Coronavirus Diary (3): Creeping Death

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
–Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5

I count it as a great blessing that I have so far, at age fifty, managed to avoid becoming a father. Amusingly enough, my ex-wife once told me, flat out, “Before I met you, I was on the fence about having children. I no longer am. You would make a terrible father. So I’ve abandoned the idea.” Music to my ears.

And yet, I’ve just had a phone conversation with one of my best friends, in which he asked me whether I would temporarily take custody of his child in the event that both he and his wife die of COVID-19. “Yes,” I say, without hesitation. I actually like his kid, as kids go. Granted, the custody he imagines is temporary, until family members could come and do a formal adoption. My friend knows me well enough to know that coronavirus or no, it makes little sense to turn me into a bona fide step-father. One catastrophe is enough.

As he thinks this deeply unpalatable matter through, he’s simultaneously forced to work through a set of tedious and mostly unanswerable legal questions. Would the State permit a teenaged child to live without a guardian in the event of his parents’ decease? Or would the child be sucked into the State’s “child protection” bureaucracy? Would the State permit a non-blood-relative like me to assume a temporary custodial role, or would it overrule the arrangement? Would it help to write out an advance directive, and notarize it? How much longer are notaries going to be in operation, anyway? Lots of questions here, but a hell of a time to have to hire a lawyer.

I tell him that I find it inconceivable that the State would insist on such legal niceties under circumstances like these. “That would defy common sense,” I say with great confidence. My friend laughs. “Common sense. I like that. Suddenly, the State operates on the basis of common sense.” I open my mouth to respond, but oddly, no articulate sound emerges. The sentence I have in mind begins, “But surely…” and fizzles out after that.

Our Friend, the State: the minor deity to whose prudence and foresight we owe our welfare. But hell, I’m not an anarchist. I’m realist enough to know that we need the State. Where would we be without it? If we didn’t have a State, after all, who would tie us up in bureaucratic knots when we had heart-rending decisions to make about the fate of our loved ones, in the wake of the disasters the agencies of the State failed to predict and stop?*

I could quit there with a nice, snarky, libertarianish polemic against the State. But the truth is, the call didn’t end there. It ended with our favorite topic of conversation, a workplace story. My libertarian friends have been serving up heart-warming stories on Facebook about the beneficent power of markets in coping with the coronavirus. I wish I could share their enthusiasm, but after my friend’s story, I don’t. Not that I really did before it.

There was a lot of background noise on the call. “Where the hell are you?” I ask him. “What’s all that noise?”

“I’m in the car,” he says wearily, “coming back from work. It’s noisy.”

“From work?” I ask incredulously. “What the fuck are you doing at work? I thought you worked in some hi-tech office. You’re telling me they’re not set up for online operations? I work for a fucking university, and we transitioned to online operations last week.”

“They are set up for online operations,” he responds. “I mean, we are.”

“Not 100%, you mean?”

“No, 100%, including my job. Everyone. We’re 100% set up for online business. They told us flat-out that they had a ‘business continuity plan’ that would allow every one of us to work from home anytime they decided to put it into effect.”

I can’t help laughing. “What the fuck? So what are they waiting for? A divine mandate?”

“Well, yeah, sort of,” he says. “They haven’t been ordered by the State to close, not yet. So they haven’t. I mean, no liability if they don’t, right? They’re going to maintain a ‘physical presence at the site’ until they get a legal order to close down.”

Long pause.

“Why?” I ask. The old Nazi line “hier ist kein warum goes briefly through my head. Absurd, irrelevant free association, I think, and suppress it, only to hear the dim echoes of another Germanic-sounding free association drift in. It’s garbled–“fluidity, security, reckless something something”–so after the call, I pick the relevant book off the shelf and turn to what it actually says:

Thus large scale industry, by its very essence, necessitates variations of labour, fluidity of functions, and mobility of the worker in all directions. But on the other hand, in its capitalist form it reproduces the old division of labor with its ossified particularities. We have seen how this absolute contradiction does away with all repose, all fixity and all security as far as the worker’s life-situation is concerned; how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labor, to snatch from his hands the means of subsistence, and by suppressing his specialized function, to make him superfluous. We have seen, too, how this contradiction bursts forth without restraint in the ceaseless human sacrifices required from the working class, in the reckless squandering of labour-powers, and in the devastating effects of social anarchy. (Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Part IV, ch. 15.9)

LOL. Now I’m channeling Marx! The mind does strange things under duress.

“Well, they just said that they wanted business continuity,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Used that phrase a lot. ‘Business continuity, physical presence,’ shit like that. In other words, they want to convey the impression to the outside world that business continues. It looks bad if no one is there. Doesn’t matter that they don’t need to be there. In the corporate sense, we do need to be there.”

Long pause. “It looks bad.” They can’t be serious. But capitalism is serious business. I’ve got one hand holding the phone, so I’ve only got the other one free to cover my face. I feel a strong urge to drop the phone and cover it with both.

“That’s fucking outrageous,” I say, at last. “But when this shit is over, there’ll be a reckoning for these people.” I’m yelling now. “There’ll be hell to pay.”

