Just weeks into the coronavirus crisis, the lieutenant governor of Texas claimed on national television that Americans over seventy would gladly sacrifice their lives to the coronavirus so the rest of us could go back to business as usual. Let’s be clear: an elected official publicly suggested that the genocide of fellow citizens by wilful self-annihilation would be an acceptable quick fix for our economic crisis. The response to this kind of murderous thinking should be mass protest, if not revolution. Instead, the idea quickly caught fire with more and more pundits, including our President who waved off the projected deaths of 100,000 Americans as though it were a nuisance. Today those deaths are an obscene reality.
The political theorist Hannah Arendt had a name for this phenomenon: “world alienation,” a situation in which great numbers of people, despite living in plain sight of one another, have seemingly lost all sense of sharing a common world. Some aspects of world alienation are on display when thousands of people sit at a beach sunbathing during a pandemic; when people hoard food and goods when no actual shortage exists; when the representative leader of our country perceives the statistics of viral infection as a statement on his ego. In all these instances, people are so deeply alienated from the material realities in front of them—including the vulnerability of fellow citizens and the similar needs of others for food and shelter—they cannot comprehend that the value of any single life is found in its relations with others.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus disaster has been unfolding while millions of us are glued to screens, desperately seeking information, taxed to the limit of our emotional and financial resources for developing networks of care in the absence of any social safety net, and feeling politically powerless. The reality quickly set in that we couldn’t even exercise the basic freedom of assembly to revolt against official policies that are so reckless they look almost like formalized murder, since we might become unwitting killers of others by spreading a virus. The national outpouring of legitimate public rage at the murder of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, signalled the moment when, for thousands of us, the threat of a virus was suddenly outweighed by our furious refusal to be chocked to death by our own society’s monstrous disregard for human life.
More than half a century ago, Arendt clearly saw where we were headed. In the final pages of her 1957 masterpiece The Human Condition, she made this terrifying prediction: “The last stage of the laboring society, the society of jobholders, demands of its members a sheer automatic functioning, as though…the only active decision still required of the individual were to…acquiesce in a dazed, ‘tranquilized,’ functional type of behavior….It is quite conceivable that the modern age…may end in the deadliest, most sterile passivity history has ever known.[i]” Arendt was acutely aware of the fact that under capitalism, every political capacity that human beings share—capacities of the imagination, of judging ethically, of acting in concert—had become less important than the basic ability to make enough money to maintain one’s biological survival. She noted that modern Western governments had become so disinterested in providing for the basic human necessities of their people, that now individual citizens were consumed not with public affairs or collective governing, but with maintaining their access to shelter, food, and maybe a little bit of pleasure (think “buying stuff”). Under these conditions “man is thrown back upon himself” and left with nothing but his own needs. As a result, we become murderously passive and more easily capable of destroying the lives of others, not out of genuine wickedness or hatred but simply so that we may keep living.
When I first heard the phrase “social distancing” (quickly evolving into the more concrete “physical distancing”), I couldn’t help but think of it as a symptom of world alienation. What could be a more depressing analogy for the fact that we are so politically polarized and so isolated from people who think differently from ourselves, than to have to literally stand six feet apart from everyone? But as I continued to read Arendt, I realized that the demand to physically distance from others, the sudden slowing down of the pace of work and “productive” activity, might be exactly what is necessary to combat the condition of world alienation, rather than an expression of it. This time apart could potentially make us intensely closer, now and in the future, and even prepare us for genuine political action by allowing us to think about our bonds and our responsibilities toward one another in a sustained way.
Nothing guarantees that any good will come out of a long period of separation from fellow citizens, but without it we can’t genuinely examine what we have been doing and how we have allowed ourselves to arrive at this terrifying moment of murderous passivity. When we are physically distanced from one another, the effort required to reach out and connect is tremendous. That effort reminds us of the world we share since it demands we bridge the distances dividing us in a million imaginative ways. Over these past months, many haven’t had the luxury to do this kind examination while they sell us our groceries, treat the sick, and maintain our basic human services. The fact that some of us have been gifted with this unusual, and perhaps unwelcome, freedom means we have an extraordinary opportunity to regroup on behalf of all of us.
In her essay, “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” Arendt suggested that times of crisis—the rise of a totalitarian government, the collapse of an economy, the outbreak of a pandemic—are often preceded by the unraveling of the moral fabric of a society. Old moral and ethical values that seemed universally solid and everlasting (the commandment not to kill, the value of trusting authority etc.) suddenly have no meaning and are even totally reversed. More disconcerting still, these moments reveal that by relying on the idea of a universally shared moral standard of conduct—by assuming that everyone has generally been following prescribed moral rules like not killing, lying, or stealing—we become complacent and ignore all the signs of our culture’s moral bankruptcy. When the façade breaks down, we are left with no code or universal standard, but simply our own capacity to judge what counts as “good” or “ethical” behavior in relation to immediate and unpredictable situations.
