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The Virus Infects Politics, Pt. 2

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

May 13, 2020

This is the second installment in philosopher Michael Bray’s theses on the current crisis. Part 1, containing Theses 1-3, is available here.

4. Static oppositions of biology and politics cannot grasp the crisis.

The entry of Covid-19 into the human lifeworld, like its rapid transmission across the globe, is a function of industrial agriculture, the expanding intrusion of human settlements and extractive practices into ecosystems, and the rapid distribution of commodities and persons across the globe. The accelerating spread of pathogens is a socio-historical phenomenon.

Still, the novel coronavirus is a biochemical structure, an undead thing that metabolizes our energy, hacks the reproductive functions of our cells, and travels in our humid breath. If its specific effects are mediated by social relations, it is not itself a “social substance,” and so its meanings for us do not map directly onto the antagonisms that social relations (re)produce. The virus blurs the lines of traditional political categories and positions, imbalances the terms of political ontologies. It has or is a kind of “remainder” that cannot be resolved by a reading of discursive positions or power relations, but also cannot be grasped entirely outside them. In its wake, human beings do not become some unified whole, but they do share interests—the interest of life-making, the interest of survival—that both cohere and contradict.

That is another reason why “biopolitics,” at least in the form presently expressed by Agamben, is too static a category to grasp the infection of politics by biology. There, biology appears as external to the political world, an absence or cancelling of meaning imposed by a permanent, sovereign-imposed, state of emergency. “Men have become so accustomed to living in a state of permanent crisis that they do not seem to realise that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has lost not only its political dimension but also any human dimension.” But people do not realize this because it is not true. Illness is not a “purely” biological condition any more than being human is a non-biological one. The virus, and our active, collective awareness of it, infects politics just as it does its hosts: it makes them produce things otherwise than they would under “normal” conditions. This is a state of exception but not one decreed by states.

To make it appear so, Agamben initially denied that COVID-19 was anything more than a flu. Then, admitting it was worse, he insisted there had still been worse epidemics. Now, he refers to “a risk that it was not possible to specify.” In each case, what he wants to suggest is that there is a fear that exceeds its putative source and must therefore be attributed to a state project to make us afraid. Only politics as total manipulation could produce a reduction to the purely biological. But fear, like anger, is not a simple affect. Its meanings follow from complex combinatories that cannot be reduced to one input or outcome. Fear can lead to passivity and individualization, but also towards empowerment and solidarity. Sometimes fear isolates us, but sometimes it prompts us to care even for those we do not know. What Agamben offers in the place of such care is a stolid stance against (biologized) fear, the rigor mortis of a principled being-towards-death.

But most of us do not care if we die pure in spirit and conception; we simply do not want to die. That “simply,” however, is not one that excludes all mediation or solidarity. Our fear and its expressions are immutably social, composed by the fundamental dependence and vulnerability of human beings, the complex network of relations and antagonisms that compose human life. Death is lonely because, alive, we are never really alone. If the cold comfort of abstract principles was the only alternative, we would never be wrong to side with whoever offered a concrete possibility of life. That is not “corruption.” It is common sense.

Put simply, there is no bare life. There is only life that is dependent, cared for, reproduced, and inaugurated into a world and a history always already defined (and damaged) at the level of kin and culture. The idea of governments reducing humans to some biological core is less a critical concept than an expression of one side of the logic of capitalist societies. Capitalism does fragment, isolate, and individualize, and states generally participate in that process. But they can never entirely reduce the labors that reproduce human life, the shared efforts, heroic struggles, caring touches, beautiful experiments, that make life possible and, if they did not happen, would bring about the end of the capitalist mode of production which degrades them. The sociality of life is embedded not only in memory but in the very material structure of our bodies, as a perpetual font of possible resistance. Populations are always also political formations.

States must, to some extent, serve their interest in, and demand for, the reproduction of shared life insofar as they are to remain legitimate. They cannot escape from the claim of popular sovereignty, the imperium of the multitude, and the need to maintain hegemony that follows from them. In this sense, the biopolitical impetus to protect the health of populations follows more from a popular threat to states than from their own sovereign powers. The virus, infecting the people, making them afraid, has forced states’ hands and brought the left into a peculiar, partial alliance with them.

In his important response to Agamben, Panagiotis Sotiris sketches the idea of a democratic biopolitics, grounded in Foucault’s relational conception:

In such a perspective, the decisions for the reduction of movement and for social distancing in times of epidemics… would be the result of democratically discussed collective decisions based on the knowledge available and as part of a collective effort to care for others and ourselves.

