It is difficult to neatly encapsulate the shift that has occurred in our collective perception and experience over the last several weeks. That all semblance of ‘certainty’ and ‘normalcy’ has disappeared seems no longer the main feature—what stands out is the psychological shift underway, proceeding on the collective and individual levels. What will this mean, how will it continue to evolve? Every conversation I have now touches on the coronavirus or those things that surround it. Everything I read online is related to it. ‘Social distancing’, ‘flattening the curve’—these phrases have become ubiquitous, standardized.
The situation is increasingly and rapidly revealing a number of uncomfortable but long obvious truths about our reality, perhaps none more so than the extent to which so much we take for granted is based on inertia, faith, and on a most rickety apparatus. A humming economy, the wide availability of consumer goods, school, transport, work—all melt away in the face of the virus.
There exists, in this hyperconnected strangeness, the sense that we are living through something predictable, foreseeable. This goes beyond the specific realities of a gutted pandemic response plan (not to mention public health capabilities) and general poor management of the crisis to something more metaphysical: the ubiquitous sense in the present of doom, of an apocalypse, the feeling that we are at the end of time, that there is no future. One has the sense of the present as deja vu, as almost a projected future of the past, of the 20th century, which saw the breakdown coming in the 21st. This sentiment is by no means new, but it has certainly grown more acute—it feels as if we have moved into another level of dystopia.
Of course, then there is the pure economic reality of the situation: over three million jobless claims last week, by far the most ever recorded in such a brief time span. We are seeing the artifice of the ‘service’ economy disappear—again, hardly shocking for those of us who have watched this patchwork mess limp along for years or longer, especially for those of us who have worked in it. The mainstream may (or may not) be realizing what has been clear to many of us for a long time: there is no real economy.
As the situation worsens, as the wave breaks, there is something extraordinarily chilling as elected officials and ordinary people call for Trump to assert never-before-activated executive powers—as the Justice Department attempts to enact its own draconian measures—in a desperate embrace of authoritarianism, made even more chilling by the fact that many of us understand this and are willing to concede (some of it) may be necessary. All, particularly in light of the realization settling in that things, will never go ‘back to normal.’ What was normal?
The plain fact is that we are living as unsustainably as ever—we were before this, and we’ve hit a massive speed bump that may have ricocheted us off the edge of the cliff toward which we were already careening. If it wasn’t the virus, it would be something else. And while the United States is uniquely poorly positioned to address this, the massive jolt this has provoked the world over makes it clear enough that the systems of capitalism, of industrial civilization itself, have been teetering on the edge. What this will create is unclear, and even for those of us not totally surprised by these events, the speed has often been difficult to grasp. But something is happening, something new is coming; be prepared