Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Pushing the Panic Button

At Vox, Anna North writes a magnificently unhinged cry of pain titled "The world as we know it is ending. Why are we still at work?" Some samples:

For a moment in early 2020, it seemed like we might get a break from capitalism. A novel coronavirus was sweeping the globe, and leaders and experts recommended that the US pay millions of people to stay home until the immediate crisis was over. These people wouldn’t work. They’d hunker down, take care of their families, and isolate themselves to keep everyone safe. With almost the whole economy on pause, the virus would stop spreading, and Americans could soon go back to normalcy with relatively little loss of life.

Obviously, that didn’t happen.

Instead, white-collar workers shifted over to Zoom (often with kids in the background), and everybody else was forced to keep showing up to their jobs in the face of a deadly virus. Hundreds of thousands died, countless numbers descended into depression and burnout, and a grim new standard was set: Americans keep working, even during the apocalypse.

Now it’s been nearly two years since the beginning of the pandemic — a time that has also encompassed an attempted coup, innumerable extreme weather events likely tied to climate change, and ongoing police violence against Black Americans — and we’ve been expected to show up to work through all of it. . . .

What do people like North think would happen if we stopped going to work?  Well, for starters, nobody would grow food, or ship food, or sell food, so we would soon all be going hungry. With nobody working in the waterworks and the sewage treatment plants and the power plants, our basic infrastructure would quickly crumble. Without people working, we simply can't survive.

The thing is, I get the impression that people like Anna North want something like that to happen. They want the world to be a s bad as they feel it is. They feel that we are, as North writes, "in the end times," and they want apocalypse in the streets. 

I don't, so I keep working.

People like Anna North also make the strange error of thinking that we have to go to work because of capitalism, and a "break from capitalism" would mean we don't have to work any more. But it isn't capitalism that forces us to work; we have to work because it is fundamental to animal life in this universe. We tried socialism and one thing we learned from that experiment is that people still had to go to their jobs every day.

Between the pandemic, the attempted coup, and the climate crisis, misery abounds:

Making these kinds of calculations all the time is exhausting and takes a toll on mental health. The “constant, low-level stress” of slow-moving disasters like the melting polar ice caps can make everything more difficult, including work, Remes said. “It makes it harder for people to be productive, because they’re worrying about their basement flooding.”

If these things are problems, doesn't that mean that we should be working all the harder to solve them? My readers know that I think greenhouse gases are a solvable problem, but we certainly won't make much progress if we all stay home and cocoon because we're too anxious to work. Plenty of people on the left justified the George Floyd protests with the argument that political change can't wait for the pandemic to end. Pulling your blankets over your head will not help anybody, not even you.

This kind of rant would be incomplete without the (usually white) authors tossing in the assertion that things are even worse for minorities:

Seventy percent of respondents in one September survey said they were anxious or stressed about work, and 81 percent said they were more burnt out than at the start of the pandemic. Among Americans of color, who have experienced many of the pandemic’s interlocking crises most acutely, “depression and anxiety and stress are spiking in ways that are disproportionate to their peers,” Anderson said.

But mental health is one part of American life where people of color do not have it worse; despite numerous attempts to show otherwise by people convinced that the root of our misery is oppression, white Americans suffer more from all the major forms of mental illness than other groups.

The world has serious problems. It always has. But it is not ending. As Freddie de Boer put it, in a response to North's essay,

The person who wrote this wrote it on a functioning computer, passed it off to her superiors as part of a more-or-less unaltered business operation, and it was uploaded to the internet, where it can be accessed by billions of people through the use of technologies that require an exquisite amount of collaboration across vast distances of geography and circumstance. In other words, the world as we know it is apparently ending in such a gentle way that the most basic economic, technological, and communicative infrastructures of our civilization are puttering along nicely.

I find apocalypticism mysterious and fascinating. I think it is often born from a personal sense that life day-to-day is so unendurably bad that anything would be better, even the collapse of civilization, mass starvation, and civil war.

Anna North is clearly on the left, but we could easily find equally unhinged screeds from people on the right. For reasons that I find mysterious, this era when human life is by most numerical measures better than ever before has spawned a very widespread sense that everything is going to hell. I don't really understand why, but I think all this doom-mongering has become a problem of its own as big those it is supposed to be based on.


G. Verloren said...


"For reasons that I find mysterious, this era when human life is by most numerical measures better than ever before has spawned a very widespread sense that everything is going to hell."

Millennials were the first generation in American history to do worse financially than their parents. I think that goes rather a long way toward explaining why many people your own age don't see a problem, but younger generations do.

