SCENE I: TAKEOVER
Man has known and now he's blown it
Upside down and hell's the only sound, we did an awful job
And now we're just a little too late
—Aerosmith, “Nobody’s Fault,”
In the advent of the pandemic, nature, it seems, has slowly been taking over. Images of dolphins frolicking and swans idly swimming in the canals of Venice surfaced in a popular tweet. In the deserted streets of Adelaide, a kangaroo hops for blocks. In Dubai, a peacock struts curiously through its avenues.
The Venice story turns out to be false: the dolphins were actually photographed off the coast of Sardinia and the swans are longtime denizens of the canals of Burano. But there are videos of the kangaroo. Outside my window, gulls who usually stay closer to the lake have been swooping back and forth above the street between my building and the one opposite, a sight that provides no comfort or joy to someone who’s watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Birds too often. Welsh mountain goats have begun to explore the town of Llandudno, like tourists curious about a new destination.
It’s hardly unnatural for animals to venture into territory they once avoided, given how drastically different places are at a time when most areas are in some form of lockdown. Humans render such incursions in affective, sentimental terms, with wishful narratives indulging in long-cherished ideals about “Mother Earth”—all of which evade and ignore the systemic, material effects and causes of the changes.
Peacocks are not native to the arid climate of Dubai (and, to be fair: Dubai is a creation that defies the laws of existence, requiring massive amounts of infrastructure for it to exist). It’s likely that the peacock was an abandoned pet, once a proud token of luxury and perhaps now unaffordable, or perhaps its owners died, or left the country and it behind. It may well be dead now, from starvation or as part of someone’s meal. The kangaroo was not sauntering through. Rather, its hopping betrayed fright and desperation; it may have lost its way and was trying to get out and back into more familiar terrain.
SCENE II: MEANING
I feel it in my fingers
I feel it in my toes
The love that's all around me
And so the feeling grows
—“Love Is All Around,” The Troggs
Humans are fundamentally incapable of understanding systems without meaning or coherence to them, systems that simply are, possessed of little more than a drive to survive. This has disastrous consequences for how we shape our existence and explains why we’re so often unable to understand non-human forces. For instance: a major reason why anti-capitalists fail to demolish capitalism (which, though created by humans, is also a system on its own) is that they persist in thinking about it as a creature driven by human emotions and prejudices. Hence all the hue and cry about how “capitalism is racist.” But capitalism is ultimately not driven by prejudice; it simply deploys that prejudice when convenient. A failure to understand that distinction is why the left, particularly in the US and the UK, keeps capitulating to the idea that making capitalism more diverse is the proper way to go. Even when it has a critique (a growing one) of this application of diversity (which, in its own way, is never a bad thing to aim for), it fails to communicate that effectively, and so it is that we have the board of Goldman Sachs replete with skin tones and sexualities of every sort.
Diversity is the anaesthetic that renders us numb in the face of capitalism.
Similarly, with “Nature”: we have, for millennia, as long as we have existed on the planet, imbued it with a selfhood, referring to it, in a supreme fit of anthropomorphic angst, as Mother Nature. It’s a universal blight, this infliction of motherhood on what is after all simply a set of rocks and sand and mud that we happen to live upon. Meaning must be found, we insist, and we seek to understand the wrecks and fires and tumult and viruses as part of something affecting a particular self. The lives and careers of prophets like Bill McKibben depend on the idea that we are “wrecking the planet,” as he likes to put it.
But what if we considered instead that there is no “the planet,” simply a planet that is a system comprised of systems? What if we dispensed with the narratives of embodiment?
This is easier said than done in the time of the pandemic, within the current rush to think of nature as a supreme being whose trust we have broken, as a creature punishing us for having violated its rules, rules that we were never actually aware of in the first place and which we consequently keep inventing as the years go on. Environmentalists find it impossible to discuss their cause without invoking anthropomorphic ideas about nature. Tell people that “Mother Earth” is wounded and needs their help, and wallets open. Tell them that the problem with the environment is a result of multiple capitalist systems crashing and burning at once, and eyes glaze over. With the pandemic in particular, this idea of nature as a being whose natural processes of healing we ought to emulate is now more prevalent than ever.
In a prose poem, which has since gone viral (aided by the likes of Deepak Chopra), Kitty O’Meara writes optimistically of what the pandemic might bring about:
And listened more deeply.
