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The Mask of the Red Death: Dispatch One from a Changing World

by | March 21, 2020

Since in this matter the diversity and the undetermined boundaries of all relationships bring a great number of quantities into consideration, since most of these quantities can only be estimated according to the laws of probability unless the true flash of genius discovers in a glance what is correct, a complexity of relationships and hindsights arises from which a judgement can no longer be drawn. In this sense Bonaparte was quite right when he said that many of the decisions which confront a commander-in-chief would constitute problems in Mathematical calculus not unworthy of a Newton and an Euler.

—Carl Von Clausewitz

I. In Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, a terrifying pathogen is abroad. Its symptoms include ‘sharp pains, and surprising dizziness, after which profuse bleeding on the pores’ of the face, ‘with dissolution’ and death. At the masquerade of Prince Prospero, a guest arrives who has ‘out-Heroded Herod’ in his masqued display. The Prince demands that this insolent shower-up be unmasked. The court falls on the diabolical figure, tearing away the masque and ‘grave cerements’, only to find nothing underneath. They die, knowing they are in the presence of the ‘Red Death’. Thus, the virus: a murderous derailer, and upstager of symbolic authority, terror without a terrorist.

The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is not the deadliest of its kind. The global mortality rate among detected cases is over 3 per cent according to the World Health Organisation, and possibly over 5 per cent according to a study published in the Lancet. However, it is likely to be lower, as undetected cases will be less deadly. By comparison, Middle East respiratory syndrome killed 30 percent of the people it infected. What makes COVID-19 so lethal is the rate of infection. With a basic reproduction number of above 3, and with such mild symptoms in the majority of cases making it difficult to identify, isolate and treat the afflicted, this virus was always going to radiate rapidly. Moreover, as China’s health minister announced in January, to the initial disbelief of overseas epidemiologists, this virus showed infectivity before symptoms. According to the evolutionary biologist, Rob Wallace, a suppression campaign would need to prevent 75 percent of new infections. If the infection rate exceeded the rate of removal, by recovery or death, then the total infected population could approach the whole of humanity. In a reasonable worst case scenario, Rupert Beale of the Francis Crick Institute explained, total deaths could be anything between 70 million and 165 million. This is unlikely to happen, but avoiding the worst necessitated facing up to it honestly and acting aggressively. The worst path would be a regime of denialism, as pursued in Tehran, resulting in minimal testing, lying about the number of cases, and only belated counter-measures: with thousands of unnecessary deaths – as well as greater state repression.

Denialism appears in several gradations and variations, particularly among the global leaders of the disaster nationalist faction. At first, they laughed, mocked and demanded the unmasking of this impudent shower-up. Donald Trump repeatedly claimed that the virus wasn’t much worse than ’flu. Despite announcing an aggressive strategy of quantitative easing and Keynesian stimulus to protect capitalism from the fall-out from coronavirus, the US government has still done very little to address the disease nationally, pursuing what an administration official calls an ‘ad hoc free-for-all’. Testing is minimal. Trump, going into a presidential election, in a country where privatised health sectors are routinely overwhelmed by winter flu season, and where years of pandemic warnings have not led to stocking up of emergency equipment, told state governors that the Federal government would not help them find respirators for the sick. Jair Bolsonaro, who denies initial reports spread by his son that he tested positive for the disease, broke his self-isolation to greet and shake hands with a mass gathering of his fans. He claims that the media is lying about how serious the coronavirus is, and declares preventive measures are ‘hysteria’. And yet, as the Brazilian economy has been hit by the associated financial contagion, the country has been forced into a state of emergency. The worst threat is the appearance of coronavirus in Brazil’s notoriously over-crowded prisons, where as of writing there are four suspected cases. The Supreme Court refuses to take the obvious step, already taken in Iran and several US states, of releasing prisoners. 

