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During the COVID-19 pandemic, many U.S. workers have participated in what the media have called “The Great Resignation”—changing jobs, disengaging from stressful work, or otherwise attempting to take back control of their labor. The term has come to mean demanding remote work options at least as much as it means refusing to work in any degrading environment. As NPR put it, “The Great Resignation? More like the Great Renegotiation.” Overall, the Great Resignation has been about better pay, safer work, and greater flexibility. 

But what if we were to imagine going beyond such considerations and realize a true ethics of refusal, linked to a politics of refusal

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, here on the pages of Public Seminar, I co-curated a series of discussions about the ethics and politics needed at the onset of a new crisis. The purpose of those discussions was to make a collective intervention into a public discourse where the desire for a return to a capitalist “normal” still dominated. In response, authors such as Joy James, Bonnie Honig, and Ayça Çubukçu called on activists to mourn the tragedy of what we had lost and to make a blueprint for how we could build a re-oriented society together. 

I think it would be fair to say that our project failed. 

Joe Biden’s vision of a fossil-fuel Democratic Party won against Bernie Sanders’ more socialist option. A global pandemic, and sheaves of brilliant critical theory about it, have not been sufficient to achieve even a consensus around the need for state-funded universal healthcare in the United States alone. 

Rather, many in the United States view war in Ukraine, debt in Barbados, and school shootings across the country not as clear evidence for a growing need to divest from fossil fuels, to rethink responsibility on a global level, and to enact commonsense gun control, but as signs that we need to drill more at home, to make sure debt is paid even if it means hospitals don’t get built, and to arm teachers. 

Confronting such ongoing violence, on a daily basis, has become the condition of life in the twenty-first century. It has always been part of thinking in this country. And it leaves many of us, myself included, feeling powerless. 

But beyond “The Great Resignation,” I have come to see that justice-oriented actors still have a clear and actionable option: to carry out, in community, an ethics of refusal (echoing Audra Simpson). 

We can divest from fossil fuels, banks, and gun manufacturers, a collective divestment that here I want to call an “ethical resignation,” with “resignation” suggesting that we can respond to our feelings of resignation, of accepting something unjust as inevitable, through that other sense of “resignation,” meaning giving up a position. 

Many demands for divestment remain on the institutional level, such as calls for university endowments or state pension funds to divest from companies that contribute to the occupation of Palestinian land. Those calls are of critical importance for the future of humanity, and of life itself, in this century. But as a thought experiment, in the remainder of this essay, I want to consider divestment on a personal level. 

I wonder, as we continue to call for a politics of refusal at an institutional level, how we could also cultivate an ethics of refusal in our personal lives. I imagine that it would be very hard for an oil company to operate if its employees—as well as those at the law and accounting firms that service such clients—resigned to work elsewhere on the grounds that they were in favor of human survival, having decided, perhaps after conversation with their business- and law-school friends, to live up to their justice-oriented personal statements that got them into those schools in the first place.

Let me also implicate myself in these questions. When I got my most recent academic job, I was told that after I work at the university for one year, it will contribute to my retirement account. When I investigated the fund options, it was clear that many funds were invested directly in oil. Those not invested in oil, the so-called environmental, social, and governance, or ESG funds, were often only one step removed from such investments. For instance, rather than having holdings in ExonnMobil, they had holdings in JP Morgan Chase, a bank that funds pipelines. (And many ESG funds now hold oil and gas companies due to their recent net-zero statements.) Some ESG funds also had holdings in Nestlé, which has violated the sovereignty of the Six Nations of the Grand River in so-called Canada, or in credit card companies, which prey on the poor. 

My point in raising these specific examples is that we should know better than to call out oil companies, gun manufacturers, and colonial business practices in some parts of our life, literally invest in those companies or their funders in other parts of our life and then act righteously indignant when the planet gets warmer, another school shooting happens, or a decolonized world seems too difficult to imagine.

In the United States, we live in a country where someone who works for a law firm that services Big Oil is by and large considered intelligent and successful, maybe even ethical due to their pro bono representation, no matter that such a firm, for instance, did not represent foreclosure victims during the 2008 housing crisis, because its clients were the banks. 

On a first date, such a lawyer would likely be seen as an attractive potential partner: stable job, bright smile, classy wardrobe. We will know our values as a society have shifted when such professionals receive more questions than nods, and when those questions, posed respectfully and attentively, are part of larger conversations among young people who choose career- and life-paths different from the big offices, green lawns, and sleek cars that have shone so brightly in our country’s imagination.

It is usually in making this suggestion—that we simply refuse to participate so directly in what we say we stand against—that I am told what I envision, a Great Refusal, to borrow Herbert Marcuse’s famous phrase, is unrealistic. There are houses to pay off, medical bills that keep piling up, children’s college to pay for, and much-needed vacations to take in order to achieve a work-life “balance.” Not to mention that the person who has the job at the big company or prestigious firm might be supporting generations of their family in different parts of the country or the world. 

And who am I to imply that they are unethical for holding such jobs? My intention is not to make such implications. The decision of anyone in a situation of acute precarity is understandable, whatever it may be. To ask someone to default on hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debts in order to live out their ethical commitments might be too big of an ask for any one person. 

That such a call for a Great Refusal raises such pressing questions about how we could ever pay off our debt, pay for a house, pay for our kids’ college, take vacations, or retire with enough money shows that ethics is fundamentally about ways of life in their entirety, about how different parts of our lives are always entangled. 

For many of us to live out this call, we would first need governmental forgiveness of student-loan and medical debt, access to universal healthcare and high-quality public education through the university level, a true social safety net as we age, and a sense of the good life beyond being tourists on remote islands. In other words, living out such an ethics might depend on what we are able to demand and achieve politically.

But no matter how overwhelming such a refusal might be, and no matter the political realities of our time, it is the suggestion of this essay that in addition to demanding institutional divestment, we continue to have difficult conversations about the values, norms, laws, and attachments that govern our lives. 

In my view, the problem is not that such an ethics of refusal is unrealistic; human life itself is unrealistic if we keep letting pipeline, oil, and gas companies poison the groundwater. Today some writers, faith leaders, and artists are articulating a clear call for refusing to contribute to the institutions that poison the water. As the poet Dionne Brand writes in a new collection, “I do not believe in time // I do believe in water.” 

Such a call for an ethics and politics of refusal is not my idea so much as it is an echo, not only of Marcuse, but also of Indigenous people around the world asking those in the West to change how we live

Thought this way, the experiment of a new Great Refusal calls into question the everyday life we tend to take for granted in the West. In this light, divesting personally from the institutions that threaten life on earth is not simply a negation. It is also a creative affirmation of another way of being human. It is the practical affirmation of a steadfast hope that another world is possible.

Benjamin P. Davis is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the African American Studies Department at Saint Louis University and author of Choose Your Bearing: Édouard Glissant, Human Rights, and Decolonial Ethics, forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press. With Jon Catlin, he wrote “Theses for Theory in a Time of Crisis” and co-curated the subsequent series “Sentencing the Present” at Public Seminar.