Value and Temporality

Date of publication
10.6. 2021.
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In the begin­ning, it seemed like Covid at least gave us the gift of time (no more com­mut­ing, work­ing from home, etc.). By now, it’s clear that it actu­ally has accel­er­ated time for those of us who have not yet lost our jobs. I have nev­er had a busier, more chaot­ic sum­mer, rethink­ing my classes, attend­ing a seem­ingly inter­min­able num­ber of meet­ings, wor­ry­ing for my family’s health and safety.1Georgescu, Diana. Facebook, 12 July 2020. Published with permission.

There is much in this state­ment from Diana Georgescu, a Lecturer in the Centre for South East European Studies in University College London, that cap­tures the com­plex­it­ies of tem­por­al­ity dur­ing the COVID-​19 pan­dem­ic, at least for a par­tic­u­lar strat­um of soci­ety. From the almost Biblical sense of “in the begin­ning,” through the notion of time being “gif­ted,” to the idea of time “accel­er­at­ing” chaot­ic­ally and inter­min­ably, the tem­por­al­it­ies of Covid are presen­ted as com­plex, con­tra­dict­ory, and con­tin­gent. There is an aware­ness of the uneven, struc­tur­al, polit­ic­al eco­nomy of Covid, albeit with a hint of the idea of Covid as a “great lev­el­ler” or “great equal­izer,”2Most (in)famously, the idea of COVID-​19 as a “the great equal­izer” was expli­citly men­tioned by Madonna in a video pos­ted on 23 March 2020 on her Instagram account where she is fea­tured in a milky bathtub filled with rose petals.; White. Adam. “Coronavirus: Madonna calls pan­dem­ic ‘the great equal­iser’ in bizarre nude bathtub video.” Independent, 23 March 2020, in the evoc­a­tion of “those of us who have not yet lost our jobs.” There is, also, a pro­found and per­son­al under­stand­ing of the stress and worry caused by not being able to see fam­ily mem­bers some­times, as in this case, loc­ated in anoth­er coun­try. A sense that “work­ing from home” actu­ally erodes dis­tinc­tions between work and non-​work time is also present here.

Within what the edit­ors of this volume term the “poten­tially infin­ite” con­cep­tu­al fields impacted by the pan­dem­ic, I have chosen to focus on “tem­por­al­ity” and “value,” explor­ing “COVID time” dur­ing “the time of COVID.” How can it be that time has appeared to “stand still,” “slow down,” and “speed up?” It is cer­tainly the case that the rhythms of every­day life and prac­tice for huge swathes of the pop­u­la­tion have exper­i­enced unpre­ced­en­ted change although, of course, the nature of this change has been dif­fer­ent for dif­fer­ent people in dif­fer­ent moments and in dif­fer­ent places. At the same time, how has the notion of what is “valu­able” in terms of “essen­tial work” shif­ted? Are such shifts of little more than passing import­ance, eas­ily aban­doned or assim­il­ated back into dom­in­ant social rela­tions when “nor­mal­ity” returns or a “new nor­mal” is estab­lished? Or are they the har­binger of crit­ic­al con­scious­ness, reval­id­a­tion, and action?

Temporality and Value

Time is socially con­struc­ted, appear­ing as both a bene­vol­ent neces­sity in terms of prof­fer­ing “a cer­tain meas­ure of con­trol over the uncon­trol­lable tem­por­al­ity of exist­ence”3Adam, Barbara. “Time.” Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 23, no. 2 – 3, 2006, pp 119 – 126, p. 122. and as a pro­foundly dis­cip­lin­ary prac­tice, from the early indus­tri­al­ised factor­ies with the intro­duc­tion of “time-​labour dis­cip­line”4Thompson, E. P. “Time, Work-​Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past & Present, vol. 38, no. 1, 1967, pp. 56 – 97. to the earli­est house­holds in which the gendered divi­sion of labour is as much a gendered divi­sion of time.5Sirianni, Carmen, and Cynthia Negrey. “Working Time as Gendered Time.” Feminist Economics, vol. 6, no. 1, 2000, pp. 59 – 76. We all live with time, but we also all live (and die) through or by time,6Stubbs, Paul. “Slow, Slow, Quick, Quick, Slow: power, expert­ise and the hege­mon­ic tem­por­al­it­ies of aus­ter­ity.” Innovation: the European Journal of Social Science Research, vol. 31, no. 1, 2018, pp. 25 – 39. how­ever much Byung-​Chul Han would have it that “one per­ishes in non-​time … mak(ing) dying more dif­fi­cult than ever.”7Han, Byung-​Chul. The Scent of Time: A Philosophical Essay on the Art of Lingering. Polity Press, 2017.

Temporality, defined here as “the vari­ety of cir­cum­stances in which ‘time’ acquires its vari­ety of mean­ings”8McKeon, Richard. “Time and Temporality.” Philosophy East and West, vol. 24, no. 2, 1974, pp. 123 – 128, p. 123. is not arbit­rary, of course. It may be plur­al, under­stood in terms of mul­tiple tem­por­al­it­ies that “coex­ist and inter­act sim­ul­tan­eously”9Huebener, Paul, et al. “Exploring the Intersection of Time and Globalization.” Globalizations, vol. 13, no. 3, 2016, pp. 243 – 255, p. 246. but, to quote Humpty Dumpty: “the ques­tion is which is to be mas­ter – that’s all.”10Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking-​Glass, And What Alice Found There. MacMillan & Co., 1875, p. 124. Hegemonic tem­por­al­ity is that form of tem­por­al­ity that over­de­termines “the rules of the struggle”11Filippini, Michele. Using Gramsci: A New Approach. Pluto Press, 2017, p. 106. but, as in Gramsci’s ori­gin­al for­mu­la­tion, it is “unthink­able without assent, imprac­tic­able without force.”12Anderson, Perry. The H‑Word: The Peripeteia of Hegemony. Verso, 2017, p. 23. Philosophical gen­er­al­iz­a­tions on tem­por­al­ity, wheth­er remark­ing on its res­tor­at­ive or dis­rupt­ive capa­city, are less help­ful than they may appear in times of crisis, in excep­tion­al his­tor­ic­al times. Although the crisis may provide oppor­tun­ity, at least for some, to return to a kind of vita con­tem­plativa,13Han, Byung-​Chul. Ibid., p. 55. this is hard to achieve when time loses its syn­tax and dir­ec­tion­al­ity, with both too much and too little hap­pen­ing sim­ul­tan­eously. As Baudrillard suggested:

A degree of slow­ness (that is, a cer­tain speed, but not too much), a degree of dis­tance, but not too much, and a degree of lib­er­a­tion (an energy for rup­ture and change), but not too much, are needed to bring about the kind of con­dens­a­tion or sig­ni­fic­ant crys­tal­liz­a­tion of events we call his­tory, the kind of coher­ent unfold­ing of causes and effects we call real­ity.14Baudrillard, Jean. The Illusion of the End. 1994. Polity Press, 2017, p. 1.

