Covid-19: An invisible agent of catastrophe

We share below a very free and partial translation (interspersed with paraphrases and summaries) of Donatella Di Ceasare’s essay, Virus Sovrano? L’Asfissia Capitalistica (Bollati Boringhieri Editore, 2020).

A forthcoming English language edition is to be published by MIT Press in the Semiotext(e)/Intervention Series, under the title Immunodemocracy: Capitalist Asphyxia and what we offer below should in no way be seen as a substitute. (A French language edition is also forthcoming with La Fabrique, with a Portuguese language translation already in circulation, published by Edições 70).

We do not believe that what we do share in any way betrays the substance and spirit of the text (no more so than any translation does and however much our selection of passages may be contested), and if we have adventured to offer what we do, it is because we believe the essay to be of singular importance. May it allow us to see further.

The sovereign virus? The capitalist asphyxia

Donatella Di Cesare

The coming evil

It is an event that marks an epoch, that signals a before and an after, that has already changed the 21st century and even the way it is looked at.  Between disorientation and perplexity, many repeat that it is “without precedents”.  And it is correct to so designate the global pandemic unleashed by the coronavirus.  An event, we know, is never a unicum, simply because it is part of the fabric of history.  However, in this case, the comparisons with events of the past, even the recent past, are rarely chanted, rarely strident.  The 20th century seems suddenly to have distanced itself, as has never occurred before.  It is for this reason that anyone who uses 20th century lenses to decipher what is happening runs the risk of falling into error.

Why cannot a more recent shock then, that of the 11th of September, be considered?  This comparison has already been made.  With the collapse of the Twin Towers, a terrorist act followed live by the whole world inaugurated, in 2001, the third millennium.  The differences though are obvious.  While having been the first global event, for many it was a shocking drama, watched however from afar, filtered by the television screen.  Ethical questions were raised about “the pain of the others”, about those not infrequently spectacular images, while the political questions raised by the “war on terror” and by the incipient state of emergency were for a long time a theme of debate.  However, this collapse did not really affect the course of history, the succession of decades, from the post-war until today, dominated still by the confidence in progress, given over to increasing well-being.

Invisible, impalpable, ethereal, almost abstract, the coronavirus attacks our bodies.  We are no longer just spectators – we are victims.  No one saves themselves.  The attack was unleashed in the air.  Surreptitiously, the virus reaches our breathing; it cuts the air and causes a horrible death.  It is the virus of asphyxiation.

The evil that has arrived is a murderous biovirus, a catastrophic germ.  But it is not a metaphor this time.  It is the physical body which becomes ill – the exhausted body of humanity, for years subject to an intolerable stress, an extreme agitation, to the point of apnoea.  It is perhaps not a coincidence that the virus proliferates in the respiratory passages, through which vital air moves.  The body removes itself from the accelerated rhythm; it can’t hold on, it cedes, stops.

Is this the fearsome future event?  Any diagnosis would be premature.  We are nevertheless led to believe that it is not a misfortune, a setback, a peripheral episode, but rather a fatal event that erupts in the heart of the system.  It is not merely a crisis, but a catastrophe in slow motion.  The virus stopped the apparatus.  What we see is a planetary convulsion, a spasm produced by feverish virulence, acceleration as an end in itself, which inexorably reached the point of inertia.  The world is tetanised.

Everything seems to stop in a bitter contraction, a chain reaction, a viral effect.  It is an unexpected breakdown (nonetheless, predictable for some time), an internal anomaly.  The machinery turns in a vacuum.  One can almost hear the dissonance of the gears which have ceased to be in tune.  As it is impossible to decipher the secret order of catastrophes, it is also difficult to state what this enigmatic suspension brings with it.  Is the biovirus a last and dramatic warning sign?  Is our vital resistance still being put to the test before the definitive collapse?

What the coronavirus triggered is not a revolution, as someone imagined, but an involution.  This does not mean, however, that this precipitous stop may not be a pause for reflection, an intermission before the new beginning.  What clearly arises is irreversibility.

