The Covid Caste Structure

The cultural narrative that the pandemic has birthed has provided new cleavages for the dissemination of social and political actions. While the underlying class structure and the power of an overarching managerial-capitalist elite remain intact, covid has created new vectors for culture war conflicts and an overlying caste structure delineated by educational attainment, one’s position in administrative hierarchies, and one’s views on current cultural battles.

The laptop class, as it is so-called, appears to be an adaptation of soft managerial elites to the prevailing conditions and restrictions of the pandemic era. The ability to work remotely, rely on delivery services and thus capably self-isolate and follow covid-based rules are the defining characteristics of the emerging laptop class. Meanwhile, those who actually provide such services, whether through providing the infrastructure for remote working or for delivery services, constitute a subordinate class that can only follow covid rules in the abstract. They cannot afford to self-isolate, have minimal alternative avenues for finding “covid-safe” work, and rely on wider services (public transportation, public schooling for their children, employment in the retail sector) which have been curtailed by covid rules.

Cleavages like this however predate the pandemic in their cultural aspects. Cultural differentiation between the laptop class and the wider service classes was already seen in the diverging interests of those with university education versus those without. “The growth of labour, work-for-labour and work-for-reproduction also eats into ‘leisure’. The loss of respect for leisure, and for reproductive and productive ‘idleness’, is one of the worst outcomes of the commodifying market society. Those who experience intensive work and labour find their minds and bodies ‘spent’ and have little energy or inclination to do anything other than to indulge in passive ‘play’”[1].

The ability to meaningfully engage with cultural and leisurely activities requires time and means. For what Standing terms the precariat, such things are increasingly squeezed as work requirements to afford living costs (rent/house price increases, childcare costs, public transportation cost rises, energy/fuel price rises) mean working hours increase at the lower end, with members of this class working multiple jobs in sectors dominated by temporary work, non-contract labour and minimal to no work benefits. Similar costs emerge in the capacity to engage in political activity beyond voting or online petitioning. There is a fundamental assumption in liberal democracies that “the diverse, institutionalized temporal structures of political will-formation, decision-making and decision-implementation in representative-democratic systems are compatible with the rhythm, tempo, duration and sequence of social developments: in other words, that they are essentially synchronized with the path of societal development such that the political system has time to make fundamental decisions and to organize the deliberative, democratic process for this purpose”[2].

In other words, it is assumed that the capacity for political deliberation matches the prevailing social conditions in other spheres of life/activity. To fully grasp the delineations of modern politics as well as culture, one requires the time to do so. Without such time, and in relation to the substantial complexity of political affairs that allow gaming of the system by interested/invested parties, it is rationally ignorant[3] for individuals to spend little time on such activities. However, it also lays the groundwork for gaming the system in the first place, producing substantial inequalities of knowledge and power not just economically but socio-politically and temporally as well. Rosa characterises this temporal split as one between drifters and players. The former, economically and socially comprising the precariat, are indebted, effectively required to work as much as possible to afford a basic standard of living. Any temporal leisure is squeezed out, pushed into short term virtual panopticons (social media, apps, screentime). The latter are culturally and educationally equipped to cope and thrive in the temporal acceleration of late modernity. Change is a very way of life for such actors, with the increased technicality and digitalisation of leisure reflections of the time they have to understand and absorb processes of learning.

This culturo-temporal split and associated inequalities matches with Francis’s description of the soft managerial elite and the growing subordinate classes that oppose it[4]. The managerial elite, comprised of a vast technical army of administrators, managers and social engineers, became predominant within modern societies in the post-war period. Through developing educational and cultural apparatuses that reflected their interests and promoted their social agendas, they became integral to the running of businesses, political institutions and civil society organisations. They are defined by their educational background (minimum Bachelors’ degree), their network connections, and their shared cultural pursuits. Subordinate classes reflect the growing “detritus” of managerial structures: blue collar middle and lower classes whose jobs have been lost to automation and offshoring, now increasingly reliant on debt instruments to maintain their living standards and provide for their children. From the perspective of these class fragments, they see the managerial-corporate order as an alliance of the highest stratum of political and business leaders, white collar hangers-on, and select elements of the underclasses (usually minorities and their associated social causes).

On the latter point of an alliance between the highest and lowest strata, this is reflected in the links between wealthy foundations and minority social causes, as in the Ford Foundation’s funding of “social justice” protests and policies[5]. It is also reflected in the growing industries and lobbyists connected to the wider Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion movement. Figures like Robin DiAngelo and activists like Stacey Abrams or Nikole Hannah-Jones are easily co-opted by managerial structures as they provide new outlets for capital (in the form of marketing and consultancy) and increase cultural stratification, which itself feeds the narrative of the grievance politics these figures promote.

The pandemic has accelerated these dynamics, rigidifying these cleavages into a caste structure that clearly separate the affluent laptop classes, their managerial masters, and their minority activist bases from the disaffected lower and middle classes whose own cultural narratives are disparaged, ignored and pushed out of educational institutions. “Among these accelerations are the digitization of all sectors of social life (work, education, leisure, etc.), the collapse of the real economy and the expansion of debt (with further austerity measures and cutting of public services), the political normalization of the state of emergency, new and more explicit forms of censorship, and the pervasive and invasive medicalization of life”[6].

