Isolating COVID-19: alienated crises, and the crisis of alienation

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

― Helen Keller

Neoliberalism largely functions via alienation, and crisis is not excluded from this. The inherent instability of capitalism inevitably leads to crisis; however, the experience of crisis is very often isolatedㅡby geographical region, time, or type. For example, economic expansion requires environmental exploitation, but for many, this exploitation is happening over there. They don’t see it and they don’t experience the direct negative consequences of it, so even if they’re aware it’s happening, it feels distant. They are physically isolated from the crisis of an oil spill. We can also feel temporal isolation from a shared crisis. The majority of people will feel the crisis of being unable to find work at some point in their life. Yet, the unemployment crisis often feels like a personal crisis because we are the only one feeling the crisis in the moment. Time separates our experience of the crisis. Then there is the most complex way crises are alienatedㅡthat is, by type. Homelessness, incarceration, routine hunger, being without care during a medical illness, drug addiction…while these are all crises, they’re very often viewed as completely independent and unrelated experiences. In reality, these crises are not unrelated, and for the Left, the relationship is obvious. A capitalist economic system directly causes (or severely exacerbates) all of these crises (see footnote [1], as well as Capital by Karl Marx, or for a soft-intro on the concepts of capitalism and alienation, check out Pod Damn America’s podcast episode Matt Christman’s Softcore History).

The Spectacle of Crisis

“By alienation is meant a mode of experience in which the person experiences himself as an alien. […] The alienated person is out of touch with himself as he is out of touch with any other person. He, like the others, are experienced as things are experienced; with the senses and with common sense, but at the same time without being related to oneself and to the world outside positively.”

― Erich Fromm, The Sane Society 

The segregation of crisis experience keeps people alienated from one another, and from a shared reality. The individual in crisis can’t help but feel alone, unable to relate to the experiences conveyed by others. Beyond loneliness, this can further lend to feelings of rejection, shame, or resentment. Feeling emotionally defensive, the individual will now be even more likely to dismiss or minimize the emotions of others in crisisㅡthe alienation from crisis recognition. Alternatively, they may feel unable to convey solidarity with wordsㅡthe alienation from language[2]. Capitalism alienates us from ourselves, from each other, from our labor…but it also isolates us from collective reality, leaving us with the spectacle in the absence of shared experience. The spectacle is “separation perfected,” or,

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. […]

The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification. As a part of society it is specifically the sector which concentrates all gazing and all consciousness. Due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is the common ground of the deceived gaze and of false consciousness, and the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of generalized separation.”

― Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle


Note: Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle can be a difficult text to comprehend…for a very approachable and entertaining intro to the ideas it covers, check out Peter Coffin’s youtube channelㅡspecifically his video Cultural Appropriation and The Spectacle


In the midst of social distancing recommendations, COVID-19 is actually connecting crises that we generally experience as segmented, unrelated personal crises. Unemployment, food shortages, inability to access adequate treatment/care, loneliness, boredom…instead of experiencing these crises as a series of personal experiences, we are made all too aware of their connection to the pandemic. Connect this pandemic to our economic system of production, and class consciousness becomes increasingly likely. Why are authority figures acting like “business as usual”, when we all know someone who’s been laid off? Why is there relief going towards stabilizing the stock market, but the elderly are still being forced to go into public spaces to buy groceries? How can we shift to online schooling when there’s families without the computers/technology necessary for this to be a viable option? What good is good healthcare when so many people can’t afford to see a doctor, or to even self-quarantine? ICE agents continue to make arrestsㅡwon’t this type of policing prevent many from seeking testing when they show symptoms? What are containment measures for the incarcerated? Where do I get tested? How am I supposed to pay for an ambulance ride when I have to make rent and my hours have been cut down? I might be sick, but how am I going to pay for groceries if I miss my shift and pay a babysitter now that my kid’s out of school? 

Right now, the depressed person that feels socially alone, the sick person made to keep going to work, the hungry person worried about how she’ll feed her kids without school lunch…these crises are always happening under capitalism. Yet they normally appear segmented, and therefore seem unrelated and uncommon. But now the obvious relation these crises have to the COVID-19 pandemic links them all. Crisis alienation is worn down by a crisis we know is happening everywhereㅡthe illusion that these are personal crises cannot be maintained in the way it normally is.

