Now we am become death...
We have become numb. Safe little phrases like “pandemic fatigue” don’t begin to cover it. Headlines about spiking death tolls and overwhelmed hospitals, new strains and nations cut off from the world interchange in our minds with news of friends and family sick or dead. The pain of intimate loss and the horror of the grand tragic-historical fill in for one another.
As if the enormity of it all weren’t difficult enough to process, we are deprived of the most basic methods of coming to grips. We can’t hold funerals. We can’t even safely gather with loved ones in their houses to hug and cry it out. The atomization – of the individual against history – is full spectrum, totalizing. Not only is the abyss staring back, it’s leaving a piece of itself in all of us, to sit in our chests like a cold stone we’ll never dislodge.
What happens to us when all of this is over – assuming it will ever be – is not just measured materially. There will be mass immiseration for sure, jobs never to return, families and communities shattered. Even if the economy does quickly rebound after things open back up it will be with the knowledge that employers can get away with paying essential workers peanuts. This doesn’t even begin to address those who will be behind on their rent for months afterward, the prospect of eviction hovering over them.
But this material crisis, the failure to have our most basic needs met, is going to be compounded by what can only be described as a mass melancholy. Yes, there will be mass celebration when we are able to safely congregate, visit each other in our homes. What after, though? What happens to all the unreckoned grief, the loss, the pain and rage we’ll have been stuffing down for the better part of two years? So many moments we’ve been unable to properly mourn, and with little room for lasting catharsis.
Calling this a mental health crisis seems prosaic. Comrades have suggested it as an incidence of mass PTSD, and I think that’s apt. But given the narrowness with which mental health is considered, the feebleness of the attention it receives, this categorization runs the risk of denying us the gravity of what will have taken place, how it has manifested in our psychologies both individually and on a collective scale.
That’s my fear, anyway. We already live in a system that has waged an assault on our basic needs for the better part of two generations, to the point where “the politics of care” needs to be a phrase. In the US, most of us under a certain age can’t even recall what it would look like for a society to show some sense of responsibility for our collective wellbeing. “Welfare state” is a foreign term to us. Universal healthcare, what should be a bare minimum, seems a herculean achievement. Past that it becomes difficult to even fathom a way of living that takes the whole human into account.
The pittance that Congress finally bothered to kick our way is indicative of this, and of how even in the worst pandemic in over a century, this country cannot muster the most basic insurance of people’s lives. Trump never showed any interest in this of course, to the point of incoherence, but the incoming Biden administration’s plan is only a few degrees better. It suffers from the same gaps in logic, symptomatic of its priorities. Across the country, small businesses are shuttered, people are laid off and cajoled to stay at home, but malls are open, their parking lots full. The overriding message of this holiday season, like every holiday season, is left to retailers and advertisers imploring us to spend what little we have, even now when any sane institution should be broadcasting a message of social safety and solidarity.
With luck, it will eventually be safe to go outside again, to mingle and socialize, to go to work without wondering if we’ll catch a deadly disease. When it is we’ll have to survey the personal and social ruin. No nationwide access to mental health resources to help us come to grips with such monumental loss. No community programs to help us reconnect, to see our own loss in the loss of others, maybe collectively heal a bit and break out of the isolation and mistrust most of us will have gotten used to by then. No, we’ll have little more than the same “personal responsibility” that has long been supposed to fill the gaps in our lives but has consistently come up short. For tackling an epidemic of melancholy, it is going to prove next to worthless.
In this landscape, people will have little choice but to lean into the same salves we have learned to rely on over the past forty years. In capitalism, the predominance of individualism needs commodity just as much as commodity needs individualism. Protecting one’s own means protecting what they have, what they possess, what they can hoard at the expense of others.
It is difficult to overstate the danger of this. Melancholy doesn’t just present itself in the way we are used to thinking about it: damp, dark moods of perpetual sadness. It can be manic, rageful, so afraid to face its own horror that it turns to bone-chilling violence to distract itself from the truth of its existence. This means that the most mundane deprivations can erupt into menacing displays of terror.
We already see what this looks like. Not just in the jammed mall parking lots, but in places like Salem, Oregon. Fascism in the United States was always going to speak with a libertarian accent, emphasizing and preying on an instilled desire to accumulate rather than ensure general wellbeing. Unless there is some force promoting a vision of generalized social cohesion, that can illustrate a better life for the individual in the collective, then those who dance on our graves will always have the initiative.