Agricultural laborers spray against insects and weeds inside the orchards of a fruit farm in Mesa, California. In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, agricultural workers have become essential workers in the race to maintain America’s food supply while simultaneously staying healthy. (BRENT STIRTON/GETTY IMAGES)
The tech sector and the managerial class will get richer, while the rest of us become their serfs.
Plagues, such as in the 14th century, may have wiped out as much as one third of Europe’s population, and devastated great Renaissance trading cities. In the Middle Ages, the wealthy sought safety in their country estates, much like the affluent now fleeing major European
and American cities
. Diets and survival rates varied enormously between the upper and lower classes. As one 14th-century observer noted, the plague “attacked especially the meaner sort and common people — seldom the magnates.”
But the wreckage also created new opportunities for those left standing. Abandoned tracts of land could be consolidated by rich nobles, or, in some cases, enterprising peasants, who took advantage of sudden opportunities to buy property or use chronic labor shortages to demand higher wages. “In an age where social conditions were considered fixed,” historian Barbara Tuchman has suggested, the new adjustments seemed “revolutionary.”
What might such “revolutionary” changes look like in our post-plague society? In the immediate future the monied classes in America will take a big hit, as their stock portfolios shrink, both acquisitions and new IPOs
get sidetracked and the value of their properties drop. But vast opportunities for tremendous profit available to those with the financial wherewithal to absorb the initial shocks and capitalize on the disruption they cause. As in 2016, politicians in both parties have worked hard in the new stimulus to get breaks for their wealthy constituents, whether they are big retail chains
, rich California taxpayers
, or, in some cases, themselves
Over time, the crisis is likely to further bolster the global oligarchal class. The wealthiest 1% already own as much as 50%
of the world’s assets, and according to a recent British parliamentary study, by 2030, will expand their share to two-thirds of the world’s wealth with the biggest gains overwhelmingly concentrated at the top 0.01%.
Historically, pandemics have tended to spark class conflict. The plague-ravaged landscape of medieval Europe opened the door to numerous “peasant rebellions.” This in turn led the aristocracy and the church to restrict the movements of peasants to limit their ability to use the new depopulated countryside to their own advantage. Attempts to constrain the ambitions of the commoners often led to open revolts
— including against the church and the aristocracy.
As the impact of the pandemic ripples through the economy, “the gulf between the knowledge economy and the gig economy” suggests the Toronto Globe and Mail
’s John Ibbitson
, will wither. As steady and well-paying jobs disappear, the demands for an ever more extensive welfare state, funded by the upper classes, will multiply.
Like their counterparts in the late 19th century, the lower-class workforce will demand changes. We already see this in the protests by workers at Instacart
delivery service, and in Amazon warehouse workers
concerned about limited health insurance, low wages, and exposure to the virus.
As the virus threatens to concentrate wealth and power even more, there’s likely to be some sort of reckoning, including from the increasingly hard-pressed yeomanry.
In the years before the great working-class rebellions of the mid-19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville warned
that the ruling orders were “sleeping on a volcano.” The same might be seen now as well, with contagion pushing the lava into the streets, and causing new disruptions on a scale of which we can’t predict.