The Covid crisis is not “hyper­real” in Baudrillard’s sense, since it cor­res­ponds, even if tan­gen­tially, to real events in the real world, even as vari­ous con­spir­acy the­or­ists deny this pos­sib­il­ity. It has become, how­ever, a hyper­me­di­ated event as most people’s lived exper­i­ence of it, out­side of par­tic­u­lar time-​space “hot­spots,” and apart from health­care pro­fes­sion­als and those with dir­ect per­son­al exper­i­ence, is a product of media por­tray­als and, in par­tic­u­lar, the col­lec­tion and present­a­tion of stat­ist­ic­al pic­tures that, them­selves, rely on tem­por­al choices, be it daily new cases or a rolling seven-​day average.

Value, too, is not an intrins­ic prop­erty of a com­mod­ity or a human being; as Marx would have it, “value is a rela­tion between per­sons … con­cealed beneath a mater­i­al shell.”15Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume I: The Process of Capitalist Production. Translated by Ben Fowkes, Vintage Books, 1977, p. 167. Capitalism involves, then, the extrac­tion of “sur­plus value,” or the value of “abstract labour” above the wage paid. Waged labour is bought and sold in the mar­ket, piece­meal, with the labour­er, in a fam­ous pas­sage from Marx, auc­tion­ing off “eight, ten, twelve, fif­teen hours of his [sic] life, day after day, to the highest bid­der.”16Marx, Karl. Ibid., p. 204 – 5. This is the primary dis­tinc­tion between a wage labour­er and a slave, “sold once and for all to his own­er,”17Ibid. a serf, allowed to work on land for a trib­ute, or, of course, those who under­take unpaid labour, such as domest­ic work­ers. Wage labour is gov­erned by con­tracts of employ­ment that provide judi­cial author­ity, cement­ing the ali­en­a­tion of work­ers from their cre­at­ive ener­gies and provid­ing value for “social classes that did not con­trib­ute to pro­duc­tion, e.g., ren­ti­ers, spec­u­lat­ors and cap­it­al­ists.”18Screpanti, Ernesto. Labour and Value: Rethinking Marx’s Theory of Exploitation. Open Book Publishers, 2019, p. 9.

Graeber’s attempt to con­struct a neo-​Marxist “anthro­po­logy of value” cri­tiques both lib­er­al and eco­nom­ist­ic vari­ants, in favour of an under­stand­ing of value as rela­tion­al, in the sense that “social rela­tions take on value in the pro­cess of being recog­nized by someone else.”19Graeber, David. Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. Palgrave, 2001, p. 47. Labour, as “human capa­cit­ies for action,” requires “a sys­tem for cal­cu­lat­ing its price,” formed of “an elab­or­ate cul­tur­al appar­at­us,” codi­fied primar­ily in rela­tion to time, with rates per hour, per week, per month, and per year. Value is assigned through “recog­nized stand­ards about the pace and intens­ity of labor expec­ted of any par­tic­u­lar task” since, in a pas­sage that the pan­dem­ic has rendered prob­lem­at­ic, Graeber asserts that “people are rarely, even in the most exploit­at­ive con­di­tions, expec­ted to work to the abso­lute lim­its of their phys­ic­al and men­tal capa­cit­ies.”20Ibid., p. 56.

There can be no deny­ing that post-​Fordism brings with it “new vec­tors in the pro­duc­tion of wealth”21Boutang, Yann Moulier. Cognitive Capitalism. Polity Press, 2012, p. 135. and asso­ci­ated new, and decidedly more com­plex and more net­worked, vec­tors of value. As McKenzie Wark reminds us, “cog­nit­ive labour” goes far bey­ond the tech sec­tor, “wheth­er in the form of R+D, or logist­ics, or the intan­gibles of man­aging the aura of brands and product lines.”22Wark, McKenzie. “Cognitive Capitalism.” Public Seminar, 19 Feb. 2015, Creative value comes to gen­er­ate cap­it­al­ist value, there­fore, and new con­trac­tu­al forms increase in import­ance, par­tic­u­larly “intel­lec­tu­al prop­erty rights,” as labour power becomes more co-​operative in form along­side new forms of appro­pri­ation. Labour power also becomes less neces­sary in effect, with tech­no­lo­gic­al advances includ­ing robot­iz­a­tion chan­ging and redis­trib­ut­ing, although not abol­ish­ing, the need for human labour, lead­ing Boutang and many oth­ers towards advocacy of a uni­ver­sal basic income serving, pre­cisely, to delink income, and value, from “work” as dom­in­antly defined.23Stubbs, Paul. “Time for a Universal Basic Income?” LeftEast, 30 March 2020,

Another lay­er of com­plex­ity is intro­duced by the so-​called “gig eco­nomy” or “own account” work, reli­ant on pre­dom­in­antly inde­pend­ent con­tract­ors and those defined, often invol­un­tar­ily, as “self-​employed,” even when tied to a single com­pany, includ­ing plat­forms such as Uber and Wolt. Here, even the much vaunted “flex­ib­il­ity” for sup­posedly free agents is ques­tion­able with pre­car­ity dom­in­at­ing in the con­text of the absence of employ­er health and social insur­ance con­tri­bu­tions, in ser­vices where worth is essen­tially defined algorith­mic­ally. As Crouch argues, at the heart of the gig eco­nomy is “the idea of work­ers who are not employ­ees of a firm and from whom the firm accepts no employ­er respons­ib­il­it­ies, but who can be dis­cip­lined by that firm.”24Crouch, Colin. Will the Gig Economy Prevail? Polity Press, 2019, p. 24. Clustering “own account” work­ers with increas­ing num­bers of those work­ing part-​time, on zero-​hours or on-​call con­tracts, and those in tem­por­ary employ­ment, par­tic­u­larly those who would prefer not to work on these terms, is a truer indic­a­tion of the value assigned to most such activ­it­ies. Such work is light years away from that of an ideo­lo­gized “cre­at­ive class” most aspir­ants to which, it turns out, have to barter their aes­thet­ic skills, becom­ing “labile labour” pushed back recur­rently to square one and rarely able to make a liv­ing in their chosen cre­at­ive field.25Morgan, George, and Pariece Nelligan. The Creativity Hoax: Precarious Work and the Gig Economy. Anthem Press, 2018.

