries and sectors, work processes have been divided on the basis of whether they can be performed remotely, meaning through a computer screen (teachers, CEOs, some artists and researchers, some managers and IT workers), with minimum contact (delivery workers, shop keepers) and those that involve extreme proximity/touch (restaurants, care workers, doctors and nurses, workers in manufacturing working in the shop floor). The farther you are in this touch-tech spectrum, your work is likely to be considered safe or unsafe. These divisions partially capture the divide between essential and non-essential as well as remote work and on-the-spot work. However, within an industry, there could be workers primarily involved in touch-based work and others could be doing tech-based work. For example, in banking that is considered essential, tellers have to work in close contact with consumers whereas IT workers and managers within the sector might get to work remotely. Education is not an essential sector and teachers and administrators can work remotely while security staff and cleaners become touch-based workers. Some of them might be categorized as essential workers depending on their exact job profile (night security staff at the university building). Many occupations that were contact-based moved online and completely avoided touch-based work. For example, if a spa combined yoga classes, gym and massages, the yoga class that previously involved close proximity indoors might have moved online. The gym which involves collective use of on-site equipment and massages that involve close contact, are rendered “unsafe”. In these new divisions that have emerged among the working classes, the pandemic has been mobilized and used to rework the work place arrangements building on existing divisions.
The politics of touch and the social contract of demobilization
Recessions have the capacity to lay bare the geometries of power that underlie everyday economic life. They affect different categories of workers and businesses differently. The politics of touch that underlies these differential rules of demobilization for manufacturing and hospitality industries comes out starkly in the statistics that came out by December 2020. The logic of dividing labor into categories of touch and tech is not only based on whether workers will get infected, but also on whom they might infect.
In the first two weeks of Covid shutdowns in April, 10 million Americans filed for unemployment. The leisure and hospitality industry lost 7.7 million jobs or 47% of total positions. The vast majority of the industry's layoffs were in food service. The government said 5.5 million chefs, waiters, and cashiers lost jobs. These jobs that involved in-person service —and their capacity to infect anybody through touch and proximity, including the bourgeoisie— had a different risk profile than factory-based work.
In factories and shopfloors, the infection can be contained among the working classes if higher managerial positions can be carried out online. Taking the example of the meat processing industry in Cache Valley in Utah. Samaniego and Mantz (2020) show that Latinx and/or immigrant workers in the shopfloor were considered expendable and were expected to continue working amidst a covid outbreak in the plants. The managerial workers who were mostly white did not have to work in close proximity to each other.
The unemployment rate in the manufacturing sector was 3.1 percent in December 2019 and by December 2020, it had climbed up to 5.5%, a near doubling. But for the same period, leisure and hospitality unemployment increased from 5% to 16.7%, more than a triple of previous year’s rate. Compared to this, unemployment in tech was only 3% in December 2020 stabilising closer to the December 2019 rate of 2.3% after some ups and downs in the middle of the pandemic. The demobilization of the workforce was a gendered process too, as many women employed in the hospitality sector suffered disproportionately higher unemployment rates .
The scale and intensity with which the demobilization affected large numbers of people is different from a recession. There was a massive demobilization of labor that was unrelated to market forces of supply and demand. During other times, labor is constantly demobilized, but this occurs along the lines of a spatial fix (Harvey, 1999)— demobilizing to be mobilized elsewhere. We see now a different kind of demobilization, one that is created outside the rules of the supply and demand. Indeed, the scale is enormous, but that is not all. There is the enforcement of a social contract of demobilization. Workers and individuals agreed to wear masks and stay at home, and in many parts of the world, accepted layoffs and budget cuts in organizations.