The accelerations that Vighi notes have added fuel to the cultural fires that already existed. We see it in the cultural context of elite massaging of COVID rules and the backing by extremely wealthy foundations and lobbying organisations of BLM protests during lockdowns. We see it in the hypocritical acts of government and civil society actors blatantly disregarding lockdown laws, demonstrating that there is little to fear from this virus while continuing a media psy-op campaign to maintain viral terror. We see it in the way that working class protests like truck convoys, road blockages and farmer strikes are endlessly criticised as pointlessly disruptive by the people who supported BLM actions in 2020, showing both how easily co-opted grievance activism is and how the managerial and laptop castes cannot deal with disruptions to their lives (which truck strikes cause by disrupting supply chains and delaying deliveries).

An interesting aspect that demonstrates this cultural centralisation and stratification is how football has been treated during the pandemic. The richest leagues and clubs have suffered little. Even when in significant debt, they have brought in players with huge wage bills and transfer fees (i.e. FC Barcelona). However, the lower leagues in Europe, particularly non-league football in England and Scotland, have been shafted by governing authorities. Clubs like Birmingham City, Derby County, Bury FC and many of the clubs in Leagues One and Two have been indebted for doing the same things as clubs like Chelsea. And the owners get away scot-free, with the supporters and employees bearing the brunt. Elite considerations care little for football as a sport. But as a business, the largest clubs cannot be allowed to fail, as stock market expectations and investment funds would be tanked otherwise.

More widely, covid has engendered a culturo-economic split that reveals the underlying ability of these different castes to cope with the changes engendered by pandemic rules. Lockdowns effectively left people to fend for themselves all while being narrativised as a collective effort of will against the coronavirus. For the laptop class and managerial elite, it was quite easy to cope with such impositions. They had services at the click of a button and their jobs weren’t substantially affected. If anything, for administrative businesses and bureaucratic institutions it served as a cost-saving measure as they could remove office overheads from their balance sheets. It has also provided a new sector for consultancy businesses, as they recommend architectural and office space changes to make buildings “covid safe” as well as providing fodder for EDI consultancies who can pick up on unequal treatment for those with long covid or psychological disorders brought on by covid anxiety. There is in effect a continuation of the interlocking of cultural and economic elites via the pandemic’s acceleration of change.

And all of this is encompassed within the underlying structures of capital which colonises everyday life and the cultural possessions of disaffected castes. “What serves as a promise, however, is the prospect of ‘perpetual prosperity’ or the promise of absolute wealth. In this promise we find once again the connection of growth and acceleration that is so characteristic for modernity: as Deutschmann in particular makes clear, money (as, so to speak, congealed time) serves secularized capitalist society as a replacement for religion by taking the place of God as a master of contingency. In view of the fundamental uncertainties of the future within the horizon of cultural modernity, there is no longer a promise of peace of mind in the turn to a powerful, reassuring God who is ready to intervene with respect to the contingencies of life (the encouraging thought behind many prayers is precisely that, whatever may happen, it is all in God’s hands and therefore good). What now serves as a functional equivalent is the idea that having the largest possible amount of money, and hence options, will allow one to appropriately react to future contingencies, i.e., new needs and new threats. In the form of capital, money has taken on the task of transforming indeterminable into determinable complexity and therefore of functioning ‘as a means of meaning-oriented control of the indeterminable.’ In this way, capital induces ‘the obsession of individual omnipotence’ (i.e., the ability to hold all options open)”[7].

Individual omnipotence summarises the response of elites to the pandemic, assuming that lockdowns and vaccines will truly control the spread of a respiratory virus. As such control proves impossible, they double down, implementing draconian measures that target the disaffected classes (small business owners, indebted labourers, the precariat) who, due to being the one’s most affected by covid restrictions due to the nature of their work/livelihoods, are now required to present vaccine passports on request, shutdown their activities with minimal notice, and eat through their savings to survive. With inflationary pressures and taxation increases, their disaffection will only grow as elites continue to “control the virus”, pushing crisis narratives through the media and encouraging the further virtualisation of life.

For the laptop class, such changes are not only coped with but encouraged, as they are first movers within these technologies and emerging business sectors. Emerging crises like climate change appear to only exacerbate these caste structures. Measures such as “the large-scale deployment of electric vehicles”, “encourage and make space for active transport (safe walking and cycling) in cities”, and “improve and promote remote communications for businesses and organizations and regional tourism”[8] further centralise life in mega-cities, denigrate rural or peri-urban livelihoods, and price out the lower classes from car and home ownership. But as campaigns like the Great Reset and Build Back Better have already emphasised, ownership will not be important. Rather, being a service drone or, if you’re lucky, a manager of service drones, is the future. And what a future it will be.


[1] Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class

[2] Hartmut Rosa, Social Acceleration

[3] Mancur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations

[4] Samuel T. Francis, Leviathan & Its Enemies

[5] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/01/04/what-money-can-buy-profiles-larissa-macfarquhar

[6] https://orca.cardiff.ac.uk/136623/

[7] Hartmut Rosa, Social Acceleration

[8] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-021-01001-0

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