When the COVID-19 lockdown order comes in, my first thought is: I am ready. Its strictness suits me. For once, no compromise. My love of form, my distrust of half measures and the idiosyncrasy of individual choice, it all seems perversely vindicated. The pandemic is revolutionary, even if it is brutally so. It makes the impossible possible. It justifies extremity. It exposes the limits of capitalism, of liberal individualism, of freedom.
The lived reality is more complicated. The lockdown seems uncompromising because the social behavior it necessitates is so crushingly total. But every day there are new problems to solve. My partner and I are among the lucky ones: The college classes we teach have gone online, and that means we don’t need to make the hardest compromises, ones that involve trading risk for work, physical safety for basic needs. But we are still hounded by compromises—banal, obstinate, and exhausting. Schools have moved to remote learning, which our first grader cannot do alone. So work is a compromise, because it takes us away from our child. Being with our child is a compromise because it takes us away from work, emails piling up from students who are suddenly full-time caregivers and financial providers, forced to make their own impossible compromises in order to finish their degrees. The child needs us; our students need us. We are compromising constantly, having to come face-to-face with our inevitable failures, in order to uphold a larger principle, one that cannot be compromised on: the principle of saving as many lives as possible, even as the deaths have already begun to mount.
Lawn signs in my neighborhood say you got this! and don’t give up! The signs are meant to be uplifting, but they make me feel as though I’m at the back of the pack in a 5K race and should be mustering my competitive spirit, showcasing my endurance. There is a sense of desperation and dread about those signs, which can’t help but signify all of the damage that necessitates such cheerleading in the first place. They say “Don’t give up!” but what they really mean is “Here come the sad times.”
I am not ready for the sad times because I am a privileged child of the 1990s, the decade that was supposed to usher in an era of global freedom, prosperity, and peace. Despite everything I know, despite everything that has happened since, I cannot shake the part of my umwelt that tells me history happens elsewhere, that big social problems can be solved in a manner that keeps the comfort of my daily life intact, that maintains my economic, racial, and national privilege. “The endless solving of technical problems,” said neocon Francis Fukuyama in 1989, describing what he believed life would be like after the end of history, the end of large-scale conflict. He thought that the end of the Cold War—“an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism”—meant that the big political questions had been answered. All that was left, he believed, was to manage the status quo.
I have always despised Fukuyama’s worldview and everything it erases—the spoils of colonialism, the exploitation of global capitalism, the enduring violence of war and policing, the continued need for political struggle—but it is part of my fundamental constitution to assume that my comfort will endure. The lockdown is a sign that all problems can’t be solved, and that terrifies me, even as I feel history beginning to crack open and a new way of life beginning to seem possible.
And there is more: The lockdown is uncompromising only because the virus is uncompromising. I can’t help but admire the virus for its stubbornness, its refusal to cooperate. It will not just be reasonable. It doesn’t care that there are gray areas. It will not live and let live. It does not believe that there is a solution that will work for everyone. Yet while the virus is not interested in individual choice, it is also not interested in justice. And because we live in an unjust society, the virus follows the logic of that society, exaggerating existing disparities based on wealth and race.
Part of me welcomes the lockdown, because I want a different world, and for the first time in my life a different world looks as if it might be imminent. But as I scroll through images of cars lined up at food banks and coffins lined up at crematoriums, I’m not at all sure that I want to live through what it might take to get there.
During the early weeks, the actress Ellen DeGeneres says that being under a lockdown order is like being in jail, and she receives the appropriate backlash.
The experience of lockdown, as an economically secure person living in the United States, is not like being in jail, because when you are in jail you cannot wake up, have a cup of coffee on your back deck, and watch the magnolia blossoms wave exuberantly in the wind.
You cannot crawl into your child’s bed in the morning, as I do, and hold her warm body close to yours, telling yourself that you are calming her when in reality you are calming yourself, her puffy little fingers sweeping along your cheeks.
You cannot walk your dog in the park, charting wide half-moon paths into the grass to maintain distance from others, the colors of spring emerging in shifting palettes every day, green coming up in slow motion from grass to shrubs to small trees and finally into the branches of the two-hundred-year-old sycamores that shade the park’s perimeter.
You cannot receive a bag of produce on your porch from a man in a fabric mask whose eyes you think you recognize from another world; one in which you stabbed slices of tomato with a toothpick out of a shared bowl at the farmers market, pressed shoulder to shoulder with strangers, thumb flesh glancing against tomato flesh, your microbiome one of hundreds rubbing against that vibrant red skin.
