There is an image, associated with the covid-19 pandemic, that I am unable to forget among the countless reports of the crisis one encounters every day in newspapers and online. It is not an image of suffering or devastation but of something both more hopeful and, viewed from a certain perspective, more provocative. The picture that won’t go away was published in the New York Times on April 9, 2020, as part of an article by Elizabeth Williamson bearing the headline “In Ohio, The Amish Take on the Coronavirus.” It depicts twenty-nine Amish women and men, clad to various degrees in traditional attire—dressed “plainly,” as we called it in the Mennonite family I grew up in in rural Indiana—and standing around six perfectly ordered groups of tables in a precisely measured pattern of social distancing. (The women’s dresses may count as “plain,” yet their colors are more varied and lively than what I see daily on the Berlin subway.) One could be forgiven for mistaking the arrangement, at first glance, for the stage setting of Ballett Frankfurt’s unforgettable table dance, “One Flat Thing, reproduced” (2000). On closer inspection, one realizes that these figures are not dancers but laborers, bent over their respective tables and, wearing identical purplish-blue medical gloves, working on objects too small to be identified from the picture alone. The article’s subheading clarifies: “A famously traditional community has mobilized to help hospitals with medical supplies, even as it struggles with reconciling its communal way of life with the dictates of social distancing.”
What is it about this picture, apart from its abstract beauty, that I find so moving? Well, first, it is a picture of discipline and seriousness in which working women and men are solemnly, almost religiously, absorbed in what they are doing. Unlike many forms of religious seriousness, however, this one is not removed from, but deeply inserted into, the secular world: could anything be more mundane than factory work? (There is something interesting about this “insertedness in the world” itself, given that “worldly” for the Amish counts as the direct opposite of “pious.”) And, unlike many forms of discipline, this one has a point—preventing the spread of a deadly disease—beyond the perverse but deeply human pleasure to be had from discipline for its own sake. This discipline is in service of what, without exaggeration, one might call “production for real human needs,” and seeing this depicted so simply and compellingly cannot but remind one of how little of the activity that fills our days could truthfully be described in the same way. Could it be this aspect of their labor that explains why what appears to outsiders as disciplined and serious is called by the Amish a “sewing frolic”?
The image I have before my eyes is also a picture of responsibility—in the first instance, social responsibility because the needs for the sake of which this production takes place are overwhelmingly the needs of others: there are very few covid-19 infections in the Amish community itself, and their own form of life, as distant as possible from the globalized frenzy most of us inhabit, played no role in producing the pandemic. The supreme importance the Amish place on keeping themselves separate from the “world” makes it even harder to understand how they can experience the needs of that “other” world as making urgent demands on their activity. (One Amish man is quoted as saying, as if it were self-evident, “If there is a need, people just show up.”)
Yet social responsibility here goes hand in hand with responsibility to self, most clearly visible in the protective gloves the workers wear and in the rigorously maintained distance separating them as they work. Beyond this, their labor, while for others, is also for their own community: there is profit to be made in producing protective gear in the midst of a pandemic, a point that reminds one that Mennonites, close relatives of the Amish, are one of the religious groups whose methodical devotion to work Max Weber described in his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Moreover, as Weber also notes, this devotion characterizes not only those who stand to profit from it directly but the workers as well. In this case, when it proved impossible to obtain the raw materials initially thought necessary, the laborers themselves contrived a new, and ultimately more efficient, design for the masks they were charged with making.
Small-scale, self-organized, locally undertaken production that engages the ingenuity of workers—is this not an imago of socialist labor itself? An imago yes, but unfortunately not a blueprint since, as inhabitants of the globalized present will surely point out, the religious and cultural conditions that make Amish community possible are hardly replicable today on a society-wide scale. So much the better, the same skeptics will rush to point out, because Amish life is incompatible with the ideals—our sacred values—of individual autonomy and freedom of choice. As always with ideology, there is a kernel of truth in this response, but the quickness with which it is uttered is also a sign that there is something here we prefer not to examine. If none of us wants to copy the Amish way of life, is it possible nonetheless that looking at who they are could be of value? At the very least, they are proof that there are possible ways of organizing human life beyond the one we assume to be the only available option. Here, again, it is worth listening to an Amish man interviewed in the article: “I think it’s a time to pause and do some inventory on ourselves. Sometimes it’s good to find out that we aren’t in control of everything.” At a time when our way of life has produced global illness, death, and economic paralysis more complete than Marx himself could have imagined, will we find the discipline, seriousness, and responsibility necessary for asking authentically what we must do differently in order to survive and to lead lives worthy of the kind of beings we are?
Cover image: Erin Schaff, The New York Times article In Ohio the Amish Take On the Coronavirus by Elizabeth Williamson