Archive for covid-19

The Necropolitics of Boredom

Posted in Dispatches with tags , , , , , on June 25, 2020 by Magadh

I think we’ve all known for a long time that the president was bored. His attention span is (to put it charitably) notoriously brief at the best of times. He does best when he can bounce from strength to strength, like a stone skipping across the surface of a placid sea of nothingness. But now he is so starved for positive feedback that he has been reduced to half-filled arenas in areas slowly being transformed into viral petri dishes.

What are the necropolitics of boredom? In the case of Mr. Trump, they seem to veer wildly between attempts to blame the super-(duper)-boring virus currently devastating the country on the Chinese, and the project of replicating the worst elements of their approach.

In the ecology of Trump administration, the president’s underlings work feverishly to convert his utterances into things which aren’t illegal, immoral, inappropriate, or incomprehensible (or some combination of all of them). These efforts generally last only as long as it takes for the president to utter some other combination of ridiculousness and atrocity, at which point a new metabolic cycle begins, the previous one being consigned to a media-generated memory hole.

The most recent iterations of this have focused on the president’s stated intention to draw down coronavirus testing programs. This has been coming for a while. A couple of weeks ago, the president issued the following pronouncement: “If we stop testing right now, we’d have very few cases, actually…”

The logic underlying this statement will be familiar to any five year old or the parents thereof, but just in case it was unclear, the president’s can be made clear by reference to a remark he made in a meeting with the governor of Iowa last month: “So the media likes to say we have the most cases, but we do, by far, the most testing. If we did very little testing, we wouldn’t have the most cases. So in a way, by doing all of this testing, we make ourselves look bad.”

According to the Trumpist way of thinking, the testing is itself driving the spread of the disease. Let us pause for a moment to consider the fact that public discourse in a modern, nuclear-armed state now permits that sort of flat denial of object permanence that would seem out of place in the average kindergarten.

What is really being asserted here is not that COVID-19 would go away, but that people would stop talking about it to the detriment of the president’s prospects for re-election. The fact that meat sacks might still be coughing out their lives on ventilators or in back alleys is simply not something that enters Mr. Trump’s appreciation of the considerable virtues of his own personal brand.

The current project of digestion being undertaken by the redoubtable Kayleigh McEneny and company is Mr. Trump’s determination to make his word flesh, so to speak, by curtailing government funding for virus testing. Mr. Trump hopes thereby to turn a trick of which he was quite fond in his days as white male real-estate speculator and creator of synergy: the creation of alternate realities by simple assertion. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…

Let us here take a moment to ruminate on the character of the stalwart Ms. McEneny. Armed with a BA from Georgetown and a JD from Harvard Law, author of two books, she is the apotheosis of the role of presidential spokesmodel formerly held by (among others) the joie de vivre-laden Sean Spicer and the glum and grumpy Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She is certainly on-model for the sort of profile that Mr. Trump seems to prefer: young, blonde, female, and evincing an apparent willingness to take a position whose job description is alarmingly similar to that of Josef Goebbels.

She is now the mouthpiece for Mr. Trump’s singular obsession: the presidential election in November. The obsession with re-election is common to the vast majority of politicians and their entourages. But it takes on a particular cast in the case of Mr. Trump. Intimately aware of his status as a parvenu among what he once considered to be the “right sort of people” (mostly inhabiting the Upper West Side), he is hypersensitive to the prospect of failure. Having convinced himself that he wanted to be president (maybe that would show the haters) and having, against all odds, actually managed to do so, the most proximate threat to his ever so fragile ego is that he will fail at the next hurdle.

Now, of course, one might find oneself wondering whether bungling the response to a viral outbreak in such a way as to condemn tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of Americans to grim demise might be considered a failure. Perhaps. But if real estate speculation has taught him nothing else, it has taught Mr. Trump that you’re only as culpable as your next big deal. If he can only close on this second election thing, then the nattering nabobs of negativism in the press and the liberal elites can curse in vain. He’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.