Whilst work by women, and work labelled as “women’s work,” is always under­val­ued with­in a pat­ri­arch­al sys­tem, two forms of this are par­tic­u­larly per­ni­cious and extremely rel­ev­ant in the con­text of the pan­dem­ic. One is care work, best con­ceived in terms of “glob­al care chains” or “a series of per­son­al links between people across the globe based on the paid or unpaid work of caring,”26Hochschild, Arlie Russel. “Global Care Chains and Emotional Surplus Value.” On the Edge: Living with Global Capitalism, edited by Anthony Giddens and Will Hutton, Jonathan Cape, 2000, pp. 130 – 146, p. 131.  with “people,” in fact, over­whelm­ingly women. Global care chains are also, of course, deeply racial­ized and class-​based, con­sti­tut­ing a kind of “emo­tion­al sur­plus labour” involving redis­tri­bu­tion from those lower in the chain to those high­er up. The second is, of course, house­work or “domest­ic work” marked, uni­ver­sally, by an unequal gendered divi­sion of labour, part of a wider set of activ­it­ies in the sphere of social repro­duc­tion that is both “a con­di­tion of pos­sib­il­ity for sus­tained cap­it­al accu­mu­la­tion”27Fraser, Nancy. “Crisis of Care? On the Social-​reproductive Contradictions of Contemporary Capitalism.”  Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression, edited by Tithi Bhattacharya, Pluto, 2017, pp. 21 – 36, p. 22. and inher­ently unstable and con­tra­dict­ory in the con­text of capitalism’s rampant pro­duct­iv­ism. Last, but far from least, sys­tems of racial­ized cap­it­al­ism ensure that social and eco­nom­ic value is derived from white­ness, even as racial­ized cat­egor­ies are con­struc­ted and con­tin­gent, with endem­ic insti­tu­tion­al racism ensur­ing the per­petu­ation of racial value.28Leong, Nancy. “Racial Capitalism.” Harvard Law Review, vol. 126, no. 8, 2013, pp. 2151 – 2226. The coher­ence of Black Lives Matter in the midst of a pan­dem­ic rests primar­ily on racial­ized nec­ro­pol­it­ics29Mbembe, Achille. Necropolitics. Duke University Press, 2019. as the rou­tin­ised viol­ence of racism inter­sects with the “who to let live and who to let/​make die” polit­ics of COVID-​19. The very neces­sity of Black Lives Matter shows the con­tin­ued sali­ence of the ideo­logy and prac­tice that such lives mat­ter less or not at all.

Time and Temporality in Pandemic Times

The “time of COVID” has a begin­ning although not yet an end, divid­ing time into “before COVID,” “dur­ing COVID,” itself sub-​divided tem­por­ally and spa­tially in terms of degrees of “lock­down” and “open­ness,” and with the hope, wheth­er through glob­al avail­ab­il­ity of a vac­cine, the estab­lish­ment of so-​called “herd immunity,” or less spe­cif­ic ways of the vir­us “burn­ing itself out,” to a “post-​COVID” time.  I share John Clarke’s view that the co-​existence of mul­tiple tem­por­al­it­ies cre­ates a sense of con­fu­sion and dis­or­i­ent­a­tion.30Clarke, John. “What Time is it? Temporal con­fu­sion in the time of coronavir­us.” Transforming soci­ety, 5 June 2020, Literally, time in lock­down is “locked down,” it loses its shape, as nor­mal­ized routines of every­day life, be it work and non-​work, the rhythm of sports events, choice of vaca­tion time and place, and the like, are dis­rup­ted and replaced, to an extent, by “phases in the life of the epi­dem­ic, rates of spread, muta­tion times, quar­ant­ine peri­ods, the time it takes to make a vac­cine, incub­a­tion time, etc.”31Jordheim, Helge, et al. “Epidemic Times.” Somatosphere, 2 April 2020,

A kind of slip­pery com­par­at­ive tem­por­al slope is pro­duced, with pro­nounce­ments from experts and politi­cians such as “we are where Italy was two weeks ago”32Ibid. or “if we con­tin­ue with the cur­rent meas­ures, we should see rates of infec­tion begin­ning to fall with­in the next two weeks.” A vir­al cal­cu­lus con­sist­ing of seven- or fourteen-​day rolling aver­ages, rates of infec­tions per 100,000 pop­u­la­tion, hos­pit­al­isa­tions, num­bers on vent­il­at­ors and/​or in intens­ive care (as a per­cent­age of some finite resource), where such facil­it­ies exist, death rates, and the like, all impre­cise and offer­ing a poor evid­ence base for inter­na­tion­al com­par­is­on, becomes the under­ly­ing rationale for policy choices. Politics and policy-​making becomes cotermin­ous with what Badiou has called “the con­trol of time”33Badiou, Alain. “Pandemic, Ignorance and New Collective Places.” Alienocene-​Dis-​Junction, 20 June 2020, or, at least, its loose and blurred gov­ernance, through which con­trol slips as sand through hands. A sep­ar­ate paper would be needed to address the com­plex­it­ies of social con­trol in the time of COVID and its com­plex link­ages with forms of gov­ernance, more often a hybrid­ized mix­ture of author­it­ari­an­ism, as in the exten­ded curfew or poli­cijski sat (lit­er­ally “police hour” or, fig­ur­at­ively, “police time,” in Serbo-​Croatian), excep­tion­al reg­u­la­tion for times of excep­tion, and more liber­tari­an or laissez-​faire prac­tices (“along the lines of the Swedish mod­el”), rather than a clear-​cut con­tinuum. There is also a dis­curs­ive jux­ta­pos­i­tion between “sav­ing people’s health” and “sav­ing the eco­nomy,” expressed in terms of dis­agree­ments as to wheth­er the two are in a rela­tion­ship of “trade-​off” or “com­pat­ib­il­ity.”