Some meditated, some prayed, some danced.
Some met their shadows.
And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed.
And, in the absence of people living in ignorant,
dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways,
the earth began to heal.
Not all of this is untrue. For some, or many, who can slow down, the pandemic may well offer a time to gather one’s strength and gain a respite from the harried nature of contemporary life. But here, all systemic conditions—and the fact that many thousands will simply die alone and of hunger as they suffer without water or healthcare—are ignored. O’Meara’s worldview, that somehow what is breaking the world and the lives of millions already under threat from poverty and a lack of even basic healthcare, can actually be beneficial and lead to healing, is echoed everywhere.
Stephen Cornish writes in The Vancouver Sun:
Just a few weeks ago, we were experiencing a society based largely on individualistic actions and systems. The primary goal for many was to care for oneself and one’s family, with less concern for others.
Today, from those delivering essential services for the common good—keeping everything from grocery stores to public transit running—to our life-saving health-care workers, we see daily acts of courage and love for something greater than oneself. We see acts of altruistic communal service that remind us what life can be like in a world where we take care of one another first.
The impulse to thank those who maintain our essential services is a laudable one, and many of them may well have entered public service precisely because they had an impulse to better the lives of others.
But to so quickly reduce it all to love is both mendacious, especially when the term is used by politicians, and foolish because it takes us nowhere close to acknowledging that healthcare is a human right that can only be delivered if we set up functioning systems of care, regardless of whether or not caregivers “love” us. In a video made shortly after he left intensive care, British prime minister Boris Johnson, looking ragged and deathly, (apparently “herd immunity” doesn’t work that well after all) thanked those who took care of him, noting that two of his nurses were foreign-born (“Jenny” from New Zealand and “Luis” from Portugal). He emphasized that the National Health Service, a system now under attack from his xenophobic and racist party, and whose funding he continues to jeopardize and which has been slowly defunded over the years, “is powered by love.”
This is the sort of speech nurse organizers love to hear, because it creates the kind of messaging that’s easy to disseminate in publicity materials, but it is utter rubbish. Talking about the NHS being “powered by love” ignores the million different ways in which it’s being dismantled by an impulse that has nothing to do with love.
Many people take on the work of nursing (or driving public transportation, or filling the produce aisles) because they saw no other alternatives. In Chicago, for instance, the educational systems are designed to track black and latin youth into trade schools. The kids (including poorer white ones) who want to study poetry or architecture have to show exceptional ardor or genius to even be considered, and then they’re funnelled into charter schools. In contrast, students fortunate enough to live in the “better” neighborhoods, whether in the city or the suburbs, are constantly being given choices (and equipment and materials and well-stocked libraries to help them pursue their most obscure interests). For most black and brown and economically precarious youth of all colors, anything outside trade is not a choice; they’re tracked into the service industry from the earliest ages, with curricula that reinforce their lack of choices.
In the US and in most economies, all such work is generally ill-paid (and where, as with the post office, they once boasted excellent benefits and pensions, those are in steep decline). The more “essential” a service, the less well-paid it is, and the more likely it is that most of its employees are women. For many in these service industries, it may well be a mix of both: a sense of service as well as a decision made for economic reasons. And of course no kind of work should be seen as meaningless or demeaning. But in the current climate, where fields like art and literature are seen as frivolous luxuries (and dominated by those who can afford to work for pittances because they don’t need to work for money) there are stark economic realities behind their decisions, and many of the care industries demonstrate clear racial and gendered imbalances. Along with nurses, public school teachers across the US are underpaid and overworked, expected to take on the jobs of surrogate nannies and pay for supplies out of their own pockets. None of this would be possible if the majority of teachers and nurses were not mostly women.
As nurses and healthcare givers across the country and the world begin organizing to literally save their lives and those of the people they care for, union organizers have to deploy a sentimental narrative and it goes like this: We love our work, we love caring for people, and we will die for them if need be.
Left out of this narrative is any hint that a lot of caregivers are in their professions because those were the ones they were compelled to choose. Today, we see praise for front-line workers, but not much protest around the horrible conditions in which they work and the fact that they are seeing their wages lowered. While Americans in some cities bang their drums and clap their hands to show support for nurses and others performing essential services, they’re unlikely to be as warm when it comes to raising wages. Again, the narrative of love overtakes everything.
