Visible Faultlines: A Conversation with the Authors of “Unprecedented? How COVID-19 Revealed the Politics of Our Economy”
By Michelle ChiharaOctober 6, 2022
As Davies points out, in the study of capitalism, scholars tend to pay a lot attention to the idea of crisis. When and how, in certain phases of history, do the mechanisms of the economy reach a point of unsustainability? In theorizing crisis, scholars look for breaking points between regimes. They identify a pause in the order of things where everything is thrown into flux, before something new emerges.
Unprecedented? approaches things differently. They sensed that various aspects of the economy that were very much present before 2020 became intensified. The pandemic hit while austerity measures were still in place in the ongoing fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. One of the central features of the pandemic thus became a concern with how to sustain things — work, education, and the economy itself. Many of the key institutions and policies put to work in the pandemic were nothing new under the sun, but new hierarchies of value emerged. Whose job would come first, in being saved? Whose education would be put first? Whose priority to cross borders would be sustained?
The metaphor of photosynthesis suggests that light brings things into focus while also making things grow — certain faultlines and problems became more visible, but were also amplified, pushing them to a new breaking point. The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t terminate one order and introduce another, and in that sense, it didn’t conform to the theories of crisis. It affirmed and accelerated forces that were already all around us. Thus, the question mark in the title of the book: as some forces are made visible, which are entirely without precedent? And what is being intensified?
MICHELLE CHIHARA: Let’s start with the idea of photosynthesis.
SAHIL JAI DUTTA: In an economy that is as highly indebted as the United Kingdom or the United States, it should be that when struck by a crisis like this, things will keel over. Our debts, which have been piling up, will finally become due. But instead, we see that in this economy, an economy predicated on promises, it suddenly becomes imperative that the governing forces ensure and protect the promises themselves. Central banks around the world — particularly the US Federal Reserve, but also the Bank of England, and the European Central Bank — just stepped in to say, we will make unlimited state, private, or central bank promises, so that all else can be upheld. We will put the entire monetary arsenal of our central banks behind everybody else’s debt, and ensure that nothing collapses. It was something that was very striking, the pace and ease with which they created unlimited amounts of central bank liquidity to defend the financial system, to defend financial values, and to defend these promises.
MC: For you, what’s the most striking example of the state protecting financial values, at the expense of letting other things, institutions, or people collapse?
SJD: The US Treasury bill market is a $20 trillion market. It’s the anchor to global finance. And if that goes wrong — if people stop being able to trust the credibility of the US Treasury bonds — then all finance stops. Everything, instantly, will freeze. So, what the Fed initially promised was: alright, we’ll put $500 billion behind this market. And then a week later, when that wasn’t enough, they said they would put in unlimited amounts.
The Fed would argue that we’re all dependent on that system. But you don’t see the same ease in making that kind of support available to healthcare workers. Imagine if they had just said, right, we will protect your incomes. No questions asked. That didn’t happen, but it did become visible that we have this enormous capacity to intervene. This is the era of big government in a way that completely dwarfs the past. But it’s routed through the central bank. Only certain types of intervention become possible — interventions into the value of financial assets, and not interventions into the well-being of people, broadly conceived.
Then, the other examples were the moves like furlough in the UK.
MC: Could you explain, briefly, for an American audience how furlough worked?
NICK TAYLOR: Furlough was really quite an extraordinary and unprecedented intervention in the UK context. The history of social protection over the last couple of decades has been geared towards trying to compel people into work through a very ungenerous welfare system. In that, it was very similar to the States, with a “work first” or “workfare” approach. The furlough scheme totally disrupted this. Furlough was in part the compulsion to get people to not work anymore, to stay at home! People would get paid, but on the condition that they did not work, and their jobs were to be protected on the other side. Various iterations of it were introduced for the self-employed, and it became increasingly flexible. But of course, the interesting thing was how far this disrupted that “work first” logic.
Going forward, there are lots of calls for more inclusive, permanent furlough schemes to be maintained as a state buffer for the ups and downs of the labor market. Access to furlough mirrored the labor market: it was employers’ discretion to use the furlough scheme or not, and there were no guaranteed rights to furlough. So it still had the effect of shutting certain people out, and it didn’t always ensure that workers got an adequate salary.
MC: So the class politics of furlough recreated or amplified some of the existing class politics. Can you say more about what you mean by the furlough system creating a wider political pressure for furlough to continue?
