One thing this pandemic has demonstrated in stark terms is class struggle. Those people deemed essential, though often applauded in public, have been treated as expendable. In truth, they were always treated this way. But this last year has made this struggle visible for anyone paying attention.
The medical staff, grocery clerks, janitors, sanitation workers, transportation services, delivery people, all of them have been the ones on the front lines, not only of potential exposure to a lethal pathogen, but to abuse from privileged customers, clients or patients who feel their rights have somehow been violated for being asked to simply wear a mask. I can’t count how many videos I have seen of people (mostly white and middle to upper middle class) berating workers. And this often takes on a racist tone.
Over the past year we have witnessed people throwing groceries at workers, spitting at them, calling them names. In various states, from California to Texas to Florida, there have been mobs that invaded stores like Target or Home Depot without masks and carrying anti-masker and “Covid is Hoax” signs, even physically attacking other customers and workers. And in one recent instance in British Columbia an older white male customer was asked to wear a mask in a pizza restaurant. He answered angrily: “are you f**king Middle Easter or where are you from?” Concluding with “I’m worth $50 million, you’re worth zero.” He and his companion then went on to assault a teenage customer outside tearing his mask from his face.
How disconnected from reality could one be to think that being asked to wear a mask in a store is a violation of ones’ rights? And how privileged does one have to be to think dressing down a worker is somehow a noble expression of those supposed rights? And this gets to the crux of the problem: capitalism.
Capitalism is about class and status. The man who said he was worth $50 million and clerk worth $0 really believes it. And it is a system that posits the supposed “rights” of the individual over the well being of the community. But many of these rights are merely privilege and have little to nothing to do with liberating oppressed or marginalized members of society or protecting the most vulnerable or persecuted. It is the very opposite of cooperation and mutual respect. And it is an arrangement which always favors the wealthy and upper classes disproportionately over the poor and working class. This is because the list of “rights” seldom, if ever, include basics like housing, food, healthcare, education or meaningful work.
This is playing out most obviously in the ongoing strikes against corporations like Amazon and the fast food industry. But in the US, as well as some other western nations, liberals have found themselves alienated from these struggles thanks to years of political pandering to corporations. We should ask ourselves why these workers aren’t even asking for a good wage, they are only asking for a livable wage. “Livable.” And yet they work 80 or more hours a week yet cannot “live” on the pittance they get. All while there are people like Bezos and Musk who pay little to no taxes and make thousands of dollars a minute while they sleep.
The pandemic has laid bare how the systemic inequities of capitalism manifest in real abuse and contempt for low wage workers. Often this is compounded by racism and xenophobia. But it isn’t simply the tirades of entitled anti-maskers against people behind the counter making minimum wage. It is warehouses and other places of business that have put low wage workers at risk by exposing them to Covid-19, while providing them no paid sick leave or a “livable” wage. It is about a government that provides subsidies to corporations and the military industrial sector, while denying the public basic healthcare, good housing, free education and opportunities for growth.
But outrage at individual instances of worker abuse captured on TikTok or Youtube is not enough. The entire system is designed to inflict cruelty on the most vulnerable in society. And if we cannot see the machine behind this all, we will lack the most effective tools to dismantle it.
Kenn Orphan April 2021
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