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Apocalypse Normal

We can decide that we won’t live and die on these terms.

The pandemic has given us a preview of life during an era of collapse.

Part of the Series

“Apocalypse normal means we can go back to school, get on planes, and hit up restaurants and bars — as long as we don’t think too hard about disabled people, unvaccinated children or long COVID. It means experiencing escalating heat waves, droughts, hurricanes and wildfires, and scrolling past news about ‘code red’ climate reports, and the refugees that climate catastrophes create, without retaliating or rebelling against political leaders who have once again refused to chart a different course.” In this episode of Movement Memos, Kelly Hayes tackles the idea of “getting back to normal.”

Music by Son Monarcas and Ebb & Flod


Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Welcome to Movement Memos, a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, writer and organizer, Kelly Hayes. On this show, we talk a lot about building the relationships and analysis that we need to create movements that can win. Today, I want to say a few words about the idea of getting back to normal. In the wake of an all-but-pointless COP 26, the gutting of Biden’s infrastructure bill, and the collapse of progressive leverage on the Build Back Better act, we should be talking about the fact that we live in extraordinary, disastrous times, and how nothing remotely adequate is being done to address the scope of what we are up against, but instead, our political leaders, the mainstream media, and a whole a lot of everyday people, continue to fetishize normalcy. The very first episode of this podcast aired on February 10 of 2020, and it was recorded only a few weeks before COVID-19 would transform the world we live in. During that episode I said, “An overwhelming political climate has left many Americans frozen in a state of uncertainty. Unable or unwilling to fully process the enormity of climate change or the tragic circus of Trumpism, many are going through the motions of normalcy while the world burns.” If you crammed in some mention of the pandemic, and our failure to process the deaths of more than 5 million people, I could have been talking about what we’re experiencing now, in November of 2021. Granted, Trump is no longer president, but Trumpism is alive and well and taking over school boards, while Republicans dismantle voting rights and reproductive freedom at the state level. Amid this ongoing right-wing attack, a lot of people are burnt out, but I also think many are experiencing something that we could call moral injury.

I recently had a health care worker named Hannah Winchester on the show, and Hannah explained that the distinction between burnout and moral injury was the assumed causation of a person’s hurt and fatigue, as well as the presumed remedy. When we tell people they’re suffering from burnout, the problem is usually approached in terms of what the person experiencing burnout can do differently to manage their stress or maintain a better work/life balance. But when we talk about moral injury, we’re talking about our reactions to conditions that are being imposed upon us, and to the dehumanization and exploitation that we’re experiencing. When the problem is that we are being mistreated, devalued and dehumanized, the solution is not to budget our time better, or do some deep breathing exercises, or to treat ourselves to a bubble bath. We can do all of those things, if we want to, but they are not solutionary.

Nearly 100,000 people died of overdoses in the U.S. between March 2020 and March 2021. During 2020, the proportion of mental health-related emergency room visits among youth aged 12–17 years old increased 31% from the previous year. Some studies indicate that rates of depression and anxiety have returned to pre-pandemic levels, but as the editors of Scientific American recently wrote, “The longer-term disruptions, losses and volatile shifts from hope to fear to languishing are harder to parse. COVID has already killed or disabled millions, deepened economic insecurity and racial inequality, and forced radical adaptations to daily life; its serious effects on mental health and well-being very likely will continue and in ways still unknown.” What we have experienced during the pandemic is a deadly system becoming much deadlier. We have seen that we don’t have the structures of care that we need to assist people in times of crisis, and that people who are treated as disposable on a good day will be completely ground under during times of crisis. We cannot obligingly recreate normalcy on those terms.

2020 may have been the most politically energetic year of my lifetime. We saw a mass rebellion against police violence converge with a mass movement of mutual aid. We also saw a lot of energy channeled into Trump’s removal, which I believe was necessary, but those efforts also set us up for some problems. For one thing, the election of a Democrat, in such dire times, gave people a lot of misplaced hope. Sure, Biden was preferable to a modern cartoon Hitler who hijacked planes full of PPE and tried to overthrow the government, but the neoliberal leadership of Democrats delivered us to Trumpism, and right now, it looks like they’re on track to do it again.

