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Quarantine Dream

“Well this was unexpected” I say to myself in strangely vertiginous moment of calm. But then this exclamation is followed by a doubt, a question, was it? Was a global pandemic like this ever actually that far away, isn’t it true that for some time now it has been reasonable to suspect a crisis of some magnitude to befall the global economy, virus or no virus? The possibility of a normality-shattering crisis has lain at some indistinct moment arguably for a decade now. It was a question of when, not if it would arrive.

This doesn’t really do as much as we’d like to think to prepare us for its moment of arrival. As Jodi Dean observed poignantly on Twitter, no amount of dystopian fiction prepares you for the sadness of collapse, and in this vein no amount of theory prepares you for the events of history to play out in front of your eyes. Perhaps there is something of this to the immediate and widely derided responses of various theorists, from Agamben to Badiou, not to mention the almost impossibly fast announcement of a new book by Zizek on the coronavirus pandemic. Where do these academics of varying fame find themselves in the progression of events? Arguably, nowhere. They, like the rest of us, are simply swept up within them, whether they are pantomime performer or lecturer. Their comments, while previously more welcome, now have a tendency to come off as hackneyed, detached responses from people who have spent too long staring at the same piece of paper. Sure, we could apply the analysis that holds the virus as the confrontation of capital with its suppressed Real, and perhaps it holds, but in some sense, it all seems to be a bit obvious, and more to the point it tells us nothing of how to handle it, how to proceed from this moment, even the minutiae of living under it.

Part of the problem with tackling events this time around is quite how simultaneously real and unreal they seem, evoking in one breath a million fictional pandemics, zombie outbreaks and collapse scenarios, but in its horrifying, alienating reality outstripping any of them. Only a month ago, the idea Europe would now be in an effective quarantine scenario would have sounded outlandish, more like some kind of alternative history series than current affairs. The notion that nothing really happens here, that epidemics, wars, social collapse are things that happen in other places, the “third world”, had set in deeper than we could possibly imagine, a bubble of western exceptionalism that was inexplicably supposed to keep us safe from the ravages of the world. There was never really any reason to think that “normality”, as in the rhythms and flows of daily life, would continue unabated indefinitely, even if its sudden imposition means that the eventual disruption was nigh impossible to plan for.

All of this means in all likelihood that a lot will have changed on the other side of this crisis, the co-ordinates will shift, in fact they already have [What Brexit?] but it’s entirely unclear at this stage to whose benefit and to what end. It’s possible, yes, that the floor may be opened for a number of previously maligned socialist policies and ideas, but just as likely, indeed the pessimist in me suggests more so, that the far right will gain more from all this. It’s not hard to see how an argument for hard borders can be constructed from the emergence of the pandemic, as much as for UBI or other measures. The left should be careful in our pronouncements, and remind ourselves of the current stakes of power. While the virus and its reaction is demolishing our unchecked notions of capitalist normality, in some quarters it only seems to be more fuel for the fire of anti-leftist contempt. In light of all this, before any grand calls for building a utopia from the ashes, I will hold my tongue. Reality is too violent and mercurial to fashion as we would wish.

And so I’m left to read through the rest of Adorno’s Minima Moralia, a text that I’m finding takes on a strange relevance at a time like this. Adorno’s famous miserablist outlook, aphorism after aphorism, seeming to make a morbid degree of sense in the current climate. That famous quote of his from a Spiegel interview has come back to me repeatedly. Two weeks ago, the world seemed in order, well, not to me… I don’t mean, and I doubt Adorno did, to single myself out for some kind of special awareness here, but something Adorno really strikes at, more than a lot of Marxist thinkers I’ve read, and even in his most questionable moments, is the horror and death that not only lies underneath but facilitates our comfort. It’s why, while I understand our wish in these situations for a return to normal, that it would all go away, this wish is also predicated on a kind of exceptionalism. We expect to live in a bubble for which others must die. Not only this, but their deaths are invisible, buried, easily ignored. The kind of stark inequality and societal violence that oils the cogs in the quotidian monolith of capitalist routine becomes a horror we can’t collectively turn away from at times like this. Society returns with a vengeance in conditions of isolation.

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Moving Around

It feels like it’s been a while since I posted anything here, much to my discontent… this has largely coincided with my moving into a new flat, an event that has been surreal and stressful not just because of the usual reasons but also because it was involuntary. Indeed the whole process has put somewhat into perspective just how the private rental system, something that vast amounts of young people now find themselves interminably caught within, stacks the benefits in favour of Landlords, tenants being forced to live under the constant threat of eviction, not necessarily any fault of their own and something that while a minor inconvenience for the Landlord, requires their tenants to effectively turn their life upside down on a whim.

There’s something else about moving, beyond the flagrant power dynamics at play… I have found myself in past few years moving around this city incessantly, and this has a strong relationship with my state of mind during this time. As, for about a year, I found myself sinking into a slow depression and despondency, I have realised on reflection that it was largely due to my surroundings, that my mental distress was inexorably connected to place and influence; it became a matter of necessity to extricate myself from that position or rapidly unravel to the point of no return.