“No, there won’t,” he says.

Long pause.

The call ends soon after that. He’s got to go. It’s late, and he’s got work tomorrow.

*As I wrote this post, I could hear my wife Alison, a psychotherapist, talking a colleague through the regulatory hurdles required to keep her (the colleague’s) practice going during the pandemic. Her conversation with that colleague was analogous to mine with my friend:

Alison: You absolutely need to maintain continuity of treatment.
Colleague: But what if that violates State regulations?
Alison: You can’t think about that at a time like this. I can’t imagine the State will come down on you for maintaining continuity of treatment that happens to violate some regulation during a crisis. Think about your patients, not regulations.
Colleague: Right, but I have to think about myself, too.
Alison: Of course you do.


14 thoughts on “Coronavirus Diary (3): Creeping Death

    • I have yet to read that book. That said, I’m familiar with the “market”/”capitalism” distinction, but I don’t think the scenario I describe in the second half of the post is distinctive to capitalism or could somehow be avoided or ruled out under “markets-not-capitalism.”

      Imagine that we live under anarchism. Now suppose, under anarchism, that we have firms with asymmetric bargaining power vis-a-vis workers. Suppose that the managers of these firms have a strong emotional investment in certain image-conscious business practices. A pandemic comes, and despite having a contingency plan in place for going fully online, they insist that their workers come in “until things get really bad,” on their own understanding of “really bad.” Yes, in the scenario I describe, management is waiting around for a directive from the State, but that’s a relatively dispensable, superficial, accidental feature of the scenario. I think it’s accidental even if you want to make the argument that under capitalist regulation, managers tend to defer to regulatory authorities (“we’ll close when they order us to close”). That’s a highly contingent fact. I think it’s plausible enough to imagine callous, unimaginative managers under any system who will invoke an employment contract to induce employees to sacrifice their welfare to the firm. As long as you have people like that in managerial positions, asymmetric bargaining power, and contractual obligations, it seems to me that the problem is ineliminable.

      Not that I’m saying that the problem disappears if you abolish either capitalism or non-capitalist markets and adopt some form of socialism. Socialism just gives you distinctively socialist pathologies rather than capitalist ones.

      I guess I’m very skeptical of the idea that anarchism gets us more virtue than state-based capitalism (if that’s what you’re suggesting), or that either of the two get us more virtue than socialism, or for that matter, that socialism gets us more virtue than either. Image-conscious assholes can take control under any system. Once they do, the rest of us are in one way or another at their mercy. Different systems differ by what form that phenomenon takes, but no system eliminates it, or eliminates the need for resistance to it.


      • “Now suppose, under anarchism, that we have firms with asymmetric bargaining power vis-a-vis workers.”

        In other words, suppose the thesis of our book is false and all of our arguments are mistaken? Well yes, that would do it.


        • Well, I don’t take “capitalism or markets-but-not-capitalism” to refer to “the view described in that book you’ve mentioned that I’ve just admitted to not having read.” I was taking “capitalism” to refer to free markets under a limited state, and “markets-but-not-capitalism” to refer generically to any free market view minus the state, not necessarily yours. Surely there are (plenty of) non-capitalist free market views that accept asymmetric bargaining power in economic relations, and my point is, what I say applies to them as much as it applies to labor-management relations under capitalism.

          If it doesn’t apply to your view, your view is unique. I haven’t denied it could be unique (or defensible), but “no asymmetric bargaining power under anarchist free markets” strikes me as a tough burden to meet–a bit like “no net diminution of liberty under democratic state socialism.” I can’t say I’ve read every defense of democratic socialism ever written (or even keep up with that literature), but it wouldn’t be outlandish to be skeptical that socialism preserves liberty, even if some author insisted that the claim had been demonstrated in a book one hadn’t (yet) read.


          • I’ve never heard of “markets-but-not-capitalism” being used to mean *merely* markets without the state. Certainly that’s not what we mean by it. By that definition, anarcho-capitalists would count as proponents of markets-but-not-capitalism.

            It’s true that we think markets-but-not-capitalism would be the likely *result* of markets without the state, but that’s not a matter of definition.

            What we call capitalism, and what we take to be enabled by state intervention in markets, is the concentration of ownership of the means of production in the hands of an employing class. In the absence of state-enforced capitalism, our claim is that capital ownership would be dispersed more widely and equally, alternatives to wage labour such as workers’ cooperatives and individual proprietorships would become far more viable, and where wage labour did exist, the ready existence of alternatives would shift bargaining power in the workers’ favour.

            Maybe our view is “unique,” but it’s been standard among individualist anarchists for the past 150 years or so. I’m surprised this is news to you! What have you been taking my position, and the C4SS position, to be?


            • It is news to me. But the truth is that I started checking out of the libertarian/Objectivist literature maybe six or seven years ago, started reading other things, and sort of lost touch with it. I took your view to be a much weaker position than (I guess) it turns out to be. I took it to be politically identical to anarcho-capitalism, but hitched to a thick (rather than thin) and Aristotelian (rather than anti-Aristotelian) ethical stance with a left- (rather than right-wing) orientation.

