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.”
“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.
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.