The coronavirus: Politics in times of catastrophe (9)

In all the representations disseminated by catastrophism, in the way they are elaborated as well as in the conclusions they inspire, we see above all an astonishing accumulation of denials of reality. The most obvious is the one that refers to the ongoing, and already consummated, disaster, which is hidden behind the image of the hypothetical catastrophe, when it is not calculated or extrapolated. In order to be able to understand the extent to which the real disaster differs from the worst scenarios announced by catastrophism, we shall attempt to define it in a few words, or at least specify one of its principle features: by utterly ruining all the material foundations, and not just the material ones, on which it is based, industrial society creates such conditions of insecurity and generalized instability, that only an increase of organization, that is, of submission to the social machinery, can still cause this collection of terrorizing uncertainties to pass for a habitable world. This will give you a good enough idea of the role actually played by catastrophism.

René Riesel and Jaime Semprun, Catastrophism, disaster management and sustainable submission

Reflections on the ongoing catastrophe …

apocalypse (n.): late 14c., “revelation, disclosure,” from Church Latin apocalypsis “revelation,” from Greek apokalyptein “uncover, disclose, reveal,” from apo “off, away from” + kalyptein “to cover, conceal,” from PIE root *kel- “to cover, conceal, save.” The Christian end-of-the-world story is part of the revelation in John of Patmos’ book “Apokalypsis” (a title rendered into English as pocalipsis c. 1050, “Apocalypse” c. 1230, and “Revelations” by Wyclif c. 1380).

Its general sense in Middle English was “insight, vision; hallucination.” The meaning “a cataclysmic event” is modern (not in OED 2nd ed., 1989); apocalypticism “belief in an imminent end of the present world” is from 1858.

crisis (n.): early 15c., crise, crisis, “decisive point in the progress of a disease,” also “vitally important or decisive state of things, point at which change must come, for better or worse,” from Latinized form of Greek krisis “turning point in a disease, that change which indicates recovery or death” (used as such by Hippocrates and Galen), literally “judgment, result of a trial, selection,” from krinein “to separate, decide, judge,” from PIE root *krei- “to sieve,” thus “discriminate, distinguish.”

catastrophe (n.): 1530s, “reversal of what is expected” (especially a fatal turning point in a drama, the winding up of the plot), from Latin catastropha, from Greek katastrophe “an overturning; a sudden end,” from katastrephein “to overturn, turn down, trample on; to come to an end,” from kata “down” + strephein “turn” (from PIE root *streb(h)- “to wind, turn”). Extension to “sudden disaster” is first recorded 1748.

(From the online etymological dictionary)

An apocalypse is a moment of sight, when illusions are pulled back, when reality, the truth, is unconcealed; a vision which at first can only appear to be an hallucination.

Dolphins and other sea life appear in the canals of Venice (the Guardian), the lives of an estimated “4,000 kids under 5 and 73,000 adults over 70 in China” have been saved by the slowing down of economic activity in the country (compared to the 3,248 deaths due to COVID-19 – 20/03/2020) (G-Feed) – comparable numbers will undoubtedly be found elsewhere – …

As regional economies slow, with parallel and exponential effects at the global level, a sort of “rewilding” begins to occur; new or more vigorous life shows itself, where before there was only statistical and unseen death.

The virus was not human made. But as with so many viruses turned human pathogens, it was its habitat that was pressed upon by our economic desires-needs. COVID-19 is zoonitic: it passed from animal to humans, as a consequence of close proximity of animals to us due to large scale breeding and expanding predatory activity and the parallel destruction of animal-native habitats.(the Guardian)

This passage from animal to human is a detail in the much broader manner in which modern, capitalist human society conceives of and appropriates nature; the latter is but a resource, energy, to be extracted without restriction – something which extends to human nature.

The time frame in which COVID-19 kills is much faster than the human death resulting from atmospheric and other pollution, but their underlying logic is identical.

The present catastrophe is not centrally the virus, but a system of social relations that transforms nature – and can only see value in nature as transformed – into capital, into commodities.

This does not make the coronavirus a blessing, but rather the cause for our seeing, if we wish to see, the real catastrophe and to let the present “reversal” of things become a true reversal. A return to the world as “before” the crisis, or better, to return to a world of permanent crisis, is to perpetuate the critical point of resolution, of cure, and to thereby kill the patient, us and so much that lives around us.

