The pandemic is making us question the connection between work and money. That's a good thing

Unemployment supplements, stimulus checks, and trillions thrown at corporations. Is money as "real" as we thought?

Published July 19, 2020 7:30PM (EDT)

Ripped up and worn a hundred dollar bill (Getty Images)
Ripped up and worn a hundred dollar bill (Getty Images)

"Money always wears the face of the boss."
—Antonio Negri

An odd thing is happening during the COVID-19 crisis and its attendant economic collapse: the familiar relationship between money and work is disappearing. Most right-thinking Americans are more or less sure that money has some kind of intrinsic value that we possess when we earn it through work. As John Houseman said in the infamous television commercials made in the 1980s for the investment firm Smith Barney, "They make money the old fashioned way: they earn it." This is tautological gibberish.

We think of money as if it were a durable good, like a car. Certainly, you can buy a car with money, so why aren't they the same? The only difference, we imagine, is that you can't put the car in your pocket. Money is an equivalent and a convenience. But we don't stand before the car, and we shouldn't look at money as if it were a thing, a bank ledger sitting upon a desk. Rather, we are inside the world of money and commodities.

And how are we brought inside? It used to be that our immersion in money came through weekly allowances for lawn mowing or through newspaper delivery. It shouldn't surprise you to learn that we've teched-up those old fashioned procedures. As Guardian reporter Sally Weale wrote in 2018:

Leading [London] institutions are urging the government to include financial education in the primary school curriculum after a pilot scheme found it helped young people learn to delay gratification and enjoy the benefits of saving.

Twenty of the UK's leading savings and investment firms have set up a financial education initiative called KickStart Money to test the effectiveness of teaching primary school children about money management.

"Get 'em while they're young!"

But in the heels-over-head chaos of the national economic shutdown, something strange happened—money blinked. It confessed something that threatened its legitimacy, something that a television commercial couldn't paper over. The federal government buried any notion of value as the result of work (the idea that so much work produces so much value). The assumption that "money" was related to "work" was seen for what it was: illusory.

In broad daylight, in front of God and everybody, the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve created money-for-nothing, as the appropriately-named band Dire Straights sang. Billions upon billions, trillions, falling from the sky, most of it for the purpose of keeping the banking system right side up. But some modest fraction of this money was direct deposited into personal bank accounts, if you were lucky enough to have one. Many people on unemployment discovered that they were now making more money than they had been when they were actually doing something, showing up at nine, taking their place on the conveyor belt at the meat packing plant or in the Share Spaces of the information economy. It made us wonder just what money is and how the rewards for work were now to be understood. It was plain to see: this money was Magic Money, money pulled out of an alchemist's hat. Money was the mysterium, the matéria prima, the occult substance that turned what was base (labor) into something noble (gold). But where was its nobility now?

This new state of affairs seemed both bad and good. The bad thing was the sense of vertigo Magic Money created. Money seemed unmoored to any solid thing. If money had no dependable value, something that we "earned" through work, what about the money gathered away in our bank accounts? Could that go dancing off magically like something sprinkled with malignant pixie dust? We looked at the numbers in our bank statement and they quivered unstably, like a hallucination, like Scrooge's worst nightmare shown to him by the Ghost of Christmas in Chapter 11. In the Dickens's story, Scrooge learns to be generous with his money, but he does not learn that the stuff is unreal — a "pure semblance," as Marx called it.

The possible good in this situation was that with our normal world now standing on its head, the crisis became an opportunity to reconsider what we once thought to be solid and holy. We asked, "If Magic Money can be showered upon us this year, why not other years, why not every year? Maybe that's what socialists mean by 'minimum basic income.'" Could money change its color and become the means for assuring universal wellbeing where individuals are not entirely at the mercy of circumstance, at the mercy of their zip code? Could we make the greenback a blueback, blue as the sky?

