The Virus Infects Politics, Pt. 1

Theses on Social Reproduction, Biopolitical Economies, and the Legitimacy of States

May 9, 2020

This is the first installment in philosopher Michael Bray’s theses on the current crisis. Today we publish the first three of these. Theses four through six are available here.

1. The crisis is political in a novel way.

All crises, especially economic crises, are political. But this is likely the first time that a crisis of economic production and circulation has been catalyzed by the intentional decisions of elected representatives during peacetime. Lockdowns, commands to shelter-at-home, calls for “social distancing”: all of these were proclaimed directly by presidents, prime ministers, legislatures, governors, and mayors, with full foreknowledge of the devastating economic effects that such orders would bring. Shutting down large swathes of retail and services, maintaining only “essential” production, and closing schools and daycares have together produced staggering collapses of economic activity and equally staggering surges in unemployment.

The novelty of such orders has confounded their analysis by the left. Some, including Giorgio Agamben, have seen them as the culmination of a permanent biopolitical state of exception, in which authoritarian sovereign powers reduce us to “bare life,” beyond the realm of political contestation. The horror, from such a view, is that we have grown used to that reduction, and passively submit to it, seeking only to keep ourselves, minimally, alive. A larger portion of the left has rejected Agamben’s contention, arguing that the maintenance of the lives of the vulnerable and “unproductive” is an essential act of care and solidarity, a siding with life against capital. Here, the horror is states’ betrayal of the apparent intention of their own orders, seeking to restart economies as soon as possible, to deny many workers the very protections they seem to offer. The latter arguments, while more convincing, generally have little to say about why it is that states brought economies to a halt in the first place. If states are “ruling committees” of national bourgeoisies, why did they bother? Capital needs workers, of course, but, as the practices of many employers have made clear, it could likely accept 1-2% marginal losses, especially in an era of stagnant wages and a growing global surplus-labor army.

Why, then, have states entered into a kind of war with themselves: saving lives, while at the same time submitting them to danger and neglect; suppressing accumulation, while at the same time seeking to revive and empower it? At the core of this tension, I want to suggest, is a specific form of legitimation crisis, one centered not on the abstract question of popular representation, but directly on a core element of its material basis: the social reproduction of labor power, and so, of laborers. Whatever the suspicion today of intrusive “nanny” states, a key aspect of capitalist states’ legitimacy has become their capacity to keep people alive, to be seen to secure, or be on the way to securing, the means of well-being for at least some of the population they claim to represent.

Why, then, have states entered into a kind of war with themselves: saving lives, while at the same time submitting them to danger and neglect; suppressing accumulation, while at the same time seeking to revive and empower it?

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.

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.

2. The crisis is not one of biopolitics, but of biopolitical economy.

A biopolitical frame for the crisis almost suggests itself: the virus, a quasi-biological, quasi-living particle has intruded into and transformed the political sphere, seemingly overnight. In the absence of a determinate understanding of the virus and its effects, scientific models of populations and their death rates have come to structure our sense of what is happening and what to be done. Every day we receive new aggregate statistics on the number of tests administered, the amount of PPE distributed versus that needed, the number of ICU beds, new cases, and death counts and death rates, and new models of the virus’s future spread. The pandemic has provided us an education in the ways that large, and often contradictory, numbers are translated into administrative plans for life and death.

Yet the politics of life under threat has affective and singularizing aspects as well, underpinned by specific visions of dead grandmothers, personal suffering, and the vulnerabilities of those with compromised immune systems and comorbid conditions. Biopolitics has a popular component, similar to what Foucault called a “security pact” between states and populations, which he understood to arise when “populations are prepared to tolerate major curtailments of normal rights and freedoms in situations where they accept the state’s claims that they face an existential threat.”

