This had already become increasingly difficult and contradictory work before Covid-19 began its global spread. For it is not, in the first instance, states that decide upon the distribution of the means of living or exposure to early death. Rather, it is capital as a totality. The issues of populations, their lives and deaths, at play in biopolitical conceptions are better understood as deriving from a biopolitical economy of capital as sketched by Marx in Capital. Rather than some absolute power that hovers above society, the state here is an institutionalized balance of forces that adjudicates between two sets of competing demands: first, between the long-term interests of capital and the immediate interests of individual capitals; and second, between pacifying and incorporating popular elements. The “relative autonomy” of states is a function of their material articulation of these contradictions and the balance of power between classes and fractions. But this also means that their autonomy—barring some break into the “despotism” of one side or the other—is also an incapacity to resolve those tensions other than through “compromises” leaning one way or the other, and overdetermined by the requirement of maintaining the rate of profit accumulation.
States today must save capital at the same time as they temporarily put it to ruin. Every step in either direction raises questions for which they have no answers. In one direction, lockdowns, income provisions, and emergency measures suggest that we do not, in fact, need to be held in perpetual blackmail to “the economy,” to financial markets and their ideology of risk. We can act collectively in the name of life. In the other direction, their actions demonstrate the extent to which markets themselves are grounded by state agency, public guarantees, bailouts, and bond sales. Saving markets reveals (again) the falsity of their autonomy. Those same contradictions are reflected in the confusions ramifying across civil society, from the shifting, yet always authoritative, advice of medical technocrats, to new struggles of a portion of the population for the “rights” to work and to consume, even at the risk of death.
Amidst this scrambling of the traditional coordinates, other solutions begin to suggest themselves. The intuition at work in these theses is that the central contradictions of capitalist politics are made manifest in new and striking ways by the novel coronavirus. The crisis both centralizes the importance of states and highlights their fundamental incapacity to fulfill the popular demands and interests that have come to be invested in them. If the legitimacy of states has increasingly centered on their ability to mediate and moderate the yawning contradictions between life-making and profit, the pandemic is breaking these contradictions wide open. It is making more visible the ways in which the management of these contradictions has always been segmented along lines of racialized, gendered, and class oppression. And it is drawing into question the political-economic system that now drives states to demand that the most exploited and endangered return to work. In this light, the pressing question of the day is less the supposed authoritarianism of lockdowns, than how workers’ demands to live and to live better, to acquire their share of social wealth, might be answered otherwise than through the compromises and cruelties states have always imposed upon them. For the left, that question is the order of the day. Yet, here too, questions of legitimacy may haunt us more than we realize.