Here, I want to con­cen­trate on the restruc­tur­ing of tem­por­al hier­arch­ies: whilst all of us face what Jarvis, bor­row­ing from Ricoeur, terms “tem­por­al reck­on­ings,”34Jarvis, Lee. “Times of Crisis: Temporality and COVID-​19.” UEA Politics Blog, 27 April 2020,‑1/.; Ricoeur, Paul. “Narrative Time.” Critical Enquiry, vol. 7, no. 1, 1980, pp. 169 – 190. these are felt, exper­i­enced, lived and struc­tured dif­fer­ently for dif­fer­ent people, in dif­fer­ent places, at dif­fer­ent times. We have wit­nessed the strength­en­ing of, already strong, nation­al modes of gov­ernance, at its most nation­al­ist­ic in Trump’s labelling of COVID-​19 as “the Chinese vir­us,” and the attempts of his admin­is­tra­tion to secure vac­cines for Americans at the expense of the rest of the world, but tak­ing more mundane forms in stat­ist­ic­al com­par­at­ors, in ideas of the vir­us hav­ing been “brought in by those trav­el­ling from over­seas” and, of course, in the near uni­ver­sal­iz­ing of “bor­der clos­ures,” no longer apply­ing only to so-​called “illeg­al migrants.” Although nev­er an unprob­lem­at­ic concept, “glob­al­iz­a­tion” can be said to have been forced to take a “time-​out,” again demon­strated most stub­bornly in Trump’s impend­ing with­draw­al of the United States from the World Health Organization as well as in a dra­mat­ic, and unpre­ced­en­ted, fall in air pas­sen­ger travel.35Industry-​wide glob­al Revenue Passenger Kilometres (RPK) fell in the first half of 2020 com­pared to the first half of 2019 by 58.4%, and by a massive 86.5% when June 2020 is com­pared to June 2019. International flights per week fell from over 210,000 in January 2020 to less than 5,000 in April 2020 with a small recov­ery in June and July 2020 (“Air Passenger”).; “Air Passenger Market Analysis.” IATA, June 2020, — june-​20202/​. PDF file. Even if it were true when he wrote it, “COVID time” has rendered deeply prob­lem­at­ic Bauman’s sug­ges­tion that “nowadays we are all on the move”36Bauman, Zygmunt. Globalization: The Human Consequence. Columbia University Press, 1989, p. 77. even as it has amp­li­fied his sense that much of this involves us “stay­ing put” in front of a com­puter screen. The pan­dem­ic has restruc­tured but not elim­in­ated the dis­tinc­tion between two kinds of “nomadism,” that of cos­mo­pol­it­an, transna­tion­al, elites on the one hand, and the dis­pos­sessed migrants, “glob­al vag­a­bonds” in Bauman’s terms, on the oth­er, as well as between both of these and the stay at homes, the set­tler and settled pop­u­la­tion. The con­tin­ued need for migrant work­ers in Western Europe denied labour rights and placed at risk of infec­tion,37Edwards, Maxim. “Fruit pick­ing in a pan­dem­ic: Europe’s pre­cari­ous migrant work­ers.” Global Voices 14 July 2020, fur­ther com­plic­ated this.

The “lock­down” phase of the response to the pan­dem­ic was marked, in both the UK and Croatia, by the mes­sage to stay home (in Croatia, simply “ostan­ite doma;” in the UK, the more dis­curs­ively com­plex “Stay home – Protect the NHS – Save Lives”). For many, of course, as Clarke reminds us, time was “stolen,” with lives cut short as “life expect­ancy” at giv­en ages was brushed aside as age and spe­cif­ic con­di­tions began to be treated as “co-​morbidities.” To those who died should be added “those enclosed, isol­ated, shiel­ded and left to wait for who knows what”38Clarke, John. “What Time is it?” Ibid. as, for so many, “work time,” “school time,” even “play time” was sus­pen­ded, reduced or rad­ic­ally restruc­tured. There was little thought for those without a home to go to or not allowed to go home, includ­ing the home­less, those in refugee camps, insti­tu­tion­al care, pris­ons, nor for those at great­er risk of viol­ence through their inab­il­ity to leave their homes. Those who lost their jobs dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, or had their work inter­rup­ted whilst their employ­ers received gov­ern­ment sub­sidies, termed “fur­loughed work­ers” after a century-​old term for those on home leave from the mil­it­ary, exper­i­enced “a sur­feit of unwanted time,”39Jarvis, Lee. Ibid. find­ing them­selves lit­er­ally hav­ing “more time on their hands than they ever expected.”

As the quote that began this essay sug­gests, how­ever, “the gift” of “time” turned out, for many, to be some­thing of a “poisoned chalice.” Indeed, “time on your hands” turned, for many, into “time on the body,” a kind of “cor­por­eal tem­por­al­ity” as “work­ing from home” involved new pres­sures includ­ing jug­gling work with home-​schooling and child­care. Channeling Foucault, Preciado has sug­ges­ted that “an epi­dem­ic rad­ic­al­izes and shifts biopol­it­ic­al tech­niques by incor­por­at­ing them at the level of the indi­vidu­al body” becom­ing “the occa­sion for the large-​scale recon­fig­ur­a­tion of body pro­ced­ures and tech­no­lo­gies of power.”40Preciado, Paul. “Learning from the Virus.” ARTFORUM, 2020, At one extreme, this involves the mul­ti­plic­a­tion of extra-​corporeal tem­por­al­ity, Preciado terms it “rad­ic­al un-​dividualisation” as masks hide faces, and phys­ic­al bod­ies become “hid­den behind an indef­in­ite series of semio-​technical medi­ations, an array of cyber­net­ic pros­theses that work like digit­al masks: email addresses, Facebook, Instagram, Zoom, and Skype accounts.”41Ibid. Conversely, this out-​of-​body time often co-​exists along­side moments of tact­ile phys­ic­al­ity with part­ners, chil­dren, and pets, and inter­ac­tions, not­ably with deliv­ery drivers, where tact­ile phys­ic­al­ity is avoided.

