I’m writing this in a dimly lit, quiet room, because I want my thoughts to be gathered and to be free of distractions. It’s time to write this post.
I’ve been intending to write it for weeks now, but every day it seems as though I ought to wait one more day. To see just a tiny bit more. To hunt for the firefly, the touch of light, in the darkness.
But it’s time.
— § —
I’ve heard a few people say that we’re living in “interesting times” recently. That’s not true. These are not interesting times. These are epochal times. We are living through events greater in import than the fall of the Soviet Union or the Vietnam War.
The public is of course largely oblivious to what’s to come, which may be a blessing, albeit one that can only last for so long. They look around and see that things are stressful, worrying, maybe even bad, but also note that most of the things that they take for granted in life are still there, still unchanged, and draw from this the mistaken conclusion that all will be well. That there may be some uncomfortable changes, but that on the whole things are going to be familiar.
The die is cast. No matter what happens now, the die is cast. A chain of events has been set in motion whose full effects will only dawn on us over the course of decades, possibly centuries, though most will begin to realize that something big has happened within a year.
The discovery of the novel coronavirus of 2019, and the disease that it causes, COVID-19, is a seminal historical event. For generations now creative people, young people, people with imagination and whimsy have mused around the coffee table about what would happen to earth and the societies on it if aliens were to arrive here one day.
The aliens have arrived.
I was a bit embarrassed at times as I wrote my last few posts because they seemed so much more alarmed than did members of the general public, and after all, I’m not a medical doctor or a virologist or any other kind of expert on pathogens, so what did I know, and maybe I had it wrong, and so on.
But I’ve realized over the last few days, slowly at first, and now completely, that the alarm that I felt wasn’t ill-informed. I am, after all, a sociologist. I do know something about how large-scale societies and their members live, breathe, evolve, grow, and die from the macro perspective.
— § —
What I saw very early on was that the single largest manufacturing center of the world was being slowed, strained, and then brought entirely to a halt by an alien invader—for weeks and weeks, and with no end to the threat in sight.
After so many years studying societies in particular and the globe as a whole, what my instincts told me without my having to run any actual numbers was that the consequences would be immense.
Now? Now virtually every major economy in the world is facing the same challenge, and either taking or about to take the same steps. There are seven billion people on this planet, half of whom have grown accustomed to a certain kind of life—habits of social interaction, expectations of production and consumption, understandings of local and international geography, and so on—that has already been arrested, killed.
And like any organism, the organism of global society has a life force that can’t be stopped and re-started at will. When metabolism stops, the organism dies. It can’t be resurrected. A new one has to be grown. Sure, for a few moments remnant metabolic processies here and there throughout the body will continue. And the hair and nails will grow, and the body will remain warm, and so on.
But the organism is dead.
The beating hard of 20th century global society has stopped. It will not be restarted again—not in the same way. All that is left is for the body to gradually grow cold in the coming months. And then, we will wake up and realize that we face an unfamiliar world.
— § —
The events that have already occured are a catalyst, a global catalyst injected into the ongoing reaction of global human life. This catalyst will accelerate every trend that we have observed in recent years—trends that we already understood to be considerably accelerated relative to the ways in which trends behaved just a century or two ago.
These accelerated trends include:
Climate change (you think I’m wrong about this on the data, but talk to me again in ten years)
Wealth inequality and health inequality
Automation on the one hand and unwork on the other
The collapse of the West and the rise of the East as the “center” of the geosociopolitical world
The overtaking of embodied life by virtual life
The loss of traditional cultures (note that I include here 20th century American culture)
There are more, but that’s a taste at least.
— § —
We will also lose many people. This will be formative not just for the societies that emerge on the other side but, naturally and as both effect and cause, for the individuals in those societies.
There has been much talk of the generation that was shaped by the financial crisis of 2008. But in real terms, life continued very much as it had. Those who came of age in 2008 lived through the end of financial security, of the expectation of increased wealth.
Those who come of age in the months and handful of years to come will live through the loss of many dear people, the loss of the places that they went and the things that they did, of the local landscape, of their place in the world, yes also of financial security and not only financial security but in fact food security, health security, and in many cases housing security.
In comparison, 2008 was nothing. A blip on the radar. What is coming is not a speed bump, a correction, even a depression.
What is coming is an epochal shift. Not a stock market crash. Not even the collapse of a single country like the USSR. What we’re in the middle of is of the same order as the Reformation, the Fall of Rome, Industrialization.
Those of us that are already adults will be like Walter Benjamin’s veterans returning from war to a world in which only the sky above their heads remained unchanged, in which every other single thing was foreign, uncomfortable, shocking, perhaps even frightening.
When the war is over, there will be no home to come to. Not as we knew it.
— § —
And so little of this is about the disease itself. We have the disease itself to contend with on top of everything else. The pathogen, the fear, the death, the corrective in our understanding of our place in nature and our capabilities and limitations as a species.
And note well—all of this has been my light-to-moderate read on things. The severe and worst-case read on things… I won’t write. Because I have to get up in the morning and live.
— § —
Am I totally wrong about things?
I’d love to be. Let’s say that I certainly hope so.
But when the whole world was unconcerned with China in January, I was silently alarmed. When the whole world was saying that the risk was low in February, I had already gone ought and bought months and months worth of supplies, and began to track the numbers every night—not just the infection numbers, but the financial numbers, the logistics numbers, the shipping numbers, and so on—began to wonder for the first time in my life whether it might not be irresponsible as a parent to not own a firearm, perhaps even several of them. Things are going to change. Slowly at first, and then entirely.
Let’s hope reality decides to deliver to us a miracle and that I’m wrong, or vastly overestimating things.
But sadly, I doubt I am.
The feeling of helplessness and quiet, lazy dread—it’s remarkable. I’ve never known anything quite like it. But there will be a lot of things we’ve never known to familiarize ourselves with in the days and weeks to come.