The Economy vs. The People: Capitalism & Essential Labor in the Pandemic

By Salvador Rangel and Jamella N. Gow

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen”


“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” A phrase attributed to both Frederick Jameson and Slavoj Žižek has rarely seemed more appropriate than during the last several months (Fischer 2009). The COVID-19 outbreak has exposed the abject failure of capitalism to confront species-threatening catastrophes such as pandemics. Nowhere has this failure been clearer than in the paragon of capitalism–the United States. The dismantling of the welfare state facilitated by the neoliberal program left the country utterly unable and unwilling to take the necessary measures to control the pandemic and protect its population. Instead, what we observed was the willful sacrificing of its people, especially of racially marginalized populations, on the altar of “opening the economy”–the “economy,” being a dog-whistle for protecting capitalists profit margins. Countries with centralized planning, such as Cuba, China and Vietnam meanwhile set the example for how to contain the pandemic and thus reopen their economies without much delay, and more importantly, with little loss of human life. 

In the United States the deadly calculation from the part of the federal government to risk people’s lives to save “the economy,” became clear early on in the pandemic. After a modest increase in unemployment benefits and a paltry stimulus check during the first few months of the pandemic, it became clear that no further assistance was forthcoming and that workers would have to choose between staying home to keep themselves and their families safe or continuing to go to work amid a deadly pandemic–this latter option was reserved only for those fortunate enough to still have a job. In what is perhaps the most apt illustration of Engels concept of “social murder,” workers quite literally have been forced to risk their lives in order to earn a living. Engels developed the concept in his work, The Condition of The Working Class in England to explain how the normal operation of the capitalist machine grounded workers into an early grave and how this condition was made to appear natural and thus not the fault of the capitalist class. His poignant description is worth quoting here at length:

“…when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live – forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence – knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains” (Engels and Kelley 1982, p. 95- 96). 

Like Pigs to the Slaughter

Engels critique of the nefarious effects of the normal operation on the working class has become all the more salient during the pandemic as workers have been forced to work in conditions that could lead to them becoming seriously injured or even die–as was the case in countless meat processing plants and many other workplaces. What’s particular about meat processing plants is that the relationship between corporate interests and government policy became disastrously clear. Despite being one of the main sites of infection early on and eventually representing some of the worst hotspots around the country, the meat processing industry was singled out by the federal government to benefit from the president’s invocation of the Defense Production Act. 

The diligence with which the Trump administration decided to use the Defense Production Act to keep the meat industry operating was impressive, especially considering that it took weeks to finally invoke the Act to pressure companies to make much-needed ventilators to treat the worst cases of Covid-19. It should perhaps not be surprising that “the order came within hours of Tyson, a $22bn company and the world’s second-largest meat processor, taking out paid adverts in major US newspapers, including the New York Times” (Laughland and Holpuch 2020). The ads relied on using food scarcity as a way to put pressure on public officials. By declaring meat production an “essential service,” the Defense Production Act served to protect the industry from legal liability of having workers become infected at work, therefore reducing the pressure on industry executives to do much to reduce the risk of new infections. In fact, it has been reported that, in at least one of the plants, managers were actively gambling on the number of workers likely to contract COVID-19 (Bote 2020).

Another significant aspect is that while it was the actions of corporate executives and government officials that led to the propagation of the virus throughout the meat processing industry, both of these entities sought to shift blame to the workers themselves. In an industry where migrant workers and other negatively racialized groups make a significant part of the workforce, this blame shifting quickly took on racial overtones and echoed the worst of “culture of poverty” arguments. For instance, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, told lawmakers that “workers lifestyles,” not the working conditions in the plants were to blame for the spread of the virus in the plants (Westwood and Serfaty 2020). This is remarkably similar to what a Smithfield spokesperson reportedly said about the Sioux Falls plant outbreak. 

Racialized Laborers as Sacrifice

What these examples show is the propensity of capitalism to extract from those most vulnerable their labor value and demand of them the ultimate sacrifice: their lives. The suggestion made by Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick in March of 2020 that he and other elderly would willingly sacrifice their health and lives to keep the capitalist economy running in spite of Covid-19 is neither the first nor last time such as a suggestion has been made (Knodel 2020). That the meat processing industry is staffed mostly with low-waged negatively racialized people and those whose immigrant status in the U.S. is always at risk is no accident (Stuesse and Dollar 2020). Before the elderly, these workers had already been perceived and treated as a “disposable commodity” (De Genova 2004, p. 179)—one who’s value is in their very flexibility to be exploited and disposed of once they are no longer of use (Chang 2016; Harvey 2007; Robinson 2014). 

To understand the creation of meatpackers’ disposability is to trace the history of racialized labor in the United States. The majority of essential workers subjected to the risks of Covid-19 infection are Black and other negatively racialized groups in working class or impoverished conditions (Gould and Wilson 2020). Negatively racialized people, including migrants, make up the vast majority of service work (BLS Reports 2019) and the vast majority of workers in the food processing industry (Stuesse and Dollar 2020). That fact, coupled with the caging of migrants and a majority racialized Black and Brown people in cramped prisons, reveals how sacrifices have already been made to allow the wreckage of capitalist development before and after the pandemic to continue (Macmadu et al. 2020). The pandemic has only highlighted the fact that such an altar to capitalism exists. It is negatively racialized people who are demanded to make the sacrifice, and it is for that sacrifice that they are deemed essential to the economy. 

Once the pandemic subsides, we may see a mass-forgetting of those workers who keep capitalism running. As they experience the negative health effects of their service to capitalism’s continued maintenance, their plight and need for care will be framed as a burden on an already weakened system. We have seen time and time again that for every capitalist crisis, negatively racialized groups are recruited into service, demonized, or even disposed of through deportation or incarceration. The results of this pandemic may be no different. 

Salvador Rangel is an Assistant Professor at Swarthmore College.

Jamella N. Gow is an Assistant Professor at Gonzaga University.


Bote, J. (2020, November 19). Tyson suspends managers at pork plant who placed bets on how many workers would get COVID-19. USA Today.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2019). Labor force characteristics by race and ethnicity, 2018.

Chang, G. (2016). Disposable Domestics: Immigrant Women Workers in the Global Economy. United States: Haymarket Books.

De Genova, N. (2004). The Legal Production of Mexican/Migrant ‘Illegality.’ Latino Studies 2, 160-185.

Engels, F., Kelley, F. (1892). The Condition of the Working-class in England in 1844. United Kingdom: S. Sonnenschein & Company.

Fisher, M. (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?. United Kingdom: Zero Books.

Gould, E. and Wilson, V. (2020, June 1). Black workers face two of the most lethal preexisting conditions for coronavirus—racism and economic inequality. Economic Policy Institute.

Harvey, D. (2007). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Knodel, J. (2020, March 24). Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggests he, other seniors willing to die to get economy going again. NBC News. 

Laughland O. & Holpuch A. (2020, May 2). ‘We’re modern slaves’: How meat plant workers became the new frontline in Covid-19 war. The Guardian.

Macmadu, A., Berk, J., Kaplowitz, E., Mercedes, M., Rich, J. D., Brinkley-Rubinstein, L. (2020). COVID-19 and Mass Incarceration: a Call for Urgent Action. The Lancet, 5(11), E571-E572. 

Robinson, William I. (2014). Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 

Stuesse, A. and Dollar, N.T., (2020). Who are America’s meat and poultry workers? Economic Policy Institute. 

Westwood, S. and Serfaty, S. (2020, September 24). HHS secretary tells lawmakers lifestyles of meat-processing plant employees worsened Covid-19 outbreak. CNN.