For now, though, life is kind of boring. Mr. Trump’s new spate schedule of rallies/pandemic vector events notwithstanding, he is still condemned to a seemingly endless expanse of days burdened by abstract, boring, non-Trump-related problems. The coronavirus isn’t sexy and doesn’t have a vagina that can be forcibly appropriated. It doesn’t respond to taunts. The Chinese do, but only in ways that probably seem prejudicial to the rolling over of the extensive debts that Mr. Trump owes to their banks.

Worst of all (for Mr. Trump), he can’t seem to get the news cycles reliably rolling the right direction. People seem to have gotten very tired of winning. Except the losers, the ones in the streets or those crying about lost jobs or dead relatives. They’ve been winning too, they’re just too dumb to understand it, and explaining it to them is just another boring feature of this boring, boring world.

Night Thoughts on Necrocapitalism

Posted in Dispatches, Research Notes with tags , , , , , , , on May 3, 2020 by Magadh

Revolution is never quite the revolution we want. Lost in the warp and woof of our mingled thoughts, what lies below bubbles up like the contents of a witch’s cauldron. In such moments we are, or should be, reminded of the frailty of the worlds we make. But human arrogance is such that someone is always to blame, generally someone other than ourselves.

COVID-19 is both revolutionary and meaningless. It is no less meaningless for all the manifold attempts to build it into one narrative or another and thus to affix it within the realm of human causality. This is clearly the case in the flailing attempts of the current administration in the United States to build it into a coherent spectacular image. Having failed to nullify it through blunt denial, the administration’s latest tack is to try to make it part of the larger phenomenon of asymmetric warfare between the United States and China, flavored to taste with collaboration by the deep state.

This is one of those elite narratives that is clearly meant for distribution to the desperate and delusional fractions of the petit bourgeoisie who graze on Fox News and support the president with passionate intensity irrespective of his malign, bumbling incompetence. Its mélange of baseless assertions and debunked, paranoid fantasies is so obviously ludicrous that even that those in media and government tasked with doling it out can hardly do so with a straight face.

Beneath the crass politicization of the event lies a deeper reservoir of cathectic energy wherein the virus becomes an element of stories the moral of which ranges from redemption to pure catastrophe. One is here reminded of the televangelist in Alex Cox’s 1984 cult classic Repo Man who reminds his views that “the Lord works in mysterious and often meaningless ways.” To see COVID-19 as the hand of God might be seen as a source of comfort, even if the underlying purposes might escape the bounds of human comprehension. That the virus is the hand of nullity is rather less palatable.

What COVID-19 has done is to cast the contours of capitalism in relief. If the book trade persists in the wake of the crisis, many bytes will be spilled describing the various ways in which this is true. To take only one of the most immediately horrifying examples, coronavirus has given rise to a new variety of proletarianization. On Marx’s view, the defining feature of the proletariat was that its members had nothing to sell but their labor power. The new proletariat of the era of COVID-19 has nothing to sell but their presence.

Capitalism always involves the consumption of human life force. The current age is one in which the owners of capital are simply being rather more honest and open about it. This COVID-19-inspired glasnost was first eminently clear in the statement a month ago by the lieutenant governor of Texas to the effect that grandparents might (perhaps ought to) be willing to risk death in order to allow the economy to function. What might at another moment have been universally viewed as blood-curdlingly profligate with respect to human life read in the current circumstances as mere candor.

Since that time three things have become clear. The first is that the president is bored by the crisis. There is nothing fun or interesting about it. It just goes on and on. The virus doesn’t care about its reputation, can’t be slandered or flattered in the media, just keeps taking off the kind of inconsequential meat sacks who wouldn’t be part of the kind of entertaining synergies of which the president is so fond. And yet their sheer numbers present a problem that persists in sucking the joy out of life.

The second thing to emerge is the desperation of the state governors. Irrespective of political coloration, the inhabitants of the various statehouses are all intimately aware of the prospects for economic ruin presented by the virus. COVID-19 is having a catastrophic effect on the human propensity to truck and barter. Those segments of the economy that subsist most effectively in the current situation, ones involving delivery and little or no face to face contact, tend to generate cosmopolitan pools of capital that end up in bank or brokerage accounts beyond borders of the states (and often of the country).

