If the headlines are to be believed then a new relief bill is going to be passed any day now. Millions of people who have been tossed into poverty since the expiration of the CARES Act five goddamned months ago are going to finally be tossed a paltry lifeline. Whether it’s enough to lift them back out of poverty is an open question, given that the direct relief for working people – $600 stimulus checks, and an added $300 in weekly unemployment benefit supplement payments – is about half what it was back in the spring and summer.
It’s a shame really. Not just because millions are now facing eviction while profits for the rich are absolutely soaring. But because I was looking forward to doing nothing and getting generously paid in return.
Is that in poor taste? Perhaps. We scroungers aren’t known for being a particularly tasteful lot. It’s also true that a great many people receiving that CARES Act money still struggled, particularly those with families and/or more substantial living expenses. Which doesn’t even touch the burden and existential fears of so many workers deemed “essential,” forced to work for shit wages, exposing themselves to a potentially deadly virus.
In some respects I’m lucky; my rent is reasonable for LA, my partner is able to work from home, and we don’t have kids or other family members to support. It was also, of course, true that the number of options for social life were and are extremely limited, which meant fewer opportunities to spend overall. After basic expenses were taken care of and I put a significant amount into savings, I still had left over to make some purchases that had long been on my list – some clothes that weren’t threadbare, books I had been meaning to read, art supplies. Now, almost six months since the CARES Act expired, that savings has been significantly depleted.
Before the pandemic I was always one of those on the left who was on the fence about Universal Basic Income. I acknowledged it was a great “after the revolution” demand, but given its use by some neoliberal governments to straight-up undermine other parts of the social safety net, I was skeptical about its efficacy as an implementation under capitalism. To me, it always seemed more worthwhile to fight for the decommodification of those areas of social life and making them free: healthcare, housing, higher education, transport, etc.
Those few months living on $700 a week while I “searched” for non-existent jobs disabused me of my suspicions. Not because I think that ruling classes wouldn’t try to use UBI to slash other benefits, but because I loved the freedom to pursue whatever I wanted to while not having to worry about food on the table, a roof over my head, stress from a job I hated, or even if I would have the resources to keep my own boredom at bay.
I’m not the only one who felt like this. As the CARES Act payments reached their final weeks, I remember seeing countless people on social media admit as much. Not only did we fear having to find a job in the middle of a pandemic, the anger was doubled because we had gotten a quick glimpse of how much easier our lives could be. Even without posing any credible threat to property relations!
“I have a savings account for the first time ever!” wrote one user back in July. “Not sure if that will last after the CARES Act expires.” Other users expressed how different it felt for them to not have to being constantly forced to choose between an abusive boss and being unable to pay their rent, how their anxiety lifted to a degree they hadn’t known as an adult. Others were able to take up more fulfilling hobbies or discover passions they hadn’t previously had the headspace to indulge in.
I absolutely relate to this. After adjusting to a new routine and finally silencing that voice in the back of my head screeching at me to “be productive,” I started to ask myself what I really wanted to fill my time with. I reached out to old friends and mentors to get their advice. I started drawing again after years of being away from it. I focused on choosing topics for writing projects that would challenge me rather than just earn me a small stipend. I took a publishing workshop that I otherwise would have had neither the time nor finances to complete. I read Moby Dick. I got a Criterion subscription and started watching some of the great films I never took the time to watch before.
And yes, I would stay up drinking wine and smoking weed until 2 in the morning, sleep in until noon on a Wednesday, spend all day doing nothing but reading in bed, reflecting, daydreaming, pondering. Why shouldn’t I have? Did I not have the right and resources to? And didn’t they help me approach the more “productive” aspects of my life with renewed curiosity and vigor? You’re damn right they did, especially on those days when I was able to write for two hours, get stuck, then say “fuck it, I’m getting high and watching a Truffaut film.”
Some people – on the right and the left – might think I shouldn’t say such things out loud. Many on the left would push against such entitlement, resorting to a kind of socialist Catholic virtue, preferring the images of humble poor people who “just want to work, sir.” Fuck that. And fuck this pious, insipid, faux-noble romanticization of work. I deserved that extra $600 a week for doing nothing. Not because I was starving or contrite, not because I groveled enough or because I proved I wanted deeply to find “gainful employment.”
No, I deserved it because I’m a human being, and because my “nothing” was in the end tremendously rewarding, allowed for new ideas to bubble up to the surface, new collaborations and new projects. Dare I say they even made the world an infinitesimally small measure better to live in? The problem of course is that they could not be monetized so easily, could not fit into a hedge fund manager’s quarterly prospectus, didn’t play a role in the wellbeing of the almighty line. Seeing this as the case is, in a very small way, a tiny puncture in the façade of capitalist realism. When it becomes a rupture is when it is collectively realized.
It is absolutely necessary that we fight for jobs. Good jobs. Jobs with unions and benefits and pensions and ample vacation time and all the rest. But we should ask why. What comprises dignity at work? A reasonable pace of output. Enough time to thoroughly recharge and recover off the clock. The ability to say “no” when your boss is mistreating you. Adequate time to compare notes with co-workers, eat meals, have coffee, rest your mind and body. Pay or resources to spend quality time with family and friends, pursue other interests, without the dread of a Sunday evening. In short, all of what makes work tolerable revolves around either the ability to reshape it according to our needs and desires or, simply, to not work at all.
Desire, in fact, is the key here. I’m currently working on a review of what will likely be the late Mark Fisher’s last book: Postcapitalist Desire. In the introduction, Matt Colquhoun writes about a song Fisher himself wrote about, Sleaford Mods’ “Jobseeker.”
“The jobseeker rejects the moralised figure of the downtrodden and out of luck,” writes Colquhoun. “It is the inverse of a figure like Daniel Blake, as seen in Ken Loach’s critically acclaimed 2016 film I, Daniel Blake. Rather than raising consciousness through sympathy, depicting, through a fiction, the abject reality of the British welfare state, Williamson instead raises consciousness through bloody-mindedness, bottling the shame of class subordination and weaponizing it. This is not to say the Sleaford Mods’ rejection of a Ken Loach image is a rejection of that form of political consciousness; it simply offers up an inverse image of proletarian subjectivity: ejected from the system and loving it. ‘Jobseeker’ reinvigorates [Jean-Francois] Lyotard’s ‘desire-drunk yes’, in this sense, affirming the fact that this uneasy subjugation is what makes the working class a threat to the system itself. Fuck your middle-class propriety! I’ve got desires to pursue…”
There is therefore an air of the “revolutionary reform” in the demand “pay people to stay home.” Yes, it is also urgently needed, necessary for survival as Covid cases spike across the country and Trump tantrums his way through his last month as president and Biden recklessly promises to reopen schools. There is absolutely no reason for malls or shopping centers to be open right now, no reason for employees to not be staying safe at home, our needs taken care of.
Some of us have seen, briefly, what that would look like. We not only have a sense of how many lives it might have saved, but likely an inkling of how many of our jobs are completely unnecessary, how many could be automated or done from home. And a few of us have experienced how nourishing it can be to do nothing at all without worrying about food and shelter. In that respect, we see one of Arundhati Roy’s pandemic portals open just a crack. The demand for bread can’t wait, but neither can the demand for roses.