COVID-19 has generated a lot of “free time” for workers, but how can we create full, human “free time”?

May 12, 2020

By J.G.F. Hector

Karl Marx

The measures adopted in the face of the spread of COVID-19 in the world have caused billions of people to suddenly have excess “free time.” But this is not a full “free time,” conducive to the enjoyment and development of new skills, but a “time without work” that is exacerbating the enormous economic contradictions already existing in our society. In capitalism, “free time” means, for workers, “unpaid time.” Is it possible to imagine and bring about, in the midst of this absolute social crisis, a form of free time that is truly human time? Is it possible to build it within the current frameworks of the State and capital?

In capitalism, workers are always at risk

In Mexico, the State imposed the first phase of prevention against COVID-19 the third week of March. This included the closing of schools, the cancellation of massive events and the general recommendation to “stay home.” By the following week, this interruption in social dynamics had already affected the pockets of the nearly 60% of workers who subsist in the informal economy, that is, who lack all kinds of job and social security and depend on their income of each day to subsist: “I cannot stop, I am the breadwinner of my home, and I don’t sell much. Since last week sales began to decrease, but I cannot stay at home, I have to go out,” says a Zapotec merchant in Oaxaca.1“Vivimos al día y no podemos dejar de vender por el Covid-19: comerciantes zapotecas”. Desinformémonos. Periodismo desde abajo, March 24, 2020. “People no longer want to go out to eat, they are in a panic. If they close everything, let’s see how we can survive,” says a taquero in Mexico City.2“Artistas callejeros en la CDMX batallan con la pandemia…”. La Jornada, March 25, 2020.

Several companies, faced with the prospect of losing income from the “quarantine,” made their calculations and sent the workers to “rest” without paying them wages. The case of Alsea, which operates Burger King, Domino’s Pizza and Starbucks franchises in Mexico, is well-known, but many other companies have followed suit. And, those that do continue to operate—either because they produce goods considered “essential” at this time, or because their owners simply refuse to see their earnings reduced—do so with total disregard for the lives of the workers, who repeatedly demand that the government and their employers implement safety measures in their work area.3See, for example, the pronouncement of the National Network of Day Laborers and Day Laborers (“Exigen medidas de seguridad para jornaleros en México ante coronavirus”. Desinformémonos, March 19, 2020), or the actions of workers of the maquila at companies in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua (“Desestiman maquiladoras la emergencia por Covid-19”. La Jornada, April 3, 2020). That is, in capitalism, either because of working or having no work, workers are always at risk, not only of catching COVID-19 or any other disease, but especially of suffering in their own flesh. the contradictions of this economic-social system, accentuated today by the pandemic.

The second phase of prevention against COVID-19, imposed by the Mexican State towards the end of March, has literally meant the prohibition of work: hundreds of policemen walk the streets, closing businesses, kicking out street vendors who sell supposedly “non-essential” products, closing public spaces. Yes, of course, precautionary measures must be taken, but the application of these measures in capitalism brings to a boil the contradiction between capital and labor, between the interests of the State (to watch over capital’s profits) and the interests of the population. Government “subsidies” to the unemployed population are totally insufficient, since, if capital is seeing its profits reduced, even more will it see a reduction in the part that flows to state coffers in the form of taxes. The protests were immediate.

Capital vs. humanity

Capitalism is a system whose sole purpose is the accumulation of more and more profits. This is achieved through direct and indirect exploitation of the workers (even an “independent” worker, who does not have a pattern that forces them to stay overtime or to work more intensively, is subject to the laws of the market, which determine how long you must work to subsist each day). In other words, in capitalism, we only exist as long as we contribute to that infinite generation of profits. In a moment of crisis like this, when the “normal” operation of capital is interrupted, the natural inclination of this system will be to lose the least amount of profits, which it will always achieve at the expense of the workers and the population in general.

And, yes, the measures imposed by the agents of capital (the capitalists and the State) are still highly contradictory, but these are the contradictions of capital itself, which it draws out day after day. If it were up to capital, COVID-19 would not have meant any interruption in its daily advance, as it intended when the first outbreak of contagion appeared in Wuhan, China.4Gerry Emmett, “Covid-19: A World Historic Threat.” News & Letters, March-April 2020. However, the workers’ resistance against being “cannon fodder,” as well as capital’s need to keep alive a population that it can exploit, forced it to slow down a bit. It made its calculations and, where it foresaw more losses than gains, it simply sent its workers to “rest.” For its part, the state’s prohibitions are not because it is interested in our health, but because it is helping capital to keep an exploitable population alive and because it does not want the insufficiency of its health systems to become even more evident, which could lead to to a revolutionary social explosion. But neither the State nor capital can avoid – although they can delay – this historical need: the urgency to end capitalism and give rise to a new human society.

