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Pandemic Reads

During the past weeks since pandemic measures have forced me to spend a lot of time at home and online, I've read a number of essays and projects, and have listened to a number of podcast episodes, that I think are worth investigating for those looking for free readings and broadcasts that are interesting, enlightening, or challenging. While many of these have to do with the pandemic––since that is clearly the main concern for a lot of think pieces and projects––some published during this period are about other issues but are still well worth examining.

The first is a "rapid response" collection of essays, edited by Greg Bird (and old friend of mine) and Penelope Ironstone entitled Writing In The Midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic: From Vulnerability to Solidarity. Although much of the theoretical framing comes from a "biopolitical" register––a theoretical register I have issues with––it also distances itself from Agamben's recent proclamations, and some essays are more critical of this framework. But all-in-all I liked how this quickly edited and released collection desired to "consider what might be lost in this pandemic, but also what could be carried forth into the future, especially the traces of our current vulnerability." It also demonstrates that academic journals and writing can be quickly turned over, once various conventions are relaxed, which might come as a shock for colleagues who have had their papers lost in the journal process for years.

The second, which is not about the pandemic, is Devin Zane Shaw's The Politics of the Blockade. Here it is important to note that there was a lot of mobilization around the Wet'suwet'en blockades directly before the pandemic hit, another highpoint for Indigenous sovereignty struggles. The importance of these struggles should not be eclipsed by the pandemic and we should expect, in the post-pandemic reality, various discourses about Canada working together to get the economy back on track will be about the pipeline. Or, as Shaw's editorialization of his essay puts it: "it is likely that the Canadian settler-state will intensify resource extraction under the pretense of funding economic 'recovery' and 'paying back' the const of concessions won during the pandemic." In any case, a necessary read for anyone devoted to thinking anti-colonial politics despite the thought consuming pressures of COVID-19.

Next is Achille Mbembe's The Universal Right to Breath. Mbembe is one of those philosophers who I like, whose ideas challenge me, but who I also find myself shaking my head at when he talks about Marxism. Largely because his understanding of Marxism echoes almost precisely Arendt's understanding, which means it seems (based on the evidence of his writing) that he hasn't read Marx or the Marxist tradition but instead has adopted liberal-continental conceptions of Marxism. That and his use of Agambenian categories has always irked me but I think Kevin Ochieng Okoth's essay on Afro-Pessimism provides the best critique of this aspect of Mbembe. In any case, Mbembe has generated a number of interesting concepts and ideas that are well worth investigation and engagement. And I like how he writes in this essay: "It is one thing to worry about the death of others in a distant land and quite suddenly become aware of one's on putrescence, to be forced to live intimately with one's own death, contemplating it as a real possibility."

Then there are two articles from the PCR-RCP, the Maoist organization I support. The first is COVID-19, the Canadian State, and Global Capitalism that provides a general overview of the crisis from a Maoist perspective, with attention particularly to the Canadian state. The second is an interview with its representatives, on Redspark, The COVID-19 Pandemic in Canada: Revolutionaries are Building Networks of Solidarity that discusses more concrete organizational practice in the face of a state of emergency. One thing they note in these interventions is how strange it is that a "number of 'left' activists, especially those previously involved in migrant justice work… are now praising bourgeois politicians and celebrating border closures, as if the capitalist state is actually concerned for the masses' safety." Because I have seen fellow activists make bizarre proclamations about this pandemic: celebrating the deployment of the army, claiming that the current head of public health is a saviour in the face of conservative reaction… When we come out of this pandemic, this kind of attitude might result in pulling left activists into the state machine.

Fifthly (note that this numbering isn't a ranking but just about what I've been reading in order), and following the above articles, is the Maoist Communist Group's Four Points of Orientation in The Current Crisis. So far, this intervention has been the best piece about the current crisis to emerge from the US. While I recognize that there is some debate, based on a recent discussion with a Chinese comrade, about Lenin's conception of a revolutionary situation, this article starts from a correct understanding of crisis. While it might be the case that this a crisis that calls everything into account, it is not one that has a revolutionary possibility when the subjective forces, specifically in the US, are at a low level: "in the absence of the proletarian vanguard, the coronavirus crisis has spontaneously led the masses to pin their hopes of resolution on extending the reach of the imperialist state." From this concrete analysis of the concrete situation, this piece provides a succinct intervention.