In the UK, Boris Johnson initially distinguished himself by bragging that he had shaken hands with every coronavirus patient at a hospital. He waited six weeks after the Chinese government declared that COVID-19 had ‘pandemic potential’ to call his first Cobra meeting to address the crisis. When the British government’s strategy did emerge, it took the form of completely ignoring the rest of the world’s experience with the coronavirus as to the necessity of immediate lockdown, social distancing and widespread testing, and effectively declaring that it could indeed be treated like influenza. One of the government’s scientific advisors, Graham Medley, called for a strategy of pursuing ‘herd immunity’, achieved by ‘a nice big epidemic’ among the less vulnerable. Sir Patrick Vallance spoke of hoping to infect 60 per cent of the population. None of the evidence base for this strategy has been released to the public. The result of the government’s information management strategy was public confusion, as some panic buy supplies of toilet roll and hand sanitiser, and others – perhaps sometimes the same people – continue heading to pubs, clubs, overcrowded trains and buses, Stereophonics gigs and the Cheltenham races.

The government has, too slowly, with little serious attempt at explanation, with as little critical scrutiny in parliament or the media, and with foot-dragging reluctance, changed course. Johnson, more comfortable camouflaging his cold and ruthless drives in a clown outfit, has latterly attempted a degree of New Seriousness – for which the court media gratefully laud him – while retaining enough Billy-Bunter affectations (‘send coronavirus packing’) to please the easily pleased. The explanation fed to pliable lobby journalists, and broadcast by the BBC and Sky News, for an initially verbal commitment to embracing ‘suppression’ in place of ‘mitigation’ was that ‘the science’ had changed. The occasion for this claim was that the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team had concluded that this would ‘likely result in hundreds of thousands of deaths and health systems … being overwhelmed many times over’. But this was already known. The government’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, spoke of ‘at worst’ half a million deaths. And indeed, as Lancet editor Richard Horton points out, anyone with a calculator could work out that the government’s assumed mortality rate of 1 percent holding in 60 percent of the population would roughly equal 400,000 deaths. ‘The science’ did not change. The politics did. And, importantly, so did the economy. With airlines going bankrupt, supply chains disintegrating, hotel businesses and whole service sectors going into recession, businesses sending workers home and the pound plummeting, there was no choice but to change tack. As the Financial Times puts it, with euphemism so delicate a light breeze could shatter it, ‘Some analysts said that the UK’s initially measured approach to the virus had weighed on the pound’. 

Even for all this – staring down the barrel of an epochal, systemic shock, an event of total global political-economic reconfiguration – the initial Johnsonian fist at a bourgeois mission of accumulation-management, in the context of a decadent, sclerotic ruling class and a panicking, hegemonic finance sector, while cleaving to the Keep Calm & Carry On idioms of Englishness, at first resulted in policies that make not a scintilla of sense on any of those levels. Thus the initial, and predictably quickly  overturned policy of advice that people should not go to pubs or restaurants but that pubs and restaurants were to remain open. It has been widely pointed out that this, leaving the venues unable to claim insurance, clearly prioritised the desires of finance over the businesses left to do their implied duty by remaining open and empty. It is also the case that such a policy will have led to greater numbers of deaths, and, non-trivially, that it could not possibly be sustained. This is policy as rolling, reactive, reactionary, unsustainable, reprehensible sop. 

