Why Are We Still Working? (If Not Now, When?)

One morning recently I woke up thinking about how everyone I know (myself included) is still going to work. What is so damn important that we continue to work while 7 million people have died in just over a year, with as many as 900,000 in the US, and many more than that experiencing long term disabilities as a result of this illness?

Throughout the last year, I have had many conversations with loved ones about how concerned and reactive we should be to the political failures and crises around us. Should we have a go bag on hand? Should we be ready to flee? Where would we go, and when would we do it? One question seems to lie at the heart of these: What crisis is THE crisis? When is the moment when everything changes?

I have learned from history as well as from the experiences of my friends and comrades, and even from my own experiences, that such a moment does not necessarily exist. In this past year in the US, many of us seem to feel that if we were really in a social collapse (akin to the ones we’ve read about or seen in movies over and over), we would know it. It’s too easy to miss the point that most people inside of historical events didn’t know or did not change their behavior to recognize and engage the social crises they were living through.

The reality is that during a dictatorship, during a genocide, during a rebellion and a revolution, daily life continues. People go to work, people cook meals, people go to school, there are in fact some people whose lives can feel almost unaffected by what is going on around them. The testimonies of people who were tortured during the last military dictatorship in Argentina are rife with anger about the silence of their neighbors as they were being kidnapped from their homes, as well as a whole slew of films examining how upper class and otherwise privileged people convinced themselves to ignore what was going on in dictatorships throughout the Southern Cone and beyond as they reaped the benefits of “social order.”

But you can see the same social life playing out in the background of countless other situations, too. People continue shopping, working, participating in the economy and other institutions to which they belong, while others may be actively refusing all of that and uprooting their lives completely (or having it foist upon them). A few years ago in Honduras, Karla Lara explained another version of this dichotomy by saying there are two kinds of “bubbles”: activists, political people, and those being victimized by the state are aware of the situation there—the narco-dictatorship of Juan Orlando Hernández— while the other “bubble” is full of people who shop, go to work, watch the TV news, and think things are generally fine.

Put in such a way, the “everything is fine” bubble sounds incredible. But put another way, it’s not incredible at all. The same concept has already been happening in small and large ways in the US since its foundation; after all, the majority of us go about our daily lives never thinking about the 2.3 million people imprisoned in the US, or the torture, sexual assault, and other forms of harm that befalls them every day, in part because we believe in the necessity of such a system.

I do not mean to flatten the important differences between all of these examples. But I believe there are also important similarities as well here too, and they are worth thinking through. The pandemic is perhaps only the latest version of the question: should we be going to work with this number of people dying each day? It seems critical to explore this question because it’s uncomfortable to think about the forces that compel most of us to keep going on with our normal-ish daily lives as if nothing was the matter when so much is the matter.

One reason we continue to work is that we need to. We work in order to have money to feed ourselves and our families. We need to work to have a place to live. And work is not the same for all of us, it is not socially valued in the same way for all of us, some work is both critical and unpaid, and, crucially, we are not all in equivalent need of money for food and shelter. I cannot of course deal with all these differences here, nor do I mean to try. My goal here is to point out that even within, between, and across these differences, there are overarching moments for collective and individual reflection.

What I want to point out is that if we feel we must work even in the midst of social collapse because otherwise we will lose food and shelter, this is not an accident. This is a purposeful entanglement of capitalism. It bears repeating and highlighting. It’s also certainly worth noting that capitalists themselves had a banner year last year despite all the hand-wringing about “the economy.” In a year of catastrophe, some individuals made unimaginable sums of money even as the people responsible for their profits lost their lives on the job and millions more lost their jobs. The 719 billionaires in the United States made $1.62 trillion dollars between March 18, 2020, and April 12, 2021, including Jeff Bezos, whose income has grown by 74 percent, and Warren Buffett, whose income has grown by 50 percent in this period.

If we are forced to continue to work even when thousands of people per day are dying in our own society (to say nothing of worldwide death tolls), or when the National Guard is occupying your city to quell a rebellion against the continual execution of people on the streets by police, when would be the moment that we would or could refuse work? These are both individual and collective questions.