NT: In many other countries, there are welfare systems that provide much greater resilience to shocks like what we’re experiencing in the pandemic. The UK was extraordinarily exposed, in many ways, in terms of the personal and social safety nets that were available to people. The furlough scheme created an expectation around government action in times of economic turbulence, an expectation that could potentially endure.
At the same time, the “work first” strategy was always predicated on trying to get the employment rate really high, without really being concerned about the quality of jobs and insecurity in the labor market. It was: just get as many people into work as possible. And that’s what we’re seeing again. That’s always been the rebuff to calls for a more resilient or adequate social welfare system.
MC: Between 2020 and 2021 we saw the Great Resignation, where each year the job report counted more quitters than the last, which some people are interpreting as a labor action, almost like a big slow-moving strike. We have new waves of labor organizing, alongside growing calls for Universal Basic Income. At the same time, “hustle culture” and an intense ideological commitment to work as a source of meaning are still very powerful here. How strong is the cultural commitment to “work first,” in contrast with the push for more furlough, in the UK?
WILL DAVIES: There is a sense that ultimately, furlough or no furlough, the model of capitalism that we’re witnessing is now perhaps more intensified, and it’s one in which the rights of homeowners or of a certain type of rentier capitalists are put first. We use the term “rentier nationalism” in the book in the spirit of trying to see what has actually endured or become more exposed, rather than what is novel. I think rentier nationalism predates the pandemic.
In terms of “hustle culture” or the gig economy, the rentiers would include the owners of platforms. It would include those who win contracts to deliver services for the state, but then don’t actually do very much to deliver on those contracts. They simply win the contracts, then treat them as assets from which they can draw income. Around that, there’s a model of labor market flexibility. That model got put on ice to some extent during the pandemic, but intensive labor market flexibility remains the ethos of this particular form of conservatism.
There really is no labor market policy other than flexibility. The difference is that at least rhetorically, there’s now an appeal to nation and to a national population being that which will fill these jobs. That’s a break from a more cosmopolitan neoliberalism, and that nationalist element intersects with Brexit.
One thing that was important to us in the book was highlighting the extent to which the process of re-bordering, which is a feature of various populist politics on the right, is also a profit-making opportunity for a certain type of rentier business that specializes in the surveillance of populations and the extraction of data from populations, but also the confinement of populations.
Maybe Martina could say a bit about the topics of borders and migration, which represent a crucial ingredient in the broader model of capitalism that we’re trying to map here.
MC: Martina, in the book you write about the “passport to freedom,” and how access to flexible travel became monetized during the pandemic, but only at the expense of the increased control of other parts of the population.
MARTINA TAZZIOLI: Definitely during the first lockdown and throughout COVID-19, and specifically in the UK, there has been a process of strengthening the nexus between confinement and protection. For the first time, it has become very clear that migrants have been confined in the name of their own protection.
In accommodation centers, or in Southern England in ex-barracks in the city of Folkestone, migrants ended up living in cramped spaces, where of course they all got COVID-19. But officially they have been sent there to prevent exposure, and to protect the population at large from the migrants. So there was this ambivalent discourse.
A similar logic was at play in other countries on the continent. Italy and Greece quite clearly participated in this trend, using a logic of confining to protect. In Italy, migrants have been sent and are still sent to Paris upon landing. As soon as they arrive in Italy, instead of sending them to reception centers, they’re sent to quarantine ships. These were invented with the purpose of protecting and isolating them, but they end up being a kind of detention center. In Greece, migrants are still targeted by discriminatory decrees that restrict their mobility, and not the mobility of Greek citizens.
The “passport to freedom” has been more evident in Europe than in the UK. In some countries like France, Italy, and Spain, it has become in practice impossible for some people (without sufficient funds or privileges) to get the so-called “green pass.” Getting access to the green pass is extremely complicated for foreigners, even if they’re on the territory with papers — so they’re not undocumented. As a result, they’re prevented from getting access to the welfare systems, and to the health sector, but also to crossing borders.
WD: Also, as in the United States, there’s a lot of money being sucked out of all of this, right? G4S, Serco — a handful of companies that crawl all over states, across the world, in order to basically extract profits from the constraints, the confinement, and the management of human mobility.
MC: These situations provide certain actors a path to profits, while other groups are increasingly controlled and surveilled. The whole social system becomes like an airplane, where first class is seated in the front because it’s more convenient and more visible. First class lets you perform your freedom, and you’re willing to pay for mobility as a kind of high-class badge. If you have enough money now, you can buy multiple passports. Transnational sovereignty is something that’s available for a price to the global upper class, while everyone else gets the barracks.
