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World of Work and how it has changed: The essential worker

What is essential work, and indeed, the essential worker? What kind of work is needed and is it work that is unpleasant and dirty work?

Before writing these pieces, we had discussions with activists in order to take testimony of what they experienced over the pandemic. This particular thread of “essential work” appeared in those discussions, in various forms, and we’d like to focus upon it here.

What was shocking for many about the Covid-19 pandemic, was how much of work could simply be left behind. What could be left out, if you will, from the present economic system in a pandemic. Similarly what could now be done, as a priority, that apparently was not possible before. As an anarchist, the debate about what is “essential work” and what is not, made me think of what is of “use value”, or of core importance to us in society, of what forms our preferences, our very wants and needs. The pandemic had afterall thrust into sharp relief, a similar reduction in the economy as to a removal to either the “essential”, or that which could be done remotely at home. In the areas most affected – everything from travel/transport/tourism, healthcare, education, automobile, construction, and retail – we saw a “break” if you will, on the consumer preferences created, nay nurtured, by the capitalist and state bureaucracies.

As children returned home from childcare and schools, and with many workers doing the same, or on furlough payments without work, work in the home and caring work became a big topic of interest. Not that work in the home ever ceased to exist before or after the pandemic, but parents now had to take on more tasks of teaching and childcare. Counterposed to this overall reduction in the world of work during the lockdown, we saw some erstwhile undervalued but necessary jobs become very important all of a sudden – the obvious being healthcare of course, but also retail workers, cashier workers, cleaners, delivery people; jobs like that. While what we had been told could not be done, in pre pandemic times – like a universal single-tiered health service, with access based on need, not income – now became part of the possible. For those who now could not work, furlough payments were to be given. In the turn of a coin, large areas of society’s needs could be provided by either a form of UBS (Universal Basic Service) or paid for with UBI (Universal Basic Income).

The gradual lauding of the remaining essential work would follow, as the months of lockdown ticked by. For many, this lauding had a hollow ring to it, as it seemed to impart a view of an almost selfless vocation. In most parts it is not a vocation to work in cleaning or as a delivery driver, and the effect of the sum of those jobs is the essential need to sustain the system we have. The truth is that people doing those jobs are desperate enough to do them for the low wages received. This has been the way for centuries in capitalism, with the ongoing separation of tasks, from the manual to the “spiritual work”, (to quote Pannekoek in “Workers Councils”) resulting in reducing the world of work to more of a monotonous routine than it ever needs to be. The pandemic would make this artificial class distinction worse by geographically separating the conditions of workers doing more physically necessary work, as “white collar” tasks were more capable of being spirited away to work remotely. No longer would they be on the same “factory floor”, doing different tasks. The reality is however, that most jobs have a “spiritual” or paper-work component to them, which could be part of a hybrid remote working week if it was only to be shared with manual workers. This could be a possible outcome for some workers, and might benefit those doing caring work at home.

Reduction to the essential

However what this reduction to the essential, brought to mind for me, and others, was the long held promise on the left of the 4 hour day, and in particular, of the late David Graeber’s theory of “Bullshit Jobs”. Graeber’s term “Bullshit”, is where one would ask the question – if a job didn’t exist at all, then would there be any difference to the world? Or even go so far as to ask, would the world be better off without your job? Of course, jobs that don’t need to exist in the first place,– such as many in the banking sector – would not need to be automated away, as they can just cease to exist. Likewise with much of the advertising industry, PR, telemarketing, useless cryptocurrency, corporate lawyers, the list goes on, but includes a fair bit of the 1% being absent from such a future.

In shrinking to the essential, it seemed like we had removed a lot of the “bullshit” tasks the system had chosen for us, as a form of puritanical adherence to work and overwork. To quote Graeber “Shit jobs tend to be blue collar and pay by the hour, whereas bullshit jobs tend to be white collar and salaried.”

