COVID-19: Translating a pandemic politically

“We know that many suffer, but the state is there,” said the italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte, after announcing a 400 million euro food voucher programme for those who have lost their source of income due to the COVID-19 pandemic (part of a larger 4.3 billion national “solidarity fund” transferred to municipalities).

The programme is itself a response to news of people in the country now beginning to refuse to pay for food that they take from shops. Police are now called upon to patrol supermarkets, in the shadow of potentially larger “social unrest”. (The Guardian)

If the coronavirus makes no distinctions between social classes, it is the poor of all categories and of all countries who bare the brunt of the dangers of contagion. The wealthy may isolate, but the “wretched of the earth” have no castles behind which to tentatively shelter themselves. (See, for example: spain, bangladesh, ecuador, and so on …).

The italian prime minister’s statement possesses the virtue of simplicity: the state is reaffirmed as the ultimate guarantor of life.

War is declared on the coronavirus, an invisible enemy rising up from the wilds, beyond the borders of civilised, sovereign order. When all was thought to have been pacified, with the barbarians chased into the deserts of history and nature domesticated in an anthropocene utopia, chaos returns in the form of viral life.

The trappings of consensual, democratic authority are stripped away as entire national populations are forced into quarantine (over one fifth of the human population, to date)(The Guardian), with disobedience subject to fines and imprisonment. Police and military, supported by technologies of surveillance (video cameras, smartphone and electronic wristband control of movement (BBC News), temperature screening devices, police drones and robots, mass collecting of biological and behavioural data, and the like)(BBC News), fill the streets of both “authoritarian” and “democratic” regimes, as the difference between them wanes.

The state “is there” indeed, as a power of control over the life of populations and of extraction of human creative energy, assuring their reproduction and productive activity against “enemies”. The state is an institution (or a collection of overlapping apparatuses and techniques of control) of security and exploitation, which when threatened, acts by whatever means are available to it to survive: the suppression of “democratic freedoms and rights”, including property rights, labour conscription and resource appropriation, state largesse towards “public” services and private economic interests, and violence.

And as the threat of the contagion wanes, as seems to be the case in china at the moment, the state does everything in its power to re-start production and secure the necessary levels of social reproduction.

In other words, the state of exception, of emergency, reveals itself to be the permanent founding moment of state authority, regardless of the particular form it takes (e.g., monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and so on). And the aim or purpose of the state is itself, its own self-perpetuation for the sake of itself and what sustains it, at whatever price; even if it should mean the destruction of contemporary “civilisation”.

You are part of an experiment. Maybe without realising it, but you are part of an experiment. The fate of your body, your death are part of an experiment in social technology, in a new form of management. Nothing that is happening in this country that is confused with our history is the result of improvisation or voluntarism by the agents of command. Especially because, no one has ever understood historical processes by trying to clarify the agents’ intentionality. Knowing what the agents think they are doing is really what matters least. As has been said more than once, they usually do so without knowing it.

This experiment that you are part of, that you were forced into, has a name. It is about implementing a “suicidal state” as Paul Virilio once said. In other words, Brazil has shown definitively the way in which it is the stage of the attempt to implement a suicidal state; a new stage of the management models immanent to neoliberalism. Now, it is its most cruel face, its terminal phase.

Anyone who believes that this is just the already traditional form of the national necro-state is mistaken. We are moving beyond the necro-political State as a manager of death and disappearance. A state like ours is not just the manager of death. It is the ongoing agent its own catastrophe, it is the cultivator of its own destruction. To be more precise, it is the mixture of the management of death of parts of its own population and the continuous and risky flirtation with its own destruction. The New Republic will end in a macabre ritual of the emergence of a new form of state violence and periodic rituals of the destruction of bodies.

Such a state has only appeared once in recent history. It gained material form in an exemplary way, in a telegram; a telegram that had a number: Telegram 71. It was with it that, in 1945, Adolf Hitler proclaimed the fate of a war then lost. He said: “If the war is lost, let the nation perish”. With it, Hitler demanded that the German army itself destroy what remained of infrastructure in the battered nation that saw the war as lost. As if that were the real ultimate goal: that the nation would perish by its own hands, by the hands of what it itself unleashed. This was the Nazi way of responding to a secular rage against the state itself and against everything that it had hitherto represented, celebrating its destruction and ours. There are several ways to destroy the state and one of them, the counterrevolutionary way, is to accelerate towards its own catastrophe, even if it costs our lives. Hannah Arendt spoke of the astonishing fact that those who adhered to fascism did not waver even when they themselves became its victims, even when the monster began to devour its own children.

