A Return to Normalcy?

Photograph Source: Marco Verch – CC BY 2.0

Sarwat Malik, executive director of the Progressive Democrats of New Jersey and an organizer with our Central Jersey Democratic Socialists of America chapter, explained how she nearly refused the vaccine. It wasn’t fair that she would be receiving the vaccine, Sarwat believed, when so many others, like her father, had passed away from the virus.

“You just feel so guilty that the one person who hadn’t left the house for three weeks was the one who succumbed to Covid,” she said to me, as I pressed the phone against my ear and peered outside, at the crowds of the people at the nearby park several stories below.

The sun looked twice its size, pressed against the bright blue sky. A group of seniors laughed while performing the cha-cha slide together. Others at the park were jogging, skipping stones across the river, or speed-walking while Whitney and The Temptations were blaring from car radios. Masks dangled under peoples’ chins and around their wrists.

It’s been over a year since Covid-19 has become a daily part of our lives, forcing most of us to take stock of our safety and health in ways we haven’t done before, like buying the most effective masks for work, or considering how to effectively quarantine in our apartments.

With mask mandates having been lifted and businesses being fully reopened, a sense of “relief” is slowly emerging, a return to “normality” that’s been encouraged by policymakers and various interests. In his recent presidential address leading into the July 4th weekend, Biden stated, “If we do this together, by 4 July, there is a good chance you, your family and friends can get together in your backyard or in your neighborhood and have a cookout or a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day.”

However, as many of us would like to believe we can simply “return” to our lives as they were, including organizers who are excited to knock on peoples’ doors and hold one-on-one conversations with people, it is unrealistic and simplistic to believe that somehow, we can sink back into our “normal” lives. It is short-sighted to not reflect and account for how the past year Covid-19 has affected people, both materially and emotionally.

Sherif Ibrahim, another comrade from my time organizing, lost his job during the pandemic. Although Sherif now has been finding more time to work on filmmaking and art, which have been long-time passions of his, he still expresses dread and pessimism as he and I discussed the so-called “post-covid” era.

“Normal is horror,” he said. “Normal is an ongoing endless tragedy. Normal is sadness and depression and I don’t think it will go away unless there is organizing and things that are done to fight it, or at least talk about it, and write about it.”

In order to organize the masses effectively, we must reflect on the past year at an emotional level. In order to organize and counter the narratives pushed forward by neoliberals, who will acknowledge the “tragedy” of Covid-19 but do so in ways that restrict policy prescriptions to more “investment” rather than restructuring the economy, we must identify what feelings working people might have (which is forever linked to the material) in this ongoing crisis.

TOGETHER, FOREVER

It is certainly true in some ways that the pandemic has been a time of resilience and the strengthening of bonds between people, especially those struggling to get by.

As soon as the Trump administration refused to wield federal authority to meet peoples’ needs, mutual aid networks sprang up across the country, including at our own DSA chapter in the central New Jersey region. Shopping malls and supermarkets are everywhere in this part of the state, but people lack the money or fear getting sick and bringing back the virus to their families.

Mutual aid networks have been lifesaving, with groceries being dropped off at peoples’ doorsteps by volunteers, and often, groceries being paid for by our networks of donors. In the process, these networks have also brought people together, with chapter members delivering to one another, and volunteers getting to know more of the area through delivery runs.

Marisa Jimenez has been organizing in the chapter and working as part of a nurses’ union. She and her girlfriend have been participating in mutual aid networks in New Jersey, which have been a source of community and resistance against alienation and apathy that festered during the pandemic.

“I think mutual aid has been an important aspect of coping with the pandemic,” she explained, “It is also, an access to love and emotional support and understanding and validation in a time when we’re all being gaslit and lied to.”

Under Covid-19, people have been pushed to rely on each other and in the process, recognize who one can truly trust and expect solidarity from, which may not have been as clear prior to the pandemic.

“Covid has illuminated what boundaries didn’t exist but needed to be. What relationships are worth having,” Kristen Smith, disability rights organizer in our chapter, explained.

Kristen, who is immunocompromised, was pregnant at the start of the pandemic and would deliver their first child a few months later, with the virus still raging.

Their family’s conservative politics has always been an issue with them and their partner. Butthe toxicity reached a tipping point during the pandemic, compelling Kristen and their partner to cut ties with their respective biological families. Instead, they’ve turned to communities where people understand the challenges they’re facing.

“It highlighted for me that I feel most comfortable around other disabled people,” Kristen said, adding, “When Covid hit, they were the people who understood how to deal with it, how to ground yourself. They were the people I could rely on to talk with and they were actually truly supportive.”

