Searching for a virus on YouTube.
Like so many other people, I’ve been quite unwell recently.
Not in that slightly intangible living like this is making me unwell kind of way.
More in the, I have Coronavirus but the doctors say they won’t test me and I keep having fever dreams about people I knew from primary school …kind of way.
Thankfully, the last couple of days have seen the fever start to break. I am finally able to concentrate enough to read. Which is a real relief.
It was getting pretty desperate. Over the past sleepless week my YouTube consumption became so extreme that at one point I found myself entering the following into the YouTube search engine:
Spoiler alert. Searching for Good Videos yields videos that are… not good.
Aside from completing YouTube like an 8Bit computer game, one of the fringe benefits of not getting out of bed for a few days has been having the luxury to think about what this crisis might mean for how we think and work in the months and years that follow.
Time to think shouldn’t be a luxury, of course. But for those of us privileged enough to experience it, it is one of the few silver linings that come from being temporarily untethered from the machinery and the rhythms of everyday life.
But even with time on your hands, it’s hard to think clearly about a virus.
For a start, it’s a sort of hyper-object, which presents all manner of nontrivial interpretative challenges. But perhaps beyond even that, it’s hard to think about a virus because our psychological relationship to illness and contagion is so deeply rooted and knotty. It confronts us on the level of our own vulnerability and mortality, it lays bare our complicated relationship to bodies, to proximity, to reproduction, to disgust, and to desire.
It’s much easier to think clearly about how we respond to a virus.
Sadly, at this point, the way we are responding seems infuriatingly predictable. We’ve spent decades building a society of extremely fragile, interlocking socio-economic dependencies, at the same time as systematically winnowing away the sites of collective care, universalism and solidarity.
In short, we have built a world that’s absolutely tailor-made to mess this up.
A relentless fetish for ‘efficiency’, a precarious and atomised workforce, chronic levels of personal debt, a health and social care system ravaged by austerity and private profiteering, a governing ideology that sees society as subservient to the economy and not vice versa, the ongoing gallop of financialisation, an ecosystem teetering on the brink, deepening inequality, a global rise in nationalism … and, on top of that, a mental health crisis exacerbated by the collective collapsing of our desires into the painfully limited vector of the free market.
Certainly not ideal conditions in which to deal with a pandemic that requires us to re-centre mutuality and begin to rapidly recalibrate our policies so that they recognise human dignity regardless of one’s ability (or desire) to participate in coerced waged labour.
Whether we actually do any of that recalibration is another question entirely.
I’ve fallen for the revolutionary allure of a catastrophe too many times before. So easy to think ‘Surely this is the one? … the one that makes the banal horrors of this system too obvious to ignore? … things will have to change this time, right? ’
And they do change, of course. But usually for the worst.
Solutions are administered in the service of asset holders, rentiers and the carceral state, the extremist ‘centre’ continues to enable the reactionary right and we all get slightly sadder, angrier and sicker in the process.
Extrapolated outward, that still feels like the sensible bet. An endless lurching from catastrophe to catastrophe until there is nothing much left. Just abstract capital, existing somewhere, abstractly. Still reproducing its vile logic on a dead and empty planet. Buzzing away in a distant server, making automated stock market trades and generating wealth for the void.
But we all know that sensible bets are for boring people who own gilets and are secretly afraid of bookies so do all of their gambling online.
Seriously though, retaining hope in the face of all of this is important. Not just as an affect, but also as a theory of change that is both structural and psychological. Because even if you doubt whether hope has the power to destabilise and reorganise violent realities, hope most certainly has the power to prevent violent systems from destabilising and reorganising you.
And it has that power because hope isn’t about prediction or even likelihood. Instead, hope provides a sort of psychic protection, or holding pen, for all of our individual and communal longings that would otherwise be extracted and exhausted by the relentless libidinal machinery of the market.
And so we must hope.
And perhaps the most important way we might do that is to use this moment to reclaim a vision of the future that is defiantly NOT delimited and contoured by the fear of catastrophe. A vision of the future that doesn’t pedantically and self-servingly see every divergence from existing relations of power as being fraught with a disqualifying level danger and risk.
So, how about this?
How about from now on proponents of the status quo no longer get to define acceptable levels of danger and risk?
How about we make their ignorant and pompous willingness to elide ever increasing levels of pain and material insecurity a disqualifying factor with regard to participation in large scale structural decision making?
Just a thought.
Instead of all that fear, perhaps we could begin to search the pain of the present for more hopeful inscriptions of our possible future. In doing so, we might begin to realise that we don’t necessarily have to wait for a new world to be born after the crisis, but that we might simply need to nourish the new worlds that are already present in the rubble.
If we did that we might just see …
A reinvigorated fight for an economic system geared toward human flourishing; shorter working hours, co-operative and collective ownership models, participatory budgeting, universal basic income and universal basic services.
A vision for the state that has solidarity at its heart; sounding the final death knell for new public management, outsourcing, privatisation and profiteering, and which instead reanimates the vital organising principles of collective risk, stewardship and multi-generational public assets.
A civil society that is deep, participative, pluralistic and that recognises its role in subordinating state and economic power to accountable and organised bases rooted in devolved voluntary association.
An increased awareness that communities are only units of strength when they recognise shared vulnerabilities and need, when they embrace the emancipatory potential of dependency, and hold that the only true luxury is public luxury.
A sparse but deeply embedded counter-sociality that understands the transformative power of desire, of the erotic and of friendship, and understands that units other than the nuclear family can be generative, supportive and stabilising.
Initiatives that are working against a relationship to the natural world that is predicated on extraction, a dedication to creativity that undermines the relentless, repetitious convergence of algorithmic speech, defamiliarisation of borders, walls and prisons…
It’s a list that could go on and on.
Because there are infinite inscriptions of a different, ethically substantive, life.
And recognising these inscriptions, however faint, really matters.
They must be first be sheltered, then nurtured and then finally, they must be naturalised.
Because there won’t be an ‘after the crisis’.
There won’t be an ‘after the virus’.
The end of the world is here now, and it is here forever.
But so is the beginning of the world.
That is also here now.
And it is also here forever.
So choose your side.
You might as well.
What else are you going to do with your life?
There is nothing good on Youtube.