“The measure of wealth is free time”

In his Grundrisse of 1857-1859, written in preparation for Capital, Karl Marx spoke of the contradictory character of “free time” in capitalist society. In it, “free time” is presented as “non-work time […] for some,” that is, for the capitalists and, in part, for some better-paid workers (scientists, academics, managers, etc.) who subsist thanks to the massive production by average workers; for the latter, on the other hand, “free time” means “unpaid time,” since they depend on being employed by capital for their survival. But capital, in its intrinsic desire to obtain more and more profits, continually improves its forms of exploitation, which ultimately imply the use of fewer and fewer people in greater and greater production, achieved thanks to the implementation of software and more efficient machines.

Thus, capital is a constant generator of greater social “free time” (unemployment) and, at the same time, of the conditions that allow the creation of goods in greater quantity and more effectively (goods that are not for the population, which is unemployed and, even if it wanted, could not buy them; but they are not even destined for people, but for capital itself, as new means of production to continue producing and producing: steel, fiber optics, artificial intelligence, etc.) This is a clear contradiction and must be overcome, at the risk of the extermination of humanity. It is the actions and ideas of the workers and other social subjects that generate the possibility of blowing up these contradictions and, thus, giving rise to a society in which exploitation of workers stops “being a condition for the development of social wealth”; where there is “free development of individualities, and therefore […] reduction of the necessary work of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific, etc. training of individuals thanks to the time that has become free and the means created for all […] ‘A nation is truly rich when instead of 12 hours you work 6’ ”; In short, a society where “then, in no way, is working time the measure of wealth, but free time.5Grundrisse. México: Siglo XXI, 20ª ed., 2007, tomo II, pp. 228-229, 232.

But this can only be achieved if this human concept of free time guides our resistance practices and actions, that is, if we seek to realize this concept in our activity as workers, women, students, Indigenous peoples, etc. Demands on the State, however necessary and just they may be, will not be sufficient in themselves to carry out this concept, much less to give rise to a new human society, since it is not the State who is responsible for this transformation, but rather us. The State and capital must disappear. Let the “free time” (unemployment) to which capitalism forces us on a daily basis, accentuated today by the COVID-19 crisis, serves as a breeding ground to germinate in our bodies and minds the historical urgency of realizing this towering concept of a new human society.

Originally published in Spanish on April 13, 2020 at https://praxisenamericalatina.org/el-covid-19-ha-generado-mucho-tiempo-libre-para-ls-trabajadors-pero-es-este-un-tiempo-libre-pleno-humano-como-podriamos-crear-este/


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References   [ + ]

1. “Vivimos al día y no podemos dejar de vender por el Covid-19: comerciantes zapotecas”. Desinformémonos. Periodismo desde abajo, March 24, 2020.
2. “Artistas callejeros en la CDMX batallan con la pandemia…”. La Jornada, March 25, 2020.
3. See, for example, the pronouncement of the National Network of Day Laborers and Day Laborers (“Exigen medidas de seguridad para jornaleros en México ante coronavirus”. Desinformémonos, March 19, 2020), or the actions of workers of the maquila at companies in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua (“Desestiman maquiladoras la emergencia por Covid-19”. La Jornada, April 3, 2020).
4. Gerry Emmett, “Covid-19: A World Historic Threat.” News & Letters, March-April 2020.
5. Grundrisse. México: Siglo XXI, 20ª ed., 2007, tomo II, pp. 228-229, 232.

One thought on “COVID-19 has generated a lot of “free time” for workers, but how can we create full, human “free time”?

  1. All social sectors of society, and even political opposites, have seen the contradictions of capitalism sharply illuminated by the pandemic. But different “philosophies” of freedom lead to the polarization of thought and action. Understanding the workings of capitalism–a profit-making machine–tells us how deep change must be. A philosophy of absolute individualism tells a person s/he has a right to spit on another person’s face, to force workers to work unsafely, or to grab as much money off disaster as s/he can. That’s why it’s so important to articulate a philosophy of human liberation–humanity as a whole, as Marx said, humans are species-beings. Social distancing brings understanding of the human need for people as people and gives a very small sense of what the incarcerated (especially those in solitary) have been suffering all along.

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