Work, care and liberty

Ord&Bild 5/2020

In Swedish journal ‘Ord&Bild’, a literary reportage from the frontline of the gig economy; why the comparison with the AIDS pandemic is only apt to a degree; and a way out of the dead ends of left critique of work.

From revolution to masturbation

Eurozine Review 02/2021

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 In the spring of 2020, publisher and musician Anders Teglund realized that his income had grown too uncertain for comfort and took on shift work for Foodora, the restaurant-to-home delivery service. In Ord&Bild, he offers ‘a literary reportage from the gig economy’.

‘Foodora couriers are all over the place, we flit about like bees, pollinating the city. Between restaurants and homes, up hill and down dale. I had been vain enough to worry about cycling around town wearing their livery, hyper-visible in a pink jacket and with an oversized cuboid, pink bag. It’d be like, look, another loser on his bike. The shame of it. Now I realize how wrong I was. I’ve been anonymized. People take no notice, it’s just another Foodora courier.’

The couriers have to wait outside the restaurants, but rarely make contact: ‘Hours into my first shift, my head feels tired and I tell the other guy. He offers a piece of advice: “Don’t think, just work”.’ It’s one way of summing up the workers’ predicament. On the first of May, Labour Day, ‘twenty-five shifts are announced. It seems quite a lot for the organizers to fill. I’m not working but note that there’s no shortage of takers. Foodora couriers won’t take time off just because today is the sacred day of the working class. How did they manage to build a labour movement back in those days? Can it be done again, and would the present-day precariat dare to join the movement?’

Recognition and pandemic

Karl Gauffin, a public health sciences specialist, writes on social recognition in the context of health crises. He begins by recalling the AIDS pandemic: ‘In infection hospitals, young men were dying in isolated rooms. Even saying a final farewell to loved ones was forbidden.’ No one can mistake the relevance for today: ‘Once more, people are dying alone, inside technically advanced capsules lined up in intensive care units, or inside the single rooms of care homes, each cell pared down to an inhuman minimum necessary for existence.’

The comparison is incomplete because ‘now, we have a reasonably good grasp of how the new virus is transmitted.’ In contrast, what was known about HIV ‘was obscured by the loathing of a widely despised form of sexuality’. In the current pandemic, the lavish recognition of health and social care workers obscures how, for a wide range of jobs, ‘the authorities have left the care sector a legacy of resource poverty’. Overall, the pandemic and the political decisions taken in response ‘have made Sweden’s class structure more obvious’.

Work and liberty

Philosopher and historian Karolina Enquist Källgren discusses changes in leftwing thinking about work in the twentieth century. Between the 1960s and ’80s, ‘demands for collective negotiation of fair working conditions were replaced with emphasis on individual projects, rewarded by a meritocratic society. André Gorz and others on the New Left argued that capitalism had been reinstated in Europe and Russia, causing oppression and alienation by refusing to recognize workers’ autonomy and creative potential. The liberal entrepreneur and the cultural critic of the left both had a belief in individual autonomy.’

However, there are ways out of this neoliberal dialectic. Källgren turns to the Spanish-Mexican philosopher Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez and, especially, his works The Aesthetic Idea of Marx and The Philosophy of Praxis. There is, Sánchez Vázquez has argued, ‘a fundamental relationship between work and art. Through collaborative sharing, work can be liberating in a social as well as individual sense … Within a hegemonic system, in which the product will always be pre-determined or limited by physical and social reality, work offers a political subject routes to freedom.’

This article is part of the 2/2021 Eurozine review. Click here to subscribe to our weekly newsletter to get updates on reviews and our latest publishing.

Published 3 February 2021
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

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