Sunday, May 10, 2020

The dark decade ahead




Matthew Walther



The churches all closed. Jets flying overhead. Lunatics banging pots and pans. Masked joggers, masked pizza men, masked dogs awaiting testing; everyone in the park wearing masks; no one masked in a crowd of 30 watching the armored van roll over the discarded grass clippings. A woman beaten by a police officer (off duty, of course) for refusing to wear a mask in a warehouse store. A man spits in the face of a clerk. Alcohol sales increasing by 70 percent or more, and legal dope available for curbside pickup. Standoffs, the stockpiling of weapons, protests and counter-protests with assault rifles in state capitols. The hospitals not overwhelmed but empty and staff let go. Yellow murder tape across merry-go-rounds. Children, neighbors objects of medium-level suspicion at best. Technology not a stopgap or a substitute but a condition for a new conception of bare life. Packages on doorsteps, dropped by unseen and poorly remunerated agents of the world's richest man. Children raped on camera. Domestic assault. A hundred thousand defaults piling up in the portfolio of a single regional bank. Suicide. The end of education. The end of employment. Prophets, of course, everywhere.

This is what the end of the end of history looks like. We had asked ourselves how it would appear and when. These questions mattered, and not only incidentally. They matter less now as we prepare for what I suspect will be at least a decade of immiseration on a scale unimaginable to at least three generations.

It is important to observe that this has happened because of the lockdown, not even proximately because of the virus for which the median age of death is higher than the American life expectancy. In the last century, the upheavals of the interwar period were the result of a worldwide economic depression, not of a barely remembered pandemic, serious as it might have been. We are not witnessing the long-rumored revenge of nature, but a way of life that was always unsustainable extinguishing itself.

Numbers will be sought to explain the world around us. What does it mean to say that the present crisis is somehow twice as bad as that of 2008, that a fifth of the country is out of work, that the only industry now hiring is debt collection? How are we to respond to predictions that over a hundred thousand Americans may die from what sociologists call "deaths of despair"? How can we even begin to make sense of the fact that the consequences of two and a half months will be with us for five times that many years, that a child born today will be a teenager before we return to anything that resembles even externally the precarious equilibrium to which we had been accustomed in January?

Was all of this inevitable? Is it now? It is always possible to insist that we should seek another way, a path of shared work, shared purpose, and shared wealth, as our great-grandparents did long ago. But this is naive. All the problems — alienation, exploitation, addiction, despair — exacerbated during the lockdown have long been hiding in plain sight. A political system that during what we told ourselves were ordinary times could not solve the simplest of challenges (passing a federal budget in a timely manner), much less address what the president once referred to as "American carnage," will not rise to the present occasion. Instead Americans will muddle on, looking after ourselves and our families and friends as best we can, helpless in the face of transformations that we will barely notice.

Here I think foreboding is justified. Trends that were worrisome long before we had heard of the new virus are accelerating to a point at which they are probably irreversible. In the name of health, wealth, and safety I fully expect work as we know it not to return for vast swathes of the population. Instead it will be replaced by subsidies meant not to provide marginal relief to families but to keep them inside their homes in front of screens, having things sent to their doors and generating meaningless analytics data. The closest thing to a picture of the future I expect to emerge out of this crisis is the one given by Wells in The Time Machine of a civilization split between idle aristocrats totally incurious about the mysterious means by which they receive sustenance and an underclass as resentful and resourceful as it is invisible.

I hope that I am wrong about the dark years ahead of us.

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