The politics of touch and proximity during the pandemic has a functional role in this social contract of demobilization where workers are informed of their essentialness, disposability, redundancy, and superfluity through the medium of the pandemic. Yet, it would be a mistake to ascribe any intention or agency to capital as a class in initiating this demobilization. Just as the working class has been divided into touch and tech, essential and non-essential, or remote and on the spot, capital has been polarized too. Its interests are no more being served by the generalized exchange system and minimal state support. The fragmentation and centralization of capital through business cycles is a fundamental characteristic of capitalist development. But what differentiates the pandemic is that it accentuated such a dynamic not only on the lines of scale, but also along lines that delineate tech from the rest of workers. What we see is tech-focused companies gaining further ground over manufacturing and their centralization tendencies exceeding and destabilizing the viability of capital as a class.
The gains that companies like Amazon and Facebook made in the stock market and real estate market point to unsustainable levels of centralization while other sectors and scales of operation are wiped out or are forced to scale back. If a recession punishes small scale capital unequally while medium and big capital are bailed out by the state, depression requires massive amounts of state intervention that is not only about saving companies. It demands the creation of social infrastructure and collectivization of work under the supervision of the state. However, what the pandemic has presented us with is not depression either. It is not a decline in economic activity that has developed over time but one that was sudden and sharp.
The state and large corporations came closer and consolidated each other’s position during and before the pandemic as Grace Blakeley (2020) documents. This is however not a new thing. As Moos (2019) points out, the state in the US has stabilized capital by contributing to the social reproduction of labor throughout the second half of twentieth century, but counter-intuitively, even more in the first decade of the twenty-first century, a period some would term neo-liberal. The state’s redistributive efforts through stimulus checks and eviction moratoriums signal to the continuation of this trend of the state subsidizing and stabilizing the social reproduction of labor. But this also means that the state has subsidized fractions of capital that survived/flourished in the pandemic like Amazon and punished those who have not like airline companies and restaurants. We see a complex reproduction of the touch-tech dynamic in this process too.
This mass demobilization of workers has intensified ideological warfare over cultural faultlines, such as that of anti-maskers in the US, which can subsume the emerging class warfare. In fact, the war over masks signal the limited analytical purchase of culture. It points to what Gilmore (2009) calls anti-state state and the conflictual and contradictory relationship it has with its constituency that constantly demands the deployment of carceral and coercive technologies but denounces state power. These groups see masks as a new way in which the state is directly involved in altering their being and their freedoms. It is not clear if anti-mask ideologies neatly map onto anti-state ideologies that see certain state capacities as antithetical to individual autonomy, or whether it represents a war within such ideologies.
Touch and commodity fetishism
The inability to participate in collective consumption practices during the pandemic threw relations of production in sharp relief. The abstractions required to live everyday life in a capitalist society broke down as the phantasmagoria of daily life disappeared or was restricted by rules of touch and proximity. The semblance of collective life through abstraction that capital enforces had shaken. As consumers, all classes are united by their highly commodified relationship to things. The way the rich, the middle class, and the poor consume commodities has been in a highly fetishized way. They do not usually care about where those come from or how they are made. But commodity production was once again at the center during the pandemic and its obscuring by presentation and spectacle and fetishization was not smooth. This was from both the demand and supply sides. There were huge anxieties about whether “supply chains will break” i.e., whether food will be cultivated, if cultivated whether it will be harvested, if harvested, whether it will be transported and if transported, whether it will reach us or diverted elsewhere.
As millions lost jobs and livelihoods, the debt-based system that propped up people’s capacity to maintain their current and future consumption standards was thrown into disarray. The scale and diversity of commodity production is an important element in allowing commodity fetishism to thrive. The promise that there will be more and more types and bigger and bigger sizes and more and more numbers of commodities to consume obscured the possibility of them ever running out. Reminding the consumer that a thing is ethically produced or some such stab at the production process is not relevant anymore. Instead, the massive demobilization of labor that occurred during the pandemic had a de-fetishizing effect on people.
