Acton Institute Powerblog

Coronavirus shows us how work impacts civilization

Many Americans are already struggling due to the ripple effects of the COVID-19 lockdown. Just last week, more than 6.6 million Americans filed unemployment claims. Some economists predict that total job losses could reach 47 million. In turn, much of our focus is rightly set on the material devastation—lost salaries, declining assets, and so on.

Yet the economic lockdown brings significant social costs as well, reminding us that our economic activity has social value to our civilization that goes well beyond providing for our material needs.

The isolation, stress, and suffering are tangible, whether experienced through the struggles of strapped enterprises, prolonged separation from co-workers and customers, or detachment and “distancing” from a wide range of trading partners. Indeed, being stuck in our homes has a strange way of making it plain that even our mundane trips to work or the store are fundamentally social endeavors.

Whereas our “daily commute” to our “daily grind” might have once felt isolating, many of us now recall with fondness even the slightest personal interactions and exchanges with our co-workers and customers. Whereas the simple act of purchasing a loaf of bread was once taken for granted—treated as a mere transactional trade with a total stranger—we now recognize that such an exchange represents a partnership with one of our neighbors, offering a host of opportunities for smiles, greetings, and gratitude. Whereas going out to eat is typically experienced through the lens of our own convenience and appetite, we are now more acutely aware of the people who prepare and serve such food, reminded of the unique and creative ways they love and serve their communities.

It’s an obvious reality, but it’s somehow easy to forget: The economy is comprised of real human persons conducting real win-win exchanges through real social interactions and relationships.

This carries over into the bigger picture, as well, and ought to color our attitudes and imaginations about many “hot button” issues and concerns. For example, many have grown accustomed to ridiculing “big business” as being egregiously self-serving—and sometimes rightly so!—yet in a crisis such as this we are reminded of the social value that many of these enterprises provide, whether driven by profit or charity.

Likewise, in our targeted reliance on “essential services,” many are now coming to a renewed realization of the value and dignity of all work, praising workers in vocations that have often been ridiculed by cultural elites as somehow secondary to those in “white-collar” careers. Service workers, factory workers, truckers, and tradespeople are on the “front lines,” we now say. Yes, but they always were—creating, working, and serving within a miraculous supply chain that brings us milk, masks, medicine, and (of course) toilet paper. All of this has social impact, from bottom to top.

In coming to such a realization, we are reminded that “social entrepreneurship” and “business as mission” are not limited to the cause-flaunting activists with all the sleek branding. At a fundamental level, all businesses exist to meet social needs. They are comprised of human persons who freely create and collaborate together to serve and support a complex social order, regardless of whether their mission statements include the right “socially conscious” buzzwords.

In his book Work: The Meaning of Life, Lester DeKoster reflects on this bigger picture, noting that “work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.” It is the way we lend our hearts and hands toward the building of culture and civilization.

In meeting various needs across society, we do more than simply provide for ourselves; we contribute to a unique web of fellowship and human exchange. “Our working puts us in the service of others,” he writes. “The civilization that work creates puts others in the service of ourselves. Thus, work restores the broken family of humankind.”

DeKoster goes on to contemplate the type of situation we could be facing—a world without work—noting that one of the greatest losses would be separation among neighbors. Although his scenario includes the removal of “essential services,” as well, his underlying message still stands:

We know, as soon as reminded, that work spins the wheels of the world. No work? Then nothing else either. Culture and civilization don’t just happen. They are made to happen and to keep happening—by God the Holy Spirit, through our work.

Imagine that everyone quits working, right now! What happens? Civilized life quickly melts away. Food vanishes from the store shelves, gas pumps dry up, streets are no longer patrolled and fires burn themselves out. Communication and transportation services end and utilities go dead. Those who survive at all are soon huddled around campfires, sleeping in tents, and clothed in rags. …

Civilized living is so closely knit that when any pieces drop out the whole fabric begins to crumple. Let city sanitation workers go out this week, and by next week streets are smothered in garbage. Give homemaking mothers leave, and many of us suddenly go hungry and see our kids running wild. Civilization is so fragile that we either all hang together or, as Ben Franklin warned during the American Revolution, “we shall all hang separately.” … The mosaic of culture, like all mosaics, derives its beauty from the contribution of each tiny bit.

Thankfully, we have not yet reached such a scenario, and the prospect of a complete, prolonged shutdown seems unlikely. Yet even amid the closures that we have endured thus far, we can gain new perspective on the social value of all that what we once had.

To be clear, this ought not discourage us. Indeed, as we sit in the tension of staying home and desiring to serve, rebuild, and restore, we should recognize that those prospects are not yet gone. Opportunities for creative economic service still abound, and humanity is busy at work, innovating and seizing all available channels for continued partnership and cooperation. As the global economy eventually gets back to humming along as it once did, we have the chance to return to those spheres with new gratitude and a fresh perspective about what’s actually possible.

As DeKoster reminds us, God has knit our work together in the fabric of civilization. He has tasked us and equipped us to cultivate tiny bits of beauty and restoration, for the “mosaic of culture” and for the life of the world. It’s a truth we desperately need in times of calamity and crisis, but it’s also one that we can cling to forever.

(Photo credit: Empty highway due to coronavirus. Public domain.)

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.