It’s my Saturday today. I’ve been out on the terrace, watching the fig tree away with the breeze. There are more insects buzzing, snails crawling up the stone walls, and birds darting between the electrical and phone lines that surround our house. I’m also playing around with the vintage camera app Vooravo for some retro-looking photos around the house. I’m bored of photographing the same trees from the well-worn paths of the monte.
This is one of those weekend mornings that reminds me of my years in Sierra Leone; the unhurried day, the privilege of watching time and life of the village pass by from a veranda, the warm sun on my body, the ability to read as much as I want to.
Grateful and guilty, which has been a recurring tension during the lockdown. Grateful to have had the privileges and opportunities to organize my life in this manner, and guilty knowing that not everyone is so lucky. But I know I’m in my head a lot, and that guilt will lead to paralysis or unnecessary suffering.
I misread a quote from some article a few weeks ago. In my head in went something like;
The best safeguard to life under late capitalism is withdrawing from it.
But it actually wasn’t that, at all. It was a critique, that the privileged ones, the ones with an inessential, work-from-home job are the ones who can safeguard themselves from coronavirus.
I recently talked to a friend, a madrileño musician from West Africa with a similar practical philosophy. He mentioned the protests in barrio de Salamanca and the incessant material desires that nag certain classes of people in the capital. It feels foreign, otherworldly. That wasn’t always the case, but a product of half of my life, maybe started after they extubated me. Who’s to say. But I think it’s possible that most can come to the conclusion that infinite growth on a finite planet is illogical.
We can thread the needle, withdraw from the capitalist mentality without completely withdrawing from society like Christopher McCandless; plant a garden, reduce costs and discourage consumption habits, prioritize immaterial experiences, read books, go for walks, re-valorize the countryside, or enjoy voluntary frugality in the city. Flatten the curve of coronavirus and of climate change by socially distancing and driving less, flying less, removing animal products from my diet, eating seasonally and locally. Prefigure a better world by thinking, talking, and planning other ways of organizing life and social relations. Want less, need less, and perhaps work less because of those priorities and that organized withdrawal.
For now, I’ll “do praxis” by non-participation, as much as I can, and theorize by writing into the void, ruining conversations with family and friends by talking climate, and reading Bookchin in my hammock. And I’ll never forget to enjoy the conference of the birds on the phone lines.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. — Arundhati Roy
The weird thing about a paradigm-shifting pandemic is many of my habits haven’t changed significantly but how I feel about them, and pretty much everything else, has shifted. Every morning, I take a walk with my dog up the road. We pass the sign of our village’s name with the diagonal red stripe through it, the castaños, up until the small pig farm. Often I’d throw in an earbud and play whatever podcast I had been listening to the day before, but I’ve stopped, preferring the sound of the birds and maybe the wind rustling the trees. The town comes into view on the right and from our elevated position one can see it in its entirety. Sometimes, like today, it is shrouded in a thick fog, the small peak behind, whose name I’m unaware of, protrudes out.
I have bad habits. I wake up early but then use that time unproductively for at least an hour or so, reading news or scrolling through Twitter, a place increasingly fraught with melodrama and uninformed commentaries on events we cannot control. I occasionally put off my exercise routine until after my classes, when I’m already worn done and my body is tight from sitting in a chair. Most days, I get closer to beating these. Small victories, sure, but still.
Before meeting Patricia, I had a terrible grocery shopping philosophy. I would fill my basket with things that looked good and when I arrived at the checkout, I realized I had purchased snacks rather than ingredients for a meal. Then I’d come home, eat the snacks, and toward dinner, walk to one of Nouakchott’s restaurants for shawarma.
I was once enamored by the latest and greatest Apple products. Now I cannot stomach the thought of buying new things while my current tablet works fine. I am grateful for hand-me-down iPhones from family regardless of the broken speaker. Technology podcasts or Apple’s price tags for computer wheels further remind me of how materialistic I once was, how I’ve changed. How we can all change to better adapt to what many of our most brilliant minds, away from the political class, are telling us what’s coming.
Our success or failure, individually during this quarantine, and as a species and planet through the next decade vis-à-vis a very probable second wave of coronavirus, our vampiric capitalist realism, the fast-approaching climate tipping points, will depend on our self-discipline and willpower. Our bad habits, our biases, some of our conveniences, our lack of knowledge on things like agriculture. Individuated mobilization starts now.
