How to Work Through a Coup

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.

At some point yesterday afternoon, I was attempting to go back and forth between updates to the NYT live feed and the book chapter I’m working on, periodically responding to various text groups and making sure my partner, who’s covered MAGA/conspiracy movements for the last four years, got some food while he was frantically filing a story. Suddenly, a text from an unknown number came in.

“Turns out a violent coup happened in the time between our emails and now,” it said. “I’m still down to talk at 2 pm if you’d like, but also very fine with punting it tomorrow if you prefer!” I’d completely forgotten that I’d agreed to talk with a reporter about a story she was working on. I wavered before responding: I could probably form coherent sentences; my Thursday was packed with meetings; why not just get this over with? But that felt weird, because everything felt weird, and I pushed it.

“This day is wild,” I texted back, because truly what the fuck else do you say when a shirtless man in horns and furs and white power tattoos has taken up residency in the capitol building. But then I went back to writing my chapter! And I felt anxious when I closed the laptop a few hours later — not, I told myself, because of the coup, but because I felt I hadn’t made enough writing progress.

And I was just trying to write a chapter! Imagine people trying to teach high school, or work at a grocery store, or file an insurance claim during an attempted coup! But the logic of capitalism — and the way we’ve internalized its mandates for constant productivity — means there is no pausing for national crisis. The last time the gears actually ground to a stop was 9/11, which was nearly twenty years ago.

Since then, we’ve worked through smaller terrorist attacks, through financial catastrophes, through literally dozens of mass shootings, through the police killing of unarmed black men and women, through assaults on water protectors at Standing Rock, through seemingly endless causalities of forever wars, through mass foreclosures, through hurricanes and floods and derechos and wildfires, through a pandemic, and through repeated, coordinated attempts to undermine democracy. And when we struggle to perform at peak productivity levels, we feel bad about it.

This is the black heart of productivity culture: the maniacal focus on the individual capacity to produce elides the external forces that could (and should!) short-circuit our concentration and work ethic. A hyper-productive person isn’t necessarily a focused person so much as a person who’s often hardened or excused themselves from the needs of their immediate and greater community. There’s a lot to admire about the work of Cal Newport, for example — best known for his books Digital Minimalism, Deep Work, and A World Without Email. But his advice is for an imagined worker who’s been able to insulate themselves from so many demands and distractions. Do the same strategies work for someone navigating the world who is not white, male, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied, with secure citizenship and a stable living situation?

But that imagined, perfectly optimized worker is the standard. Never too sick to work, never too sad, never too besieged by familial obligations, never heartsick, never traumatized by the images that surround them, never existentially fearful for the future of the planet, but endlessly resilient, endlessly striving, endlessly motivated by more money because somehow, no matter how much you have of it, you never feel secure enough. That might not be you, but when you strive for the sort of productivity that accompanies that posture — or feel bad when you fail to achieve it! — you only solidify it as an ideal. The cult of productivity is a racist, sexist, able-ist, sociopathic asshole.

Over the course of this past year, I’ve been on the receiving end of corporate messaging that says: feel free to take some time if you need to. But that sort of opt-in strategy, while well-intentioned, can be incredibly pandering — with the potential to position people as “under-achievers” simply because of their identity, their proximity to events, or the way they process grief.

We can keep optimizing ourselves to ideal robot status. Or we can reject the dead-hearted ideals at the core of capitalism. Part of the daily practice of doing that = building a permission structure — for yourself, for your colleagues, for the people you manage, for your kids and your partner and every person you encounter in your daily life — to feel some fucking feelings. You could call this a softness, or a posture of grace, but it is also a mode of resistance. Or you can just keep optimizing yourself to ideal robot status.

What is happening in the world around you, and the grief you feel because of it, is so much more important than your ability to complete a task or respond to an email. To create policies and practices that reflect that (and that aren’t limited to office workers) means actually believing that. You cannot optimize grief or recovery from trauma, and feelings are not a perk. If we had time and space to process the tragedies of daily life, if we gave ourselves permission for deep empathy — then maybe we’d have the fortitude and will to fight for the changes that would actually make the world less traumatic.

I’m currently collecting stories from people who have been weathering the pandemic solo — I’ve received a ton of responses from women in their 20s - 40s, but if you’re an older woman, non-binary, or a man, and would like to reflect more on your experience, I’d love to hear from you. We won’t have to use your full name, if that makes you more comfortable. Just email me at with “Solo Pandemic” in the subject line.

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