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When COVID-19 Renders Your Job Obsolete

Yes, the very wealthy will survive, but many of us may end up more dependent on the state than we ever bargained for.

The virus is a threat. Yet at the same time, we are making fundamental changes to society that will outlive the virus. It is not only possible to hold these two ideas in mind at once, it is vital.

Only two weeks ago, I had an hourly paid, part-time job. That made me a lot like the 60 percent of the American workforce who are also hourly employees, not to mention independent contractors, adjuncts, and the massive undocumented labor force behind our farms, hotels, and restaurants. The government ordered us to stop working and we did. Nobody is entirely sure if they can just do that, but they did. Now we wait like baby birds for that same government to drop checks into our mouths. Overnight we went from workers to dependent on handouts. The balance of power between Americans and their government just changed dramatically.

Perhaps the clearest example has taken place among teachers, who from kindergarten through college worked frantically on their own time to eliminate the need for classrooms and move instruction online. Something that might have been rejected as unacceptable six months ago, or expected to take years under normal circumstances, was done overnight at no new cost. No consultants, no arguments from parents and unions, just worker bees radically transforming the American educational system.

It won’t take long for institutions to realize they don’t need so many teachers, classrooms, and janitors anymore. The infrastructure now assembled can enable one teacher to instruct hundreds or thousands of kids. Why have 10 math professors teach 10 sections in 10 rooms when one person can more or less do it online? So teachers, thank you for your efforts to iron out the bugs in a mass proof-of-concept experiment. Don’t worry when you’re out of work: there are always alternatives in a free market system, right?

A live classroom teacher may soon become just another luxury available only to a select wealthy few. Quality will be what you can afford. That is part of what the corona is doing, helping people adjust to a new standard. Remember, most white-collar jobs once came with a private office, a secretary, and a formal lunch hour, never mind a pension. Manufacturing jobs paid a living wage. Stuff happens, ya know?

For the second time in about only a decade, we are seeing our homes endangered. As mortgage payments slip, the banks are sniffing around like hyenas. Some people will fail to pay rent on the same homes they used to own. Occupy Wall Street? No, occupied by Wall Street.

Of course, the stock market will go back up; it always does. What occurs in the space between it going down and going back up is that the wealthiest Americans, having money in reserve, buy cheaply once-expensive stocks that you were forced to sell at the bottom to feed your family. In a few years, you’ll start buying in again—you know, when you get back to work—to push up prices and fuel the rich folks’ gains. The wealthiest 1 percent captured 95 percent of the post-2008 financial crisis growth, while the bottom 80 percent, whose wealth was in their homes not stocks, became poorer. Their wealth, such as it was, was a Potemkin vision that they didn’t actually own. The last recession caused the largest redistribution of money in a century.

What about 2020? Since over half of all Americans now own no stock, the wealth in 2020 will be sucked out of the so-called 10 percent, the remains of what was once the upper-middle class. They are the only ones who actually have money for the hyper-wealthy to take. The bottom 90 percent are basically too poor to steal from (except our labor—see above). A month ago, the richest 10 percent of Americans owned 84 percent of the total value of the market. The One Percent are in the process of taking from the Nine Percent below them right now. Fair enough, in a way: much of the Nine Percent’s wealth was harvested out of the 2008 crisis.

At least in 2008, it was just our money they took. We now live under multilayered federal, state, and city states of emergency. We are still sort of free to go out, but since most stores, bars, restaurants, theaters, gyms, and so on are closed by fiat, freedom of movement is an illusion, like prisoners circling the rec yard. Even the manager of my local grocery has been making up his own rationing rules, choosing what products in what quantities he allows us to purchase.

Freedom of assembly is gone. No more questions about whether Milo can speak on campus. No more marches. A month ago, if anyone said that to a Black Lives Matter group, the riot would have been followed by a First Amendment case. Before the virus, we made fun of George W. Bush, who in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 seemed to downplay the severity of it all by telling Americans to go shopping, to visit Disney World. That seems generous to a population now cowering in their bedrooms. We are being conditioned to reject the comfort and solidarity of being in the presence of others even as the media explains to little JoJo’s and Yorki’s how to report gatherings to the authorities via an online form.

Politically, the progressive movement disappeared with a proverbial whisper, not a bang. Talk of a brokered convention, third-party stuff, whatever, is all gone. Frightened people (they’ve long been scared about Bernie’s ideas but the end came quick once the virus arrived) want to pull the blanket over their heads. Joe Biden’s campaign slogan seems to be “Better Things Aren’t Really Possible.”

Joe is the political equivalent of an Obama tribute band. You’ve seen them, imitators who look a little like the Rolling Stones. They play the hits competently but not skillfully, showing how wide the gap is between someone who can pull “Honky Tonk Woman” from the ether and someone who can just play the cords with enthusiasm. It’s a way to make a living, and for Joe Biden, telling everyone things will look like 1958, it might just be enough. Pro-tip: don’t wager too many dineros on the political future of AOC and The Squad.

Orwell in 1984 never really explained how it all came to be. He wanted to shock readers with a dystopian society on page one, something that felt like it always was and thus always will be. For us, however, living in this time, the evolution is of some interest.

Orwell was also an amateur, imagining some people would fight for freedom. He did not envision how easy it would be to manipulate fear into learned helplessness such that Americans would in the space of a week voluntarily give up most of their freedoms, along with their actual jobs. Orwell envisioned the need for a massive Ministry of Truth when in fact all it took was a handful of deaths, some prolefeed—worthless entertainment for the masses about whether calling it “Chinese flu” was racism—and a dash of sky-is-falling articles. Make fear the problem and empowering government becomes the solution. You have to give things up for a safe society. If you don’t, you’re selfish; you’ve committed a thoughtcrime.

When do we as a society cross the line where social control is no longer affecting the spread of the disease but is damaging the lives we lead? Even as many of the steps taken these past weeks are pulled back, some will stick. The same thing happened after 9/11, when, frightened by terrorism, Americans gave up their rights to privacy and freedom from search with great enthusiasm.

Unintended consequences? Doubt that. This did not just happen. Our governments made it happen near enough to overnight and we wanted them to. No debate, no judicial challenge. No one wants to die. But think ahead to how we are going to live.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.