Friday, May 01, 2020

Ruminations 90: Sacrificing the Most Humble on the Altar of Leadership--May Day 2020 in the Shadow of Pandemic

1 And the LORD sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him, There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor.
2 The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds:
3 But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter.
4 And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man's lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.
5 And David's anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the LORD liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die:
6 And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.
7 And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man.

May Day has ancient, "green," roots in the West.  It marked the time when pagans and later Christians celebrated the transition from Winter to Spring.  It marked the moment when the survivors of nature's pruning could look forward to re-generation. Translated to West African traditions, it might be understood, in an Ifá sense, the time of Oturunpon. Regeneration, and fecundity, could itself also be violent. It corresponded in many places to the start of "campaign season"--the time for waging war.  
The normal "campaign season" corresponded to the seasons of the year when there would be food on the ground and relatively good weather. This season was usually from spring to autumn. Soldiers were rarely full-time and often needed to attend to their own land at home. In many European countries peasants were obliged to perform around 45 days of military service per year without pay, usually during this campaign season when they were not required for agriculture. By early-spring all the crops would be planted, freeing the male population for warfare until they were needed for harvest time in late-autumn. (Medieval Warfare)
Regeneration, fecundity, warfare all converge in the Biblical account of the triangular relationship between David, the King of Israel, Bathsheba and her husband Uriah the Hittite.  Here lust was not impeded by legality where, in the season set for campaigning, an obstacle could be eliminated merely by the exercise of discretion to place a person in harm's way. 

But it also has modern, "red," roots in the actions of the Second International (1889–1916), an organization of socialist and labor parties originating in Paris before its institutionalization and move east to the Soviet Union and its 1889 declaration of 1 May (May Day) as International Workers' Day.
It has deep American roots, however, tied to the Haymarket Riot (4 May 1886; Chicago) and the effect on labor law and policy in the UNited States. The politics of Red Rooted May Day has loomed large in the Northern Hemisphere and its connection to socialism and eventually to Marxist Leninist internationalism produced efforts to detach celebrations of labor from May Day.
After the 1894 Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland officially moved the U.S. celebration of Labor Day to the first Monday in September, intentionally severing ties with the international worker’s celebration for fear that it would build support for communism and other radical causes. Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to reinvent May Day in 1958, further distancing the memories of the Haymarket Riot, by declaring May 1 to be “Law Day,” celebrating the place of law in the creation of the United States. May Day 2020 is on May 1, 2020. (May Day).
And yet, the intimate connection between May Day as the celebration of Spring, of regeneration, of fecundity, of birth, of control, of war, of greed, and of the exploitation of labor remains quite strong. Its connection has become more evident still on this May Day 2020 in the shadow of pandemic.  It remains the story of labor, and of labor's sacrifice to satisfy the lust of those who lead (from the rear) and gather from themselves the fruits of the productive forces they sacrifice. 

This short Rumination considers the way that this May Day lesson (of Spring, of regeneration, of fecundity, of birth, of control, of war, of greed, and of the exploitation of labor) now emerges as law and policy in the United States in the shadow of COVID-19  As one would expect in a nation so fond of markets (and this is by no means a bad thing!) this sacrificing of labor (not for capital--the old Marxist binary irrelevant here) by the "leadership core" of political and economic actors (and the institutions they oversee) to their greater glory.

The United States has been engaged in a great debate about the course of its response to COVID-19 (U.S. response to virus splinters into acrimony and uncertainty).  That debate has not been undertaken in the usual manner of a bottom up representative republic; that is by and for the electorate.  Rather that debate has been performed for the electorate as audience and for their consumption. The value of that performance is meant to harvested and consumed, in turn, as polling data to feed electoral simulations.  Those simulations (on the value of simulations here) in turn are meant to provide the mechanism through which what is said and what is debated might be most usefully constructed in ways that manage popular opinion.  The ultimate object, of course, for politicians, is to maximize the likelihood of re-election. For the economic elite, it si to maximize the economic value of opinion to their respective business--a more complex undertaking requiring the perfection of alignment among consumers, regulators, investors and lenders.  

Instead, that debate has been undertaken by two great armies of experts--and of the technocrats that fuel those armies with data, simulation, and alternatives grounded in the fundamental ordering premises on which each of these great techno-governance orders is based. Neither army is inherently good or evil (as those things are conventionally understood but see here). Rather each is a self-reflexive ordering system that operates as subsystems within the economic and political organization of the state, and the state embedded in international public and private orders.

