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The Bigger Plague is Capitalism

Experiencing a pandemic in real time is surreal. The culture industry machine has pre-transcribed such events in multiple movies, books, and comics. We grew up with The Plague, The Stand, innumerable zombie films and books, more "realist" films like Outbreak… And then later iterations of the same pandemic fantasies––from 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead to The Passage and The Girl With All The Gifts to Contagion. We have been utterly saturated in fictional pandemic paranoia, both fantastic and realist, though we always assumed even the "realist" depictions were fantastic despite the fact that humanity has indeed experienced (and survived) multiple pandemics. But here we are, with COVID-19 declared a global pandemic, and we cannot help but understand it according to these fictions which means it appears simultaneously fantastic and nightmarish.

To be clear, while the pandemic is real it is not the most significant medical emergency on the planet. The most significant medical emergency is still the fact that large numbers of people continue to die from completely preventable diseases––that there are vaccines and treatment for––because of imperial capitalism. The deaths that have occurred, and that will become the ultimate count of COVID-19, will not even come close to matching the body count of those who have died from treatable diseases. Such deaths do not count as a "pandemic" because they are seen as treatable, and yet they are lives still sacrificed and thus allowed to die due to the normative rules of global capitalism.

Connected to this fact of "acceptable" deaths by sickness is the ways in which quarantines are established so as to largely protect the least vulnerable members of society and abandon the marginalized to disease and death. A simplistic understanding of this abandonment, such as the notion of biopolitics promoted by Agamben (who recently was roundly mocked for being a coronavirus truther), is that all quarantines are only exercises of sovereign power to affect states of exception. And yet we know, regardless of what etymological genealogy the name "quarantine" is given, that quarantines can and should stop the spread of a disease. The problem is that every quarantine is simultaneously subjected to a real political order, which has nothing to do with the current conceptual notion of quarantine itself and more to do with the ideological concerns of social formations. All interventions will be transformed by ruling class power. The fact that the Canadian state sent body bags to Indigenous reserves during the H1N1 epidemic is simply a sign that this state was not concerned with extending the rationality of a scientific quarantine to the colonized, but excluding the colonized from this rationality. The quarantine is always subordinated to class interests.

Hence the bunker mentality. While the nature of the stock piling has become meme worthy (why so much toilet paper, why was that couple in front of us in the big line at the grocery store stocking up on thirty cartons of eggs, why is that person's entire cart filled with cans of diced tomatoes), it is not completely irrational. As two of my comrades noted the other night, such behaviour simply indicates that large portions of the masses sense that they are alone, that the state will not help them, and thus the apparent Hobbesianism of the grocery store glutting is not evidence of the way that humans actually are but evidence of the alienated and socially isolated existence generated by capitalism. In a situation where jobs will be suspended and/or lost, when it is unclear whether hideous rent or brutal mortgage payments will be mitigated, it makes sense to stock up on as much food and supplies. After all, if you feel the state is happy enough to let you get sick and die––that this state will not provide food and shelter, that it has maintained such human needs are the business of individuals––then why wouldn't you take anything you can to weather an unfolding crisis.

Capitalism has placed the world in crisis and this situation of crisis is and will be the norm for the majority of the world's populations. But when such crises return to the heart of the world system, striking at the the imperial metropoles themselves, multiple contradictions are laid bare. Take, for example, the absurdity of would-be venture capitalists who buy up all of the hand sanitizer, thus threatening collective safety, to make a tidy profit selling it at wildly inflated prices. The New York Times ran a puff piece on one such price gouger, Mike Colvin, who bought up 17,700 bottles of hand-sanitizer so as to profit from the pandemic. They printed pictures of him with a shirt that read "Family Man", his loving interaction with his wife and child, and at some points made it seem as if he had been hurt by Amazon's decision to bar him from selling price-gouged hand sanitizer on their platform. As should be expected, people reacted with anger and alarm since Colvin is an obvious parasite. The truth, however, is that Colvin is simply a microcosm of what capitalism does on a regular basis. Even his arguments in the article (where he claims he was providing a "public service" and his appeals to fixing market "inefficiencies") are reflections of what big capitalists make day-in and day-out. Amazon can look moral by preventing little would-be capitalists from profiting on misery, but Bezos set up the structures for this kind of behaviour and has done far worse. In fact, Amazon has defied quarantine rules in Italy so that it continue generating profit. Why blame the Colvins when they are simply trying to be like the big capitalists who don't have to run a hand sanitizer racket because they are more plugged into the over-arching market racket? Such amoral enterprising individuals in the time of pandemic merely lay bare the fact that capitalism is parasitism.

Another interesting contradiction laid bare by the pandemic was the social construction of gender. In Italy, for example, it became clear that of the serious cases that generated fatalities affected older men more than older women (80% of fatalities were men, and the 20% that were women were in an older age bracket). Whereas some TERFs were quick to crow that this somehow had to do with evidence of the hallowed nature biological sex, this merely demonstrated that TERFs have cheese for brains. The truth is that, in Italy (like most parts of the world), there is an entire generation of men who became inactive after retirement, who lived sedentary lives while their wives continued to do all of the housework, resulting in lower levels of immunity. That is, what these statistics demonstrate is how patriarchy generates behaviour and thus the social construction of gender norms. The fact that 80% of the fatalities are men from this generation is not located in their genitalia but in the social role of being a man.