Even among the most science-friendly among them, the specter of economic collapse creates inherent systemic pressure to do something. It doesn’t help that several are now being harried by astroturfed “protests” involving white guys, many toting long guns, demanding the freedom to die (or to kill others) for a burrito and a beer. It goes without saying that this is a white man’s protest since the consequences for people of color of showing up armed (be it with a gun or a cell phone or a candy bar) in public spaces are often lethal. Be that as it may, the compelling power of tens of protestors waving flags, guns, and the occasional antisemitic slogan on the premises of the state capital can hardly be denied.

Third, and as a consequence of the previous two items, the president’s response to the crisis is to fall back on the nostrums that have served him well in the past. Rather than engage in the unglamorous and tedious work of planning and executing a systematic, national-level program, it is clear that the president wants to stage some sort of macabre competition among the state governors to see who can wager the most human lives on the reopening of the economy. The weeks and months to come present the prospect of The Apprentice: COVID-19 Edition, with state governors playing the role of supplicants seeking the favor of the dear leader.

Rescinding stay at home orders, as many governors now seem intent on doing, will have one of three consequences. It may have no effect since just because businesses are allowed to open doesn’t mean they will actually do so, and even if they do that still doesn’t mean that people will be inclined to take the risk of patronizing them. It may cause a spike in infections and deaths from the virus, over and above the current upward trend. Or it might allow the state economies to function again, thus saving the day. Of these, the first two seem much the most likely outcomes, while prospects for the third seem vanishingly small. But this hasn’t stopped the cold-eyed realists of capitalism from banking that the longshot will actually pay off.

For that to happen, workers have to be made to give up their labor power and to do so on terms that allow for the efficient extraction of surplus-value. This applies particularly to that segment of the workforce whose jobs cannot be done from a remote location. If the hash is going to get slung and the mani-pedis are going to get done, people have to be on-site to do them and it won’t do to have them withholding their labor power merely because of some squeamishness about contracting a potentially fatal illness.

The opening shot in this struggle (or in this intensified phase of it) was the president’s signing of an executive order indemnifying the meat industry against suits by employees sickened in the course of their jobs. The president was very hesitant to use his authority under the Defense Production Act to compel businesses to make supplies necessary to fight the pandemic. But he approached the project of protecting multibillion-dollar corporations from the depredations of their employees with gusto. When a handful of meatpacking plants were forced to close because employees became ill (and some had the temerity to actually croak), the president saw an imminent threat to the timely provision of hamburgers and moved with alacrity to make sure that the risk remained precisely where it belonged: among the proletariat of the physically present.

Congress has since taken up the call. Mitch McConnell has let it be known that no further bailout money will be made available, especially to the states (read as blue states) without some sort of blanket immunity against liability being provided for employers. Exceptions would be made, McConnell intoned, for cases of “gross negligence”. But they will apparently not be made for simply forcing people on the threat of starvation to deal out subs and chicken wings to whoever might care to come by.

There is a certain (admittedly highly contested) view of fascism that sees it as the project of capital to discipline workers. The argument goes that the rising militancy of workers in the late 1920s and 1930s, resulting from the systemic dysfunction of capitalism in the era between the world wars caused those in need of their surplus-value to undertake extreme measures to encourage, or enforce, workers’ compliance. The root causes and fundamental nature of fascism are certainly more complicated than this. Still, the need or desire to keep capitalism functioning smoothly by making participation more or less explicitly compulsory is a common feature of the system in crisis.

Signs of the systemic crisis are easy to see and were visible before the shock of COVID-19. Slow growth and system-wide overcapacity have combined with the concentration of wealth at the top of the income distribution to create turbulence. In part this turbulence has been managed by diversionary tactics: communism, the threat of global jihad, “we have always been at war with China”, the prospect that brown people are coming to take jobs and white women. Trump is the apotheosis of this diversionary spectacle, but he is only an expression of it rather than, in any significant sense, its author.

