The Heartbreak and Joy of Dystopia

*The Walking Dead* S10:E12 14:14 The remains of Alpha’s horde.1

I study dystopia. Or, rather, I study the narrative works, the poems, fiction, and films which portray dystopia. For the last two years, in fact, I’ve sat down every morning at my desk to study dystopian narratives and think about why we create them, what they mean, and how they can be most useful to us in a time of more or less impending, unalterable anthropogenic (man-made) climate change. This is lost on almost no one, but I’ll say it anyway: what is happening now is a mere two or three ticks of the proverbial doomsday clock from the rioting, tribalism, and violent resource competition portrayed in most apocalyptic films about contagion or zombies.

*The Walking Dead* S10:E12 15:00 Waiting it out in a van. This happens a lot in The Walking Dead.2

Have you ever noticed how characters in The Walking Dead are forced, repeatedly, to make decisions about which they have absolutely no logical means of choosing wisely? Make a break for the van: you could be trapped in the horde. Shimmy along the rain gutter and drop to the van: you could break your ankle. Wait it out in the van: the horde may not disperse and you’ll starve inside. About ten days ago, I tried to fill my prescription for Lialda. Lialda is a medication for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), the blanket term for Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, and a handful of other conditions which are, for the most part, ideopathic and treated but not cured. Lialda contains mesalamine, an aspirin-like compound. The special thing about Lialda, to which many IBD patients will attest, is not the contents but the coating, which carries the mesalamine far into the digestive tract before dissolving. I get terrible headaches from generic mesalamine, headaches which start mere minutes after taking it, and this suggests to me that the coating is substandard. But regardless of the reason, I must buy the brand name, at $60 instead of $30, and if I try an alternative generic that gives me those migranes, my insurance is cashed out and it’s roughly $600 out of pocket to go back and get some Lialda.

Enter into this already problematic social system new production disruptions in China. I called in my prescription, was informed by the automated prescription service that the script would be filled, went to pick it up the next day, paid my $60 copay, and was given 10 pills (a mere 5 days worth). I returned to the pharmacy several days in a row, and was finally told by the pharmacist that Lialda was “out of stock at the supply source.” She wouldn’t say, though of course it’s natural to suspect, that “at the supply source” means China, that industrial behemoth recently brought to a shuddering halt by COVID-19. Over the weekend, my very kind and dedicated pharmacist assembled the rest of my prescription by visiting several pharmacies in the area, and on the following Monday I was able to pick up the remaining 50 pills for which I had paid. What will I do next month? Certainly not use the automated service. I’ll have to go in person to the pharmacy and see whether they have enough. If they don’t, if the drug is still out of stock, I’ll have to take my chances on another version of the generic. Either way, I pay a lot of money and spend a lot of time and may not get what I need (and my insurance is better than most). If I go without, I risk a flare. Although that, too, is another calculated risk I might find myself, in this new economy, considering.

Paper goods aisle, stripped clean Paper and cleaning goods aisle at my local grocery store, stripped clean of toilet paper.

When I say “in this new economy,” I mean, roughly, our old economy now under the strain of pandemic-driven shortages, hoarding, and social distancing. (The run on toilet paper aisles indicates how little people understand the present situation. Toilet paper is really the least of our worries: we should be concerned about electricity, sewage, clean water, medicines, and hospital staffing and operating capacities.) In this new economy my health insurance (in fact, I could argue, health insurance at large), which was already in many ways insufficient enough to force difficult choices, becomes a true liability that collides precipitously with ER protocols and production shortages. For example, the President claims no one will have to pay for COVID-19 testing (if they can somehow procure a test), but what if we test negative? Are we then back on the hook for the $2000 or $3000 cost of the ER visit to get the test? We cannot trust because hospitals and health insurance companies have shown themselves, repeatedly, to be untrustworthy. Medical costs have skyrocketed. It is impossible to get a comprehensive esimate for even the most commonplace of procedures. For years the federal government has left us holding the bill. And so we buy toilet paper as a means of offsetting our general lack of faith in our institutions.