If this points towards something like a true ground of legitimate governance, the state nevertheless remains, in the present moment, the only institution that can mobilize the capacities to care for mass populations. The very different trajectories of case and death numbers in different countries and regions bear out the difference state actions can make. If biopolitics today is barely democratic, the vestiges of its democratic ground have pushed states into contradiction with the capitalist imperative of profit.

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.

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[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.

The point is not to reconstitute unities that were always fictive, but to trace, along these lines, new terms for collective empowerment.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow touches on this problem by noting how many responses to the crisis ignore the positions of those who have always lived under such threats, in whom “the existence of yet another produces less of a panic. The ability to panic becomes a privilege existing among those who rarely have to do it.” This is another contradiction of the crisis: the panic or fear that compels states to protect life does not come principally from those most endangered. They are, anyway, compelled to continue working.

Solidarity is necessary, then, to resist the intention to resolve us into “two nations” again. But such solidarity, beyond its declaration, is complicated by the same dividing screen. Panic, like fear, is socially differentiated, often along the lines of political empowerment or its absence, the capacity to envision one’s own needs and interests becoming actualized in the social world. A recent analysis of South Carolina’s Democratic primary results by the Nation’s justice correspondent, Elie Mystal, points to the importance of such differentials. While many white intellectuals who supported Sanders experienced Biden’s emphatic victories among Southern blacks as confounding, Mystal argues that they reflect a form of strategic assessment by a community whose fundamental needs and rights have long been disregarded in national politics.

Joe Biden is the indictment older Black folks have issued against white America. His support is buttressed by chunks of the Black community who have determined that most white people are selfish and cannot be trusted to do the right thing.

Having lived through Reagan, the Democratic Party’s persistent turn away from even progressive candidates, the reelection of George W. Bush, and the backlash against Obama, older Black people knew that, as Mystal puts it, “white people gonna white” and therefore chose, strategically, the candidate they judged that white people might actually elect.

This canny racial strategy can stand as a synecdoche for a wider set of responses by marginalized, excluded, and dominated groups— a knowing, if resigned, recognition that the best that can often be hoped for, beyond the directly interpersonal, is a limiting of harm. Indeed, often even that is too much to hope for. Rates of registration and electoral participation have always been lower for racial minorities, but they have also been undergoing a general decline across the North across the last several decades. As political and economic power become more distanced and authoritarian, less responsive and enabling, the zones in which such powers are traded and bought appear less meaningful for the very people they systematically exploit and disempower.

Neoliberalism’s “two nations,” its backlash against decades of anti-racist and anti-colonial struggle, have done their work, seeding disempowerment and distrust. Deepening and intensifying the divisions that both constitute and undercut the particular universalisms of nations, it has rendered any immediate appeal to alternative universalism or (white) nationalisms, however leftist, unlikely to inspire subaltern agencies. The answer cannot be a critique of nationalism and racism “from above,” from a position that cannot help but identify that critique with an embrace of the vortex of global capital.

If states are the only institution that can mobilize the capacities to care for mass populations in this crisis, their inevitable failures also bring to a head the inequalities and antagonisms between the two (or many) nations internal to their hegemonic projects. Undoing those failures and transforming societies in response to the present crisis will take a concerted effort of rebuilding leftist practice and theory, of organizing new political identities, on the common senses and concrete, everyday struggles of communities that live in the shadows and the interstices of fractured national unities.

We need direct and concrete arguments, grounded in lived experience, against racism and, even more so, we need to build an imaginary of the multi-ethnic or multi-racial working class at the national level and beyond. The pandemic may help with this project precisely because, in its uneven effects, it has begun to publicize, to render visible again, the racial, class, and gender fractures national regimes have long exploited. The point is not to reconstitute unities that were always fictive, but to trace, along these lines, new terms for collective empowerment.


6. The crisis is not a deus ex machina for producing our utopias; it is an extended struggle.

After the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, there was a brief period in which leftist journalists and intellectuals announced with excitement that this, at last, was the end of neoliberalism. Only. it was not. While new cycles of left-wing struggles emerged, these cycles have thus far been outpaced by those of xenophobic, racist, right-wing pedigree. The aftermath of the crisis led to no fundamental revisions in productive relations, global value chains, or the class power that finance exercises, imposing ideological conceptions of risk onto the agency of states, corporations, and individuals. “This is the end of neoliberalism” could be a true statement only if the voices that enunciate it have the power to make it so.

Today’s crisis is different in important ways. As a crisis of solvency rather than liquidity, it potentially weakens capital more fundamentally. As a sudden reduction of available or willing labor, it increases labor’s leverage. As a forced, if partial and temporary choice, of life over profit, it puts economic rationality into question and reshapes ideas about what economics is in a way that the financial crisis did not. The experiences of forced social isolation or forced labor will clearly mark our perspectives going forward, perhaps for the rest of our lives.

