We have generational trauma. We are living through a global pandemic. We are literally neurodivergent and a minor. We are riddled with climate grief. We are, for one reason or another, unable to cope.
I can respect an inability to cope. A nervous breakdown once in a while does wonders for your overall perspective, and there are several arenas in which I function well below your average well-adjusted teenager: I’ve never been able to leave a party at a reasonable hour, get a driver’s license, keep a phone, or sit still long enough to climb the corporate ladder. The inability to cope in one domain or another is part of being human, and attempts to eliminate it are for people who enjoy living in San Francisco.
But there is a strain of discourse that insists an inability to cope in one’s day-to-day life is in almost all cases a political problem, or even the primary political problem. By volume, the most examples are on social media. Sometimes it’s an elaborate hypothetical in which asking a disabled person to make alternate arrangements and forgo ordering Instacart groceries for one day of a strike is tantamount to a genocidal program. Sometimes it’s a prompt tweet inviting you into a post-revolutionary fantasy world where, instead of collecting municipal garbage, you will be “doing art.” In the right-wing version, it’s a yearning for the bronze age civilization in which you would have been a feared warrior king rather than a software engineer answering to female product managers. Somehow, being born into a historical moment when moderate clerical abilities can lead to impressive status and resource acquisition is still to be crippled by fate, NPCs, or Soros agents.
What binds these pleas together is an application of “the personal is political” so expanded in scope that, for a certain kind of person, personal problems, anxieties, and dissatisfactions are illegible or illegitimate unless described as political problems. This can be a compromise with a guilty, self-punishing instinct of the self-consciously privileged, especially if the political problem in question is borne on behalf of another. For the would-be steppe warlord, it posits an artificially withheld world in which, naturally and without friction, you would be every bit the man you long to be. In either case, the complete identification of human foible with structural failure excuses you from identifying and dealing with personal problems as such. Especially when it turns out the real culprit is capitalism.
Capitalism is the reason we sometimes tie our identities to material status objects. Capitalism is the reason we want to be paid for writing. It is capitalism that makes you feel bad that you didn’t learn to bake sourdough during quarantine.
“‘Why aren’t I working more quickly, doing more?’ thinks the capitalist part of my brain,” writes Huffington Post author Monica Torres.
Capitalism, in this rhetorical strain, is not so much the object of analysis or a concrete historical phenomenon as an all-purpose gesture. “Capitalism” is useful everywhere: as the punchline of self-deprecating jokes about the way we live now, as a perennial-but-distant bogeyman that explains chronic frustrations without ever causing enough pain to force serious disruption. Most importantly, its invocation immediately establishes a phenomenon in the realm of the political, without any further work required.
Perhaps the foremost chronicler of failure to cope under capitalism is Anne Helen Petersen, who leveraged the massive success of her 2019 BuzzFeed essay on millennial burnout into a book on the same topic, and now writes a Substack exploring the various indignities of modern life. Over this period, Petersen has conjured up a somewhat frightening vision of the average millennial: paralyzed, exhausted, unbearably burdened by the stress of maintaining relationships and living life. A 2019 piece suggested that the benefit of a cooking startup is that its boomer coaches are available to guide you through the process of buying and cooking your own food. Petersen writes “It’s not unlike having a mom-like figure on call to text you tips, only without the baggage of actually texting your mom.” This assistance is required because of burnout, which, in Petersen’s view, is a cross-class generational phenomenon imposed by a variety of social conditions. We all have it. And more recently, Petersen has turned her attention to the various ways we are all exhausted. A recent newsletter entry describes the experience of hair loss, which Petersen attributes to pandemic stress.
“We compartmentalized the stress and ongoing trauma, flattening it into something survivable, but we nonetheless ate it for breakfast, and lunch, and dinner. We swam in that stress. We slept in it. We swallowed it in gulps. We lived through it, and we told ourselves stories of resilience, because what other choice did we have.
But the body is bad at pretending. It keeps the damn score.”
Most writing about burnout (and there has been plenty of it in the wake of Petersen’s original BuzzFeed essay) tends to lean heavily on “we”; it accords with the contention that burnout is a universal ailment. But who is the “we” of pandemic stress? The line cook who watched his co-workers die? The children forced to adjust to the misery of zoom school? The laid-off bartender? Or the information economy worker with a yard, no dependents, and disposable income to spend on delivery? Did all these people really experience “trauma?” in a recognizably similar way?
There are of course no incremental units of suffering doled out inversely by income, no guarantees that comfort will protect you from the profound ravages of life. But the failure to cope mode of culture writing avoids the personalization of pain. The claim is not “I am stricken because I had to bury my father or recover from a long illness or lose my job or confront my relationship with alcohol or bid farewell to a lover.” Despite formulaic acknowledgements that of course others have it worse, the basic claim remains the same: “The persistent low grade dysfunction I am experiencing is a social problem.”
This requires sleight of hand. To project an experience outward onto the collective, a writer must first draw the concrete sufferings of others inward, subsuming them into a continuum of what “we” experience.
A Vox article about election night self care warns:
“The cumulative stress and trauma most Americans have experienced this past year is still weighing heavy on pretty much everyone. It’s wishful thinking to believe that those anxiety levels will be collectively reduced once the election is over.”
One Boston-based writer of queer fiction describes how his pandemic cluster took between a day and a week of vacation to recover from the experience of watching the tallies mount up. “I remember last election, the day after was such an overwhelming emotional experience that I couldn’t imagine doing that all over again, so I took the day off.” Here, finding televised electoral politics a grueling ordeal that requires recovery time indicates, not an anxiety disorder, but a functioning civic conscience.
