The planetary pandemic caused by the swift spread of “coronavirus” resonates in obvious ways with prior narratives of outbreak in recent memory. From the avian flu to the swine fever, the diseases caused by viral mutations have all been accompanied by a particular way of narrating crises and catastrophes. Coronavirus is no exception. As the pandemic unfolds, commonplaces about catastrophes, especially plagues, come to the fore, almost as if scripted. It is thus important to conceptualize the ongoing crisis through earthly theoretical and political categories that adequately grasp the social and political stakes involved. This is important not only for a political comprehension of, or at least coming to terms with, what is currently unfolding, but to grasp the ways in which the current pandemic is advancing through an already catastrophic situation that presents openings and occasions for political change.
Historically, these openings have been seized by regressive forces seeking to restore hierarchy and privilege. It is accordingly important to politicize the pandemic and think through how it could be grasped more critically for a future political order beyond the dreariness so characteristic of capitalism’s catastrophic history.
An Unnatural Catastrophe
The term “catastrophe” is loosely deployed to signify a sudden occurrence that brings about disastrous results. Sometimes it is a general category that encapsulates political, social, and cultural disasters and calamities. It signifies anything from hurricanes to famines to genocides. The range of this term’s meanings is sometimes expanded to even include war, crises of capitalist accumulation, terrorism, epidemic outbreaks, and ecological crises. Outside of the Anglophone world, this looseness has led to arguments about the need to distinguish more clearly between catastrophe and calamity: the first term, the argument goes, is better suited to describe natural disasters, while the second connotes human-made disasters that carry a significant degree of intentionality. By casting the meaning of catastrophe in this way, one is already clearly dealing with the question of responsibility in at least one of its connotations, as accountability for bringing about a catastrophic state of affairs. Intentionality thus figures prominently in formulating the distinction between these two terms, a distinction that also relies on a separation between nature and history.
But both emphases, on responsibility as intentionality and on the separation of nature and history, ultimately obfuscate more than they clarify. A sharp severance of nature from history is, to say the least, nowadays untenable: as a host of thinkers from Adorno on have suggested, nature is always already historical, and history is natural. Historically, nature has been humanized and human creations have been naturalized. Social catastrophes are often naturalized, and “natural” catastrophes are sometimes perceived as human-made. And both are sometimes seen as inevitable, as fate.
Famines, droughts, plagues, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis are seemingly natural, but in every case their catastrophic effects are thoroughly mediated by human agency and by the imperatives, often structural, of its political, economic, and cultural manifestations. Here is where a narrow focus on individual action and intentionality becomes problematic. Oftentimes, a disaster is not willed into existence, nor is a conscious decision always made to manage it in a certain way, yet racial, gender, and class discursive and ideological conceits mediate the ensuing reaction, or inaction. Moreover, the structures mediating the catastrophe are not reducible to the individual actions of rulers. These are social, political and historical dynamics and institutional imperatives at the core of capitalist orders.
Efforts to pin down the current pandemic on Trump, and the corollary lionization of a figure like Cuomo tacitly found in the coverage of the New York Times and explicitly in other mainstream outlets and social media are misleading. These obfuscate how, to borrow a formulation from Pierre Bourdieu, “structuring structures” are responsible for transforming the pandemic and making it into a catastrophe.1 Fixation with Trump is an all too convenient form of liberal politics that brackets out how these realities, and the disproportionate decimation of working-class communities in, say, Upper Manhattan and The Bronx, have little to do with this liberal boogeyman and would not be remedied by more PC and palatable liberal-democratic rulers equally impervious to these structural realities.
