COVID-19 and Late Capitalism

Now seems like as good a time as any to collate some of my overall thoughts on the enormous political developments of the last month. I want to talk about the political implications of COVID-19 in the context of British politics today as well as the direction of the Labour Party and the future of socialism in Britain. What follows are really just a collection of interrelated thoughts I wanted to put down in writing rather than keep them jumbled up in my head.

Giorgio Agamben has embroiled himself in no small degree of controversy for his article on the Coronavirus. Some of the backlash has been well-deserved, in particular for the way he entirely misunderstands the intersubjective elements of this pandemic. Agamben writes:

Other human beings, as in the plague described in Alessandro Manzoni’s novel, are now seen solely as possible spreaders of the plague whom one must avoid at all costs and from whom one needs to keep oneself at a distance of at least a meter.

This is an uncharacteristically poor analysis by Agamben. What the public’s response to Coronavirus has demonstrated more than anything is that Capitalism really has failed to totally stamp out any sense of community, mutual aid and solidarity between us all. The distance most of us are keeping from each other is by and large not for our own safety (many of us are unlikely to die even if we do contract it), but for the safety of others, of the loved ones we know and the strangers we don’t. Thousands of brave members of the public have volunteered to assist the NHS in coping with the Coronavirus pandemic, risking their own lives for the common good. People who may not have even known each other before, despite living in relatively close proximity, are now running errands for each other, delivering vital supplies to the particularly vulnerable unable to risk leaving their homes. I will talk more about this below.

But Agamben does get a few important points right, and I think it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. Agamben is absolutely correct to draw our attention to the potential dangers hidden within the response of many western governments. We must remember with Foucault that “not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad.” Agamben’s work draws on two major influences: Foucault and Carl Schmitt, reworking them in profound and novel ways, and one of the lessons he draws from Schmitt is that every liberal democracy retains the ever-present possibility of dictatorship. For Schmitt, it is a priori impossible to legislate in advance for the arrival of a state of emergency (such as the Coronavirus), precisely because it is part-and-parcel of a state of emergency that it cannot be properly planned, prepared for or foreseen. The result is that there is always the possibility of an invocation of a state of emergency, in which the normal constitutional rules are suspended in the name of defending the existence of the state and the people over whom it exercises its power. Drawing on Foucault’s notion of Biopolitics, Agamben has long been interested in this character of liberalism, its bio-management of the health and security of populations and the way in which states of exception are invoked and maintained, particularly in his superb analysis of the United States government post-9/11.

Agamben is correct to point out that we must be very cautious about the extent to which we are authorising an unprecedented extension of the power of the state. One of Agamben’s central preccoupations in his historical analysis is the extent to which a government can invoke a perpetual state of emergency (9/11 leading to the ‘war on terror’, etc.) in order to legitimise a permanent state of emergency, where the state of emergency becomes the new norm. And one point he draws our attention to is that Coronavirus is dangerous in this regard precisely because it is not only invisible but in, between, and among us. It is interior. And it is therefore all the more easy for a government to invoke its absent presence, its future return, as a basis for suspending the normal order. Agamben is quite badly wrong in much of what he says, particularly the severity of the danger posed by Coronavirus, but in this he is astute.

There has been a lot written recently about Capitalist Realism, and to this I want to add only a few thoughts of my own. Matt over at Xenogothic, as usual, has provided some excellent analysis recently. We can start with perhaps two questions: What does this all mean for British politics, and for global capitalism more broadly? And by way of responding to my own question with a non-answer, I think it is probably too early to tell, and I think history shows, thinking back to the 2008 financial crash and Occupy Wall Street, how resilient and malleable capitalism really is. This is of course not a new realisation, it was in fact one of Marx’s central pieces of analysis and one of the characteristics he both despised and admired in capitalism. We find much the same in Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis. I think that proclaiming the death of capitalism is therefore premature. But I think a bit more than this can be said at this time.

The first is that in this moment, more than any other, we must hold close to the understanding that history is constituted by a series of open (virtual) possibilities. No serious leftist thinker has held to a teleological model of history, and in fact neither did Marx himself as any reader should be aware. We must not therefore conclude that this global health crisis (which as soon as it subsides will dovetail into a perhaps even more severe economic crisis) heralds the death either of capitalism or even of merely its contemporary neoliberal form. I suspect that what we are soon approaching is a once-in-a-generation moment – a genuinely open possibility – about the future of our species.

It is quite possible that the almost unprecedented levels of government intervention and spending mobilised in response to this global crisis will act as a stark moment of realisation for the west, shaking off the mental shackles imposed upon us by neoliberal hegemony which tell us not only that the government shouldn’t intervene in the economy (because it will invariably make things worse), but that it can’t, that the money and resources simply are not there. It turns out that Britain does not have to accept that there must be rising millions of homeless on our streets. Within a matter of days, we managed to find temporary housing for pretty much every homeless person in the country. It can be done. The resources are there. What is needed is the political will to commit to it. And it has also served as a wake-up call to those who have been blind to the deterioration of our National Health Service and social security infrastructure; now, those who always thought of themselves as ‘above it’, are forced to rely on a system which they either consciously or unconsciously voted to shred. We might, finally, begin to have debates about Universal Basic Income, for example, as well as the state of social housing and social care. We might.

