The coronavirus pandemic, it is now commonly observed, has drawn into relief, and indeed exacerbated, the various layers of inequality already fragmenting culture and society in the United States.
At the same time, when it comes to class inequality in particular, Americans have tended to find ways to gloss over the brutal realities of US class society by heroicizing workers upon whom, it is at this moment impossible to deny, Americans’ lives depend. Farmworkers, grocery store workers, delivery truck drivers, in addition to doctors, nurses, and other hospital workers, have now been recognized as “essential”. This categorization supposedly acknowledges their social value, but little is done to alter their remuneration, improve their working conditions, or end labor exploitation.
Karleigh Frisbie Brogan, writing in The Atlantic, captures this dynamic in her experience as a grocery worker. She acknowledges some satisfaction from this momentary recognition, writing, “Working in a grocery store has earned me and my co-workers a temporary status. After years of being overlooked, we suddenly feel a sense of responsibility, solidarity, and pride.”
But their feelings about themselves aside, she views this larger social recognition as not just fleeting but as serving the more dangerous psychological purpose of absolving consumers of guilt and enabling the same system of exploitation to continue:
Cashiers and shelf-stockers and delivery-truck drivers aren’t heroes. They’re victims. To call them heroes is to justify their exploitation. By praising the blue-collar worker’s public service, the progressive consumer is assuaged of her cognitive dissonance. When the world isn’t falling apart, we know the view of us is usually as faceless, throwaway citizens. The wealthy CEO telling his thousands of employees that they are vital, brave, and noble is a manipulative strategy to keep them churning out profits.
Brogan’s representation of these workers as victims underscores the fact that while heroicized, workers aren’t turned to for their insights and perspectives for best addressing the social and public health challenges posed by the pandemic, not to mention the ongoing economic inequities in America’s class society.
What would a working-class cultural response to the pandemic look like? Is there a labor perspective that offers special or different insights into how we address public health issues, into how we heal our deep social ills?
If we believe Marx and Engels that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle“, then it stands to reason, of course, that experiences of and responses to this pandemic are inevitably bound up in these class antagonisms—that the pandemic itself is a source of class struggle.
If we’re looking for such a model of a popular working-class cultural response to pandemic, author and activist Timothy Sheard‘s 2019 novel, One Foot in the Grave, offers an eerily prescient example. The novel is the eighth installment in Sheard’s Lenny Moss mystery series, all of which are set in the hospital workplace. The series weaves murder mysteries with the intricate and fascinating drama of all the labor that goes into the work of healing, from the custodial work that cleans and sanitizes the hospital, to the engineers that maintain the building operations, to the food service workers, to the doctors and nurses and more.
The Covid-19 pandemic heightens the relevance of Sheard’s work to be sure, and One Foot in the Grave takes on particular relevance as Sheard presciently imagines an outbreak of the Zika virus in Philadelphia. This pandemic challenges the hospital staff in their healing efforts in all the ways we see healthcare workers stressed in these times: dealing with lack of PPE and other equipment, facing capacity issues, working in dangerous conditions that expose them to the virus, and so forth.
The hospital workplace is Sheard’s Conradian sea, full of the drama of work he represents in ways that challenge the US dominant culture’s “degradation of labor”. Harry Braverman develops this term in in his 1974 classic study Labor and Monopoly Capital, referring to two phenomena. First, the term describes the way an intensified division of labor has eroded craft and artisanal expertise by taking work and breaking it into smaller and smaller tasks, thus “de-skilling” the worker. Second, the term refers to the way this process then supposedly enables us to de-value the necessary work people do; we come to refer to such types of work as “unskilled”, justifying the low wage at which the work is remunerated and, hence, in social terms, valued and appreciated.
This degradation results in the dismissal and ignorance of the talents and expertise that workers in all positions in the labor force possess and also creates damaging divisions within the labor force between erroneously defined categories of “skilled” and “unskilled”, or “professional” and “worker”, which disarm the possibilities for the cooperative leveraging of all the social power and expertise we have at our disposal to solve problems and address our collective social needs in the service of all lives.
It is through his intricate representations of work and workplace relations, as well as his representation of class conflict in the hospital, that Sheard’s novel provides a narrative of working-class response to pandemic conditions, and of working-class solutions to larger social ills. One Foot in the Grave presents these solutions as involving a combination of overcoming class divisions, developing solidarity and cooperation among all workers, and respecting and availing ourselves of the working-class knowledge typically dismissed within US capitalist culture.
From the first page, Sheard conveys high-strung class tensions in the hospital as Catherine, a pregnant nurse, is in tears, needing her job but fearful of the potentially dangerous workplace endangering her and her unborn child. She is unable to refuse work assignments or not come to work, and she has no union to advocate for the safety of her work conditions or protect her job.
The second chapter opens with Lenny Moss, James Madison Hospital’s custodian and also chief sleuth for whom Sheard names his series, complaining that the hospital executives don’t supply him with enough bleach to do his job while he does work that is essential to providing a healthy environment for patients. Sheard describes the work to make clear the importance and value of Lenny’s job to the overall work of healing: “He ran the mop over the old, cracked marble floor in broad strokes, washing away a night’s worth of spills and stains. It wasn’t the work he had to do this morning that was annoying Lenny … It was the boss’s unwillingness to supply him and his co-workers with bleach that had gotten under his skin”(Sheard 5).