The pan­dem­ic heightened and solid­i­fied a het­ero­gen­eous cat­egory of “essen­tial work­ers,” includ­ing rub­bish col­lect­ors, clean­ers, deliv­ery drivers, health­care work­ers, and oth­ers, oper­at­ing accord­ing to rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent spatio-​temporal frames from those stay­ing home, and often facing exten­ded work­ing hours and/​or peri­ods of time dis­tan­cing from oth­er fam­ily mem­bers, some­times of “unknow­able” dur­a­tion.42Jarvis, Lee. Ibid. “Essential” and “non-​essential” work becomes, at one and the same time, rigidly divided and intim­ately con­nec­ted, as tem­por­al­it­ies become both stretched and shrunk, dis­persed and con­cen­trated, con­strained and unfettered.

In many coun­tries, polit­ic­al exhorta­tions to do “the right thing at the right time giv­en what we now know”43Jordheim, Helge, et al. Ibid. meant that mes­sages of “stay home” shif­ted to a vaguer register – ostan­ite odgo­v­orni (stay respons­ible) in Croatia and, again, more elu­sively, Stay Alert – Control the Virus – Save Lives in the UK. The ques­tion of time-​work-​discipline is posed in new ways by oscil­lat­ing exhorta­tions to “work from home” and “come to work,” both “if at all pos­sible.” A range of (self-)disciplinary prac­tices have been con­sti­tuted, already famil­i­ar to those work­ing from home before the pan­dem­ic, from trust, through results-​based report­ing, to the insti­tu­tion­al­iz­a­tion of tele-​control sur­veil­lance as sales of “employ­ee mon­it­or­ing soft­ware” is repor­ted to be boom­ing.44Morrison, Sara. “Just because you’re work­ing from home doesn’t mean your boss isn’t watch­ing you.” Vox, 2 April 2020, It is not unim­port­ant that such soft­ware almost always involves “tem­por­al con­trol” and dis­persed, computer-​mediated “time man­age­ment.”45The com­mer­cial soft­ware pro­gramme “Time Doctor” ( prom­ises to “track breaks and time spent away from the com­puter,” as well as send­ing “Time Use alerts” to remind employ­ees to “stay off Facebook or oth­er time­wasters” along with “auto­mated screen­shots” and “nudges” when “non-​work-​related sites” are visited.

Value and Values in Pandemic

As noted above, work­ers des­ig­nated as “essen­tial,” at least dur­ing the first wave of the crisis, led to a dis­rup­tion of hier­arch­ies of value that focused solely on sup­ply and demand in the mar­ket. Gough46Gough, Ian. “In times of cli­mate break­down, how do we value what mat­ters?” OpenDemocracy, 28 April 2020,  shows how, at least in the UK, des­ig­na­tion of essen­tial work­ers, in guid­ance as to whose chil­dren could con­tin­ue to attend schools phys­ic­ally, included more than the health and social care work­ers usu­ally dis­cussed, and reg­u­larly and ritu­al­ist­ic­ally applauded, and exten­ded to farm­ers, super­mar­ket staff, work­ers in util­it­ies, trans­port work­ers, and oth­ers form­ing dis­tinct­ive “value chains.” Comparing this list with a 1939 list of “reserved occu­pa­tions,” tar­geted to male work­ers who were essen­tial in war­time and could not be enlis­ted in the armed forces, Gough notes the absence, in the new list, of indus­tri­al work­ers, “shock work­ers” in the old Soviet par­lance. Nevertheless, the new list still covered an estim­ated 22% of the total labour force.

Gough notes the close cor­res­pond­ence between these jobs and the ful­fil­ment of basic human needs, includ­ing food and water, hous­ing, health­care, hygiene, shel­ter, energy, and vari­ous kinds of secur­ity.47Ibid. Koepp adds use­fully that the dis­tri­bu­tion, trans­port­a­tion and deliv­ery of ser­vices to meet these basic needs ten­ded also to be clas­si­fied as “essen­tial.”48Koepp, Robert. “What this pan­dem­ic reveals about the value of work.” WZB, 23 April 2020, Crucially, many of these jobs are poorly paid, pre­cari­ous, some are included with­in the “plat­form eco­nomy,” and many dis­pro­por­tion­ately involve racial­ized minor­it­ies and migrant work­ers, and are pre­cisely those most intens­ively sub­jec­ted to time-​work dis­cip­line. In the health and social care sec­tor, the least val­ued jobs, such as clean­ers, tend to be under­taken by women. Succinctly put, “the work­ers who are most import­ant in the sense of what they actu­ally do are so often val­ued so little under cap­it­al­ism.”49Denvir qtd. in Koepp. Ibid.

A report from over a dec­ade ago from the New Economics Foundation50Lawlor, Ellis, et al. A Bit Rich: Calculating the Real Value to Society of Different Professionals. New Economics Foundation, 2009. assesses the gap between pay and social value for six pro­fes­sions, find­ing that invest­ment bankers des­troyed 7 GBP of social value for every 1 GBP of value paid, advert­ising exec­ut­ives des­troyed 11 GBP in social value, and tax account­ants 47 GBP of social value. In con­trast, child­care work­ers gen­er­ated over 7 GBP of social value, waste recyc­ling work­ers over 10 GBP of social value, and hos­pit­al clean­ers over 11 GBP of social value for every 1 GBP of pay. Lower paid work­ers tend to be in pos­i­tions gen­er­at­ing high­er social value, whilst also spend­ing more time on domest­ic and caring respons­ib­il­it­ies, res­ult­ing in ser­i­ous time defi­cits and even time poverty. As already noted, the pan­dem­ic has heightened these gaps rather than reduced them.

