Hell, like life, is mostly other people. The dilemma of the current moment is not in the end that it presents problems beyond the capacity of human ingenuity to solve: it is that it presents multiple problems simultaneously, competing, tearing at you like a pack of dogs. To face solely any one of those dangers and to make yourself vulnerable to the rest is foolishness, but each of us is exposed to different of these dangers at different times, and each of us remembers the wounds differently. The gift of representative government, in theory, is that it allows these competing views and interests to compete, comingle, collide out in the open instead of merely in the halls of state. But I suspect such government requires a degree of differentiation between the political as a sphere of life and the personal, an awareness that we each have a selfhood that enters into the public realm to speak and act on its own behalf, and are not each merely a group of opinions that occasionally also eats and falls asleep.
The problems of the current moment are beyond our capacity to solve (or to fail at and claim victory, or to muddle through haphazardly), because the personal at this point has taken on a status simultaneously subsidiary and supreme: our experiences as individuals are of value solely such that they can be harnessed to pull along our views, and views can be justified solely as an reflection of the appropriate types of individual experience. Only the exceptional forms of life are allowable to persist. (That we are all exceptions is what we sooner or later decide.)
The lawman brings law to the territory, but he is prior to the law- the shadow of a hat, two boots, a gun under which the rest of the territory can get on with its business. That he might turn his gun on them and their business is of course known; that they would have no business to get on with is, or at least was, not. The sinners in the saloon drinking and card-playing; the saved at church and in the general stores: all might gather at the windows to watch the drama of whose gun and whose shadow will rule, but then they sigh on back to their prayers and their drinks. The permanent state of exception arrives not when the justice or rule of the lawman is put in doubt but when there is no ordinary life to go back to.
Some loss of economic activity in our current downturn, some loss of the ordinary business of life, is forced by heavy handed regulation, some is driven by fear of the virus, some by people having less money in their pockets. But a big chunk is that demand in a post-industrial society is a creation of shared phantasms that can vanish in an instant. “Why did people suddenly stop caring about Marvel movies and start throwing Molotov cocktails at cop cars?” Why, indeed.
Power in the late 20th century United States accrued to places embodying mass fantasy- the Hollywoods, Harvards, New York City. But now fantasy has vacated those lands: New York City is an abandoned movie set, Harvard a YouTube channel, Hollywood in an induced coma. The dreams you were taught and were told you’d one day be invited to join- are not just false (when were they not) but empty, disbelieved in by all, home now to Zoom monkeys jostling for a two-dimensional simulation of status and an atavistic cargo cults of civil rights. The pandemic and shutdowns exposed the lie behind the default assumption that a young person should leave home, go to college, move to the city, live by herself or with friends indefinitely, with each step another iteration of the dreams of endless individual becoming. If the pandemic teaches anything it is that nobody owes you anything, except the people who are stuck with you when the world shuts down: by and large this means your family.
There’s a cliché of recent years that the language of progressivism privileges those with the privileges to master it; true enough, but the main people it privileges is those who don’t have anything to hurt their heads- no kids, lives, families, responsibilities to return to from the world of the political. As people have fewer private obligations, not only does a language that represents social relations in solely abstract terms become more appealing to them, but their capacity to adopt this language increases because the costs are less real. The intersectional ideology of progressivism favors whose ties to past, family, identity do not interfere with the favored narratives being sold at any one time. Thus those – transracial, transgender, transclass, etc- who have deliberately severed their self-continuity often appear its fastest adherents. This is perhaps also why the language of the currently dominant ideology tends simultaneously towards revolutionary insurrection and a defense of institutional power: the people most isolated and atomized will be both eager for institutional validation while also happy to burn everything else down.
Starting in June, we have been instructed that we are in Year Zero, a new world without history, where all trace of the old must be wiped from the face of the earth, a sprit of vengeful madness. The ordinary business of life, put on hold for the pandemic, had no standing to demand its return.
As we approach the election, each day will offer more disruption, more confusion, more noise, more incoherence, an iterative intensification that may not end anytime soon. If you believe that the set of social arrangements being promulgated is unstable over even the shortest time horizon, the wisest course may yet be not to argue against their spread but to get far away, to make for the territory, intellectually or socially or physically. An endless game of Calvinball- in which rules are continuously rewritten ad hoc, and the game is not to play but to make up the rules- will be interesting for some, forever, and will pay some for its continuance- but for most it is better to walk away. If that cannot be done- if you are obligated by vocation or location or the expanse of the all-seeing, all-telling internet into every corner of your life- to keep playing forever a game you will never influence or understand, the risks will be great not just to the quality of daily existence but to your sense of self as continuous and integral over time. The task to come will be to find ways to see in yourself, your tasks, your immediate circle of human beings who are your life, as your own, that which is persistent, turn away from the dueling shadows to the endless grasses that wave in the timeless wind.