And then there are the weird ways in which capitalist states enforce quarantine that tell us more about structures of global power than effective responses to a pandemic. In Canada the borders are now closed to anyone and everyone except for Canadian citizens and US citizens. The former exception makes some sense due to the mythology of the citizen and patriotism. The latter is clearly an expression of geopolitical allegiance. Considering that many new cases of COVID-19 are coming from the US, the fact that this border closure makes an exception for US citizens reveals the meaninglessness of border closures as effective quarantine measures.

Indeed, the plague rages on south of the Canadian border because the US is yet again revealing itself as a failed state. The self-proclaimed epicentre of freedom and democracy is quickly becoming the epicentre of plague. Repeated characterizations of COVID-19 as "the Wuhan Virus", while of course being racist (this is to be expected from a regime that has been openly white supremacist since its inception), is clearly intended to prepare an exposed population for blaming China rather than its own government's mismanagement. The fact that US nationals were flown out of China in defiance of quarantine, that a cruise ship was allowed to turn into a petri dish for coronavirus and then infected and non-infected members were flown back together, and all of this done in defiance of the WHO and its own CDC, demonstrate a callous disregard for collective safety. The ravages of privatization unleashed upon medical infrastructure, news that Trump wanted a vaccine that the US would have exclusive control over, and a refusal to do even the bare minimum required for a global pandemic, reveals that the US, despite controlling the majority of the world's resources, is a terrible place to live. Only die-hard MAGA types think that Trump has done nothing wrong, that all criticism of him is "fake news", and will likely remain beholden to this delirium even when they are dying of COVID-19. But these are the types who will deny a global pandemic, even as they buy snake oil solutions provided by the like of Alex Jones, pretend that it is courageous to carry on with their lives and spread the virus, and will die cheering on the cause of their misfortune because their reactionary imagination always leads the to blame others. The use of the term "Wuhan Virus", then, is aimed at securing the loyalty of this broad base of chauvinists.

And then Trump's friend in the UK, the self-proclaimed genius Boris Johnson (who likes to "prove" his genius by reciting random passages of Homer in Greek that all privately schooled English rich boys had to memorize), attempted to push forward Social Darwinist measures in response to the pandemic. Using the legitimate medical language of "herd immunity" that applies to vaccines (i.e. the more people who are vaccinated, the more everyone is safe), the Johnson regime tried to claim that allowing the virus to run its natural course without any safety measures would be like a shock vaccination upon the entire population and thus a natural herd immunity. Such a category mistake would mean, as every medical expert recognized, a massive death toll with no guarantee that an actual herd immunity would be reached. And though Johnson was forced to rethink this approach, realizing that even his voting base wasn't altogether comfortable with his callous survival of the fittest approach, his regime simply reorientated to follow the lead of the US!

Meanwhile, prison colonies and immigrant concentration camps are left exposed to the virus. ICE celebrates going to work with masks and gloves. Libertarians like Rand Paul classifies undocumented immigrants as "non-persons" who do not deserve medical protection during a pandemic. Landlords demand the right to evict tenants––many of whom are unable to pay rent due to loss of work during the pandemic––thus exposing them to COVID-19. The total small-mindedness of the the bourgeoisie and its ideologues should be patently evident to anyone capable of thought: enforcing these brutal class divisions during a pandemic puts everyone at risk, even those populations who these chauvinists consider to be real "persons". The corollary should be obvious: maybe these class divisions always put all of humanity at risk; maybe the bourgeoisie––along with its ideologues and gendarmes––is itself the plague.

In any case, the larger question is what will happen when this pandemic has run its course. We already know that it has reversed itself in China, Korea, and Singapore. The majority of new cases in these countries are people travelling from infected countries. As I noted above, the much greater medical emergency is the fact that people in the global peripheries are dying, and have been dying, from diseases that are preventable. But in the most powerful countries COVID-19 is raging and, though it will not be as vicious as those preventable diseases in the periphery, it has still resulted in a new normal in the imperialist metropoles. Such a "new normal" is characterized by various states of emergency where new laws and practices are brought into being in this time of crisis. The question is whether these laws and practices will cease once the pandemic ends. It seems more likely that many of these laws and practices will persist after COVID-19.

But just as every capitalist social formation will try to use this crisis to institute economic measures that will stay in place one the pandemic has passed, the job of organizers during and after the crisis is to expose the essential crisis that is capitalism, to gather people towards a communist alternative, and to push harder against a system that allows this kind of violent mismanagement, and the callous profiting from this management, to be normal. As Lenin wrote in 1917: "Our task now is to make a careful study of the forces, the classes, that revealed themselves in the crisis, and to draw the relevant lessons for our proletarian party. For it is the great significance of all crises that they make manifest what has been hidden; they cast aside all that is relative, superficial, and trivial; they sweep away the political litter and reveal the real mainsprings of the class struggle."