Airborne toxic nonevent.
Wrote this December 11, never figured out where to put it. So I’m putting it here, two weeks later.
One of the governing paradoxes of the Covid-19 era is that the arrival of the virus is one of the biggest, most consequential events of the last half-century — temporarily hobbling the world economy, completely altering the culture of ‘knowledge work’ throughout the western world, crippling entire municipalities, driving previously sane leaders to paranoid imbecility — yet most Americans are forced to experience plaguetime as an absence of action, a numbing estrangement from the essential ordinary: a seeming nonevent. Covid-19 has brought one anticlimax after another.
Nearly a million Americans have died, with millions more dead worldwide (many uncounted). Yes, the dead have mostly been old or infirm — one hates to say ‘expendable,’ though you should understand that the Masters absolutely do talk that way. Yet where’s the event? Where’s the History we’re living through? The pandemic has manifested first as a rush of scary news stories, hysterical overreaction, and thereafter for nearly all people an endlessly protracted waiting for the other shoe to drop. Covid-19 is everywhere, most humans will end up contracting some variant of it, but as the second winter of plaguetime arrives in Cambridge what do we see? Masks, empty storefronts bought up by speculators. Shortened hours, canceled events. Immensely long lines for testing and vaccines, then behaviour largely unchanged except for its perceptible slump, its hopelessness. Children somehow adapting to a fatally broken school system’s pointless lessons taught in emotionally crippling circumstances. Reports of a Scary Omicron Variant and evidence that a slightly worse, lonelier life goes on.
Same shit jobs, new opportunistic restrictions. Same feckless local leaders, same interest groups, new justifications for old corruption.
And on the television, by which we mean Twitter and Facebook: EVERYTHING IS NEWLY HORRIBLE! THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION FACES ITS TOUGHEST LEGISLATIVE CHALLENGE YET! NAZIS MARCH! SHELVES ARE BARE! CHINA SUBVERTS DEMOCRACY! NEW FORMS OF DISCRIMINATION ARE DISCOVERED DAILY! EVERYTHING OUT OF YOUR MOUTH IS A HATE CRIME! THE NEW IPHONE HAS A GREAT CAMERA! THE CLIMATE IS IN CRISIS AND DEMOCRACY IS IN CRISIS AND THE SCHOOLS ARE STILL IN CRISIS AND YOUR (tax-deductible annually recurring) DONATION WILL HELP US STAY ANGRY ABOUT IT!
Late capitalism has long been understood by people with expensive humanities degrees as the era of ‘permanent crisis’ — the neverending ‘Police Action,’ the manufactured consensus that a Strong Response Is Called For, the ever-looming Threat of Economic Something-or-Other which the state must take deadly unilateral action to Avert — but under the insectile sign of Covid-19 it’s felt like the Powers That Be aren’t even really trying anymore. This actually deadly pandemic immediately became flimsy pretense for every preplanned1 initiative to strip human beings of autonomy and dignity; the world has gotten much worse in familiar stupid ways.
I don’t even mean vaccines; as everyone numerate knows, the vaccines have worked shockingly well with almost no cost, and you’re a myopic fucking fool for complaining about them while taking your lifesaving MMR and Tdap and influenza and HPV and chickenpox shots entirely for granted.
Rather: work has lost its dignity, politics its veneer of comity; civic life has been wrested from the hands of citizens and given wholesale to international capital (effectively coterminous with government). Even the parking meters have been privatized. Trust in government has completely disappeared, as has even the aspiration to objective journalism, making it that much easier for billionaires and Capital consortia to buy up governments and journalists. HR departments2 have somehow replaced labour unions as Protectors in the eyes of infantile young employees who hate their jobs anyway. Cities have been sold wholesale to the same foreign kleptocrats whom the pious news media make a show of wanting out of ‘our’ elections. If you’ve read any halfway-sane criticism at all in the past 50 years, the only surprising thing is the speed with which the destruction of the modern world has been accomplished, not by Covid-19 but by the same vampires who’ve been sucking society’s blood all along.