“There’s a difference between what people like Ellen DeGeneres mean when they say jail and when they say prison,” a friend says, weighing in on DeGeneres’s comment. She doesn’t mean the legal difference, jail as confinement before conviction, prison as confinement after. She means that jail is a term that has become detached from the material conditions of the criminal-justice system. “When privileged people say jail,” she continues, “it just means not getting what you want. Prison is something else: It’s where people are dying of the virus.”
My friend’s explanation helps me understand how my rejection of compromise—compromise as a value, as a way of appealing to moderation, as a way of rejecting radical answers—relates to actual on-the-ground compromises. What DeGeneres is feeling when she says jail—not getting what you want—is what actual compromise feels like; it’s what happens when you have to give something up for a greater good, for a larger principle, for something more important than yourself. But when compromise is understood as an end rather than a means, it promises to be more than that: Compromise is supposed to solve problems and maintain stability such that no one needs to feel substantial loss. Of course what this means in practice is the maintenance of hierarchies, the preservation of power. Because people do lose in all compromises; it’s just a matter of who feels it.
In order for people in positions of privilege to experience not getting what [they] want persistently, broadly, and socially, something has to be amiss that goes beyond the ideology of compromise. Something that takes society as a whole beyond the notion of moderation, beyond the technocratic solving of problems. There has to be some context forcing that condition that is absolutely uncompromising. Something like a virus. Or a lockdown order. Or an economic collapse. Or a revolution.
The lockdown begins with this sudden exposure of privileged people to not getting what [they] want, which is to say, to an experience that feels like jail because it feels like intolerable deprivation, scarcity, and loss of freedom. And the lockdown orders will begin to be lifted a few months later, as the nation confronts a much more profound loss: the murder of George Floyd.
Please, he will say, the police officer’s knee on his neck. Please. I can’t breathe.
Floyd’s words will echo those of Eric Garner, murdered by a police officer’s chokehold six years earlier. Then, too, the phrase I can’t breathe held significance beyond the physiological. I can’t breathe described the sensation of being strangled by a system based on the exploitation of racialized people: by the extraction of wealth from their bodies; by their imprisonment and policing; by their use as care workers and emotional laborers even as they are deprived of care and support by the very institutions they serve; by the maintenance of their economic subjugation through deliberate legal, economic, and cultural means.
When Floyd utters these words on camera, they will carry with them all of these valences, and add to them the horrors of the virus, how it literally deprives the lungs of oxygen, but also how non-white Americans are disproportionately infected and dying.
We will eventually learn that Floyd was infected with the virus. But this only literalizes what I can’t breathe already expresses, the reality that underlies capitalism but is usually hidden: how the security of the economically privileged is guaranteed by the persistent exposure of the economically insecure to bodily risk.
The lockdown forces a recognition of universal human loss and personal hardship. And within two months, the largest mass uprising for civil rights in American history will take place. They are horrible things: this virus, this murder. But their convergence leads to a sudden outpouring of solidarity, as if, for the beneficiaries of racial capitalism, not getting what you want is a necessary prelude to political action.
Lockdown might be a stunning and wide-ranging social experiment, a capital-HHistorical Event, but I spend it mostly in meetings, making the usual ugly compromises, trying to help manage the catastrophe of the university budget, the deficit climbing by millions every day.
I once asked my sister, a practiced community organizer, how to run a meeting. She told me to bring food. When I balked, she explained that people need to feel as if they are in a situation of abundance in order to come to consensus. And the presence of food is a biological trigger; it makes us all feel like there are plenty of resources to go around.
Alternatives to capitalism are often portrayed in a capitalist culture as situations of scarcity. There is a certain blue filter that television shows use when they want to shift from a scene located in a liberal capitalist society to a scene located in a communist one, especially the Soviet Union. The filter creates a feeling of permanent, fallow winter. It turns everyone’s face a pallid gray. That blue filter signifies that characters will not get what they want.
The lockdown seems to set a blue filter over the United States. Consumer spending is slowed to a trickle; grocery items are subject to rationing; so much wage labor is prohibited. But there are moments during the lockdown in which I feel as if I can see the potential abundance waiting beyond capitalism. There are mainstream calls for a basic income, for universal health care. Community organizations offer direct aid. Global supply chains are supplanted with local food networks. Farmers drop eggs on porches; neighbors put bundles of kale out in their front yards, price: a recommended donation. Furloughed HR managers sew thousands of masks for health-care workers. Anarchist groups chalk instructions on the sidewalk for how to give and get money. At 3:00 p.m. on a sunny Tuesday, the park has never been so full.