Marx understood that under the most oppressive conditions, there will be increased opportunity for the oppressed and exploited to find others like them, who are consumed by similar dilemmas of survival.

Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen write in We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism,

Firstly, it is the capitalist world-system itself which creates the conditions for global popular agency through the interconnection it creates, whether the sailors and migrants of the early modern Atlantic or the IT technicians and migrants of the twenty-first century. In capitalism, very large numbers of people experience themselves as to some degree connected to others at great distances, share some operative control of the means of communication, transport, coordination, and so on, and develop common identities (whether radical-democratic ideologies, or the imagery of Che Guevara or Bob Marley).

The uprisings that swept the country last summer are one of the clearest examples of this dynamic of pressure and opportunity, in which crisis compelled people to converge much quicker on critical issues like policing. More broadly, the pandemic forced people into situations they otherwise wouldn’t have been in, such as losing a job suddenly or now facing the real possibility of dying because of the need to continue working. The extreme precarity that many people are experiencing, much of which has only been made worse by the pandemic, has shaken many people loose from their routines and from their tendency to rationalize the status quo.

Feelings of desperation and anger precipitated by crisis, as the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote in the Prison Notebooks nearly a century ago, can create distance between ruling ideologies and the masses and how each views the world around them.

If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e., is no longer “leading” but only “dominant”, exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc.

During the pandemic, most people started to support progressive stances like raising the minimum wage or for the government to provide paychecks for people. In New Jersey, a significant number of people continue to support a workers’ right to unionize as well as alternatives to policing on matters of public safety.

Because of the pandemic, I too have had my beliefs tested, forced to reflect on critical issues such as comprehending the need for socialists to develop a mass constituency independent of the Democratic Party or realizing the critical importance of ending U.S. imperialism.

Most importantly, the past year pushed me to reorient my priorities in relation to those I care about, including my girlfriend, with whom I now live with since the pandemic first took hold. Before Covid-19 we had to drive to see each other on the weekends. Over time, it was getting harder to find time to relax together given all the essays we would have to grade and all the lesson planning we had to do. Since classes were moved online to Zoom, I could finally stay behind and watch trashy TV shows with her, wake up in the morning and sip coffee together, and savor the moments that all couples should have.

As much as the pandemic has tested peoples’ resolve and has helped some evolve and mature in their thinking, for many this has been a time of calamity and disillusionment. It has been a time of people, of anger giving way to apathy and alienation, especially as we remain steeped in a society shaped by neoliberalism, with our “leaders” and our media constantly pushing us to consume and compete to think only of ourselves instead of others. There are bad habits, as Gramsci would’ve argued, that are difficult to break unless confronted.

Vivak Patel is a friend (someone I consider a brother) I’ve grown up with in the suburbs of central New Jersey, amidst the pollen and pollution and the lush green lawns that look fake. As a professor of statistics in the Midwest (he was always the smartest one in our circle of friends), he was recruited to work on a project providing insight to the state government on how to intervene on Covid-19.

Quickly, however, he realized that many people were unwilling to adapt, even if it meant saving lives.

“It was naivety on my part to provide informed suggestions, people are going to do what they want to do,” he admitted, with the bitterness and frustration seeping into his voice.

THE END OF THE WORLD, ALWAYS

The bitterness and resentment that many have understandably been feeling is a product of the trauma that we’ve endured under neoliberalism and Covid-19; people have watched their savings disappear in a matter of months, as people have been forced to wait in mile-long lines outside food pantries. People don’t just move on from these experiences when they get vaccinated or the moment restrictions are lifted. Despite a slight bump in the number of people who are relatively more optimistic about the future, a significant number of people still reporta high level of anxiety and distress. A majority of Americans believe the country is re-opening too soon.

It is clear that the unwillingness and failure of our major institutions to respond to the crisis in ways that help most working people have left their mark on most of us. The unwillingness of government policymakers to stand up to business interests in the face of such a crisis has stripped people of their sense of hope and their belief in a more fulfilling future for themselves and others.

“It just crashed on us,” Sarwat exclaimed, with the “it” being our major political institutions.

Leaders in media, business and politics, who are certainly aware of the deteriorated living and working conditions and of the trauma that will linger, have been rushing to own the narrative regarding the pandemic and how people should respond to it.

The first step for those in positions of power is to acknowledge the harm and trauma that people were faced with, and to go as far as to incorporate certain critiques of race/racism and other forms of disparity. The goal is to get ahead of the discussion on inequity, to let people know their concerns are being heard.

In a recent press conference, Governor Phil Murphy acknowledged how Covid-19 had greatly impacted Black communities across New Jersey.