What cannot be hidden is the increasing desire for change due to a perverse and obsolete unjust economic system whose effects are hunger and social inequality, war and terror, the climatic collapse of the planet, the exhaustion of resources.  Now however it is a virus that shakes up the world; not the expected event – that which, in the incessant storm, amid the ruins of progress, would have activated the emergency break of history.

The unexpected virus suspended the inevitable of the always the same, interrupted a growth which along the way became an uncontrollable excrescence, without measure or end.  Every crisis always contains the possibility of relief.  Will the signal be heard?  Will the violent pandemic also be the opportunity for change?  The coronavirus robbed the machinery of the economy of its bodies.  Tremendously deadly, it is also, however, vital.  For the first time, the crisis is extra-systemic; which does not mean that capital does not know how to profit from it.  If nothing will be as before, everything may precipitate itself into the irreparable.  The breaks have been activated – the rest depends on us.

Between calculations and prognostics. Regarding the “end of the world”

The global pandemic unleashed by Covid-19 is the third of three great events that mark the 21st century, following the terrorist attack of the 11th of September and the financial crisis of 2008. Metaphorically, there are similarities between the first and the last – they were both caused by “viruses” –.  However, Covid-19 comes from the body and from the outside immobilises the capitalist machine.  Yet the ties between them are close: one crisis leads to the other, announces and prepares it, in a kind of incessant catastrophic chain.

The beginning of the third millennia is accompanied by an enormous difficulty in imagining the future.  The worst is feared, and there are no expectations.  The future seems closed, destined, in the best of cases, to reproduce the past, repeating it in a present that resembles a previous future.

And yet, fearing the worst, we desire to dominate the worst to come, to calculate it so as to control it.  If notions of a terrifying “end” perturbed the world for centuries, the “end of the world” is now assumed as obvious.

This … is new: the imminence of the end has, for us who live in the third millennium, a historical character.  It is no longer merely cosmological.  The historical certainty of the end gives an epoch its timbre which is delineated in an apocalyptic scenario where theological resonances and political promises are absent.  The apocalypse outlines itself in a fully secular and scientific modernity.  The coming evil announces itself in the race of a humanity that struggles against its self-destruction. … We are the first to have to believe in the end – without success.  We are the first to have to think that we are perhaps the last.

Along with the decline of the idea of progress, the belief that it is possible to act on events, thereby avoiding the inevitable, bettering human destiny, also disappears.  Redemption, reparation, salvation are all absent; hope is dead.  Whatever suffering afflicts us finds no remedy in a promised future justice.  Everything reveals itself as terribly irremediable.  Precisely because History loses meaning, each existent makes history in itself, dispersed and separated in a singular and indecipherable destiny.

All ties to others and to other histories are severed, rendering it impossible to read one’s own defeat in a History.  A more damaged world is left as an inheritance and the ties between generations are lost except to acrimony and accusation.

The future is thus privatised, a source not only of anxiety, but also of diffuse violence.  Existence is given over exclusively to the trajectory of physical life, consigned to biography, in which all expectations are concentrated.  For this reason, the body assumes a decisive value, in which is played out to the end the struggle against the limit of death.  Like pain, sickness and old age become absolutely intolerable.  Pleasure, friendship and love also come to represent unrepeatable gifts, torn from the mourning of catastrophe, sporadic and discontinuous instants of a present given over to its own satisfaction, in an incessant struggle against others.  Each person cultivates their individual utopia, chimera comprised of success, wealth, prestige.  The majority are destined for shipwreck.  How are these broad promises to be met?  How can we make these narcissistic fantasies correspond to reality?  Privations and sacrifices, difficult to support, to the extent that they are not read within a common historical perspective, leave room for humiliation, frustration, rage.

The defeat of politics which, striped of momentum, concentrated in the present without a tomorrow, proceeding from emergency to emergency, trying to manage events, to ride the wave.  Irresponsibility, that is, the lack of answers to the generation of the future, appears to be its specific characteristic.