I look at all the people out in the breezy March afternoon. They are reading books on blankets, playing Frisbee with their children, walking hand in hand with their lovers. I think: what abundance. And then I imagine their bank accounts draining, their bodies sealed to ventilators, and I know that the sad times are still coming.
I used to think that the only way that our society could fundamentally change would be through a catastrophe great enough to shake us all loose of our attachments to fixing things around the edges. I always imagined this future with dark ambivalence, knowing it would entail horrible loss even as it opened up new possibilities. But I also never bought into the postapocalyptic gloom of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where the end of capitalism meant the end of society, and the destruction of our current form of social organization could end only in cannibalism and death cults. This has always struck me as conservative rhetoric, meant to protect a system in which scarcity seems imminent only because so many of the resources are currently concentrated in the hands of the few. I hoped that at some future date, those coffers might be opened, and a world of abundance would be possible.
Now the pandemic seems to fulfill my prophecy, at least the part about economic collapse. Nearly every data point is a crisis. Unemployment charts show jagged little teeth for a hundred years and then a sudden climb that takes the graph out of all proportion. I watch an animated version a friend shares on social media, and when that final spike begins, I feel a horrible dizzying vertigo rising with it, out of the limits of the graph, up and up and up. Where will this spike take us? I want to imagine that we can ride it into the end of capitalism, into the possibility of abundance, but the human cost is already overwhelming.
I feel trapped between ethics and politics. Ethically, I believe that it is right to make every technocratic compromise available to restore stability and save the lives that are spiraling into emotional and physical danger. Politically, I think this is a rare opportunity to act only on larger principles, to allow the system to collapse, and to build something better, a system not based on exploitation, resource hoarding, and competition.
I cannot celebrate this crisis, because people are dying. They are dying of the virus, but they are also dying from inequality: from lack of health care, from deaths of despair, from uneven exposure to risk. But I also cannot nostalgically dream of the system’s restoration, because to do so is to pretend that the price of the old way was not also paid quietly, month to month, in human suffering, pain, and death.
Inside the house, our lives revolve around the imperative to make the kind of compromises that maintain the status quo even as those compromises are becoming more and more impossible, more and more desperate. Every interaction holds the promise of a good day or a bad day. I think of happiness curves and pandemic curves and wonder, fleetingly, what the R0, or reproductive number, is of our happiness today and what tactics I can employ to move it above 1.0 so that its curve might sweep upward. And then there is the schedule, the monstrous thing I have built, its increasingly baroque grids, its formal insistence on back-and-forth, yours-and-mine, time parsed equally into little shares of work and care. It is all driven at maximizing the household happiness, of maintaining the mood curve, of avoiding the devastation of a sudden dive.
Maintaining the mood curve is difficult, because we are in a situation of scarcity. Of You said you would be done by 2:00 so I could work and now it’s 2:07. Of Mama I’m lonely, and I’m sorry not now sweetie I have to work. Of It’s been a month and I haven’t even looked at my book manuscript. Of Professor can we please meet over Zoom tomorrow I have to talk with you my mother is sick. Of empty shelves in the grocery store. Of sleepless nights tallying missed deadlines. Of our child curled up over her iPad, humming quietly to herself, three empty snack bowls surrounding her frame. Of my partner’s grief over five years of work on a book that he fears will be released into a void. Of my grief over missing my parents, their voices strained on the phone as they promise again not to leave the house.
I imagine that I can bundle all of this loss and lift it over my head like Atlas. And then I imagine that the right compromises will allow me to squeeze it into a marble, place it in my palm, and show it to my family, saying, See? It’s nothing. It’s so tiny.
Because in comparison, it is. My spouse and I have spent our lives protected by the US security state, by our white privilege, by the financial cushion provided to us by our upwardly mobile parents. And now, in the midst of a global catastrophe, we are being only lightly brushed with what scarcity feels like. But, as an unbalanced monolith can be toppled by the lightest tap of a finger, this glancing touch of loss feels as if it could destroy us.
Two things are true: These feelings are genuine. But they also reveal a profound weakness cultivated by an unjust and unequal system. Those who are randomly assigned a place at the top of the hierarchy are lucky, but feeble, unpracticed as we are at survival, at grief, at the heartbreak of intractable problems that cannot be resolved through compromise.
The lockdown order means no compromise. Compromising is coded as cheating. Either you obey or you cheat.
We are cheating, a friend confesses in a text. Their child is being cared for by someone not in their household so she and her partner can both work. I am struck by her use of the word, by its heavy moral weight.
Public-health experts know that people will cheat. That is why they choose a modified lockdown over a military-enforced quarantine, because as anyone who knows anything about zombie plots is aware, if you put up a wall, someone will figure out how to break through.
