To be or not to be productive during the pandemic


‘To be or not to be productive’ is an old constructed dilemma that surfaces during the Coronavirus pandemic. This Shakespearean tragedy is pushing people in two contradictory directions. In one hand, the states and governments are asking people to stay at home and stay safe during the lockdown period. The inevitable lockdown and physical distancing policies produce social alienation and economic distress for the masses. On the other hand, the centuries long capitalist socialisation with the ideal that unproductive indolence is immoral. It forces people to engage with time and creativity for self-improvement by busy in work.  The social media accelerates such socialisation process during this pandemic. The battle of productivity during the pandemic undermines individual creativity, mental health, and accelerates public health crisis.

The policy makers are ignoring the miseries of individuals and communities while looking for ways to recover after the pandemic. Many commentators on public policy are trying to draw lessons from the wartime economics to create a new narrative for productivism as the foundation of welfare state. Such narratives also glorify workers sacrifices. The glorification of the spirit of work ethics is central to capitalism, which derives its strength from all major world religions.  Religion and capitalism are twin pillars of such a contradictory narrative that promotes productivist society. In such a society, time is considered as money. People compete with each other and with nature to convert their time into money by working hard. It creates an illusion that working hard is a means to pursue one’s own dream and uplift one’s own self from economic miseries. The desire to recover from economic misery puts people in an illusion that diverts people’s attention from their working conditions and the processes, which controls and exploits their work. The workers work hard in every field and the most productivist people in the world but they suffer the most in miseries. The productivist societies normalises and naturalises inequalities and exploitation. So, the society based on productivist philosophy is inherently exploitative and unsustainable. The unsustainability of such a productivist system is revealed by this pandemic. The human alienation is the net outcome of both the pandemic and productivism.

The history of productivism as an ideology emerged during early agricultural society based on the growing needs of people. The need-based society was transformed into a desire-based society with the growth of intensive expansion of agriculture for higher production. The production that is not only for consumption requirements but also for sale in the market and export to distant places. The ideals of productivism became the everyday ideology of the industrial revolution. Productivism continues to be the answer for problems created by the capitalist economy in different parts of the world. The ideology of productivism in 21st century demonstrates three specific dimensions; i) concentration, ii) intensification and iii) specialisation. These three dimensions have played significant role in destroying environment and weakening the power of labour to serve the interests of the owners of the capital. Both the liberal and neoliberal policy makers use these features of productivism as policy prescriptions during economic crisis. The global health crisis due the Coronavirus pandemic is bringing back these old ideals of productivism for the survival of capitalist system, which further weakens the working classes all over the world. Some countries have already removed protective measure by reforming labour laws, which used to provide safety nets to the workers. The historical experiences of all productivist societies in different parts of the world expose the limits of productivist ideology, that upholds the interests of the capital and weakens labour power.

The productivist ideology of capitalism imposes economic and moral logic to allure the working classes to world of work that diminishes the meaning of life. It individualises the working conditions and production processes which destroys the collectivist foundation of society. It is in this process, the workers face all forms of social, economic, cultural and political alienation that is concomitant with the alienation people face during the pandemic led lockdown. The outbreak of Coronavirus has also manufactured unprecedented uncertainties in global scale. The capitalist class is trying to capture their lost profit by increasing working hours. The trade union laws are being diluted to serve the interests of the capitalist class.

It is within this context; the workers need to start writing their own narratives by disengaging with capitalist productivist framework in which work is individualised, standardised, disciplined and commodified. There is little room for the creative growth of workers and their skills. This crisis is an opportunity for the workers to create their own workers cooperatives and other labour organisations to coordinate different factors of production. The workers can create their own conditions of work, where the work is meaningful for the society and meaningful for the workers themselves. The workers can shape their own experiences by working independent of the productivist logic of a death cult called capitalism. The lockdown period is a period of reflection on life.  The human happiness and health depend on the quality of life, which is denied in the productivist work culture.

The French philosopher, Pascal said that “all problems of the humanity come from the inability for the man to sit without doing anything in a room”. It is apt for the pandemic led lockdown period in which people are made to feel impatience for being idle. It is time to understand the vices of productivist life and celebrate virtues of laziness. The iconic works like; ‘On Laziness‘ by Christopher Morley, ‘An Apology for Idlers’ by R. L. Stevenson, ‘In Praise of Idleness’ by Bertrand Russell and ‘Why Are Beggars Despised?’ by George Orwell have provided enough justification to celebrate the virtues of being lazy. It gives an opportunity to the workers to consolidate their time and energy for a more meaningful life that is disengaged from the system. The workers non-cooperation with capitalism and its productivist philosophy can only help workers and make the world more sustainable for the future.  The freedom of workers from capitalism depends on the quality of their laziness. It is time to dump the busy schedule in search of collective meaning of life, liberty, individual dignity, equality, humanity and happiness.

Bhabani Shankar Nayak, Coventry University, UK.




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