While I mean for these questions to be provocative in the literal sense, I don’t mean for these questions to be rhetorical. I don’t think I have all the answers or that the answers for our times—or for each of us—will necessarily be obvious. I think these questions merit and require examination, and perhaps merit continuous reflection, beyond the expression of exhaustion and mild pushback to being asked to meet the same productivity standards.

I ask these questions both as someone who did refuse to continue working in an unsafe service job during the pandemic, but only once I found another job option. Not so long ago, I was also convinced to go into work and teach a class at the university when a toxic cloud of uncontrolled flames could be seen from both my house and the window of my classroom.

If we haven’t yet refused work (again the “we” is both individual and collective) how could we each go about loosening our relationships to work, or conversely, strengthening our ability to refuse work when it becomes dangerous for us individually and collectively?

Like other forms of refusal of the status quo, it is important to think about these questions and actively practice the pieces that answering them will require in our lives before the moment arises. So much of our daily life, in movements but also at work, at home, wherever, is also a rehearsal. One of the functions of certain social movements or collective spaces has sometimes been to create protected spaces to “rehearse” ways of being with each other. In Two Cheers for Anarchism, James Scott gives a good example of practicing disobedience by occasionally breaking small laws or rules like refusing to wait for a traffic light when no one is around. The idea is being prepared to disobey and practicing it as a counter to the deep socialization in which we are steeped.

One important piece of the puzzle of rehearsal (but not the only one), are the simple abilities to say no and to experience conflict. The ability to refuse work is first premised on the ability to say no. Are we still working because we haven’t practiced this? It seems that we must be able to say no to protect our boundaries, and to say no for whatever reason. Can we say no to our bosses, for both little and big things? And if not, how can we practice that? And what else must we first practice? Because it will only get harder when the stakes get higher.

Given that the climate crisis is already intensifying and that many of us work for revolutions of various kinds in our social conditions, I think it is necessary to ask ourselves these questions and reflect on them. Who are we, and what role do we expect to play in various kind of social crises and events that are either already happening or that we can foresee or hope to see happen in the future? Under what conditions would we stop working, if not now? Why is it so damn important to go to work, and who are we enriching with our labor? And if we don’t feel we can quit work, how can we strengthen our ability to do that in the future?

What Does It Mean to Feel Hopeful Right Now?

Mariame Kaba says “hope is a discipline,” and of course, as in most things, she is completely right. What makes me so devastated is that right now I see so many people (ahem white liberals! but others too) digging for and grasping at false hope. Yes, we absolutely must have some hope for better times ahead in order to get through tough situations, like the coronavirus pandemic we’re living through right now. But to me it is critically important to distinguish “hope” in the generic sense from the kind of hope that Mariame Kaba is talking about, or the kind that I embrace as I face the world anew every day. Irrational hope that things will just get better on their own; the mistaken but common belief that massive, systemic problems will resolve themselves through the simple passage of time (“history moves forward”); and false hope in bad solutions or ones that simply sidestep issues and create new and different systems of inequality – I can only see this hope leading to more cynicism, depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. Hope in *anything* just for the sake of *having some hope* doesn’t really seem like hope to me at all.

I do not feel any hope in a vaccination roll out that continues right down the genocidal and imperialist path we are already walking down. Seeing and hearing people more focused on how quickly we can fulfill our own desires than on how they can work with others to leave fewer people behind fills me with despair, not hope.

Hope, for me, comes from the visionary organizing of disabled people who have fought for priority access to the vaccine. Hope, for me, comes from learning how to design solutions to this pandemic that would actually work for most or all of the population by working collectively in struggle with the groups that are most affected by it, not by listening to some blowhard politicians that actually do not give a shit if people die. Actually what I mean is some politicians that are interested in killing people so they can profit off of it or, best case scenario, would not bother to help us even if they had the chance to cast a winning vote.