The heralded disaster increases the impotence.  Is it too late?  All of these alarms betray – who knows – a premature catastrophe.  Will not science at the last minute reserve a surprise for us?  Perhaps.  But it is the very way in which technical-scientific civilization functions that, with its norms of well-being and its canons of prosperity (unless these are revised), leaves little room for illusions.

The capitalist asphyxia

A malicious virus had to arrive to impose a pause.  It is impossible to not think immediately of this bizarre and tragic paradox: we gained wind, we were able to breathe a little, but only because of the imminent danger, because Covid-19, the virus of asphyxiation, threatens to take our breath away.

We no longer know what “rest” means, that intense “pause”, which for us is closer to the desire to sleep, or even the eternal sleep of death.  In fact, we say “rest in peace”.  Perhaps due to this proximity, rest causes anxiety.  The virus also reminds us of this.

Suddenly, breathing assumes an unprecedented value.  Everywhere, respiration and oxygen are spoken of.  While the air of the cities becomes less polluted, in the intensive care units of hospitals, doctors and nurses struggle everyday to avoid the fatal and irreparable asphyxiation.  After all that has happened, to breath has ceased to be something obvious.

The virus which slowed movement defeated acceleration.  Temporarily – it is hoped.  The provoked interruption lacks festive colours.  Instead, it bears the lugubrious and grave characteristics of an epilogue.  Nevertheless, in this forced stoppage, the aberration of the recent frenzy becomes clear – the nervousness, the hyperactivity, the shortness of breath.

Temporal asphyxiation is the obscure evil of this epoch.  Inadequacy, anxiety and panic invade an existence condemned to fear the next moment which, while imminent, already dissipated.  We cannot detain ourselves.  More than this: we cannot stop in time, where we no longer have an address.  All moments, now, are uninhabitable.

Time seems already spent, even before it is conceded.  We stand on escalators that descend ever more quickly.  We climb running to avoid the abyss.  Extemporaneous and fictitious flights are of little worth.  Private rebellions or modest boycotts are often paid for with a high price.  Oases of de-acceleration, strategies of slowing down, are merely momentary palliatives.

No one escapes the frenzied economy of time in the epoch of advanced capitalism.  Apparently, we are free and sovereign.  However, when we take a good look at things, the growth imperative, the obligation to produce and the obsession with profit mean that, insidiously, freedom and constraint coincide in the end.  We live in a restricted freedom or in a free coercion.  There is no other way to confront the daily challenge which leaves us exhausted, without wind.  If at night we feel a vague feeling of guilt, it is most certainly not because of the moral laws circumvented, nor the religious commands shirked, but because we have not accompanied the rhythm, because we have not followed the convulsive pulse of the world moving at high speed.

Speed redundantly ends in paralysation, acceleration leads to inertia.  … To break, to sabotage?  How to interrupt the mad race, nevertheless avoiding the self-destructive leap?  How to stop the evil machines which, like a vampire, consume our time and ruin our lives?

Looking at things closely, the coming evil had already arrived.  We had to be blind not to see the catastrophe at the door, to not recognise the malignant velocity of capitalism that cannot go beyond itself and which envelops everything in its devastating spiral, in its compulsive and asphyxiating vortex.

Omnipotence and vulnerability

For the first time, an invisible and unknown being, almost immaterial, paralysed the whole of technical human civilisation.  Nothing like it ever occurred before – even less at a global scale.  Old dogmas were pulverised, solid certainties were profoundly shaken.  Everything now changed: economic axioms, geopolitical equilibriums, forms of life, social realities.  But an epochal transformation generates anxiety because it is a true inversion of perspective.  Until yesterday, we could consider ourselves omnipotent among the ruins; the first and the only even in the primacy of destruction.  This primacy was taken from us by a power superior to and more destructive than ours.  That it be a virus, an insignificant portion of organised matter, makes the event even more traumatic.  Even the smallest creature can dethrone us, destroy us, undermine us.  Perhaps, who knows, life on the planet can assume new directions.  In the meantime, we have to recognise that we are not omnipotent as we presumed.  On the contrary, we are extremely vulnerable.  