Then, Dr. Auginello, chief of the Infectious Disease Division, checks in with Lenny while instructing his residents. He explains to them that “the most effective preventive strategy is to continually clean horizontal surfaces” (Sheard 6). He elaborates, with particular relation to the Zika virus: “Once droplets fall onto the horizontal surfaces, we touch them with our hands and transfer them to our skin. So continuous cleaning of the environment with a strong antiseptic solution remains the most effective procedure for preventing horizontal transmission, and bleach is the most effective solution for killing virus” (Sheard 6).
Auginello explains that the “business” interests in the hospital try to cut down on the use of bleach because patients don’t like the smell and complain, and it is important to them to secure positive patient satisfaction surveys.
Auginello reveals that he and Lenny share an important technical knowledge, and we see the doctor valorizing custodial work—as well as the knowledge that pertains to it—and its important role in contributing to the overall task of healing patients and keeping staff safe. Throughout the novel, Auginello cooperates with other hospital workers to create the best conditions for serving patients.
For example, when the hospital is running low on negative pressure rooms and HEPA filters are difficult to find Katchi, the maintenance engineer, figures out that they can create the same environment in rooms with fans purchased from Home Depot, where they can also buy paint masks to make up for the shortage of standard hospital issue masks. Through these relations, Sheard challenges the degradation of labor by putting all of this technical knowledge, contained in occupations typically stratified by class, on equally important footing.
Auginello represents solidarity itself. His goal is to serve patients, and the class system presents an obstacle to his ability to fulfill his Hippocratic oath. If he operated according to the values of class society, he would likely dismiss out of hand the knowledge a janitor or maintenance engineer can contribute to optimizing medical care for patients. Solidarity and the dismissal of class distinctions are central to Auginello doing his job most effectively.
Lenny and Auginello, in fact, together represent a cross-class solidarity rooted in a dismissal of class values and status and in a common respect and valuing of one another, offering the cultural basis for exploding the value underpinnings of class society altogether. Lenny, of course, is not only the central intelligence solving crimes novel after novel, but he’s also the go-to authority, in part because of his union activism, that other workers—doctors, nurses, staff—turn to help resolve conflicts and solve problems in the hospital.
In One Foot in the Grave, some nurses come to Lenny, a leader in the Hospital Service Workers Union, asking for help in addressing dangerous and oppressive working conditions. And here we see the fault lines in solidarity, rooted in class divisions and a class value system that forwards the degradation of labor. Some of the nurses are uncomfortable, for example, joining a union with service workers. One of the nurses, Agnes, “was not sure she wanted to be in a union with service workers, she was a professional, they were all non-professionals”(Sheard 21).
This division persists in the novel, posing an obstacle to worker solidarity and hence to the nurses addressing and improving working conditions. The question abiding in One Foot in the Grave is raised by Mimi, a nurse trying to organize the union: “She asked herself: what would it take to win them to the union? How could she break through their stubborn ideas about being ‘professionals’? Lenny had often said, every worker is a professional, every job is a skilled job.Why couldn’t the nurses see that?” (Sheard 169).
And, oh yeah, there is a murder to be solved, involving a former resident who tries to poison the attending physician who had him dismissed for sexually abusing a cadaver. The resident, of course, shows himself unworthy of the work of healing.
I’m focusing minimally on this mystery because I think it’s less consequential to the success of the novel. Sheard provides a broader social mystery to be resolved. Typically, detective novels have been understood as conservative in nature. ScholarFranco Moretti, for example, encapsulates this standard view, arguing, the very task of detective fiction is not to find society guilty but to find the individual criminal guilty and restore innocence to society, validating the dominant social conceptions of law, order, and class hierarchy and thus forestalling social critique. He declares detective fiction “the sui generis totalitarianism of contemporary capitalism” and “a hymn to culture’s coercive abilities,” associating the genre wholesale with “an economic imagination interested only in perpetuating the existing order” (Moretti 155).
But the real mystery for Sheard is that of class struggle and when workers will unite. Sheard leaves this mystery unsolved, leaving the fate of the working class and status of unions to be resolved at a future moment through the march of history. Yet that march is not an abstract process but rather one that people direct. This novel is an attempt to raise the consciousness of workers to direct that march toward a union movement rooted in solidarity, overcoming the cultural class biases and misguided labor aristocracies that fragment the working class.
Part of the meaning of the novel’s title, we can infer, is that the labor movement has one foot in the grave. Unless it can overcome divisions within groups of workers themselves, it cannot engage in the struggle between classes. Overcoming class differences, which can enable truly cooperative work, is the key to being able to heal our world, inside and outside the hospital.
To know how to address and coordinate a response to a pandemic means one understands the many layers and levels of work involved in treating illness, from the way a janitor cleans a floor or disinfects a room, to the workers who operate and maintain communication networks, to orderlies, nurses, and doctors, and more. That means understanding and respecting all of this work—and thus overcoming the degradation of labor that so animates the culture of US political economy.
Fredric Jameson argues, “One hallmark of capitalist culture is that the fact of work and of production is a secret as carefully concealed as anything in our culture. Indeed, this is the very meaning of the commodity as a form, to obliterate the signs of work on the product in order to make it easier for us to forget the class structure which is its organizational framework” (Jameson 327).
In many cases, the literary works valorized in capitalist culture participate in erasing the traces of labor. Sheard is clear in One Foot in the Grave that unless we confront the facts of labor directly and the obstacles class society presents in preventing an organization of work that can optimally serve us and promote healthy workplaces and a healthy society, we cannot address pandemic conditions in a humane way.
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Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article was published in People’s World.com.