But is is just as possible, as the health crisis subsides and the economic crisis deepens, that an even fiercer austerity mindset might return as the hegemonic ideology of our times, right at the moment at which it has begun to be most resoundingly challenged. “We spent everything we had during the emergecy, and we were right to; but now we all have to tighten our belts and get on with paying back the debt in case we need to do so again” might be the kind of thing we hear with increasing frequency. We simply don’t know which way it could go at this point. It could genuinely represent a clean break with neoliberalism, and I hope that it does, but we must remember that this is not fixed in stone. If we want to make use of this moment in order to effect far more radical change, we will have to work for it.

Even a response like the above opens opportunities for the left. Where should the money come from to pay down the debts, and how should it be raised? Should we not recognise that a consistent model of funding better prepares us for future crises in the future, and better recognises the dignity and value of the workers consistently underpaid in our health and social services? How should our welfare system operate in the future in order to better deal with not just crises like this but also the technological revolution of automation and deep AI? Put simplistically: The left needs to be the clever party here. We need to develop and articulate a coherent and comprehensible model of the future and win the argument that we are best placed to make it work for the many, not the few.

The important thing to bear in mind that what might well end up happening is simply swapping out one form of capitalism for another. And, as has been pointed out recently, there is a difference between your politics becoming hegemonic and your ideas becoming hegemonised by the dominant power. The two are very different. The latter is the true risk right now: That policy proposals from the left as part of a broader vision of overthrowing capitalism are recuperated by the right in order to stabilise and shore up support for capitalism. And we are seeing it here in Britain under the Boris Johnson government – ideas proposed by the left are being adopted by the government both as a response to the virus and on their own merit, but we should not conclude that this is a victory for the left. What it really represents is a disarming of the left in the service of an ever-malleable global capitalism. If capitalism needs to expand its welfare state or institute basic incomes in order to survive, it will do. None of this threatens its fundamentals. That makes this time, in a political context, particularly difficult and dangerous for the left. The risk is that the radical democratic socialist movement ends up being entirely hegemonised by a pragmatic and ‘loose’ right.

I wanted to finish up by offering some initial thoughts on the early direction of the Labour Party here in Britain. The truth of the matter is that I’ve long been deeply pessimistic about our future. My first political memory was of watching David Cameron and Nick Clegg walk into Downing Street. I joined the Labour Party a few months before the general election of 2015 when Ed Miliband was leader, and in the last month of the election genuinely came to believe that he could change things for the better, despite his earlier hesitancy and half-measures. We suffered an awful defeat. I voted, hesitantly, for Remain in the 2016 referendum; I have no real love for the European Union, but in my view for Leave to win at that moment would be a victory for the far-right and permanently damage our country. We lost that one too. In 2017, we came within a hair’s breadth of defeating the Conservatives, but ultimately lost. In 2019 we suffered the worst electoral defeat of my lifetime. It felt like being punched in the stomach.

And with every year which passes with Labour in opposition, the climate crisis worsens. We are now staring down the barrel of another five years of an emboldened Conservative government with no interest in pursuing radical changes to tackle climate change. This is the central political issue of our time because it fundamentally threatens the future of humanity. So despite my personal politics which would ideally go far beyond what Corbyn was proposing, I’ve been mulling over Starmer’s new leadership and where the direction the party might go next. And frankly, at this stage, I think if we can elect a progressive social democratic party with a very strong climate change plan at the centre of its political vision, with a leader who is very happy to work with socialists and to implement socialist policies in the right circumstances, I can live with that for now. I’m relatively optimistic about Starmer’s early moves: he’s appointed a mixture of highly intelligent and qualified democratic socialists and social democrats to the front bench, begun to put an end to the antisemitism crisis and professionalise the party’s operation.

But tackling climate change must be central to any policy platform in the future. We cannot back down from the policies elaborated in Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution and the left must keep the pressure on him not to renege on his commitments. Such a revolution must fundamentally challenge the assumptions and logic which underpin our capitalist system – production for profit; endless surpluses; economic instability compounded and intensified by regular internal and external crises, and so on. Nothing about what governments across the west are enacting right now fundamentally challenges capitalism. The left needs to give up its idea of capitalism’s fragility or its fixed form. What is specific about capitalism its capacity to endlessly reform itself in the face of radical critique. It is almost as if radical critique finds articulation, capitalism has ‘precuperated’ such a critique. Here Debord was perhaps not pessimistic enough: The left finds itself continually disarmed in the face of such a system almost before the critique has even been articulated. Thus Laclau’s system of articulating irreconcilable demands by a populist left appears implausible, relying as it does on the notion that a sufficient array of demands cannot be met by the dominant hegemonic force. If we have learned anything from studying the history of the last two centuries, it is that no such array of demands has yet been articulated. Perhaps that may be yet to come.

Coronavirus, global capitalism and climate change are interlinked processes forming multiple resonance machines accelerating each on further. Every major pandemic of the last few decades has its origins in animal exploitation. Animal exploitation is one of the key drivers of climate change, and the logic which underpins the exploitation of non-human animals is the same logic which underpins our exploitation of the environment and of various human groups as well. Any radical politics has to understand and confront these interlinked processes. We can now see just how fragile the global economy is to the violent emergence of any external destabilising forces, even those which were birthed by global capitalism itself. What might emerge from this chaos is difficult to discern but if the left wants a future beyond capitalism it will have to fight for it; that means engaging electorally and outside the usual institutional democratic processes. Neither in themselves are enough, but we cannot do without either.

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