On Pandemics, Debt Jubilees, and the Suspension of More or Less Everything

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Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 28/03/2020 - 12:58am in

I find that I am generally at peace, and that the balance between happiness and sadness on any given day is little different from what it always has been for me. I find that there is liberation in this suspension of more or less everything. In spite of it all, we are free now. Any fashion, sensibility, ideology, set of priorities, worldview or hobby that you acquired prior to March 2020, and that may have by then started to seem to you cumbersome, dull, inauthentic, a drag: you are no longer beholden to it. You can cast it off entirely and no one will care; likely, no one will notice. Were you doing something out of mere habit, conceiving your life in a way that seemed false to you? You can stop doing that now. We have little idea what the world is going to look like when we get through to the other side of this, but it is already perfectly clear that the “discourses” of our society, such as they had developed up to about March 8 or 9, 2020, in all their frivolity and distractiousness, have been decisively curtailed, like the CO2 emissions from the closed factories and the vacated highways.

Not to downplay the current tragedy—as I’ve already acknowledged, it is already affecting me personally in deep and real ways—but I take it that this interruption is a good thing.

The interruption is not total, of course. Normies seem particularly fond of toilet-paper joke memes for the moment, while the extremely online instinctively disdain them. Both the normies and the extremely online are, as they have been since 2016, far too reliant on the language of “apocalypse” and “end times.” These are not the end times; even a nuclear war would not be the end times for all the creatures on earth, among which there will always be at least some extremophiles to relish any new arrangement of the ecosystem. What this is, rather, is a critical shift in the way we think about the human, the natural and the overlap between these.

I have said that we can all just stop doing whatever we were doing before that may have come to ring false to us, and that that is liberating. In my own case, I was working on a book (one that developed, curiously, out of an essay of mine, entitled “It’s All Over,” posted here at The Point a little over a year ago) that was going to articulate how the internet is destroying the fabric of human community. But for the life of me I cannot, in the present circumstances, see the internet as anything other than the force that is holding that fabric together. I used to bemoan virtue signaling. I look at the newly assembled vanguard of the all-volunteer forces of “Wash Your Hands” Twitter, and though I can still discern that tone that used to get me so bent out of shape (“Listen up y’all, today I’m going to break down the virus’s lipid envelope for you”), now I just smile and think: “Good for them. Good for Dr. Brianna Ph.D., and all her loyal followers.”

So I’m going have to rethink that particular book project. But that follows from the much more general point that we are all going to have to rethink everything. .--Justin Smith (March 23) @The Point

During the last few weeks, I was consumed by the task of transforming an exam my 400 students were supposed to take this past Tuesday (March 24) at a particular physical location -- the former morgue of the university hospital, which also happens to be a wifi free zone --  into an online exam at the very same time.+ My department had decided -- but don't ask me how or when -- that it would be in the students' interests to complete the term online rather than postpone exams. My task was made more challenging by three inconvenient facts: moving the exam online meant moving it from one database management software system to another, largely untested one (the two being largely incompatible with each other); I was still busy grading the midterm exam (which needed to be completed a few days before the new exam) and several of my graders were unable to complete their work due to having to care for loved ones; we lack resources to hire folk to help out.* Luckily the tech support people stepped up, and the day of the exam I had time to read Justin's beautiful, elegiac essay.

My initial response to Justin's piece was pure envy. Not just at his skill at capturing the moment, to becoming the indispensable guide to living the intellectual life with integrity, but also envy at the very possibility of inhabiting the suspension of more or less everything. I know that being cooped up with a child in a small apartment life simply can't be suspended. 

For many years, I lived pretty much kitty corner of Prinsengracht 263-267, now known as the Anne Frank Huis. I often wondered, when cycling by, whether I would have started a diary if I had lived there with nothing to do these war years. But now for the first time, I don't identify with her, but with her parents, Otto and Edith wondering how indefinitely the lives of their children could be suspended. But not only did the lack a socially distanced stroll in the park, they lacked the internet, which as Justin points out,  is the "force that is holding" the "fabric of human community" together. As I write, my son is doing homework online.

Even so, against Justin's forecast that we have little idea what "the world is going to look like when we get through to the other side of this," I am pretty confident we humans are about to face a gigantic debt crisis. Whole sectors of our leveraged economies are imploding (bricks and mortar retailing and real estate, leisure/tourism, sports, etc. [see here for first hints]) and will miss debt repayments on mortgages and other forms of financing. And while the financial sector has an incentive to extend repayment on non-performing loans, whole industries are facing cash crunches if not bankruptcy. So, even if individuals can be supported by a basic income or welfare, as the lockdowns last, no accounting sleight of hand or more easy credit will prevent massive defaults.** 

So, even if we can hope for a genuine economic recovery at the end of the pandemic, and the acceleration of new modes of living together (and, perhaps, apart to slow down virus transmission) that do not fall victim to what Justin correctly criticizes as "human exceptionalism," at some point we will be back in familiar territory. Before long the "wanton delectation" that Justin  bids farewell to will be replaced, first, within the pandemic by (recall) dissolute mirth and gaiety.  And, then, to be followed by political turmoil because debt forgiveness and 'controlled'  inflation will be back on the political agenda. When David Graeber advocates debt jubilees from the anarchist margins, he was ignored. But before long it will be captains of industry that will call it sensible.

I fear an age of debt cancellation and inflation because they strengthen the hands of zero-sum politicians; more dangerous, yet, they upend existing social hierarchies in dramatic fashion. They, thereby, embolden those who need encouragement least, political adventurers. I glance over at my son, and, inspired by Justin, I wish to freeze time, inspired by the poets, in the form of limitation between un-being and being, and try to capture the moment--i will continue the daily digressions; but in the back of my head I hear the voice telling me, compound interest does not respect our wishes.

+My students ended up in timezones very far apart.

*Hence the lack of blogging. I did co-author a piece, with Eric Winsberg, engaging with the headlines published in New Statesman.

**As I write this the US National Debt is $23,542,522,737,422. To put that in perspective, with the policies just enacted it will soon surpass the level relative to GDP just after WWII, a moment when there was huge pent-up demand, a newly mobilized and educated workforce, and a slew of technologies waiting for civilian deployment.