One may argue that there are frequent shared crises to look back onㅡthe collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11 may come to mind if you’re American. Putting aside the fact that this being an American crisis means it was a physically isolated crisis, let’s consider that manyㅡperhaps mostㅡAmericans felt alienated from this event. The spectacle of crisis always has this way of feeling performative, even optional. We can choose to partake in this communal crisis (and we’ll often want to because we’re isolated and therefore seek out social connection); however, the knowledge that you can “opt out” is always there. Even if opting out isn’t an option for you, the knowledge that it is for other people gives the crisis this sense of artificiality. This has nothing to do with whether or not one should partake, rather the material and mental option to “opt out” and resume “business as usual” is concretely there, whether or not you think that option is a moral one. For the vast majority of Americans, the option to “opt out” of the crisis of 9/11 existed. While far less spectacular, COVID-19 isn’t a crisis most people can ignore. They can’t ignore that their spouse or roommate lost their job. They can’t ignore that their parent or college professor is in a high-risk pool of individuals. They can’t ignore their children being out of school. These aren’t choices, they’re crises acting upon them, whether they like it or not. This isn’t just spectacle, and for many well-off people in the US, this may be the first “national crisis” they genuinely can’t choose to “opt out” ofㅡhopefully this clarifies the distinction here between shared crises and the spectacle of shared crisis (which can still very much be real crises for a great many people).

Cultural Myths and Independence

For many, the COVID-19 crisis is being experienced in physical quarantine, yet this crisis may push many towards a more social, less individualistic understanding of human connection. That is, one where human relation goes beyond the exchange of goods and services. The pandemic makes it clear just how reliant we are on one another. Not only is the lone wolf a myth, it’s a dangerous one. Human love is central to everything we do on this earth…you can only “opt out” by living your life in delusion. The compulsion to control all the wealth on earth for one’s own consumption is just that, a compulsion. The nationalist fixation on “securing the border,” the stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction, and, perhaps most peculiar, the wealthy scrambling to purchase fallout bunkers and helicopter escape pads…this is the neurotic behavior of an obsessive-compulsive. It is the physical manifestation of a debilitating mental obsession that one is entirely self-reliant in the face of the obvious lived reality that one is simply not. Not only will these material pursuits not lead to salvation, there is also the obvious reality that other people produced these things. No one person can build a luxury fallout shelter on his own (you couldn’t even extract the natural resources needed on your own!), and this unavoidable reality leads one to the schizophrenic fascination with commodity ownershipㅡhoarding. We need a global reconciliation of our relationships with our fellow men, and this is going to require a conscious reduction of materialism, e.g. the endless pursuit of possessions, not that we ought to abandon material analysis in favor of philosophical idealism.


Note: It is interesting how modern capitalism has muddied the meaning of the terms idealism and materialism, such that colloquial usage is almost directly opposed to the original philosophical meaningㅡsee the article Why was Marx a materialist?. This is arguably, on the societal-scale, an indication of how neoliberalism has alienated us from language[1], as it has alienated us from the material world (reality) on the whole. 


“The need for speed and newness, which can only be satisfied by consumerism, reflects restlessness, the inner flight from oneself.”

― Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be? The Nature of the Psyche 

Perhaps COVID-19 will make clear to more people that capitalism is not a rational system, so much as it is a rationalizing system, and, in the words of Erich Fromm, “rationalizing is not a tool for penetration of reality but a post-factum attempt to harmonize one’s own wishes with existing reality.” Previously it was unimaginable that labor pause for even a moment, lest we risk our supposedly-fragile social ties to one another and inevitably devolve into violent chaos. Yet, with the closing of factories, schools, churches/Mosques, football stadiums, amusement parks, and resorts, this century-long assumption is dissolving. And in fact, it’s becoming more clear that we don’t need police, lawyers, and military to “maintain order”…we don’t need professionals to negotiate the distance between us, as it’s this thinking that’s caused that social alienation to begin with. We don’t need the authority of capitalism to enforce labor because production in pursuit of obscene wealth doesn’t actually create systems that care for people.

