Plague jobs: US workers’ schismogenetic approaches to social contracts

  • Ilana Gershon Indiana University, Bloomington, USA
Keywords: pandemic, workplaces, private government, common good, social contracts


In this homage to David Graeber, I turn to Americans’ experiences working in person during the pandemic as an ethnographic lens for understanding how workers respond when implicit social contracts are violated and when ideas about the common good are being contested. Because the United States federal government and many state governments refused to mandate appropriate pandemic protocols, businesses became the source of pandemic regulation in the United States. During the pandemic, Americans have been made vividly aware of the tacit social contracts shaping their workplace commitments. Building upon Graeber’s insight that at the heart of work is a complex theory of contract and exchange, I explore how contractual sociality shapes Americans’ understandings of the political possibilities available to them at work. I focus in particular on the icon of the Trumpian Republican and how other Americans are responding by turning to historically grounded visions of the common good. In general, this article explores what the pandemic has revealed about Americans’ political imagination, about how to govern and be governed in the workplace, with a Graeberian focus on the role that contractual sociality plays in structuring this imagination.