Hope comes to me in letters from prison and in messages from Honduras and in emails from long-lost friends. It says “they tried to separate us but they could not.” It says “they tried to kill our visions but they could not.” It whispers “they tried to tell us the sun would not rise unless we gave up everything that meant anything to us but they were wrong.” It reassures me “They tried to make us afraid to live with dignity but I’m not afraid if we do it together.” Turning to the discipline of hope, I can tell myself that there are many things that I might want to make my life more comfortable/relaxing/fun right now, but I can sit down, take a deep breath, and reach within my network and my imagination to find how can I meet that need in another way without leaving someone else behind. I have hope that my sacrifices are actually saving and improving lives, and that my work matters to someone.

I am deeply, deeply angry – I am in a rage a lot of the time. But I have a lot of hope too. I am inspired by the brave and visionary people all around me, and I learn constantly how to do a better job working to create a different and better world together with those people. This hope is not always easy. It requires work. But it is built on my real experiences and relationships, not lies. It is hard to let go of the easy, shiny promises and false hopes being hawked but I know I am not alone and I know these hopes are solid. I know that the only way to a future I want a part of is one that I take an active part in creating and understanding and in that, there is also hope.

Pink and gray images of a wrench with a heart in the middle. Text says "The virus is capitalism. A new world is upon us. Let's build it together."
art by Christeen Francis @ Justseeds Collective

a lot of us are struggling, but this is a social problem

Over the last few weeks governors in almost every state have called for a “reopening” after the spring COVID19 shelter-in-place orders. During this time, in response to debates about whether returning to circulation in public again en masse is safe or not, I have repeatedly heard the answer given as some variation of “everyone has to decide for themselves what they think is best.”

like everyone else Like many of us, I am not sure what to do and am just trying to figure it out. This is a terrifying time. I think often of another pandemic, another plague, where people died in hospital hallways. This plague also seemed concentrated in certain cities (the same ones that loom large today – New York and San Francisco) and to affect a specific segment of the population. Unlike the Spanish flu, the majority of the population alive today remembers that plague. And maybe in some ways this is the more relevant lesson, because the majority of the population alive today actually doesn’t recall that plague with much specificity, although in some communities whole networks of people were dying by the month and even the week.

During that plague, it seemed that it was easy for a majority of people in the United States to ignore or feel unaffected by what was going on because they believed it was only affecting specific groups of people to whom they already did not feel connected. And once they had done that, they could simply ignore the crisis, the tens of thousands of deaths, and even laugh at jokes about it.

M0001845 John Haygarth. Line engraving by W. Cooke, 1827, after J. H. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org John Haygarth. Line engraving by W. Cooke, 1827, after J. H. Bell. Line engraving Gent\’s magazine Published: 1827 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Then too it was easy to fall into debates about what behavior was the right behavior to prevent oneself or one’s beloved community members from getting sick. But the real culprits, the villains, the murderers, were the politicians and institutions that refused to recognize the crisis or do anything to solve it, and the social structures that sustain systems of inequality making specific groups of people so much more vulnerable to illness.

In fact, it is the same communities who are still being affected. African Americans, imprisoned people, drug users, queer and trans people – these groups are all still dealing with the HIV epidemic that did not go away, and they are the same groups at much higher risk from COVID19.

And it was easier for the pandemic to keep raging when a majority of people felt no urge to apply pressure, when they did not feel personally affected, when they did not feel that their communities would continue to feel the reverberations forever.

Like many others, I am struggling to figure out how to negotiate this situation. I do not understand all the biological science involved. But I do understand that an inherently social problem is going to call for a social solution, and better yet, many of the aspects of the problems that we face here in the US with COVID19 are political problems that require collective action. We have much we can learn from previous struggles.

That means the answer, in an inherently social situation with a contagious disease, is ANYTHING BUT “everyone should do what they feel most comfortable with.”