              But with that said, the view you’ve just described doesn’t literally rule out asymmetric bargaining power.

              In the absence of state-enforced capitalism, our claim is that capital ownership would be dispersed more widely and equally, alternatives to wage labour such as workers’ cooperatives and individual proprietorships would become far more viable, and where wage labour did exist, the ready existence of alternatives would shift bargaining power in the workers’ favour.

              Well, even on the most charitable interpretation possible, capital ownership dispersed more widely and equally, and cooperatives that are more viable may shift bargaining power in workers’ favor, but can’t rule out the scenario I described in my post.

              The main point of my describing the scenario was not to make a point about views like yours, but to criticize the moral character of my friend’s bosses. Granted, I made the point about not being overly impressed about libertarians sharing stories about the power of markets to deal with the coronavirus. But that’s because most libertarians have little to say about the sort of scenario described in my post. It’s also because I haven’t seen a libertarian-positive story that gets at the heart of the matter: if the virus is a real threat, and social distancing is the best means of diluting the threat–of “flattening the curve”–how do libertarians propose to do that? Or rather, how do libertarians propose to deal with people who refuse to engage in social distancing while they (libertarians) uphold a categorical ban on the restriction of movement, or restrictions on trade or social interaction? And that on top of rejecting the legitimacy of state action tout court?

              I’ve seen libertarians praising the gadgets we have in our house that save us from boredom when we’re quarantined, or sing the praises of the price system as a means of equilibrating supply and demand and saving “us” from shortages. But this all strikes me as beside the point. If complicity in state action makes for dirty hands, and state power can’t be used to enforce social distancing, libertarians are in the position of saying that we’re obliged to give up on the best defense we have against this virus. In that case–close to the worst-case–we’re talking about 200 million people infected, and a million dead in this country alone.

              The point of the second part of the post is to point out that no libertarian qua libertarian could rule out the situation my friend found himself in. Maybe a view like yours diminishes the likelihood of its happening, but that’s not the same thing. Whereas a view that allows for the legitimacy of executive orders demanding that business stop, could rule it out. Such view might have other downsides, but it wouldn’t have that one. On a view like that, my friend wouldn’t be at work.

              But at a more basic level, my point is: only assholes would make someone work under these conditions. Whatever the systemic explanation for their prevalence, my bedrock claim is that far too many bosses are assholes, addicted to stupid PR nostrums, and willing to sacrifice their employees to it. They’re everywhere, they control too much, and they don’t deserve the salaries they make. I’m partial to any political system that allows me to tell them all to go and fuck themselves.


              • Contrasting what is *likely* under stateless markets-without-capitalism with what can somehow be *guaranteed* under the state seems like an odd contrast, given that your complaint is that the state *isn’t* guaranteeing it. After all, stateless markets-without-capitalism has just as much capacity to “guarantee” what you’re asking for as the state does. Under both systems, the result you want will occur if various people choose to act in the relevant ways. What we need to do is compare likelihoods with likelihoods. Under which system will workers most likely be protected from the situation you’re worried about — one in which employers are artificially empowered or one in which they’re not?


                • “my bedrock claim is that far too many bosses are assholes …. I’m partial to any political system that allows me to tell them all to go and fuck themselves.”

                  Then you should definitely be one of us.


                • “It is news to me.”

                  Wait a sec. Weren’t you present at my talk “Labour Exploitation: A Left-Libertarian Analysis” at the Alabama Philosophical Society in 2018? I remember *your* talk. 😛


                • Of course I remember your 2018 APS talk, but I guess I misunderstood it. I clearly took it to be arguing for a weaker thesis than you intended. I basically took it to be arguing for anarcho-capitalism plus a sort of thick Aristotelian virtue ethics entailing that exploitation was unjust even in cases where it was consensual. I didn’t take that to be politically different from anarcho-capitalism; I took it to be ethically different, with the rejection of the term “capitalism” denoting that latter difference (and/or rejection of the State).* Most right-wing anarcho-capitalists wouldn’t come up with an account of consensual transactions that were unjust because exploitative. But I accept that there are, and you do, so I guess I was focusing on agreements on not paying attention to the larger political picture.

                  Surely you remember my 1997 ICS paper on exploitation? You described it as “ingenious” synthesis of Kantian and Aristotelian insights. I have a photographic memory. Selective, maybe, but photographic.

                  *In other words, I took you to be using “capitalism” primarily for markets-under-the_State, but also by extension to thin versions of anarcho-capitalism that treat capitalist-like exploitation as perfectly compatible with justice.


                • As I recall, your APS paper made the case that we should all vote for Jason Brennan because of his sterling character.


  1. Elon Musk:

    “My frank opinion is that the harm from the coronavirus panic far exceeds that of the virus itself,” he wrote. “I will personally be at work, but that’s just me.”

    Note the implicit passive-aggressive suggestion implicit in all of his statements: assume that there is no such thing as asymptomatic transmission; then treat all concerns about asymptomatic transmission as “panic”; then observe King Musk’s magnanimity for the panic-mongers–His Majesty will permit them to stay home. No word on whether or not he intends to pay them if they do. Because those Teslas won’t make themselves, people!


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