But love has an archaeology and a history. Like nature, it never simply is. When deployed and weaponized in public conversations, love allows us to evade the hard questions about who, exactly, gets to love wildly and with abandon, in contrast to those who must continue to pretend, even insist that their labor is all for love.
What are the lives and dreams and hopes we erase in our organizing around the idea that these workers are doing what they must because they love us? Perhaps the nurse cleaning the feces from the bodies of our ailing and aging grandparents in their nursing home once hoped to be a geographer, a scientist, an artist, a DJ. Or a wanderer, or someone who didn’t want to wipe the asses of the elderly and infirm while putting up with the elders’ relatives, who often grouse about their care and the rates they have to pay—for the kind of labor they either can’t or won’t perform themselves. The farm worker may have dreamt of a life in music or architecture—given the economic devastation of the countries whose residents have been forced into the United States because of NAFTA, we might deduce that some are in fact teachers and architects. This is not to imply that farm work is useless work—in fact ,it ought to be paid well above the relatively measly $15 an hour that we consider some kind of grand goal. But the organizing of underpaid labor relies on the idea that the worker does it out of love.
The story we will never hear is that for many, these are acts of desperation and of being forced to work. If you don’t show up for your shift, you’ll be fired. If you do show up, you stand the chance of infection and death. Constantly reiterating the narrative of “love,” whether by Boris Johnson or by nurse organizers, gets us nowhere to bettering conditions; it only rationalizes the idea that they ought to be exploited in the first place.
Running through all this is the supreme belief that we will somehow emerge from the pandemic with better thoughts and systems. History shows us that only the opposite is true. 9/11 was an American event, but it allowed for the creation of a massive, worldwide rollback of civil rights and the squashing of dissent as dangerous. If you want to organize a simple protest in the US today, you have to file paperwork and agree not to disrupt the flow of traffic and to allow your movement to be restricted. This type of sanctioned exception-taking isn’t protest: it allows the state to dictate what dissent looks and feels like, turning most demonstrations into little more than performative episodes that punctuate everyday life with spots of color and sound before letting people turn back to everyday life. Protest today, at least in the U.S, is geared towards media coverage, not towards actually disrupting life as we know it or creating actual change. In contrast, participants in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi’s Muslim-majority neighbourhood, mostly women, protested the Indian government’s discriminatory citizenship law for months in the face of a vicious police force and state.
These are the kinds of pandemics we’ve ignored: the overrunning of the planet with dictatorial governments like those in India and the Philippines, as well as those in the United States and the UK, where governments now openly flout a commitment to privatization and profits over the interests of their citizens while squashing dissent. Against such avowed greed and injustice, the narrative of “Mother Earth” takes us nowhere near “healing.” It only lays the groundwork for a future built on the foundation of unstable and impractical thinking.
PART III: HOWL
Hole in the sky, take me to heaven
Window in time, through it I fly
—Black Sabbath, “Hole in the Sky”
In India, so long fetishized as an origin point of Mother Earth politics, we now see or, rather, realize that a country that boasts of its traditions and spirituality is fine-tuning the process of genocide in international view. If the Nazis—revered by Indian right-wing Hindus—put their pogroms mostly out of view of the world, India unashamedly carries out its politics of genocide. Until 2012, prime minister Narendra Modi, the chief architect of Hindutva policies and responsible for the infamous Gujarat massacre of 2002, was banned from entering the United Kingdom. In 2012, the UK lifted the ban and in 2016, Modi was lavishly welcomed by Barack Obama. Today, he traverses the globe presenting himself as the well-dressed leader of India, bringing promises of trade and commerce in a neoliberal age where human rights matter much less than the profits to be made off human bodies. A billion people, after all, equal a billion cheap laborers as well as a billion potential consumers.
On March 24, and with only four hours notice, the Modi government ordered a lockdown of the entire country, sending 18 percent of the world’s population into chaos. The worst affected were the millions of migrant workers, estimated to be over 100 million, now left even more destitute, and who began making thousand-mile treks back to their villages to gain some semblance of “shelter.” In a country where there is barely a square foot of space in most cities and towns, massive numbers of people were left to forage for food and supplies all while being told to quarantine and practice social distancing.