Yet there’s been no event, no marker, no deadline. Throughout 2020 there was a sense, profitably encouraged by the ‘news’ media, that the coming election heralded some kind of Big Change, that things would start to improve thereafter. And of course they have, in ways directly pertaining to the pandemic itself: federal agencies are getting restocked with competent workers, international relations are being renormalized (to the extent possible during this extraordinary historical Asterisk) after the departure of the unprecedentedly incompetent Trump administration. But at a fundamental level, the 2020 election didn’t change much of anything, because the underlying dynamics that led to Trump’s catastrophic election haven’t changed — have in fact deepened and intensified. Workers are more alienated and downtrodden than they were five years ago, civic life is more tightly shut against ordinary people’s participation, real wages keep declining, labour power keeps shrinking, ‘social’ media networks are even more powerful and even more dangerous and demented. Journalists are worse at their jobs, houses are flimsier, movies and books are dumber, Epstein didn’t kill himself, nothing has been rethought or rebuilt at a structural level. American politics is somehow even more poisonous and dimwitted than it was when Trump ran, and as the Capitol insurrection has been revealed as an inside job, the Republican Party and its army of judicial saboteurs (starting with a stolen, corrupt, nakedly partisan Supreme Court) have taken every opportunity to accelerate the collapse of the national body — while the Democrats have happily folded in on themselves like a used napkin, entirely beholden to the whims of vicious imbeciles like Joe Manchin and pitifully grateful not to have to actually accomplish anything at all.
Which is to say: Capital has gone on doing what it’s always done, our complementary political parties have continued to be themselves, demographic shifts decades in the making have kept destabilizing existing societies in predictable ways. And the end of modern human life due to anthropogenic climate transformation has carried the fuck on killing us.
Out the window, the same evidence of thinning, hollowing out, slow exsanguination, casual betrayal, abandonment, surrender to entropy. The same atomization and rending of the social fabric, now with more explicit identitarianism but otherwise unchanged over decades. Here in the coffeeshop, only the masks and the sand in the hourglass meaningfully differentiate this world from that of five or ten years ago. The working class is still being ground to a paste; the middle class is still being medicated out of consciousness and guilted into compliance; the idiot rich still feast on everyone else. The planet is rapidly becoming uninhabitable by apes driving cars. Cambridge is still a better place to live than most other cities in the USA, but we’d rather be good guys than heroes — which is why the bad guys won ages ago.
- This is important, please tattoo this on the insides of your eyelids. Western capital-governments’ sickening opportunism in the face of Covid-19 DOES NOT MEAN that Covid-19 itself is some kind of ‘conspiracy’ or ‘hoax’ or even just ‘overblown.’ Millions of humans — of every age, in every nation it’s touched — are dead before their time because of this virus and the catastrophically bungled response to it, but the vaccines have worked; they’ve been shockingly safe and will save millions more down the line as the science behind them proves useful in other domains. Cranks claiming that vaccines are part of a ‘depopulation’ scheme can be disregarded because their silly claims have already been debunked; cranks claiming that Covid-19 ‘is just a flu’ should similarly be disregarded for the same reason. The fatal disruption of the USA medical system in 2020 really did happen, the Omicron variant really will similarly tax world hospital systems during the coming ‘third wave,’ and anti-vaccine hysteria should be treated with appropriate contempt. But none of this exculpates the cynics, sadists, and ordinary thieves who’ve used the pandemic as cover for their neverending predation. This essay is about our subjective experience of the pandemic, not epidemiology. ↩
- Every adult who is not thuddingly stupid understands that ‘Human Resources’ departments exist to protect the Money from the Workers; it’s interesting, by which we mean fucking nauseating, that so many 20/30somethings see ‘having my identity category be looked upon sympathetically by HR’ as the highest honour that can be accorded an employee rather than, I dunno, 401k matching or a sane workweek or just not having their real lives in the outside world held in obvious unrestrained contempt by the bosses. ↩