“It’s the last I’ve got, love,” said the man selling Christmas trees in our local market when I asked to see a larger specimen. “It’s 2020, you know. People want to see the end of it.”
This was mid-November. Like many people, I started the countdown to the end of the year some time in mid-July. I panicked when I read reports from the British Christmas Trees Growers Association that some farms had already sold out, and took immediate action when I discovered that companies selling lights and decorations were struggling to meet customer demand.
I know I am not alone in looking forward to the end of this year. Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You reached Spotify’s top 40 list several weeks earlier than usual. Even my mother, a Muslim who wasn’t allowed to celebrate Eid because of the lockdown, bought new sofa cushions with tiny Santa prints to cheer herself up. This year, the Christmas spirit resembles Karl Marx’s view of religion; it is both an expression of peoples’ suffering, and a protest against it.
Yet despite my complicity with the consumerist mood of Christmas, I can’t help thinking that our attitude is symptomatic of a larger problem. We are understandably exhausted and quick to agree that 2020 was a terrible year. But the year itself has morphed into more than just a date in the calendar: it has become the shared enemy of humanity. “2020 needs to pull over and let me out, I’ll walk”, has become one of the most popular memes since at least March.
There have been many times this year when we’ve blamed non-human entities for the consequences of our actions. In January, bats in Wuhan got the blame for Covid-19. But the idea that animals are solely responsible for the spread of the virus obscures the truth. Deforestation, the destruction of habitats and the wildlife trade create the conditions in which zoonotic diseases emerge – and all are consequences of human decisions.
By April, it was normal to speak of the virus itself as if it were a person, with its own feelings, beliefs and intentions. Reflecting on his experience with Covid-19,Boris Jonson called the virus an “invisible mugger“, an enemy whom we had just begun “to wrestle on the floor”. He was not the only political leader who resorted to duelling metaphors. Once this framing became lodged in the public consciousness, we started to imagine the fight against Covid-19 as one waged between individuals and the virus, turning the struggle into a matter of personal virtue rather than systemic failure. A neighbour’s outing to sunbathe in the park became a more urgent concern than the Tories’ decision to privatise much of the UK’s test-and-trace system.
There is something soothing about finding a common enemy in a non-human entity. This response helps suppress fundamental divergences about the management of the pandemic. It absolves us from looking for patterns, identifying responsibilities, showing alternatives. It dulls our senses to the political causes of misery, and makes us more disposed to accept that our lives must now mediated by companies such as Amazon and Zoom, and perhaps less prone to notice that, for the owners of such companies, this year may have been their best yet.
We’ve long blamed providence or nature for the consequences of human action. In 1755, a devastating earthquake in Lisbon killed tens of thousands of people, triggering an important philosophical and theological debate about God’s intentions and the presence of evil in the world. It was a turning point in the optimistic outlook which characterised the spirit of the Enlightenment. As the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau remarked in one of his letters, “the majority of our physical misfortunes are our work”.
By blaming things that have no agency, we render ourselves unable to learn from the crisis. For all we know, the next decade could bring worse years. As the climate emergency unfolds, it is increasingly likely this will be framed as a conflict between nature and humanity rather than the result of a social system that puts profits before survival.
We must resist that categorisation, as well as the fatalism that comes with it. Instead of describing the looming disasters we face as ones that are brought about by forces we can’t control, we should examine the failures of governments, object to the incentives of market actors and explore our societies’ contribution to the devastation of the planet. Instead of wishing for nature to have mercy, we could act collectively to change the political rules that govern us.
Just as it’s crucial not to depoliticise the causes of such events, it’s also essential not to psychologise the solutions. To think that just because things have been bad this past year, they are bound to get better, is a dangerous illusion. But don’t get me wrong. I am not against Christmas trees or early festivities. I am not trying to spoil the Christmas cheer, or to recommend censoring the distribution of memes about 2020.
In fact, joy can play a subversive role. “Laughter saves lives”, Giovanni Boccaccio writes in The Decameron, a novel set in a 14th-century Tuscan villa where a group of quarantined youngsters escape the black death. While physical distance protects the novel’s protagonists from the plague, it also creates a mental distance necessary to resist the ideological grip of the church and the state. Freed from the existing political order, Boccaccio’s characters rediscover natural reason and human agency, and inhabit an imaginary space where they can begin to question the status quo. All I want for Christmas is that.
o Lea Ypi is a professor in political theory in the government department at the London School of Economics