Still, this partial alliance will not stand for long. It is already collapsing. States, in their present configurations, do not want this care for life that has been thrust upon them. They have, in important respects, limited and hedged their actions, and will continue them only so long, and so far, as is necessary to retain consent. The democratic biopolitics of the emergency is to be sublated, as soon as possible, into the everyday disaster of capital’s biopolitical economy. The requirements of legitimacy are to be subordinated to the accumulation of capital. Essential workers are to be returned to the second nation. Key agents and apparatuses within states sought, initially, to avoid stringent measures in defense of life, as they seek, already, to roll them back.
Every present measure, it is insisted, is temporary. Thus, the US Department of Homeland Security distributes letters to undocumented migrant farmworkers declaring that it considers them “critical to the food supply chain.” ICE has likewise declared that it will “temporarily adjust its enforcement posture.” But neither offers any permanent regularization of status. Those seeking an authoritarian state might better look here: not where the state enforces limits on the movements of its own well-off citizens in a pandemic, but where it temporarily enables the free movements of those it otherwise systematically excludes, marginalizes, and exploits. Still, such freedoms, once publicly granted, may prove difficult to take back.
5. The crisis is not national; it is a crisis of the nation itself.
Analyses of the contemporary crisis generally elide or simply reproduce the self-evidence of nationalism to its immediate experience and reportage. Statistics for cases and deaths are graphed nation by nation, in now-familiar colored curves. National containers are the taken-for-granted feature of biopolitical responses in which every state must tend to the well-being of its own population and economy. In pandemics, as in histories, such “methodological nationalism…masks the ways superimposed local, regional, and global processes help structure the national scale as a distinct, though not exclusive, site of social relations.”1Manu Goswami, Producing India: From Colonial Economy to National Space (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 19. Another mark against the conception of sovereign biopolitics is the way it reproduces this methodology.2Foucault, on the other hand, linked the rise of biopolitics to race, as a “condition of acceptability” for the differential exposure of certain lives to risk (“Society Must Be Defended” (New York: Picador, 2003), 255–256).
Certainly, nation-states remain the most capacious and authoritative site for securing (or disavowing) the lives of populations, and yet the biopolitical economy that structures and composes their efforts is global, uneven but combined. To occlude this is to lose a clear grasp on why and how the care of nation-states is differentially applied along the same general lines. Nation-states are never the kinds of autonomous unities they purport to be. They are composed along lines drawn and redrawn by colonialism and empire, the global movements of capital, and the competitive tensions that define their interrelations. They are “connected yet distinctively different nodes in globally interconnected historical geographies,” yet also “sites in the production of global processes, rather than just recipient of them.”3Gillian Hart, unpublished book proposal outline. And “just as racism fills the empty universalism of democratic theory, it provides an otherwise abstract capitalist market with one of its most reliable mechanisms of value-differentiation.”4Nikhil Singh, Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 28.
The distinctness of nations is defined by the pressures that give them common form: every nation, a “fictive ethnicity.”5 Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities (London: Verso, 1991). The particular universalism of each is constituted along the hierarchical inheritance of the global color line, cutting, nationally, along the division between autochthonous “National-Natives,” who belong to the territory of the state, and racialized Migrants, who do not so belong—even if they have lived their whole lives in it. The nationalization of a state, as Nandita Sharma argues, begins when it institutes an immigration policy that restricts, rather than facilitates, mobility.6Nandita Sharma, Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020). In this sense, the pandemic has seen a global renewal of this nationalization. “We are all in this together!” was a call accompanied by immediate bans on transnational travel. Trump, whenever questioned about the US state’s lack of preparations, trumpets his ban on Chinese nationals, as if that alone had been adequate response.
But if the pandemic, like the nation, was initially proclaimed a “great equalizer,” it has traced the same global color lines of “group-differentiated exposure to premature death.”7Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, Berkeley (CA: University of California Press, 2007). The information now becoming available is sobering. The percentage of those amongst the dead who are Black, doubles or often triples the Black proportion of the population in large parts of the United States. Similar disproportions are being traced in the UK and elsewhere. Statistics from the global South are harder to come by, at least in the US, but the effect of India’s lockdown on migrant laborers who were abandoned without public transportation augurs things to come. The racialized and gendered surplus labor armies of the world, without separate spaces to shelter in, means of subsistence beyond informal work, or sufficient medical care resources, are in grave danger.8Though it should also be noted that a number of Southern countries, including Uganda, Sierra Leone, Senegal, and Rwanda, have, by acting early and decisively, curtailed the number of cases and deaths, at least so far.
Segmented by race, the population of a nation is both less and more than “national.” But this means that any “we” that could define a solidarity adequate to the crisis would also need to be “both smaller and larger than the nation-state,” to “widen the circle of common humanity” while also speaking to and from the perspectives of those against whom national universalism has been monopolized.9Singh, Black is a Country, 44. For a left increasingly monopolized by knowledge workers and academics, this has proven a difficult task: the “larger” than the nation-state we can handle, at least if stirring odes to internationalism are called for. But the “smaller” tends to elude us, insofar as it defines a durable, widening, and often enigmatic screen, grounded in differential experiences, between those who theorize political societies and those who are submitted to their worst effects.