Defying social distance

Separation lies at the core of capitalism. How can we overcome it and still stay safe?

Pablo Ruiz Naime
20 October 2020, 8.01pm
Pixabay/geralt. Pixabay licence.

I wasn’t there when my grandmother died, 9,000 kilometers away in Mexico. She was already being cremated when I heard about her passing. My grandfather had died two years before, but when he left us all his loved ones were there next to him in an intimate goodbye. That made all the difference - to us certainly, and perhaps to him too, I’d like to think. Distance matters, and not just in a pandemic when we are separated from many of those we love.

It’s true that social distancing, physical separation and emotional disconnection are all intertwined in these strange and trying times, but distance is something that has been present throughout my life and the lives of so many others for centuries, since under capitalism we are systematically separated from one another in every sphere of life, not just socially-distanced in order to keep each-other safe.

We distance ourselves from violence so we don’t have to see it. We forget the distance slaves had to travel to arrive in America, and the stories of distant exploitation that were woven under the cloak of colonialism and are still being woven through the supply chains of today.

We ignore the alienating distance that has been created and sustained between white men and mother earth. We elide the distance between stories that are told from history and voices that are silenced; between knowledge that’s valued and that which gets discarded; and between the future possibilities that are given to the privileged but denied to those who are marginalised and oppressed.

We suffer when our minds and bodies become distanced from each other, and when women are distanced from control over their own bodies. We lament the fact that capitalism, racialism and hetero-normativity exacerbate the distance that exists between people of different genders, races, sexualities and abilities, a distancing that continuously separates and divides the world into haves and have-nots.

At its core, capitalism thrives on maintaining the distance between workers and the fruits of their work, between people and land, production and consumption, ethics and the economy, and the individual and the collective. Capitalism depends on the atomization of society.

Now comes the coronavirus with its own mandate for separation. At precisely six feet apart our freedoms and responsibilities are being redefined. I’m supposed to focus on protecting myself, but who am I without caring for others who I can’t see or touch? I feel that I’m losing myself and my sense of belonging as the distance lengthens.

I feel broken and alone, but try to remember that “our lives are not our own” as novelist David Mitchell puts it in his book Cloud Atlas - that “we are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness we birth our future.” I might be broken, but I am not broken all alone.

That’s one thing I learned growing up in Mexico. We are born into a certain structure which entails a pattern of privileges and oppressions. We are born into racial capitalism. As a ‘white’ lower middle-class Mexican I saw how class and race intersect with each other, with my family struggling to make ends meet economically but part of the upper social circle because we were considered white. There were constant clashes with my white upper class schoolmates, with me - the ‘red one’ politically - still ‘one of them’ while ‘browner’ Mexicans were looked down on.

Distance was everywhere, and it was always racialized and gendered. Now it’s replicated and exacerbated by the inequalities of the virus which determine who gets infected, who survives, and who does the work of caring for others. In New York City the virus is twice as deadly for Black and Latinxs as for white people due to socio-economic conditions that divide those who have and those who don’t. In Mexico City the most affected area is also the poorest - Iztapalapa - which is deliberately located far away from the well-off, with fewer hospital beds, less ability to go on living while maintaining social distance, and less space to stay safe.

Yet these inequalities are usually ignored or sidelined in decision-making. We look for technical solutions to the problems distance creates. “Colonizers and scientists…cut apart and separate parts which constitute a whole, isolate these parts, analyze them under laboratory conditions and synthesize them again in a new, man-made, artificial model,” as the writer Maria Mies puts it.

Specialization allows us to avoid seeing all the inter-connected consequences of the measures that are implemented. Social distancing and selective lockdowns neglect the impossibility that some people face in complying with their regulations, or get in the way of our desire to mourn our loved ones, or expose some people to the added risks of domestic violence or the psychological problems that come with loneliness, or the additional amount of social reproduction that rests on the shoulders of women because of the patriarchal construction of women’s roles, especially in a pandemic.

The dynamics of oppression and privilege always place people in distance from each other in ways like these, and in times of crisis this distance becomes even clearer. “The virus isolates and individualizes us,” says the philosopher Byun Chul Han, “The solidarity…in keeping our distances mutual is not a solidarity that allows us to dream of a different, more peaceful and just society.” “Coalition work is not work done in your home.” The ways in which the virus is being used by politicians to advance their agendas are also another strategy for distancing.

Yet there is nothing to stop us from reimagining and re-inhabiting constellations of intimacy which make different futures possible. Taking inspiration from what is already happening in the midst of the pandemic - in mutual aid activities, virtual organizing and caring for each-other in ways that are safe and responsible - we can break free from these strategies of distancing by finding connections and coming closer to each other and the world. We should look beyond binaries because they obfuscate and place more distance between the things that really matter.

Indigenous peoples are already showing us how to live radically different lives with less of a separation between the past and the present, between ourselves and the world around us, between economy and society and you and me.

“Our people’s belief is that we are part of the land,” write Freda Huson, spokesperson of the Unist’ot’en camp in present-day Canada, “The land is not separate from us. The land sustains us. And if we don’t take care of her, she won’t be able to sustain us, and we as a generation of people will die.” The same is true for separation as a whole.

Social distance may be a vital tactic in the here and now but it can’t be a roadmap for the future.

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