Vulnerability to the pandemic may in principle be well-nigh universal and borderless, but it is concretely differentiated and overwhelmingly particular. The universal moment, as it were, is abstract; in principle, as has been the case in New York City, everyone and anyone is vulnerable to contagion. But that is as far as so-called universal vulnerability goes. Access to testing, medical history, and the quality of hospitalization available is truly differentiated, putting paid to pieties about shared vulnerability. Again, one has only to consider the disproportionate numbers of Blacks and Latinos daily succumbing to the virus in NYC. The particular contours of what makes the pandemic catastrophic are readily discerned in the ways in which vulnerability to it is mediated, as Mike Davis once argued apropos of the avian flu in The Monster Next Door (2006), “by concentrated urban poverty, the neglect of vaccine development by a pharmaceutical industry that finds infectious diseases ‘unprofitable,’ and the deterioration, even collapse, of public-health infrastructure in some rich as well as poor countries.”2
The market imperatives intrinsic to capitalism are constitutive of, and thus largely responsible for, our vulnerability to the virus, as are those who structurally benefit from its production and dissemination. But these are not the only culprits. Today, some populations – especially refugees at the borders of Europe and the USA – are sitting ducks for the virus, as are the colonized and dispossessed in Gaza, and people in many other colonial and neo-colonial situations and spaces (including, say, prisons) within the planetary order ruled by capital.
While the myth of the “super spreader” that traditionally underwrites narratives of contagion is recessive in the current pandemic, that is hardly the case for the image of either a primitive or Eastern threat, or both. Trump’s insistence on referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” or an administration official’s reference to the “Kung Flu” are the most obvious examples. Such naming conjures an image of a “primitive space,” be it a farm in China or an African jungle, deploying a civilizational trope in order to exonerate liberal-capitalist civilization, and its imperatives of scientific, technical, and economic power, denying its share of complicity in the catastrophe. But while the “super spreader” is missing in the current catastrophic pandemic, it has been inverted in the central role accorded to individual response.
In the current pandemic individuals are asked to embed themselves in a postmodern version of Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which Netflix and other streaming services take pride of place, as we all go on lockdown. This is not to say that such measures are not an important component of the effort to bring the spread to a halt, and effectively deal with its apex, but more important than showers of hand sanitizer is to consider the political dimensions of this catastrophe: how differential status is already granted to its victims and the gradation of losses; how public resources to deal with it were defunded; and what role the state, corporate, and financial power—the core structures of collective life—have played in mediating vulnerability.
But the role of state power cuts both ways, as responses to the pandemic, however partial, attest. What does this catastrophe reveal about state power, or how does it negate the depoliticized politics advocated by both radical neoliberals and anti-state leftists? Could it be mobilized for social solidarity, rather than distancing? Or toward abolishing the corporate-medical complex?
Responsibility for this threat is not reducible to the intentionality of any given actor. It resides in the hands of those who have the power to organize the mainstays of collective life differently, and to change institutional arrangements that increase vulnerability, in order to avert the threat, not just to aver it. Davis has clearly illustrated this point in his incisive analysis of the avian flu threat, which bears directly on the current pandemic. In both cases, we have a viral mutation, willed into existence by no one, a perfect example of Darwinian mutability, which is the domain of the natural world.
Yet the threat becomes such not because of a mischievous or morally indifferent nature. Rather, in Davis’s cogent formulation, “Human-induced environmental shocks— overseas tourism, wetland destruction, a corporate ‘Livestock Revolution,’ and Third World urbanization with the attendant growth of megaslums—are responsible for turning influenza’s extraordinary Darwinian mutability into one of the most dangerous biological forces on our besieged planet.”3 Structural violence and its orders of catastrophe and corollary catastrophic ordering, along with domination and exploitation, mediate both vulnerability and the political responsibility of its structural beneficiaries.
The same could be said, mutatis mutandis, about the current pandemic. Political responsibility cannot be adjudicated with reference to individual intentionality. Instead, a mapping of the different organizational and market imperatives mediating its advent is in order. For the locus of responsibility for this catastrophe ultimately resides in the forms of power generated by the imperatives of development and production. Decades of social disaffiliation, privatization, and the dismantling of welfare institutions and provisions so central to the neoliberal regime of accumulation readily come to mind as mediating factors in this catastrophe. And, as always, the poor are the most vulnerable, not because of an increased likelihood of contagion, but because of a lack of testing and available medical care, which predates the outbreak and is one reason for pre-existing medical conditions. These are structural reasons at the core of shared understandings and values in North-Atlantic capitalist societies. This is nowhere clearer than in the United States, the closest to a pure capitalist social formation in recorded history.
