They tell me it’s a luxury to stay home, and I understand. The people who are still at work, the “Essentials”: they’re risking their health, their lives, the lives of their families. Those of us in house arrest are supposed to be grateful to the Essentials, laud them as heroes along with firefighters and cops and the National Guard in the streets.
Grocery clerks and truck drivers and delivery workers are great, don’t get me wrong. They should get paid more than the cops, for sure. And obviously healthcare workers are actually on the front lines, fighting the invisible invaders and doing triage on the survivors.
But I’m not grateful to be cooped up. Even though I have a sunny apartment and a beautiful girlfriend to spend my days with, I’m losing my sanity. And I’m sure I’m not alone.
It’s not just worry. Of course I’m worried about my small family bookstore, and whether we will ever open again. I’m worried about my parents: they’ve been telling me for years that they’re Old now, but it hadn’t really hit me until now. I’m worried about food supplies in this high desert city. We can’t control the behavior of meat-packers in South Dakota or fruit pickers in California, but we rely on them. We can’t grow enough food to support everyone in this city, unless we rip up every lawn and gravel patio and replace them with tres hermanas right now.
So I’m worried, and I’m trapped in my house, but that’s nothing new. I’ve been worried for ages about the visibly fragile global economy and ecology. The apocalypse has been unrolling for a while now; but like an avalanche, it starts out slow and silent, near-invisible. I’ve hidden in my home for the last few years, it feels like. Every time I tried to go out and have fun, I was stunned and disgusted by all the blind consumerism – and by the complacency in everyone’s eyes. I felt like the kid who saw the Emperor buck naked. I was driven either out to the wild or inside and online, away from the mass hallucination of “society”.
The problem for me, during the “normal” times and even more so now: I want to help, but I don’t know what to do. I have many powers and capabilities, but I am still only one person. I want to spend my energy where it’s most useful. I want to know that I’m helping people and not wasting my time.
Maybe you feel this way too. You get used to one way of being useful, one way of creating meaning in life. Then, with the existential question of “Who am I” bandaged by a societal role, you can survive the daily confrontation with the hungry world. You can say, “I played my part,” even if that part was tedious, or humiliating, or cruel. Then you can relax.
There’s something insulting in being told you’re not essential. Not just that: you’re detrimental. You’re not allowed to leave your home, because you’re just a risk. You have nothing to offer the real world. You stay in your room and play with your Lite Brite.
Of course, the math doesn’t square up. A lot of Essentials are making minimum wage and don’t have health insurance. In a very real sense, they’re risking their lives, but their wage says expendable, not essential. Nurses and doctors are being called out of retirement to go into the pandemic wards, knowing they have a one in twelve chance of ending up a patient.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives are out of session “absent an emergency,” and the billionaires are safely locked up in yachts. The poor are dying three times as fast as the rich. Tenants are expected to pay rent whether or not they still have a job, even as many places suspend mortgage payments for landlords.
We’ve entered the exterminist stage: the powerful have stockpiled resources and extracted themselves to green zones, governments have used the crisis to strengthen control over citizens, and financiers have made money off the bailouts and the market volatility. Now the ruling class feels safe, they’re going to wait out the virus and let the poor die.
Those who still believe in liberal democracy are going to have a hard time accepting the reveal: society was a prison all along. We used to be allowed to work and shop and consume; now we’re not. Now we have to stay inside. Maybe if we’re good we’ll get our privileges back, but if a few people break the rules, we’re all going to suffer.
The problem isn’t that we have a virus. A scientifically minded, ecologically balanced society could deal with any virus that came upon us. It’s the manic energy of capitalism, the unhinged positive feedback loop of exploration and extraction and extortion, that is the problem.
Remember, we were already in an apocalypse before the virus. Climate collapse has very similar qualities to pandemic: it’s world-wide, it’s complex and scientific, it doesn’t respond to bluster or bravery and it won’t back down. Worse, it happens on the scale of lifetimes, so no one feels personally threatened by it. Or personally responsible.
Pandemic is a wake-up call, and a premonition: in the clear waters, the smog-free skies, the return of wildlife, we see the better world we have to build. We have to stop driving cars everywhere, we have to stop shipping trainloads and truckloads of plastic trash across the world. We have to figure out how to stop using plastic, or recycle it entirely. We have to find ways to bring meaning to our days without the frenzied high of commerce. We have to re-orient our values: away from the complete liberty of the idealized individual, toward the interconnected responsibility of all life for each other.
I don’t want to sink into sheltered complacency, hiding in my home, letting the Essentials suffer for me. I don’t want to be a piece of wetware in a global computer, locked in a box, rewriting the same fake-helpful email updates as the governor announces each new month of “temporary emergency measures”. I want to help. If all I have is a vision and a way to communicate, that’s a start.
Nobody knows what to do. Even the rich and powerful are merely scrambling to staunch their losses and cover their crimes. The new ways of life will emerge from the edges, not from the center. These were already the challenges we faced, and we were already strong enough to meet them. We just need to admit that the time has come.
Normal is not coming back. You don’t want that, anyway, do you? Isn’t there a better world, one you ordinarily wouldn’t let yourself imagine?
Allow yourself to imagine it. That’s essential work, right now.
Thanks for reading,
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