“In order to address this complex public health challenge, we must bring together all of the relevant expertise and perspectives to the table in order to carry out our mission of reaching health care equity,” Murphy stated, both acknowledging the problem while also obscuring it.

Neoliberal politiicans, the business “community,” and middle-class interest groups (mostly white, but with a smattering of non-white “model minority” representatives), want the public to know that they are taking stock of what happened. Studies will be done. Commissions will be convened. Speeches will be made. But what’s critical to note here is that such “discussions” and “examinations” of the ramifications of Covid-19 will be about “rebuilding” rather than extreme “reflection.” And when there is reflection, it will be restricted for only the past year under the pandemic.

The people will be led to believe that there is indeed a pre-Covid era we can return to with more “investment” in “hard hit” communities rather than what is necessary – a rearticulation of power and resources in our economy. Instead, the “recovery” is still possible within capitalism. Private industry remains our saviors, with the “small business” owner, also portrayed as non-white, will rise above and forge a path ahead toward a better tomorrow built on the old.

Although Democrats claim to stand against the extreme cruelty of the GOP, they too want the American people to return to working, to once again be more passionate consumers. They too conceive of the recovery as an opportunity to recover our American “exceptionalism.”

“America is moving — moving forward — but we can’t stop now,” Biden stated in his speech to Congress earlier this year, “We’re in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st Century. We’re at a great inflection point in history.”

Recovery has become a matter of national pride, of national healing rather than confronting root causes. We must celebrate birthdays with U.S. flags all around us, help local restaurants by filling seats inside and ordering the largest plate of nachos on the menu, even if the cheese is synthetic. We must continue to view our work, regardless of pay, as “essential” to us defeating the Chinese, to proving to the world that America is back and raring to go. Yes, every year we will commemorate the fallen, we will place our hands above our hearts and bow our heads to all the nurses, supermarket employees, all the nameless faces who suffered and were extinguished. But then, we will return to work, we will return to channeling our grief and loss into pride for our country.

Some of this narrative-building promoted by neoliberals and the right-wing will indeed convince enough people, for some time, that things are back on track now, especially given how tired and worn-down people are and how badly they want stability. A majority of Americans already view countries like China as a competitor, having bought into the U.S. imperial narrative that all other nations are threats to their well-being. It won’t be difficult for Biden and other politicians to divert some popular frustrations toward China or any nation cast as a rival to the U.S. at the international level.

But material forces matter. While some may truly believe that recovering from Covid-19 is about sticking it to China rather than their landlord or their boss, others will be forced by their rising debts, by their inability to pay their rents, by the cuts in their pay, to rethink what they’ve been told. Some will be too busy or too consumed by the daily struggle for survival to care.

Since there are few alternatives to resignation, these people will retreat into themselves and recede into routines that are familiar. They will simply wake up, go to work, come home, eat dinner, and repeat up until the weekends, when they will try and find time to meet friends at the bar, or attend a religious function, or maybe attend therapy before work drags them out of bed when it’s still dark out. Some will feel compelled by the narratives of “personal growth” to work longer hours and focus on what one can control at an individual level, which is helping themselves and their family and maybe their friends.

We’re already seeing this being played out over the last several months, especially since the protests last summer. Currently, one-in-four people in the U.S. are not able to pay their bills and one-in-six have had to borrow money from friends or family to keep themselves going, and yet, the streets are mainly empty now. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of strikes reached a historic low last year.

“We’re not a society that is in touch with itself,” Sherif told me. “We’re individuals wandering on our own, trying to find some semblance of connection and escape from the alienation that ends up being temporary.”

The political theorist Mark Fisher, was well aware of how people, so long as nothing structurally has changed, can interpret systemic issues in ways that sustain the capitalist hellscape we’re stuck in. Even when we feel angry about the establishment, as many of us have been during the recent crisis, people develop strategies of coping that will never attack the root causes. As long as there is a severe lack of collective spaces invested in building narratives together that can explain what it is they’re going through, most people will be stuck inside a loop of stress, anger, resignation, and individualistic strategies for getting from one day to the next.

As Fisher argues in Capitalist Realism,

The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its depoliticization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation.

According to the Harvard Medical School, alcohol consumption increased among women during the pandemic. So long as society deprioritizes women’s needs, women will continue to cope at an individual level, leading to health problems and trauma. As Frantz Fanon noticed in his time in colonial Algeria, when the oppressed lack a political framework that helps them contextualize their experiences and struggles, their anger, grief, and hopelessness will accumulate, only to be taken out on other people suffering many of the same ills.

In his essay “On Violence,” Fanon observed that whereas “the colonist or police officer can beat the colonized subject day in and day out, insult him and shove him to his knees, it is not uncommon to see the colonized subject draw his knife at the slightest hostile or aggressive look from another colonized subject.”

