Foreword to all issues:
You are reading an issue of the Present Punk Graphic Novel, a series of standalone illustrated short stories. Sometimes extreme, sometimes banal, always asking how close we are to science fiction’s darker side.
A LONELY DEPRESSION
I have been looking through my great grandmother’s journal for guidance in these trying times. Mom and my uncles say that their grandmother wrote regularly in diaries throughout her whole life, and she started in earnest in January of 1930, about 3 months after the 1929 stock market crash.
My living family members were not alive during the Great Depression, but according to them, great grandma Etna would frequently talk about it. I wish I could claim to have an interest in history, but that’s not why I’m digging through this book.
No, to be honest, I am deciphering Etna’s messy handwriting more to spite Amber than anything. It’s always the people you’re closest to who irritate you the most, and I would love to have a great quote to show Amber how silly her cynicism has been. Somewhere in here, I’m hoping, is proof that I’m right.
But what I’ve read so far has not left me hopeful. Etna had plenty of comments about how things were tough. Sometimes they went hungry, or had to work long hours to get even bread for the evening. To say nothing of Etna’s status as a woman in the early 20th century, the state of technology at the time, etc.
Ostensibly, Etna had it worse than me. After all, I have a phone, right? I’m not starving. Which seems to prove me right: it’s been this bad before, so things will get better. But the reason it doesn’t give me the leverage I want against Amber is that Etna’s pages retain a certain optimism.
From her teenage years to young adulthood, Etna did not seem…what’s the word I should use? She didn’t seem empty. She had friends, they all talked. She had a community, and they all helped each other. There was solidarity among the destitute, it appears. And they–not just Etna–had some ineffable sense that things would get better. The times were changing, the country would be kinder to their children than to them, etc.
This is not material I could hold against Amber. She’s insisted that this is a unique period. A uniquely bad period.
“There’s no way,” Amber said once, “people in food lines back then weren’t talking to each other. Go to a food bank now, and how much talking do you hear?”
Amber had always been the more cynical of us. That’s not to say I am optimistic, but compared to Amber, I might be. I can’t fully explain why she turned out different. Both of us saw our parents lose work during the pandemic’s second wave.
And both of us spent formative years stuck at home, learning on a screen. It was difficult for 14 year old best friends to hardly see each other in person. But I’ve always been proud that even at that age, we maintained a connection. It’s not a unique form of hardship, so it doesn’t feel worth talking about. But I grew to hate the screens that enamored me as a child.
When the first widely available vaccines arrived, people celebrated as though a war had been won. They were dancing in the streets, singing and laughing in every major city.
It only lasted a week, but that one week of celebration had a year’s worth of memories for all involved. We got back in touch with our roots. People remembered what it meant to be intimate, re-learned how to make friends.
People drew doting messages on boarded-up local shops. The economy was going to come back next, they said. We’re almost out of this.
But when we were able to truly attend high school for the first time, Amber emerged world-weary. I remember one time, a week into our first in-person semester, I remarked on how things seemed to be looking up. As proof, I cited our teachers: forced to teach remotely for such a long period, struggling to help their students keep up, they were overjoyed to be back in a classroom. Around the same time, my mom was on the verge of entering a new job. So was Amber’s dad. I brought those up as well.
She seemed ambivalent about my examples. “Both of us have parents going to work for Amazon-owned franchises. Doesn’t that bother you?”
I emphasized we could take hope in the return of social relations, and being able to be among others. She responded with a typical flatness.
“I have a cousin who’s been living on his own for the last three years. He’s not well anymore. I can’t imagine him having to go to a job even worse than the one he had before, after fostering a depression for years.”
I considered how my own mother did not seem particularly overjoyed to go back to work. Especially in-person work. Relieved to have some income, but that alone. I protested anyway. Amber would have none of it:
“Some people are lucky. They’ve learned what to value out of life, how much they need to spend time with family. But for a lot of people, I think the isolation bred despair. And when they have to go back to their shitty jobs, jobs that are even shittier than before, they’ll feel even worse.”
We all know how prescient that turned out to be. Amber’s always had the immensely frustrating habit of saying things that were true, but only when they were depressing. All of this remained consistent for years, past graduation and into our college years.
And yet, just last week, Amber was smiling more than I had ever seen. She had never seemed less burdened. She acted as though she had made some new discovery, but when I asked her, she kept it vague.
“We’ll soon near the end of the second pandemic. Survival of the fittest and all that.”
Although I couldn’t quite follow, I believed it.