Sign on empty toilet paper shelves, 2 each Sign on empty toilet paper shelves at my local grocery store, limiting customers to 2 each.

No one has planned for this, and that is not a bug but a feature. Our economic system is prefaced on limitless growth, and it is impossible to squeeze increasing profits out of human systems—or, at least, make it appear to shareholders that you are—if you plan for things like COVID-19. I’m not an economist, but it doesn’t take much reading to see that for the last twenty years the strategies for limitless growth have mostly involved passing costs on to others. Insurance companies raise deductibles and copays. Hospitals put patients into collections. Industry breaks unions. Politicians carve holes in the social safety net, reducing access to food and income assistance, access to abortions and birth control. Who, in the end, will pick up those costs? Or will they simply be paid, as they were once paid before the era of democratic socialism, in wasted human potential and outright human lives?

When you find yourself, in the coming months, at one of these problematic decision points, where there is no logical way, given the information and resources you currently have, to make a choice that is guaranteed to be safe for you and your kin, do not forget. And when (if) the world speeds up again, and you go back to your busy life, remember that moment. COVID-19 rushes into all the cracks in the facade of our social systems, leeching through and through, marking every site at which the world was not build for us. That’s right. This world was not built for us—and it could have been.

Dystopia is not exactly what is happening now. Dystopia portrays what happens after global capital fails. Dystopia comes after apocalypse; it embraces the end of the present world system and imagines a life without it. (A quick rule of thumb for distinguishing apocalypse from dystopia is the speed of the threat. Fast contagion: apocalypse. Slow contagion: dystopia. Fast zombies: zompocalypse. Slow zombies: dystopia.) Dystopia often conveys mourning and depicts the decay of longstanding social institutions. That said, when reading and watching dystopian narratives I feel great pleasure. And the genre wouldn’t exist if others didn’t feel this pleasure as well. I feel great relief and assurance in knowing that one day all this madness will stop, humans will no longer exist to oppress one another and harm one another and steal from one another, and the earth will take its own, sweet (geological) time to recover. If you feel some measure of that, now, driving or walking down empty streets, riding empty busses and subways, do not feel ashamed. There is nothing immoral about that feeling. The system has failed most of us in myriad ways. We live an exhaustion of spirit so perverse and pervasive that “the end of the world” is a relief. I like to imagine, of course, that under dystopian circumstances I would be a better person, a more courageous person, perhaps even a healthier person (and also really good with some kind of weapon). But that isn’t true. I am not a child of dystopia but of global capital. The beauty of its end would be, at the same time, the beauty of my end. If I survived for any amount of time, I would not be recognizable to myself, and I might not even be recognizably human. That is another blessing of dystopia: it allows us to imagine what comes after the human, that category from which Enlightenment humanism has so successfully and cruelly excluded so many humans.

*The Walking Dead* S10:E12 2:43 Carol. Yeah ‘nuf said.3

That, of course, is a larger topic, and one perhaps best reserved for doctoral dissertations. But in the meantime, if you’re scared, remember that feeling. If you feel peace, if you have noticed how many couples are out in the sun today in your neighborhood, walking dogs, walking with their spouse and children, remember that feeling. If you feel vindicated, if you will struggle this month to pay your rent or feed your children, remember that feeling. And when (if) things go back to normal, and it’s time for you to vote, or attend a protest, or attend a neighborhood or school board or township meeting, don’t forget what COVID-19 shows us. Dystopia is meaningful and beautiful because it is never an eventuality. This world wasn’t built for us, but it could be.

1: “Walk with Us”, The Walking Dead. Amazon Prime, S10:E12, 14:14
2: “Walk with Us”, The Walking Dead. Amazon Prime, S10:E12, 15:00
3: “Walk with Us”, The Walking Dead. Amazon Prime, S10:E12, 2:43

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