This Is Not the Apocalypse You Were Looking For

This is because late capitalism has always been a death cult. The tiny-minded incompetents in charge cannot handle a problem that can’t be fixed simply by sacrificing poor, vulnerable, and otherwise expendable individuals. Faced with a crisis they can’t solve with violence, they dithered and whined and wasted time that can and will be counted in corpses. There has been no vision, because these men never imagined the future beyond the image of themselves on top of the human heap, cast in gold. For weeks, the speeches from podiums have suggested that a certain amount of brutal death is a reasonable price for other people to pay to protect the current financial system. The airwaves have been full of spineless right-wing zealots so focused on putting the win in social Darwinism that they keep accidentally saying the quiet bit out loud.

The quiet bit is this: To the rich and stupid, many of the economic measures necessary to stop this virus are so unthinkable that it would be preferable for millions to die. This is extravagantly wrong on more than just a moral level—forcing sick and contagious people back to work to save Wall Street puts all of us at risk. It is not only easier for these overpromoted imbeciles to imagine the end of the world than a single restriction on capitalism—they would actively prefer it.

The right, of course, has never had a monopoly on catastrophist fever dreams. The idea of a cleansing armageddon that instantly erases all the awkward parts of modernity, all the weary years of work and compromise between where we are and where we’d like to be, is universal, and universally childish. I’ve spent far too much time listening to drunk hipsters with retro-Soviet facial hair tell me there’s no point in feminism or anti-racism, because all of that will be fixed after the giant, bloody workers’ revolution that is absolutely on the way, so really it doesn’t matter how we treat each other in the present. You can hear the same gleeful anticipation in the rhetoric of “dark-green” eco-fundamentalist groups, which right now are outpacing religious extremists in their rush to claim the coronavirus as nature’s revenge on humanity. If you are really so keen to be punished, there are websites for that. If you find yourself eager to see the whole species punished, that’s not a fetish, that’s fascism.

Social democracy is being reinstated in a hurry, because—to paraphrase Mrs. Thatcher—there really is no alternative. In the US, states are scrambling to support the 3.5 million workers who filed for unemployment in a single week. London’s homeless population, which had doubled in a decade, has been eradicated overnight. The National Health Service has run out of protective gear for doctors and nurses, and the British government has been too slow to restock—but a medical fetish porn site instantly donated its entire stock of scrubs and masks, because this is a big emergency, and we’re all doing what we can.

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Pop culture catastrophism didn’t prepare us for this. “Look, this isn’t a movie,” as one furious Italian mayor, broadcasting from his front room, put it last week. “You are not Will Smith in I Am Legend.” For one thing, it’s so relentlessly social. Most of our collective postapocalyptic visions have in common the fantasy of the world becoming smaller. Our heroes—usually white, straight men with traditional nuclear families to protect—are cut off from the rest of the world; the daydream is of finally shaking off the chains of civilization and becoming the valiant protector and/or tribal warrior they were made to be. And part of that catastrophe fantasy is relief—marauding biker gangs in bondage gear might want to murder you for half a tank of diesel and a sandwich, but at least you don’t have to worry about your credit history anymore. Or your college debt. Or your neighbors.

Instead, the world feels larger, not smaller. Right now, with over a third of the world on some sort of lockdown, with the entire world going through some version of the same crisis at once, we are suddenly frantic to touch one another. It seems more important to reconnect with friends. It seems more important than ever to be sweet and silly. We all know someone who’s stuck in a house by themselves, trying not to go bonkers. We all know someone who’s stuck in a house with someone awful, trying to survive the hotboxing of an already toxic relationship. And many of us, by now, know someone who’s sick.

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