(Part of a series on the impacts of the coronavirus on employment and the workplace. The previous ones are here.) 

A number of issues arising during the pandemic—issues of faith, certainty, freedom— lead us back to The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel published in 1880. It is not too grandiose to say that at a time when we are told to accept indefinite lockdowns and be satisfied with our Stimulus checks and Unemployment checks, we are challenged by the novel’s story of the Grand Inquisitor. Neither is it too grandiose to suggest that events of the past month here in California bring into the present, the Inquisitor’s challenges on work and the state.

Let’s start with California updates: May 8 saw the reopening of the economy in the Bay Area counties of Napa, Sonoma, and Solano. It was a very limited reopening, mainly for retail stores that could offer curbside service. Yet, small business owners interviewed spoke of how relieved they were to be able to return, even though they expected few customers. An “ethnic clothing” store owner in Sonoma said she would do “whatever it takes to do to reopen”, and a nearby toy store owner described how she had missed her customers. A florist in downtown Napa, a jeweler in Solano, a bike shop owner, all spoke effusively of reopening, even with minimal economic payoff.

With the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance now available to sole proprietors and independent, these businesses could have chosen to remain closed, but did not. Similarly, getting back to jobs has been main force behind the lockdown protests at the California State Capitol in Sacramento that started April 20. These lockdown protesters have been regularly denounced by the editorial boards of the state’s main newspapers, who characterize the protesters as kooks and hooligans. But the protesters are not saying anything kooky or anti-social: they are asking only to get their livelihoods back. At the protest on May 1, the owner of a small winery in El Dorado County told the Los Angeles Times that he’s had to lay off 16 of his 20 employees, and neither he nor they want to be on benefits. Another attendee, the owner of a bounce house company in Roseville had spent 10 years building his company, now being quickly destroyed.

Further, the call for jobs rather than benefits extends well beyond the protesters. The state’s Building and Construction trade unions and other major unions are pushing for greater reopening, as are the California Business Roundtable, statewide small business groups, and local elected officials outside of the major cities. All agree on reopening protocols that include the obvious—masks, distancing, some form of temperature testing—as well as choice for workers who regard their health as in danger; yet choice also for workers who seek to return.

To be sure we have the same class divide here in California as elsewhere. Support for continuing tight economic lockdowns for months or longer continues to be high among the “knowledge workers” in our universities, nonprofits, and government (all of whom have steady paychecks). Even among this group and the professional classes, though, one hears a growing restlessness, a boredom with virtual happy hours, a desire for “useful activity”.

To emphasize the work-based backlash to our California lockdowns, one need not romanticize the position of California’s lower wage workers: the independent laborers, cleaners, gardeners, grocery store workers, restaurant workers. Given the expanded unemployment insurance, those who are eligible are welcoming the additional money (for those workers earning less than $42,000 per year, they are receiving more now under the expanded unemployment insurance). At the same time, many of the state’s low wage workers are not eligible for unemployment insurance (they lack work papers), and those receiving recognize it probably can’t last forever, and this group is returning at least to the few jobs that are reopening. A survey of employers this week by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce reported workers concerned about coming back without safety precautions, but few, when given the chance, declining due to unemployment insurance. 

La Cooperativa Campesina de California is the statewide group that for more than half a century has been providing services to California farmworkers. Its director, Marco Lizarraga since March has been coordinating the delivery of masks, emergency food and housing, and clothing to farmworkers throughout the state. What he’d like to see, though, goes beyond the services: a jobs program that can employ out of work and seasonal farmworkers to work in emergency food packaging, forest management, and other tasks that can be undertaken even in a partial shutdown. As Lizarraga notes, this not only enables farmworkers to survive economically: it reflects the strong self-sufficiency ethic of California’s farmworkers.   


Which brings us to the story of the Grand Inquisitor, perhaps the most well-known chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. The story takes place in Seville during the Spanish Inquisition of the sixteenth century. Christ returns to Seville and is recognized and embraced by the people. Later in the day though the Cardinal the Grand Inquisitor orders his men to arrest Christ and sentences him to death the next day. 

At night, the Inquisitor visits Christ in his cell and explains that the church, now established, has no place for Christ. Christ’s teachings on free will and spiritual freedom can only bring misery to the great mass of men and women. They need certainty, cannot live with “marvels and insoluble mysteries”, if given the chance will rush to social control. 

The Inquisitor tells Christ that men and women also will gladly give up their freedom and autonomy to those who would promise to take provide food and take care of their physical needs. The Inquisitor tells Christ he was wrong to resist Satan’s challenge in the desert for Christ to turn stones into loaves of bread. The Inquisitor explains:

“Receiving bread from us, they will see clearly that we take the bread made by their hands form them, to give it to them, without any miracle. They will see that we do not change the stones to bread, but in truth they will be more thankful for taking it form our hands than for the bread itself ! For they will remember only too well that in old days, without our help, even the bread they made turned to stones in their hands.”

Christ is silent throughout the Inquisitor’s speech. “The old man would have liked him to say something, even something bitter, terrible”, instead Christ “approaches the old man in silence and gently kisses him on his bloodless, ninety year old lips.” The Inquisitor releases Christ, and tells him “never, never” to return. 

In the 140 years since the novel was published, the Inquisitor’s pronouncements on bread, freedom and autonomy, have been the subject of ongoing debate and analysis. Each generation since has grappled with these pronouncements, particularly regarding the rise of collectivist governments in the twentieth century, and also their decline. 


And what of the relevance today during the pandemic, as our California economy lies in shambles and we look for ways to rebuild it ? Is reference to bread, freedom and autonomy far too abstract? I would argue it is not.

Much of the public discussion today in California is concerned with the timetables and business rules going forward. County and health officials continue to roll out very detailed rules for how businesses can operate if they are allowed to reopen—how far apart restaurant tables can be, how manufacturing surfaces must be cleaned, how temperatures of office workers must be taken. Those of us who are advocates for reopening and aggressive job construction are focused on these daily operational disputes, as well as making our case on the county and state levels.

But there are deeper currents at play, more fundamental employment issues raised by the pandemic, that will shape our economy far into the future. These too need the attention, before too long.

Originally published at Forbes