Some economists predict that Generation Z will fare a bit better, but they openly admit that's overwhelmingly due to the timing of the Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation dying off, and their vast pools of hoarded wealth being inherited or otherwise freed up from stasis.

Real returns on investment are predicted to remain no higher than 2% going into the future, when they used to average over 5% for previous generations. Inflation is on track to continue depressing buying power. The Great Recession slammed Millennials, and the Pandemic has slammed both Millennials and Generation Z - with the latter being the worst hit in terms of unemployment, at a critical time when they are just starting out and needed to be building job experience.

Both generations feel lied to and manipulated by their elders who either created or allowed these economic catastrophes to occur. Both are deeply disenfranchised by a system which has become far more predatory in modern decades than the one their elders lived under.

People like you, John, didn't grow up expected to work in wild instability of "The Gig Economy". You had the benefit of reliable work, with paid benefits, and the expectation of stead advancement and lifelong careers. Younger generations have struggled with being pigeonholed into part-time or contract work (so that employers don't have to provide benefits), zero job security, limited advancement opportunities, and the standard expectation being to chance jobs relatively frequently, denying the possibility of careers. Workers used to have far more protections against such predatory exploitation - protections which were largely stripped away during the Reagan era.

Millennials and Generation Z have grown up in a world where workers' rights and the power of unions are a far cry from what they used to be scant generations before. They have grown up in a world where they were expected to take on obscene amounts of debt to attend colleges that their parents and grandparents were able to afford easily without accruing any debt at all. They have grown up in a world where housing prices have ballooned to such insane levels that the idea of owning their own home is seen as a ludicrous fantasy for most of them. They have grown up being called lazy by their spoiled and out of touch elders who refuse to comprehend that things are actually substantially harder for young people today than they themselves had it.

And to top it all off, they are more progressive and socially minded than any other generations in history, but are held back on that front by their extremely conservative, selfish, abusive, miserable, uncaring elders. They're inheriting a world that has been poisoned by those same elders and their shortsightedness, greed, and callousness. They are held to absurd standards and criticisms by their spoiled hypocrite parents and grandparents who were the most fortunate Americans to ever live.

G. Verloren said...


The late great George Carlin summed up the Baby Boomers and their ilk crassly and beautifully, back in 1996:

"Whiney, narcissistic, self-indulgent people, with a simple philosophy: “Gimme it - it’s mine”! “Give me that - it’s mine”! These people were given ~everything~. ~Everything~ was handed to them, and they took it all. Took it all! Sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll! And they stayed loaded for twenty years, and had a free ride!

But now they’re staring down the barrel of middle-age burn-out, and they don’t like it. They don’t like it. So they turn self-righteous, and they want to make things hard on younger people. They tell them "abstain from sex". “Say no” to drugs. As for the rock-n-roll, they sold that for television commercials a long time ago, so they could buy pasta-machines, and “stair-masters”, and “soybean-futures”. “Soybean! Futures!”

You know something? They’re cold, bloodless people. It’s in their slogans. It’s in their rhetoric. “No pain no gain!”; “Just do it!”; “Life is short, play hard”; “Shit happens, deal with it!”; “Get a life!”. These people went from “do your own thing”, to “just say no”. They went from “love is all you need”, to “whoever winds up with the most toys wins”. And they went from cocaine to Rogaine."

It was true a quarter century ago when they were middle aged, it's still true now that they're slowly imploding geriatrics. And yet people wonder why young people have such a pessimistic view of the world, while the older generations just don't see what the problem is? Give me a break.

David said...

"What do people like North think would happen if we stopped going to work? Well, for starters, nobody would grow food, or ship food, or sell food, so we would soon all be going hungry. With nobody working in the waterworks and the sewage treatment plants and the power plants, our basic infrastructure would quickly crumble. Without people working, we simply can't survive."

What I'm most struck by is how rarely one hears this stated as a justification for work, particularly in contexts where people are most earnest and honest (as opposed to, say, speeches given on Labor Day).

More salient, it seems to me, is a crude command-obedience model, sometimes moralized into an objectivist or quasi-Nietzschean division into creators and parasites (and it's notable that objectivist types often draw out this twofold scheme, instead of a threefold one between creators, good workers, and parasites).

Even more prominent is an archaic sense that work is a sacrifice demanded by an unappeasably angry god. The qualities of suffering and sacrifice, as well as the looming ever-presence of the always-scowling deity, are absolutely essential to it. This is the sense I get from people like Joe Manchin, who wants stricter work requirements in return for a child tax credit. This demand is absolutely about making a moralized and unhappy sacrifice of pain, NOT about the sheer practical demands of reality: not, without work, we won't eat, but "we have sinned, and may not live unless we suffer."