This is precisely what we are experiencing now: if we are overwhelmed by the uncertainty of a global pandemic, if we feel groundless in the face of unrelenting racism, state violence, and income inequality, it is because we have been waiting for a central authority to tell us how to be good, and the directives are not forthcoming. The fact that the American economy can collapse in the span of just two weeks under the weight of any large-scale crisis tells us just how fragile this bulwark of U.S. political might really is. What this fragility should remind us is that there is no transcendent institution, elected official, ideology, moral code, or political party that we can rely on to provide us with universal codes of conduct or a blueprint of how to do and be good. Consider that when the economy is the measure of the collective good, mass death (of Black Americans, the elderly, the disabled, or any population deemed lacking in value or productive potential) becomes a reasonable option to preserve its functioning. In moments like these, Arendt reminds us, all the moral codes we thought were self-evident—like not letting people die—are overturned overnight. The problem we are facing now is not the virus but the complete lack of institutional networks of care under a capitalist system that pits all of us against one another in a winner-take-all game where the stakes are our very lives. But how have we remained so loyal to a government that abandoned us long ago? How are we still attached to hope and longing for a morally ethical two-party system that will save us? The answer is: help is not coming. We don’t need a universal ethical code to guide us; we need to look at each other, see what we need, and cultivate our capacity to judge each situation that comes up while being informed by each other’s perspectives.
Terrible as moments of large-scale crisis might be, Arendt pointed out that these instances are exactly when thinking suddenly has a renewed value and meaning. At the height of the Nazi regime, those people who refused to participate in their government’s policies of mass murder resisted by thinking seriously about what it would mean after the conflict was over to have joined the ranks of evil: “To put it crudely, they refused to murder, not so much because they still held fast to the command ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but because they were unwilling to live together with the murderer—themselves.”[ii] The inability or outright refusal of so many of us to simply stop what we were doing quickly and decisively, to take a break from group brunches, beach hangouts, and professional conferences to halt the spread of a killing virus, tells us something about how difficult it is for members of a job-holding society to suspend doing and start thinking. Most of us only started to question our choices, and their consequences for other people’s well-being, when chaos had descended upon all our lives and we weren’t sure if we were going to have enough to eat for two weeks at home. In this moment of suspension, we might ask ourselves: if we want to live so desperately, what world are we living for?
Our recent collective protests against white supremacy and state violence provide one answer to this question: a world where we can pursue freedom, which is nothing more and nothing less that the capacity of people to act in concert to change the conditions of their existence. Arendt argued that what we call “sovereignty,” the idea of individual liberty or agency, is the opposite of freedom, “because not one man, but men, inhabit the earth.”[iii] She is saying to all of us, personal-liberty obsessed Americans, that individual liberty is not freedom, because it is a fantasy of living in a world without others, which means being enslaved to ourselves, alone in the world. This is an apt description of those leaders who have claimed throughout this crisis that maintaining individual liberties to shop and eat out is more important than ensuring our future ability to engage in public civic life. We should strive to live not simply because life itself—the bare fact of our ability to keep breathing—is the greatest good, but to maintain human freedom for ourselves and future generations. Because freedom cannot exist if no people remain to enact it together.
The idea that some should die so that others can financially benefit has been the devil’s bargain at the core of American politics since Black Americans and Indigenous people were sacrificed for the benefit of those settlers and so-called revolutionaries who founded the country. As the events of May 25 and after make glaringly clear, these betrayals have never left our national fabric; they persist in the seemingly endless dehumanization of people sacrificed to profit. Elizabeth Povinelli uses the phrase “rotting worlds” to describe the slow but violent deterioration of the lives of populations deemed expendable in advanced democracies. So that some of us can experience upward mobility, civil liberties, and economic security, entire groups—African and Indigenous Americans, the elderly, and the unemployed poor—are denied health care, financial resources, networks of care, and general human decency. But if a society is built on the rotting away of some people’s lives, it means human disposability is normal and acceptable, and ultimately a possible fate of anyone and everyone.
The interests of the Black community are everyone’s interests, not simply because cross-racial solidarity is nice or feels good or is the right thing to do (though it can be all three), but because when some of us are in mortal danger, all of us are. This is #blacklivesmatters. That phrase says: when the lives of those most denigrated and despised are uplifted and valued, we collectively thrive. No amount of economic success, accumulated wealth or upward mobility for the few has been able to compensate for the collective loss of our political power, not the power to control others but the power that “springs up between men” when they act together to change the conditions of their existence.
If real political power has ever existed in this country, it is only in the brief flashes of social protest and government intervention to resist that founding violence: the short-lived but radical redistribution of wealth during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s and the movements for Civil Rights, Black Power, women’s and gay liberation, and third world freedom that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s were rare and potent expressions of this kind of collective action. Under The New Deal, the government took responsibility for job creation, re-training thousands of jobless Americans to build and maintain parks, roads, and bridges, and funded artists to infuse American culture with new ideas, images, and stories of collective life. Imagine today if millions of people were trained and employed by the government to make effective masks, construct medical equipment, and repair our collapsing infrastructure? And in the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s American youth collectively demanded the expansion of civil liberties to all citizens, protested government corruption and illegal foreign wars, and invented new political strategies for enacting social change. These histories recall people coming together to found new political bodies and policies, to refuse to place the image of America above the actual living and thriving of real humans who inhabit the Earth together.
