The social question is always entangled with earthly conditions. It is our story that the colour of men gets darker the deeper we go into the hull of ships that marooned us in lands where fireflies make every dusk a divali. Modern economic growth first emerged during the industrial revolution, with its cotton textile factories, urban mechanization and export orientated industrialization. The period of economic growth, industrial diversification and export positioning, which preceded the industrial revolution, revolved around a transatlantic trade for which the slave colonies of the West Indies were vital. Turner’s deification of class, servitude and bonded labour that financed the factories of the industrial revolution was in time overturned by Leroy Clark’s ‘Slave Ship’.
There was always soil, land and territory connected to social classes, but in the present pandemic, these connections are intensified and made more visible and henceforth more important to underline. COVID-19 has made vivid the material conditions of existence in a wider sense than the restricted Marxist interpretation of class. In the 19th Century, the class struggle revolved around struggles over the means of production. The class struggle of the 21st Century is a ‘geo-social class struggle’ over habitable land and survival chances. It is a notion which does not solely limit the identification of classes to positions in relation to production.
Every day, people seek to rebuild their lives. Some are looking for work, others are fleeing persecution, torture or other crises, violence and armed conflict. Some are targeted because of ethnicity, religion, sexuality or political sentiments. Some are fleeing droughts, desertification and rising seas. These journeys start with the hope for a better future, but are rife with peril and fear. Many fall prey to human smugglers and exploitation. Some are detained when they arrive in a new country. Once they begin to build a new life, they face racism, xenophobia and discrimination. They are the new geo-social classes.
This ‘new working class’ at the forefront of contemporary capitalism is highly gendered, racialized, and ethnicized. They tote two loads: at one and the same time, they are the workers most at risk of contamination while caring for people, and of being laid off with no financial resources resulting from the furlough that is forced upon them by COVID-19. They are comprised largely of waged women, who face the choice between infection while caring for the ill and keeping key forms of provision such as grocery stores and bakeries open, or unemployment without benefits.
It is a workforce that is expected to provide care to rising numbers of pandemic patients in poorly supported care homes in places like Enfield in London, or they must perform those perfunctory services that permit for the reproduction of daily life everywhere. Instead of the classic industrial working class, it is the new ‘geo-social classes’ who are the truly over-exploited: exploited when they work because their work is largely invisible and exploited even when they don’t work because of their material conditions. They are not just exploited in what they are doing – they are exploited in their very existence. Albeit, not in the same way the old working class portrayed in Marxist imagery was exploited.
Asylum-seekers who have become domestic helpers, construction workers, and labourers, are essential to keeping the economy operative – but remain the lowest-paid and most vulnerable. This new working class was always here – the pandemic simply propelled them into prominence. We see, during this contagion, that even when factories are at a standstill, the geo-social class of care-takers carry on working.
Today, many remain exploited in factories in the classic Marxist sense of working for those who own the means of production while others are exploited via the material conditions of their life: their access to clean water and air, their well-being, their security. Some have become pirates because their ocean resources and part of their territory have been appropriated by developed countries and used to sustain our way of life, while theirs diminish daily.
Contrary to the morning mantra that ‘we’re all in the same boat’, and the sentimental celebrations for Cuban nurses in Lombardy, COVID-19 has caused class divisions everywhere to erupt. The ship we are voyaging in to defeat the virus may be the same, but those at the bottom of the ship’s hierarchy, like refugees fleeing the favelas of Latin America, are so penniless, that for them COVID-19 is not their principal problem. They are now the most noticeable part of a new working class that are exploited. And wretchedly their ZIP codes concentrate them in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, not Saint-Germain-des-Prés or Holland Park.
France’s Yellow Vest mushroomed from people of the soil, who needed gasoline, and a highway to commute to a job for a wage that allowed them to eat and pay rent. These concrete conditions of existence permitted them to survive. But when others disallow them from occupying even these small spaces in society, which for so long they inhabited in inequality and indignation, they are no longer able to describe to what they are attached, with whom they share these conditions, and who their antagonists really are.