But it can just as well be the people who press such claims upon states, even if amplifying those that emanate, initially, from state-appointed medical experts, like Anthony Fauci, themselves often in a certain tension with the states they serve. Indeed, some critics today suggest that a kind of popular panic has driven states to measures more extreme than conditions warrant. Why is it, they ask, that unprecedented efforts have been taken to halt the novel coronavirus while “similar interventions” have never even been considered for “the 300,000 to 500,000 people who die every year due to influenza”? One might debate numbers here but also wonder about the insistence on bracketing out the affective dimension, a move that closely mirrors liberal and technocratic criticisms of popular politics. Why, after all, shouldn’t similar interventions be undertaken for victims of the flu? What determines our sense of an “acceptable” death rate? What conceptions and what calculus of “benefits” and “costs” are at work in such judgments? The crisis opens the legitimacy of such judgments to debate. There may be reason for suspicion of those who side so quickly with the “normal” modes of calculation to which we have been habituated.

To the extent we think of biopolitics as a kind of centralized, authoritarian state control over territorialized populations, the prerogative of an all-powerful nanny state that wants us healthy and happy, so much long-term indifference to death must seem perplexing. This is all the more so when we take into account how, alongside the “normal” death tolls, public health systems have been submitted to the regimes of privatization, just-in-time efficiency, and enduring austerity measures that have disabled their capacity to respond to the pandemic. How is it that states could get the management of life so spectacularly wrong? The answer is not simply that every biopolitics is subtended by a necropolitics, as every yin has its yang. Rather, at the base of biopolitics is not a politics as such, but a political economy. It is not accidental that Foucault located the “discovery” of population as an object of rule in Malthus, Smith, and Ricardo. The state-level politics of life and death are short circuits in the logic of capital—contradictory articulations of, and efforts to smooth over, its own antagonisms.

These differential impacts are not the product of exceptional acts of state authority; rather, it is capitalist social relations that, most fundamentally, determine one’s exposure to premature death.

At the center of those antagonisms is capital’s combined concern with and indifference to the (re)production of labor power. This was the prescient lesson of the chapter, “The General Law of Accumulation,” in Marx’s Capital: the quantitative supply of labor power, as a factor in the reproduction of capital itself, impacts the level of wages—higher, when available laborers are scarce; lower, when they are many. In classical political economy, the “natural law of population” was taken to be the determining factor. Workers’ populations increase when demand for labor is rising and wages are high, but, when those populations naturally come to exceed the work available, when poverty arises, neither capitalist nor state should seek to cushion its impact. The natural cull of surplus populations would correct the balance of supply and demand: unproductive lives should be let go, in order to save accumulation.

What this naturalized conception of populations mystifies, however, is that it is the accumulation of capital which itself produces their law. The lowering of wages is not the result of workers’ reproduction over the long, natural term; rather, an increasing surplus of workers “expresses the situation that the very nature of accumulation excludes every diminution in the degree of exploitation of labor, and every rise in the price of labor, which could seriously imperil the continual reproduction, on an ever larger scale, of the capital-relation.”3Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 769–770. Sucking laborers in, capital duly “sets them free,” increasing productivity, via the technological automation of labor processes, in order to increase relative surplus value. Marx’s analytic of the declining fractions of the surplus labor army – the floating, latent, and stagnant (each of which falls further from formal wage labor) – critiques a biopolitical economy in which every population in capitalist societies must have an increasing number of discarded “paupers.” This despotism of capital was on full display even before the pandemic in a world of deindustrialization and informalized work, “a post-industrial wasteland, where employment grows slowly, and workers are very precarious.”4Endnotes collective, “A History of Separation,” Endnotes 4 (2015), 156.

Those who, as yet, administer the crisis are those who benefitted from its preconditions, a point that must not be forgotten. After me the pandemic was their watchword, but they have become its contemporaries.5See Marx, Capital, 381: “Après moi le deluge is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Capital…takes no account of the health and the length of life of the worker, unless society forces it to do so.” Some of them will die from it. Yet, to revel in their discomfiture would be to ignore the fact that the virus, which emerged in the North principally via “cosmopolitan” carriers, jetsetters of capital and governance, will increasingly scourge those who cannot socially isolate. Ever greater numbers of a global surplus population, consigned to life-making under conditions of austerity and precarity, awaited something that might change the seemingly unchangeable makeshift of their existence. It ought not to have been, but it was perhaps almost inevitably, this.