This, perhaps, cold divisional calculation of the system shrinking to “the essential”, (no doubt merely needed to keep the neoliberal show on the road, with slight apostatic Keynesian or State Capitalist adjustments, last seen since a crisis stemming from a spate of worker laziness circa 2008…), seemed to me to mirror Kropotkin’s mention of a possible dividing up of unpleasant work, – in that there’s probably a good chance if you took all of the most unpleasant but necessary jobs and did that division, they’d disappear almost instantly, as it would suddenly be a major social priority to automate or remove the very need for them. Speaking of Keynes, in 1930 he suggested that with ongoing productivity and technological improvements, the working week could be reduced to 15 hours. Despite those improvements, particularly with worker productivity, we are stuck with approx. 40 hours+

Reducing needed work may raise a worry for many on ‘the left’ that jobs should exist to ensure employment, but all this does is remove one of the greatest draws to a real alternative. The free time to ‘live’. The extra free time for some workers during the lockdown was one of its few good points. For many, the daily hours of commuting were reduced to nothing, ( a good thing, as this is unpaid work hours after all! ) and for others, their jobs ceased to exist at all. In this, it was very comparable to a reduction to necessary work. I feel like the potential is there to feed this experience into activist work, post-pandemic on alternatives to “widen the floor of the cage” if you will. We can see this with campaigns for Universal Basic Services UBS, along with forms of UBI, and reduced working weeks for the same rate of pay. Wage levels need to increase irrespective of needed automation in the workplace, or reduced numbers of hours worked, and at the same time an increase of the wages floor globally, will go to further that trend.

Work and life in the balance

Furthermore it all impacts upon the desire for control over one’s working life, and the balance between life, and work. There’s the feeling that one doesn’t have a say over what affects one in the workplace. The bundle of tasks which make up one’s job – whether it be foisted upon us by the vagaries of an amorphous market God, the corner-office bosses, or just pure luck – can often contain dangerous elements causing workers to more likely fall ill. Examples here are the sectors where contagion spiked or was more likely to do so - the shop floor in crowded factories, some call centres where workers had no say in going home despite their preferences, the meat packing industry (of which a study in Cork linked to by the Independent Workers Union ( IWU ) laid bare [include link here]) etc.

There is nothing new under the sun with these developments, and the way things have worked out with the use, or lack of use, of available technology to either make the workplace less dangerous or monotonous, or to facilitate remote home working when suitable. Automation and the IT/computer control of tools and machines became more possible on the shop floor throughout the 20th Century. Yet, in a similar way the choice was made to not increase the autonomy and skills to control that technology by workers themselves, but instead led to an increase in the power of managers, or the corner-office bosses we’ve mentioned above. Layers upon layers of managerialist bureaucracy are functionally not required, outside of the imperatives of power and control within the corporate form itself.

To return to the pay and remuneration of those that in many cases, simply could not work remotely at home. I was involved in a campaign prior to the first lockdown to increase a local minimum wage in Cork, and indeed minimum wage increases have become something of a focus point for campaigns during the pandemic, here and elsewhere. However, those lauding and clapping for Covid essential workers, suddenly turned deaf, or became particularly miserly when a raise was suggested. Similar neoliberal pro-market adherent arguments against increasing the minimum wage, or child benefit, etc, can be used against continuing forms of UBI – such as increases in the prices of goods and services negating it. However recent experiments in UBI suggest that the increases due to a UBI may not cause inflation, and any such higher inflation can be countered by regulation. Likewise with moving the market essentially out of entire sectors, like health and education with UBS, we can expect similar countering arguments from redoubtable defenders of the profiteers.

Speaking of healthcare ( never mind in education ) we already had too many “gaps” in the needed work. The cracks in the system before Covid hit, left us unprepared, with gaps in critical care bed capacity, in the provision of PPE and ventilators here in Ireland and elsewhere being some early examples. This is where I feel the non-authoritarian left, or Anarchists (or those acting in Anarchist ways one could say), were naturally inclined to help with fast acting mutual aid projects. CM told us of her experience of some of that in the US.

From CM

“As an anarchist we don’t have the capacity to answer all questions. So we need to articulate our values and how to put it into practice. We don’t make policy or demands, per se. So examples, at the start, when there was no official care or response. So mutual aid focused on PPE etc. Through the hurricane katrina response network, we already had relationships around Turtle Isl, especially around marginalised communities - e.g. indigenous communities. So sourcing and producing masks, maker & biohacker communities, etc. Connected with Bay Area folks making PPE and finding hospitals that were lacking. Targeted cities (mainly black) where nothing was coming through. Smuggling PPE to health works in Detroit. So how the networks worked to do what they could. Collectives and projects formed around mutual aid. Biohackers had notions about vaccines - but realistically we don’t have those capacities.”