“The life of a single human being is worth a million times more than all the property of the richest man on earth.”
Chances are, many of us in the West will not be governed by an authoritarian regime so soon. Or if we are, it will have an air of nominal liberty. Our ‘freedoms’ and political inaction, the hard questions needing to be asked, the work that needs to be done, will climatically doom those in the global South. No one will tell us what to do.
Só o pobo salva ao pobo
Only the people save the people
As the world settles in to its new virus-covered reality, time becomes amorphous. For many, especially city-dwellers, gone are the inessential errands, any whimsical excuse to leave the apartment, or the chance to meet up with friends on a nice day. “Is it Friday today?” Going to bed feels like a relief or a chore, the anchors of our social lives are lifted.
At least I have the woods behind our small village. I head up the road and enter one of the trails with my dog at least twice a day. Many of them are already well-trodden, even before the quarantine and a clearcut patch to give room for the electrical lines serves as a compass when we pretend to be new world explorers.
I often carry my phone to take photos. I was looking down at it this morning, cool but dry, when I saw a big black spot in the middle of the path. My eyes shot up and I saw the backside of a fleeing boar. My clueless unleashed dog didn’t notice and I grabbed him to prevent a futile and possibly dangerous chase. We continued cautiously for a bit looking for any sign that it ran off the path, but none. It was time to head back home, do some exercise downstairs and make some breakfast before my classes.
Once you’ve actually internalized that society doesn’t have to be this way, that none of the exploitation you’ve experienced or witnessed is actually inevitable, that human freedom is achievable, you don’t go back to thinking otherwise. Once you’ve been looked square in the eye and asked which side you’re on, you never take for granted your own neutrality again.
Encapsulated in this paragraph is my political and personal trajectory. I’ve lived in countries with vastly different socioeconomic and developmental levels, worked jobs from washing dishes to teaching primary school, accumulated student and medical debt, and tried to make sense of the world physically and intellectually as best I could. And as most socialists would attest, I cannot unsee the inane hardship and structural barriers with the assertion that that misery for others can change, that we can build something better, something more just. Capitalism is not manifest destiny. I could not simply put my head down, try to live for myself, care only for my family and friends and isolate myself in a village in my corner of Spain without feeling any solidarity whatsoever for everyone, everywhere they may be.
Bernie Sanders was the moonshot candidate; the millennial left’s Lorax to speak on our behalf, since we hold no power of our own, despite some of our comrades pushing 40 years of age. In most industrialized societies, the reforms we were demanding would be common sense. But common sense does not square with American financial capitalism: the CEOs are too powerful, the parties too tied to form and not function, the president a sociopathic liar, his “democratic” challenger hardly a democrat and continuously on the wrong side of history, and the working class even more expendable than previously imagined.
In the end, I felt a lightness. I was buoyed by the momentum, assumed too earnestly that the ruling class would allow themselves to be overrun by Bernie’s nascent coalition of social movements, young people, communities of color, marginalized folks, and working people. That they would not fight back and punch us back down was us being foolish. And they landed their knockout by manufacturing the unlikely comeback of a compromised Joe Biden. If you feel this assessment is incorrect, that “democracy spoke” in the form of the primary, I would love to hear it.
“The real purpose of socialism is precisely to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development” — Albert Einstein
We are living in the late Anthropocene. We have 17 million Americans out of work in just the last three weeks, with no real plan to help them in this crisis. The president gaslights the world every day with lies, his administration either gives PPE to private companies to auction off, pitting states against each other in a bizarre bidding war, or it steals ventilators from poorer Caribbean nations.
I have trouble believing we have the time necessary to build power electorally when a second and perhaps third wave of COVID-19 is expected. In the next decade, if drastic climate action isn’t taken, we will see those climate tipping points the IPCC report from last year warned us about. Even in the unlikely event of a Joe Biden victory, he will do very little on climate. His campaign has prioritized a return to some mythical normalcy, ignoring the fact that the Obama administration built the cages in deportation centers, bombed Muslim countries, supported death squads in Honduras, expanded the empire, etc. He has made it clear he has ‘no empathy’ for millennials.
