Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., we have been witnessing the politically and ideologically motivated suicide of the U.S. Right through its irrationalist rejection of even the most basic precautions against contagion, from the simplest measure of wearing a mask, to observing social distance. Although this ideologically based rejection is suicidal in its potential and likely consequences, suicide is never articulated as an explicit aim—not, for example, in the recent death of Herman Cain, former Republican candidate for President and co-chairman of Black Voices for Trump. Cain attended a Trump campaign rally in Tulsa and expressed disregard in social media for safety precautions, shortly before being told that he had been infected with the virus. This has also been the case of other right-wing suicidal ideologies expounded in other countries, like extreme-right President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who, dismissing the scientifically proven mortal danger of the COVID-19 virus, adopted a criminally negligent policy vis-à-vis the virus that did not take long to infect him and record numbers of Brazilians. Something similar had previously happened to Conservative British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who, disregarding scientific advice, refused to take measures to prevent the early spread of the virus in the United Kingdom and ended up having to be hospitalized. Jeanine Àñez, the hard right-wing unelected President of Bolivia, also tested positive for the COVID-19 virus in early July.
Not that the U.S. left has lacked its own versions of ideological suicide (although there aren’t any yet that have arisen in the context of the present COVID-19 virus pandemic). Interestingly however, unlike the right wing, they have explicitly articulated their self-immolating goals. One example was Black Panther leader Huey Newton’s call, in 1970, for Blacks to commit “revolutionary suicide,” arguing that they might as well die fighting murderous social and political conditions, instead of passively waiting for those conditions to kill them.
Newton’s call found an echo in Reverend Jim Jones, who adopted a cartoonish version of it as the leader of his mostly minority, leftist, and faith-healing People’s Temple in San Francisco, which ended up as a religious cult and commune in Jonestown, Guyana in the 1970s. Propelled by his growing paranoia that made him see himself and his commune as under the imminent threat of fascist forces, he ordered his agents to murder California liberal Democratic congressman Leo Ryan—who had come to Jonestown to investigate charges of human rights abuses in the commune in November of 1978—along with several cult members who were leaving the commune and going back home. Immediately afterwards, Jones directed the mass suicide and murder of 918 commune members—304 of them, children. Jones himself committed suicide.
This highly paranoid form of murder-suicide was unique to Jones and very uncommon among leftists. Much more common has been suicide among left-wingers facing desperate situations and the lack of alternatives. Walter Benjamin, for example, killed himself when, while fleeing from Nazism, he found himself in Portbou, Spain without a visa to travel to Portugal and from there to the United States. Soviet diplomat, Adolf Joffe—who was personally and politically close to Leon Trotsky—was refused treatment abroad for his very serious illness by the Stalinist authorities and killed himself in November of 1927, four days after Trotsky had been expelled from the Communist Party. Trotsky’s funeral eulogy for Joffe was the last speech he delivered on Soviet soil. Sometimes, suicide can be a highly dramatic call to political action against governmental corruption as was the case with Cuban leader Eduardo (Eddy) Chibás, who killed himself in August of 1951 (Fidel Castro was a secondary leader of Chibás’s Ortodoxo Party and began his insurrectionary activities against the Batista dictatorship (1952-1958) invoking Chibás’ political legacy).
The phenomenon of suicide has usually been approached in terms of the psychological factors that induce individuals to kill themselves. Yet, suicide has also a social dimension as the product of social forces that generate different tendencies to commit suicide among differently situated groups. The social approach to suicide was pioneered by French sociologist Emile Durkheim in his classic Suicide; upon having found that suicide rates varied among different social groups—like between the European Protestants and Catholics of his time, with the European Protestants having a higher rate of suicide compared with the European Catholics—Durkheim proceeded to search for the social mechanism that could explain those different rates. In the case of the Protestant and Catholic denominations, Durkheim argued that this mechanism was based in the social structure of each group, with Protestantism being an individualistic religion and Catholicism being more of a community on which its members could count for support to face hardship.
The present discussion of the right-wing suicidal tendency is also based on a sociological approach, although Durkheim never wrote about or identified any kind of political-ideological suicide, and it is premature to try to measure how frequently this one occurs and among what groups. It posits this suicidal tendency as the product of an ideology—a social construct—that has turned the capitalist market into a fetish, that is, that attributes magic powers to the capitalist market to self-correct and solve every economic and social ill. This ideology is rooted in the powerful material forces of competition among individuals and firms, the pursuit of the highest rate of profit and the accumulation of capital. It is a doctrine that advocates minimal government intervention in a society run by the capitalist marketplace, even to safeguard the lives of people, including the lives of right-wing politicians themselves, from the contagion of a potentially mortal virus that has already led to hundreds of thousands of deaths in the U.S. and elsewhere.
This fetishism of the capitalist market, particularly in its concern with the non-stop pursuit of profit and accumulation of capital was best articulated by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick of Texas, who, in March of this year, told Fox News that he would rather perish from the new coronavirus than see instability in the state’s economic system. In an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson on April 20, Patrick elaborated on his March statement, arguing that “there are more important things than living. And that’s saving this country for my children and my grandchildren and saving this country for all of us” adding that he didn’t “want to die, nobody wants to die, but man, we’ve got to take some risks and get back in the game and get this country back up and running.” Was Patrick propagating a cult of death here? Yes, but in a secular capitalist fashion. He was not promoting the intrinsic virtues of dying, let alone telling stories about the wonders of the afterlife as, for example, religiously-inspired terrorists sometimes do. Patrick claimed that he wanted to save this country for his descendants through continuing the only relentless non-stop economic activity that he could conceive of, American capitalism. And similar to Mao Zedong proclaiming that you cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs, if thousands of people have to die, so be it.
