In the past year, when most of us have been in some sort of lockdown, in shrunken space and crawling time, the present has been turned into an endless waiting, in which the previous normal has become unreal and the possible future seems forever postponed. While some countries and societies are rushing to celebrate the end of the lockdown of space and time, others are experiencing the deadly virus with renewed force and violence.
Through the global experience of an endless now, the very idea of patience has been turned into a repressive tool. Our social selves are told to wait for contact; children are told to wait for schools to open; the elderly to wait for hospitals and ventilators; states to wait for the numerical data to stabilize; corporations to wait for customers to return. Patience has been turned into the primary civic virtue, the temporal equivalent of celibacy. St. Augustine is reported to have said, “Give me celibacy, but not yet.” In the era of COVID, we are all told to enjoy normal social life, but not yet. We are prisoners in the jailhouse of patience.
But this is not all bad news. It is possible that through the torture of COVID, the sickness and death of friends, family, and co-workers, we have been forced to rediscover the virtues of patience. In previous eras, patience was a routinely practiced ethic, since everyone had to live with waiting: for next year’s crop, for the coming of the Messiah, for the end of tyrannies, for the beginning of the spring after harsh winters. Patience was hardwired into social life and collective consciousness.
But with the arrival of industrial capitalism, impatience as a mental state gradually turned into a virtue. Factories, clocks, and markets all demanded speed, punctuality, and predictability. As time became precisely measured and steadily commodified (“time is money,” as Benjamin Franklin said), impatience became the public virtue of entrepreneurs, colonizers, customers, and religious cults, all of whom began to want pleasure, satisfaction, and salvation immediately, apocalyptically.
In our more immediate past, in the digital area, speed has become the prime technological mover of efficiency, productivity, profit, and security. Ordinary human beings have also learned to treat speed as the main sign of convenience, utility, and value. Money, viruses, skills, and migrants circulate at remarkable speeds. Efforts to slow things down, whether in food preparation, design, transportation, or travel, seem always to live on the margins.
Above all, speed has become the single biggest danger to democracy. Populist tyrants claim that they will bring results to their citizens overnight. The virtues of negotiation, deliberation, consensus building, diligence, and prudence, all of which require patience, are seen as out of date. Everyone wants everything, and they want it now. Patience, deferral, fortitude, and turn-taking are widely regarded as signs of an outmoded way of thinking. Thus, patience itself has become a patient, on life-support, in danger of permanent extinction.
Thus, two questions press upon us. Why is patience worth recovering? And how can we restore the politics of patience? The answer to the first question is that patience is a crucial resource for resilience, and has been so for all of human history, due to the extended duration between most wishes, goals, or plans and their fulfillment. In our times, this gap between wishes and outcomes is further intensified by the sped-up nature of risk, catastrophe, and crisis, in markets, states, and machines. Any day could see our savings vanish, our planet boil over, our nuclear capabilities unleashed, our states collapse. We are thus conditioned to want health, wealth, and happiness immediately. But the truth is that economic risk, market volatility, and state failure are projections which make us fearful and impatient, and a new life for patience will help us weather this ethos of imminent apocalypse without abandoning our companions, our values, or our humanity. Patience is the deep asset which serves to insure us against the many pseudo-crises of our times.
In addition, patience is the condition of possibility for all democratic politics. Our willingness to listen, to deliberate, to plan, and to consult depends on the cultivation of patience, the virtue that all our contemporary tyrants despise. The global battle to preserve key elements of democracy—chosen, not imposed—depends on the cultivation of patience, which is the only sure antidote to the seductive promise of today’s tyrants to deliver happiness overnight.
The answer to the “how” question is less easy to find. In my opinion, one place to start is to build a powerful legislative strategy that limits windfall profits, quick deals between corporations at the public expense, and fast cycles of credit and interest which make us all debt slaves. This approach could strike at the very heart of finance capital, which drives so much of the rest of our speed economy. It could force creditors and debtors, lenders and borrowers, innovators and speculators, shareholders and managers, to slow down the runaway train of risk, debt, crisis, and collapse. It could reinstate patience as a foundation for market transactions, and flag speed, greed, and velocity as dangers to our collective economic well-being. This suggestion is just one possible foundation for a vibrant and fully realized politics of patience.