Quarantine Letter #10: Irreversible
I began this letter weeks ago. Many letters have come out since I started, and I’ve been humbled by the thoughtfulness and intelligence with which so many comrades all over are trying to think this moment.
No one is immune to the confusion and disorientation of our current moment. Still, in our case it’s been at least a bit surprising. After all, we’re no strangers to rupture and crisis: most of us intervened during Ferguson, Baltimore, Charlottesville, during hurricanes, at Standing Rock, and so on. In this sense, I agree with Orion when he states that “we can’t say that we were completely unprepared for something like this.” And yet, as he is also quick to remind us, the preparation in question lies more on the side of form than of content: if the events of our recent have a lesson to teach us, it is that we must cast off our stubborn tendency to rely on past models, we must be water.
August and Kora began this series by proposing that “we are living through a halfway destitution”. Without any doubt, half-measures abound these days: an economy half shut down, half-hearted safety measures on the part of both the state and capital, while Indigenous people continue to account for half the COVID-19 deaths in New Mexico. At the same time, I notice quite a few of my comrades continue to relate to our situation through the prism of the “day after”: the pandemic is seen as a “suspension” of normalcy, an interlude, with the idea that what matters is to prepare ourselves for the moment when “historical time” is reintroduced — otherwise, the restoration of normalcy will occur on terms that only serve our enemies. This way of thinking identifies possibility with exceptional states or moments, ‘windows’ that open and close, a view echoed by Nevada who worries, in the first part of their letter, that “the window of opportunity has by now closed”. The pessimism of Nevada mirrors the optimism of August and Kora, in that both perspectives await some sort of return to a normality that quite possibly may no longer exist.
Not every lull or period of calm should be mistaken for the closing of an opening. After all, it might be objected, if the event of the virus is truly unprecedented, can we fully trust ourselves to recognize when its window has closed? What if it remains halfway open? Is it not the mark of novelty to place our existing measures and habits in crisis, to be unrecognizable? What if Joel Gayraud is right that “the dystopia now being established is intended to last”, that the end of the lockdowns will not bring a return to the world we knew? According to Gayraud, while the pandemic might be overcome, the recalibration of sensibility we’re undergoing may not be easily undone, and “human behaviour will be radically altered, and for a long time”. Perhaps the event has already taken place.
Here is my concern: if we believe that the ‘day after’ is still ahead of us, there is a risk that we fall into a disposition of waiting. We act, but only in a half-committed fashion, believing on some level that the ‘interruption’ will end. We act as if history somehow trailed off mid-sentence, and we’re all unconsciously waiting for the period, for some signal that it’s time once again to gather up the familiar tools and, basically, to pick up more or less where we left off in the uprisings of 2019.
Could it be that the reason we feel stuck is because we are still unable to accept that there is no returning to the world as it was? Is our waiting not the inverse yet symmetrical energy of our enemies in the ReOpen protests?
Nevada is right to remind us of the importance of cultivating our own sense of time, our own consistency. Let us stop pretending that the time in which we dwell now, the only time that is real, will pass away of its own accord. Our task is to make this world pass away, which requires we begin from the middle. Pandemic time is not of our making, but that doesn’t keep us from making use of it.
The destabilization and revolts of 2019 have not ended, they’ve mutated. We must mutate with them. It is time for a new metric of opportunity, new methods of intervention. What new and experimental ways of living and fighting can be cultivated here and now, which can still bear fruit regardless of whether the lockdowns last three months or a year?
The rise of the ‘essential worker’, while new to our era, is not entirely new to history. Unlike the copper mines of the West, the mines of Appalachia rapidly expanded after World War I. Coal miners had been deemed “essential workers” to run the War Machine, which granted them pay raises and an exemption from the draft. This fostered a sense of entitlement in the miners that no trade union could fulfill on its own, and which the latter could at best solidify and push to the fore. When the war was over, coal companies tried to roll back many of these gains, resulting in escalating clashes between miners and the forces of order that would eventually culminate in the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Today, the category of the ‘essential’ has begun to absorb various roles in the reproduction of daily life. While we must be wary of the pitfalls of idealizing any particular role in the economy, one lesson from the past is that the sense of entitlement, and even the sense of resentment towards the elites that this might soon engender in millions of people could be explosive. What new bonds would need to be forged between doctors, janitors, grocery store clerks, and nurses in order to concentrate and embolden it? How does this align with our ideas of autonomous care and logistical infrastructure, or must these be revised or adapted to this new moment?
The practical hybridity that this moment makes possible has already begun to bear fruit. Car caravans have been mobilized to jam traffic and show support for striking Target workers and prisoners and detainees rebelling against their conditions behind the walls. The causality works both ways, as we saw in Arizona, where such caravans have inspired those inside to rise up. We have seen the gathering of forces despite social distancing to remember the dead and expose the kidnapping of migrant children made possible by the cynical collusion of progressive nonprofits with the expanding border regime. These actions have shown that, contrary to the lesson that pandemic governance aims to instill in us, survival is not the exclusive reigning value for all of us. Despite the very real danger of the virus, there are still risks worth taking—and not in defense of the economy.
In his letter from Santiago de Chile, Emilio is right to remind us not to overlook the territorial specificity of our situation in all of this. Where I live, some youths raised here seem skeptical of the reality of the pathogen, no doubt fueled by our relatively low recorded infections, whereas further north, indigenous youths on the reservation are losing loved ones at alarming rates. We see the West Coast states making pacts to ensure supply chains, Republican and Democrat governors smuggle tests away from the prying eyes of the Fed’s, as central and southern Illinois renews its call for a referendum to secede from Chicago…
Are these the first signs of a real balkanization of the United States? If so, our response to fragmentation and fissure cannot be to mourn or reconstitute the decrepit national totality, yet neither can we allow a division to occur along racial or ethnic lines, as the far-right imagines it. Instead, as our friends in Mexico recently wrote, we must redouble our efforts to fully inhabit our specific territories in dignified and collectively powerful ways. At the same time, we must establish and maintain communication and dialogue between our various experiments in different parts of the continent, so that our territorial differences can resonate and inspire one another along the way. The regular correspondence of these letters contributes to this sense of connection and common purpose across our far flung territories.
What is coming may not have the look and feel of a shocking “moment” of the sort we are used to intervening in. A long-reaching and profound crisis demands a different conception of time and opportunity, and this must begin by accepting that, on some level, what we are experiencing is irreversible. If we are to weather it well, we must remain on the lookout for the aberrant coalitions it makes possible: new mixtures, new sources of confidence among the exploited and dispossessed of this world.