But the crisis has not removed the difficulties that confronted the left before it began. There is still no political constitution of a multiracial working class, no party to organize such a thing, no developed infrastructure of dissent, no clear or even partial conception among the global masses of what a different world might look like. We still live in the world where Biden crushed Sanders on Super Tuesday, where Johnson destroyed Corbyn, where Trump is president, where Modi rules India, Bolsanaro rules Brazil, and so on. The crisis in and of itself will not deliver us from this world: it is not a sudden tiger’s leap into the past. It is not the god in the machine. We need to reckon with the fact that, if the state’s legitimacy is waning, it still exceeds that of the radical left.

Here too, the peculiar nature of the crisis offers us a challenge and an opportunity: to think and act with, to learn from and to help render coherent, the life-making work that is already underway, to find there the seeds of alternative modes of understanding, agency, and solidarity.

It can be tempting to think otherwise. For the crisis does open up a kind of break in the apparent linearity of time. We have nowhere to go, so we imagine where we might go. We feel powerless and so we bring our reason to bear upon an image of the world. The crisis becomes a kind of Rorschach inkblot, in which each of us finds that for which we were already searching. Agamben is, of course, now notorious for this, but it is not clear how much any of us have escaped it. The environmentalist sees the rough draft of an expansive ecological crisis that will only be worse. The centrist finds confirmation of the desperate need for unity cabinets and non-antagonistic, technocratic politics. The nationalist, right or left, observes how global production chains have left countries dependent, unable to supply adequate medical resources for their own doctors and nurses. The right-wing evangelist finds, as ever, confirmation of God’s hatred of queers and oral sex. The queer theorist confirms, grimly, that states never learned the lessons of the AIDS crisis. The social reproduction theorist points to a crisis of social reproduction. In this traumatic moment, we repeat the terms of our previous traumas, our past losses, but in the mode of optimistic disavowal. This time, all the same, will be different.

I am not suggesting that all of these views are equivalent. But the proof of the superiority of ideas lies ultimately in their transformative effectiveness, in their capacity to enter into, make sense of, and motivate the common sense of “productive” and reproductive laborers, of Black and Brown and white working peoples, of women, and queers, and transgender people. There is no democratic biopolitics, no communist political constitution, without that. And it is here, in this struggle for counter-hegemony, that a left composed disproportionately of white, male knowledge workers and academics has thus far abjectly failed. It is not even clear that we have limned the depths of the problem. When the masses opt for “safer” choices, this is not an index of their ignorance, it is an index of our isolation.

Something like this seems to have occurred to Huey Newton when, newly released from prison, he faced a backlash from the Black community over the Black Panther Party’s pledge to send troops to support the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. “Many simply could not grasp what the liberation of Black people could possibly have to do with the Vietnamese Communists against whom the U.S. was waging war.” It was in this context that Newton developed his theory of “intercommunalism,” which conceptually linked a prescient critique of neoliberal empire with a vision of resistance grounded in communities both smaller and larger than the nation, who, liberating their own territories, created the conditions for mutual collaboration.10My thinking about intercommunalism and Newton is indebted to the work of John Narayan, most recently, “Survival pending revolution: Self-determination in the age of proto-neo-liberal globalization” Current Sociology 62, no. 2 (2020). This notion of “survival pending revolution” framed the Panthers’ survival programs—free breakfasts for school children, free medical clinics, and many more—as communities’ efforts to organize and secure their own social reproduction, but also as challenges to the legitimacy of the nation-state: “effectively [tearing] spaces out of the nation-state and claim[ing] them as their own.”11Nikhil Singh, “The Black Panthers and the ‘Undeveloped Country’ of the Left,” in The Black Panther Party [Reconsidered], Charles E. Jones, ed., (Baltimore, MD: Black Classic Press), 79. If people in Oakland could see the point of these programs more clearly than that of a military alliance with the Vietnamese people, Newton’s wager was that the programs could become a vehicle towards the concrete realization that both communities, and many more, needed the same things and had the same enemies.

Today, in the midst of the global pandemic, we must repeat Newton’s wager. The present struggles for life over profits must also be grounded in direct collaboration with and service to the lives of the people most under threat. It must not speak, abstractly, to their interests, but develop in conversation with and between their quotidian needs and challenges, and the way they link with others across the globe.

The tendency of theory is inevitably to move towards a view of the totality, the structural framework, the essential logic at play. Such a viewpoint is a necessary moment in the critique of capitalism, which masks its true relations in commodity and money fetishes, individual rights, and competitive markets. But the viewpoint of the whole is one that can appear immediately politicizable only for those who, in theory, can see themselves as architects of states. Here too, the peculiar nature of the crisis offers us a challenge and an opportunity: to think and act with, to learn from and to help render coherent, the life-making work that is already underway, to find there the seeds of alternative modes of understanding, agency, and solidarity. The state is afraid of the people. The left must not be.

