In all my thinking about the lockdown years, I’ve only had time now to think carefully about this strange distinction between essential and nonessential. What did it mean in practice and where did it come from?
The edict to divide the workforce came from a previously unknown agency called the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency or CISA. The edict came down March 18, 2020, two days following the initial lockdown orders from Washington.
Management and workers all over the country had to dig through regulations that came out of the blue to find out if they could go to work. The terms essential and nonessential were not used in the way one might initially intuit. It sharply demarcated the whole of the commercial world in ways that are inorganic to all of human experience.
In the background was a very long history and cultural habit of using terms to identify professions and their interaction with difficult subjects like class. During the Middle Ages, we had lords, serfs, merchants, monks, and thieves. As capitalism dawned, these strict demarcations melted away and people got access to money despite accidents of birth.
Today we speak of “white collar” meaning dressed up for a professional setting, even if literal white collars are not common. We speak of the “working classes,” an odd term that implies others are not working because they are members of the leisure class; this is clearly a holdover from 19th-century habits of the aristocracy. In the 20th century, we invented the term middle class to refer to everyone who is not actually poor.
The Department of Labor has traditionally deferred to common usage, and speaks of “professional services,” “information services,” “retail,” and “hospitality,” while the tax authorities offer hundreds of professions into which you are supposed to fit yourself.
The deployment of the terms essential and nonessential, however, has no precedent in our language. This is because of a view stemming from the democratic ethos and real-world commercial experience that everyone and everything is essential to everything else.
When I worked as part of a department-store cleaning crew, I became profoundly aware of this. My job was not only to clean the restrooms – certainly essential – but also to pick tiny pins and needles from the carpets in the changing rooms. Missing one could end in terrible injury for customers. My job was as essential as the accountants or salespeople.
What precisely did government in March 2020 mean by nonessential? It meant things like haircutters, make-up stylists, nail salons, gyms, bars, restaurants, small shops, bowling alleys, movie theaters, and churches. These are all activities that some bureaucrats in Washington, DC decided that we could do without. After months of no haircuts, however, things started to get desperate as people cut their own hair and called someone to sneak over to the house.
I had a friend who heard through the grapevine that there was a warehouse in New Jersey that had a secret knock for the backdoor to a barber. He tried it and it worked. Not one word was spoken. The haircut took 7 minutes and he paid in cash, which is all the person would accept. He came and went and told no one.
This is what it meant to be nonessential: a person or service that society could do without in a pinch. The lockdown order of March 16, 2020 (“indoor and outdoor venues where people congregate should be closed”) applied to them. But it did not apply to everyone and everything.
What was essential? This is where matters got very complicated. Did one want to be essential? Maybe but it depends on the profession. Truck drivers were essential. Nurses and doctors were essential. The people who keep the lights on, the water running, and the buildings in good repair are essential.
These are not laptoppers and Zoomers. They had actually to be there. Those professions include what are considered “working class” jobs but not all of them. Bartenders and cooks and waiters were not essential.
But also included here was government, of course. Can’t do without that. Additionally this included media, which turned out to be hugely important in the pandemic period. Education was essential even if it could be conducted online. Finance was essential because, you know, people have to make money in stock markets and banking.
All in all, the category of essential included the “lowest” ranks of the social pecking order – garbage collectors and meat processors – and also the highest ranks of society from media professionals to permanent bureaucrats.
It was an odd pairing, a complete bifurcation between highest and lowest. It was the served and the servers. The serfs and the lords. The ruling class and those who deliver food to their storesteps. When the New York Times said we should go medieval on the virus, they meant it. That’s exactly what happened.
This even applied to surgery and medical services. “Elective surgeries,” meaning anything on a schedule including diagnostic check-ups, were forbidden while “emergency surgeries” were permitted. Why are there no real investigations into how this came to be?
Think of totalitarian societies like in The Hunger Games, with a District One and everyone else, or perhaps the old Soviet Union in which the party elites dined in luxury and everyone else stood in bread lines, or perhaps a scene from Oliver! in which the owners of the orphanage got fat while the kids in the workhouse lived on gruel until they could escape to live in the underground economy.
It appears that the pandemic planners think of society the same way. When they had the chance to decide what was essential and nonessential, they chose a society massively segregated between the rulers and those who make their lives possible, while everyone else was dispensable. This is not an accident. This is how they see the world and perhaps how they want it to function in the future.
This is not conspiracy theory. This really happened. They did it to us only 3 years ago, and that should tell us something. It is contrary to every democratic principle and flies in the face of everything we call civilization. But they did it anyway. This reality gives us a peak into a mindset that is deeply troubling and should truly alarm us all.
So far as I know, none of the authors of this policy have been dragged before Congress to testify. They have never given testimony in court. A search of the New York Times turns up no news that this tiny agency, created only in 2018, blew apart the whole of the organic class markers that have charted our progress for the last 1,000 years. It was a shocking and brutal action and yet merits no comment at all from the ruling regime in government, media, or otherwise.
Now that we know for sure who and what our rulers consider essential and nonessential, what are we going to do about it? Should someone be called to account for this? Or will we continue to allow our overlords to gradually make the reality of life under lockdowns our permanent condition?