From Burnout to Radicalization

This is the midweek edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.

Earlier this year, I posted a piece about how incredibly exhausted parents are right now — and mothers in particular. It’s notable that I can’t remember the piece, because it speaks to just how many pieces there have been. Parents have no safety nets. Childcare is broken. Parents are not okay. The New York Times devoted an entire special section of the paper to the ‘primal scream’ of mothers in crisis. I know this, as you likely know this, because I know mothers.

Who knows what I posted. What sticks with me was one mother’s response, which went something like: people keep writing this pieces, she said, and everyone is like yes, this, and posts the piece and some sentence about how bad and broken it is. But then….nothing changes? We just keep going? Until the next piece is written and the cycle begins again?

At this point, mothers have been in crisis for a full eighteen months — and that’s not counting the fact that most mothers were already in some form of muffled crisis for years before the pandemic. At this point, the fire alarms keep ringing — but the structure has been in flames for so long there’s nothing but rubble remaining. That rubble is a literal shell of its former self. But it’s also fucking furious.

That’s where mothers are right now. Single mothers, even more so. But I’ve heard the same from teachers, from medical professionals, from childcare workers and restaurant employees and academics, all of whom have also had their crises narrativized in print. Yeah, it’s broken, we get it. So why are we still not doing anything about it? Why are we acting as if it’s a revelation all over again that these broken systems are still broken?

Burnout can push you into a state of deep apathy. But it can also be radicalizing. So earlier this week, I asked people to tell me how they’ve become radicalized over the last 18 months.

It’s happening with work:

  • “I have always put my job before everything else, including my family. I've recently reached a breaking point with the recognition that my job will never go above and beyond for me. I have very few f*cks left to give now that my world view has been flipped upside down.”

  • “Work means a paycheck, healthcare, and structure to my day. Nothing else.”

  • “I'm basically convinced that a 25-hour work week with five 5-hour days would be at least as productive as our current system.”

  • “Career was my identity. Now I realize it’s all a capitalist scam.”

  • “I thought my job (clergy + nonprofit) was too meaningful for a ‘great resignation’….and quit in June.”

It’s happening with family:

  • “Already pretty radical. But lately rethinking if the nuclear family is even a viable social unit. Feels like we need more close people than that. Like dolphins, we may need pods.”

  • “I’m challenging every person I know in their implicit bias that mothers should sacrifice themselves to support their family. It’s unreasonable to expect mothers to be able to work, do the emotional labor of running a home, teach their children, etc. we do not invest in women in this country. We take advantage of them.”

  • “Gender inequality and the invisible load of women's work in the home has really be highlighted for me over the past 18 months and I am making that known.”

  • “All the moms are too busy literally keeping people alive in a vacuum of societal support to respond (I’m writing this as I soothe a 3yo to sleep) but every one I know is ready to burn it all down.”

It’s happening on the personal level:

  • “March 2020: Catholic Democrat / Aug 2021: Agnostic Socialist”

  • “I’ve started to accept, accommodate and honor my disability rather than just push through.”

  • “Dramatically rethinking fatness and fatphobia thanks to Maintenance Phase.”

  • “Trying to abolish my inner cop, personally and professionally.”

  • “I saw how utterly unsupported parents were this year, and now I’m questioning having kids.”

  • “I always pictured myself as a Mom. Now I realize the parenthood I dream of doesn’t exist.”

They’re doing it with their entire view of how society should operate:

  • “It intensified my belief in/desire for a robust social safety net for all and systemic solutions (not individual ones). It radicalized my expectations for the workplace & work/life balance and persuaded me that UBI is needed. It also radicalized my concepts of kindness and care.”

  • “The arguments for universal base income and debt forgiveness are making more sense to me now than December 2019. I am also SUPER weary of the supposed benefits of home buying. The last 18 months showed us how EVERYONE is a paycheck away from Very Bad Things happening to them. It's time to completely rethink money and finances in this society.”

  • “Now I believe in defunding police. I’m decidedly anti-capitalist. Land back. Wealth tax. Corporate sustainability is kinda BS. I used to think finding “middle ground” was admirable; now I see it as a strategy to maintain the status quo. Little patience w incrementalism anymore.”

  • “I basically no longer believe in petty crime laws/enforcement. I support massive governmental funding toward housing. I believe in abolishing prison sentences for almost all offenses. For a kid who grew up homeschooled/conservative Christian in the PNW, these are new, to say the least.”

  • “Housing cannot be affordable and a source of wealth. It doesn’t work.”

  • “UBI was a cool idea, never felt possible. Now feels like the only way forward.”

  • “I believed this before but now I’m aggressive about it: i want to live in a society where we limit how far you can fall due to hard times, bad luck, or bad decisions. No matter what, everyone deserves the means for survival, & I don’t understand why that’s radical, but WHEW.”

Or pre-existing views have been amplified and/or feel less radical:

  • I held radical ideas previously, but somewhat casually. I was more accepting of incremental progress, or potential progress. Now, I need big, structural change OF EVERYTHING and RIGHT AWAY. That shift in urgency and scope feels radical.”

  • “Over here feeling smug that people now think my ideas aren’t that crazy anymore.”

  • “I’m as radical as I ever was, just louder about it.”