Critics who question the extremity of the measures taken by states also, correctly, point out that it is “the poor, the marginalized and the vulnerable that are most affected by today’s drastic measures.” I will return to this issue below. But to confront it properly, we must recognize that these differential impacts are not the product of exceptional acts of state authority; rather it is capitalist social relations that, most fundamentally, determine one’s exposure to premature death. “The working population always increases more rapidly than the valorization requirements of capital” and the result is a differential “accumulation of misery.”6Marx, Capital, p. 797. That, even when the state acts partially against the interests of capital accumulation, it still reproduces those differentials, is one of the contradictions the crisis brings to the surface. A real solution to the crisis must, therefore, come from somewhere else.

3. The crisis amplifies the contradictions between social reproduction and capital accumulation.

Since at least the beginning of large-scale industry, capitalist states have had to intercede to keep capitalist accumulation from producing its own death spiral. Partly, this is a matter of ensuring that the exploitation of workers does not arrive at a point where they fail to reproduce themselves as employable (or as suitable conscripts for imperial armies), but it is also a means for redirecting and disaggregating workers’ own struggles for social reproduction. From factory laws to corporate forms of inclusion, economic planning to the conflicted recognition of individual social rights, states have played a running game across capitalist history to keep up with, anticipate, and manage threats to the accumulation of capital posed by workers’ demands to live and to live well, to acquire their share of social wealth. States thus work to both secure capital’s ongoing accumulation and to protect the orderly social reproduction of most laborers.

The “freedom” of the wage laborer (in circulation)—critical for the obfuscation of overt coercion, as for ideological combat against the specter of communism—proved to require not only a juridical structure of property rights, but also an infrastructure of support for working populations: education and training, unemployment insurance, health care, and so forth. In the “golden era” of post-war capitalism, coinciding with the specter of communist and anticolonial revolts, states offered, albeit differentially, substantial resources for securing proletarians’ lives and allegiances. Yet, as rates of profit began to decline in the late 1960s, that infrastructure, and the tax revenue its maintenance required, likewise threatened to reduce the degree of exploitation below a level acceptable to capital. The neoliberal era stretched these contradictions to the breaking point, defeating the unions and social movements understood to threaten those rates and straining health, education, and welfare infrastructures to their limits.

The blessing and the curse of social reproductive work is, then, the freedom to work in a pandemic: free to choose one’s job while freed from the means to stay at home.

In the process, how state legitimacy was conceived and structured also changed, coalescing into what Bob Jessop, speaking of Thatcherism, called a “two nations hegemonic project,” producing “active consent among its social base and passivity among the remainder of the population.”1Alexander Gallas, The Thatcherite Offensive: A Neo-Poulantzasian Analysis (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 28. See Jessop, et al., Thatcherism: A Tale of Two Nations (London: Blackwell, 1988). Another name for this is the (post-)colonial state. Fragmenting political capacities and uprooting substantial bases of organized resistance, states maintain minimal forms of “democracy” (generally reduced to elections), while instituting draconian mechanisms of policing, surveillance, incarceration, and exclusion in order to marginalize oppositional and subaltern forces. Such “authoritarian neoliberalism”2Ian Bruff, “The Rise of Authoritarian Neoliberalism,” Rethinking Marxism 26.1 (2014), 113–129; Cemal Burak Tansel, ed., States of Discipline: Authoritarian Neoliberalism and the Contested Reproduction of the Capitalist Order (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). embraces racialization, xenophobia, and the “war on terror” as key norms for securing the consent of some, and the passivity of others.

