An updated version of this was published in The Arrow.
Rereading Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven last weekend was strangely reassuring. The book toggles between the onset of a global flu pandemic and the lives of people living twenty years later, and honestly I’m not sure I’d actually recommend reading it right now. But I’ve often found post-apocalyptic fiction helpful for affirming the ongoingness, or the possibility of continuing, past disaster, and Station Eleven is explicitly organized around the proposition that “Survival is insufficient.” This phrase (tattooed on a character’s arm and written on the side of the traveling theatre and musical troupe’s vehicle in the twenty-years-from-pandemic plotline) comes from a Star Trek episode (interestingly about collectivity and individuality). In the book, “because survival is insufficient” asserts that people deserve art, and music, and other useless things. It’s a conundrum, of course, to assert that we need not only bread, but roses too (to reprise the 1912 labour slogan): If we need useless things, are they not then useful?
And what does it mean for us to fight for roses, for more than survival, when so many people already are not surviving? Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism as the “The state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of group- differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death” (Golden Gulag, 28) echoes through the current distribution of sickness and death from COVID-19. We could say, “But look, bankers and tech bros just back from partying in Miami, not to mention Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and Tom Hanks, are contracting this virus! It doesn’t discriminate!” But people do discriminate, and group-differentiated vulnerabilities to sickness and death show how people in power prioritize some lives over others. Governments are not valuing or protecting the lives of people in jail, migrants, people who do not have houses in which to self-isolate, people who cannot stock up on food because they never have that kind of extra money, who lost their job, who never had a formal job, whose benefits got cut off, who are driving for Uber or Lyft, disabled people, people working in Amazon warehouses, stocking grocery shelves, health care workers forced to work without protective gear.
So we should always start with survival, and with fighting for the lives of the people targeted by the death-cult of capitalism. Many of the Black Panther Party’s community programs (the breakfast and health programs are now the best-known, but there were more than 60 of these*) were organized around the idea of “survival pending revolution.” They saw that this world needed a fundamental, to the roots, transformation. But along the way toward that transformation, and in order for it to happen, the people targeted for death, or declared killable to keep the markets running, need to survive.
There are so many lessons we can take from AIDS activism as we respond to COVID-19. When I was doing interviews for an oral history project about the history of AIDS activism, over and over again interviewees would pause as they told us about someone who died because of prejudice and government inaction. They would talk about how that person was amazing – an amazing organizer, poet, dancer, date, scientist, artist, parent, and so much more – and they would say, “This world would have been better if they hadn’t died of AIDS.” I am thinking about this now, about all the people who are dying who did not have to die, and how much we are losing with their deaths. The grief of this is overwhelming. The coronavirus is, as many people have pointed out, illuminating the social relations of oppression and benefit that were already animating this society – those distributions of suffering and death were already here. The mutual aid and caremongering groups in my city are full of posts from people who were already forced to the edge of survival, and all of them deserve good lives. The novel coronavirus is not only illuminating existing oppression; it is actively deepening it. Fighting for more people to survive this is necessary work if we care about fighting oppression.
Fighting oppression, as El Jones and Harsha Walia have been pointing out, means not increasing policing or the power of the state to monitor and control our movement. As we support work to survive, we can oppose practices that deepen inequality. Such opposition involves imagining all the ways that instead of going back to normal, we could change the baseline. The reconfiguring that the coronavirus has begun, in which many among the worst-paid and most exploited workers are being recognized as essential to the basics of our lives, affirms that they all always deserved more than mere subsistence. But capacity to work, and being a worker who is more important to daily life than the ruling class normally acknowledges, itself isn’t enough. In Ontario, ODSP and OW levels have been below subsistence for decades now. Everyone deserves bread.
But survival is insufficient. We deserve roses too. While we’re supporting workers going on wildcat strikes because their working conditions are unsafe, while we’re participating in or advocating for rent strikes, while we call for better health infrastructures, while we keep in view the ways the Canadian state is using COVID-19 as a screen to continue earth-killing oil infrastructure projects, while we work to collectively turn the tide and convince people to stay home and cut transmission chains, we do well to remember just how insufficient it is.
I don’t know what roses mean for you – sometimes I barely know what they mean for me. As I imagine what world might come after what is going to be terrible suffering and loss, I wonder what would happen if we all started with affirming that we want everyone to survive, and immediately alongside that, that we want so much more for them, too. What does a good life look like? What if we asserted that everyone deserved such a life? What if we started from the points of connection we have with anyone who is suffering right now because they do not have money, and worked to create a world in which money was not the thing that lessened suffering? Maybe one of the most generous things about the idea that survival is insufficient is that there isn’t a political program that can lay out what comes after survival, or that precisely describes what “roses” mean. We can begin to dream that for ourselves, because no one can do it for us.
Last fall at a science fiction convention, Jo Walton spoke about why we read SF. She said something like, We don’t read (or write) science fiction in order to imagine the future. We read it in order to imagine many possible futures. Imagining many possible futures builds our capacity to be more flexible and better able to meet the future that arrives, and thus we can be more intentional about what future we practice. I love this. I love it because, as we know, the billionaires and the fascists will take any crisis they can and try to use it to increase their death-grip on the world. This is a time for us, we who care for a world that can continue, to wrench their fingers off our planet and our lives. It’s a good time for us, we who do not align with capitalism, to take this crisis and open up to new futures, futures that we collectively orient towards, and that we work together to imagine.
Survival should be our starting point, always, but we deserve so much more.
*Here’s a scan of a book about the Service to the People Programs, opens as a pdf.