People wanted to believe that electing Biden meant that we had turned a corner, and in a sense, we had, at least temporarily. We dodged the ascent of full blown right-wing authoritarianism, and that’s not nothing. But even amid the optimism of the moment, I don’t think there was as much naivety about Biden as we saw under Obama, where so many people believed that if we gave him time, and asked in just the right way, a neoliberal Democrat would fix our problems. I don’t think the disillusionment we’re seeing is the result of people having believed in Biden, the way people believed in Obama. Some people actually managed to get hyped about Biden, but I think largely, what people got attached to, whether they will admit it or not, was that the idea that Biden would bring back normalcy.

After all, maintaining a shitty status quo is what Democrats do best. So I think a lot of people hoped that if we just got the wheels of government turning again, we would get our old lives back. Biden certainly wanted us to believe that. In fact, a return to normal is still the driving theme of his presidency. But the normal we knew is dead, and what we’re being offered is something like a zombie, and much like the zombies of film and television, this normal is deadly, and it will only become more decrepit with time. Zombie normalcy, or apocalypse normal, means we can go back to school, get on planes, and hit up restaurants and bars — as long as we don’t think too hard about disabled people or unvaccinated people, including children, or long COVID. It means experiencing escalating heat waves, droughts, hurricanes and wildfires, and scrolling past news about “code red” climate reports, and the refugees that climate catastrophes create, without retaliating or rebelling against political leaders who have once again refused to chart a different course.

According to CNN’s “Back-to-Normal Index,” the U.S. economy “is operating at 93% of where it was in early March” of 2020. I find that page fascinating because… I’m fascinated by morbid things. Sometimes, I think I find politicians interesting in the same way that I find serial killers interesting, but that’s kind of silly, because serial killers do far less damage to society. Interestingly, one of the factors that the “Back-to-Normal Index” charts is unemployment, which the page notes, fewer people are applying for. There’s no mention of the fact that far fewer people now qualify for unemployment, so the fact that fewer people are applying doesn’t necessarily mean that unemployed people are experiencing less hardship. But it does suggest that conditions are improving for employers, many of whom would prefer a more desperate, pliable workforce — and after all, the page is called the “Back-to-Normal” index, not the “Quality of Life and Society Index.” Within the realm of “normalcy,” workers still get screwed. That’s the status quo, so for the system, the fact that more people are going to run out of money and accept jobs that are dangerous and/or dehumanizing is actually a big win.

I also want to talk about schools for a moment, because, holy hell, what teachers, families and students are going through has been mindblowing for me. Just look at my own city: After fighting relentlessly to get students back in classrooms, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has offered next to nothing in the way of contact tracing or a functional testing apparatus for students. After promising and failing to deliver regular testing for students, Lightfoot’s administration recently declared that regular school-based testing for students was never really necessary. After vaccinations for children five and up were approved, many parents hoped local schools would host vaccination clinics. But instead of planning for that contingency, Chicago Public Schools have given every public school student in the entire city of Chicago a single day off to find a vaccination appointment somewhere in the city. It’s all been a really tragic spectacle to behold. Anytime the mayor has been questioned about the lack of safety measures around COVID in Chicago Public Schools, she talks about the importance of in-person learning. The reality is that, for these students, in-person learning is no longer a question mark. It’s happening. That is no longer the debate. The city simply isn’t taking responsibility for creating safe environments for students. Why? It never has. This posture toward safety is actually completely normal for Chicago Public Schools. That normalcy is simply occurring in the context of a pandemic, which means that for some people, it has proven deadly, and for others, it will lead to disability and debilitation.

So what does apocalypse-normal feel like for people who give a damn? Pretty terrible, right? We are being told to live our lives, but the world is not the same and we are not the same — and we were already pretty upset with the world when this whole thing began. Some of us hoped that the pandemic might be a portal, as Arundhati Roy wrote, and that the crisis and destabilization of capitalism might stoke a great political awakening, and lead us somewhere new. Some people have given up on those hopes. I personally believe it’s too soon to gauge the radicalizing power of the pandemic, and that those shifts are still ongoing, but I understand why people feel forlorn. Electoral contests have traditionally usurped energy that might otherwise propel radicalism, and there’s perhaps no better example of that phenomenon in my lifetime than the election of 2020. However necessary Trump’s removal may have been, and I believe it was essential, electoralism definitely tempered a moment of rage and rising consciousness, and the relief that people experienced, after Trump’s removal, has manifested itself in disturbing ways. Tearful liberal outrage about children in cages under Trump has given way to indifference about the Biden administration’s adoption of some nearly identical policies.