With politicians like Patrick setting the tone, Texas businesses started reopening in May. But as hospitalizations increased dramatically in June and July (with 10,133 Texans dead from the Covid-19 virus by August 13), Gov. Greg Abbot was forced to backtrack, pausing reopening plans and scaling back others in June. Although Abbot insisted that closing businesses should be “the last option” (Texas Tribune, July 9, 2020). he did eventually issue a statewide mask order that provoked a huge backlash from the Republican Right including being censured by Republican groups in eight counties in Texas (New York Times, July 23, 2020).
Meanwhile, in the neighboring state of Oklahoma, Republican governor Kevin Stitt kept rejecting statewide mask orders, and in March, even posted a photo of himself with his children in a crowded restaurant, blatantly disregarding social distance protocols. On July 15, however, he became the first governor to test positive for the COVID-19 virus. On the same day, the state reported 1,075 new cases, surpassing its own previous record established the day before. By mid-July, the state had recorded more than 21,000 cases of infection, an increase undoubtedly linked to the governor allowing the opening of stores and barbershops on April 24, restaurants, movie theaters, and houses of worship on May 1, and bars on May 15.
One major corollary of this capitalist market fetishism in the United States is the extreme individualism expressed in the commonly-made assertion by right-wingers that individuals have the absolute, unqualified right to decide whether or not to wear a mask. Consistent with this extreme version of individualism, no consideration is given to the fact that the supposedly individual right to decide whether or not to wear a mask affects others’ individual right to life by subjecting them to the risk of becoming infected by maskless shedders. Much less does it take into account the social costs it creates, including the hospitalization and convalescence of the shedders themselves and the people they have infected.
There are other political and cultural ideologies and practices besides extreme individualism and market fetishism that have reinforced this right-wing suicidal ideology. One involves the notion that the adoption of protective measures against the propagation of COVID-19 signifies, as sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox has noted, cowardice and lack of manliness. This also fits in with the version of male chauvinism that seeks to prove one’s manhood by engaging in reckless and dangerous behavior without regard for its deadly consequences. This is incidentally another form of the cult of death, but in this case, with clear pre-capitalist origins.
Perhaps even more important than male chauvinism is the aversion to science and the irrationalism widespread in right wing circles starting with the Trump White House itself. Thus, for example, Trump, despite backtracking on the issue of wearing masks, has continued to oppose widespread testing. His cynical effort to minimize and hide the number of publicly known COVID-19 infections is also shown by Trump’s directive to have new cases reported to the White House rather than to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Trump blatantly rejects the epidemiological scientific relationship of testing to tracing and isolating possible carriers of the virus. His opposition to testing is undoubtedly bolstered by the ignorance, distrust, and opposition to science widespread in the American right as shown by the antivaccination movement. Such right-wing irrationalism is even likely to include a hostility to foreign nations, which associates protective measures against contagion with foreign, particularly Asian, cultures that do not fit the “appropriate” worldview and conduct expected of “red-blooded” Americans. Unlike the fetishism of the market and the extreme individualism associated with it, the right-wing rejection of science is more likely to have the greatest influence and find a positive reception not in the circles of big capital but among the lower middle class and other social sectors subject to the influence of easily available pseudoscientific media outlets, popular literature, and television shows. However, it is undoubtedly the case that anti-scientific ideas and values have grown in influence throughout American culture and in important sections of the left itself, as manifested by left-wing scientist Alan Sokal’s exposure of the anti-scientific ideas and ignorance of the editors of the journal Social Text in 1996, and more broadly the scientific fallacies proudly upheld by postmodernism.
The most unfortunate fact is, however, that this right-wing suicidal response to the COVID-19 epidemics does not only lead to the potential self-destruction of those who hold that ideology; it also has become a form of homicide, to the extent that their suicidal behavior has led to the contagion and death of other people, especially of those that do not share their ideas, and most importantly, of those who are not in the position to resist or protect themselves from it such as “essential” workers, who are mostly people of color. It is no accident that a highly disproportionate number of those who have died because they were infected by the COVID-19 virus, are African-Americans and people of Latin American origin and descent.
Beyond that, the right-wing reaction to the virus is a condensed, crystallized example of the more general U.S. right-wing suicidal attitude to such historical phenomena as the deterioration of the environment and its concomitant climate change. However, while climate change and the deterioration of the environment tend to become evident in a relatively longer time span, the current health crisis has revealed the potential deadly outcome of the Right’s hostility to science, its racism, and its prioritizing of profit over human needs, in a dramatically shortened time span.
Along with the hard-right, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and more broadly the protection of the environment by the decision- and opinion-makers, be they Republicans or Democrats, is a powerful sign of capitalist decay. It reveals the systemic inability of a social system to assure its own long-term survival, to provide a meaningful alternative and solution to the ecological, economic, and social crises that will considerably increase the likelihood of pandemics, and to plan for an effective and egalitarian public health response when these pandemics occur. However, in the case of the U.S., capitalist decay, like capitalism itself, develops in an unevenly combined manner. On the one hand, it features the financialization of the economy and an increasingly decayed system of medical care, education, and social services. On the other hand, it makes undoubted advances in fields such as telecommunications, medical science, and high technology in general. This combination thereby hides or obscures the system’s state of overall decay. As a result of this, the “virtue” of the COVID-19 pandemic is again to show the system’s inability to provide a quick and effective care to those immediately affected as well as to populations as a whole. Moreover, as Mike Davis’ The Monster at Our Door has shown, pandemics thrive on capitalist expansion as it abolishes the boundaries between nature and “civilized” society thus exposing humanity to an increasing number of previously unknown viruses. However, this important aspect of capitalist decay is only evident to the politically most conscious sections of the population.