In an effort to control such people, now deemed vagrants and criminals for their attempts to survive, Indian police have been wielding their infamous lathis, long wooden batons designed to inflict lasting damage and which leave people numb for days. Videos show them mercilessly beating up people, even children, who have ventured out. The British Empire left a population it had controlled for centuries with a reign of terror that included tying humans to cannons and ripping apart their bodies. India in its current state, with millions more in its population and a massive unfathomable state of deep inequality combined with hostility towards and open genocide of Sikhs, Muslims, and Dalits, is poised to outpace the murderousness of the British in only a few years.
In videos we see men beaten repeatedly. It’s not enough for the police to simply deal warning or glancing blows. They stage the beatings as visual reminders (aware, in a country replete with cell phones, that they’re being recorded), and beat them over and over and over again. In one recording, the man, like so many others enduring this torture, can only howl like an animal in pain. There are no words that can emerge from a human body in this state of pain and degradation. There are no longer any words to describe the scene.
In India, the line between human and animal has never really existed in the treatment of the lower castes, Muslims, and Sikhs. Which is to say, what we’re seeing is not a government treating its people as demeaned minorities but as animals readied for slaughter, ironic given the undue reverence with which extreme right-wing Hindus treat cows (most other animals are treated with public cruelty). In the Philippines—a major source of nurses since the early twentieth century—president Rodrigo Duterte has issued orders that anyone violating orders should be shot, much as we might shoot rabid dogs in the street. Man is animal, animal is man. The line blurs. Somewhere perhaps there is perhaps a hybrid waiting, like Hanuman the monkey god, also revered by right-wing Hindu nationalists, or perhaps Ganesha, the iconic elephant-headed god and symbol of wealth.
PART IV: RISE
In the rain, the romance lay
Baby, in the rain, the romance lay
In the rain, the romance stays
Maybe in the rain the romance will say goodbye
Well, goodbye, goodbye
—Murder Capital, “Love, Love, Love”
The fear of blurring the line between human and animal lies at the heart of our panic around plagues and epidemics. Like a virus, it lies dormant and explodes into public consciousness, bringing with it millenia of paranoia, disgust, fear, and loathing about the possibility that what we consider “human” might disappear into the jungles with the beasts. The earliest narratives around AIDS included suppositions that it all came about when a man fucked a monkey in Africa (or perhaps the other way around: precise genealogies of panic are always unclear). Even in more scientific theorizing, the fear that something may have been transmitted from animal to human signals the idea, the fear, that something in the chain of natural order has been broken.
In Contagion, a film mostly noteworthy for a scene involving Gwyneth Paltrow dying a gruesome death, scientists and doctors race to find a vaccine and carry out a form of global contact tracing to the Patient Zero in a pandemic. At the end, through a series of flashbacks (which, sadly, involve a return to a healthy Paltrow) it turns out that it all began when a bat carrying the virus dropped a piece of its food into a pen where a pig awaiting slaughter then eats the morsel. The pig is chosen by a chef working for an elegant hotel. As he begins to slice it into pieces, he’s called forth to shake hands with Gwyneth Paltrow, who wants to congratulate him on the food—and he does so without washing his hands properly.
The theory around Covid-19 is something similar: that it originated in the famous wet markets of Wuhan (“wet” because they feature live and dead animals of several and sometimes “exotic” species), and that perhaps even because people were—and possibly still are—eating bats. Much has been made, in deeply racist ways, of the Chinese eating food that is outside the recognizable food groups considered proper in, say, the United States, but bats are a significant and cheap source of protein. In the outcry about what people eat lies a paranoid narrative that we are what we eat. Eat bats, and we practically become them (Dracula might concur). And dismissing what people eat allows us to render them less human as well.
The problem is not the existence of the markets, but the broken systems around them. The Patient Zero theory, now mostly debunked by the scientific community, was deployed during the AIDS crisis to falsely demonize Gaëtan Dugas as the source of the epidemic (or the North American epidemic, which is the only one its proponents cared about). Patient Zero searches are attractive fodder for news media hungry for eyeballs, but there’s never really any single body responsible for an epidemic. The best epidemiologists can hope for is to find the first documented case, but looking for one exact body of origin is futile, imprecise, and unproductive. The problem is not that a virus came forth from Wuhan: the problem is that there was no system of care to protect poor people from the types of diseases that accompany mass meat production (in the West as well as the East), and then again no system to ensure that poor people, who were the first to be infected, were taken care of with an eye on curbing the spread of the virus.
