Staring into the abyss

Some thoughts about how we got here by Laurie Essig

Long before the Pandemic began, there were deep cracks in the system. We just couldn’t bring ourselves to look at them. Now we are staring into the abyss.

When I was four years old, my family drove to the Grand Canyon. I don’t remember anything about it, but there is a photo of me dangling over the abyss, my three older siblings holding onto me. I am looking away, trying not to see how badly things might end up. This is where we have been as a nation, as a world, for decades. The cracks were there, they were getting deeper each year, and yet we refused to look, let alone to do anything about them.

The Virus has changed that. It has forced us to stare into the abyss, to see that our medical system kills Black and Indigenous and Latinx people with a casual and systemic racism. That our economy was not just unequal, but unequal in ways so deeply gendered and raced that at the time I write this the stock market is nearing record highs even as 40,000,000 Americans could be evicted within the month. I should probably say “are likely to be evicted” since our dysfunctional government cannot figure out how to get ordinary Americans, the kind without stock portfolios, a measly but life-saving $1200 stimulus check. Even as white collar (and mostly white) workers benefit from low interest rates and the ability to work from home, Black and Latinx workers, especially women, are the most likely to be experiencing joblessness and food insecurity.

We could see these cracks in the system, but we did nothing about them. The question that wakes me up in the middle of the night, night after night, is why? Why were we not addressing these deep and dangerous fissures in our country?

The answer is complicated. I think most people wanted to make things better. But we somehow couldn’t face the work of real structural change. Instead we traded structural solutions for emotional ones. 

We created feelings of “we’re doing good” even when things were getting significantly worse. A lot of us had good intentions about making things better, but “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Take recycling. It makes us feel better to put all that plastic in the blue bin because the oil companies (which produce the plastic) convinced us that we could turn that old plastic yogurt container into a new toy. We can’t. We don’t. The US burns 6 times as much plastic as it recycles and most plastic around the world (about 80%) just ends up in landfills or burned or in the ocean to create those heart breaking images of sea turtles choking on it.

If that’s too depressing an image, take higher ed. We feel great about our “diversity.” At the institution where I teach, nearly every year sees “the most diverse class ever” and everyone congratulates themselves on how amazingly anti-racist we are. And yet, a fair amount of evidence shows that elite schools are more elite than ever. They may let in kids of different skin tones, but a quarter of the kids come from the top 1% of earners while only 14% come from the bottom 60% of earners. Still, diversity becomes a “happy sign,” as Sarah Ahmed says. It makes us feel like we are solving white supremacy at elite educational institutions because we have the best intentions even as those institutions are more difficult to enter than ever before.

Good intentions might have led us to the bottomless pit we are in, but Intentions were all we had. Somewhere around 1980 the real and necessary possibilities for structural change came up against an ideological wall the likes of which we had never encountered. This wall was comprised of two contradictory currents: neoliberalism and the affective turn in theory and politics.

With the Reagan Revolution, a political and economic onslaught of neoliberal policies and laws made it increasingly impossible to unionize for workers or students. Even as the position of all workers, all students, all parents, and all humans became increasingly precarious over the next fifty years, with most Americans much worse off, our ability to counter that precariousness was hamstrung by the end of collective movements and structural change. Communism was dead and ideological claims like “personal responsibility” and “a rising tide floats all boats” were so widely believed that to say otherwise was to mark oneself as outside political possibilities. Large-scale identity movements such as Second Wave Feminism and the Civil Rights movements had also fractured leaving us with no obvious way out.

In response to the collapse of so many collective movements, progressive activism took a much more affective turn. Of course, all politics is about emotions, but emotion was all we had. As the Chicago Collective Feel Tank put it, public spheres are as much a result of feelings as they are “rationality and institutions.”  Our affective states are always intertwined with structures (and our structures are always produced through emotions). Or as their tee shirts say, “Depressed? It might be political.”

And so we are depressed, and dispossessed and dying of a virus and it is deeply political.

This highly political and depressing project started among a group of people, feminist scholars, at an elite educational institution. We saw the world collapsing around us. Then we saw the virus in our backyard, at an apple orchard, in picturesque Vermont. The workers who were sick were all from Jamaica. They lived in substandard and crowded housing. Slave quarters. We dug deeper. Although here “legally” on H2A visas, the Jamaican workers were in many ways debt slaves. As labor organizer Nelson Carrasquillo puts it, the conditions of H2A visa workers in US agriculture is “eerily similar to the conditions under which slaves lived and labored.” The Jamaican men were here all the time, picking apples, like the undocumented and mostly Mexican workers who make the dairy farms run. We knew it. But we couldn’t look. Instead we focused on the beautiful images of the Vermont Tourism Agency and imagined that “local” and “organic” foods were produced by lovely (white?) families who were well compensated and had health insurance.

This online journal is an attempt to stop looking away. The conditions of food production within global capitalism require large-scale structural change, not just feel good consumerism at the local farmers’ market. The IMF’s debt-exploitation of Jamaica requires a large-scale movement to demand debt forgiveness and changes to IMF policies and an attempt to hold the countries that benefit the most from such debt- exploitation accountable. In other words, the US owes Jamaican workers a lot more than decent housing and decent living conditions. It owes them actual reparations so that their own agriculture and economy can be rebuilt.

This is the work that lies ahead. A constant vigilance against replacing the real work of social justice with the emotional well-being that comes from being a “conscientious consumer.” We are trying to look at the cracks in the system, the cracks that became crystal clear with the Pandemic, but were always there. The more we look, the deeper and darker the cracks in the system appeared. And so we are standing on the edge of the abyss, looking down.

Laurie Essig, on behalf of the Feminist Engaged Research Collective