Once a foreman caught me smiling into open air.
I’d been thinking about the hallucinatory novel I’d just read, marveling at its insane and phantasmagorical finale, and I’d started smiling because goddamn if the book didn’t make my head light up like a cathedral made of stained glass, and I felt happy to have lived just so that I could read that book and have it blow my mind so exquisitely, and I was filled with that special love and reverence and wonder for the highest and most transcendently beautiful of manmade creations, and right beside the conveyor belt, in a raftered world of dust, deep underneath a small wedge of brilliant daylight, I beamed, grateful that the world existed and that I was there to experience it, with my brain ringing like a bell—
Then the foreman barked, “Stop grinning like an idiot! Con-cen-trate!”
Yet the conveyor belt was empty of objects.
What then should I have concentrated upon?
Was I supposed to stay permanently in the work-zone, forever hyper-alert, never forgetting for a second that my body and mind did not belong to me while I was on the clock, hemmed in on all sides by cronies who had never even met their master?
But let’s not read too much into his action: the foreman couldn’t have thought less about my insides. He was only a man who had been brutalized by giving up his life to body-breaking and under-rewarded drudgery in a grimy warehouse.
My smile made him itch, so he slapped that itch.
And I never saw him smile. Not once.
When I criticize my worklife, doubters often retort that I could go back to school. But all right, let’s say I personally escape the low-wage sub-universe—another person would just suffer in my place, right? Someone has to do those jobs. Yet the hardest work is not just the worst paid but also the most stunting and paralyzing, the most disabling of all potential for escape. I haven’t set foot in that warehouse for five years, but I know for a fact that the foreman and my old colleagues are still there, still withering in the same overlapping cages, still barely able to pay their bills, still sunk into deep-sea depressions. No longer young, they lack the time or language or capacity to learn, and their willpower is daily worn away by the ceaseless dragging of the conveyor belt, which slides along like the passage of time, just one colossal minute repeating itself forever as everyone gets greyer and angrier and more broken, suffering all day and then slumping back to their twice-mortgaged homes, where they collapse into their armchairs and fork up poison food while they squint at the poison news.
Now, these people don’t agree with me on pretty much anything. I could spend my life arguing with them over social issues and still never shift them a millimeter in my direction—unless I take a very certain tack on a very certain topic. Unless I say, look, let’s forget everything else, we can argue about abortion and immigration and the roundness of the earth later, cause the biggest and most essential problem is the rich. They are the ones destroying nature. They are the ones trapping and impoverishing us. If we want to save ourselves, we’ve got no other choice but to gang up on them. The numerical advantage is ours.
And if I say all this, if I say it often and strongly enough, and if I avoid all the usual left/right terminology, I can sometimes get the other person to agree.
Is that agreement worth anything? Does it reveal some possibility of a broader unity?
To be honest, I’m not sure.
But it’s strange and new that I can convince anyone. Until the last few years, most people were too comfortable to take me seriously—and hey, I started out just as passive. Since then, however, the money-squeeze has gotten so much tighter, and so many disasters are corkscrewing down toward us, that even some of the most conventional folks have begun to realize what’s happening, to face that the economy is a scam, that nature has been ravished down to her bones and then tossed onto the fire, and that a very ugly future indeed is just around the corner, bearing down, coming to eat us all if we don’t depose our corporate emperors, and quickly…
Yet there’s a golden lining: empires don’t fall at the peak of their power. They fall only after they’ve weakened and decayed and stopped delivering. They fall from warfare, pestilence, corruption. From their own internal contradictions giving way—the whole shimmering superstructure crumbling in on itself over centuries, cracking around the flaws built into its foundation.
Only now is the system tearing in its own mega-plastic plating; only now is it mass-manufacturing its critics and reaping and proliferating toward its furthest boundaries; and only now, as the heatwaves and hurricanes approach, is fundamental change at long last becoming feasible.
What’s coming won’t be pretty—yet what comes afterward still could be.
And so but here you are, like me: a speck in the tsunami of history; a body climbing the ladder of the years; a deeply living mind weaving the world into itself and itself into the world; an offspring, a lover, a friend, a neighbor, an employee, a neo-serf, a living cog in the billion-man cyborg, both consumer and consumed; a victim and very minor cause of the planetary catastrophe; a citizen of the decline and the smash; and a potential future witness to upheavals bigger than the Sack of Rome, bigger than the World Wars, bigger than anything in human history so far—
So just how are you supposed to keep calm and carry on? How can you find comfort in the thought that our ship, which needs to sink, which was always going to sink, is sinking with you aboard? How do you find peace when anxiety is so accurate and rage so righteous? How do you even stay sane?
Perhaps you know the answer. I have no idea.
But it helps me that people like you exist: those who are going through this same dread and torment and monotony at the end of time, yet who haven’t turned hateful, haven’t embraced an ideology that saves a few at the expense of the many. And we are not alone. Just look at the studies, at the other junior employees, at the art, the articles, the memes being produced and shared by our generations—and you will see millions of mostly younger people all vibrating with us, all surging in the same direction. The age gap is not just real: it’s vast and overwhelming.
And unlike our parents, those of us in our thirties mostly aren’t aging into supporters of the system. I mean, our lives have consisted of being broke forever, owned by billionaires, horrified in our front-row seats to the flames of the 21st-century. Why on earth would we ever pivot into supporting that which has burned us so badly?
So I’ll leave you with one last thought, however feeble, however qualified, however uncertain and belated:
With every year there will be more of us—and fewer of them.