The Dignity of Work and the Class Divide in America

Bonnie Honig’s outstanding essay for us a couple of days ago suggests that we ought appreciate the intrinsic dignity of work. Our society, however, doesn’t always appreciate that dignity. She writes: “‘Care-work’ or manual labor is “treated as ‘low,’ and it is not paid properly. Providers are often anonymized and rewarded for their labors with job insecurity and vulnerability.” This lack of dignity, reward, or even security for manual labor has been revealed with real clarity by the quarantine.

The events of January 6th and the excessive politicization of mask-wearing obscured what the quarantine should have taught us about this important class divide. Those objecting to the quarantine were not doing so merely because they loved Trump or because they objected at a philosophical level to being told what to do. Many objected to the quarantine because they literally could not do their jobs during it. Those who work with their hands in one way or another need an actual place in which to do that work. Whether that means working at a restaurant or working in a factory, “care-work” cannot be done at home. The quarantine took jobs from these people. It resulted in lines of cars miles long at food banks, mental health problems, and increased family stress. And these difficulties differed dramatically along class lines.

As “care-workers” lost their jobs and their sense of security, America’s non-manual working class merely transferred their jobs from desktops at work to laptops at home. Instead of in-person meetings, there were Zoom meetings. Insofar as their jobs do not depend on working with their hands, they also do not depend on any definite place. For many this was freeing. They could work from home in their pajamas or travel to different places and work from there. The quarantine revealed how much their jobs had no real connection to any actual place. They “worked” but in an abstract world whose final product is hard to determine. (For instance, as one of these “workers,” I’m sitting in front of a computer right now that could be anywhere producing an essay that disappears into the internet somewhere, likely never to be seen again…and someone is paying me to do that!). And the problem is that the very same people on whom the quarantine had little effect were making decisions about the continuation of the quarantine. Is it any wonder that this dramatic divide caused real animosity?

If the insurrection of January 6th is as bad as the civil unrest partially caused by the quarantine gets, then we’re actually doing well. As Americans, we like to think that we’re free of class divides and that class concerns plague other societies but not ours. We tend to focus much more on racial divides than on those of class. But who is it that tends to define these questions of class? It’s the same types of people who were also making decisions about the quarantine. People like me who sit in front of computers for most of the day (maybe they find their way to a Peleton once in awhile too). We don’t perceive a class divide because there isn’t one in our world. Sure there are people who make more sitting in front of a computer and those who make less, but there’s no real divide between them. There were rich aristocrats and there were poor aristocrats; but they were all aristocrats.

The quarantine should have highlighted to all of us how different these worlds are. The care-workers, even if they had computers, couldn’t “work” on them. Many of those protesting the quarantine in various capitols around the country had signs related to work. Some were protesting based on existential questions of freedom, but others were protesting because the quarantine was literally preventing them from eating. America’s care-workers and America’s laptop-workers live in different worlds. As we think about our politics, the quarantine should suggest to us that it’s best to keep those different worlds in view.

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