Many are aware of open source applications to track the virus, developed in a non-profit manner. This implicitly was more practical, nay dynamic, than a private closed alternative. In contrast to Cindy’s point about lack of capacities for mutual aid pharma work, the work in covid app development, was provided often freely and the ephemeral resources of coding is also largely free. In that area it was eminently doable to collaboratively create a useful output to help. I can recall simple, but we’ll worked-out websites, created in Ireland and elsewhere, matching people’s needs to wants ( deliveries of groceries etc) with those nearby that had the ability to help. We’ve seen similar decentralised community responses to economic crises in the past - for instance to help those without the ability to pay, through self organising community exchange and support networks. A lot of this is prefigurative of alternatives to motivate future ongoing activist work.

SF on examples he experienced in Ireland

“There’s a lot there in the question. Making NPHET the power and the authority, might be a problem in Ireland. Housing and mutual aid was a big part of the initial response and community defence. Lately we’ve less time for that, so we meet online and keep things moving as such. Otherwise they’re completely cut off, because we don’t have the deeper community led stuff. 800 CATU members and I’ve probably talked to just 100 of them there. So there’s a lack of empathy and trust because of that lack.”

And KD, in Ireland,

“Communities have reacted before the State, there are examples of communities looking after themselves…”

Mutual Aid

To touch upon the mutual aid aspect. Communities did react first, when knowledge of the pandemic became available, and the likely effects of large crowds like in the Cheltenham races. The subsequent gaps in the system, and low level of healthcare infrastructure, PPE, and ICU beds was apparent to all. I knew many involved with using 3d printers prior to the pandemic and they used their own time to create PPE. Other examples mirror the open-source economy, even without a pandemic, in the example of the open-source created Covid app. We had thousands of former healthcare workers offering to volunteer to the HSE here in Ireland. Unfortunately the government and the HSE could not accept those volunteers, as it was outside of the norm of a neoliberal TINA mindset, and this harmed the speed of the resulting test and trace response.

Speaking of TINA, to quote PB at one of our discussions:

“There’s a potential in all of the things that they said previously were impossible are now not the case at all. TINA. What do we do now? […] Oisin said an interesting point about how we got through the 2008 crash and yet, .. we somehow didn’t get rid of TINA.”

And to quote GK

“There’s a lot of things happening because of this Covid stuff which is also happening, that there’s a lot of things that’ve made the state stronger, so in terms of the transnational state it is stronger. There’s more focus on the European bureaucracy now than in the past. Our state took over the running of the private hospitals. They had no problem doing that. No problem with 350 euro a week to stay at home. We know a lot of smoke and mirror around that, but the ground has shifted around that and on our capabilities to grasp that is another question. It doesn’t help that we don’t have a trade union movement that perhaps can do that. I’m eternally optimistic, but less so since after Xmas, as the state here, they’ve lost control over their way to control the lockdown, to put the vaccination in place, due to the way they did it previously. There’s also the European medical situation.”

With so many workplaces closed, millions of workers were put on Covid / furlough payments. The use of a furlough payment which was typically less than the original wage received, was a policy used in many European countries. It was nothing new however, and Italy being a notable example of similar in the pre-pandemic time. In Germany, the Kurzarbeit, used in 2008-9, was brought into play as a work benefit to top-up reduced work hours, and designed similarly to avoid unemployment. Such schemes are a way to freeze a job in place during the hard times. Of which, in capitalism, comes with an unerring regularity. The idea with these payments is to smooth the future unfreezing of the economy after the crisis has past. There were slight variations with each scheme, whereby the wages subsidy schemes often benefitted lower paid workers, more so than shorter-hour schemes compensating for hours that workers no longer worked. Either way, with such support there is less of the costs of layoffs during the crisis, or the retraining of different workers after it.