I’ve talked a bit on the show about the liberal abandonment of migrant justice, and honestly, I think that gear-shifting mentality is also responsible for some of the bizarre shaming we witnessed last spring, when some liberals scolded vaccinated people who continued to wear masks, as if they were holding up progress by not having faith in the restoration of normalcy. “Trust the science,” they insisted, as though “the science” were a singular, verified authority, rather than a global scramble among experts that produced a lot of incorrect conclusions along the way. Still, cautious vaccinated people were mocked, lectured, pathologized and even blamed for the hesitancy of people who refused to get vaccinated. Why? Because they weren’t cooperating with a transformation that a lot of people desperately wanted — the so-called transition back to normal.

I’ve had some people tell me that for them, “back to normal,” means spending time with their friends and loved ones again, or resuming certain activities or routines, and I get that, but honestly, I think we should start speaking with more specificity. If we are talking about how we can’t wait to see our loved ones again, I think we should say that, rather than using the word “normal.” As I’ve said in the past, I don’t think we should jump down people’s throats for saying they want to get back to normal, but I do think we can have engaging conversations about what we do and don’t miss about the way things were, and about how we actually deserve a lot better than the normal we had. I think the Great Resignation is evidence that some people may be ready for those conversations. I think the important thing is to speak from a place of empathy, curiosity and solidarity, rather than lecturing people for using the word “normal” to describe what they want. Instead of pontificating about how normal was bad for a lot of people, I think activists and organizers need to listen, and also talk about the things we miss and would like to get back, while also asking important questions about what needs to be different, and how we can get there. That’s advice I’ve been giving since the beginning of the pandemic, but I think it bears repeating. Because I see you all struggling, and I appreciate that you’ve held onto your humanity enough to know that, even if you’re tired, and you’re not sure which way to pivot, that what we are being handed is bullshit.

The pandemic has given us a preview of life during an era of collapse. As climate catastrophes and mass displacement continue, apocalypse-normal will mean an ever-increasing tolerance for preventable suffering and mass death. We all want a light at the end of the tunnel. But even though the pandemic isn’t permanent, we are living in an era of catastrophe. We cannot pin our hopes on some distant glow. We need to create light where we are, and extend it to one another. And sometimes, we’re going to have to grab a pick axe and destroy whatever’s obstructing the light. And whatever we do, we cannot afford to imagine that normalcy is that light, because it’s just a mirage drawing us deeper into the desert.

The good news is that the pandemic has also reminded us that human potential runs in more than one direction. We’ve seen the power of mutual aid and collective action, and human ingenuity. We’ve been reminded that mass protest can bring the powerful to their knees and thrust ideas as big as prison abolition into mainstream dialogues. The fact that the Democratic establishment is still attacking the defund movement and blaming it for their own missteps and failures tells you that our ideas have gained ground. Never be discouraged by those accusations, because Democrats are not being hindered by radical ideas they’ve never embraced or subscribed to. They are being hindered by the fact that their rhetoric is aimed at everyday people, who are desperate for just policies and financial relief, while their actions serve the rich. They are hindered by their own broken promises and the fact that they rely on fear and shame for voter turnout while their opponents stoke the enthusiasm of actual zealots. The answers will not come from them, and if anyone hasn’t reconciled that yet, it’s time. What we have is each other and our willingness to shake the shit out of this system.

Apocalypse-normal is now. But we can decide that we won’t live and die on these terms. We can decide that we won’t abandon the vulnerable, in our schools or workplaces, or on a global scale. We can refuse to go through the motions. We can develop new ways of living and caring for one another. We can make demands that reflect the scope of our struggles, rather than boxing up our hopes and imaginations, and bending to the will of the ruling class. We can fight the zombies of the old world, here on the edge of oblivion, and I believe that we can win.

I want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes

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