The reason that most members of Congress resist such notions, especially the idea of a universal basic income, is because of what it reveals about money: it is a scam, a ploy, a ruse, a confidence trick performed by people who don't care if we live or die. Well. Aren't we in on the con now? Perhaps we should take to the street with chants of "What do we want?" "Magic Money!" "When do we want it?" "Now!"

* * *

Another obvious, and obviously peculiar, spectacle of the COVID-19 pandemic was that it brought into full public view an unsuspected relationship between the disease and money. For some inscrutable reason, it feels as if the disease and money are two facets of one dark thing. That thing is death, and its facets are virus-death and money-death. The co-mingling of the two is no secret to the workers who have to choose between risking infection and paying the rent. It is no secret to the family of Guadalupe Olivera, a butcher at a Tyson beef-packing plant in Richland, Washington. When his daughter asked him what special precautions were in place at the plant, he replied, "There was nothing. It was business as usual." So, did he die because of a virus, or did he die because of money? Was he a warrior hero, as Trump claimed? Or was it more like what John Ruskin saw when he wrote, "Labor is that quantity of our toil which we die in."

There is an existential side to money-death, as when we wonder, "With the absence of work, of the dependable flow of numbers into my bank account, will I exist? I'll look in my mirror, if I still have a mirror to call my own, and the face there will be full of worried self-scrutiny. Can't buy anything, can't measure my relation to others, won't know who I am!"

In response to this anxiety, most of us say, "Work is in my blood. It's our way of life, and I'm proud of it. It provides me with a steady income so that I can put bread on the table for my family." We reassure ourselves with clichés. But now we can see the irony because it was never hidden: work/money is in our blood, all right, but it is in our blood like an "invisible enemy," in Trump's phrase, that regularly kills us. Money is "bleeding us dry."

Money is a killer far more deadly than a biological virus. The plague driving climate change is money. Profit. Rent seeking. "Natural resource extraction," as our statesmen drily put it. Through the single-minded pursuit of profit, humanity becomes what Reg Morrison called a "plague species." All the industrial toxins released on land, water, and air, all the wasted forests and wetlands, all the petro-dollars poured into the same few pockets while animals of every kind wither where they stand and fall where they stood, disconsolate. Inconsolable. Cheerless. All murdered by money. As Albert Camus wrote in The Plague, "[The] social order around me was based on the death sentence."

According to the medical journal The Lancet, 9 million people died of air and water pollution in 2015. And on May 4, 2020, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences predicted that by 2070 between 2 and 3.5 billion people across the globe would be trying to live in places that had become unlivable. In an interview in the Guardian, Michael Pollan commented:

As terrible as the [Corona] virus is, the heatwaves, droughts, fires and floods driven by an overheated planet have killed many more people. And if current trends persist, the death toll will increase exponentially through the end of the century.

We die, animals die, so that money may thrive. It's a joke fit for a Marx Brothers routine, like this one from "Coconuts", which came out in 1929 (the year of the Wall Street crash):

Chico: Right now I'd do anything for money. I'd kill somebody for money. I'd kill you for money.

[Harpo looks dejected.]

Chico: Hahaha. Ah, no. You're my friend. I'd kill you for nothing.

One of the enduring images to come out of the pandemic was the pitiless spectacle of super-yachts floating off-shore, as far away as possible from us, the "huddled masses." This shouldn't be a surprise: the rich have always self-isolated. They've always practiced social-distancing. So much so that they're not quite sure that the rest of us actually exist. They've seen us on TV, read about our problems in newspapers, but they are never among us. We are a rumor to them, something that they've "heard about." We are not quite real, and certainly not as real as the people in the next yacht over.

The wealthy among us try to protect themselves against disease not by hoarding toilet paper or freeze-dried pad thai; they protect themselves by hoarding money. They save money in order to protect themselves from money. They gather money to themselves hoping for warmth, but it only provides, as we say, cold comfort. They hoard money with no idea how much is enough. They want to feel safe, but at what point does that happen?

But it's not just "them," because everyone is forced to think in these anxious ways. You say, "I have some money saved, so I'm good. I think it's enough. Is it enough?" Better phone your investment planner and find out.