MT: In the UK in particular, class-based mobility became so blatant during COVID-19 because of the double-test system, which was crazily expensive. Visitors had to test before coming, and then on day two and day eight, and this package of tests cost an average of £200, and higher! In addition to that, we had a “red list” of countries, nations whose citizens were basically banned from coming into the UK, while UK citizens and UK residents could travel to and from the red list, provided that they went to an expensive hotel to be in quarantine for two weeks.
MC: So what’s unprecedented about these changes? What will change and what will persist?
SJD: Can I come back to your airplane metaphor? One of the concepts we used was the K-shaped economy, where one section of the economy grows (asset prices), while another stagnates (incomes to labor/production). We are articulating the very stark difference in the outcomes of governance for one narrow band, versus the rest. The status of something like the economy — keeping the economy in good health — no longer really has much meaning to people. Which side of the k-shaped economy you are in determines where you sit on the airplane.
This relates to the question you asked about the antiwork sentiment. I think for those with means, who had space in their homes and suddenly found themselves with more time because they weren’t commuting, there was an experience of, “Actually there is more to life than work! I can rely on the value of my financial assets and my home to sustain my well-being well into the future. And I can then pursue other interests and do great things!”
But to keep that serviced, you had this whole army of the un-assetized, who were there being the delivery drivers and otherwise servicing this household, while the household gets to rethink the importance and the centrality of work in their lives. This dynamic was really photosynthesized during the pandemic and might well endure. Governance might organize around the protection of this elite group, while everybody else literally runs or cycles around servicing them.
In the terms of traditional liberal government, you managed the economy as a singular entity by sorting out unemployment, or you sorted out GDP. That’s not what monetary policy or what economic policy is doing now. Now, it’s about protecting asset prices, or in the case of the labor markets, about making things hyper-flexible so that you have this army of gig workers ready to go and service the people with assets.
MC: Can you talk a little bit more about the politics of flexibility?
NT: The pandemic has politicized flexibility. It revealed a desire for flexibility that is very different from that definition of employer discretion. Flexibility now also means for the employees to determine their working hours, their place of work, and so on.
This is still wrought with the existing inequalities of the labor market, though. About two thirds of working class people just don’t have that kind of flexibility available to them at all. No flextime or part-time work, which is very gendered — it’s much more in demand from working mothers currently. So the pandemic has politicized this form of flexibility and the refusals to go into work.
We’re seeing surveys in the United States of places where the offices are still only 40 percent to 50 percent full, which is really incredible. And it’s quite similar here. There’s a culture war going on, between the government and the civil service, trying to get civil servants back into work. But nevertheless, we still come back to the question of flexibility for whom? Who is going to reap the benefits of this visibility, this new capacity or demand of working from home?
WD: This connects with a theme in the book that we call “the crisis of space.” The crisis of space has been underway for some time, but it’s been accelerated by the pandemic. The household is now put to a whole range of new purposes with the aid of digital platforms. Whether or not you have a home office is a major question as to whether or not working from home is a kind of privilege, or whether it’s just a huge pain, where you have to dodge other family members and children.
The first-class lounge appears as the ultimate elite lifestyle. This shows up in the data around real estate and the massive inflation in value of rural properties in these beautiful spots in the UK, in the Cotswolds or the Yorkshire Dales. Cornwall has a terrible housing crisis, in a very remote corner of the UK, where a select few can live a life by doing their job on a broadband cable, tweaking numbers on screens.
Another theme in the book is homeschooling, where again, with adequate space and adequate support, it becomes possible for the household to host the social reproduction of education along with asset appreciation.
There was an extraordinary inflation of house prices all across the United States and Europe over 2020 and 2021, largely as a side effect of quantitative easing. In the UK, this is the first recession since 1945 where net household wealth has risen. That’s unprecedented — to have the economy shrink by 25 percent while average household or net household wealth increases? It shows that something very, very strange took place.
Sometimes it appears that neoliberalism is all about individuals and entrepreneurs, but anyone who reads Melinda Cooper’s work knows that the family has been the oft-unspoken unit at the heart of it all. The family in the household ensures the reproduction of a model that favors the elite household from one generation to the next. The digital platform, the closure of schools and the closure of workplaces, plus quantitative easing pumping money into the financial system — all this meant that the tendencies that Cooper traces back to the early 1970s in Family Values were put on even greater display in 2020 and 2021. Many of those tendencies can’t and won’t be reversed.