Some ideas for collective action:

  • The Poor People’s Campaign has launched a “moral non-cooperation campaign” called Stay in Place! Stay Alive! Organize! with actions you can take coordinated with others to push for a healthier plan for your community.
  • Now is a great time to find or start an existing mutual aid network. Create and share the resources people need together in your community to be safe based on community members’ own assessments, instead of saying “some people will have to go to make the tough choice to go to work,” which is another way of saying some of us need to decide between dying from hunger or dying at work.
  • Find ways to support the many workers who are striking right now (e.g., respect their picket lines, donate to their strike funds, amplify their demands).

rich countries

today, while sewing equipment for nurses

(like someone I once read about in a textbook)

from the comfort of my home I learned that

the local convention center

(where earlier this year I celebrated the legacy of Martin Luther King with a sales meeting)

will be converted into a “field hospital”

How We Can Help Each Other in a Pandemic

Like many other activists, I am not exactly sure how to organize in this moment. I like the phrase physical distance and social solidarity, but I find that I’m not totally sure how to put it into practice. This post is my imperfect attempt to share some ideas of what folks can do to help each other. I more than welcome suggestions, critiques, and additions. We are all learning how to do this together, and that is one example itself of social solidarity.

I first want to lay out that although we are all scared right now, we need to try to remain focused on centering the needs of the most vulnerable. We cannot get so wrapped up in our own needs, in securing ourselves and our families, that we leave behind everyone else. If we make sure our most vulnerable are secured, it’s pretty likely we will have created a network that can sustain everyone. Lead from generosity and love, not fear and scarcity. (Trust me, I know this is easier said than done; that’s why I think it has to actually be said. I am telling myself the same thing like a mantra as a way to work out of my own fear-based reactions.)

If your income has not been affected, PLEASE consider donating as much money as you can spare to one or more of the funds below. Even relatively small amounts of money will go a long way toward assisting extremely vulnerable folks, and donations are tight for everyone right now as unemployment is raging. These are fairly Detroit-centric, because I live here, but also because it looks like Detroit is going to be one of the hardest hit places.

  • We the People of Detroit is giving out water to the 5,000 homes in Detroit without running water (there have been severe delays in getting the water turned back on). They are facing more need, higher prices, and difficulties distributing this water:
    https://www.wethepeopleofdetroit.com/get-involved
  • ABISA – an org assisting Black/African immigrants and refugees in the Detroit area. Your donation will assist undocuBlack immigrants keep the lights on, put food on the table, fill the gas tank, turn on water, preserve a home:
  • Movimiento Cosecha – Undocumented Worker Fund – this fund will go directly to assist undocumented families in need. I have recently been organizing with Cosecha Detroit:
    https://secure.actblue.com/donate/cosechamutualaid
  • Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective – The Solidarity Collective has been extremely hard hit by the fact that we have needed to cancel delegations, speakers’ tours, and other aspects of our work on short notice. In fact, if we are not able to raise several thousand dollars quickly, we will not be able to continue our international solidarity work and accompaniment beyond April. Communities in Honduras, Cuba, and Colombia, and our partners specifically, are facing great risks from COVID-19 and our international solidarity and vigilance on US foreign policy remains critical.
  • Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry –Food pantry in Detroit that works with We the People, Detroit People’s Platform, and advocates a “shopper’s choice model”:  https://brightmoorconnection.org/
  • Forgotten Harvest – metro Detroit food bank that redistributes surplus food:
    https://forgottenharvest.giv.sh/03a6

Beyond Donations

The vast majority of suggestions I have seen are calls for donations. If you, like me, are person whose income has been affected or who cannot afford to spare (much), it seems a little harder to figure out how you can work in solidarity with others right now, but I made a short list. Most of you are probably doing some of these, but it’s worth reminding us that they are important examples of solidarity:

  • Check on your neighbors, regularly.  Check on your loved ones, family and friends, emotionally, and see if anyone needs anything.
  • Consider buying gift certificates to any local businesses you can’t patronize now to help them stay afloat.
  • If you have space, grow or make something that you can share with your neighborhood either from afar or in a safe way.
  • I am also working on putting together a central way to distribute action items such as phone calls (phone zaps) to make on a given day.

I hope I will hear suggestions and ideas from people, in any possible mode. 

Here’s what else I’m trying to focus on right now:

We are connected. We can listen to the wisdom of people who have survived terrible events. We can continue reach beyond our own household and beyond ourselves. We can prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized. And that will still be the key to something better.

Consider supporting artist Meredith Stern of JustSeeds Collective here.