During its early battle with the virus, China had strict quarantines, entire regions cut off from the rest of the country, and no-exception lockdowns enforced by police. Its leadership boasted in the press about the efficacy of authoritarianism, as liberal capitalist societies flailed against the complexity of civil liberties and governmental transparency. The US version of the lockdown order is a liberal solution to a pandemic, because it relies not on the rigidity of armed enforcement, which public-health experts know will be resisted, but on the strength of fear and shame.
But fear is fleeting. And shame, like all efforts to control social behavior with morality, can quickly turn over into self-righteous indignation and the celebration of transgression. So it makes sense when armed people show up at capitol buildings, governors’ mansions, and statehouses across the country to demand the end of the lockdown, their masklessness a new partisan statement, like a bumper sticker or a message T-shirt, only lethal.
The face of the protest against lockdown measures is the far right, the rural white woman screaming for a hair appointment, her silver roots spelling out six weeks of shelter-in-place against the long mass of blonde curls.
But the mainstreaming of the antilockdown argument comes quietly from many corners. How long can we allow this to go on? the argument is whispered on Zoom, over the phone, across fences, from sidewalk to front porch. This is just not reasonable, we all moan at some point or another. Haven’t we done enough?
I say these things myself. Raised at the height of the technocratic imaginary, I, too, believe that there has to be a win-win solution, probably one that involves science (why is science so slow?) or entrepreneurial hustle (isn’t there money to be made?).
Viruses are terrible negotiating partners, but we persist in bargaining. I’ll give you restaurants if you give me dentist appointments. I’ll give you conferences if you give me elementary school. But the virus refuses to compromise. It just infects, replicates, and kills.
As late spring turns into summer, there appears to be a broad consensus among the voices amplified by major media outlets. They say, We’ve held up our part of the deal. We have washed hands and sewn masks. We have spent hundreds of hours on Zoom. We have changed our clothes at the door after work and showered in scalding water. We have argued with our children about inscrutable math problems and lost. We have watched, helpless, as they sleep until the afternoon, as their worlds narrow to a tiny screen. As our worlds narrow to a tiny screen. We have put on a happy face for grandparents and parents and aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters we haven’t seen in months, might not see for years, might never see again.
Many of us have been trained that this is how compromises work: We have done our part, and on some level we believe, against all sanity, that the virus will do the same.
Of course, the virus won’t reciprocate. And maybe seeing this happen, being faced with an opposing party who really will not compromise, allows white people to get a glimmer of what racial injustice means. The experience of being repeatedly exposed to the threat of death no matter what you do may be novel to some, but for Black Americans it is a fundamental fact of existence. One can avoid walking outside at night. One can keep one’s pockets empty, one’s hands visible. One can be taught at an early age to say, “Yes, officer” and make no quick movements. But the police state can always respond with a bullet or a chokehold. Because when it comes down to it, deeply entrenched power hierarchies backed by force are a lot like viruses. There is no need for them to compromise, because they have the power to kill.
The grocery store is terrifying and Instacart is on strike, so I try to give up perishables, stuffing my face with sliced bread and peanut butter, sliced bread and peanut butter, until moving my body in space feels like trying to lift my teeth out of a slice of bread covered in peanut butter: thick and grasping.
It might be all of the peanut butter or it might be the effort of managing the schedules. It might be the effort to be amenable, to not give up, to make things work. Whatever it is, my spouse and I are fighting more than usual, compromises failing, the family peace increasingly tenuous.
And then one day, a pandemic miracle: The farmers market begins weekly deliveries. As soon as the site goes live, I refresh the page again and again and pounce on one of the precious two hundred produce boxes, scarcer than concert tickets.
The day the box comes is gray. We spend it driving from trailhead to trailhead trying to find somewhere to hike that is open and not crowded. The trail we find is muddy, and hikers pass too close. I jump off the trail, into the tick-covered brambles. My spouse does too, but more slowly. Sometimes he stands his ground, whether out of principle or distraction, I can’t tell. Is it because space has begun to feel like a scarce resource? I grumble something passive-aggressive about gender, feeling the fire of moral self-righteousness rising. He snaps back, insisting that he did move, angry at the other hikers, furious at my criticism.
I stop looking at his face. On the drive home, I stare at my phone. Make plans for the following week. Answer work emails with the stock diplomatic phrases: I am looking into this. Thank you for letting me know. We will try to accommodate your request. I will get back to you. Thanks for thinking of it.
