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The Covid Breaking Point Is the Capitalist Breaking Point
If we keep being asked to take on more and more grief, boredom, despair, we'll eventually say "enough."
The only solace I have is that this is nothing new, and thus the answer to this is the answer to everything.
Over the last few months myriad think pieces have been delivered to us from mainstream publications about the mental health implications of coronavirus. The Atlantic posited that we’ve basically forgotten as a species how to live normal lives—we walk around not remembering things we did yesterday, stumbling through sentences, feeling brain fog when we try to work.
“We’re all walking around with some mild cognitive impairment,” Mike Yassa, a neuroscientist at UC Irvine, told the magazine. “Based on everything we know about the brain, two of the things that are really good for it are physical activity and novelty. A thing that’s very bad for it is chronic and perpetual stress.”
Covid, according to The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Vox, and many other publications, has taken away what makes us feel normal, and most critically, not bored: meeting new people, exercising, the general novelty of daily life.
Tina Franklin, another neuroscientist, told The Atlantic that boredom is detrimental to the human brain. We need stimuli and new experiences to keep our brains malleable and learning. What happens after such a prolonged period of grief, stasis, shock, and boredom currently being experienced by the entire population is unclear, though it obviously cannot be good. Studies from post-disaster areas like New Orleans after Katrina or New York after 9/11 prove that depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues increase. We can easily conclude something similar will happen after Covid, as we return to a normal life.
There is nothing untrue in the dozens upon dozens of articles reminding us of how hard Covid has been on our brains. But their framing is too myopic. By focusing on the exceptionality of Covid times, we allow ourselves to ignore that we are always living in a mental health crisis caused by capitalism. Covid is nothing new, but simply a ramping up of what has already been happening: we’re increasingly depressed, stressed, suicidal, because the capitalist world is increasingly testing the limits of our emotional capacity. The world is constantly seeing what else we can handle—extreme isolation, boredom, repetitiveness, stress, despair—until we just break.
In normal capitalist times, the neuroplasticity or malleability of our brains is used against us—we are subjected to unfair labor conditions and dull and rote schooling; we’re not allowed to spend sufficient time with our families and friends; we don’t get enough sleep and relaxation; and when we do have free time we are often left with too little money or time to find fun except through our phones and televisions. Because our brains are amazingly adaptive, we mostly adapt. But we increasingly need help to do this. The worse the conditions of our lives get, the more we feel the need for drugs (legal and illegal), therapy, and other coping mechanisms just to get through the day. Even before Covid, we’d reached the limits of our brains’ malleability.
And that explains why we saw explosions in the number of Americans diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and other disorders over the last few decades; why the opiate epidemic took off; why the suicide rate has increased by 30 percent in just over 15 years (!). We’d run out of a sense of joie de vivre long before Covid.
But breaking points aren’t always bad things. They’re also the causes of protests and civil disobedience. We can, and many times have, decade after decade, funneled our collective anger, despair, boredom, into practices that change the world.
The uniqueness of Covid is not how much a virus sucks, but in how much we’ve accepted our brains’ malleability, and how much we’ve allowed the government to take advantage of it. The pandemic in the U.S., and in most capitalist countries that are not islands surrounded by oceans, is a man-made one. We’ve had to spend more than a year stressed, depressed, in grief, and bored out of our minds not because of a virus, but because of governments that do not care about our physical or mental wellbeing. The pandemic could have been largely over in a few months had responsibility to stop it not been placed nearly entirely on us as individuals.
And we have largely accepted this responsibility, because we are nice and care about others, and because we’re scared, and because we felt like we didn’t have a choice. It was this or death.
But just like in “normal” times, we’ve had Covid breaking points too—the uprisings over the summer proved we were willing to fight against a racist police state even during a pandemic.
And, though I am not philosophically against a lockdown (I think it’s extremely unrealistic for a government to ask for an infinite, partial lockdown while forcing people to work at high-risk jobs, as opposed to what other better-organized governments such as China, Viet Nam, and Cuba did), and though I think there is little political similarity between people going out to party, and people protesting against police murder, I do think we need to take seriously the fact that many, if not most of us, have reached our personal responsibility breaking point.
Yes, it’s dangerous that more and more we’re seeing each other, dining, travelling, but it also shows that our bodies and minds are naturally resistant to what the state has asked of us.
We don’t want to admit it, because admitting it feels morally bad, because we want to protect each other, but we all have a breaking point.
Just as the breaking point of “normal” capitalist times can go in different directions—depression, suicide, despair or protest, organizing, liberation—the Covid breaking point can mean many things. Do we use our collective brain fog, our collective boredom, our collective had-it-up-to-here-ness to individually find solace in guilt-ridden hedonism, or do we use it to push for the end of the exploitation of our brains’ malleability?
(To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with hedonism, it helps us all survive—it’s just an incomplete solution.)
Covid is not our first breaking point, and it won’t be our last—we’ll hit many, many more of them. And our response to each of them will likely be a combination of all of the above: despair, hedonism, and a fight for liberation. But let’s not pretend that each breaking point is something new. We’re fighting what we’ve always been fighting. We’re fighting what we’ll continue to have to fight.
Covid will eventually be over, but the breaking points will continue—at a national political scale when our governments repress, jail and kill people, at a personal level when we realize no matter how many drugs we take, no matter how many therapy sessions we go to, no matter how much yoga we do, we can’t make it through the day.
Perhaps at the next breaking point(s) we’ll be more ready to say “enough.”