Saturday, January 15, 2022

Despair and Indignation: The Inevitable Reflection on Covid (with Marx and Spinoza)


 The last thing anyone needs is another hot take on Covid. At least that is how things appear, in the early months of the pandemic there were a series of reflections that came too soon and undercooked, as everyone reached into familiar concepts such as "biopower"  or "totalitarianism" to make sense of what was happening. It seemed to be in good taste to not say anything to go on as if things would return to normal, but now, two years in, not saying anything about COVID feels a little like watching one of the films or television shows that have gone in production since the pandemic started, in which the actors inhabit a pre-covid world while the masks and precautions stay off of camera. The reality of these images has begun to appear as fantastic as any CGI trip to a far off planet or the distant past. All television and film, not just those set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Star Wars Universe, begin to appear as a depiction of an alternate timeline, one in which the COVID pandemic did not take place. 

In other words making sense of the COVID world feels less and less like an attempt to cash in on the latest trend than a necessary way to make sense of the world. Talking about anything, work, economy, and society without talking about COVID is a little like talking about politics without talking about the internet--it can be done, but I am not such a discussion would be connected to the actual reality of the world. The unavoidable reality of COVID comes with its affective tenor, it is hard to think of the pandemic without also processing the anger, sadness, and despair. This was not always true. There were two moments of hope that I can recall. First, there was the optimism connecting with the moment of shutdowns and solidarity, however fleeting, that ranged from the symbolic (pots and pans) to the real (mutual aid), that marked the first few months of the pandemic. I vividly remember walking my dog on a Friday night down a quiet street that ordinarily would be packed with cars driving to and from the restaurants and bars downtown and finding some comfort in the quiet. It seemed like a moment of collective action if not solidarity. Such lockdowns and shutdowns were incomplete and thus ineffective and the virus raged on. A second figure of hope arrived soon after and that was the vaccines. Technology seemed to be able save us when we could not save ourselves. Now, with the omicron variant vaccines have proven less effective than we hoped, and, we have given up on most preventive measures. Hope has given away to despair. 

If writing this means anything it is an attempt to avoid despair, not with a new figure of hope, but, as Spinoza puts it, to replace it with understanding. What I would like to understand most of all is not just why all efforts to do anything to stop the spread of the virus have collapsed, folded into an entirely individualized and thus unequal imperative to get vaccinated, get a good mask, and stock up on testing kits--if you can find or afford them, but why this abandonment has produced little indignation or anger. In fact, it would seem that most of the anger, the indignation, is not on the failure to do anything, to give up and hope that the omicron variant truly is milder and that there will be no future mutations, but directed at the few attempts to do anything. Attempts to impose mask restrictions or proof of vaccines are met with hostility and even death threats. To twist a formulation from Spinoza again, We fight for our infection as if it was our liberation. 

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In order to understand it is necessary to first dispense with the fantasies of power that cloud our judgment. The specter of biopower is one such fantasy. Early on it was possible to imagine vaccine mandates, contact tracing, and quarantines becoming a new expansion of power, a new digital bio-panopticon that would monitor and control our every move. But to twist a quote from Foucault, "We must conceptualize the deployment of biopower on the basis of techniques of power that are contemporary with it." We have to base our analysis on the way that power functions now not how it has functioned in the past. In other words, we have to stop looking for the figure of the gestapo behind the demand for vaccination cards, for the specter of the state, and recognize that the person asking for our card is the hostess at the Cheesecake Factory, or that the person requiring us to wear our mask is not a cop (who rarely wear masks anyway) but our boss. With a few exceptions it has been the corporation, not the state, that has required proof of vaccination or imposed mask mandates. 

We have an entire vocabulary, almost an entire discipline, dedicated to the excesses of state power from the ancient warnings about tyrants to the modern era's concern with totalitarianism. This language becomes our default for understanding the control of capital over our lives. This is true not only of pundits who write, without irony, about corporate communism but even political theorists that refer to the power of corporations over the employees as communist dictatorships. This lacunae is no accident. Referring back to Foucault again it is worth remembering his argument that "power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself," For Foucault this could be seen in the way in which the liberties, the rights of man, had as their dark underside disciplinary power and the norms, a division that more or less maps unto the divide between the state and the economy. The factory was the primary site of discipline while the liberties reigned outside its walls.

Of course such a reading makes Foucault a crypto-Marxist, (and to be honest that is always for me the best Foucault), especially since the idea of such a divide between two scenes, base and superstructure runs throughout Marx's thought. It also defines the division between the market, as the realm of freedom, equality, and Bentham, and the hidden abode of production defined by inequality and exploitation. (I have discussed this distinction  a lot, and have made it central to my reading of individuation or the production of subjectivity in Marx). I would like to discuss a third way that this division is formulated, not in terms of base and superstructure, exchange and production, but in terms of two different divisions of labor, social and the division of labor in production, which correspond to two different types of authority. To illustrate what I am saying I would like to turn to two passages, the first is from The Poverty of Philosophy in which Marx writes,

"It can even be laid down as a general rule that the less authority presides over the division of labor inside society, the more the division of labor develops inside the workshop, and the more it is subjected there to the authority of a single person. Thus authority in society, in relation to the division of labor, are in inverse ratio to each other."