Following this is Ajith's recent article about the pandemic: COVID-19: Its social roots are important as the virus itself. Ajith is one of the clearest thinkers in the global revolutionary communist milieu and so, as should be expected, is engagement with the pandemic is clear and insightful. While excoriating the racist claims about China regarding the spread of the virus, and locating it within the processes of capitalism, he also does not celebrate the Chinese state capitalism. Moreover, he points out the ways in which the economic deployment of the pandemic could be used by the neoliberal tendency within capitalism: "Data collected in the guise of serving the public health service could become raw material for pharmaceuticals, insurance companies, and others. This is a new, more dangerous, level of privatisation. Capital will be able to profit while hiding behind the structures of the public sector; absolutely indirectly."

Seventhly is the Cited podcast's series on The Science Wars. I was told about this by a friend who composed the music for this podcast and was quite taken by the first episode. Interested in connecting the current war on science to older debates "about the nature of science and its place in a democratic society," the first episode examined the controversy between Social Text and the "Sokal Hoax". What makes this podcast investigation (complete with interviews with some of the major players) interesting is that it does not become to enamoured with the spectacular details of the Sokal Hoax, demonstrates that Alan Sokal was driven by a leftist ethos (despite what his right-wing imitators today imagine), but that also Social Text was also driven by concerns about science's role vis-a-vis capitalism. Aside from a throw-away reference to "Stalinist gulags" it was a pretty stellar historiography of that controversy and I want to see how they connect it to the current reactionary antipathy to science.

Next is Revolutionary Left Radio's episode Organizing in a Pandemic: Justice and Fighting Cuomo. I love listening to RLR, which is why I'm honoured whenever they ask me to be on their show and promote my work. They are a podcast devoted to political militancy and social investigation, and this episode did a good job highlighting necessary organizing work taking place, despite difficulties, during pandemic measures in NYC. "There's been this really weird fetishization of Cuomo as a counter-figure to Trump," one of the guests says in speaking to the difficulties of organizing tenants in the midst of a state of emergency.

Ninthly is Red Menace's episode The Plague, Political Economy, and Reactionary Protests. The discussion between the co-hosts, Alyson and Breht, was as enjoyable as always but I really liked it when they focused on the ways in which the reactionary rejection of "big government" pandemic measures represent, despite seeming cosmetically against a state of emergency, a fascist ethos. Moreover, the attention paid to organizing––to pushing a materialist analysis so as to disrupt conspiracy theory narratives while doing mass work––is again something I like to see coming out of leftwing podcasts.

The tenth read is another article from Redspark: the beginning of their series on the revolutionary movement in Brazil. This first entry provides the backdrop for the emergence of the Poor Peasants League––the Liga dos Camponeses Pobres (LCP)––and explains their emergence from the Landless Workers' Movement. It also charts their relation to Lula's betrayal and the subsequent rise of Bolsonaro. "But the League continues to advance their line of destroying latifundio, seizing land by land, step-by-step, and declares that it is not possible to further advance the struggle for land anymore without re-editing the sacred and historical peasant war through a correct and justified revolutionary strategy and political line." Looking forward to further entries in this series!

And finally, the blog On Necropolitics is an ongoing project, that is currently publishing a chapter a week, that is worth following. The author is clearly a pseudonym, and it seems clear that this is a collective project, but its aim "to use the pandemic as an occasion to think capitalism according to what it always has been, what the pandemic reveals about its current ideological deployment, and how we can think a communist alternative in the face of exterminism" is a propos. Especially since this project seems largely suspicious of biopolitical conceptions of the current situation (while still drawing on them when appropriate) and, at least in the prologue, has referenced Lenin. Interesting stuff, and the black metal aesthetic of the blog header design brings to mind a long standing question: why is it that black metal fonts look good on websites but hardly ever on books?