On the fringes of the pandemic

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Slavoj Žižek*

The “new working class” has always been there, the epidemic has only made it more visible.

Perhaps the time has come for us to take a step back from our exclusive focus on the novel coronavirus epidemic and ask ourselves what the pandemic and its devastating effects reveal about our social reality. The first thing that strikes you is that, in contrast to the cheap motto that “we are all in the same boat”, class divisions have exploded. At the bottom (of our social hierarchy) are those so destitute that the virus itself is not the main problem (refugees, people trapped in war zones).

While these are still largely ignored by our media, we are bombarded with sentimental celebrations for nurses on the front lines of the fight against the virus – the British Royal Air Force even organized an aeronautical parade in honor of these health professionals. But nurses are only the most visible part of an entire class of exploited care workers – albeit not in the same way that the old working class of classical Marxist imagination is exploited.

In the words of David Harvey, they constitute a “new working class”: “The workforce that is expected to care for the ever-increasing numbers of the sick, or to provide the minimum services that allow the reproduction of everyday life is, as a rule, , highly gendered, racialized, and ethnicized. This is the 'new working class' that is at the forefront of contemporary capitalism. Its members have to bear two burdens: they are the most exposed to the risk of contracting the virus when doing their jobs, and at the same time the most likely to be fired without any compensation due to the economic containment measures introduced by the virus” [1] .

The contemporary working class in the United States—composed predominantly of African Americans, Mexicans, and salaried women—is faced with a dire choice: between suffering contamination in the process of caring for people and keeping open key forms of provision (such as food), or unemployment without benefits (such as health care). That is why in France riots broke out in the poor suburbs located north of Paris where people who serve the rich live.

In recent weeks, Singapore has also seen a staggering increase in coronavirus infections in foreign workers' dormitories: “Singapore is home to an estimated 1.4 million migrant workers who come largely from South and Southeast Asia. As janitors, domestic caregivers, construction workers and handymen, these migrants are essential to keeping the city going – but at the same time they are some of the lowest paid and most vulnerable people in the metropolis” [2].

This new working class has always been here, the epidemic has only made it more visible. Take the case of Bolivia: although most of the Bolivian population is indigenous or of mixed ethnicity, until the rise of Evo Morales, this huge portion of society was effectively excluded from political life, reduced to a silent majority of the country doing its job. dirty in the shadows. What happened with the election of Morales was the political awakening of this silent majority that did not fit into the network of capitalist relations. They were not yet proletarians in the modern sense, remaining immersed in their pre-modern tribal social identities.

Álvaro García Linera, Morales' vice-president, described the plight of this population this way: “In Bolivia, food was produced by indigenous farmers, houses and buildings were erected by indigenous workers, the streets were cleaned by indigenous people, and the elite and middle classes delegated the care of their children to them. However, the traditional left seemed oblivious to this, dealing only with workers in large-scale industry and failing to pay attention to their ethnic identity. [3].

To designate this class, Bruno Latour and Nikolaj Schultz coined the term “geo-social class” [4]. Many of these subjects are not exploited in the classic Marxist sense of working for the owners of the means of production; Exploitation takes place in the way in which they relate to the material conditions of their lives: access to clean water and air, health, safety... Even though they do not work for foreign companies, the local population is exploited when their territory is used for export agriculture or intensive mining: they are exploited in the simple sense of being deprived of the full use of the territory that favored the maintenance of their ways of life.

Take the case of Somali pirates: they resorted to piracy because their coastline was completely depleted of fish due to industrial fishing practices carried out by foreign companies there. Part of its territory was appropriated by developed countries and used to sustain our way of life. Latour proposes to replace, in these cases, the appropriation of “surplus value” with the appropriation of “surplus existence”, where “existence” refers to the material conditions of life.

So we find now, with the viral epidemic, that even with the factories at a standstill, the geo-social caregiving class needs to keep working – and it seems appropriate to dedicate May Day to them rather than the classic industrial working class. They are the real super-exploited: exploited when they work, since their work is largely invisible, and exploited even when they are not working; exploited are not only through what they do, but also in their very existence.

The eternal dream of the rich is that of a territory completely separate from the polluted places where ordinary people live and circulate – just remember that blockbusters post-apocalyptic like Elysium (2013, directed by Neil Blomkamp), which takes place in the year 2154 in a society in which the rich live on a gigantic space station while the rest of the population lives on a planet Earth that looks like a huge Latin American slum. In anticipation of some kind of catastrophe, the wealthy are buying up safe havens in New Zealand or renovating Cold War nuclear bunkers in the Rocky Mountains, but the problem with the viral epidemic is that you can't isolate yourself completely – like an umbilical cord that doesn't can be totally broken, a minimal link with polluted reality is inevitable.

Slavoj Žižek is a professor at the Institute of Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia). Author, among other books, of In defense of lost causes (Boitermpo).

Translation: Arthur Renzo

Article originally published in Boitempo's blog.


[1] David Harvey, Anticapitalism in times of pandemic

[2] Jessie Yeung, Joshua Berlinger, Sandi Sidhu, Manisha Tank and Isaac Yee, “Singapore's migrant workers are suffering the brunt of the country's coronavirus outbreak”, 25 Apr. 2020, CNN.

[3] Marcello Musto, “Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera on Marx and Indigenous Politics", truthout, 9 Nov. 2010.

[4] Bruno Latour and Nikolaj Schultz“Reassembling the Geo-Social: a conversation”. In: Theory Culture & Society 36(7-8), Aug. 2019.

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