When I started my internship at WomenBeing, a feminist indie magazine, I was looking forward to the joys as well as the challenges of working for an organisation that relies on freelancers and volunteers to bring the project to life. I knew this placement was going to be less structured, possibly even a little chaotic, and definitely much more varied than my previous internships. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for a global pandemic robbing us of the security of our daily routines and of what, according to capitalist ideology, defines our value as humans: our ability to efficiently serve the market or, in other words, to work.
At first, I thought the lockdown wasn’t going to affect my internship much. I still had a laptop and WIFI, what else do you need? Most editors and designers were in touch with us and submitting their contributions via email anyway. And of course, I wasn’t entirely wrong. Modern technology allows us to connect with authors from all over the world and pressing issues and plans can be discussed during video conferences on Google Hangouts. Despite the circumstances, it looked like the placement was going to go ahead more or less as planned.
After an initial trace of productivity, however, I realised that I had completely underestimated the toll the pandemic would take on my mental health. With one day blurring into the next, time and time management became a more and more foreign concept to me, and I still have days where the worry for my friends, family, and the future of our society leaves me unable to get out of bed, let alone focus on work.
I was starting to feel guilty about being so ‘unproductive’. I like to think of myself as a fairly good example of German efficiency and procrastinating had always caused me serious distress. And like this wasn’t enough, there was one factor that reinforced my self-doubts: the explosion of content on the internet fetishizing and encouraging radical self-improvement during the COVID-19 induced lockdown. From career advice on how to be more effective while working from home to online workouts to get that six-pack you’ve always wanted – it seemed like every aspect and second of our life had to point towards profit and self-improvement. On social media I was bombarded with supposedly inspirational posts urging you to ‘make the most’ of your time at home – did you know that Shakespeare wrote King Lear in self-isolation? – while other people’s posts revolved around the guilt and shame they felt about not being able to ‘function properly’. I began to understand that, like so many, I too had internalised the neoliberal performance principle up to the point where I no longer needed a boss to keep me under surveillance. The coupling of productivity and self-worth had made me my own punishing boss.
For me, refusing to participate in ‘hustle culture’ is a way of self-love. It means prioritising your individual needs and internal welfare over your market value which is externally measured through the comparison with others. It means acknowledging that we are more than our profitability and output.
I am aware that not everyone is privileged enough to literally afford this radical act of self-care. Some people won’t have a choice but to work in order to pay their rent. I am very lucky to be working with people who see me as a person rather than a necessity to make profit. I found that being open and honest about my struggles was met with empathy rather than judgment. When I am not able to meet a deadline, someone steps up and helps me out and I have the liberty to focus on and pick the tasks that I can do rather than being pressured into engaging with content that would for example further trigger my anxiety. So many other people are not granted what in my opinion is inherently human – compassion and kindness.
In a way, the coronavirus reveals the intentions and dead ends of certain structures that have been in place long enough for us to forget that they are changeable. If we learn a lesson from this pandemic, I hope it will be the realisation that a well-functioning civil society is a vital part of crisis management – which requires at least a minimum level of empathy instead of increased aimless and toxic productivity.