At both the collective or societal scale of “populations,” as well as the micropolitical scale implicated in the disciplining of individual bodies, then, it should come as no surprise that such a power over life itself becomes indispensable to capitalism. For, human life—in all its vigor and ingenuity—is indeed the real secret of labor, which for capital is the indispensable source of all value.
The constitutive and irreconcilable antagonism of labor and capital is well known to be a central thesis of Karl Marx’s thought, but it is less well appreciated that the endemic struggle of labor against capital is, for Marx, fundamentally a struggle of life against death. From the standpoint of capital, everything is (at least potentially) capital, such that labor itself is reframed (and disfigured) as “human capital.” From the standpoint of labor, in contrast—which is also to say, therefore, from a Marxian standpoint—everything that enters into the scope of human social life is always already intrinsically socialized by purposeful human activity: labor. Hence, all of social life is either a manifestation of human productive powers and creative capacities, or the product thereof; it is either living labor, or the product of past labor (which Marx instructively depicts as “dead labor”). Capital, as an accumulation of the wealth produced by labor performed in the past, is therefore dead labor, which nonetheless can only sustain and replenish itself by constantly feeding upon the vitality of the living. Labor, consequently, is merely a particular form and specific expression of human life itself. The famous class struggle of labor against capital, then, is merely one manifestation of the endemic and irreconcilable struggle of capital, vampire-like, to cannibalize the creative energies of human life, and the struggle of human life against its objectification and alienation—our struggle, to preserve, protect, and promote our own flourishing. By escalating the intrinsic antagonism of human life and capital, the COVID-19 pandemic exposes capital’s absolute and utter dependency upon human life-as-labor—which is to say, more precisely, capital’s constitutive requirements for the subjection of human life as subordinated (alienated) labor.
Capital accumulation requires all labor to be ultimately disposable. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, the historical condition of enslaved labor must be recognized to be the defining and constitutive limit figure for how we comprehend labor itself under capitalism, and slavery thus names the ultimate condition of labor’s subordination and subjection to capital. In what I propose as “a racial theory of labor”8De Genova, Nicholas. 2018. “Migration and the Mobility of Labor.” In Matt Vidal, Tony Smith, Tomás Rotta, and Paul Prew (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Karl Marx. London: Oxford University Press. Published online (December 2018). DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190695545.013.25 —starting from the recognition that Blackness, as a racialized construct that is historically specific to our (colonial capitalist) modernity, is inextricable from slavery—there is a tendency for all labor under capital to be pressed toward a sociopolitical condition approximating racial Blackness. The utter and abject disposability of human life is the enduringly manifest result.
This is not to say, of course, that the conditions of all labor are equal, or that this disposability is distributed evenly. On the contrary. Poor people everywhere are disproportionately relegated to conditions of precarity, abandonment, and expulsion, and under the conditions of this pandemic, they are very predictably abandoned to the perils of inordinate exposure to the virus, from the homeless, to slum dwellers, to migrants and refugees crossing borders, stranded on boats or confined in makeshift camps, imprisoned in detention prisons, or living in over-crowded barrack-like workers’ dormitories. The hierarchies of class inequality have been demonstrated in remarkable ways, moreover, as many of those characterized as “essential workers” are expected to continue working with no adequate health and safety protections. Among transit workers in New York City, it has become commonplace to sardonically remark, “We are not ‘essential’; we are sacrificial.” With slavery as the horizon and ultimate limit figure for the abject disposability of human life, the pandemic has generated sometimes shocking examples of people being driven by what Marx depicts as “the silent compulsion of economic relations”9Marx, Karl. 1867 . Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume One. New York: Vintage, 899. to potentially work themselves, literally, to death. Alongside healthcare and emergency response workers in every category (from doctors and nurses, to paramedics, police, and firefighters, to hospital orderlies and cleaning staff ), the health of a much wider cross-section of the working class—namely, the working poor—has likewise been flagrantly put at risk. As people are made to gamble with their lives (and also those of their loved ones) in exchange for the brute necessities of sustaining their livelihoods, the pandemic has demonstrated the grim truth that those whose labor is indispensable are among those whom capital renders permanently disposable.
From farmworkers, to grocery store employees, to meatpacking and other food processing factory workers, to warehouse workers and delivery drivers, to mass transit and other transportation workers, to janitors and sanitation workers, to nursing home staff, to home-based elderly care workers—the fact that so many of these essential categories of labor are also among the lowest paid and least protected (often including no sick-leave benefits whatsoever) ensures that they are disproportionately reserved for racially subordinated “minorities” and migrants. In the United States, where meatpacking plants have more or less universally become hotspots of mass coronavirus infection due to the spatio-temporal organization of the labor process, Donald Trump issued an executive order commanding this industry to keep its workplaces open rather than shutting them down as a clear and present danger to the well-being of their employees and more generally to public health. Republican governors in states dominated by the meatpacking industry likewise threatened workers that if they refused to go to work for reasons of their health and safety, they would be denied access to unemployment benefits. The mercenary efforts of these state officials to coerce such workers to risk their lives on the job in order to bolster the profitability of their employers have been brazen. The contemptuous disregard for their health cannot be separated from their racial subordination, however. Meatpacking is notoriously dangerous work under “normal” circumstances, and is overwhelmingly dependent in the United States upon the exploitation of Mexican and other migrant labor.