When we get home, the produce box is on the porch. I think: At last. Abundance. I bring it inside and as my spouse is hauling backpacks and muddy boots I begin to hold up item after item, naming them proudly, my frenzy increasing with his marked silence: Ozark mushrooms! Heirloom tomatoes!! Sunflower microgreens!!! I wave the microgreens in his face, which has not changed. I try again: SUNFLOWER MICROGREENS, I yell, the bag of tiny tendrils swaying wildly in my right hand.
I slam the box down on the floor. I yell something like I AM WORKING SO HARD TO MAKE US HAPPY and he yells back that it isn’t my job to make us happy as he hauls one of the seemingly endlessly proliferating piles of laundry upstairs.
Our child, compromiser in training, smiles brightly and says, I want to see the sunflower microgreens, Mama! I can’t stand to look her in the eyes because I don’t want to know how hard she is trying. Discouraged, she grabs a stack of books from the I Survived series (I Survived the Sinking of the Titanic, 1912; I Survived the Great Molasses Flood, 1919; I Survived the Attacks of September 11, 2001) and retreats to her room.
I start scrubbing the produce, imagining tenacious viral particles clinging to crevices in mushrooms, asparagus, radish greens. My shoulders are tight. I cannot remember when they didn’t feel this way. It occurs to me: the effort I am putting into fixing something that cannot be fixed. You got this, the tension in my shoulders seems to say. But what I want to say back is: Maybe I don’t.
I go upstairs. I enter the room where my spouse is angrily folding our child’s PJs.
I sit on the floor. Dust bunnies swirl around me, coming to rest in gray tufts on my bare toes.
There are no compromises to strike, because compromise requires the belief that unsatisfactory things can be made satisfactory, at least temporarily. That the pain and loss generated by a bad situation can be managed, or made fair, or tolerable, even if the underlying conflict remains.
We have been trying to give things up to make each other happy, but in doing so we have made the mistake of so many compromisers: We have pushed away the reality of those unsatisfactory conditions, when we could have confronted them in all of their intractability, in all of their dread.
That confrontation is the core of what we call love. And it has nothing to do with compromise as a value, though the small compromises of everyday life, the give-and-take of living together, become so much easier in its wake.
For the first time in weeks, I reach out and touch his upper arm. I feel his cold skin taut against my fingertips. And then I feel it slowly warm to my touch and soften.
I try to soften too, and when I do I wince at the harshness of what I am letting in: the loss of lives, of work, of friends, of family, all this loneliness, all this uncertainty. His embrace, too, when it comes, is heavy and sad. But it is also steadying. For the first time in months of being stuck together in the house, I don’t feel alone.
The lockdown orders expire one by one, which means nothing except that the state is retreating from responsibility.
The state will not impose an extended-lockdown order because it will not provide resources to a population that cannot work. It will withhold those resources so that the population will say, We are in a situation of scarcity; we must work. But the state will, as it turns out, use its resources with abandon when they are directed toward suppressing, beating, strangling, shooting, pepper spraying, and gassing a popular uprising against racism and capitalism. Suddenly, an abundance of tanks, shields, body armor, cuffs, Tasers, guns.
At the march, we shout all of the phrases we have shouted for years, but as all strict forms do, they take on new meaning in a new context. We chant “Shut it down!”as we walk up the ramp, locking down Forest Park Parkway. We mimic the action of the state, but we do it for different reasons. Not to put the economy into what economist Paul Krugman describes as a “medically induced coma,” but to question the economy’s origins and demand the redistribution of its spoils. Not to protect the bodies of the privileged, but to mourn the bodies that have been destroyed by racism, both overt and systemic.
And when we walk in the middle of the highway lanes, two thousand eyes made lazy with quarantine squinting in the sun, chanting “This is what democracy looks like!” what we mean is that democracy is made in conflict, in refusal, in actions that might seem excessive or extreme or too much, in the militant protection of those who are most vulnerable. We mean that democracy suffers when we are asked to compromise on our principles in advance in order to be practical, palatable, or unthreatening to those who want to maintain systems of injustice. We mean that democracy entails confronting pain, looking suffering people in the face, and rejecting our impulse to think we can solve every problem with a compromise.
Because sometimes we have to refuse to compromise, even though it is sad, even though it is scary. We have to change, to tolerate not getting what we want, to do so without the glamour and praise that come with moral sacrifice. We have to do it in the name of solidarity against racism and all forms of injustice, in the name of a democratic future in which compromises occur but are not held up as goals or values. Because in this future, the goal will be something uncompromising: the end of exploitation. And the end of exploitation will mean the end of scarcity, or at least its use to justify competition and violence.
I believe that we will win, the chant leader yells. And when I say it back, I try as hard as I can to mean it.