And then, perhaps more well known, in Volume One of Capital

"The same bourgeois consciousness which celebrates the division of labour in the workshop, the lifelong annexation of the worker to partial operation, and his complete subjection to capital, as an organization of labour that increases its productive power, denounces with equal vigour every conscious attempt to control and regulate the process of production socially as an inroad upon such sacred things as the rights of property, freedom and the self-determining ‘genius’ of the individual capitalist."

What writers like Elizabeth Anderson see as a bug, that people put up with authority in the workplace that they would not tolerate outside of it, in politics, turns out to be a feature, an integral aspect of capitalist society. Our freedom as consumers, or more to the point, the freedom of capital to move from industry to industry, has as its necessary condition the subjection of workers. This can be seen in the way two things invite derision and scorn, freedom in the workplace and control over the market, both are seen as antithetical to the economy as such, to be recipes for social disaster. 

Much more can be said about this, but to tie it back to our central concern, that of COVID, we at least have an answer of sorts to the question "Why is nothing being done?" Why are there no new relief checks, no new mandates (at least above the city level), and now, thanks to the Supreme Court, no attempt to impose vaccinations? It is because, as the first passage from Marx argues, authority in the workplace and authority in society are in inverse relation to each other. The more society acts to mitigate the pandemic by providing aid and access to food and shelter the more it loosens the control of employers, and capital in general, and that is something that, in our society, must not happen. This is the lesson that the government has taken from the "Great resignation" that any interruption, even a minimal one, of the connection between work and living undermines working conditions. In other words, and to put it bluntly, why is the government powerless to do anything but say "get vaccinated and good luck"? It is because powerlessness at the level of the state is necessary to sustain the power of capital over our lives. (One could argue that the pandemic is being used to increase the power of capital, as the frustration and exhaustion of parents is being leveraged to mobilize anger against teacher's unions, but that is another matter.)




What we are confronted now, however, is not the ghoulish insistence that people should be willing to sacrifice their lives in order to keep the economy going, as in the summer of 2020, but a quieter acquiescence to the rule of capital as simply the way things are, we have to get back to work, keep schools open, and so on, just because it is the way things have to be, the way of the world. 

It as at this point, and to no one's surprise, that Marx's distinction between the two different attitudes towards authority is supplemented by a Spinozist distinction regarding the affects. In the Ethics Spinoza argues, we love or hate something more if we imagine it to free than if we imagine it to be necessary. To which Spinoza adds, that since we consider ourselves and other humans to be free we feel love or hatred stronger. As Spinoza writes, “love toward a thing will be greater if we imagine it to be free than if we imagine it to be necessary, And similarly for hate.” (EIIIP49) We largely consider the human world, the world of other people and their actions to be more worthy of anger and love than the natural world because the former is seen to be contingent while the latter is understood to be necessary. It is foolish to get angry at the weather. To which we could add the following assertion from Marx, that the more the economy is perceived as itself a kind of nature, or second nature, obeying its laws which are outside of human action or intervention, the less it is subject to the same affects, the same love or hatred. As Marx writes, “The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, tradition, and habit looks upon the requirements of that mode of production as self-evident natural laws.” This perspective, seeing the requirements as self-evident natural laws, does not just efface history and change, as Marx stressed, but also, as Spinoza would emphasize, includes an affective dimension as well. The more the capitalist mode of production is seen as necessary, as functioning according to laws, the less it makes sense to become angry or indignant at its actions. It is just the way things are, not an institution, a product of human actions, that benefits some and not others. There is a second dimension, a second intersection of affect and modality. As Spinoza writes, “An affect toward a thing we imagine as necessary is more intense, other things being equal, than one toward a thing we imagine as possible or contingent, or not necessary.” (EIVP11) The contradiction here is only an apparent one, anger and joy are stronger given the idea of freedom, the idea that things could be done otherwise, but overall the more necessary something is seen, the stronger the affect will be because it is seen as inevitable. Those things that are perceived as immanent and unavoidable generate more fear than anything perceived to be contingent or possible. The perception, or imagination, of necessity or freedom each have their different affective dimensions; the former are more intense because they are seen as certain, while the contingency of the latter elicits more love or anger because it could have been otherwise.  




It is hard not to feel despair now as the hope in collective action, the symbols of solidarity that marked the first wave of the pandemic, and technological innovation, the hope attached to vaccines, have given way to the fear that nothing will change, that we will have to accept the idea that we can get sick at work, perhaps even die, the same way that we have accepted longer hours and less power. Agains this despair we have to hold onto, and perhaps even cultivate, indignation, an indignation grounded on the fact that things could be otherwise. I do not think, as some moralists claim, that "the great resignation" is driven by the aid checks that were distributed way back in March of 2020, or by the hold on student loans, at least materially (those checks were spent a long time ago) but perhaps at the level of affects or imagination what they did reveal, ever so slightly, was that things could be otherwise, that the connection between work and life, needing to work in order to survive, is less a fact of nature than a product of our society. The great resignation must become the great indignation.

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