Work furloughed

Despite this well known way to ease the blow on workers, many countries had much more limited payments, or none at all. In the US many millions lost their jobs and went on the dole, while any subsidy would only go to the employer in the form of business loans or tax credits. Outside of more “developed” countries, things were worse. In India, – where the actual figure of Covid deaths is considered to be 4 million, at the time of accounting, and not the official much lower statistic of a tenth of that – urban workers would have to migrate home to villages from the cities, only to bring the virus with them. The Modi government had no quarantine facilities before returning to home; never mind support through the previously mentioned furlough payments we’d be familiar with here too in Ireland. For a worker and their extended family, any resulting deaths were then not logged. For a smaller percentage of the population, work from home was also possible in India. How much this changes things into the future for the world of work internationally, remains to be seen, but the early writing on the wall suggests the late-stage capitalism neoliberalism’s road-show is being brushed off to continue onto the end of history itself!

As recession is likely to take hold after Covid, then we may see the use of furlough well into the future. There are several crisis points appearing on the horizon, – resource peaks and climate change being rather large ones – where the logic of freezing through a furlough, may be seen as a permanent feature. The alternative to a furlough approach might be called the “creative destruction” of letting crisis create its victims and then new market entrants ensue. We know that not all bear the costs of that approach fairly, it often means “innovatively” moving the geographical goal posts of capital, onto where the crises will score next. Something we can see from the bla bla greenwash of COP26, not to mind the forcing of the costs of climate change onto those least able to bear it, as seen from our recent budget here in Ireland.

All of which segues into a question we asked during our discussions, as to whether the state was in a stronger position after all of this? I’ll take the liberty here of quoting a section of that conversation below.


“Here in the 26 counties - I think the state is weaker. The evidence of subservience re the EU in the vaccination situation. If we weren’t in the pandemic, we’d be talking a lot more about the Brexit development. A lot of stuff has happened that leaves the transnational state (EU) much stronger than previously, or at least made it more obvious to more people. OTOH, as people have said, things like saying they were taking over private hospitals and borrowing money to pay 350 a week to stay home. But to continue the argument that “we can’t afford it, there’s no money”. Whether we can seize that opportunity is another thing. The TU movement has failed to voice an alternative. So find a space to do it. I’m less eternally optimistic than I usually am. Especially in post-xmas period - the state has lost control over imposition of lockdown and vaccination programme is fucked. And nobody is saying throw more money on vaccines and get it done.”


“[regarding the] relation of Irish state to EU - I predict over next 4-5 years is a lot of pressure coming from Brussels to bring about serious austerity to pay the debts for the pandemic. In the US and UK the central banks will write off the debt, but Frankfurt will not buy that.”


“We blunted austerity with the Water Tax movement. We blunted the church with repeal. The reactionary turn is blowback. But we haven’t lost. We can regroup and push back”

Rebutting TINA

I intended to be positive in this piece, but not overly so. One could see the most virulent reaction was on the right during the pandemic, and this was raised in our discussions. It was a surprise to see how many of the anti-vaxx and conspiracy theory talking points drew left and green-left colleagues over to rightwing extremism.

However, one thread of our discussions which would mirror our points of being more against the concept of TINA ( there is no alternative ), was the need for the space to actually discuss an alternative. Space can be something that can be physical, as in the reduction to the local, or ‘space’ as in the time to even do action in the first place. A more active outreach against TINA can act as a draw away from the fringes of the right and the far right.

With a context like that, whereby people have more say over what affects them, and everything is open and visible for people to see, then health advice is likely to be much more trusted. An alternative here without blueprinting too much is, say, a non-hierarchical democratic WHO ( essentially a federated union of health workers with a few levels representing regions and the planet ). The likely absences of our extreme division of labour in such an alternative – leading to many workers being actively involved with these federations and being exposed to medical science – would undoubtedly all help.

So to link into that space, or lack thereof where many were of course working off their feet during the pandemic, others had time on their hands. The unpaid and unworked commute was now free time, as was the shortened work hours of the furloughed worker. Could the left take the positives of this time and ‘space’, onto the “new normal” and the undoubted austerity to come? To show what was possible as an example of a positive future vision, a partial alternative, that would strike a chord with ongoing victims of the system?


Workers' councils - Anton Pannekoek (pdf and html)

The Anarchist Sociology of Federalism by Colin Ward (essay on decentralised federalism, or nested federation)

Who was… Peter Kropotkin?

Brain Work with Manual Work

D&D Starry Plough