The subsequent closing of the entertainment industry was, of course, predictable. The UK is hardly the first European nation to do so. Equally predictable was chancellor Rishi Sunak’s partial capitulation to reality, faced with terrifying unemployment figures: in just one week, 9 per cent of American workers lost their jobs, with a quarter having their hours cut, a Great Depression spiral. Sunak, emulating policies implemented elsewhere, pledged to subsidise eighty percent of wages to prevent job losses, slashed taxes for small businesses, and extended statutory sick pay to the self-employed. Yet, as much as these measures betoken a decisive break with neoliberalism – and it is difficult to see how it can be restored in the near future – the major beneficiaries of the government’s unprecedented (for the British state) dirigisme, are businesses and property owners. Wages are only partially subsidised while, while the help offered to the self-employed wouldn’t even cover the average monthly rent payment. Still uneasy to abandon rentier capital, the government has offered no relief for private renters, and remains vague and non-committal about how it will prevent the wracking up of private residential rental debts, thus far leaving it to landlords to work out ‘payment plans’ for arrears with their tenants, and merely delaying no-fault evictions. Suffice to say, the social industry is teeming with screencapped texts and emails from landlords to their tenants, no less brutal in tone and content than those from employers abruptly firing their staff. And yet, with a three-month mortgage holiday for landlords and homeowners, our best and brightest journalists gathered (without masks!) for the daily press conference, have neglected to press Johnson on the question hanging in the air: where is the rent holiday? Likewise, as supply chains disintegrate, food banks are overloaded with demand, and food experts warn of the need for rationing to avoid hunger, where is the government policy to deal with this?

It is thus an utterly depressing epiphenomenon of the moment that the government, even before embarking on its demarche with neoliberalism, currently enjoys a ten-year high in approval ratings, and that almost half of those polled think that Johnson has done a good job on this issue. In large part this is the increasingly clear generational gap, with the young vastly more critical – though, crucially, not yet militantly so. It should also be clear that these numbers may very well shift as the virus spreads, and the unnecessary deaths mount up. Not, regrettably, that blame will automatically fall where it should: Johnson would not be the first leader in history to capitalise on his own failures. This will be a question of political contestation. 

The outbreak of COVID-19 is a random, stochastic occurrence. And yet, randomness is both systemically conditioned, in that capitalism routinely generates pandemics as an industrial byproduct, particularly of intensive agribusiness, and inevitable. Yet capitalism has proven markedly unprepared for its own blowback, its own externalities returning to wreak havoc, and not for want of resources or even institutional capacity per se. Even some militantly neoliberal states did not hesitate as much as Johnson did, and Trump still does, to impose draconian restrictions and suspend huge areas of capitalist production. The anti-social refuseniks of disaster nationalism reflect, rather, the accumulated political culture of a specific ruling class praxis and statecraft. For COVID-19 is a disease that is particularly lethal to the elderly and the immuno-compromised. And that the weak must die, and that anything else is a form of moral hazard, has been the implicit credo of the ‘free market’ social Darwinism on which reaction has feasted for decades.


II. ‘We are at war,’ Emmanuel Macron declares. ‘A health war. We are not at war with an army or another nation…but a disease.’ War economy, if not war socialism, looms. As Joshua Gans writes for the MIT press, building the capacity needed to cope with the crisis requires ‘a war footing’, the abandonment of market processes of resource allocation’ and a move ‘to a planned economy’. This sort of planning, which the Left had long demanded as part of a Green New Deal, is now probably unavoidable. Indeed, this struggle for the survival of millions may provide an unprecedented opportunity for the survival of the species, as the political means to decarbonisation are abruptly within the domain of political realism.

It is hard to overstate the giddying scale and speed with which edifices and norms of neoliberalism naturalised like weather or mountains over several decades are being swept away. Every day, every hour brings more and more examples of bailouts of unimaginable size, the suspension of competition rules, commodity-form norms, the overturning of years of supposedly unavoidable decisions, interventions unthinkable, risible a fortnight ago. Of course, many of the system’s apologists insist that this is temporary and that matters will return after a brief pause to normal. This is delusory. The question is not whether the world economy will shift into a new phase and regime of accumulation: the questions are what it will be, and how we will reach it. 