In the daily outrages and political battles mixed in with the ups-and-downs of our own personal lives, the machinery of capitalism continues to extract and consolidate capital for the very few.
There are bright spots, however. People are waking up to their individual and collective power. We have seen the unintended reductions in carbon emissions when half the world must stay at home. No longer can the pundit and media class ask us incredulously, “How will you pay for it?” when we demand moderate social democratic reforms. We see the inhumanity of Jeff Bezos firing a striking worker who dared to ask that their Amazon warehouse be disinfected when workers tested positive. We will see a massive bump in member in organizations like Democratic Socialists of America. The political, economic, and social impossible is nothing but an illusion.
The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters. — Antonio Gramsci
With newfound power, our enemies will become more brazen. As the US struggles to get a handle on COVID-19 and the president throws daily tantrums to reporters, we continue to witness a decaying empire gasping for last breath. They will try to distract us with a return to normalcy, a new iPhone or an endorsement from the “cool” former president. Perhaps they will enact fascism-lite policies such as monitoring cellphone tracking in exchange for freedom to leave the house. Whatever comes, many we will be wiser than just a year ago.
So tomorrow, I’ll wake up, return to the monte with my dog. I’ll exercise, make breakfast, work, read as much as possible, try to write to no one more frequently, and find others like me to connect with. And I’ll do it the next day. And the next. Maybe something can come out of it. Thanks for reading.
Day 24 here in Spain and the coalition government under Sánchez a few days ago announced it will extend the state of alarm until at least 26 April. After that, there might be an easing of restrictions until we’re out of the peak. The daily casualty rate is still high but has been going down for a few consecutive days. In the mornings, I don’t at the numbers like when it was still new and shocking.
I support as little movement as possible. Just writing that feels strange, because my position on travel and movement has shifted so considerably. I am one of the global 20% of the world who has ever flown on an airplane. Comparably, I guess I used to fly regularly. Now, it’s been 17 months since coming to Europe.
My livelihood doesn’t depend on going out on the streets. I’m not an essential worker nor a healthcare professional on the frontlines. Aside from the massive casualties COVID-19 has inflicted upon this country, the economic aftershock will stay with us for quite some time and I really worry about the social and political consequences. This is true for the world.
“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”
The troika of crises we confront; coronavirus, capitalism, and climate have further pulled me into a web of poignant questions. It’s Phase II; a shedding of what was considered normal before this, accepting new paradigms, and being prepared for either the coming socialism (it’s visibly obvious capitalism is incompatible with low-carbon future survival) or the coming barbarism.
Today was windy and rainy and it was easy to stay inside. I’ve been reading Kropotkin, waiting for a few other books to arrive. I hate Amazon, more so hearing about Chris Smalls being fired and the lies they spun about him, and really work to not rely on them as much as possible. I ordered about 8 books, most of them well over a thousand pages each, I don’t see myself using them soon. I do not link to Amazon in any way on this blog.
I was also reading about degrowth. I first heard the word in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. It’s a critique of our globalized overconsumption. Why is it that the economy crashes when people only buy the things they really need? Most of us understand, communicated by scientists, that the planet has a few years before we head into unforeseen climate tipping points. We acknowledge that we shouldn’t fly so much anymore and we should buy more locally.
If COVID-19 and other animal viruses were caused by the human-animal interface, pushed ever more closer by deforestation practices and rapid industrialization, then we should all be thinking very seriously about how to scale things back, and fast. The myth of “infinite growth on a finite planet” has been shattered. A tiny virus has brought the whole planet to our knees with humility (with some exceptions).
Efforts to slow the spread and contain this coronavirus highlight the fragility of urban living, massive socio-economic inequities, of production for trade, a fragmented and globalised supply chain and just in time supplies — all characteristics of advanced capitalism.
Neoliberalism has led to under-resourced and overburdened health systems relying heavily on global supply chains that have fractured and warped as borders and work places close — colliding with urgent and massive demand.
No crisis could so sharply throw into relief the fragility and precariousness of capitalist societies characterised by globalised production for trade and profits; weak states led by bureaucratic elites; and a citizens experiencing anomie, individualism and alienation. But this is not a wholly new crisis, rather just a variation on an old capitalist crisis theme.