It is difficult not to see in the pandemic the consequence of myopic and devastating ecological choices.  The earth is treated like an enormous deposit, a deposit of residues and detritus, a mountain of ruins.  None of this would have been possible without the incandescence of capitalism, without the reduction of nature to the oikos, to a global “domestic economy”.  It is for this reason that a new way to inhabit the earth is unthinkable without freeing ourselves from the global economy of credit-debt.

Capitalist realism absorbed all of the foci of imaginative resistance, indicating from within this system the final horizon.  Walls were thus raised and reinforced to hide any other possibility.  We live in the asphyxiated present of a globe without windows that sought to immunise itself against everything that is outside, that is beyond and different.  Closure prevailed, the immunising pulse, the obstinate desire to remain intact, complete, unscathed gained an advantage.  Xenophobia, fear of the foreigner, and exophobia, the abysmal fear of all that is exterior, of all that comes from outside, are the inevitable collateral damages.  In this regime of preventive policing, condemned to a prolonged alarm and to exhausted torpor, any change was exorcised.

The pandemic places all of this in focus and reveals our sickness of identity. … As Jean Baudrillard wrote some years ago, the virus is “the malignant genius of alterity”.  In this sense, it is the worst and the best: lethal infection and vital contagion.  In its radical inhumanity, it is the other, completely unknown, which, nevertheless, is not different from us.

The virus is an extreme signal, the obscure symptom of the disease of identity which manifests itself in the many purified and aseptic spaces, of different kinds and scales, from which the other was expelled.  Desirous to live free of all things “strange”, the “I” (in all of its permutations) begins to devour itself.

For this reason, this event should lead us to rethink what it is to inhabit, which is not synonymous with having, possessing, but with being, existing. … The virus struck our breathing, when the disease of identity had already appeared a long time ago.  It laid bare our vulnerability.  Suddenly, we discovered that we were exposed.  We are not impermeable, resistant, immune.  However, vulnerability is not a privation.  With reason, Judith Butler invited us to interpret it as a resource and pointed precisely to, in mourning, in the death of the other, that experience which profoundly perturbs, which disconcerts the sovereign self.  It is perhaps from the loss of the other, from collective mourning, that a new politics of vulnerability should be drawn.

Immunitarian democracy

The virus sharpened and exasperated an already consolidated situation which suddenly revealed itself in its most obscure and execrable features.  Seen through the lens of the virus, the democracy of the western countries shows itself to be a system of immunity which has been functioning for some time and which now proceeds in a more open manner.

In the debates about democracy, ways of defending it, reforming it, perfecting it, are examined, without ever putting into question borders, belonging, much less the bond that it maintains in its heart: the fear of contagion, the fear of the other, the terror felt for what is outside.  It is then forgotten that discrimination is always latent within it.  Even the citizens who struggle against racism (a very powerful virus!), demanding, for example, that the borders of their country be opened, assume as a principle the “property” of the country, a national association.

A closed natural community is thus presupposed, apt at safeguarding its sovereign integrity.  This powerful fiction, which has dominated for centuries, leads to the belief that birth is sufficient, like a signature, to belong to the nation.  While globalisation has loosened these ties, the political perspective does not seem to have changed much.  The discussion concerns internal administration: reforming laws, improving efficiency, modernising the instruments of deliberation, giving guarantees to minorities – democratising democracy.  But this political perspective excludes the reflection about borders and omits the question of belonging.  It focuses, in other words, on the interior and turns its back on the exterior.  As if the borders were reinforced, as if it were obvious that a community is governed by genetic descent.  Assumed as natural givens, such questions are excluded from politics, or better, depoliticised.  This means that politics is based on a non-political foundation.  Furthermore, this is a discriminatory foundation that marks an inside and an outside.  Although differently, coercion is also exercised on the citizen who, while enjoying protection, is also trapped in this order, having no possibility of choosing.  Contemporary political architecture captures and eliminates, includes and excludes.