A string of neoliberal states have been forced to suspend vast areas of capitalist production and services, nationalise key industries and expand the social wage. Spain has taken private healthcare companies under local government control. Norway, where unemployment rose 128 per cent in a single week, has introduced full pay for those laid off. New Zealand has introduced wage subsidies and benefit hikes. Sweden has guaranteed 90 per cent pay for laid off workers, while Denmark will cover 75 per cent pay. France has annulled rent and utility bills, and declared the state will subsidise the whole economy. Even the Trump administration is promising to send cheques to workers to enable them to survive the economic shutdown, predictably outflanking the Democrats to the ‘left’ by proposing a policy that Nancy Pelosi shot down only a week before. Even the New York Times is now calling for every American to be sent a cheque for $2000 immediately, to prevent the collapse of capitalism. The Johnson administration, reluctant as it has been, primed as it is to pay first heed to the financial sector, and second heed to businesses and property owners, is getting there – albeit their foot-dragging has already cost lives and livelihoods.

There remains denialism on this point. In the European Union, where Merkelism is dying on its feet, and it is difficult to see ordoliberalism resurfacing intact from this crisis, the institutions are adapting even more reluctantly to the new reality than the British state. Nonetheless, neoliberalism, which had persisted undead after the 2008 credit crunch, is finished. War economy, of which the current emergency era of global capitalism is an unusual variant, has always been the nemesis of neoliberalism because, as the political economist Otto Neurath demonstrated, war proves that it is possible to abolish the price system. The calculus of ‘in-kind’ prevails over pricing, allowing even incommensurable goods, such as butter and guns to be traded. The economy becomes, not a spontaneous order, but a human organism that requires management and care. It was as a result of being caught in the crosshairs of that problem that Ludwig von Mises developed the first precepts of neoliberalism. Thence the framing of the ‘socialist calculation debate’.

The world capitalist system is thus beset by multiple contagions of different temporalities. The coronavirus, the financial crash, and the escalating climate crisis. It has been pointed out that some of the decisions causing this crisis can be traced decades back, not least to the globalisation treaties in which free movement of goods and capital, ‘Big Bang’ financial liberalisation, and the neoliberal destruction of workers’ power. Yet in this kairotic moment, we can hardly fail to note the revenge of deep history, as the biggest existential threat to capitalism remains its dependence on energy photosynthesised from ancient sunlight.


III. ‘The health of us all’, Jeremy Corbyn argues, ‘depends on the health of the most vulnerable.’

In this most paradoxical of circumstances, we derive solidarity through distance, and strength through shared vulnerability. The politics of Coronavirus calls for a vulnerability-to-power.

COVID-19 is calling us out. The demand for self-isolation amounts, ipso facto, if sometimes from unlikely sources, to the demand for a general strike for survival. Where life exigently runs up against the imperatives of capital accumulation, we find that is politically impossible to openly declare for the capitalist death cult against human life. Capitalist biopolitics itself, its most recent phase summed up in Friedrich Hayek’s claim that neoliberalism is the ‘party of life’, necessitates the suspension of capitalist social relations. Where speculation and the circulation of value rests its claims on the future, it is always predicated on a silent nowhilism: here it has come into stark conflict with the future.

The advent of war economy certainly does not necessarily entail war socialism; all such outcomes are to be contested. It may, in fact, entail a recrudescence of imperialist division, as even the first shots of autarky bring with them the gunsmoke of geopolitical spite and realignment. The Trump administration’s hateful decision to ramp up sanctions on Iran, for example, leverages the pandemic for a spot of bio-terror. For, confronting this virus is an assemblage of forces, disaster nationalism, which thrives on the image of annihilation, yearns for it, stretches toward it, and yet has fumbled on its first encounter with actually existing annihilation. Their incoherence, indifference, indolence and social spite will give way, is already giving way, to darker and more cohesive strategies. The likelihood of a stronger fusion between the state and monopoly capital, strategically pivoted on the vast economic and political reach of big data and cybernetic capital, has just grown dramatically. The consequences for our emaciated democracy, if these trends are not combatted, could be ruinous.