Nancy Fraser has argued that the COVID-​19 crisis has rendered the work of caring, above and bey­ond “care work,” more vis­ible,51Chang, Clio. “Taking Care of Each Other is Essential Work.” Vice, 7 April 2020, erod­ing for many both the phys­ic­al and dis­curs­ive bound­ary between pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion.52Denvir, Daniel. “Transcript: Beyond Economism with Nancy Fraser.” The Dig, 2020, At the same time, care is much more than a famili­al task car­ried out in the “domest­ic” or house­hold arena and, again, the pan­dem­ic draws atten­tion to this as “lock­down” and travel bans lim­ited the capa­cit­ies to care for fam­ily mem­bers of those in the dia­spora, or even those liv­ing away from those they care, as well as lim­it­ing access to “home­care” ser­vices,53Matković, Gordana, and Paul Stubbs. “Social Protection in the Western Balkans: Responding to the COVID-​19 Crisis.” Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Social Dimension Initiative, lit­er­ally mean­ing those in need of sup­port were forced “really to depend on those … at hand” such as neigh­bours, or on remote and haphaz­ard  volun­teers and char­it­able efforts. Revisiting Fraser’s notion of inter­linked crises, of social repro­duc­tion, of eco­logy, and of mar­kets and fin­ance vis-​à-​vis the state.54Fraser, Nancy. “The Wages of Care: Reproductive Labour as Fictitious Commodity.” CRASSH Cambridge, 9 Oct. 2013, Initial hopes that “lock­down” may lim­it the chron­ic exceed­ing of plan­et­ary bound­ar­ies dis­solved as quickly as decades-​long trends estab­lished neg­at­ive feed­back loops that, lit­er­ally, dis­solved the polar ice caps. At the same time, as Fraser has argued, the pan­dem­ic con­cen­trates minds on the ques­tion “what, exactly, is the pur­pose of ‘unes­sen­tial’ jobs?”55Denvir, Daniel. “Transcript.” Ibid. Gough, bor­row­ing from Baumol,56Baumol, William. “Entrepreneurship: Productive, Unproductive and Destructive.” Journal of Political Economy, vol. 98, no. 5, 1990, pp. 893 – 921. sug­gests that some of this labour is act­ively “destruct­ive” and a sim­il­ar case can be made for many of the goods if not avail­able dir­ectly in shops, then increas­ingly avail­able online, that have a built-​in obsolescence.

The oth­er cru­cial aspect of “value” dur­ing the COVID-​19 crisis has been the ways in which the bio­lo­gic­al nature of COVID-​19 has merged with insti­tu­tion­al factors and social and polit­ic­al judge­ments regard­ing whose lives are worth sav­ing and whose are not, who is to be “pro­tec­ted” or “shiel­ded” in the term adop­ted by the UK Government, and who should be “stig­mat­ized,” “excluded” and rendered “undeserving.” Just as the wider lay pub­lic have all become attuned to the stat­ist­ics of epi­demi­ology and immun­o­logy, a new audi­ence has been found for stat­ist­ics on “determ­in­ants of health out­comes” that focus on so-​called “socio-​economic status” along­side “demo­graphy.” The pan­dem­ic has revived a nev­er quite dormant assemblage of “eugen­i­cist” thought and prac­tice that, in broad brush stroke terms involves the iden­ti­fic­a­tion of “undesir­able” traits “and sub­sequently dis­cour­aging the sur­viv­al and repro­duc­tion of indi­vidu­als who have them in order to improve soci­ety.”57Harris, Olivia. “Severe, Irreversible Neurological Event: Eugenics in Healthcare in the Age of COVID-​19.” HIVE, 3 July 2020, The sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ship between stat­ist­ics and eugen­ics in the early nine­teenth cen­tury, described by Davis,58Davis, Lennard. “Introduction: Normality, Power, and Culture.” The Disability Studies Reader, 4th ed., edited by Lennard Davis, Routledge, 2013, pp. 1 – 14. involves the recal­ib­ra­tion of the nor­mal dis­tri­bu­tion of the Bell curve into a hier­archy of value. “Narrowing the curve” by elim­in­at­ing neg­at­ive traits, echoed per­versely in the “flat­ten­ing the curve” meta­phor beloved of the UK gov­ern­ment dur­ing the early phase of the pan­dem­ic, not­with­stand­ing that such a move would merely cre­ate a new nor­mal dis­tri­bu­tion, served, and still serves, to cre­ate an illu­sion of “pro­gress” and of “human per­fect­ib­il­ity.”59Ibid., p. 5. Just as it is argued that only a fit body can fight off the vir­us, it is a small step to the asser­tion that only a fit body polit­ic can suc­cess­fully “wage war” against the pandemic.

In situ­ations where the curve can­not be flattened, where demand for health­care resources out­strips sup­ply, it is a very thin line between “let­ting die” and “mak­ing die”60Safta-​Zecharia, Leyla. Away Towards the Asylum: Abandonment, Confinement and Subsistence in Psychiatric (De-)instituionalization in Romania. 2018. Central European University, PhD Dissertation, as the con­ven­tion­al prac­tice of “triage,” pri­or­it­iz­ing those most likely to be saved in situ­ations of scarce med­ic­al resources melds with a notion of “those worth sav­ing,” bundled togeth­er into a “score­card” to make a rap­id assess­ment of which patients should receive crit­ic­al care.61NHS ‘score’ tool to decide which patients receive crit­ic­al care.” Financial Times, 13 April 2020,; Reportedly, the tool con­sisted of three met­rics: age, frailty, and under­ly­ing con­di­tions. Although oth­er factors clearly inter­vene in the equa­tion, not least the sup­posedly tech­nic­al cat­egory of  “co-​morbidity,” of which much could be writ­ten, the new COVID eugen­ics revolves primar­ily around inter­sect­ing cat­egor­ies of “age,” “race,” and “dis­ab­il­ity.”

