A present, almost 9% of King County (Washington’s most populous county) has received one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and Seattle (its most populous city) is only 3.3% away from an ideal 2% infection rate. This is very good news. And if the trends continue like this for another 30 days, we will finally return to the point we were at in the middle of the first and second surges, which ran from March to May and then from July to September, respectively.
But just as we are approaching the 2% zone, our Governor Jay Inslee has permitted the reopening of gyms and indoor dining in King County. (Please dismiss the limited capacity nonsense—most restaurants and gyms are rarely at full capacity.)
As Rich Smith explained recently, the thinking for reopening inessential indoor activities has factored in the availability of the vaccine to some unknown percentage of the “most vulnerable population” (65 and above), but it has not factored in the new virus from the UK, which has been detected in King County (“and Snohomish and Pierce counties“), and is a far more infectious strain than the older ones. And so, what we have is a wholly unnecessary race between a universally mismanaged rollout of the vaccine and the speed with which the new version can escape our control. No matter how you look at this, and you must first look at it with the other surges in mind, reopening non-crucial indoor activities at this crucial time can only give the new variant an advantage against the clock.
We really only needed to wait another 30 days to see how far the British (and almost certainly the South African) strain goes and, at the same time, to significantly increase the number of vaccinated people in the region and state. We were really only looking at a distance between today and (to play it safe) mid-March. Now the prediction by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is that the “strain from the U.K. [will] be the dominant strain in the U.S. by March.” But why are we not doing something as reasonable as just waiting another month?
The most obvious answer to this question is the government has not provided the kind of assistance that working-class people and small businesses need to safely wait out the pandemic with little to no income. The stock market’s booming, but everyone else is really struggling. This has put great pressure on the conventional economy to imprudently reopen.
That said, I also want to offer another, more theoretical answer for our inability to spend the time needed to control this very costly pandemic. That answer has its point of departure in a brief essay by the father of Western ambient music, Brain Eno. It is called “The Big Here and Long Now.” What this essay describes is an insight about American capitalism Eno hit upon when visiting a wealthy person in New York City in 1978. The wealthy person lived in a magnificent loft on the top floors of a building in the middle of a rundown part of town. What Eno had difficulty grasping was the stark difference between the loft’s interior and its location. The rich person’s inside world had nothing to do (had no connection) with the larger world outside.
The incident stuck in my mind. How could you live so blind to your surroundings? How could you not think of where I live as including at least some of the space outside your four walls, some of the bits you couldn’t lock up behind you? I felt this was something particular to New York: I called it “The Small Here”. I realised that, like most Europeans, I was used to living in a bigger Here.
[The Small Here] was undeniably lively, but the downside was that it seemed selfish, irresponsible and randomly dangerous. I came to think of this as “The Short Now”, and this suggested the possibility of its opposite – “The Long Now”.
And so we have here an idea of capitalist time derived from capitalist space. This is the dominance of the Short Now in American Capitalism, when compared to the European Capitalism of the 1970s. Globalization, however, has exported this time frame to much of the world. The Europe of our day is no longer in the Long Now, and China, one of the oldest continuous cultures, is surely heading toward the tight temporal limits of the American Short Now.
The Long Now is the recognition that the precise moment you’re in grows out of the past and is a seed for the future. The longer your sense of Now, the more past and future it includes. It’s ironic that, at a time when humankind is at a peak of its technical powers, able to create huge global changes that will echo down the centuries, most of our social systems seem geared to increasingly short nows.
In the final months of 2019, a new virus, COVID-19, entered a world that mostly knew how to make the Short Now even shorter. But the virus itself, which is not that infectious and which can be easily controlled with some effort and time, lucked upon a path that made it much more successful than it should have been. This path lead directly to the cultural temporality of market-based economics. In nature, COVID-19 would just fall apart; but in a culture that, for political reasons (and politics is always nothing but political economy), was locked in the ever-shortening Short Now of the post-American Century, it flourished like nobody’s business. Indeed, all it would take to end the pandemic is a Short Now that’s just a bit longer. China still had access to this longer Short Now. The US did not. The logic of its capitalism was the production of new technologies, modes of life, forms of exploitation that constantly reduce the now Eno first recognized and articulated at the close of the 1970s.
(The end of this line of thinking is the point where Eno and Moishe Postone meet. Those who want to know more about Postonian time can read my e-flux essay, “Which Angel of Death Appears in Afrofuturist Visions of Hi-Tech Black Societies?”)