“Burnout” is an inescapable concept these days. Its current usage, however, is a far cry from its origins in one psychologist’s appropriation of the imagery of urban arson in the 1970s, much of it instigated by landlords looking for insurance payouts. Bench Ansfield, a historian, makes the case for recognizing and reclaiming burnout’s roots as a necessary social project:

Unlike broken windows, burnout has shed its roots in the social scientific vision of urban crisis: We don’t tend to associate the term with the city and its tumultuous history. But it’s actually quite telling that Freudenberger saw himself and his burned-out coworkers as akin to burned-out buildings. Though he didn’t acknowledge it in his own exploration of the term, those torched buildings had generated value by being destroyed. In transposing the city’s creative destruction onto the bodies and minds of the urban care workers who were attending to its plight, Freudenberger’s burnout likewise telegraphed how depletion, even to the point of destruction, could be profitable. After all, Freudenberger and his coworkers at the free clinic were struggling to patch the many holes of a healthcare system that valued profit above access.

Many left critics of the burnout paradigm have faulted the concept for individualizing and naturalizing the large-scale social antagonisms of neoliberal times. “Anytime you wanna use the word burnout replace it with trauma and exploitation,” reads one representative tweet from the Nap Ministry, a project that advocates rest as a form of resistance. They’re not wrong. In Freudenberger’s chapter on preventing burnout, for instance, he exhorts us to “acknowledge that the world is the way it is” and warns, “We can’t despair over it, dwell on the pity of it, or agitate about it.” That’s psychobabble for Margaret Thatcher’s infamous slogan, “There is no alternative.” But if we excavate burnout’s infrastructural unconscious—its origins in the material conditions of conflagration—we might discover a term with an unlikely potential for subversive meaning. An artifact of an incendiary history, burnout can vividly name the disposability of targeted populations under racial capitalism—a dynamic that, over time, has ensnared ever-wider swaths of the workforce.