The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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MAY 2020 Issue
Field Notes

The Plague and the Wrath

translated by Janet Koenig

How do we make sense of the strange and singular period in which we now live? Given its tragic side, this period throws into sharp relief the weaknesses and the limits of the global capitalist system, weaknesses which only yesterday seemed to be its strength and power. Subjected to an endless loop of toxic discourses, we are at present stuck in an atmosphere of anxiety; we are helpless by the very fact of our isolation. We feel menaced by an environment where every object or individual is perceived as hostile, potentially fatal. Human relationships themselves are undermined by danger. We assiduously follow the numbers and projections of “experts” in death like stock market reports; they overwhelm and weaken us; added to these are conspiracy theories, speculations, and supposed certainties meant to reassure us. The critical spirit must blaze a trail for itself through this magma. This is the only way to reach open air and to rise above the abdication of thought in the face of fear.

In rich societies, the cult of well-being and the myth of progress, of the individual triumphing over nature, appeared to have decisively pushed away the idea of death. But this march of progress is nothing other than the destruction of life—what the enemies of the productivist ideology like Walter Benjamin and other emancipatory “pessimists” feared already a century ago.

The fragility of life and societies had been allocated to people living in poverty, in constantly expanding territories of barbarous warfare, in communities still waiting for the fruits of this terrible progress. Death had become a consumable image—a source of revolt, of course, but far away. In rich societies, the unceasing reinforcement of walls of repression and xenophobia had bolstered a sense of security. Images of refugees, the tens of thousands of people drowned in the Mediterranean, came as daily reminders. Then, without warning, the virus got around the police, the barricades and borders, and imposed itself on us. It took the easiest and most up-to-date route, that of the circulation of commodities and people, including—ironically, the one disguised as playful leisure: mass tourism. Here we are, thrown into this nothingness. We knew all this, we were warned. This time, we are the ones inside the wall! The frontal impact stunned and paralysed us. Yet, once again in history, it is only by setting larger goals that we can try to break free of this paralysis and fear and get through this surprisingly strange period.

“What doesn't kill us makes us stronger, but above all less well-behaved. THE STATE WILL PAY!” Photo:Philippe Gonnet.

We have moved out of normality, the normality of capitalism, which we have opposed but to which we have been obliged to submit, even sometimes in ways we’re not aware of. This may be a first important lesson to learn from this moment: we are all part of the system, whatever our ideas of breaking with it or experiments with practices outside the norms. But this exit from normality is unlike any we have experienced in other historical moments, when capitalist time has ruptured and subversive collective action has produced another mode of time. What we are experiencing today is a suspension of time imposed on us, not the result of autonomous action in opposition to the world. This strangeness is surely one of the sources of our anguish. We are living through a new experience that was not predictable: “the general strike of the virus,” to use someone’s apt expression. The stoppage of “business as usual” has happened without us, outside any of the schemas we have always envisaged, desired, struggled for. This is a mass strike without “masses,'' and worse, without any collective, subversive force. It is probably fair to say that we are living through the first rumblings of a general collapse of this society organized around destructive production for profit. This collapse, without any conscious collective action, is not the bearer of a new world, of plans to reorganize society on new bases. It is a product of capitalism within the limits of its barbarism, with no prospects other than those of collapse. Here stops any resemblance to the general strike, the creation of a collectivity that reclaims its power.

However, the shock that has hit us, announcing a chain of breaks in the world order, is not unrelated to the way our social system functions; it cannot be separated from its contradictions. Recent developments in capitalist globalization, in the acceleration of market exchanges, in the enormous concentration and rapid urbanization of populations, have accelerated an ecological upheaval, the destruction of the fragile reproduction of the plant, animal, and human worlds, breaking down the last barriers between them. The advent of global capitalism was not the heralded end of history, but the inauguration of a new era of ever more frequent epidemics. After the avian flu, after SARS, the imminence of a new epidemic has been feared and almost predicted. But the logic of profit in the capitalist mode of production has ruthlessly continued on its course and the emergency brake was not applied; the brake could only be applied by social forces opposed to this logic, which are still struggling to come into existence. Before us are the consequences of this logic and our powerlessness to block it.

This seems to me a path for reflection: we should not separate the viral crisis from the nature of the system. We must oppose facile explanations that accommodate the existing limits of capitalism and which barely hide the intention to restart the machine. Good examples of this are the various conspiracy delusions, including the seductive conspiracy theory of “the virus created in the lab,” where the most improbable explanation passes itself off as the most obvious. While we know that biological warfare is one of the criminal projects of the ruling class, and that disorganization and accidents are inherent in every bureaucracy, military or otherwise, the fact is that the conspiratorial vision leaves out of the equation the deadly logic of the capitalist mode of production itself. This virus was indeed manufactured, not by secret forces but by the destructive process of modern capitalism.