I believe there are people sporting gray hairs with worry solely over the fate of the republic. I can imagine a tortured citizen-statesman lifted from a Ciceronian oration crossed with A Tale of Two Cities. But I do not believe this is a particularly common problem.
Nor do I believe, as Petersen often posits, that personal underperformance is not only the result of oppressive social relations, but a potential form of resistance to them.
In an essay on “revenge bedtime procrastination,” she writes that the habit of routinely delaying needed sleep with unsatisfactory activities such as social media scrolling can be understood as a form of rebellion against the demands of employers. She even sees possible glimmers of a revolution. “Poke it a few more times, give it a bit more language to understand itself, and it might, might begin to understand itself as an early, bewildered, form of a movement.”
Petersen is not wrong that anti-human economies tend to make for bad living on the individual scale. The question is whether, if important causality occurs on the macro level, you have any capability or responsibility for dealing with it at the micro.
Failure to cope says no — if only political problems are legitimate, only political solutions are admissible. This has the odd effect of filtering all attempts at self-integration through a political lens. Hence the proliferation of articles explaining why brushing your teeth in the morning is a radical act. Even basic self-soothing behavior seems to count — hence Petersen’s otherwise inexplicably naïve belief that staying up too late scrolling on your phone might someday become a movement.
It may be the case that many personal infirmities can only be fully repaired in a repaired world, but this does not obviate the need to pull ourselves together as best we can in this broken one. Any serious attempt to topple capitalism would require more discipline, more courage, more endurance, more capability, not less.
When living “under capitalism” becomes a catch-all explanation for what you can’t manage — whether that’s getting on the metaphorical treadmill or stepping off it — it assumes the nature of a complaint to an adjudicating authority. Since capitalism has impressed such impossible conditions on us, we can’t reasonably be expected to deal with it until they improve. But in fact there is no one to adjudicate between you and capital, no one to say yes, that really is too much, let’s reassign this project. There is no political program that will release you from the necessity of doing more than you should have to or feel capable of doing, in politics as in every other part of life.
If you think seriously about the good life and pursue it, you will probably fail in ways large and small.
And of course, there are more sinister possibilities than learned helplessness. Since under capitalism no one is really responsible for their actions, since we’d all be making better choices if the referees would just level the playing field, you can’t be blamed if you build weapons for Raytheon or AI for Facebook or write vacuous propaganda for the Washington Post, or climb to the top by betraying others . You’re not cravenly protecting your own interests at the expense of principle, you’re just participating in society somewhat. The totalizing nature of capital’s domination simultaneously excuses us both from revolutionary action and from an attempt at a life with honor within it.
And yet in the end I am guilty of the same sins as everyone else. Having laid out at length the political problems with delegating the responsibility for coping with your own life to a political program, I must confess that my primary concern is personal, not political. I do not hate the knowledge workers at whom this type of essay is directed (I am one of them). I believe that large swathes of them are experiencing anxious alienation from their own lives. I agree that super-individual forces are significantly involved. But I also think there is something debilitating about hearing and internalizing the message that the paralysis and malaise that seems to afflict so many is wholly externally imposed, that constrained choices are not real choices, that sending emails 16 hours a day is something only collapse of capitalism can mend.
Petersen’s most acute insight is perhaps in identifying a link between relentlessly optimized childhoods designed to prevent downward mobility, and the professionally competent but profoundly enervated millennials overwhelmed by the prospect of canceling plans, of keeping plans, of cooking food, of texting their mothers. I think she is correct. I think it’s possible that for many, considering the shape of your life and then living it with vigor is so difficult because it cannot be externally validated. Unlike education and work, it offers no socially obvious meritocratic path. The moments where, like sourdough, it proves, are largely invisible — in cooking, in walking, corresponding with a friend, in chatting with a neighbor or registering to give blood. They cannot be tallied up and put on a resume. They are never “finished.” The progress you make is spiraling rather than linear; circling steadily, slowly, around your weak points, taking two steps forward and one step back, building habits so slowly that only in retrospect can you see your life become different than it was. And there is no one who can tell you that you did it right. But this is not the condition of life under capitalism, this is life itself. And it is a sad irony that though the fear of life may be produced by class imperatives within capitalism, the impulse to restrict it to a problem of capitalism is itself part of the same fearful rejection of the task of living.
There is good news. None of us are children anymore. You can and should organize for better working conditions, but you can also turn off your email notifications. You can choose to prioritize the good life over a promotion or pleasing your boss. You can live with the loss of status and resources that this probably will entail. You can leave your job and take on the risks of finding work that does not corrode your self-respect. You can bring new life into the world knowing they will face intolerable danger and suffering, and take a type of comfort in the fact that on an individual level, this has always been the case. You can raise children in a too-small space and with too much debt.
Or you can not. You can devote yourself single-mindedly to a career and enjoy the struggle to the top. You can decide that to ride the ebb and swell of New York’s changing moods is worth whatever price you pay. You can pledge your life to your craft or the cause of Monarch butterflies. You can turn down invitations to weddings and let friendships lapse, you can go to bars every night and smoke a pack of cigarettes a day. But whatever you do, don’t kid yourself that you’re doing it because you have no choices.
If you think seriously about the good life and pursue it, you will probably fail in ways large and small. But an imperfect struggle to live well and love a world badly in need of repair is better than staying still because things are terrible, because you might look like a loser in the meritocratic game, because it’s easier.
This is your life. You do not have time to wait for the revolution to begin living it. You will always be able to find someone to give you permission not to live it. But no one is coming along to live it for you.
Clare Coffey currently resides in Idaho.