I didn’t take it like a warning sign. I had always imagined I’d cry over the gravestone of a loved one in a nice cemetery, with flowers. I did not expect to mourn in such an undignified fashion: gazing down at the mass burial grounds of Hart Island.
In the first wave six years ago, the unknown victims of Covid-19 were laid to rest here. For the last four years, this has been home to the victims of the “second plague,” as Amber called it. Somewhere in these caskets, my friend is with the rest of this city’s lonely people.
I’ve cried some, but I’m not distraught yet. I believe I am in a state of shock. In any case, I’m looking for answers because Amber is more annoying in death than life. Somewhere in this journal, I want to hear Etna talk about how hopeless she felt. I just need that vindication, that it’s been this bad before.
I’m not the only one who could use some answers. No one knows how to get capitalism’s engine roaring again. A growing chorus has claimed universal income needs to be expanded and human work should be phased out as much as possible. Robots are advanced enough to take our place–let them. A global depression is as natural a turning point as we’ll get.
Some others have called for a new nationalism: close the borders, expel the illegals, kill the Godless protestors that hate our civilization, but bring back the factories too. Yet others, probably astroturfed, have declared the time for a big state is over. Simply hand over the reins to Bezos and Goldman Sachs, let them grow their empires ’til they count all of us as subjects.
My Uncle Ted, before handing me Etna’s journal, murmured something about how we got out of the Great Depression thanks not to the New Deal, but to World War 2. He wasn’t alive for it, but hearing him, I get the sense he’d like to stick around long enough to see World War 3. He’s too old to serve, but he could probably derive a second-hand sense of purpose by watching guys my age march off to battle.
But the most popular opinion has been confined entirely to hushed rumors. They’re scrawled out in graffiti, hurriedly typed on the last of the anonymous internet boards. We have reached the end of global growth, they whisper.
It’s an idea so terrifying that I have yet to meet a single person utter it out loud, but it’s so pervasive I suspect every other person I know believes it. Terrifying because, even if personal nihilism is commonplace to the point of being standard, economic nihilism has not yet been spoken into the American social fabric.
It won’t matter if robots do our jobs for us, the whispers say. We’ve over-manufactured. Over-produced. Growth is done. There are simply no more ingredients to make the pie bigger, but more and more people need a piece. Shitty gig work isn’t a malfunction, and it’s not temporary, it’s the market’s best alternative to 50% unemployment. More robots is meaningless–there’s only so much work even for them to do. It’s been decades in the making, and corona just made it obvious.
Actions from the top have only propelled these rumors. The governments of the United States, Europe, and China are working in concert with their largest companies in a push not seen before in most of our lifetimes. A new directive from the White House last month has all-but-confirmed the worst fears of the masses:
Just one asteroid, and the world will remember who the superpower is. Just one space rock, and we’ll see how silly we were to despair. All we need is the first one–and then the rest of the solar system will be assured. With the help of SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing, and others, we’ll save the markets on this godforsaken husk of a habitat.
The full wording was not that explicit, of course, but it was close. It’s signalled to us peons that things really are as bad as they look–that our economy can stagnate for a hundred years more if we don’t find more stuff.
It looks like we’re on the verge of a new space race. But instead of two competing ideologies trying to get to the moon first, it’s the world’s biggest corporations racing to push today’s economy into the one of tomorrow. The corporatized “free market,” determined to prove itself the strongest virus of all, insists on infecting space next.
No one knows what comes next, least of all me. Amber might have been able to make some good predictions, if she held out a little longer. And unsurprisingly, there’s nothing in my long-gone great grandmother’s diary about an economy grown in space. Though I did find this one tidbit interesting:
“We don’t have hope in Mr. Roosevelt because we think he’s a good man. We have hope in him because he’s smart enough to fear us.”
I ought to be disheartened by it. The countrymen I know are beaten-down, and it’s hard to imagine any mass uprising. It’s hard to imagine even a single successful strike. My own government isn’t pushing us to space because it fears us. There’s no way a generation of Ambers poses a threat to any power but themselves.
But I’ll maintain some hope. Because fuck Amber for being so selfish. The art of human connection and solidarity can’t be severed forever–it predates late capitalism by millions of years. It’s baked into our damn genes. So the masses may be down for the count now, but they won’t stay like that.
Eventually, power will fear us again. If not here on Earth now, then on distant bodies in space. We shall go on to the end. We shall boycott on Earth, we shall strike on asteroids and the moon…something grand like that. Why do I know this will happen? Because fuck Amber. I miss her, but I won’t rest until I’m the one who gets to say “I told you so.”