Workism in a Literal Pandemic


CJ Green / 3.18.20

Citing the likes of C.S. Lewis to Tara Isabella Burton, many have pointed out that our present crisis has only made clearer what we already knew to be true: that we are mortal beings. Our bodies are fragile, perishable, and will not last forever in their present condition. But the pandemic has also confirmed some other things. For example, the tight interlacing of work and justification. For the lucky among us (not ill, not wrangling kids), quarantine may mean more time…to do what? Increase output? Finally work out, or read that stack of books? I, for one, hope to do these things. But the anxiety that comes at the thought of not doing them—of failing quarantine—is illustrative of something deeper.

A resounding screed from Nick Martin at The New Republic reminds us that we don’t have to be productive in a pandemic. Maybe the productivity we worshipped before was a baseless religion all along.

…life mostly sucks right now, plain and simple. And if you find yourself considering that fact, it’s just as likely that you’ll bump up against some unwelcome reminder that—in the face of historic disruption and uncertainty—you can actually get a lot done in home isolation! Did you know Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he was quarantined during the plague? Have you tried baking as a form of corona therapy? How about turning your living room into a home gym using soup cans for hand weights? INBOX: Want 19 easy tips on how to manage anxiety in the time of Covid-19?

This mindset is the natural endpoint of America’s hustle culture—the idea that every nanosecond of our lives must be commodified and pointed toward profit and self-improvement. And in a literal pandemic, as millions of us are trying to practice home isolation while also attending to the needs of our families and communities, the obscenity of pretending that work and “the self” are the only things that matter—or even exist—becomes harder to ignore.

You can see this happening in all kinds of contexts, some of it in the form of smiling mandates from employers about “business as usual” while working from home. Managers at The Wall Street Journal instructed newly remote workers to answer work chat messages “within just a few minutes” and to leave cameras on during video conference meetings, as if there’s some productivity or accountability benefit to letting your boss see what the shitty couch in your apartment looks like. The “good worker” during a pandemic is the good worker during any other time: always available to management. (“Now is not the time to screen calls.”)

The crux of these kinds of posts and newsletters and articles and mandates from work is rooted in the same misguided mindset: Yes, this pandemic is bad, but how can you improve yourself with all this solitude? And more to the point, how can you continue to prove your worth as a hard worker?

…The work of care, of real meaning, is what we should be concerning ourselves with now. It is not optimized, or “disrupting,” or any of that. It is just essential. Reaching out to offer support to the soon-to-be overworked nurses in our communities, contributing to local funds and efforts to feed and adequately compensate grocery workers, restaurant workers, and others who are working at great risk and may be struggling to put food on the table. We should be offering to make shopping runs for our elders and other at-risk neighbors. This is the essential work that demands our attention now, too.

For all the other stuff? The nonessentials? It will not vanquish your fears and stressors to churn out a spreadsheet any faster than usual. Some of us, the fortunate among us, have a kind of time now that may feel new. It can allow us a second to be true to ourselves and our emotions, or to turn away from ourselves and toward care for others, or both at the same time. You don’t have to write your novel. You don’t have to reorganize your closet. Burying yourself in mindless busywork is not the solution. So, go ahead, turn the video function off when your boss calls.

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One response to “Workism in a Literal Pandemic”

  1. David Zahl says:

    WOW. Thank you, CJ, for bringing this to our attention.

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