And yet, for all their cruelties, such reconfigured states have proved unable to shed the social reproduction responsibilities that had become central to their legitimacy. Despite the submission of such responsibilities to austerity, efficiency, workfare, privatization, and individualized debt financing, states’ role in providing access to healthcare, education, unemployment insurance, access to food, etc., has remained a substantial and often increasing portion of their budgets and a basis for their continuing (if waning) legitimacy against a backdrop of widening inequality. Even amidst the predominance of individualizing discourses of competition and entrepreneurialism, no broad popular support can be garnered by open attacks on programs like Social Security or the NHS. Neoliberal regimes have proven unable to dispense with the popular expectation of social reproduction assistance. Instead, they have attempted to quietly starve such programs of funds, while ensuring that the tangible costs of such cuts are borne principally by those already rendered passive and invisible. Governments seek to appear to care (or to redefine what “care” means) just enough to avoid broader legitimation crises, responding to unrest amongst those who bear the real costs by dismissing those groups as “special interests” and criminalizing the unrest.

The growing contradictions between that basis and the efforts to reduce its costs, increase its “efficiencies,” and undermine its putative universality, were becoming broadly apparent long before the pandemic, sparking the decline of traditional state-parties, alongside waves of right- and left-wing resistance. But the pandemic has both exacerbated these contradictions and scrambled their forms of expression: massive attempts to preserve lives have been undertaken with weakened public health and welfare infrastructures largely not up to the task. Major states, including the US and UK, were not even able to attempt a preemptive response to the pandemic of widescale testing, tracing, and isolation. In this context, states fear both an even wider collapse of their own legitimacy, and the strikes and riots and protests to come (and already arriving), and so they project an image of command and control. “Authoritarian” responses may, in fact, reflect a rigidity and brittleness of states that have starved themselves of the capacity to act in the very ways they assert they are acting—how many, for example, have actively enforced their “lockdowns” or delivered on the testing regimes promised?

By re-centering societies around work that produces life, either directly or through the specific use values of its commodified products, the pandemic threatens to be the kind of crisis such states fear. On the one hand, significant portions of such work—children who must be homeschooled; mild-to-moderate cases of Covid-19 that must be cared for at home; meals that cannot be eaten at restaurants—have been pushed back into more-populated domestic spheres, forcing such work, disproportionately, onto women or onto children themselves, when mothers must work.

On the other hand, those whose wage work serves the most direct interests of life are named “essential” and required to continue to work outside their homes. Grocery clerks, field hands, delivery persons, warehouse workers, janitors, sanitation workers, nursing home or health services employees—all doing work long designated unimportant and unskilled, with low pay and no benefits, consigned predominantly to women, people of color, and migrants—are now celebrated as “heroes.” Such celebrations are well-intentioned but miss the coercive social forces that hold these workers outside social isolation. Their own survival depends on their wage, despite the real danger of contagion, while the corporations that employ them draw excess profits from the crisis. Capital in these spheres becomes increasingly centralized, as a handful of companies monopolize necessity.

The blessing and the curse of social reproductive work is, then, the freedom to work in a pandemic: free to choose one’s job while freed from the means to stay at home. While expanding the surplus labor army, capital insists that essential work continue as value-producing, without “undue” costs in the name of workers’ safety or health. Corporations seek to manage this situation with fleeting wage hikes or occasional relief checks, while minimizing the costs of retooling labor processes, providing equipment, or shutting down plants for disinfection, in the interests of workers’ safety.

But this “freedom” of workers is also a source of power for those whom states have long relegated to passivity and invisibility. There are only so many grocery stores, and supply chains for food, medical supplies. Other goods are strained and so newly vulnerable to stoppage or slowing, as also to “wayward” distribution. Through strikes and public protests, workers demand safety measures and closings, while states—as the balance of powers threatens to shift—begin to order returns to work and consumption. Forced to centralize the work of life-making in order to ensure its continuation, states find themselves simultaneously heroizing and coercing, praising and dominating, the workers who perform it.

The constitutive antagonisms of a system that both depends on the work of social reproduction and holds it in contempt is experienced and imagined in stark terms by workers. The public recognition of such work provides a vector for the politicization of those who perform it. Those who are essential may no longer suffer contempt and pacification—not when their genuine liberation is the only path towards a livable future.



While logged in, you may access all print issues.

If you’d like to log out, click here:


Support our Work

Gift Subscriptions, Renewals, and More