Can We Learn to Live Well in the Pandemic? Kill Debt.

This pandemic is historic, unprecedented and a national emergency. We are reminded of risk, danger and threats everywhere. Because the virus spreads easily, asymptomatically and has such a long incubation period we live at social distance in a constant state of anxiety. Because we have little testing and contract tracing we have few tools for knowing. This is getting old and acceptance is more difficult than disbelief in an environment with so little trust.

It is, frankly, understandable to me that some among us would want to ignore rules, not wear masks, pull out their guns, walk into the street, and want to say fuck this.

It’s fascinating to me, however, that a high percentage of those people threaten both their local communities and attack the government at the same time. They seem to truly have no safe place of security. They do not see the connections: between people, between humans and their environments, between humans and the new virus.

I think Bruno Latour is right, they just want to get out of this world entirely. Their rocket fuel is the simple language of othering–the governor of Michigan, “the Chinese,” etc.

The other day when my class discussed some of these topics in relation to Latour’s book, Down to Earth, I asked them what they needed most right now. They responded with a variety of things, but the majority were focused on care, safety, and some kind of basic security. They didn’t say they needed more things. If they needed work it was only as a pathway to some kind of security.

The Economy has always been outside us. It has always been “out of the world.” Perhaps instead of worrying about the Economy as a proxy for how well our society is doing, we could think in another direction.

Is it possible to think about institutions and politics that promote safety and well-being as a measure? What does it look like to build trust and acceptance of where we are and govern from there? Rather than wait for a normal to return that was always abnormal for many, how do we move to a new normal? If we are honest the old normal kinda sucked in lots of ways. For now the normal means learning to live well and perhaps die well in the pandemic.

Of course, we are going to have a hard time getting anywhere if we are laid off and trying to feed our families and our rent or, conversely, packing our days with Zoom meetings, remote teaching and trying to virtually achieve all of the things we did before. Exhausted then, there is only rest in Netflix and Animal Crossing.

It’s almost as if at this moment of crisis when things could actually change, we are keeping ourselves so busy that we can’t actually take time to think in new ways.

I’m starting to think that the first step is a debt jubilee. If there is one thing David Graeber taught us in his masterful study on debt, is that it doesn’t exist except as a sociocultural reckoning of relations between people backed by the threat of violence. As such it can be erased by social consensus. We know this is true because we have seen it happen in our lifetimes—but mostly to large corporations and not individuals. Because it is assumed that corporate welfare is better for The Economy.

Debt are the ties that create the insecurity that powered the old system. Remove debt and we remove a large amount of fear and we create a greater sense of safety and security. We free up actual human lives. Of course, we also remove the incentive of fear that keeps many tied to The Economy, so those who profit from the ties of debt will surely cry out that it is unfair. But that is surely because they are incapable of care.

So I’ll just leave this here: the first step must be to kill debt.

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