Or let's say your company, or your annuity with MetLife, does send money to you regularly — and the economy is back on track, stuff is getting made, oil is trading over $100 per barrel, it's normal, until it gets so hot one Manhattan Sunday that all of MetLife's computers melt into the street. And now you know that playing it safe, investing that little nest egg in this golden chance and that, for thirty, forty, fifty years, that was the straightest road to hell. The economy you were so worried about is okay now, except that it's killing you.

In coming decades many more millions, perhaps billions of people will be running from the next plague or running from a "country of origin" with average summer temperatures of 115° and up. (In late April of 2020, Las Vegas and Phoenix registered five consecutive days of record heat of 100-115 degrees. This was accompanied by record lows in the high 70s. In April.) This is what's coming: there will be population die-offs for every species, and there will be extinction for most if not all of them. The autopsy reports will state, laconically, "Death due to complications of environmental heat exposure."

But our really primal fear is that "they might take it away from me." They? The crooked bankers and politicians, the Deep State, or the "gubmint"? Or perhaps it's your neighbors that will take it all away with their extensive collection of guns that they've been hoarding instead of money, knowing that the Law of the AK is, in the end, the more dependable law. It's Aesop's grasshopper turned Rambo, banging on the ant's door with the butt of an assault rifle. Marx called such grasshoppers the "dangerous class":

The social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.

Thus our own Trump-loving, MAGA-hat-wearing, belly-thumping, face-mask-hating, and gun-crazy countrymen.

* * *

Through all of this, money remains unmoved. Like Ozymandias, money still says, "submit," even though its head is rolling around on the ground. It can't say anything other because it is afraid. Afraid of what happens if we don't submit. Afraid of what happens when we refuse its work regime and begin to self-organize and self-develop in order to create our own satisfactions—just as we are doing now in many ways. We are beginning to reclaim what Marx called our "rich individuality" in a new way—through local and regional autonomy.

For example, the pandemic has done us the favor of stimulating the growth of "Mutual Aid" organizations that grow through local fund raising in order to meet entirely local needs. (The Black Panthers's "survival programs"—including a free Breakfast for Children Program and health care services—were among the earliest experiments in radical localism, that is, localism outside of money.) In addition, there are grocery co-ops all over the country selling local products, and many, many CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) groups, delivering boxes of fresh produce to neighbors. CSAs are "building a new world in the shell of the old," as the Wobblies said. It is true that gun sales are "through the roof" now, but so are the sales of chicken coops.

In short, our survival depends on flourishing local autonomy, wayward but enlightened communities enlarging their capacities within progressive regions, all with the hope that more and more places around the country and around the world will see these communities and like what they see. Working in this way, we will be enacting what Carl Boggs called "prefigurative" politics: creating now the "forms of social relations, decision-making, culture, and human experience that are the ultimate goal." Occupy Wall Street was prefigurative, and so was Seattle's short-lived CHOP/CHAZ, the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone: they were theatrical and earnest introductions to autonomy. CHAZ residents planted a vegetable garden. Did they imagine that they'd stay long enough to harvest? No, but that wasn't the point. It was a demonstration garden.

So we should not merely hunker down with our hoarded food and money, hoping that we can wait it out until the economy "returns to normal." The money on Wall Street is betting big that normal is on the way, but let's see if we can offer an alternative wager. No more normal if it only means death. Let our alternative be what Buddhist dharma teacher Thanissara calls the "Samadhi of the Collective." This is a homely enlightenment in a place of mutuality and generosity. Because samadhi is not only about individual release from suffering; it is also about life thriving. Samadhi is solidarity.

As jazz Arkestra leader Sun Ra said, "Heaven is where you'll be when you are okay right where you are."

By Curtis White

Curtis White is a novelist and social critic. His most recent book is "Transcendent: Art and Dharma in a Time of Collapse," published by Melville House.

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Capitalism Commentary Economy Labor Money Pandemic Work