The problem is that the ruling class will have very little incentive to change course. Businesses and governments will try to bring us back to normal. But what is normal and should we even try to go back to it? This is my issue with one democratic presidential candidate who thinks of Donald Trump as some aberration. Normal is untenable.
I live in the privileged rural. Actively choosing to de-urbanize from Los Angeles and Cologne in search of a closer relationship with the natural world, not enticed by centers of culture, maybe this line of thinking comes easier to me than others.
The article finishes with this:
Degrowth advocates using one’s legs, bicycles and, to a small extent, public transport. In contrast the current coronavirus pandemic has clearly been spread much more rapidly due to travellers using aeroplanes and cruise ships. In short, another world is not only possible but also preferable.
With all this, I think of A Ribeira Sacra, the sacred riverbank in the heart of Galicia. The Ribeira Sacra is a canyon carved out by the the Sil River that straddles the provinces of Ourense and Lugo. It’s called the Sacred Riverbank in Galician because the once isolated region is home to many Romanesque monasteries from the early Middle Ages, whose monks and hermits continued cultivating vineyards and producing wine, like the Romans before them, on terraced edges of the canyon walls. It is also shortlisted for a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2021.
I’ve had the pleasure to a twice; once the first time I came to Spain and the second in January; camped near Parada de Sil under a meteor-showered night sky, hiked to the hidden Mosteiro de Santa Cristina de Ribas de Sil, entered the castle of Castro Caldelas, passed through Monforte de Lemos, the unofficial capital of the region on a very cold day.
My partner and I rent a house now. It’s difficult to find rentals in Galicia outside the major cities; everyone is selling. We’ve looked at a few places to buy. While both of us have that nostalgia of traveling, living in West Africa, being free and untethered, it runs against our longing for land of our own to care for and the acknowledgement that the earth cannot sustain that lifestyle on a grand scale.
Since moving here, we’ve vacillated on the question of proximity if we were to ever purchase something; how close to a town (and ease of socializing) or how far? We have friends in Allariz now and we were looking forward to the weather turning better so we could gather outside. But we also want space to garden, and the available options with an adjacent plot of land and within walking distance are slim or unaffordable.
But now, we don’t go to town anymore, save for a weekly trip to the market. And this will ease up. Of course at some point the current situation will end, but with what consequences? What will be new forms of normal? Will I so carelessly dar dos besos to friends of friends when I meet them? Can we anticipate another autumnal virus outbreak?
Which is why I think of the Sacred Riverbank. A refuge, still populated, but less so. And perhaps this future was written for us over there; quietly cultivating a small garden, telecommuting, with an occasional bike trip to town for groceries. It’s good enough for me.
The image of foreigners spreading disease is rich terrain for the far right. It’s a version of what the American eugenicist-ecologist Garrett Hardin termed “lifeboat ethics.” An inspiration for the far right, Hardin in the 1970s imagined a zero-sum game for planetary survival, where the world’s mostly black and brown poor would compete with the wealthy for resources, threatening to pollute air, water, and bloodlines alike toward disastrous ends. Keeping people out, Hardin argued, prevents them from being a drain on nature and allows the rest of the population to stay healthier and more genetically pure. In addition to draconian immigration measures, he pushed for population control. “We never really conquer any diseases finally,” Hardin argued in an interview toward the end of his life, “and the bigger the population is, the harder it is to control.”
White supremacy and closed borders are as poor an answer to the coronavirus as they are to the climate crisis and certainly won’t solve either problem, making life far more dangerous for many as the world warms. Like it or not, we’re all in this boat together. As pointed out yesterday even by the thoroughly Republican Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, “We cannot hermetically seal off the United States to a virus.”
There are, in fact, well-known and effective steps an interested government could take to defend against the coronavirus. Yet few places seem as ill-suited for dealing with a pandemic as the U.S. under the current administration. Our patchy, expensive, and inefficient health care system is already charging people thousands of dollars to get tested for the coronavirus, discouraging the kind of early diagnosis necessary for containment. The expense could prevent millions from seeking treatment, spurring the spread and death count alike. Meanwhile, 40-plus years of right-wing attacks on the public sphere have drained capacity and talent from the government, making it harder to take on big problems at scale. And a bipartisan panic about budget deficits has made large-scale spending on anything but wars virtually unthinkable.