There are hundreds more answers, some detailed and personal, others more societal and sweeping. But what stuck out to me was the clarity. It’s not just that the status quo isn’t working. It’s that the extent of its brokenness demands massive, holistic solutions: radical change. For some of these respondents, these ideas might once have been conceived of as extreme. Now, they increasingly just feel like….the only way forward? Because UBI, universal healthcare, universal childcare, a four-day work week — none of these things are actually extreme. They’re just policies for a life not defined by ongoing, oscillating crisis.

The vast majority of people who responded to this prompt answered with some vision of how we can be a lot better at caring for and valuing one another, all of it shot through with some form of collectivism (e.g., when we make things better for everyone, well, we make things better for everyone). But burnout can also radicalize people in different directions: towards totalitarianism, or as we’ve seen most vividly in the U.S., fierce individualism cloaked in the rhetoric of “freedom” and “liberty.”

Many of these individualists — whose letters to the editor I read, whose bumper stickers surround me, and whose comments on Facebook surface every time I scroll past any post remotely related to my home state of Idaho — feel equally convinced that the world is in flames. And they, too, are burning, and struggling, a mere shadows of their former selves. But they identify the causes of that immolation differently. For many, it’s some combination “Sharia Law,” immigrants, trans athletes, AOC, the liberal media, George Soros, mask mandates, building codes, taxes, pronouns, people voting, government overreach, Greta Thunberg, Critical Race Theory, or whatever bogeyman has been engineered as a new locus of outrage.

There’s an impulse, sometimes, to compare those bogeymen with some of the forces invoked by collectivists — that identifying “capitalism” as the source of societal ill is no less ridiculous than, say, “critical race theory.” But there are differences, and they’re largely directional. One form of radicalism identifies the problem with the existing world, and wants to rebuild it into something new. The other form identifies the problem with what they view as the encroaching world, and wants to preserve the status quo — or revert to a previous one, in which they and others like them (particularly in race, but also in age, and vocation, and location) can recoup some of the societal privilege they’ve “lost.”

One worldview calls for radical rebuilding. The other calls for radical preservation, even if that means rebuilding a structure that was torn down years before. Both visions can be incredibly magnetic — and, I’d argue, are only becoming more so. They’re picking up energy, gaining fodder, becoming more polarized, as they have at various other points in our history (leading up to and after the Civil War, for example, or the 1960s) when the fragility of the status quo became undeniable.

And it makes sense, of course, that this is happening now, against the backdrop of quotidian climate catastrophe — as well as the global ravages of the Delta variant, the slowing of the supply chain, the mass demoralization of our educational and healthcare workforce, the overburdened hospitals, the ever-growing housing crisis, rapidly accelerating income inequality, and the millions of families without reliable access to childcare or eldercare assistance. These are the signs of a civilization not just in decline, but on the precipice of collapse.

And so the utility of these “radical” ideas — on either side of the ideological spectrum — is growing. They’re like the rookie pitcher who knows he’s about to get put into the game, as soon as the aging star blows out his shoulder. They’re stretching and warming up in the bullpen, aka on Facebook and Twitter and Reddit and Fox News. Maybe it’ll happen during an election. Maybe it’ll happen with another insurrection. Or maybe we won’t realize it’s happened until it’s already in place. Amazon delivery cars will still drive on streets to houses that seem, at least on the outside, whole. But sometimes collapse comes without visible flames.

We can’t wait for help to come and put out the fire, then come to a neat, decade-long consensus about how to rebuild. That point has passed. So the question becomes: do we want to continue to prop up the existing system, posting the same articles about our own disintegration? Do our bodies collapse and then our hands live on, just to keep posting these damn articles? Do we wake up and find that while we were trying “not to make any waves,” others have covertly put up the framework for their own vision of how the world should be?

This has already happened — and continues to happen — with reproductive rights, with voting rights, and, for lack of a better phrase, for the generalized “rights” of the rich. And if you think that framework can’t be expanded to other/all corners of your life, you’re willfully blinding yourself.

Radical change is necessary — I think we understand that. We should also understand that lot of people have hoped for this sort of change for decades: people who have experienced the hostility of the status quo long before the pandemic distributed that hostility more generously to others (read: white middle-class people). Just because the brokenness of the system is newly visible to you doesn’t mean it hasn’t been broken, and breaking people, all along.

But you know what makes ideas feel a lot less radical? More and more people getting on board with them, and talking about them, and acting in accordance with them, and normalizing them, and voting for people who also want to normalize them. These ideas might feel threatening or different or uncomfortable, but that’s what happens when you rebuild in a way that’s not simply trying to approximate what was there before. It’s weird, and disorienting, and confusing — until it’s not. It’s just the way things are.

Over the last century, we have managed to accomplish truly radical shit. Why, of all times, not now? Why not UBI? Why not completely rethink higher education? Why not decouple healthcare from employment? Why not rethink the sort of labor we conceive of as valuable? As someone put it to me in reference to prison abolition, there will always be questions and fears about how to deal with the new problems that arise with these radical ideas. But whatever it is, it will be better than what we have now. Because what we have now is burning us alive.

I’d love to hear how you’ve been radicalized — and what you plan to do about it. If you’re a subscriber, the comments are open. And if you’d like to read more about an area where I’ve personally been radicalized, my latest for Vox — on the exhausting, expensive, invisible labor of eldercare — is up now.

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