The End of the Pandemic of Productivism?

By Sasha Disko

The Sars-Coronavirus 2 pandemic has thrown a stark light on global inequalities, themselves outcomes of the centuries-long accretion of exploitative relationships based on historically constructed binaries of state and market, human and nature. The spread of the novel virus has not only called forth a radical, global interruption of previously naturalized modes of work, production and distribution of goods and services but also has forced a reckoning with our relationship to our environment. As satellite images show, one side-effect of the efforts to contain the pandemic is a massive reduction in air pollution across the globe and previously improbable projects, for example, replacing deep-sea oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico with giant wind farms, now seem less far-fetched.

Historical perspectives offer insights into dealing with the immense challenges of reinterpreting the relationship between work” and nature in the post-Covid twenty-first century. Since the advent of modernity,” productivism, which I define as the primacy of economic growth and efficiency, has provided legitimation for establishing and maintaining diverse forms of political economic systems, whether framed in terms of the free-market or the planned economy. Functioning as a belief system, the ideology of productivism is grounded in a faith in progress calculated in economic metrics and is based on a specific rationality intimately linked to fossil fuel-based technologies. Promising unbound prosperity, productivism, as an extractive and exploitative system, has delivered unevenly distributed surpluses that are proving catastrophic to the long-term survival of the eco-systems we and so many other species rely upon.

As many have noted, this pandemic represents a severe rupture in the normal. Relationships between society, economy, and the environment are being questioned in chatrooms, boardrooms and bedrooms, in Amazon warehouses and on the meat-packing lines. At the core of these debates is the question of what will come after Corona? Lisa Herzog and Hannes Kuch recently opined that It is Time for Economic Democracy” (Es ist Zeit für WirtschaftsdemokratieSZ, 18 May 2020). During the 1920s and 1930s, democratic-socialist trade union movements too called for Wirtschaftsdemokratie, an economic system based on democracy and solidarity. The trade-unionists, however, were as productivist in their ideological leanings as the businessmen on the other side of the bargaining table. Thus, as we seek to learn from the past, we must also ensure that any new organization of work must understand that social justice is inseparable from environmental justice.

This text is part of the #DossierCorona thread #workingfutures and was first published as part of the series “Wiko Briefs – Working Futures in Corona Times” of the Working Futures Network at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. The authors are members of the transnational network “Working Futures” or Fellows of the Wissenschaftskolleg.


Sasha Disko is a social and cultural historian of modern Germany. She is a lecturer at NYU Berlin and an associated scholar at the Center for Metropolitan Studies, TU Berlin.


Further articles in the thread #workingfutures of the #DossierCorona on TRAFO:

Introducing #DossierCorona #workingfutures, 14 May 2020.

Lisa Herzog, How Can We Strengthen the Contributory Logic of Work?, 14 May 2020.

Martin Krzywdzinski, The COVID 19 crisis accelerates structural change in the world of work, 15 May 2020.

Elena Esposito, The Need for De-Integration in Pandemic Times, 18 May 2020.

Dirk Helbing, The Corona Crisis Reveals the Struggle for a Sustainable Digital Future, 21 May 2020.

Laure de Verdalle, “Useful”, “Indispensable”, “Essential”: Is the Health Crisis Changing the Categories With Which We Consider Professional Activities?, 25 May 2020.

Jürgen Kocka, How Does the Corona Crisis Affect the Future of Work and Our View of It?, 28 May 2020.

Bénédicte Zimmermann, Caring About What We Hold Dear and the Final Purposes of Work, 1 June 2020.

Michel Lallement, The Crisis as Beginning of a New Relationship to the Professional World?, 8 June 2020.

David Stark, Who or What Is Being Tested in Pandemic Times?, 11 June 2020.

Bruce Kogut, Covid and Looking for the Exit, 15 June 2020.


Citation: Sasha Disko, The End of the Pandemic of Productivism?, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.06.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24228.


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1 Response

  1. 9. July 2020

    […] Disko, The End of the Pandemic of Productivism?, 18 June […]

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