On 2nd September, David Graeber, anthropologist and activist, died suddenly in Venice, Italy, aged 59. His death – one death in a time of mass death – comes at a moment when his radical vision for a better world feels, paradoxically, both within reach – if only because it’s never seemed more necessary and urgent – and impossibly distant, a world removed from the hyper-partisan, nationalistic authoritarianism that’s an increasing feature of politics, in its various guises, the world over. 

Graeber argued that economics as a disciple in its current form is based on a lot of incorrect assumptions about human behaviour, that not only is it no longer fit for purpose, but that it’s hurtling us all towards extinction. If the planet’s to be saved, we – as a civilisation – have to move away from productivism. 

He proposed doing away with the paradigm of production and consumption and, in its place, substituting the ideas of care and freedom. Many of the left’s ideas about labour and class – largely inherited from Marx and too often treated as religion, rather than theory – have become impediments to thinking about change and the relationship between labour and capital. In Bullshit Jobs, Graeber used the example of the health care sector to demonstrate this point; he points out that the growth in employment in the sector has come from administrators, not doctors and nurses. And, as such, the doctors and nurses – the caregivers – have become less efficient. This is because, he argues, much more of their time has now been diverted to satisfying the demands of administrators (or, as he calls them, the bullshit sector). The class enemy of the caring class, he says provocatively, are the administrators. 

This antagonism has been one of the drivers behind Victoria’s second wave: the caring class, who are at significant personal risk, have been let down and, in some instances, betrayed by the administrators and bureaucrats. Victoria’s failure to contain the virus is, in large part, a result of its inefficient public sector; the state’s health department is, in the words of Dr Lindsay Grayson, an infectious disease expert, ‘one of the worst-funded and dysfunctionally organised [health departments] in the nation.’ Moreover, the royal commission recently heard that aged care homes have long been massively under-funded, that the response to the pandemic was hampered by disputes between different levels of government and the absence of any planning, one consequence being that nurses and other staff didn’t received adequate infection control and PPE training

Graeber’s conception of the caring class – and his argument that it’s the new working class – is broader than it may first appear. For instance, it doesn’t exclude manufacturing, an industry that has become more efficient with technological improvements; rather, it demands a conceptual shift away from the production-consumption nexus, framing it, instead, as an act of care. Building a bridge so that people can cross a river or making a car so that people can get around more conveniently is a subordinate type of care. It’s also easy to see how such a reimagining would help address the gendered way in which certain forms of labour are more highly valued and remunerated than others, an argument feminists have been making for decades.  

The other part of Graeber’s equation is freedom, which is just as germane a subject at a time when extraordinary restrictions are being applied to people in unprecedented ways. In Victoria, there seems to be a sense that the lockdown is part of a broader, collective effort; the narrow conception of freedom as exclusively about individual freedom remains marginal, compared with, say, the United States. This is, perhaps, best evidenced by the almost universal acceptance of mask wearing, a selfless act in the sense that it offers far greater protection to others than it does oneself. 

But those arguing for an easing of restrictions so that more businesses can re-open are also implicitly making an argument about freedom, not just in the crude sense of being allowed to trade, but there’s an unsaid acknowledgement that one’s freedom is tied to one’s means (or lack thereof). How free is the destitute man living in abject poverty, after all? This argument isn’t, therefore, an argument for universal freedom – it’s about privileging one class (business owners) over another (workers); it’s an argument about who is and who is not entitled to certain freedoms.

Graeber recognised that freedom tethered to a market-based ideology is profoundly unfair and unequal and can never be universal. The market is a vast system of exploitation and, as such, can never be the basis or model for freedom in any meaningful sense. Under actually existing capitalism, the highest form of freedom is choice, but even this is largely illusionary. In the midst of a pandemic that’s still not under control in Victoria, forcing people (overwhelmingly in low wage service jobs) back to work when it’s potentially not safe to do so – to make them choose between their health or livelihood – would be immoral and, almost certainly, become coercive (in the same way that, say, social service payments are withheld from those who don’t meet their mutual obligation requirements).  

Freedom, in Graber’s radical alternative conception, is ultimately the same thing as play. ‘A mother takes care of a child, or a parent takes care of a child, so that that child can grow and be healthy and flourish,’ he said in a recent speech. ‘But in an immediate level, you take care of a child so the child can go and play. That’s what children actually do when you’re taking care of them. What is play? Play is like action done for its own sake. It’s in a way the very paradigm of freedom. Because action done for its own sake is what freedom really consists of.’

Work is, in other words, the antithesis of freedom.

There has been little evidence, to date, that the Morrison government has the imagination to devise a post-Covid recovery that extends beyond tired clichés (what exactly does a ‘business-led recovery’ look like when so many are still reliant on JobKeeper support to remain viable?) and flimsy economics.   

A recovery focused on care and freedom would, instead, prioritise well-being over growth; it would provide support to those who’ve suffered hardship during the crisis, rather than burden them with more debt. It may seem counterintuitive, but there is some evidence to suggest that people’s health and well-being actually improves during recessions. Obviously, they can also prove devastating for some people, but the reduction in working hours allows time for other things – spending time with friends and family, exercising more and, well, playing – while the sense of collective struggle can strengthen community solidarity. Rather than deploying crude economic ‘sticks’ that will inevitably be used to target the most vulnerable, there is an opportunity to devise a recovery plan that harnesses this sense of freedom decoupled from the market and takes advantage of the collective will that’s underpinned Australia’s success (relatively speaking) in managing the outbreak. 

(This was originally published in Flood Media on 16th September, 2020.)