This isn’t a rational economic arrangement, rather it’s the rationalization of the addict, the obsessive-compulsive…it’s no surprise that late-stage capitalism is marked by an exponential rise in mental health crises. Further, it’s no surprise that reduced isolation (such as in the form of a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous) is more often than not the remedy to a “personal” mental crisis. Neoliberalism and its fixation on hyper-individualism is the delusion and the crisisㅡthe lone wolf, the entrepreneur, the self-made man, the girl boss…these are selfish aspirations. This isn’t a moral judgement, it’s an acknowledgment that excessive self-interest, as well as excessive self-evaluation, are both compulsive responses to severe alienationㅡfrom oneself, other beings, and reality:

“The failure of modern culture lies not in its principle of individualism, not in the idea that moral virtue is the same as the pursuit of self-interest, but in the deterioration of the meaning of self-interest; not in the fact that people are too much concerned with their self-interest, but that they are not concerned enough with the interest of their real self; not in the fact that they are too selfish, but that they do not love themselves. […] Selfish persons are incapable of loving others, but they are not capable of loving themselves either”

― Erich Fromm, Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics

“Selfishness is not identical with self-love but with its very opposite. Selfishness is one kind of greediness. Like all greediness, it contains an insatiability, as a consequence of which there is never any real satisfaction. Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.”

― Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom 

People often repeat the phrase “ignorance is bliss,” but ignorance of neoliberalism’s far-reaching influence on all aspects of life will not end in a personal feeling of well-being. Pursuit of personal happiness exclusively will not lead to happiness. The fact that anyone thinks otherwise is a testament to just how alienated we are from ourselves. The classification of narcissism and greed as morally wrong, but still personally beneficial, is a collective delusion. One that signals the complete infiltration of capitalist dogma into every last aspect of life. You’re not apolitical, you’re not moderate or practical, and you’re not uninterested…you very likely don’t know enough to even make such a claim. You’re distracting yourself because the only thing you fear more than non-existence is existence. The only thing scarier than death is life.

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

― Helen Keller

________________________________________

[1] “Once the primary bonds which gave security to the individual are severed, once the individual faces the world outside of himself as a completely separate entity, two courses re-open to him since he has to overcome the unbearable state of powerlessness and aloneness. By one course he can progress to “positive freedom”; he can relate himself spontaneously to the world in love and work, in the genuine expression of his emotional, sensuous and intellectual capacities; he can thus become one again with man, nature, and himself, without giving up the independence and integrity of his individual self. The other course open to him is to fall back, to give up his freedom, and to try to overcome his aloneness by eliminating the gap that has arisen between his individual self and the world. This second course never reunites him with the world in the way he was related to it before he merged as an “individual,” for the fact of his separateness cannot be reversed; it is an escape from an unbearable situation which would make life impossible if it were prolonged. This course of escape, therefore, is characterized by its compulsive character, like every escape from threatening panic; it is also characterized by the more or less complete surrender of individuality and the integrity of the self. Thus it is not a solution which leads to happiness and positive freedom; it is, in principle, a solution which is to be found in all neurotic phenomena. It assuages an unbearable anxiety and makes life possible by avoiding panic; yet it does not solve the underlying problem and is paid for by a kind of life that often consists only of automatic or compulsive activities.”

― Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom 


[2] “Among the many forms of alienation, the most frequent one is alienation in language. If I express a feeling with a word, let us say, if I say “I love you,” the word is meant to be an indication of the reality which exists within myself, the power of my loving. The word “love” is meant to be a symbol of the fact love, but as soon as it is spoken it tends to assume a life of its own, it becomes a reality. I am under the illusion that the saying of the word is the equivalent of the experience, and soon I say the word and feel nothing, except the thought of love which the word expresses. The alienation of language shows the whole complexity of alienation. Language is one of the most precious human achievements; to avoid alienation by not speaking would be foolish — yet one must be always aware of the danger of the spoken word, that it threatens to substitute itself for the living experience. The same holds true for all other achievements of man; ideas, art, any kind of man-made objects. They are man’s creations; they are valuable aids for life, yet each one of them is also a trap, a temptation to confuse life with things, experience with artifacts, feeling with surrender and submission.” ― Erich Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man 

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