It is important to bring up capitalism, so often tacitly displaced in contemporary critiques of neoliberalism, which imply either the idealization of or a return to a prior regime of accumulation, resembling for instance the post-war period in Europe and the US, as the answer to our current predicament.4 Yet not only is creative destruction constitutive and thus at the core of capitalism, but it is as often forgotten how catastrophes were central to its advent. While Marx’s seminal chapters on “the so-called primitive accumulation” in Capital remain a tour de force account of the constitutive forms of violence and creative destruction so central to an adequate understanding of capitalism’s history, it is important to highlight one important aspect of this history: the centrality of catastrophes, from the Bubonic Plague to the crises and wars of the seventeenth century, for the accidental advent of capitalism in England. Violence and a catastrophic core appear on its birth certificate.
The onset of market dependence, the differentia specifica of capitalism, was the upshot of a political transition that emerged out of the crises of feudalism. Important aspects of this transition included the Malthusian crisis that was at the heart of the many crises afflicting feudal society, as population growth and declining labor productivity contributed to the stagnation of the feudal economy. This was combined, as Robert Brenner has shown, with the declining of seigniorial revenues.5 These processes were exacerbated by famines and plagues in the fourteenth century (population declines = reductions in lordly revenue). The “unintended consequences” of actions taken by individuals in these crises, which were effectively aimed at reproducing feudalism, created the conditions for the emergence of capitalism, something that ruling elites politically capitalized on. And this bears lessons for us today.
For the emergence of the centralized tax-office state, with decisive advantages over a decentralized ordering of political power, was a response to the aforementioned crises from within feudalism that nevertheless had the unintended consequence of leading to capitalism. One of the unintended consequences of this historical process was to conjoin capitalism with the state against the background of plagues and famines. Ever since, catastrophes and crises have been crucibles in which forms of state power are involved and that provide openings and possibilities. The latter have been historically instrumentalized by elites seeking to expand or further entrench their power, even if the unintended consequences can lead a different kind of opening—say, the inauguration of measures that could create lines of flight from this catastrophic mode of production, lines of flight that ought to be taken to break from what is.
How, then, can we best understand the dialectic of destruction and creation at the heart of catastrophes politically? Writing at a dangerous moment, when the Wehrmacht had yet to taste defeat and the shadows of catastrophe were falling over Europe, Walter Benjamin understood this dialectic and soberly confronted the coexistence of dreary catastrophes, often euphemistically christened crises, and the expectation of Catastrophe: “That things are ‘status quo’ is the catastrophe. It is not an ever-present possibility but what in each case is given.”6
In this spirit, the politicization of the current catastrophes could herald a break with the catastrophic history of the present. A politicization of catastrophes demands serious consideration about how the mainstays of collective life, and the social orders we inhabit, their practices and imperatives, mediate the advent of catastrophes and crises. It also calls for seizing the openings and occasions these afford not for the continuation of what is, but for a more egalitarian and genuine socialist future, beyond the current iterations of catastrophic capitalism and the world order it at once requires and reproduces, which is what makes a pandemic caused by a viral mutation into a catastrophe.
- See Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 98, 172, 176.
- Mike Davis, The Monster at Our Door (New York: Owl Books, 2006), 8.
- Davis, The Monster at Our Door, 8, 35ff.
- So widespread is this tacit tendency that not even Wendy Brown, one of the most coruscating critics of neoliberalism, is immune to it – see my “Refurbishing Liberal Democracy?” Theory & Event 20 (April 2017): 528-536.
- See Robert Brenner, “Property and Progress,” in Marxist History-Writing for the Twentieth-First Century, ed. Chris Wickham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 49-111.
- Walter Benjamin, “Central Park,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938-1940, ed. Howard Eilan and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 184-85.
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