Taming a hybrid: The COVID-19 pandemic

… coronavirus gives a new chance to communism.

Slavoj Žižek, Spectator USA, 14/03/2020

In James C. Scott’s telling of the rise of early Neolithic states, sedentism, farming, the domus, irrigation and urbanisation precede the creation of state power. “All of these human achievements of the Neolithic were in place well before we encounter anything like a state” in Mesopotamia or elsewhere. (Against the Grain, 116) Rather than embryonic states preceding the emergence of these institutions and practices, they arose by harnessing the new agricultural grains and concentrations of manpower as a basis of control and appropriation. There was no other possible foundation for the design of a state previously or at that time.

Settled populations growing crops of domesticated grains, and small towns with a thousand or more inhabitants facilitating commerce, were an autonomous achievement of the Neolithic, being in place nearly two millennia before the appearance of the first states, around 3,300 BCE. … This complex, however, represented a unique new concentration of manpower, arable land, and nutrition that, if “captured”—“parasitized” might not be too strong a word—could be made into a powerful node of political power and privilege. The Neolithic agro-complex was a necessary but not a sufficient basis for state formation; it made state formation possible but not certain. (Against the Grain, 177)

What then pushed these early settled-agricultural populations into the hands of early forms of state authority? The answer may very well lie in ecological crises: climate and environmental changes (drought, soil salinisation, receding water levels, and the like) which forced sedentary populations to seek out more reliable (real or illusory) conditions for social reproduction. And reliability in this instance often meant conditions that were more ostensibly controllable, controllable by instruments of centralised state power (e.g., state officials of various types, economic management of agricultural production, and walls) which simultaneously eliminated or diminished alternative forms of subsistence, such as, at the time, foraging and hunting. (Against the Grain, 120-1)

Such crises, and others, while providing conditions for state formation, could also be the occasion for state desegregation, destruction and collapse, thereby opening up spaces for other, often more “regressive” or “backward” forms of social and political life, that were nonetheless freer.

For most of the human population of the contemporary “developed” world, our dependence on the global network of nation states is almost total; the greater part of us have absolutely no experience or knowledge of alternative forms of subsistence. Without the state, we are lost or abandoned.

We are of course already lost to the accumulation of crises and destruction of our times. However, in the spectacular drama of the corona/COVID-19 virus, all other crises, fundamental and structural capitalist crises, are overshadowed, paving the way for expanding and intensifying state centered shock therapies (quarantines, intrusive surveillance, states of exception, and so on). And these are accepted, even called for. And if subsequently uncontested, they will most likely become the new political norm; they will remain with us as a political virus.

Our current epidemic-pandemic is not a purely natural disaster – something that we must simply resign ourselves to, until the moment when political and economic leaders, scientists and other “experts”, find the “cure” -; but a political-biological hybrid whose causes, threats and end depended and depend as much on “human” actions, as on nature.

If the earth’s living nature abounds in viruses, these last often only become pathogenic agents for us when we press upon them, when our political and economic drives limit and/or destroy their older habitats, thereby making our bodies their new shelters.

Those whom the virus infects face a common risk; but the risk varies enormously according to one’s health, and this latter depends on a whole plethora of factors: food, illnesses, physical environment, means of subsistence/labour, wealth/poverty, cultural-social-political ecology, and so on.

All of which, taken together, renders the declaration of the end of the pandemic a political decision.

For many of those who now speak of a new chance for “communism” – because the corona virus will supposedly reveal all of the weaknesses and violence of neoliberal capitalism -, this new life of the grand old idea often amounts to little more than a makeover of social democracy, now sold under the label of “democratic socialism”. But there is little that is new here, and if State driven capitalism remains the horizon of “radical” politics, then the cure will be worse than the illness, for it may indeed kill us on this occasion.

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