One is the army of health and medical techno-experts. This is a group with a quite specific and worthy objective--risk prevention, mitigation and remediation targeting individuals as vectors for the infection of peoples.  It is to the cost in terms fo aggregate lives that matter, but those are tabulated one sick person at a time.  In an age in which a vaccine appears to be the only long term solution, and in which the character and size of mortality appears to be societally unbearable (again these are powerful notions which are at a broad level of generality generally accepted), prevention, mitigation, and remediation strategies must be grounded on stay in place rules, self quarantine, a judicious use of testing, and the protection of the health care system itself buy ensuring conditions of a slow infection and thus lower mortality rate program.  This is the world of the CDC, of WHO, and of the medical experts who now seem to be attached to the political actors who now leap from our televisions, monitors and other media, as the vox populi.  For them, of course, the economic, social, religious, and cultural consequences of these strategies are consequential and secondary.  They are factors that may affect the forms which prevention, mitigation, and remediation strategies may take, but not the strategies themselves.

The other army is that of the economist, the captains of business (hardly industry anymore) and of finance. These are the technicians who oversee the health of the economic body of the nation. Like the armies of health and medical techno-experts, these technocrats also seek to maximize value--but here to the economy.  They might be heard to posit that a nation of survivors might not survive long with little to eat, no place to sleep, and no means of exploiting their productive capacities.  For this army, of course, the same rules of prevention, mitigation, and remediation strategies apply.  Except here health (of individuals or communities) is a factor that must be accommodated or at least acknowledged.  The object, at its base level is the same as with the medical technocracy--to avoid injury to the economic body (in the aggregate or among individuals) which may be societally unbearable.

Eventually, of course (and one begins to see this in most states six to eight weeks after "lock-down) the initial triumph of the position of the health and medical techno-experts begins to be challenged with increasing urgency and power by the economic techno-experts. Individuals find it increasingly difficult to survive as economic actors even as their survival against disease is increased; the state is increasingly unable to support any sort of aid to economic actors to subsidize the paralysis of economic activity (e.g., here), and people begin to start making individual calculations of risk that increasingly see in lock down a greater danger than in exposure. As a consequence, many states in the U.S. and nations elsewhere--within eight or so weeks after initial strong medical action, begin to develop strategies for easing restrictions (here). And these follow measures to subsidize business (and to some extent individuals) as they are asked to bear the economic consequences of medical policies (e.g., here, and here).

But the movement toward opening up might only exacerbate an underlying issue that may fall by the wayside in the calculus of both the medical and the economic techno-experts and the political and business classes who use these techno-armies as a sword and shield: the problem of free riding by those who make the rules and profit by them. "In a sense, then, the containment policies--of states and enterprises, and of the communities drafted in support of their implementation--represent an instance of free riding but with the polarities reversed.  In this case, it is the state, the enterprise, the social organization that achieves a benefit, indeed a substantial benefit on the beneficial action of others.  And those "others" bear the burden directly by having to use their own resources to subsidize the effects of those policies of containment on their own (and their families) welfare" (Subsidizing the Free-Riding State and Enterprise Apparatus on the Backs of those Least Capable of bearing that Burden--The Micro Consequences of COVID-19 and Containment Measures).

This free riding by those who lead and in leading bear virtually none of the risk borne by those who are led, has taken two forms.  One is well evidenced now.  The other is on the horizon. This free riding is embedded both in the objectives and premises of the medical/health and economic/business techno-experts and the leader classes who profit from them.

The first is well known--the essential worker issue. Even in the height of the stay at home and lock down regimens, it was clear that a minimum of societal stability would have be be borne on the back of line workers--essential workers. Though these varied from place to place they included line city workers (police, garbage, etc.), auto repairs, workers in food and essential goods stores, gasoline dispensaries, and the like. Doctors were among the few elements of the social order that were relatively capable of self protection but whose own necessity required them to bear substantial risk--some doctors anyway (the ones called to treat the COVID-19 sick).  And it was these workers who were more likely than not to become sick--alternatively they could refuse and lose their jobs (e.g., Millions of Essential Workers Are Being Left Out of COVID-19 Workplace Safety Protections, Thanks to OSHA; also here, here, .
While cities across the nation shuttered, essential workers from doctors to delivery drivers to grocers to construction and utility workers, among others, were instructed to perform their job duties in the field, with precautionary measures in place. But as days in quarantine turn to weeks and the number of positive COVID-19 cases continue to mount, more workers across every essential sector have voiced concerns for their personal health and well-being due to frequent exposure to the general public. One matter of note is whether they are eligible for workers' compensation benefits if they are exposed to COVID-19 on the job and must be out of work. (Are Essential Workers Entitled to Workers' Compensation for COVID-19?)
Here the unanswered question is one that reminds us of the story of the rich person serving up the lamb of the poor neighbor to entertain his guest.  To the extent that workers are asked to make a sacrifice for the social good, and who are further asked to bear the risk of that sacrifice while others harvest the value of those acts without compensation those who sacrifice, one might be excused if one were to understand this as a form of free riding.  Or theft. Most of those doing thew sacrificing are hardly able to bear it--especially if, as a consequence of getting sick or worse they are also asked to undertake the full cost of medical treatment and rehabilitation. Here the leadership (and society more generally profit) on the sacrifice of its more humble members for whom a few acts of recognition might seem almost malicious. "Since many of these workers risk their lives to protect ours, the nation has a responsibility to protect the health and financial stability of these individuals and their families. Critically, Congress did too little to protect essential workers in the CARES Act. " (How to protect essential workers during COVID-19 (proposing a compensation scheme)).