It is often remarked that today’s lockdown measures and the limitation of social and individual freedoms underscore class relations. Once again, this time in a macabre manner, formal equality melts away in the glare of social inequality. The viral crisis accelerates inequality. But the crisis also reveals the nature of modern capitalism and its contradictions. The everyday reality of the upheaval includes the collapse of the financial system, the collapse of stock markets, the widespread insecurity of salaried workers, the vertiginous rise of unemployment, and mass impoverishment. One breath of fresh air: the economists, who had downplayed the instability of the system and are now confused by the unexpected and short of forecasts, have practically disappeared from the landscape. While millions of unemployed add to the tens of thousands of deaths in the pandemic, gigantic fortunes jockey for government protection. The printing of money resumes and inflation, something we were told was a thing of the past, is on the rise. The aftermath already looks like an aftershock of the collapse.

It’s not surprising that the COVID-19 pandemic and those preceding it were generated in China, in territories undergoing a massive and rapid destruction of nature. China, the world’s workshop, produces viruses as it produces masks, ventilators, and pain medications. It’s all of a piece.

By its global size, the viral contamination quickly created a blockage of trade and an economic collapse, the disorganization of production for profit. One crisis led to another, one replaced another, one nestled in another. Today, everything is global. In the space of two weeks, what could hardly be imagined has become a reality: in the US alone, in one of the very centers of the infernal machine, more than 20 million workers have found themselves out of work.

Among the issues that concern us is the response from the political powers on the terrain of formal rights: the freedom-killing restraints that are shaking up the legal framework of our existence. The possibility of adopting the “Chinese model” as the reference point for a state of emergency was sketched very early in Europe and then concretized with the adoption of repressive methods and techniques for the control of daily life. To this were added exemptions calling into question provisions of the laws governing labor. In Portugal, the Socialist government has gone so far as to suspend the right to strike, giving the state “legal means to force companies to operate.”1

From experience, we have reasons to fear that once the viral crisis is over, these forms of the state of emergency will quietly “pass into common law,” to use the discreet phrase of Le Monde, the newspaper that supports all governments, especially as the end of the lockdown may be slow and lengthy. The urgent need to return to business as usual, for which the capitalist forces already clamor, will undoubtedly justify the perpetuation of these freedom-killing restraints—a new legal framework for new forms of exploitation. This means that the only opposition to this new authoritarian rule of law will be inseparably tied to the collective capacity to oppose the resumption of the logic of capitalist production and its destruction of the world, which has brought us to where we are today.

That said, the inescapable question remains: can capitalism—a powerful and complex system capable of unexpected rebounds—manage in the long run to accommodate itself to functioning in a society ruled by extreme constraints on freedom? In historical experience, a state of emergency is compatible with the reproduction of exploitation and the pursuit of production for profit with strong state intervention. It is no accident that one of the great theoreticians of the state of emergency, Carl Schmitt, was a brilliant admirer of the Nazi order, which for a dozen years established the legal framework for a modern European society at the cost of horrible suffering. Closer to us, it is indisputable that the totalitarian order inherited from Maoism has managed to generate a regime capable of building a modern capitalist power and that, for the time being, its despotic measures have been able to keep the ensuing explosion of social inequalities, conflicts, and class antagonisms under control.

Another concern is the application of this model to the societies of old capitalism dominated by private ownership, where the rule of law regulates all social relations by way of the co-management of “social partners.” This is true in principle at least; in reality economic and public affairs in liberal capitalism are moving in an increasingly authoritarian direction. This tendency was already apparent before the arrival of the pandemic and the collapse of the economy. The evolution of capitalism, its crisis of profitability, and its need to maximise profits have progressively reduced the space for bargaining and co-management, which is the basis of representative democracy and its institutions. The crisis of political representation, which we have been experiencing for years, is the immediate consequence of this.

This being said, we can ask if the implementation of freedom-killing measures is linked to a conscious project of the powers to construct-a permanent state of emergency, to be permanently accepted. Or is the adoption of these measures the only response available to the political leadership to deal with the social consequences of the pandemic? As in any crisis, the ruling class must juggle between the idea of the general interest, on which its ideological hegemony rests, and its subordination to the true order-givers: the capitalist class. In every difficult situation, the only plan B available is the reinforcement of authoritarianism, a recourse to govern through fear.

“I don't have Corona, I'm enraged!” Photo: Philippe Gonnet.

At the moment, the extent of the constraints demanded by the magnitude of the viral crisis poses in the long run the problem of a paralysis of the system of production itself. For now, the slowing down of the economy is only in its early stages and the continuation of the life of society demonstrates the wealth and power of modern capitalist societies. But prolonging these constraints risks a collapse of the entire economic machine. Even so, the rapid passage, within a few days, from economic stagnation to a vertiginous recession with millions out of work has signalled the fragility of the entire edifice. This explains the reluctance of part of the ruling class to adopt emergency health measures.