It is in this context that immunitarian democracy functions, a political form which can be synthesised in the formula: noli me tangere.  This is everything that the citizens of democracy demand: don’t touch me.  In the shadow of this negative concept of freedom, there is no demand for participation; instead, there are calls for protection, security.  This is the most serious limit of liberalism which mistakes security for freedom.  It is a negative vision that affects democracy, reduced as it is to a system of immunity which watches over human lives in their multiple aspects.

Inasmuch as this model imposed itself, the demands for protection increased.  Often, for citizens, the enjoyment of democracy means purely and simply to benefit from rights, guarantees and protection, in an increasingly exclusive manner.  Noli me tangere is the tacit formula that inspires and guides this “battle for rights”, which we frequently judge to demonstrate the most forward front in the advance of civilisation and progress.  These struggles were and are clearly relevant.  However, the question lies elsewhere.

The condition of immunity reserved for some, the protected, the preserved, the holders of guarantees, is denied others, the exposed, the marginalised, the abandoned.  Care, assistance, rights for all, is presaged.  But the “all” is an increasingly restricted sphere: it has borders, it excludes, it leaves the excess behind, remainders.  Inclusion is a celebrated mirage, equality an empty word which resonates now like an offense.  Difference expands, distance becomes more profound.  It is no longer just the apartheid of the poor.  It is precisely immunity which discriminates, that digs the furrow of separation, firstly, in the interior of western societies and even more, outside, in the limitless hinterland of misery, in the planetary peripheries of discomfort and desolation.  There, where the defeated of globalisation survive, the system of security and guarantees does not reach.  Interned in camps, cleared out to empty urban spaces, discarded and accumulated as residues, they patiently wait for an eventual recycling.  But the world of using and throwing away does not know what to do with these residues.  The dross and the dregs pollute.  It will be better therefore to keep us at a safe distance from the contaminated, those susceptible to contamination, source of disease, cause of contagion.

This other humanity – but are they “human beings”? – is inexorably given over to all manner of violence, wars, genocides, hunger, sexual exploitation, new slavery, disease.  To the apparatuses of control and protection in our world correspond, in the other world, disorder and the uninterrupted emergency of natural forces.  Reduced to simple bodies, the “savages” will be able to face savage infections, persistent epidemics, like AIDS, fatal viruses, like Ebola, which exist only as the news of the day and which find no place in the dominant narrative.  In the end, the citizen inscribed in the free democracies believes that the abandonment of the rejected is due to their incivility.

The immunitarian paradigm generates indifference towards the other, anesthetises sensibilities, feeds amnesia and structures discriminatory social relations of sex, gender, race, ethnicity, age (have not our “seniors”, whose life experience is meaningless in the eternal present, not been left to die, with collective mourning prohibited for reasons of “health”?), and the like.

The more exigent and exclusive is the immunity for those inside, the more implacable the exposure of the superfluous, of those who are outside, becomes.  Immunitarian democracy can function no other way.

Immunisation aims to protect the body (and the mind) of each citizen.  The forms of aversion multiply, the movement of retraction, of falling back upon oneself, becomes spontaneous.  It is precisely in this withdrawal that the citizen’s tendency to abandon the polis and all that belongs to the sphere of what is common displays itself.  It is however this very anaesthesia of the immunised citizen and the low intensity of her/his political passions, what transforms her/him into an impassive spectator of the global disaster, that also condemns her/him.  Where immunity prevails, community disappears.

The citizen of immunitarian democracy, to whom the experience of the other was closed, resigns her/himself to following all of the hygiene-sanitary rules and has no difficulty in recognising her/himself as a patient.  Politics and medicine, heterogeneous domains, now overlap and mix.  Where law ends and health begins is no longer known.  Political action tends to assume a medical modality, while medical practice politicises itself.  Nazism here set the precedent, however scandalous it might seem to recall it.

If the term disturbs, it should not be used to mask an accelerating and violent biopolitics which in promising to assure immunity, comes to decide on a global scale who is to die and who is to survive … and only survive.

This is not to paint a picture of distress and gloom; it is to endeavour to discern our multiple crises, to take up the task of thinking anew a politics freed from immunitarian obsessions and different ways of inhabiting the earth.

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