More interesting still, however, and more attuned to the darker side of free riding, may touch on all workers who, liberated from the stay at home rules and the opening of the economy, may also face certain risks (Mitch McConnell Insists On Liability Protections For Businesses During The Pandemic). Here one encounters in the form of federal law, the letter that King David sent to the front lines with Uriah, whose wife he coveted, instructing the Uriah be deployed in a way that would assure his death (2 Samuel 11).
In a statement announcing the Senate will return to Washington, D.C., on May 4, the Kentucky Republican called the proposal an "urgent need" to shield businesses from lawsuits, painting it as something that benefits essential workers — even though those workers would be the ones prohibited from suing their employer if they become infected.

"While our nation is asking everyone from front-line healthcare professionals to essential small-business owners to major employers to adapt in new ways and keep serving, a massive tangle of federal and state laws could easily mean their heroic efforts are met with years of endless lawsuits," McConnell wrote in the statement. "We cannot let that happen."

Donald Trump himself pushed for so-called "liability waivers" at an April 20 briefing. (McConnell vows to protect businesses but not states in next relief bill)
Mr. Trump explained the thinking at his April 20 briefing. "I’ll give you a legal answer to that when we look it up. But we have tried to take liability away from these companies. We just don’t want that because we want the companies to open and to open strong." The statement came in response to a question of the placement of risk for costs of employee illness after they are ordered back to work (discussed here).

Here is a quite conscious decision that those who ought to bear the risk of business ought not to be business but rather only one of the factors of the production of business wealth. And the factor of production least able to bear it.  But the issue goes deeper.  Having been asked to sacrifice once--to further the policies of the health/medical techno experts--it appears that the most humble elements of economic productivity will be asked to sacrifice again.  This time the sacrifice will not be for the nation, but for those who prefer to maximize the earnings of their economic enterprises.  This is a laudable goal--do not get me wrong; and one that ought to be safeguarded.  Yet even here, social norms and basic issues of fairness ought to militate against using economic power to rewrite the legal rules around which markets--and especially markets for labor--are organized.  Economic power ought not to be used to deploy law to shield a principal from the consequences of its decisions, decisions will be taken precisely to increase value.

What makes it morally repugnant, of course, is the way that the powerful use the humble to absorb the consequences of their own actions and their own decisions.  To make money on the bodies of the poor is necessarily tolerated within a society vertically ordered in accordance with wealth.  But its core principles ought not be to turned in on themselves to effectively reduce the laboring poor to an effective state of peonage.  And yet this is precisely what the leadership from the rear that is at the heart of these efforts to use workers as human shields without recompense suggests.

Are there alternatives that protect business as well as the worker.  Of course there are.  They remain unexplored.  For example, providing for the waiver of liability for firms that them provide full medical coverage for workers; extending coverage under Obamacare in a way that may be subsidized by the state (if the state feels the need to bear the risks of business activity (which is plausible and fair enough)); even creating an expedited system of non-judicial grievance mechanisms operationalized through a fund to which all employers contribute (something that was done on a smaller scale by Brands after the Rana Plaza Factory Building collapse in 2013; Are Supply Chains Transnational Legal Orders? What We Can Learn from the Rana Plaza Factory Building Collapse).  All of these are possible.  That the leadership core will spend not a moment thinking about them speaks much to motive and even more to the moral character of those singlemindedly pushing one variation without even the fig leaf of democratic engagement.  

It is in this context, and for this May Day, that a passage from Tennyson's Idylls of the King might provide some insight and a doorway to further reflection:

For thus it chanced one morn when all the court,
Green-suited, but with plumes that mocked the may,
Had been, there won't, a-maying and returned,
That Modred still in the green, all ear and eye,
Climbed to the high top of the garden-wall
to spy some secret scandal if he might; * * *
and more than this
He saw not, for Sir Lancelot passing by
Spied where he couched, and as the gardener's hand
Picks from the colewort a green caterpillar,
So from the high wall and the flowering grove
Of grasses Lancelot plucked him by the heel,
And cast him as a worm upon the way
(Tennyson, Guinevere, from Idylls of the King)

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