Age-​specific dis­courses on COVID-​19 abound, wheth­er treat­ing high mor­tal­ity rates of older people as “inev­it­able” and “nor­mal”62Fraser, Sarah, et al. “Ageism and COVID-​19: what does our society’s response say about us.” Age and Ageing, vol. 49, no. 5, 2020, pp. 692 – 695, or treat­ing the beha­vi­or of young people whose chance of dying from the vir­us seem to be stat­ist­ic­ally low as “selfish and reck­less.”63Daren, Sarah. “How COVID-​19 has Created Ageism in Healthcare.” HealthManagement, 5 May 2020, The United States CDC decision to treat the 18 – 29-​year-​old cohort as the “baseline for demon­strat­ing age-​related risk of hos­pit­al­iz­a­tion and death from COVID-​19” is, I would sug­gest, far from arbit­rary, since this group is of “prime pro­duct­ive age,” with those young­er hav­ing lower risks, and those older hav­ing high­er risks.64“Risk for COVID-​19 Infection, Hospitalization, and Death by Age Group.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18. Feb. 2021,; The risk is most pro­nounced for the two old­est groups, with those aged 75 – 84 hav­ing risks 8x high­er for hos­pit­al­iz­a­tion and 220x high­er for death, and those 85+ hav­ing risks that are 13x and 630x high­er. Many coun­tries intro­duced “shield­ing” as a form of, inten­ded or unin­ten­ded, curfew on older people, with Serbia, for example, allow­ing those over 65 to go out of the home only in the early morn­ings when no-​one else was allowed to ven­ture out.  Recreating a value-​based divi­sion between “act­ive” and there­fore “deserving,” and “pass­ive” or “frail” older people did not threaten the core of these dis­courses, amp­li­fied, of course, in the shame­ful prac­tice in the UK and else­where of mov­ing older people out of hos­pit­als into care homes without a COVID-​19 test, res­ult­ing in mass deaths or, altern­at­ively, freez­ing the long-​term care sys­tem, allow­ing no new entrants or vis­it­ors, pro­du­cing com­plete total insti­tu­tions in the pro­cess.65Matković, Gordana, and Paul Stubbs. Ibid.

“Structural racism” as a set of “mutu­ally rein­for­cing inequit­able sys­tems”66Egede, Leonard, and Rebekah Walker. “Structural Racism, Social Risk Factors, and Covid-​19 – a Dangerous Convergence for Black Americans.” New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 383, no. 12, 2020, res­ults in Black com­munit­ies and com­munit­ies of col­our hav­ing a high­er risk of becom­ing infec­ted by, and dying from, COVID-​19. At the same time, of course, the fact that “race” is itself a slip­pery and prob­lem­at­ic cat­egory and sci­entif­ic racism, not least in terms of the con­tin­ued search for caus­al links in terms of “genet­ic” or “life­style’ factors,” con­tin­ues to be amp­li­fied dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, means that the ways in which COVID-​19 tra­verses “the biopol­it­ics of a racially struc­tured cap­it­al­ist form­a­tion”67Clarke, John. “Following the Science? Covid-​19, ‘Race,’ and the Politics of Knowing.” Cultural Studies forth­com­ing. We can only hope…! I’ll let you know if I hear any­thing! is com­plex and sys­tem­at­ic­ally obscured. Clarke notes how the UK author­it­ies have con­struc­ted the acronym “BAME” (“Black and minor­ity eth­nic com­munit­ies”) as part of a con­tra­dict­ory pro­cess of “quan­ti­fy­ing, acknow­ledging and deny­ing” the racial­ized dimen­sion, ini­tially appar­ent in the dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­bers of black front­line health and social care work­ers dying and, later, high­er death rates in black com­munit­ies in gen­er­al.68Ibid. The inter­weav­ing of the racial­ized inequal­it­ies of the pan­dem­ic with the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on 25 May 2020, as his last words “I can’t breathe” res­on­ated so poignantly around the world, show the mul­tiple ways in which Black lives are val­ued less. This was echoed most absurdly, per­haps, in a report, from early April 2020, of Black men in a Walmart store in the United States being tar­geted by police and secur­ity guards for wear­ing masks,69Jan, Tracy. “Two black men say they were kicked out of Walmart for wear­ing pro­tect­ive masks. Others worry it will hap­pen to them.” The Washington Post, 9 April 2020, sug­gest­ing the mul­tiple dis­cip­lin­ar­it­ies against Black people in pub­lic spaces. As a Black act­iv­ist inter­viewed stated: “It used to be driv­ing while black, walk­ing while black and now it’s this oth­er thing — wear­ing a mask while black.”70Teresa Haley, President of the Illinois Conference of the NAACP, in ibid.

In a revived eugen­i­cist assemblage, people with dis­ab­il­it­ies or chron­ic ill­ness face extreme vul­ner­ab­il­ity dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, akin to a kind of “dis­pens­ab­il­ity,” amp­li­fied by the mul­tiple ways in which their needs and demands are rendered invis­ible and irrel­ev­ant. Public health plans and, indeed, mes­saging is effect­ively tar­geted only to so-​called “healthy” or “non-​disabled per­sons”71Moore, Liz. “Disabled People are not Simply Dispensable During a Pandemic.” Rooted in Rights, 18 March 2020, as those with “spe­cial needs” are seen as of less­er value when resources needed routinely, such as oxy­gen tanks, vent­il­at­ors and pro­tect­ive equip­ment are sud­denly in short sup­ply.72“Disability and chron­ic ill­ness in the pan­dem­ic.” Pirate Care Syllabus, As only one example, until very recently, the impact of the wear­ing of face masks on the D/​deaf com­munity, par­tic­u­larly those who lipread, was ignored; indeed, the very rationale for uni­ver­sal mask wear­ing, that it may lim­it trans­mis­sion with min­im­al neg­at­ive impacts, is impli­citly ableist in its nor­mal­iz­ing assump­tions.73Grote, Helen, and Fizz Izagaren. “Covid-​19: the com­mu­nic­a­tion needs of D/​deaf health­care work­ers and patients are being for­got­ten.” BMJ, 15 June 2020, Responses, such as in Croatia,74“Tko ne treba nos­iti masku? Izuzeće od obveze nošenja maske.” Hrvatski zavod za javno zdravstvo, 13 July 2020, that lists “people with par­tic­u­lar forms of dis­ab­il­ity” includ­ing men­tal health con­di­tions (termed “dam­age” or “han­di­cap”), dis­ab­il­it­ies on the aut­ism spec­trum, and people with intel­lec­tu­al dis­ab­il­it­ies, as well as people with hear­ing chal­lenges, as exempt from wear­ing masks, but without sug­gest­ing any altern­at­ives, are part of the prob­lem and not a solu­tion.  The struc­tur­al viol­ence of a para­dox­ic­al com­bin­a­tion of deni­al of (appro­pri­ate) care and the impos­i­tion of (inap­pro­pri­ate) care for people with dis­ab­il­it­ies is com­poun­ded as their needs and demands are de-​prioritised and, thus, rendered dis­pos­able.75“Disability and chron­ic ill­ness.” Ibid. This is at its most total­iz­ing in locked down res­id­en­tial facil­it­ies that, as Safta-​Zecharia reminds us, how­ever isol­ated care homes may be, they are inev­it­ably situ­ated with­in com­plex and exten­ded transna­tion­al migra­tion and com­munity employ­ment chains.76Safta-​Zecharia, Leyla. “Challenges posed by COVID-​19 to the health of people with dis­ab­il­it­ies liv­ing in res­id­en­tial care facil­it­ies in Romania.” Disability & Society, vol. 35, no. 5, 2020, pp. 837 – 843. Taylor & Francis Online, doi/epub/10.1080/09687599.2020.1754766?needAccess=true.

