Friday, November 13, 2020

Solidarities: Negative, Symbolic, and Actual


As I write this the COVID-19 pandemic is returning to rates of infection and death in the US that exceed even the peak of last spring. The only difference is that, with a few exceptions, there are no new lockdowns. Schools are, partially in session, restaurants are open, and it might even be possible to go see a movie. The gap between the current crisis and the response is so wide that it has all of the feel of some kind of science fiction dystopia, noticing it feels like you are wearing the special glasses. I am sometimes find myself wanting to run through the streets screaming COVID-19 is still happening!

What is perhaps most striking is that unlike the early response to the pandemic in the UK and Sweden is that there is no explicit reason for this gap, there is no discussion of herd immunity (of course the term is still discussed, but it is not part of an official plan) or any real rationale. Opening the economy, as it is referred to, keeping schools and business open is just something that has to be done. There is no alternative. There was a moment, months ago in the long 2020, where this demand was expressed in terms of the ghoulish demand to sacrifice people to the economy.  Months later it has taken a different turn, not the sacrifice of people to the economy but the sense that lives and well being are being sacrificed to stop COVID-19. The cure of shutdowns is seen to be worse than the disease. During the last Presidential debate Donald Trump made the following statement:

We have to open our country. We’re not going to have a country. You can’t do this. We can’t keep this country closed. This is a massive country with a massive economy. People are losing their jobs. They’re committing suicide. There’s depression, alcohol, drugs at a level that nobody’s ever seen before. There’s abuse, tremendous abuse. We have to open our country. I’ve said it often, the cure cannot be worse than the problem itself, and that’s what’s happening. And he wants to close down. He’ll close down the country if one person in our massive bureaucracy says we should close it down.

There is much than can said about this, not the least of which is the surprising concern for addiction and suicide coming from an administration that has not shown much concern for either. Others have also examined to what extent the economic damage of COVID-19 cannot be reduced to the shutdown, as there is increasing evidence that what was presented as a choice between the economy and the fighting the virus was not a choice at all. The idea of opening the economy as the pandemic rages on is a cruel fiction. What I would like to do here briefly is to examine to what extent the lockdown has become another instance of negative solidarity.  Negative solidarity is something of an oxymoron, a paradoxical formulation which attacks claims for justice, equality, and solidarity in the name of their supposed unfairness and elite status. To frame this in terms of the ongoing pandemic, lockdowns, school closures, and remote working are seen not as attempts to reduce the spread of the disease for all but as measures that only elites can afford. 

Framing the response to COVID-19 in terms of negative solidarity helps us do two things. First, it helps us understand the strange whimper and acquiescence to a brutal logic of failure that defines the current response to the pandemic in the US. In other words, the extent to which there has been a kind of mass acceptance of the impossibility of doing anything other than go on with life as normal and just hope against odds that we won't get sick and die. Second, it also helps us grasp the conditions of negative solidarity, conditions that go beyond the general collapse of solidarity in the face of neoliberalism in decline, clarifying the concept. These conditions include first and foremost the breakdown of any truly universal response on the part of the government.The US has not offered aid since last spring, and has let benefits expire. In place of any meaningful solidarity there has been the proliferation of symbols of solidarity, thanks to "essential workers" spring up on yard signs and even fly overhead in the form of jet fighters. Although to be honest, even those have dried up. One still sees an occasional battered sign thanking essential workers, but the pots and pans no longer bang in cities and other symbolic gestures have withered in the war of attrition. 

To put it simply and bluntly, symbolic solidarity, a solidarity that is expressed primarily as a moral imperative to appreciate and acknowledge is not only a failure of actual solidarity, but in part generates negative solidarity. If capitalism can be described as a generalization of "seeing the better and doing the worse," as I have argued, it is not just because of the material imperatives that keep us doing the worse, working for jobs we think are bullshit, and buying from companies we know are terrible, but because the better is often turned into something only the few can afford. Capitalism is not just an economic system that compels people to do what they need to do in order to survive. It is also a system that converts moral values into exchange value, transforming every value ecological, political, or ethical into a commodity. We are constantly being sold good conscience. The conditions are even worse when it comes to selling one's labor. Deciding to "do good" often either dooms one to a life of financial misery, as is the case for primary school teachers, or a luxury available to those who have trust funds to underwrite a lifetime in nonprofits. Capitalism plays both sides against the middle; simultaneously compelling people to do things that go against their values and norms, in terms of both work and consumption, while transforming values and norms to things that are available to those who have enough money to afford them. Capital offers every value, woke or MAGA, for anyone who has the money. 

The commodification of good deeds, the manufacture and selling of the symbols of a good conscience, only increases the sense of negative solidarity, the sense that solidarity itself is an elite luxury. This has been the case with current pandemic, especially in the US where the lack of government support has turned staying home a luxury good, available primarily to the managerial class and others who can work from zoom and email. The pandemic has created its own variation of class divisions along the lines of the unemployed, service workers, bartenders, sex workers, etc., who are prevented from working either by state decree or general sense of fear; the "essential workers," from hospital staff to grocery workers who are required to work; and the "zoomers," those people who can work from the relative safety of their own home. Each of these conditions has their own specific relations of exploitation and alienation that have increased with the pandemic. The unemployed service workers are facing eviction and starvation, essential workers are risking their lives everyday, and even zoomers are subject to increase demands for work without the support to care for children and do other things that makes work possible. Each of these divisions leads to a particular kind of negative solidarity, the unemployed are criticized for the payments they briefly received for not working, the essential workers for their ability to work and collect higher hazard pay wages (at least temporarily), and zoomers for their ability to work, and work safely. Under conditions of negative solidarity, every division, every difference becomes the basis of new resentments and hostility. 

Since I brought up Trump, unfortunately, I would say that Trump has made negative solidarity his governing affect and watchword. He oversees a world in which every egalitarian institution and structure, from the scrutiny of the press to attempts to counter a history of racism in this country, is seen as fundamentally unfair. The complaint of unfair is used to support existing hierarchies including the presidency itself.

The only alternative to this circularity of negative solidarity, where every division becomes demonized, is actual solidarity. In the case of the pandemic this would involve not only paying people to stay home, as the slogan goes, as well as a moratorium on rents and debt collection, but also some way to equitably distribute the necessary socially reproductive labor that cannot be put on pause even during a pandemic. In other words, solutions that are impossible under existing relations of production, under capitalism. It is my fear, however, that our options right now are, to recycle an old slogan, negative solidarity or actual solidarity. 

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