Horrifying real-time experience tells us that capitalist subjects, interpellated as self-maximisers for so long, cannot be relied on to ‘do the right thing’. In demanding a serious, rigorous and appropriately urgent response to the virus, in acknowledging that requests, suggestions and Nudge Theory will not be adequate to stand in the way of behaviour with appalling consequences, the Left finds itself  in the alarming position of having to argue, by default, for more repressive power, more controls on movement. And thus far, here in the UK and elsewhere, that means the state. Despite early snickering at the Chinese government ‘panic-building’ hospitals, and scolding of its severe lockdown, liberal states are finding themselves compelled to enact similar autocratic measures. Anything less is, in this context, brutally anti-social.

The state, of course, is not just an apparatus of biopower and life-production. It retains the characteristics of centralised, and usually racialised, sovereignty: it is a machine of mass death. Demanding that in this moment it leverage certain of the powers we wish it did not have, does not mean trusting it. In our relation to it and our demands of it, we retain that unflinching opposition to and suspicion of it. In this context, insisting on the serious, science-based application of emergency measures is not to plead with the state to save us, but to demand reforms of it, as serious and effective radicals always have. This is an issue of health and safety. 

And as such, even enacted by the state, in the absence of dual power or some less baleful agent with such power, these necessary measures contain surprising logics. Among the surprising, counterintuitive effects of COVID-19 is to rupture the logic carceralism, as Iran and the states of Ohio, New York and California have been compelled to release thousands of prisoners to avoid a medical emergency. The Brazilian state continues to insist on its brutally overcrowded carceral regime for now, but this is unlikely to be sustainable. The same humanitarian breach of state violence is not evident in the border regime, as the European Union invokes Coronavirus as an additional justification for its collective punishment of refugees, while as ICE units in Los Angeles ramp up their terror, conducting arrests to ‘get these criminal aliens off the street and out of our communities … Asking us to stop doing that basically gives those criminals another opportunity to maybe commit more crimes, to create more victims.’

Therefore, distrustful of the capitalist state, mindful of its propensity to nationalise, territorialise and Oedipalise political problems, noting that the political leadership of the Labour Left has collapsed, and cognisant of the scale of action demanded by the overlapping coronavirus, capitalist and climate crises, we hope that the molecular pulses of mutual aid and grassroots solidarity congeal into a demonstrable counterpower, a mass party that is more than a party, a rival source of public authority that is neither police nor vigilante. A collective organisation that ‘calls in’ rather than ‘calls out’. That also, as in Hong Kong, where civic associationalism has overwhelmed individualist responses and maintained pressure on the state to act decisively, defends its members and constitutes them as a demos. That, in the context of a breakdown of public authority, official agnatology leading to anguished glomming on conspiracist nonsense, and amid pervasive (and often well-founded) distrust of scientists and politicians, carefully tends its own informational ecologies and wards off the paranoia that seeds despotic tendencies.

This necessitates also a break with legacies of bureaucratic machismo. That the Coronavirus is gendered has thus far been little remarked. Yet, the sociologically obvious fact that while men are more susceptible to the virus, women are more likely to be nurses, careworkers and volunteers, is also politically acuminous. One reason men may be more susceptible to disease is that they are less likely to take care of themselves, to regard themselves as unwell, or to seek treatment if they develop symptoms. Men are also, on current political patterns, more likely to inhabit a (self-)denialist fantasy, tacitly underwritten by a brutal social Darwinian calculus in which the weak must die. As Freud concluded, the Achilles heel of the species is its unwillingness to accept its vulnerability and dependency, preferring (in this case masculinised) fantasies of independence. 

Yet vulnerability is the basis of our strength. A certain woke idiom can only see vulnerability in an atomised, auto-immunising fashion. The macho reflex of a certain ‘revolutionary’ brocialism, sees vulnerability as an effete bourgeois affectation. It is because we need one another, though, recognising that we are as Alasdair MacIntyre said, ‘dependent rational animals’, that we become organised. No less than we must be dependable, we must learn to depend.