It feels different now, doesn’t it. It shouldn’t — thousands of people are dying every day. More than 67,000 have died in the U.S. alone, and 245,000 worldwide. But contemporary capitalism has an extraordinary capacity to subsume tragedy: it depends on growth, and on movement, neither of which can happen during the sort of societal paralysis that would be appropriate during this time. Not only, of course, because people are dying — but in order to stem the spread. And so (at least some of us) relax into a sort of short-term amnesia. You want things to be the way things were, you want not to feel this way, so you just act as if things aren’t this way.
It’s a different sort of protest than the ones happening in places that still haven’t opened yet. It’s more subconscious, and I think many of us who aren’t working in the medical field succumb to it from time to time. And part of it is just our minds trying to make sense of a seismic change in the way we interact with the world. We can adapt ourselves to this new normal because we are eminently adaptable creatures, but that other life still seems so close, within reach. All we have to do is forget — forget each of our actions has the potential to put thousands of others at risk, forget that we live in a country where profit has become so much more important than human life — and forgetting can be so very easy.
That’s the heart, I think, of what makes these weeks feel so uneasy. I live in a place that experts agree should be slowly opening up: our cases have been in steady decline for weeks, down to zero to two new cases a day. Over the past week, businesses have gradually re-opened (some with appointments, all with distance in place) and restaurants will follow this week. But I’m not ready, and I don’t know when I will be. Weeks? Months? How will continued flare-ups and hotspots change my thinking? How to square this with deep sadness and worry for my friends and community members who are out of work and freaking out?
The answer, at least in the United States, is that we cannot protect ourselves and others and protect businesses. We either sacrifice our health or “the economy,” those vague words to describe the system that, for years, has extracted wealth for a small few from the labor (and, in many cases, the health) of those who mostly just manage to get by. What we’ve arrived at, then, is a sort of continuation — and amplification — of the system as it was before: to protect “the economy” (which benefits the already rich) we’re sacrificing the health of those who cannot afford to stay home.
Essential workers should be essential because they make it so that society doesn’t collapse. But under this new rubric, especially as the country continues to re-open, they are essential only insomuch as they will make the economy run: they are the least valued, the most interchangeable. When and if they get sick, the company will blame them — as the Smithfield Pork Processing Plant did in South Dakota — and their cultures’ “living conditions” instead of the company’s own wanton disregard for safety amidst the search for profit. The company will continue to put them at risk — as Costco is doing, loosening its crowd restrictions — for more profit.
And I get it: these massive, massively profitable companies are trying to survive. They are simply following the logic of capitalism, which demands that profit trump consideration for human life. All companies that treat its workers like humans do so either because they’re forced to (by unions and labor laws and regulations) or because of leadership that’s figured out that treating workers like humans actually makes them more productive and profitable (see previously: Costco).
Left to its own devices — which, given the incredible deregulation and union-busting of the last few decades, is basically the current case — capitalism will treat laborers like robots, cogs in a machine, unworthy of respect let alone benefits or a living wage. It’ll produce a whole bunch of Amazons, with a founder worth 139 billion and hundreds of thousands of others barely making ends meet. It’ll produce a scenario in which we don’t have adequate ventilator supply, or rural hospitals, not because they’re not profitable, but because they’re not profitable enough. It’ll lead us, in other words, to the shitshow of the last three months.
But we knew capitalism was broken. We just kinda dealt with it, reconciled ourselves to the idea that there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism by saying the phrase “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism.” Or just didn’t see any feasible alternative. But capitalism is unable to deal with the sort of societal pause demanded by a pandemic. It’s like fuck this, I’ll be fine. And it — and the very few who benefit handsomely from it — will be fine, because it’s like a video game monster that eats everything in sight, sucks out all the nutrients, shits you out, and is like, hey, why don’t you let me eat you again? Sorry, this metaphor is bad, but so is capitalism!
Capitalism thrives on the cult of the individual. It creates situations where it’s incredibly difficult to look beyond providing for our immediate circles. It is fueled by those forced to make do in bad labor situations because the only other option is destitution. And, unchecked, it will thrive now. Our mix of fear and anxiousness is the anticipation of what sort of sacrifice it will demand, what it’s already demanding.
Of course, capitalism isn’t a video game monster. Or, if it is, it’s the sort where a handful of (white men) are sitting in the head of the monster piloting it. We can rail against it, and them, which I am certainly doing here, but we also have to remember that 1) we’re all part of it and 2) even absent a massive socialist revolution, its character can be changed. It can be regulated. The unmitigated profit and growth demand can, in fact, be mitigated. There is a way to sell goods and value the people who make those goods possible. What if we used this horrible opportunity to demand as much?
Along those lines, I’m working on something this week about how your own thinking about buying shit (as in, I have less and less desire to buy anything) and labor have shifted over the last few months. If you’re up for expounding a bit, respond to this email (or firstname.lastname@example.org), and I’ll send you some questions when I have them ready.
Things I Wrote This Week:
A feature I’ve spent the last month reporting, on a Montana doctor whose COVID-19 conspiracy theories have gone viral — in part because she’s an appointed member of the county board of health. This is ostensibly a story about small town politics, but it’s actually about how vaccine “skeptics” and advocates for “medical freedom” are sowing seeds of doubt for eventual resistance to a COVID-19 vaccine. I hope you’ll read.
In a different pre-COVID universe, I would’ve spent a few days in the UK profiling Paul Mescal, whose revelatory performance is at the heart of Normal People. Instead I just wrote about the show, that teenage feeling, and why it should be watched alone.
Some Things That Stuck With Me The Last Two Weeks:
On how the pandemic has affected the way we think of minimalism
On the alarming practice of underplaying those who die of COVID-19, just because they’re older
“Here are some people I’ve resented since this all began”
How Normal People does sex so well
There’s a reason a million people tweeted this piece last week. Lives up to the hype.
“I clung to the middle class as I aged. The pandemic pulled me under.”
Eat the rich, etc. etc.
I loved this interview with Madeline Miller, author of Circe, so much (best listened to, but also available in transcribed form)
An obituary for an extraordinary ordinary man
The best advice I’ve read (stick w/it) if you’re feeling guilty right now
This week’s just trust me
As always, if you know someone who’d like this as a momentary distraction in their inbox every week or so, forward it their way. You can subscribe here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. Please forgive any typos or weird sentences; giving myself some freedom with imperfection is what gives me the mental space to write this thing for free every other week.