The mutual aid societies that have sprung up in many places today may well provide a starting point. What we must seek to do, or to do more, is to participate in such forms of shared agency and aid, earn the trust and belief of those now proven essential, make a shared transformation of those conditions plausible and solidarity concrete.

One possible model here is Mimmo Porcaros’ “connective party”: “a political entity whose elementary cell is not simply the territorial section in which members discuss politics, but the unity of popular acquisition, the self-managed nursery for children, the time bank, the school of computer literacy and so on.” Today, such cells are expanding and spreading; a party or a movement or a front might be grounded in the association and connection between them and the rendering coherent of those associations—a nascent democratic biopolitics as a first step towards a regulated society. Alongside policy arguments for Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, in other words, we need support and staffing for free medical clinics, food distribution outside of the punitive surveillance of welfare and food stamps, support networks for women fleeing domestic violence, “wildcat” forms of strike organization for “essential,” non-unionized workers and for renters, and a political pedagogy developing out of each of them, in conversation with one another.

The virus has interrupted the course of capital and of everyday life. But such interruptions do not bear a pre-given political meaning. Communal efforts must be undertaken from the standpoint of an extended struggle, but also with an eye to the ever-shifting terrain and temporality of the present.

The deep crisis of legitimacy in which nation-states operate today, as well as their efforts to shore up that legitimacy by dramatic defenses of life, open important possibilities for such movements to, once again, tear spaces out of states and make them their own. In the meantime, though, those states will continue to pose distinct dilemmas and dangers. The sudden embrace by the Economist and Financial Times of social democratic policies (“We must spend whatever is needed to protect both our people and our economic potential from the consequences.”) is a pointed expression of the effort to hold capitalist productive relations together by any means, but so too is the intensification of authoritarian, xenophobic, and racist regimes.

In the quest to resolve the contradictions of the conjuncture, the variegated forces of capital are in temporary disarray. As the virus has triggered a remarkably deep crisis in accumulation, these forces will be seeking fixes, and as quickly as possible. In the short term, either more democracy or more authoritarianism will be the contested paths towards a partial resolution.

This is a final way in which the peculiar character of the present crisis, catalyzed by the pandemic, infects standard narratives. The crisis, in one form or another, is likely to extend well beyond the usual punctuated economic recession. As long as there is no vaccine, there can be no easy path to “normality,” and so no clear basis for a recovery. What we are likely facing is a long period of small steps forward and back, staggered returns to workplaces, schools, and restaurants, punctuated by regional lockdowns where new spikes in cases appear. “On the models, the curves of rising and falling deaths resembles a row of shark teeth.”

The prospect of a long interregnum on that jagged line is sobering, though perhaps also a reason for a certain perverse political optimism. For it means that the hidden tensions and contradictions that the crisis has brought to the surface of society will likely remain there for an extended period of time. Capital accumulation’s opposition to life-making will remain stark and deadly. It will prove difficult to relegate those most exposed to that danger to invisibility and passivity again, while the work of mutual aid and political formation will become increasingly imperative.

This public antagonism also means that capital and states will be tempted to adopt authoritarian solutions: re-criminalizing dissent and the defense of life, imposing the “freedom” to work on entire populations, functionalizing a biological caste system based on immunity or age, and others of which our philosophers have not yet dreamed. As the experience of the Black Panthers suggests, isolated attempts to favor life over capital will be crushed when the state has the capacity and/or the legitimacy to do so. Keeping states off-balance, at war with themselves, demanding that they continue to exercise their capacities to care for mass populations, are essential aspects of any road from survival in this crisis to revolution.

In that context, interventions by leftist intellectuals in ongoing technocratic debates about state policies, the articulation of public demands to the states, and electoral participation, will all have their place. We must win over as many centrist intellectuals as possible, divide the forces that might be brought to bear upon workers, social reproduction laborers, and the unemployed, and lessen the coercion aimed against any broader transformation of political society. But such efforts must be seen clearly for what they are: not ends in themselves, not apprenticeships for a new breed of state-architects, but service to the proliferation and affiliation of such communal efforts at life-making, to the transformation of society and of ourselves.

The virus has interrupted the course of capital and of everyday life. But such interruptions do not bear a pre-given political meaning. Communal efforts must be undertaken from the standpoint of an extended struggle, but also with an eye to the ever-shifting terrain and temporality of the present. There are weeks where decades happen, after all, and the accelerating contradictions that the pandemic has brought into view may yet make possible other interruptions and even more novel politics along the way.



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