Long before the order came down to “shelter in place,” my brain was telling me to retreat. Last year was not a good year for me. I struggled for work; I had my heart broken. My instinct was to isolate; to distance. What a fortunate turn, then, to be given a state-sanctioned reason to do so. To forego obligations and commitments and responsibilities. I can allow my worst habits to overtake me, following self-destructive impulses and inflicting pain in ways I think I can manage. It won’t help, but I’d do it anyway.
I’ve never been more alone, but I don’t feel lonely. All around me, people seemingly in every community I have ever been a part of are reaching across the distance, seeking to close it: My union siblings, my comrades in the Democratic Socialists of America, tenant and labor activists I’ve met in the course of my reporting and my own organizing work. Burned out after two and a half years in DSA, I’d taken a break from the organization since last summer but the pandemic has given me no choice but to recommit. I have been welcomed with open (digital) arms. Friends who were not especially political, or who didn’t think of themselves as such, are now doing mutual aid work, talking about the pandemic as not just a health crisis but a political crisis. Whether out of conviction, desperation, or necessity (or some combination of the three), people are organizing—for rent and labor strikes, for their friends, families, and neighbors, for their survival.
But video calls, group chats, and email threads are no replacement for meeting in person. There is no replacement for seeing how we share space with one another; for watching the unconscious changes in people’s bodies as they grapple with the questions that shape their lives; for joining voices on a picket line, or taking the streets in a march, or running from the cops. You cannot ask someone to take a risk for you if you don’t have their trust, and it is hard to gain someone’s trust without sharing embodied experiences.
Video calls with any more than half a dozen people are particularly anxiety-inducing. Who is talking? Am I talking too much? Should I stop talking? What am I saying? Someone else please talk. Everyone stop talking. Everyone please mute. You’re muted. We’re at time for this section of the agenda. Are we voting on this? How are we voting on this? Can we please stay on topic? Still, I’m grateful for that anxiety. I want to hear voices; I want crosstalk and awkward silences. I need to be reminded that I am part of something bigger than myself, even as I remain, for the most part, physically isolated.
Beneath the surface of worry, boredom, and distractedness, I feel a contradiction: two deep, crossing currents of love and rage. I am so grateful for all that I have in my life, and I am so angry all of the time. This was so even before we found ourselves living through a global pandemic. It is deeper now. I fault myself for not having the language to express it. I try to focus on the enormous effort that so many people are making to prepare for what comes next, to ensure that we come out swinging when the restrictions on our movement are lifted. When I feel an impulse towards psychic self-harm, I do pull-ups. Or smoke a cigarette. Or pet my cat.
What is it that comes next? I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone does. It is hard to know when there is no solid timeline, when the ground is constantly shifting and it takes all of our effort to stay on our feet. More than 22 million people have applied for unemployment benefits in the past few weeks. Forty million are predicted to be out of work by June. Probably more. Our slumlord president takes the opportunity to send trillions of dollars to wealthy allies, while the opposition party, save for a paltry few outliers, lacks the imagination and the will to seize the moment, to call for necessary changes to address the problems that led us to this point.
For many of us, life has come to a shuddering halt in these past weeks. But not for everyone. The fundamental truth articulated by Marxism is on full display for all to see, in the state’s very own language: “essential workers.” Workers, that is to say, are essential. Workers make the world turn. And now they are beginning to get sick and die. Health care workers, grocery store workers, transit workers.
Celebrities and politicians tell us that we are all in this together, but we are not. I think of those who have lost family members to this virus already and cannot gather to mourn them for fear of spreading the disease further. I think of those who are pregnant. I think of those who must risk exposure in order to make rent or pay off debts, possibly bringing the disease into their own homes and infecting their loved ones. I think of those caged in prisons and jails and detention centers, waiting for the virus to make its way into these already hellish places. “The disease is out there,” Hakim, who is incarcerated in Virginia, told me. “You don’t catch it. It catches you.”
I find myself thinking: There can be no forgiveness after this. We must be ruthless and unsparing. For too long the purveyors of despair have escaped their reckoning. Their time is over. People are understandably afraid. They should be angry. And then I stop, because it feels ridiculous to even think such things, much less to write them on the internet. I am uncomfortable with the depth of feeling required to be able to say, in all sincerity, that the capitalists’ doom is upon them. It is as much a wish as it is the truth.
Perhaps this is because the distance between where we are and where we need to be is so great—a chasm, really. For a brief 10 days, between the Nevada caucuses and Super Tuesday, it seemed that the Bernie Sanders campaign (flawed though it may have been) might be able to build a bridge across that chasm, bringing us not to the ultimate destination but setting us on the path. Instead, the Democratic Party consolidated their efforts to stop Sanders, gambling that despite his popularity and the popularity of his policies, many voters would opt for the familiar, remaining loyal to the establishment. This was a good bet, as it turned out.
No matter who is inaugurated president in January 2021, working people will still have to show up for jobs they hate, take orders from bosses who don’t respect them, and hand over their wages to landlords who hold them in contempt. The concentration camps holding tens of thousands of migrant workers will not be emptied. Prisons and jails will still be built and filled. Ceaseless storms loom in the distance. Somewhere, the next pandemic lurks.
The most crucial work to be done now is not only to get people the help and resources they need to survive the immediate moment of crisis but to do so in a way that builds power and preparedness for the crises to come. Organization is not only about resilience, but risk. It is about looking beyond the present towards a shared political horizon. It is about imagining together a world that might be otherwise.
We must reach across that distance too. If we fall, so be it. Or, we may find another way around.