Systemic, Dude

So the last couple of days, we’ve talked about tribes, and alliances, and alienation. But let’s think about it not just in terms of individual bonds with our own communities; let’s go broader, and take an ecological look at why so many of us seem to be at odds with ourselves.

About 125 years ago, Émile Durkheim proposed the idea of anomie, or the breakdown of values and norms. Although the term is often used to describe an individual’s state of mind, the real import of anomie is that it’s a collective condition; that our old rules don’t make sense any more. And certainly, in our year of COVID, it’s no surprise that we’re experiencing some anomie. We don’t get to be social, don’t get to hang out or date or go to class. But I think that there are a lot of forces of anomie right now: a confluence of absences.

  • More and more jobs becoming gigs, with everybody scrambling to stay one step ahead of the infinite crowd of replacements.
  • Tens of millions of college graduates, grad school graduates, med school graduates—well prepared and highly skilled, who played by the rules and excelled, now in numbers far too great to be employed.
  • A cultural cesspool of drive-by insults, of ill-will dropped into every online community from anywhere in the world. Maybe not even by humans.
  • A world of social rebalancing, in which mediocrity isn’t enough to protect white males any more, but excellence for women and people of color hasn’t yet brought about assured rewards (or safety).
  • The looming end of setting fire to fossil fuels, and the resistance of those still in the industry (and those for whom the artifact of a big-ass truck is a crucial validation).
  • The changing climate that reconfigures seasons and shorelines, that brings new weather and new crops and new pests.
  • The clinging decline of the Boomers, who sucked up all the air in the room and never made opportunities for anyone younger.
  • The crushing burden of wealth inequality, and the protection of its own power against the needs of hundreds of millions of hard workers.

I mean, just look around at any mode of human relations, and you’ll see the remnants of what had seemed stable, inevitable. To quote Marx, “all that is solid melts into air.” We’ve mastered a game that no one plays any more, and every time we try to learn the new one, we discover that’s already obsolete, too. I’ve gone through vinyl records and eight-tracks and cassettes and CDs and MP3s and MP4s. I’ve gone through MS-DOS and Windows 3.1 and Mac OS six through eleven. I was a star of my undergrad program and a star of my grad program and never had a chance on the academic market. All of us, doing everything we know how to do, within the context of events that cannot be predicted.

We’re asked to blame ourselves, to try harder, to do more. Our individualism sets us into perpetual competition, and so we look for scapegoats, people we can defeat, interlopers we should repel. As the old joke has it, three guys are sitting at a table with a dozen cookies. The capitalist has ten, the worker has one, and the consumer has one. And the capitalist says to the consumer, “watch out, that union guy’s going to steal your cookie.” We’re turned against each other, crabs clawing one another back down into the pot.


One of the most common conversations I’ve had since The Adjunct Underclass came out two years ago is some variant of “Yeah, it was like that for me, too.” So many people have just been relieved to learn that they are not uniquely defective, that their talents weren’t imaginary. That there are a vast body of others who’ve done well, done good, and done right, and not experienced any payoff from it.

Just as was true for the book, I offer no simple mechanism by which our anomie can be repaired. We are in an ecosystem, not a machine in which a lever drives a gear turns a shaft all in knowable proportion. But just that knowledge seems to be helpful: learning the fundamental wrongness of that all the cause-and-effect we’ve been taught gives us a chance to stop harming ourselves even further with a bad story. As Anaïs Nin wrote, “shame is the lie someone told you about yourself.” And those lies—that you’re insufficient, that you haven’t worked hard enough, that the next round will for sure be the winner—have vast power if we believe them.

We won’t be able to imagine what’s next if we hang onto what isn’t.