Liberal dramas like Contagion and liberal politicians convince us that the trouble is that “nature” is broken. At a recent press conference, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo, on being asked about the fatalities in hospitals responded, “Mother Nature brought a virus. And the virus attacks . . . old people. Nothing went wrong. Nobody’s to blame for the creation of the situation, but they have to deal with the situation.”
In fact, everything went wrong, and most of it is a direct result of Cuomo capitulating to big business and profits over people. In Current Affairs, Lyta Gold points out several problems with Cuomo, not the least that he advocated for Amazon, a habitual decimator of local economies, to enter New York City. The Nation’s Ross Barkan writes that the governor “presided over a decade of hospital closures and consolidations, prioritizing cost savings over keeping popular health care institutions open.” Recall Boris Johnson’s invoking of love: the same politicians who deploy narratives about nature and love are the ones who create systemic problems in the first place.
Consider the difference if New York had invested in its healthcare, if it had not allowed for horrific conditions in prisons, if we hadn’t been dragging our feet so long over the mere prospect of universal healthcare, if the US didn’t export supplies instead of using them to treat a population that, despite living in the world’s most powerful country, has been shell-shocked by its lack of preparedness.
None of this has to do with Mother Nature wanting us to take a break or with healthcare workers loving us all so much that they risk their lives.
It’s possible that Venetian canals are clearer now that there’s much less traffic in them, but dolphins are not frolicking there. Perhaps, like those in Douglas Adams’s classic tale, they’re about to depart our planet, leaving us in our benighted state with a last cheery message: “So long, and thanks for nothing.”
In Alien, the robot Ash speaks admiringly of the monster that now threatens to lay waste to all humankind: “A perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility . . . I admire its purity. A survivor . . . unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”
A virus survives unbounded, seeking only another host. It’s not a sign of nature breaking down but a part of a mechanism moving along and doing what it must: it is nature, perhaps even a perfect embodiment of that system we fail to understand except as a creature that must, surely, we insist, mirror our own consciousness. It’s a “perfect organism,” even more so because it’s unclouded by hostility, seeking only a place to survive without either malice or love.
As long as we revere the earth instead of seeing it for what it is, a system of systems, we’re never going to survive. A virus seeks survival. Hating it for what’s natural to its existence is pointless. A virus is, like capitalism and like Nature, a system of systems. Politicians and some scientists invoke the metaphors of war, calling for ways to attack the virus. But viruses always win, lying dormant for decades or more if need be, and bursting forth, much like the alien, when conditions are most fertile. We know with certainty that the mass production and slaughter of animals is what enables flu-driven pandemics like this one, as is our impulse to degrade and erode natural environments to create our own: California wildfires are largely a result of a natural ecology simply doing what it must to regenerate itself and that we are often in in the path of such cycles is an unfortunate byproduct of our own incursions.
Bats are a cheap source of protein, especially for those millions who have become a cheap source of labor for a world that depends on generating massive amounts of everything at the lowest possible price. The pandemic keeps redrawing the lines between human and animal and we are terrified about interspecies crossings. But such powerful viruses spring forth at that entirely peculiar and entirely manmade intersection of poverty, hunger, and massive profits for the few. The point cannot be to try to hope that we might completely obliterate the virus’s system. Even if we were to find a cure for Covid-19 tomorrow and come up with a vaccine and make it available free of charge not just to Americans and rich Westerners and people who live in countries with nationalized healthcare but everyone in the world, we still would not have addressed the myriad systemic problems that made this pandemic possible, and that will undoubtedly create another, and another, and another, until we eliminate the policies and institutions that caused them.
The point, forgotten in our endless quest for dominance and profits, has to be to begin building systems that are in themselves viral, that ensure the care of people and the ways of life we hold dear—including the pleasures of eating out and strolling among others without living behind masks till the end of time. The point has to be that we build systems that take care of people without obsessing over whether or not everyone in those systems demonstrates adequate amounts of “love.” The only way to surpass the virus and survive is to emulate its existence, to understand that survival requires systems unclouded by constant moralizing and the search for empty love.
The only way to survive is to forget love.