Defenses of liberty are justified: they should put us on guard against the loss of our already meager rights. Nevertheless, given the disastrous effects such emergency measures can have on the unstable economy, it is likely that political systems are adopting them not primarily in order to control the majority of the population or to subject the exploited to new conditions of exploitation but because they are forced to do so by circumstances beyond their control. Of course, the ruling classes know how to make good use of a state of emergency, and they take advantage of the measures involved to speed up the dismantling of “fundamental” rights, to transform the rule of law. However, facts show the ambiguity of the situation. Those very political leaders—in Europe and even in countries where social stability is fragile—have seen themselves forced to backtrack on earlier positions and decisions. To give a few examples: in France, the hated pension “reforms” and the unemployed rights “reform” have been suspended; the US, France, Morocco, and elsewhere have seen timid plans for the release of certain categories of prisoners.

It would be to overestimate their role, and even their class intelligence, to believe that the leaders are in control of the situation and are capable of enacting measures that go beyond safeguarding the laws of profit. These are the laws that dominate their political initiatives. In the present health crisis, locking down populations seems to be the only means to avoid a social and economic disaster. The population is confined not to affirm social domination but as the only way to relieve pressure on the public health service, which is in tatters as a consequence of austerity measures. Desirous of demonstrating control of the situation, the political system tries to hide its responsibility for the healthcare disaster under the cover of defending the famous “general interest.” Perversely, the progressive blockage of the economy as a result of these measures in turn weakens the government.

Nothing says that the end of the lockdown will come with a harmonious return to the past. This, of course, is the plan of the profit lords and their political servants. The latter risk finding themselves, at the end of the state of emergency, weaker than they were before the crisis began. And with a new emergency: a widespread social crisis. The crisis of capitalism will be the second episode of the viral crisis. This is why, from now on, political leaders are seeking to prepare the exit from the shutdown as a long process permitting the integration of emergency measures into an increasingly restrictive rule of law.

The crisis of representation, a natural result of a wealthy and violently inequalitarian society, will only become more evident with the devastating effects of the economic crisis. After the suspended time of the lockdown, capitalist forces will try to impose a return to former levels of production, to the laws of profit as the only alternative. But we are not in the 14th century, with the Black Plague, and in France at least we can hope that the spirit of revolt and resistance accumulated over the last several years will take nourishment from new solidarities that have developed during the lockdown. The collective, the only source of creative liberation, will have to regain its place and expand.

An element of hope is to be found in the experience of these strange months : the experience of the healthcare workers. Working under extremely difficult conditions, with means severely circumscribed by the decisions of politicians now presenting themselves as saviors, collectives of caregivers have succeeded in taking charge of the survival of society. Rising above hierarchies and bureaucracies, they have demonstrated organization, improvisation, and invention. We owe them our thanks that the horror hasn’t spread farther. This mutual support among working communities has drawn its energy, no doubt, from the experience of several years of struggle against government-imposed austerity and want, against the worsening of working conditions, against the predatory attack of private capitalism. Faced with the injustice of death, united by the values of mutual aid, healthcare workers have reclaimed their mission, for the moment taking over control of their activity from financial managers. Because of their role, these workers are aware of their social usefulness for the survival of the community, an awareness that reinforces their commitment but also their strength to challenge. As we have seen, during catastrophes, it is this leap that can create the framework of a different future.

We live the plague, but this suspended time can also be a time when we cultivate and accumulate anger. The opportunity to express that anger will come when life returns, when the time of the scavengers is over.

Meanwhile, to calm our fears and anxieties, we can take pleasure in these few lines by Karl Marx’s old friend Heinrich Heine, who wrote them during the leaden years between the Revolution of 1848 and the Paris Commune:

Here a great calm reigns. A peace of lassitude, sleepiness, and yawns of boredom. Everything is quiet like a winter night enveloped in snow. Nothing but a mysterious, monotonous little noise, like drips falling. These are the returns on capital investment, constantly falling, drip by drip, into capitalist coffers, almost overflowing; one clearly hears the continually rising levels of the wealthy’s riches. From time to time, mingled with this muted lapping one hears a low-voiced sob, the sob of the needy. Sometimes also a slight clicking sound resonates, like a that of a knife being sharpened.2

We are in the grip of something of the same order today; silence is not always calm, it is also the time when weapons are sharpened, to one day settle accounts.

  1. Prime Minister Antonio Costa, SIC TV Portugal, March 20, 2020
  2. Heinrich Heine, Lettres sur la vie politique, artistique et sociale de France (Lutèce, 1855)


Charles Reeve

Charles Reeve lives and writes in Paris. He is most recently the author of Le Socialisme Sauvage (Paris: L'échappée, 2018), with translations into German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Portuguese (Brazil).


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

All Issues