The Corona Outbreak and the Real

The Corona crisis lays bare the asymmetries in global capitalist production [Photo: GettyImages]

It is not surprising that in capitalist societies, especially with their neoliberal inflections, different forms of work have unequal worth. This inequity existed before the Corona outbreak and is only becoming more acute during it. Taking psychoanalysis’s reality principle – which emphasizes the need to be suspicious of any reality presenting itself as natural 1 – and a Lacanian understanding of the Real, which argues that the Real is what any ‘reality’ must suppress 2, one must see the Corona outbreak with all its articulations in the demand for certain workers over others as a crack – a fracture and inconsistency in the field of apparent reality under capitalism. This outbreak, therefore, invokes the Real, which is essentially a void that is usually unrepresented but can be glimpsed in the fractures underlying the reality that capitalism so wonderfully orchestrates and presents to us.

Gig-workers and the neoliberal order

With the rise of neoliberalism from the 1980s, the state has receded in providing social security and companies have been allowed to employ workers on short-term contracts with no long-term security across different vocations and professions. This is the result of neoliberalism over the past few decades installing a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should run as a business’ 3. It has also created a surplus population of workers who form the gig-economy and during this crisis are in the frontline, along with doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals. Additionally, in a bid to flatten the curve governments are asking residents to stay home and businesses to close, and rightfully so. However, with a thin social safety net to sustain a population at home that is ‘unproductive’ – if I may use the neoliberal/capitalist vocabulary – claims for unemployment benefits have risen while the big players such as Amazon and Walmart have launched hiring sprees to deliver to demands of those staying home. Being able to stay at home in these times is, however, a privilege. It implies that one has an actual place to live, some savings to dig into (or one’s parents do), and can work from home (and will be paid as long as your contract lasts, in the best case scenario). Hence, a necessity of these times – health – is turned into a privilege of those who can afford it. Those who cannot are the ones who will take the opportunity provided by these companies to sustain their livelihood because there is quite simply no other way.

To be clear, these disparities existed when the virus was not infecting masses. Healthcare has always been a privilege under neoliberalism, while gig workers have always been in precarious positions. This privilege and their suffering have been normalized under neoliberal structures. However, the Coronavirus outbreak and the ferocity with which such workers are called on by big companies reveal the dissonance between their work’s worth and their paycheck and future assurance, or lack thereof. An Amazon spokesperson said that those being hired at this time of the crisis would not have the opportunity to stay in a temporary or permanent role in the future. Most importantly, it reveals the system’s absolute success in producing multiple classes of people – a ‘surplus population’ that is an ‘industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital 4. The spread of the virus and the call of companies to hire more employees, at a piece-rate, therefore palpably demonstrate the disposability with which such a surplus population is treated within capitalism generally by revealing the precariousness of their situation, especially during times of crisis.

The informal sector in the Global South

Like the gig-economy workers in the North, workers in the informal sector in the Global South are the ones worst hit, especially following the lockdowns to stop the spread of the virus. Taking India as an example, where more than 90% of the workforce are estimated to be in the informal sector, the situation is dire for those who are daily wagers and have no access to healthcare. These migrant labourers often work in urban areas, and are now working their way back to their villages in anticipation of a longer lockdown, thus potentially carrying the virus with them to rural India which has been thus far relatively free of this pandemic threat. As a matter of fact, the informal economy existed in most parts of the Global South before the emergence of the gig economy in the North. Whilst informality was seen as a problem in the post-independence era of most Third World countries, with the neoliberal turn it was increasingly encouraged by institutions such as the WTO and the World Bank. They promoted flexibility of capital through the inflexibility of labour laws, whose loosening they suggested to governments in the Global South. 5 Minimum wages were viewed as dysfunctional because they stifled the free flow of labour. Although capital could be footloose, labour had to obey its erratic flows around the global economy.

Furthermore, this neoliberal turn implied that ex-colonial countries would not follow Europe’s path to development that instituted a welfare state and stringent labour laws. In the Global South, the informal sector was to grow rather than shrink in size 6. Hence, informality in this context should be better understood as ‘an expression of the state’s inability or unwillingness to regulate capital and those who own it’ 7. This understanding of informality could be extended to the situation revealing itself within the gig-economy in the North at the wake of this crisis. Big businesses such as Amazon can hire thousands of employees with few to no assurances of the future while simultaneously putting them at the risk of contracting this disease and further spreading it. Cases of COVID-19 have been reported in 19 of Amazon’s US warehouses with workers demanding action from the company in the US and Italy.

Going Forward

Europe’s path to development may have brought about trade unionism, political representation of the working class, and a welfare state that would regulate labour through fixing minimum wages 8. Yet, the Corona outbreak has revealed that those protective measures so well established over centuries are crumbling in the advent of the market logic. This process that the ex-colonial countries went through at the onset of their independence era and have been seeing the brunt of, the North now is slowly coming face to face with. While Euromodernist narratives argued that the Global South was trying to catch up, it is in the South that practical workings of neoliberalism ‘have been tried and tested; in them that the outer bounds of its financial operations have been explored – thence to be re-imported to the various Euro-American locales’ 9. The Corona crisis, with its demand for the type of workers set out above, reveals that the North too is experiencing those ‘practical workings even more as labour markets contract and employment is casualized […] as big business seeks to coerce states […] to drop minimum wages and to protect it from loss, liability, and taxation’ 10. The demand for footloose labour serving the needs of capital is the ‘New Normal’ of the North, further heightened in times of crisis such as this, although it is merely replaying the recent past of the South in a more major key 11. The Real that one uncovers here is the effacing neoliberalist logic imposed on ex-colonial countries, slowly overtaking the former metropoles. This logic was undoubtedly present before the outbreak. However, the point of crisis where the surplus population across the parts of the world is either called on to serve the needs of capital or left without any means to survive demonstrates that reality as we know it is severely dysfunctional and drastically harmful even without a viral crisis.

If governments and big businesses around the world are now able to cash out funds or increase hourly wages to attract labour and pump up the economy, it must be seen that the prevailing order before this outbreak was not ‘natural’ or ‘necessary’. It was a mere contingency 12 that continuously perpetuated the multiple divides between the privileged minority and the surplus population. Such measures must continue beyond this crisis and in a more substantial manner to favour those who are presently in the frontlines. After all, what was deemed to be unattainable and impossible for governments and big business within the ‘natural’ order before the outbreak is showing itself to be suddenly attainable and possible.


  1.  

    Zupancic cited in Fisher M 2009, Capitalist Realism: Is there no Alternative?, Zero Books, England, p. 17 

  2.  

    ibid., p. 18 

  3.  

    ibid., p. 17 

  4.  

    Marx, K 1976, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Vol. One. Penguin Books, England, p. 318 

  5.  

    Breman, J 2013, At Work in the Informal Economy in India: A Perspective from the Bottom up, Oxford University Press, India. 

  6.  

    ibid. 

  7.  

    ibid., p. 22 

  8.  

    Breman 2013, pp. 15-16 

  9.  

    Comaroff, J & Comaroff, L. J 2012, ‘Theory from the South: Or, how Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa’, Anthropological Forum, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 113-131 

  10.  

    ibid., p. 122 

  11.  

    ibid. 

  12.  

    Fisher 2009, p. 17 

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