Gradually, since then, I have been thinking through and coming to terms with this period of my life, as much connected to feelings of guilt as to a lot of emotions that at the time I could not explain, but since I have been able to effectively hold under a microscope and analyse. It’s not that I have entirely “healed” or anything so total, but that I have come to understand my position within the outside world and the things that led me towards certain points. The central mistake, one made all too often, is simply to attribute these dark episodes and struggles with identity throughout ones life with some pure inner cause, as if there is some mental interiority that drives our actions disconnected from outside influence. The effect of this is ultimately to cloud an understanding of these actions and the network that influences and/or controls them.

I’ve lately followed up on the work of radical therapist David Smail, a practitioner who really focussed on the social and political contexts of mental health, the way that our inner psychologies are effected by outside power dynamics. Reading through some of his work I found set forward clearly the ways in which our individual psychology is placed within a wider socio-political framework, of power and economic necessity, that we should resist the attempts to individualise these issues that emerged largely in tandem with Thatcherite, Neoliberal attitudes wherein the individual takes precedent over his or her place in society, where the entrepreneurial ideal of the intrepid individual making a name for themselves in a competitive world covers over a systematic and extensive dismantling of systems of solidarity, consciousness and social security, nothing less than a war on collectivity, and one that led to a revolution in capitalism, not just in economic organisation, but the very way we think about and approach the world. Competition, we are led to believe, is now in our very DNA.

There’s quote from Margaret Thatcher Franco Berardi uses in his book Futurability that sets out quite how extensive this war was intended to be;


“What’s irritated me about the whole direction of politics in the last 30 years is that it’s always been towards the collectivist society. People have forgotten about the personal society. And they say: do I count, do I matter? To which the short answer is, yes. And therefore, it isn’t that I set out on economic policies; it’s that I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.

Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul“. Berardi rightly points out that this places Neoliberalism not as merely economic, but practically spiritual doctrine. The aim here was not simply material reform, but a rewiring of the social brain towards the valorization of individual economic concerns, and to this end we saw the consolidation of the ruling classes and the pacification of their subordinates via the promise of greatness, the assurance that “if you put in the hard work you can get here too”.

In terms of issues such as mental distress, this sees its effect in what Mark Fisher termed the “privatization of stress”. What becomes important then in this scenario where we have all become separated into our little cocoons, medicated to the eyeballs, plied with promises that we can all make it better through force of will, is solidarity. The simple act of understanding, offering support, as vapid and simple as it may sound, is hugely important to counter the loneliness of the connected world. It is precisely when we have been shorn off from the social, when we have succumbed to the illusion of autonomous individuality decoupled from mechanisms of power, that we are deprived of the ability to shape our surroundings. Something that I find is repeatedly missed by those who place great emphasis on self-improvement is the simple realisation that any semblance of hard work improving ones own well-being is only truly possible or meaningful given the autonomy that arises from power, a comfortable position in society. It is not, in fact, our own willpower that drives our ability to improve, but overwhelmingly socio-economic conditions.

In my own case it is certainly true that I’ve managed to extricate myself from an awful situation and now find myself in a better state of mind than I have ever been, but it’s been notable that at every turn the structures of society have provided obstacles, hurdles and fences to this progress, and indeed that this improvement was in reality not down to some sheer willpower on my part as much as it was the people around me and coming to understand my position in relation to the other within the neural network. It is in this sense mistaken to argue that a politicization of mental distress is some kind of undermining of autonomy, taking it out of the equation entirely; indeed it is more accurate to argue that, in taking into account the outside world and our place within it we salvage the idea of autonomy from individualist theology, placing the emphasis, instead of on some mythical will-power, on our connection to and influence from the outside.

It is worth mentioning now, as we stand on particularly shaky ground, as the flaring up of a new fascism and the hope of a new socialism pull in opposing directions, that our mental distress, our inner commentary, our social voice is not some magical wellspring that emerges from the subconscious, and that just as the earth beneath our feet cracks and shudders, so does our state of mind. It is not through what Smail terms “magical voluntarism” the faith that, through some magical force of will, through “positive thinking” or personal strength, through a number of incantations found in self-help texts, that we will build a future that works, and find our way out of the labyrinthine horrors of our psychological impasses, but through the building of a new sociability, a collective subject to invert the theological reliance upon the transcendental individual.

All this aside, I’m excited to be back to blogging. Writing here really is quite valuable and whenever I cease to do so regularly I admit I fall mildly into a vague despondency. While blogging networks now are somewhat buried and difficult to excavate in certain regards, being present within a wider conversation at all, and creating/adding to an ever-shifting entity is something I’m immensely thankful to have at my disposal; again it’s not through some magical willpower that I have dragged myself out of the murk, but through connecting to something larger, becoming part of a purpose. While blogging isn’t the be all end all, and I would dearly love to set in motion some projects that I’ve had kicking around my brain for some time now, it provides me with a much needed outlet and a sense that what I’m writing will actually reach someone. After what feels like much too great of an absence, I look forward to sinking my teeth into some upcoming posts, especially given the most interesting and changeable political landscape we’ve seen in decades playing out as I speak. More on that later.