This is the first in a series of columns on political life by James Duesterberg.
Being neither alive nor dead, nor even simply inert, a virus makes a bad enemy. How do you confront it? “We are at war,” politicians keep saying. But unlike a political opponent, the viral enemy can’t be banished or killed, or even really defeated. A virus is a vector, a force that we can only amplify or disrupt.
What then does a viral pandemic have to do with politics? A few weeks ago, I agreed to write a column surveying the scene of the 2020 presidential election. Since then, the names Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have all but vanished from major newspapers, and Donald Trump appears now not as a politician, but as an emperor who is either clothed or not. All that talk about ideas vs. electability, about choosing between competing visions of the future—that’s done. Now we hear only about flattening the curve, immunizing the herd, turning around the Dow.
Politics, too, can be a vector, and whatever else happens, this pandemic seems likely to accelerate the trend toward the collapse of postwar internationalism, the fortification of borders, and the return of an atavistic politics, grounded in fear. Quarantine has been the metonym for this change so far. But perhaps the most dramatic effect of the crisis is not the sealing-off of space, but the destruction of time, the scrambling of the rhythms through which we experience our days. Of course, crises usually seem sudden: one day, everyone is going about their business; the next, the world has changed. But the pandemic works differently. There is no big-e Event here—no assassination or election, no attack or earthquake—that breaks the flow of daily life and inserts us into a new reality. This time, it’s as if the mode by which singular events spread out into the world has itself become the event. The crisis is precisely that it is ongoing; the virus is going viral.
Try to picture the “before” and time slips away. On February 27th, when there were roughly 3,600 cases of COVID outside China, I booked a last-minute flight from New York to LA. During my six-hour layover in the Orlando airport I watched the stock market crash and Disneyworld tourists wander around in surgical masks; something was clearly wrong, but when I got to LA I continued on as normal, meeting friends, going to restaurants, touching my face. I could tell something was happening, but, when I look back now, it seems I had no idea what was coming.
At some point, it’s true, a bat flapped its wings, a pangolin sneezed and a shopper got sick at the Wuhan wet market, but this is not the point; the point is rather that a billion decisions between then and now added up to a crisis that has exploded the capacity to manage it—and that we can never say when, precisely, that point was.
It is this scrambling of temporal sequences, this loss of linear time—even as we are confined in space—that is most disorienting about this crisis. What does a day look like in self-quarantine? You wake up and dive immediately into the flow of images, numbers, and rhetoric. “Social distancing” means being online. You snack all day, or you play at being a housewife or -husband, or you plot against your roommate; the routine feels endless and unreal. Millions have lost their jobs and millions more will soon; others are in limbo, paid leave that may turn out to have been either a vacation or a furlough. The stock market collapses and your retirement plan is laid to waste; or you never had one, and now you never will.
But for many, the crisis is not exactly a disruption: it means work as before, but worse. If you are in any of the 21st-century growth industries—delivering food, driving for Uber, packing for Amazon, attending to the sick—you are under more pressure, and in a new type of danger. Your day was already blurred into gray: always on call, with no sense of start and finish, on or off. Life as usual is a waiting zone, a single, endless, homogeneous moment.
Work like this—detached from the diurnal rhythm—used to be exceptional, reserved for those tasked with managing, and traversing, the limits of human life: doctors and soldiers; artists, mothers, priests. Now that everything is an emergency—from hedge-fund margin calls to last-mile Amazon logistics—and every little moment demands curation, the exception has become the rule.
More and more often over the last few years I find myself sitting in front of my computer, having brought up a blank browser tab, trying to do something between remembering and anticipating. Was there a piece of information that some other piece of information had reminded me I wanted to check on? Or is there some new thing to find, some new chain whose links might lead to something unexpected? I sit there with my fingers hovering over the keyboard, Ouija-like, waiting to be moved by an impulse, or an algorithm. Now entire days seem to vanish into that waiting room. People compare the internet to a drug, but this is worse, or weirder: it’s like spending all day preparing your kit in case the desire for a fix were to hit you. It’s like wanting to kill time and being unable to find it.
If I look for the moment when days started to disappear like this, I cannot say it began with virus panic. Are the social effects of the pandemic a radical departure from the status quo, or a radical acceleration of it? The gig economy, like the internet, was supposed to liberate us both in work and in life by collapsing the distance between the two; when you live in the cloud, everything is “free time.” Over the last decade or so, the advance in mobile connectivity has pulled us into tighter and tighter orbit around a virtual realm promising pure freedom and pure productivity, where you can do anything from anywhere, ordering arepas while straightening your posture, trading oil futures and subletting your apartment.
This is a realm in which space doesn’t matter and time spreads out into an endless present—a video game played in a psychic basement, an endless quest for life power and gold coins. In such a world it might make sense to party on South Beach in the middle of the plague, or to demand, like Boeing, a government bailout equal to the amount of borrowed money that you paid yourself in share buybacks. Probably we will end up with a synthesis of the two: consumers will get bailed out so we can fly around forever, buying ever-newer iPhones, hoping we never crash. As Donald Trump keeps saying, “When this is all over, we’re gonna have a big party.”
A variety of edgy corona-thinkers—Catholic, poststructuralist, libertarian—have suggested that under quarantine we are sacrificing our higher, truer life out of an ignominious fear of death. But I think they miss the point. The game was up long ago; we haven’t shut down, we’ve burrowed in. If we’re going to get out, it will take more than just going back to normal.