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1 April 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 3:32pm

What does the corona crisis teach us about the value of work?

For too long we have considered work in terms of profit and not in terms of society. We must look again at what we value and why. 

By Lisa Herzog

Amid the chaos, uncertainty and fear, a silent revolution is happening during the corona crisis: a revolution in the way we assess work. The drumming and clapping for health care workers, the public praise for those who stack supermarket shelves – all of this suddenly appears natural to us. And our applause for those working in the medical or food industry expresses the value we now see in their contribution to society.

Yet for far too long we have overlooked the contribution workers make, and instead measured the value of work in terms of the marketplace. Since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan we have left markets free to provide employment, dictate its conditions and assess the value of work in monetary terms. What counts is the generation of capital, and an employee’s salary is determined by the power of supply and demand. Unfortunately, the disconnect between a contributory account of work and market logic becomes painfully clear in a moment of crisis.

During times of emergency priority is given to jobs that matter most in the short run: those that literally keep us alive. It is because we are more than our digital avatars, because we have bodies and our bodies have needs, that we depend on those who care for others or drive lorries with foodstuffs. Briefly, a contributory assessment of work brings jobs that cater directly to basic human needs to light.

The focus on basic human needs is understandable and important in the midst of a crisis such as the Covid-19 outbreak. But the contributory account also captures the other ways workers contribute to society by catering to our higher-order needs for sociability and meaning. There are, for example, those who run the places in which we get together: cafés, pubs, fitness studios and theatres. And there are those who create our vibrant cultural life, whether they be comedians, athletes or independent film-makers. Instead of asking how to make the most money, these workers have a vision of the world and of what is valuable in it, and through their work they try to realise such values.

In contrast, a market approach to work sees human activity as nothing but an input factor into a production process that ultimately serves the maximisation of profits. We have become so used to this perspective that we’ve forgotten that for much of human history an exclusive desire to make money was considered a pathology, a kind of addiction that is more likely to eat up the soul of individuals than to make them happy.

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The sociologist Max Weber tried to explain the origins of capitalism, with its limitless striving for profits, as caused by a displaced religious striving. Specifically, Weber thought the Calvinist work ethic was inextricably linked with capitalist drive. Today, historians have serious doubts about Weber’s theory. However, few people dare to question the legitimacy of an unlimited striving for profits. And by accepting this, we also accept the reduction of work to its market valuation, whereby remuneration and the conditions of employment are designed to boost profits and increase capital accumulation.

In times of crisis, the inhumanity of a market-driven account of work become visible. We suddenly appreciate the contributions of those who make sure our physical needs are satisfied. It also dawns on us that the small businesses and cultural organisations that fulfil our higher needs, but whose activities must be put on hold to “flatten the curve”, might go bankrupt. This forces us to ask what kind of future lies ahead if only large, profit-oriented organisations survive, and what type of employment will be left for those who enter the labour market after the crisis.

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Assessing the value of work exclusively through market overlooks a crucial point. Many individuals and organisations have a contributory perspective on work, and they often create benefits that go far beyond the immediate tasks they fulfil. A nurse or doctor who believes it’s their duty to care for the sick will also try to support their patients psychologically. Similarly, a small business owner may provide a supply of goods, but they also contribute to livening up a street. In the language of economics, these are all “positive externalities”: valuable contributions to the community that are not factored into prices and therefore tend to get undersupplied in a pure market environment.

Market logic encourages people to seek profits from negative externalities: to put costs on to others, whether specific individuals or society as a whole. This behaviour is particularly frequent among large corporations, not only because they tend to be powerful enough to do so unquestioned, but also because they are primarily run as money-making machines for the benefit of shareholders.

In recent years, big companies have significantly downgraded the conditions of employment for “low-skilled” workers. By reducing wages and forcing families to seek additional public support, large corporations have offloaded some of their costs to improve their “bottom line”. Needless to say, this has had disastrous consequences for the well-being of many individuals and families. And a society in which millions have no financial buffer, or the means to stay home when sick, is clearly ill prepared for pandemics such as the coronavirus.

Hopefully, the post-crisis reconstruction will be guided by a more just understanding of work than the free pursuit of profit. This would require better pay and working conditions for those whose contributions are vital for our societies. It also implies ending the wage gap between jobs that have traditionally been coded in gendered or racialised ways. And it means giving workers the right to a voice in how their work is organised.

Democratically organised work can create space for workers to contribute the well-being of their communities. Many individuals do not simply seek to maximise their income while minimising their working time, as textbook economic models of labour markets suggest. Work is done by human beings, with dreams and hopes and a desire for social recognition. Many individuals want to make a meaningful contribution to society through their work – and work should be organised so that they can do that.

This does not mean labour markets should be replaced by state-allocated work, but it does require regulation to prevent the imbalances of power between large corporations and their employees. It would also push societies to rethink how they spend tax money: which functions do we consider vital in both the short and long run? Lastly, it means asking how work can be organised in more democratic ways, not only because democracy is the most appropriate form for controlling power, but also because it allows for better protection of workers’ rights.

In the end, health workers and supermarket staff deserve more than one-off applause; they deserve the full recognition of their contribution in normal times as well. There are also many workers who contribute to society in important ways and who need our economic support in these difficult times. Before the crisis, contributions to society, income and status were completely decoupled – all left to the forces of mostly unregulated labour markets. The corona crisis is an opportunity to rethink the way we assess work and to rebuild our post-crisis economic life in a different way.

Lisa Herzog is a Professor of Political Philosphy at the University of Groningen. She is the author of Reclaiming the System: Moral Responsibility, Divided Labour and the Role of Organisations in Society 

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Professor of Philosphy at the Higher School of Economics. He tweets @ajwendland