Amazon and Ubereats made sure that people remained consumers, but the collective aspect of retail and consumption was removed. These tech companies were instrumental in accentuating an already existing process of de-collectivisation of capitalism during the pandemic. We can also look at this through the lens of what Aniket Jaaware (2019) calls neutralization of touch or the naturalization of (involuntary) touch between individuals gathered together in the metropolis and in spaces of consumption and transport. This naturalization of involuntary touch and proximity in capitalist societies (or societies of acquisition, in Jaaware’s terms,) was broken through the pandemic. The revolt of the anti-maskers, seen through this lens, is the revolt of communities that have been told that involuntary touch and proximity in public space is natural and desirable, and that any prohibition against it is artificial and evil.
Protest as commodity fetishism
Touch and tech has refashioned our relationship to commodities, not just through the changing consumption practices that rely less on public space, but also by changing our relationship to protest and collective action. We were allowed a glimpse into what is to be not fetishizing, to suspend our faith, and to examine closely. Protest, as much as it emerges from relations of production, camouflages the work that goes into creating them. In its relentless turnover of images and personalities, protests stop for no one, almost mirroring our fetishized relationship to commodities. The amount of touch-based work that goes into protests and collective action is obscured at times by the screen labor. Protests are the last bastion of commodity fetishism in the sense that they are social and material, yet entertain no inquiries into their real-ness demanding us to be contented by their potential-ness. Two instances from New York, somewhat in contrast to each other, will be of use here.
On May 1st 2020, a general strike was organized by a coalition of workers’ organizations in many parts of the US. The call for the general strike prescribed "no working, no shopping, no compliance" to people who were already not working and shopping. The “general” in the general strike was evacuated of potential to be real by the pandemic. The stoppage was state-sanctioned, but it was collectively brokered. Within the mass global stoppage, there was an endless array of smaller stoppages that mirrored each other. While the stoppage was global, it never attained the potential to be general because the pause was enforced in a differentiated and layered manner- on a broad touch-tech and essential-deferable spectrum. The stoppage provided a moment to rethink the form of the general strike as a stoppage of work and activity and as a relational practice with specific historic antecedents in the proletarian class struggle in Europe. The capacity for a general strike to threaten the state or capital was diminished as there was already a stoppage underway. A form that is already the norm of life cannot be deployed as strike or protest.
The second instance is drawn from the mutual aid organizations that flourished during the pandemic. They were collecting food from neighbors, restaurants, and grocery shops and sharing and distributing. The pandemic meant that such collecting, storing and sharing had to be done with care focusing on sanitizing, monitoring symptoms of volunteers, and thinking closely about where the food has been and where it will be. Yet, some mutual aid organizations paid closer attention to the process of mutual aid than others. A Brooklyn-based anti-gentrification organization demanded the impossible- i.e., asking volunteers not to go to the protests against George Floyd’s killing. Its call for volunteers read “If you have attended a protest recently, you would need to do a two-week quarantine before being a kit maker. We would also ask you not to participate in protests/actions due to safety concerns. All of our kits team members are following this protocol for our safety”. In contrast with the “general strike", the call asked people for non-participation in the protest to participate in mutual aid. It redefined solidarity as requiring discipline, self-examination and care. It demonstrated the capacity for an ethics of care to puncture the form of “protest”. It turned the politics of touch in the pandemic inward.
This work of reorienting the form of protest and strike – de-fetishizing them- is the work of the pandemic. It breaks the communion of feelings that are centered around things to one that is centered around workers and communities. Protests around racial violence and imperial wars in the US have been channeled into cultural production before. Capital has become so adept at performing the cultural in a superficial way that shops in New York after the loot boarded up and commissioned art that depicts the loot on those boards. The pandemic seems to have neutralized the proliferation and extension of such strategies centered around the cultural sphere by demanding recognition for material inequalities. Such recognition is constitutive of state capacity and action—whether weak like stimulus checks and rent moratoriums or strong like employment creation and public provisioning of essential goods. The relationship between touch-based and tech-based work will be contested, reworked, and restructured intensively (domestically between fractions of capital and labor) and extensively (imperially, between nations and regions) in response to this recognition.
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Mythri is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York with interests in urban theory, labor migration and the politics of development.