Was all of this inevitable? Is it now? It is always possible to insist that we should seek another way, a path of shared work, shared purpose, and shared wealth, as our great-grandparents did long ago. But this is naive. All the problems — alienation, exploitation, addiction, despair — exacerbated during the lockdown have long been hiding in plain sight. A political system that during what we told ourselves were ordinary times could not solve the simplest of challenges (passing a federal budget in a timely manner), much less address what the president once referred to as “American carnage,” will not rise to the present occasion. Instead Americans will muddle on, looking after ourselves and our families and friends as best we can, helpless in the face of transformations that we will barely notice.
Here I think foreboding is justified. Trends that were worrisome long before we had heard of the new virus are accelerating to a point at which they are probably irreversible. In the name of health, wealth, and safety I fully expect work as we know it not to return for vast swathes of the population. Instead it will be replaced by subsidies meant not to provide marginal relief to families but to keep them inside their homes in front of screens, having things sent to their doors and generating meaningless analytics data. The closest thing to a picture of the future I expect to emerge out of this crisis is the one given by Wells in The Time Machine of a civilization split between idle aristocrats totally incurious about the mysterious means by which they receive sustenance and an underclass as resentful and resourceful as it is invisible.