Campaigns to improve working conditions, union-led protests, strikes for better wages and tensions between workers and employers have always been part of our social, political and economic reality and are really nothing new. After all, the relationship between a person who sells their time and skills and the one who “buys” them is by nature a competitive one, though it doesn’t have to be as contentious, toxic and hostile as we’ve come to know it. There is always fine balance to be stuck, an “ideal” price that can be agreed upon that both parties can live with, and every other number on that scale is bound to be a cause of discontent for one side of the bargain or the other. However, this balance, or “equilibrium”, can only be found and sustained under one simple but crucial condition: the whole exchange must be voluntary and both parties must be free to take the deal or reject it.
This hasn’t been the case for at least a century in most Western economies, as the State took control over most aspects of these relationships and exchanges. Countless restrictions, regulatory burdens, obligations and extra costs heavily distorted the dynamics and corrupted the incentives on both sides of the labor market, often resulting in severe disruptions and cultivating a spirit of mistrust, spite and bitterness between the “bosses” and the workers. These days, we see so many issues, like paid leave, that could have been negotiated in a peaceful, respectful and “good faith” manner turn into an all-out fight, while even simpler, purely economic disputes, such as the minimum wage, that could have been automatically resolved though free market forces and real competition, turn into political causes instead.
All these long-standing frictions, grievances and pressures came to a head with the onset of the covid crisis, the lockdowns and the forced business closures. Millions of people lost their jobs, mostly those who could least afford to miss a single paycheck, as the crisis hit low-income workers the hardest. At the same time, countless small business owners had the rug pulled from under their feet and had their entire lives thrown into disarray and total uncertainty from one day to the next. The government efforts to contain the virus caused widespread financial devastation and the subsequent haphazard and short-sighted efforts by central planners to “save the economy” they themselves ravaged only served to make matters a lot worse.
Sure, the handouts and the blind checks that governments gave out to those who suffered from the lockdowns might have helped distressed households in the short-term, but their ripple effects and the long term impact on the labor market eventually exacerbated the situation. In a phenomenon dubbed the “Great Resignation”, hordes of workers have been quitting en masse, causing major disruptions to normal operations, production and trade flow.
Of course, the underlying discontent that caused all those workers to resign was there long before the virus ever emerged, and many of them were justified. Exploitative working conditions, unpaid overtime, unrealistic and unfair expectations by employers who got used to having the upper hand – all those factors played a part. As one such employee put it in an online forum dedicated to the subject: “What sense does it make that my boss can demand us to turn notifications on for the work group chat AND demand that we respond to anyone’s messages or requests? My time off is my time off, I’m not a worker for you 24/7 and if that’s what’s expected of me then I should be getting paid 24/7.”
However, now, all those pent-up grievances have an outlet, as thanks to the government “relief” checks and other subsidies, many workers can afford to walk out of their jobs. Most of them are simply looking for a better deal, with higher wages or more agreeable conditions. But some are taking this trend to the next level: The “Anti-Work” movement has been gaining traction over the last few months, with one its hubs, the r/antiwork subreddit attracting over a million followers, all them demanding “unemployment for all, not just the rich!”
Their latest move, a mass call to boycott Amazon on Black Friday, was just one way of protesting and plans for future actions, or even real world strikes, are likely in the pipeline. To any reasonable reader, demands like “ending work” might seem petulant and childish, even comical. And of course, it is important to highlight that not everyone in this movement is foolish enough to believe this is actually something that can be achieved; they rather see it as yet another leverage mechanism to pressure employers. However, the crucial thing to note here is that even if they don’t expect their vision to come to pass, they still find it appealing and desirable. The very idea of idleness is attractive and an end in and of itself. Should values like these take root in society, there will be little hope of a real recovery, not just economically, but culturally and politically too.