Enforced quarantines are ordered under local and national states of emergency, to avert the complete collapse of the economy and of the relations of social reproduction that make its continuity possible. But increasingly large numbers of people, whole communities, are expendable. Mike Davis reminds us that it is the working poor, the colonised, the marginalised, who are cut down in plagues.(Jacobin) While work camps for migrant labourers and refugees are transformed into quarantine camps(the Guardian), foreshadowing their function as death camps, the powerful and wealthy who govern deepen their separation from the bulk of human society through ever more sophisticated technologies of surveillance, police control, and technological archipelagos of post-catastrophe survival.(the Guardian)

The declared states of emergency are experiments for future biopolitical social eugenics and a necropolitics of post-catastrophic management of death.

The mouths of politicians are filled with the foul language of war. Yet the enemy is not an army, nor a State. It is not even a counter-insurgency war. It is rather a war against a silent, invisible, omnipresent threat, declared in the name of collective well-being and lead by scientists and doctors; a threat that thus risks becoming permanent, for only the experts will be able know when victory has been attained.

As so many are forced to accept or even demand more state control, our already exceptional politics risks becoming that much more total.

Would there be a kind of response to the coronavirus which would be protective, but which would not mean an increase of surveillance and control over populations?

That is what is at stake in the weeks to come: an effort of collective mobilisation that does not rest on military surveillance and State control, but on a sanitary vigilance and a sharing of information within the population.

Frédéric Keck, lundi matin

If governments are throwing millions about today in an apparent effort to save human life, the constant references to the economy – and the enormous sums being handed out to various kinds of financial institutions and businesses – may lead one to doubt the motives and purpose.

This is and will be an enormous challenge to our way of life and our economy. It is enough to think of health, education, family behaviour, work, the effects on tourism, exports, investment, the weakening of families and companies, especially small and medium size businesses.

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, President of the Portuguese Republic, “Public Speech on the occasion of the declaration of the state of emergency” (Radio Renascença 18/03/2020)

Physical well-being, yes, but not without safeguarding the economy. “Stay at home”, but don’t forget to work (for dignity and freedom comes with labour, we have all been taught), and if need be, go to work. And however dire the situation becomes, don’t forget that you must still pay for what you need to survive.

The logic of capital remains, even in a time crisis: either work and pay, or perish. And for those who govern, the death of many (the homeless, the poor, the refugees and migrants, precarious labourers – so much flotsam for capitalism), will not be too high a price to pay for the illusion of security.

The cure to the crisis in this instance will be far worse than the illness.

Yet where is Frédéric Keck’s alternative to State dependence to be found?

Capitalism risks collapse under crises. But it has over time displayed a remarkable capacity to thrive in the crises of its own making, expanding and intensifying its modes of control and exploitation. The current pandemic will be no exception.

Social democratic calls for a more humane capitalist State already proliferate on the “left”. And the apparent successes of the Chinese and South Korean policies of total quarantine and surveillance in reducing the spread of contagion are themselves contagious.

The real catastrophe however exceeds any State centred response or solution. And for those to be left behind, the answers must lie elsewhere.

For anarchists and anti-authoritarians, the basis for all current politics must be to see that the crises are permanent and that the catastrophe is upon us – it has been for some time. From that perspective, the relations and practices of power which sustain State and economic apparatuses must be undermined, contested, escaped from, destroyed, to be displaced by practices of collective mutual aid.

Examples already abound in the present coronavirus crises: rent and transport strikes, housing occupations (Its going down), creation of social centres, prison escapes and riots (Democracy now, the Guardian) and so on. (For examples, see: Its going down 14/03/2020 and 16/03/2020; CrimethInc)

None of this of course assures a world beyond capital; there are no assurances in any path followed. But it does permit us to imagine concretely what other worlds might look like.

COVID-19, as a catastrophe, offers lessons for those able or desirous to learn: that we are all equal in our common fragility, that our creativity, ways of being in the world, are inescapably collective, that this collective is in no way exclusively human, and that human and natural communities flourish when a free equality flourishes as well.

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1 Response to The coronavirus: Politics in times of catastrophe (9)

  1. Jim Katz says:

    A vulgar materialist writes:

    “To quantify the present reality, we have to rely on anecdotes from businesses, surveys of workers, shreds of private data, and a few state numbers. They show an economy not in a downturn or a contraction or a soft patch, not experiencing losses or selling off or correcting. They show evaporation, disappearance on what feels like a religious scale.”

    A vulgar Marxist once wrote:

    “These contradictions, of course, lead to explosions, crises, in which momentary suspension of all labour and annihilation of a great part of the capital violently lead it back to the point where it is enabled [to go on] fully employing its productive powers without committing suicide.”

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