Viewed in a certain light, the roots of the current political-cultural formation go back to the formation of the republic, and to the slave system that provided the moment of primary accumulation for both Europe and the settler colonies it created. More directly, it’s roots lie in the need for conservatives to find some other basis on which to compete for votes during the economic boom of the postwar decades, which high growth and a (by American standards) healthy welfare state made small-government conservatism a hard sell. The so-called “Southern strategy” and the 1964 Goldwater presidential campaign were its harbingers.

Much as this approach has reaped considerable rewards in the last decades, the advent of coronavirus has presented it with new challenges. The consequences of the destruction of the welfare safety net are now clear for all to see and become painfully apparent to people whose jobs are currently unavailable and are likely to be exceptionally dangerous for the foreseeable future. The ramping up of the ludicrous narrative in which COVID-19 was generated in a weapons lab with the goal of destroying the Trump regime is symptomatic of the challenges facing the neoliberal populist project.

The other side of the coin is the chorus off assertions from Republican officials that “there are more important things than living.” These things include (perhaps are limited to) keeping processes of capital accumulation running. The rush to reopen states is a further expression of this, as it amounts to a sort of back door compulsion for people to reassume their positions in the workforce irrespective of whether it is actually safe for them to do so. The mayor of Las Vegas was particularly brazen in this respect, offering up her city as, in effect, a giant Petri dish in which the effects of unrestrained transmission of coronavirus can be studied at closes range.

Sadly, the popular slogan about things that happen in Vegas staying there never held much water, and in the context of the current circumstances is simultaneously brutal and utterly vain. The mayor herself was coy about her own potential exposure, which gives one a little insight into the understanding in conservative circles about the appropriate distribution of risk. Given the stark facts of COVID-19’s propensity to spread via asymptomatic carriers, it may be the case that best friends of the Republicans (those most willing to cast off the shackles of social distancing) will turn out to be its worst enemies, as the curve of contagion takes a further upward course. In any case, the next few months will see a nationwide experiment in necrocapitalism and where that will take matters in anyone’s guess.

So here we are in the revolution, and it is being televised. The danger posed by COVID-19 and the threat it poses to those lacking the political and economic capital necessary to absent themselves from the venues of greatest risk have the capacity to play the role of class consciousness in the classical Marxist system. Certainly, the rules of the game and the imperatives on which it operates will become ever clearer to those placed in the firing line the need to make and sell. But all the neither automatically constitutes a clear understanding of the problem nor the organizational nous to become an agent of change. The future is, if not open, at least more susceptible to fundamental transformation than it has been for the best part of a century.

You’re Not Going to Believe This…

Posted in Heads Up with tags , , , , , on April 24, 2020 by Magadh

But Slavoj Žižek’s new book is actually quite good. I just reviewed it for…

The Communist Influenza


Posted in Dispatches with tags , , , , , , on April 22, 2020 by Magadh

“Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle. The institutionalization of the social division of labor in the form of class divisions had given rise to an earlier, religious form of contemplation: the mythical order with which every power has always camouflaged itself. Religion justified the cosmic and ontological order that corresponded to the interests of the masters, expounding and embellishing everything their societies could not deliver. In this sense, all separate power has been spectacular. But this earlier universal devotion to a fixed religious imagery was only a shared belief in an imaginary compensation for the poverty of a concrete social activity that was still generally experienced as a unitary condition. In contrast, the modern spectacle depicts what society could deliver, but in so doing it rigidly separates what is possible from what is permitted. The spectacle keeps people in a state of unconsciousness as they pass through practical changes in their conditions of existence. Like a factitious god, it engenders itself and makes its own rules. It reveals itself for what it is: an autonomously developing separate power, based on the increasing productivity resulting from an increasingly refined division of labor into parcelized gestures dictated by the independent movement of machines and working for an ever-expanding market. In the course of this development, all community and all critical awareness have disintegrated; and the forces that were able to grow by separating from each other have not yet been reunited.”

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, #25