Of course, there is much that could, and should, be added to an inter­sec­tion­al under­stand­ing of the mul­tiple viol­ences of responses to the COVID-​19 pan­dem­ic, played out in every­day micro­agres­sions and insti­tu­tion­al­ised struc­tures of oppres­sion, with, at the very least, class, gender, and sexu­al­ity need­ing to be added.77Matković, Gordana and Paul Stubbs. Ibid.; refer to the accu­mu­la­tion of evid­ence on the escal­a­tion of gender-​based viol­ence and the dif­fi­culties, in “lock­down,” of escape. More work is, clearly, needed, on the ways responses to the pan­dem­ic impact on dif­fer­ent groups dif­fer­ently, includ­ing the spe­cif­ic chal­lenges “for those who sit at the inter­sec­tions of these over­lap­ping sys­tems of oppres­sion, such as adoles­cent refugee girls, dis­abled women of lower caste, home­less trans­gender youth, or migrant work­ers from minor­ity eth­ni­cit­ies.”78Lokot, Michelle, and Yeva Avakyan. “Intersectionality as a lens to the COVID-​19 pan­dem­ic: implic­a­tions for sexu­al and repro­duct­ive health in devel­op­ment and human­it­ari­an con­texts.” Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters, vol. 28, no. 1, 2020. Taylor & Francis Online, doi/full/10.1080/26410397.2020.1764748. What is clear is that fram­ing these com­plex pat­terns in terms of sys­tem­ic de-​valorisation rather than in the prob­lem­at­ic con­struct of “vul­ner­ab­il­ity” offers a much more appro­pri­ate ana­lyt­ic­al frame and the pos­sib­il­ity of a much-​needed politi­cisa­tion of the chal­lenges ahead.


Treating tem­por­al­ity and value as inter­linked adds to the com­plex­ity of the ques­tion as to how the pan­dem­ic has restruc­tured lives. Addressing the rela­tion­ship between chan­ging tem­por­al­it­ies and chan­ging mor­al eco­nom­ies of value, shows the extent to which dom­in­ant, hege­mon­ic, under­stand­ings of “worth” have been amp­li­fied in many ways whist also becom­ing unstable, cap­able of being sub­ver­ted, and, indeed sub­ject to rad­ic­al cri­tique. Revisiting the ques­tion posed in the intro­duc­tion, as to what extent such a cri­tique might be the har­binger of crit­ic­al con­scious­ness, reval­id­a­tion, and action, it should be clear that, in the words of Joe Strummer, “the future is unwrit­ten” and writ­ing it will depend upon polit­ic­al action. The danger, of course, here, is that “a com­pel­ling story of a total­iz­ing sys­tem, strategy or force” is fol­lowed by “a tagged-​on last para­graph about res­ist­ance”80Clarke, John. Changing Welfare, Changing States: New Directions in Social Policy. Sage, 2014, p. 158. as well as the danger of repro­du­cing a crude bin­ary oppos­i­tion “between res­ist­ance and resignation/​subordination/​full con­sent.”81Civelek, Cansu. Non-​spectacular policy mak­ing: Urban gov­ernance, silence, and dis­sent in an abort­ive renew­al pro­ject in Eskisehir, Turkey. 2020. University of Vienna, PhD Dissertation, p. 193. What should be clear is that the dynam­ics of the pan­dem­ic are com­plex and con­tra­dict­ory, both repro­du­cing and intensi­fy­ing dom­in­ant tem­por­al­it­ies and sys­tems of value whilst sim­ul­tan­eously dis­rupt­ing them. In this sense, res­ist­ance and recal­cit­rance needs to be nuanced and work at dif­fer­ent levels.

Of course, noth­ing short of a full-​blown cri­tique of pat­ri­arch­al racial cap­it­al­ism is needed if tem­por­al­ity and value are to be recon­sti­t­uted as com­pon­ents of struggles for more egal­it­ari­an, demo­crat­ic and even eman­cip­at­ory social rela­tions. Reconfiguring the “pub­lic” and “private” spheres, valu­ing unpaid work and household/​domestic labour and, indeed, rede­fin­ing the rela­tion­ship between pro­duct­ive and repro­duct­ive labour, rede­fin­ing what is “essen­tial,” what is desir­able and what is “waste­ful” or “destruct­ive,” are all clearly cent­ral here. A shift from hier­arch­ies of (mon­et­ary) value and over-​consumption, at least in the over­de­veloped world, requires pub­lic pro­vi­sion­ing, decom­modi­fic­a­tion, and invest­ment in loc­al com­munit­ies. Although the crisis of eco­logy has not been cent­ral to this essay, the recon­fig­ur­a­tion of time and value is pre­figured in demands and struggles for degrowth, cir­cu­lar or “found­a­tion­al” eco­nom­ies, and more loc­al­ized pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion pro­cesses. A “care com­mons” based on ideas of mutu­al solid­ar­ity, inter­de­pend­ence, and reci­pro­city must sub­sti­tute for cur­rent state-​capitalocentric hier­arch­ies of time and value, as the pan­dem­ic amp­li­fies the need for “cre­at­ive expres­sions of the new, the unthought and the unex­pec­ted.”82Gibson-​Graham, J.K. A Postcapitalist Politics. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.


Thanks to Bojan Bilić and Leyla Safta-​Zecharia for help­ful com­ments on an earli­er draft. My greatest debt, as ever, is to John Clarke, for his care­ful read­ing and sug­ges­tions on two earli­er drafts, his inspir­a­tion­al writ­ings on the pan­dem­ic and on much else, and, above all, for the gift of friend­ship over many years.

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