MC: We’re seeing the logical endpoint and the massive amplification of Cooper’s insights. Also, what she and Martijn Konings and Lisa Adkins call “the asset economy,” where the single family home becomes the site of production, social reproduction, and investment in human capital, all at once. Talk to me about how unpaid care work and essential workers fare in this economy run on assets and promises. What are the examples that stick with you?
NT: What we call “key workers” (akin to the category of “essential workers” in the States) keep the system going. Key workers are at the base of what some call the foundational economy. They staff the sectors; they provide the goods and services that keep things safe and civilized. They ensure social well-being, and that public goods are delivered.
In the pandemic, we saw the erosion and the exhaustion of all social reproductive resources, in the form of people’s health, in the erosion of their capacity to care. It’s not really possible to “hyper-flexibilize” these services and these goods. Putting pressure on key workers to become more productive is absolutely counterintuitive. We need to invest in them, even if they’re not going to deliver the kind of headline economic growth that the political slogan “build back better” centers.
SJD: I think of the example of care homes, where elderly people are serviced and kept alive, and their well-being is entirely dependent upon care workers. The people who work in these homes are among the lowest-paid and most flexibly employed. The only reason these care homes generate a profit for their owners — most of which are private equity companies — is that these care workers will go above and beyond. They dedicate their time, because they’re operating on a system of values that isn’t akin to the monetary values that the private equity firms run by. Without those laborers doing this socially reproductive work — exposing themselves during the pandemic to excessive risk which is totally different from everybody else, their rates of infection and even their death rates are higher in that sector than in any other — these places don’t turn a profit. These workers tend to be racialized minorities, to be migrant workers, to be women workers. And this model just draws down on their emotional labor, their physical labor, keeps on drawing down on them, because theirs is a vocation where there is no limit. There is no limit to our good hearts in that sense. And that was the model.
At the beginning of the pandemic, private corporate debt was bought by the central bank in the quantitative easing program. A company like Ford had issued billions of dollars of debt, which had fallen to “junk” status but was now being supported by the Fed. It was like Ford could raise money indefinitely and use that money to reward themselves. Could you have something similar to that for not a massive car company, but for care workers? Could a co-operation of care workers issue their own debt, get support from the central bank, in exactly the same channel, and use that to finally recognize and reward themselves? And if that’s not possible, what does that tell us about these two systems of valuation?
WD: In Britain, teachers and teaching assistants were operating out of that well of care and effectively working as social workers, trying to get food and clothing to children. All of these intermediate institutions like workplaces and schools, ones that are so critical for the well-being of children, were switched off. People were basically being forced into new types of work and forced into forms of obligation, without pay. But at the same time, the government effectively made a promise to spew as much cash into the financial system as was needed. And what was really remarkable, although perhaps not really all that surprising to anyone who has paid attention to this, is the sheer number of private-sector entities and contractors and entrepreneurs that immediately just sort of congregated around the state. They realized that there was a kind of giveaway going on, of contracts to deliver like proper PPE. Many of these entities were not in any way dedicated to the sustainability of society, or even necessarily to the economy.
Around those in proximity to the Conservative Party and to Boris Johnson, these fairly dubious relationships came to light. Effectively having made this promise that “we will create as much money as is needed in order to keep the economy going around” prompted all sorts of vultures to have at it.
MC: Some of the realities around care and debt are really very depressing. I think the experience of the pandemic for so many people has been overwhelming. Perhaps we can end on a note of hope and solidarity?
NT: It might not last, but we saw the sudden prevalence of mutual aid in the pandemic, which stretched our understanding of the social infrastructure. Like the neighborhood WhatsApp groups? I’m sure that all of us probably partook in these? People could say, “I need something from the pharmacy, can you go and get it?” And someone would answer. There was this incredible moment of social solidarity.
MC: These were self-organized groups, not organized by any platform?
SJD: They were self-organized. It was a glimpse of “baseline communism.” The pandemic did reveal the necessary interdependence that society has, and that was very powerful. That’s the basis on which we might rebuild after COVID-19 in a way that’s centered on the care economy, because that’s what we do without thinking, regardless. I think that’s the thread of promise, in COVID-19, for me. Obviously, how we get there is a different question. But the pandemic laid bare just how necessary mutual aid is to a just and functioning society.
Michelle Chihara is an editor at Los Angeles Review of Books.
Michelle Chihara (MFA, PhD UC Irvine) is editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Studies in American Fiction, n+1, Trop Magazine, Green Mountains Review, the Santa Monica Review, Echoes, Mother Jones, and The Boston Phoenix, among others. Her research involves real estate, financial panics, and contemporary culture. You can find her online at michellechihara.com.
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