Let’s let go of hoping that things will go back to normal. I don’t mean that we’re doomed to continue with how things are now, whether that’s being in lockdown, coping with a pandemic, or experiencing economic precarity. Rather, this moment of disruption has opened a tremendous range of possible futures, none of which is guaranteed. The new possibilities range from hopeful to dismal. We needn’t be passive victims—our choices influence the course of events. The fluidity of our situation allows us to imagine a new future and bring it into being.
Is this the Apocalypse?
The world is not ending, but we are facing an apocalypse in one sense of the word’s etymology: that of lifting the veil. As the pandemic lifts the veil, makes obvious truths that are usually easier to ignore.
The pandemic reveals our collectivity and shared vulnerability. It’s true that we’re all in this together, in our shared vulnerability to this illness and the disruption it’s bringing, even as some of us are in it up to our ankles while others are in over their head. This shared vulnerability can activate our generosity, compassion, and solidarity, as we see, in one example out of many, in the daily shows of gratitude for medical workers. This has always been the case, in that we are all always vulnerable to illness and death, to natural and human-made disasters. The pandemic simply makes it more salient.
It also reveals how our lives are intertwined, that our actions are important and touch the lives of countless others. When we act collectively, as we are doing with social distancing, we can save the lives of millions. This too has always been the case—that we have the power, especially when acting collectively, to dramatically influence the course of events.
The past few months have brought the unknowability of the future to the fore. Uncertainty is a fundamental reality of life and history, but there are also phases of relative stability and instability. To the extent that we’ve experienced the recent past as at least somewhat stable, the intensity of the disruption we’re experiencing marks a shift into a more unpredictable time—brought by the pandemic itself, its economic, social, and political effects, followed by the accelerating impact of climate change.
Why can’t we go back to normal?
As we enter a time of instability and loss, it’s natural to wish for things to go back to normal, to return to stability and predictability. Yet the pandemic has started many massive secondary processes of change that won’t automatically be reversed when the pandemic is over. The implications of these processes are uncertain, and their course depends on our choices. To hope to go back to normal is to disempower ourselves and close the paths to the more beautiful possibilities.
In the past three weeks, 17 million people filed for unemployment, almost twice the number of jobs lost during the Great Recession. Economists are projecting levels of unemployment comparable to or larger than the Great Depression. These cannot help but have massive ripple effects throughout our economy, leading to an intense economic crisis . I don’t pretend to know what will happen, but I don’t think we can count on a ‘V-shaped’ recovery.
Another of these processes is our social recession,”a fraying of social bonds that further unravel the longer we go without human interaction”. This matters for our social lives and wellbeing, but it also has the danger of degrading civil society through the atrophy of local and communal organizations. We may become more atomized and isolated, leading to further collective disempowerment.
Thirdly, disruption and crisis are an opportunity for those in political and economic power to consolidate their power. Civil liberties are under attack, environmental protections are being dismantled, and the government response to the unfolding economic crisis is skewed to benefit large corporations over people. These actions use the cover of the crisis to gain passive acceptance, hoping to pass off a diminished new normal for the old one.
The Possibility of Hope
Can we find any hope here? Hope, as defined by Rebecca Solnit, is acknowledging that the future is unknown, and that you can influence the outcome. In Hope in the Dark, she writes:
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.
The economic, social, and political story of this pandemic are still being written, and the future depends on our collective individual choices. We could passively fall into an economic calamity, or we can use it to advance economic justice, just as labor strikes in the Great Depression won the New Deal. We can let our society slip into further social atomization, or we can use this opportunity to strengthen civil society and build collective social power through organizing while sheltering in place. We could accept going back to normal, though a diminished one, or imagine and create a new world.
Through our practice of social distancing, the pandemic is teaching us about our interdependence, as well as our agency. It teaches us that that our personal behavior, in concert with that of others, can make a difference. Let’s not forget this. Rather let’s extend our understanding of it, and realize that by joining with others in movements, we can make profound differences for everyone in our society.
What new possibilities can you envision for the world? What kind of world would you like to return to when this is over? How can you help make that a reality? Particularly, who can you work with? What organizations, local or national, could you join to help bring about your vision?