In the last speech she gave before she died in 1975, Arendt lamented that the Watergate scandal and the fiasco of the Vietnam War had revealed the American political structure to be a massive advertising firm obsessed with image-making over collective governance. The U.S. had spent hundreds of millions of dollars, destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives, and sown global economic and political chaos merely for the sake of maintaining the image of its global political power, even in the actual absence of legitimate authority.
If we find ourselves shocked by the Trump administration’s complete lack of interest in pandemic preparedness, we shouldn’t be. Since at least the Vietnam War, the U.S. government has functioned less as a representative democracy and more like a public relations firm managing its domestic and global image. We might ask where all of our tax-payer funds have gone in the last six decades, if not to a substantial social safety net, to strengthening our infrastructure, or to building stronger local government. One answer: we have been paying for a fraudulent, global advertising campaign selling the idea of American power, while in reality there are only hollow expressions of force and violence.
To refuse to fund pandemic preparedness is not necessarily a partisan choice. Conservatives are heavily in favor of funding national security and the military—two central aspects of an ad campaign to sell the idea of American strength to the world. Refusing to fund pandemic relief or blocking the smooth operation of organizations like the CDC, is a way of saying that the government values projecting the image of American invulnerability or immunity more than responding to the reality that we are human and can get sick, hurt, and die.
A government trying to maintain the bare image of political “aliveness” or health, rather than actually governing with the interest of helping its people flourish, is a like the state’s version of each of us just trying to stay alive in a mad dash of grocery shopping instead of thoughtfully sharing and disturbing food among ourselves. At both scales, the desperate need to survive, to maintain the image of vitality, has become more important than any actual sense of the world as a complex network of relationships to which we belong. We can see this delusional thinking in the government’s complete lack of interest in understanding the demands of protesters who have legitimate grievances against barbaric inequality; we see it in the denouncement of looting without any curiosity about why people without basic resources might be inclined to steal; we see it in our own public outrage against racist acts on social media, without knowing how to implement long-lasting institutional change. Delusion is not unique to any political party, since in one way or another all of us across the political spectrum are convinced we do not live in the same world together.
Arendt once wrote that the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik, the first human technology to successfully be shot into space in 1957, was arguably the most significant event of the modern era.[iv] This was because the fantasy that we might colonize an uncharted universe signaled the most extreme world alienation humankind had ever known. People could only fantasize about fleeing the planet Earth, she explained, when they had become so alienated from the world they held in common, that they wanted to escape the very ground beneath their feet.
If we first imagined fleeing the Earth, today we fantasize about fleeing our bodies altogether by making Zoom meetings, FaceTime chats, and long-distance phone calls our dominant mode of interaction. But the fact is that until we become pure ether and light, or develop the capacity for telepathy, we still inhabit flesh-and-blood bodies. Our body is the organ through which we can even register living on the planet, and sharing it. The power of people assembled together in public is irreplaceable by machines or digital networks. Most of us know this intuitively, and it is why we are all spending hours on the phone, joining video conferences and virtual dance parties, trying to make up for the temporary loss of physical proximity by maximizing points of connection with people’s voices, faces, and imaginary presence. It is also why after months of isolation, people have taken to the streets to denounce black death and celebrate collective democratic life in the company of their friends and fellow citizens, because the visceral, physical feel of being together is life itself.
One view would see “physical distancing” not merely as a medical protocol in particular circumstances, but as a new norm of life. This would be exactly like Arendt’s description of those in a job-holding society who function in a “dazed” and “tranquilized” manner accepting their fate as part of the natural order of things. Viruses have no consciousness; they do not have “intentions” or ill will. They move by an involuntary process and have no feelings toward those they infect. If we are being forced to slow down, it is because we have created systems and institutions that are not serving us when we get sick; because we have become alienated from one another and our world to the point that we cannot process the life and death of other people as having meaning; and because we are all simply exhausted from the emotional toll of that dehumanization.
We should be far less terrified of a virus—a grave concern no doubt, and likely a historical trauma of vast dimensions, but ultimately one we are capable of responding to—and more of our extraordinary willingness to give up our hold on the shared world, to give up almost without a fight our ability to think, to judge, to act in concert. If any of us for an instant think that allowing some people to die to float our economy is the lesser of two evils, we should remember what Arendt tells us, namely that “politically, the weakness of the argument has always been that those who choose the lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil.” More importantly, “the acceptance of lesser evils consciously [conditions] government officials as well as the population at large to the acceptance of evil as such.”[v]
Those with the means of force or violence (what Arendt saw as false power) will find a million reasons to use this crisis as a moment to reassert domination, to claim that dictatorship, tyranny and undemocratic power are necessary for order and stability. The rest of us only need one reason to refuse them, and that is freedom itself, not in the sense of personal liberty or sovereignty, but involving our collective capacity to refuse, to judge, to decide to act together at every scale.[vi]
[i] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, (1998 ), 322.
[ii] “Personal Responsibility,” 44.
[iii] Human Condition, 234.
[iv] Human Condition, 1-2.
[v] “Personal Responsibility,” 37.
[vi] Ibid, 222.