The surprise, however, should not reside here. As Freud said: “even the person’s self-destruction cannot be carried without libidinal satisfaction”. In fact, this is the real experiment, an experiment in libidinal economics. The suicidal state manages to make the revolt against the unjust state, against the authorities that excluded us, the ritual of liquidating itself in the name of the belief in sovereign will and the preservation of a leadership that must stage its ritual of omnipotence even when it is already as as the sun that it is miserably helpless. If fascism has always been a preventive counter-revolution, let us not forget that it has always known how to transform the festival of the revolution into an inexorable ritual of sacrificial self-immolation. To capture the desire for transformation and difference, to conjugate the grammar of the sacrifice of self-destruction: this has always been the libidinal equation that founds the suicidal state.

Vladimir Safatle, “Bem-vindo ao Estado suicidário” (n-1 Edições)(GGN 25/03/2020)

State sovereignty is grounded in the fear of the enemy, in the fear of destruction by the enemy. State subjects, citizens, submit to state authority – in effect, transferring to it rights and freedoms, their autonomy, in exchange for security. This is the logic of the social contract, which as a lens for reading state power, quickly covers over the fact that it is the state’s subjects who “create” the state by alienating their agency to it (and that therefore they can put an end to it), that they are the state insofar as they act as subjects and citizens reproducing the friend-enemy divide, and perhaps more significantly, that they desire the state, that under the state-capital form, the state seduces as much as it terrorises.

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens state sovereignty by both violating the border between friend and foe, and potentially weakening the seductive embrace of power and consumption.

The virus knows no borders and invades from within. Fear of an identifiable, external threat becomes anxiety before an invisible and omnipresent menace. The racial-racist interpretations of the contagion collapse. And government and state imaginaries can only fall back upon a discourse of war, which however devoid of meaning, serves at least to justify evermore intrusive forms of state intervention in daily life and population control.

The persistence of the contemporary state form, or even its expansion, will depend on its ability to feed the generalised fear of the enemy and to keep general anxiety at bay. Should the latter assert itself, then fear may come to identify new enemies: poverty, hunger, even state authority itself. At that moment, riots and insurrections may rear.

The picture though is incomplete because no rebellion is ever born of fear, and no virus, or at least not COVID-19, will ever destroy capitalism.

The virus will not defeat capitalism. The viral revolution will not happen. No virus is capable of making the revolution. The virus isolates and individualises us. It does not generate any strong collective sentiment. In some way, each cares only for her/his own survival. The solidarity consisting in keeping mutual distances is not a solidarity that allows us to dream of a different, more peaceful, and just society. We cannot leave the revolution in the hands of the virus.

Byung-Chul Han, La emergencia viral y el mundo de mañana, (El Pais 21/03/2020)

It might be imagined that as the beast is wounded, that what is necessary is a final, fatal thrust to bring the monster down. While old style “Leftists” either fall into line behind state declared quarantines, or call for globally coordinated resistance to capital based on supposed new found solidarities (Slavoj Zizek, RT 27/02/2020), others, among them anarchists, endeavour to create networks of mutual aid in support of each other and groups of people whom the state cannot not, or has no wish to, respond to (See: CrimethInc., Its going down, apoyo mutuo covid-19, covid-19 mutual aid UK, and so much more).

Initiatives of mutual aid vary enormously across cities, regions and national borders, and they depend in no small part on the presence of the state in responding to the needs of those that the networks aim to bring together, as well as its repression of alternative forms of support (e.g., Jordan). (Calls for rent or mortgage strikes, for example, fail to resonate when it is the government which suspends their payment, as has occurred in some european countries). And it must always be remembered that the greater part of the mutual aid that is and will flourish at these moments is completely informal, unrecorded and spontaneous, identifying with no political project as such.

The significance of initiatives of this kind can in no way be underestimated, both for reasons of immediate survival and because they go so much further in creating autonomous ways of life than any political party or state driven initiative.

The risk of course, as always, is that these same initiatives limit themselves to competing with private charities and state programmes of the same nature, and thus fail for lack of resources or become the objects of state suppression.

Here, it is not the overcoming of fear that is at stake, but the struggle for desires. Capitalism creates and feeds an economy of desires, which can only be questioned, weakened, undermined by the creation and joy of other desires.

The often ad-hoc and potential miserabilism of self-described anarchist networks of mutual aid condemn them to working within the very same politics of fear that sustains the state and capital. And on this plane, the risk of failure, of whatever kind, is great and offers no basis upon which to create realities beyond the state.

All manner of declarations are made about the impossibility of returning to the former normality, that capitalism, or a certain kind of capitalism, is at an end, that from the pandemic, we will emerge better, more caring, more respectful. And yet all of this rings hollow before the equally repeated insistence on saving the economy. And the state “is there” to guard and preserve the economy.

