Value and Temporality
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, www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/madonna-coronavirus-nude-bathtub-covid-19-instagram-fried-fish-a9417441.html. 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, publicseminar.org/2015/02/cog-cap/. 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, www.criticatac.ro/lefteast/time-for-a-universal-basic-income/.
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, www.transformingsociety.co.uk/2020/06/05/what-time-is-it-temporal-confusion-in-the-time-of-coronavirus/. 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, somatosphere.net/2020/epidemic-times.html/.
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, alienocene.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/ab.pdf. 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, www.ueapolitics.org/2020/04/27/times-of-crisis-temporality-and-covid‑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, www.iata.org/en/iata-repository/publications/economic-reports/air-passenger-monthly-analysis — 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, globalvoices.org/2020/07/14/fruit-picking-in-a-pandemic-europes-precarious-migrant-workers/. 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, www.artforum.com/print/202005/paul-b-preciado-82823. 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, www.vox.com/recode/2020/4/2/21195584/coronavirus-remote-work-from-home-employee-monitoring. It is not unimportant that such software almost always involves “temporal control” and dispersed, computer-mediated “time management.”45The commercial software programme “Time Doctor” (www.timedoctor.com) 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, www.opendemocracy.net/en/oureconomy/times-climate-breakdown-how-do-we-value-what-matters/. 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, wzb.eu/en/research/coronavirus-and-its-impact/what-this-pandemic-reveals-about-the-value-of-work. 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, www.vice.com/en_us/article/jge39g/taking-care-of-each-other-is-essential-work. eroding for many both the physical and discursive boundary between production and reproduction.52Denvir, Daniel. “Transcript: Beyond Economism with Nancy Fraser.” The Dig, 2020, www.thedigradio.com/transcripts/transcript-beyond-economism-with-nancy-fraser/. 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, library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/sarajevo/16380.pdf. 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, www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/gallery/video/nancy-fraser-the-wages-of-care-reproductive-labour-as-fictitious-commodity. 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, hhive.unc.edu/2020/07/severe-irreversible-neurological-event-eugenics-in-healthcare-in-the-age-of-covid-19-by-olivia-harris/. 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, dsps.ceu.edu/sites/pds.ceu.hu/files/attachment/basicpage/478/safta-zecherialeylapp-dissertation2018web.pdf. 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.61“NHS ‘score’ tool to decide which patients receive critical care.” Financial Times, 13 April 2020, www.ft.com/content/d738b2c6-000a-421b-9dbd-f85e6b333684.; 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, academic.oup.com/ageing/advance-article/doi/10.1093/ageing/afaa097/5831206. 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, healthmanagement.org/c/hospital/post/how-covid-19-has-created-ageism-in-healthcare. 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, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/covid-data/investigations-discovery/hospitalization-death-by-age.html.; 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, www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2023616. 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, www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/04/09/masks-racial-profiling-walmart-coronavirus/. 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, rootedinrights.org/disabled-people-are-not-simply-dispensable-during-a-pandemic/. 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, syllabus.pirate.care/session/disabilityinthepandemic/. 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, www.bmj.com/content/369/bmj.m2372. Responses, such as in Croatia,74“Tko ne treba nositi masku? Izuzeće od obveze nošenja maske.” Hrvatski zavod za javno zdravstvo, 13 July 2020, www.hzjz.hr/priopcenja-mediji/tko-ne-treba-nositi-masku-izuzece-od-obveze-nosenja-maske/. 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”79www.imdb.com/title/tt0800099/ 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.