Masked Up: Crisis and Class

By Ben Tippet


We tend to remember big historical moments as images rather than words: people climbing over the Berlin Wall in 1989, the smoke of the twin towers in 2001 and the forlorn faces of bankers leaving their offices for the last time in 2008.

It’s unclear yet what images will come to represent the COVID-19 crisis. While governments across the world talked about fighting the virus in terms of waging a war, we might remember that it is often the images of war that are the most controversial. War photographers are disdainfully asked how, when faced with human suffering up front and close, can they take a picture rather than intervene and help?

Writing about class inequality during these times can run into similar problems. The COVID-19 crisis and its economic impact have entrenched class inequalities along every line. Yet simply documenting the scale of the injustices people will face can, like war photography, leave its victims seeming powerless and its audience emotionally fatigued. At its worst, it can make class inequality seem inevitable and unchangeable. Like the images of war, we are left with a spectacle of suffering but no path to bring an end to it. This is why it is crucial, when we analyse class, not to just see it as an inequality that divides us but as bonds between people that can also liberate.

Let me draw out an example from the ongoing crisis to show what I mean.

One of the most fundamental questions about class is to ask why some people are paid so much more than others. The answer, according to mainstream economics, is that pay reflects how productive a person is: the more skilled, educated, experienced and profitable they are, the more they will be rewarded; however this narrative conveniently ignores the fact that wages also reflect social and political power. Before the COVID crisis, many on the left tried to expose this point by posing a hypothetical thought experiment along the following lines:

Imagine for a moment what would happen if all the private equity managers in the City of London couldn’t turn up to work. How much of an impact on our lives would this actually have? While there might be a case that the loss of these jobs would cause some damage to the economy, would it not also be reasonable to ask whether the world might actually be a better place? Compare this to an alternative case where all the paid carers – the workers who look after children, the elderly and the sick – stopped turning up for work. The negative human impact would undeniably be immediate and devastating.

COVID-19 has turned this thought experiment into reality. Across the world, care workers have made it onto every government list of essential workers. Needless to say, no private equity manager has.

Despite now being recognised as “essential”, care work is one of the most insecure, underappreciated and low paid jobs in Britian. Over half of frontline care workers are paid less than the real living wage.[1] They are five times more likely to be on a zero hours contract compared to other workers in the economy.[2] And much like in the rest of the economy, class compounds with gender and race when it comes to social care: 83% of frontline care workers are women, and disproportionately BAME.[3]

Unsurprisingly, the homes run by private equity-backed firms are rated as among the worst.[4] Even before the crisis hit, one in six UK care homes was at risk of failure.[5] This is why German leftists use the term Heuschrecken – locusts – to describe private equity firms.

Like images of war, this class exploitation is undoubtedly horrific. Yet, unlike those images, the concept of exploitation does not represent its victims as powerless. This is the key to understanding class as both a sharp divide but also as a potential for liberation.

Exploitation is when one group controls and appropriates the labour of another group through their ownership of the workplace. There is a clear hierarchy: the owners get rich off controlling the actions of those who work; however, the workers are not passive but active in their own exploitation. The profits of the private equity firm depend on carers getting up each day and actually going to work. Without it, there wouldn’t be exploitation and the care home wouldn’t make any money.

In the current crisis we can see more clearly than ever that care workers are not powerless – in fact, the whole country is dependent on them. If they stop working, all of the wealth comes tumbling down.

The image of striking in the UK is best represented by the miners’ struggle in 1984, both its size (it was the country’s largest strike since 1926, involving over 142,000 mineworkers) and the long-lasting impact it has had on working class political power. Striking in the care sector, however, is not like striking over coal.

Many of the jobs that people now do are based on affective ties between those performing the service and those who need it. Withdrawing labour in such a context is different to the old industrial battles in the factories. Unlike looking after someone, coal doesn’t care if you don’t dig it out the ground.

While this is a challenge, it is not insurmountable and there are many examples of care workers withholding their labour. Last year, 600 care workers voted to go on strike over docked pay.[6]  In 2012, care workers, outsourced from the NHS to a private equity run company, successfully defended their pay after going on strike for 90 days – one of the longest strikes in the history of the UK health sector.[7]

One of the deep tragedies of the COVID-19 crisis has been the impact on the people who live and work in our care homes. An open letter by Care England (an industry trade body) reported in The Guardian documented how the elderly who live in homes have been tragically overlooked: “Instead of being allowed hospital care, to see their loved ones and to have the reassurance that testing allows; and for the staff who care for them to have the most basic of PPE, they are told they cannot go to hospital, routinely asked to sign ‘do not resuscitate’ orders, and cut off from families when they need them most.”[8]

This has led to a shocking underreporting of the numbers of deaths in UK care homes. What we are seeing from Ireland, Belgium and Spain is that nearly half the deaths from COVID-19 have occurred in residential care.[9] As of Easter Monday, only 505 social care workers had been tested for the virus compared to 48,000 tests in the NHS.[10]

It is no coincidence that the crisis has hit the hardest in a sector that has been so undervalued and exploited. The demonisation of strikes and attacks on migrant workers has undermined efforts by health workers to fight to protect their patients, jobs and workplaces. The undervaluing of care work has led directly to more people dying. In the future, solidarity with those in the sector will be the only way to reverse this.

If the image of this crisis will be a health worker in a mask, then let it reflect the message that power lies in the hands of all the unnamed people who keep the system going. Masks are after all used for multiple reasons: for protection, but also for liberation.


Ben Tippet is the author of Split: Class Divides Uncovered (Pluto Press, Outspoken Series, 2020).




[4] Research by consumer group Which?





[9] Data from European countries



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