History also teaches us differently. We do not learn from the past so as to become morally better, and the lessons of history are learned under oppression and violence. To think otherwise is but to hope and to hope without desire is nothing.

Perhaps it is time to throw hope to the wind and live out the full plenitude of our desires, rather than having them channeled to feed the desires, inevitably few, of the powerful and wealthy, or of a social-economic-political system that can only sustain itself through limitless profit extraction.

Nation states and capitalism face a monumental crisis in the form of a virus that refuses to recognise the sovereignty of states and that is able to interrupt the necessary flows of desire inducing commodities. It is life threatening the economy. Perhaps then it is our turn to tragically learn from the virus, and affirm life against the economy.

Can we reinvent our existence?

To Become COVID-19 is to become potentiality from chaos, from collapse, from plague, from crisis, from uncertainty, from discomfort. Instead of denying it, do something with it.

Will the life of nature, outside of merely human production, guide us?

Is this moment a real occasion to produce more livable lives for all, less precarious societies, and why not, a little happier?

Sofía Guggiari, DEVENIR COVID-19: Escrito sobre la vida, la peste y la potencia de transfiguración (lobo suelto, 27/03/2020)

A phantom haunts anarchism: the state. It is conceived of as the centre, the centre of power, authority, knowledge, violence, and its overthrow is thus the necessary condition for freedom and equality.

The picture is overly simple, but it helps to focus our attention.

From the picture flows an anarchist politics directed against the state, seeking its destruction. In its more millenarian forms, the latter will be brought down by a final revolution.

More concretely, the anti-state politics of anarchism translates into insurrectionism (the open confrontation with the state) and/or communitarianism (the pre-figurative politics of creating and governing different kinds of autonomous collectives through modes of open, horizontal self-management).

The picture does simplify and may be even a little dated, but not so completely as to render it pointless.

Any generalisation regarding the efficacy of anarchist politics, given its goals, is without justification and of little interest.

The criticism in this instance aims at something else, namely, at the way in which anarchist anti-statism is usually interpreted. Anarchists or anarchist groups often imagine themselves as being or acting outside state forms, as somehow existing beyond the state, and thus see their “interventions” in “society” as coming from a mysterious “external world” of beautiful souls. Insurrectionism and communitarianism then take on a very particular hue under this light: they almost seem to don purity itself.

This is of course a fiction. “We are the state”, wrote Gustav Landauer in the early 20th century, “and we shall continue to be the state until we have created the institutions that form a real community”. A century later, we are not only the state, we desire the state, and much that we create in our anti-state politics depends on the state. (Is this text not written and published on the Internet, with all that this implies?)

The state “is there”, reminds everyone, including anarchists, of how much we have come to need it, to depend upon it. And again to cite Landauer …

One can throw away a chair and destroy a pane of glass; but those are idle talkers and credulous idolaters of words who regard the state as such a thing or as a fetish that one can smash in order to destroy it. The state is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another. One day it will be realized that Socialism is not the invention of anything new, but the discovery of something actually present, of something that has grown…. 

Let us assume the state as a permanent human possibility (at least since the neolithic), and that the state has always defined itself in opposition to what was outside it, a sovereign interiority against a wild, barbarian exteriority, and that the exterior, comprised of “primitive” societies against the state are equally defined in opposition to the state, and thus the latter cannot indeed be simply thrown away because we are it, whether within or without. (Pierre Clastre/Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari)

Anarchism cannot then be anti-statist in the sense of aspiring to definitively destroy the state form. It must rather assume a permanent and ever renewed rebellion against the state.

The “exterior” of the state however can no longer be imagined in grand geographical terms. James C. Scott’s Zomia of ungoverned peoples inhabiting distant mountains and dense forests are increasingly rare. And the ZADs, the occupied factories, autonomous social centres are fragile. This is not to say that the situation may not reverse itself. States often contract in moments of crisis. But under global capitalism, or the global fabric of nation-state sovereignties, there really is no longer any “exterior” to the state form.

Anarchist networks of mutual aid are therefore by no means necessarily anti-statist or anti-capitalist if by that is meant that they act in non-state or non-capitalist ways, somehow grounded in the margins of the system, for they depend on that very social-political reality to carry out what they do.

We must begin from assumed moral superiority, but from the muck, from the shit, from the crisis, from the catastrophe, with no one knowing quite for sure what threatens the state or capital; from the informal mutual aid which always underlies political and state forms.

What we learn from COVID-19 is that untamed life does threaten both. Without celebrating a virus as our liberator, let us be fatally lucid enough to give form to an undisciplined politics of virulent circulation that refuses the separating borders of identity and sovereignty, and which opens up onto new forms of communities of life in the cracks and fissures of well ordered society.

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