Hence, the best one can hope for is a job that pays, a roof over your head, and maybe just enough money every once in a while to splurge on a night out.

TRUTH IN THE AFTERMATH

To move forward, the Left must develop narratives that are effective against the narratives that uphold the capitalist political system, whether it’s deployed by politicians like Biden or those inside the GOP or by others within religious and other political institutions that benefit from having Americans work and stay mainly silent.

But in order to do so, we must first recognize the reality of our situation, steering clear of simplistic formulas. We must do what other revolutionaries have done, from Marx to Du Bois, which is to reflect on society as it is. This requires confronting the loss and devastation and, in turn, talking about itit with those we want to organize with.

“In other words, we cannot escape our defeat, or describe or analyze it from outside,” Enzo Traverso explains in Left-wing Melancholia: Marxism, History and Memory. “Left-wing melancholy is what remains after the shipwreck; its spirit shapes the writings of many of its ‘survivors’, drafted from their lifeboats after the storm.”

The past year under Covid-19 has been one of death, massive loss and political failure. Companies like Amazon have benefited from Covid-19, raking in historic profits while most working people, including those who were once heralded as “essential”, are still fighting for resources.

“Seeing a year go by, seeing their suffering and grief and yet, they are still mourning their friends and loved ones,” Marisa said about nurses and other frontline workers, “They are still fighting and advocating for themselves, while being called heroes and getting none of the actual respect, benefits and powers from being treated as a hero.”

The right-wing and other oppressive forces, unless they’re challenged effectively, are more than capable of using the crisis to retain and strengthen their hold on society. Writing from a fascist jail cell in the 1920s, Gramsci observed how:

The traditional ruling class, which has numerous trained cadres, changes men and programmes and, with greater speed than is achieved by the subordinate classes, reabsorbs the control that was slipping from its grasp. Perhaps it may make sacrifices, and expose itself to an uncertain future by demagogic promises; but it retains power, reinforces it for the time being, and uses it to crush its adversary and disperse his leading cadres, who cannot be very numerous or highly trained.

Things will get worse for many people before they start to get better. More people will feel worn down by the trauma of surviving. More people, especially oppressed people, will feel left behind and skeptical of anyone promising “reform”, let alone revolution. Disillusionment will be another virus that has to be contained.

Hence, when we re-engage with people we’re hoping to organize as restrictions are being lifted, it is imperative to acknowledge the situation as it is. It is critical to acknowledge the oppressive conditions people are in, to listen, to ask questions about how they feel about work, about where they live, about the “return to normal.”As mentioned, a number of Americans are apprehensive about this but need someone or something they can voice those concerns to.

These conversations will be uncomfortable since it means forcing people to reflect on situations they probably would rather not. But By asking people questions, staying in touch with them, and giving them opportunities to engage in collective action, we can help them overcome their sense of grief and powerlessness.

When we talk to and organize with our co-workers and our neighbors, we should raise the vision of a society that doesn’t subject people to so much unnecessary stress,anxiety, and sadness. This is crucial since this allows for people to start thinking about what they really desire, and not what business interests or mass media tell them what they should want. By doing this through campaigning or political education,we can start to build peoples’ capacity to think against the misery and struggle. This is the moment to incorporate socialist theory and discussions over history and about contemporary movements around the world.

Attending to the emotional well-being of the people is crucial to our organizing work, particularly in the midst of so much grief and loss.This is something I’ve had to do for myself and others in the last few months as measures to suppress the pandemic are being thrown aside.

Since we got the vaccine, my girlfriend and I have been hoarding snacks from the local H Mart and taking quick after-work trips to grab bubble tea. We’ve been stuffing ourselves with shrimp chips and fish cakes at our apartment until we lose track of what’s happening on the show we’ve been trying to watch, which house someone wants, which person they actually love, which person is the killer. At some point, we often turn to each other, hold hands, and beam at one another, grateful. This provides some degree of solace, but it’s impossible to escape what’s happening outside our door. From time to time I receive word that a family member in India has died from Covid-19. My girlfriend will sometimes check her bank account and realize she has just enough to pay the rent, and do her best to fight off the mounting anxiety.

“The old notion of normal will not happen,” my friend Vivak told me. “We’re too far gone for that.”

Sudip Bhattacharya serves as a co-chair of the Political Education Committee at Central Jersey DSA and is a writer based in New Jersey, having been published in Current Affairs, Cosmonaut, New Politics, Reappropriate, and The Aerogram, among other outlets. Prior to pursuing a PhD in Political Science at Rutgers University, he had worked full-time as a reporter across the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

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