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We Are All Unclean: Dispatch Two From a Changing World

by | April 20, 2020

Ironically, the ground that socialism and liberalism share might be a big problem for both of them. What if Mister Kurtz isn’t dead after all? In other words, what if authentically ‘free development’ brings out horrific depths in human nature?

—Marshall Berman

It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error – not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.

—St Augustine

Wherever we go, we bring the grim reaper with us.

Everyday capitalist citizenship requires of us one overriding maxim: look after yourself, keep yourself healthy, no one else will do it for you. Don’t be a burden. In this view of the world, it is others who are unclean, others who are unsafe, others who bring disease. This is one reason neoliberal subjectivity is so perfectly congruent with paranoia and victimhood, no less than with self-aggrandisement, which in turn has such a potent elective affinity with vigilantism, conspiracism and racist spite. The children of the world-historic socialist defeats that cleared the way for the emergence of this order are today’s middle-aged Dads bunkering down in social-industry enclaves, blaming the plague on 5G masts, the Chinese, or government simulation.

The Covid state currently emerging, uneasily, fitfully, contradictorily, in staggered form, requires a different sort of subjectivity from that, a distinct capitalist imaginary.

The British government’s advertising campaign – quite properly as far as it goes – says, ‘Act Like You’ve Got It, Anyone Can Spread It’. Now we are all unclean. No one is innocent. All are potential carriers, even if we don’t have symptoms, even if we never receive verification or falsification of our transmitter-status. Now we must do what we can to protect others, including countless whom we will never meet, from ourselves.

In much of the truculence about and resistance to social-distancing – though crucially, as will become clear, not all – it is this inconvenient model that has been effaced. The early, not-uncommon, callous – and wrong – self-confidence that most need not worry because ‘only’ the elderly or frail are at risk; the hectoring by lumpen rationalists, one online article on the controversy recently skimmed, that the masks they see on passers-by will not protect their wearers; even a certain minority strain of leftism that inverts the anxiety to insist that activists should be prepared to put themselves at risk, to transgress demanded cautions to help others: whatever their conclusions, such contrarianisms share a focus on the risk of becoming ill. Which is a real concern. But the more pressing issue is that of being a vector – less of dying than, in extremis, of killing. No response to Covid-19 that does not foreground that can be ethically or politically serious.

The politics of and around these issues of vectorality and transmissibility are, fittingly, febrile. Thus far, hard-right biopolitics on Covid-19 has tended toward lumpen-Nietzschean denialism that ubermensch bodies could succumb to disease (see Bolsonaro’s insistence that Covid-19 is ‘a little flu’ and that in any case, Brazilians ‘never catch anything’), racism directed at scapegoat populations deemed carriers (increasing attacks on people of Asian heritage in Europe and North America, and on African students in China itself), or both. It is certainly possible to imagine repugnant reactionary programs building on bioparanoia directed inward, stoking fear and hatred of a self, the ‘normal’ subject, to the state’s benefit: but so far, a growing hermeneutic of suspicion with regard to our own healthiness, a rigorously catastrophising reckoning with the possibility that we might cause harm, has overwhelmingly been a position of solidarity and care. As in the mutual-aid ethic manifest in shopping for and checking in on the vulnerable and self-isolating, in this self-denying mutual-aid of isolation itself, we help others with no guarantee of receiving anything individually in return. We do so, rather, because what we might with only minimal exaggeration call such baseline communism is the condition for a society.

That it has become a liberal commonplace to eulogise the mass flowering of such behaviour is no reason not to celebrate it. Not least, perhaps, precisely because such actions are in essence opposed to the neoliberal behaviour celebrated and normalised for generations. At the same time, the fact that we are now rightly enjoined to dynamics that were until scant days ago sentimentalised and/or pathologised inevitably generates dissonance.

This is evidenced daily in refusals of the new dispensation. Many are low-key and unthinking (leaving inadequate distance in a shop, say); some, as we shall see, are shockingly dramatic and performative.

On the left there is distinct unease at directing any political focus on, even attention to, antisocial behaviour. This is perfectly understandable. The dominant discourse currently deploying such focus is overwhelmingly reactionary: the eager vanguardism of outlets like the Sun and the Daily Mail in excoriating ‘covidiots’ transgressing lockdown norms bespeaks only pathologisation and – very often class-inflected – spite, for authoritarian ends. Nor is the history of such censure on the left itself any more politically prepossessing: from the 1930s, the thunderous moralising against ‘socially harmful elements’ was indispensable to Stalinism’s repressive apparatus, and inextricable from its sinister eliminationist category of ‘superfluous people’. But these associations mean assiduous care is demanded, not that any such considerations are verboten. On the contrary, it would be a dereliction for the Left to abjure investigations into such behaviour, because of its potential impact and because it demands a political and a policy response. And, too, precisely contra the fulmination of the right, because it is not pathology but all-too-human, and co-constitutive with ‘permissible’ obedience and subjectivity. We are all covidiots. Rarely has Marx’s preferred Terentian maxim, ‘Nothing human is alien to me’, demanded such fidelity.

Notwithstanding the over-eager authoritarianism of the plods, the hypocritical finger-wagging of government officials whose failures have already cost very many lives, the class-based spite of blue-tick online scolds, and the profoundly depressing Poujadist spirit of censorious, curtain-twitching vigilantism that is already patrolling parks and infiltrating mutual aid groups, counting neighbours’ trips outside and sticking threatening notes anonymously on ‘transgressors’’ doors, for all the investment in sanctimony and context-free judgement, it would be preposterous to deny the evidence of all the norm-refusals such behaviour rather-too-eagerly polices, or their potentially disastrous import.

Disciplinary techniques, such as brightly coloured tape marking two-metre increments inside and outside supermarkets, may be somewhat effective because they are generally easier to comply with than not. Outside of these rituals, where adherence to the rules would need to be sustained by a belief in the Other, refusals pile up. Millions do not believe in the Other, which in this context is to say they have no respect for Tory ministers, don’t watch press conferences, and have no reason at all to trust a government that now, after weeks of downplaying the crisis, demands they perform solidarity – or, at least, emergency obeisance. This is why the craven press, in attempting to sublate the contradictions between neoliberalism and biopolitical security by messianising Boris Johnson, are pissing in the wind. And why the attempt to leverage #clapforcarers into #clapforboris was such a non-starter. For all the contradictory and multifarious drives behind the former, for all that it can easily articulate a sentimentalism in no way exclusive of later sadisms, including against those now lionised, for all its cynical political culverting, all the rainbow pictures stuck up in the windows of 10 Downing Street, there remains in much of the weekly grassroots country-wide applause for the NHS a kernel of social solidarity, a certain decency and admiration inimical to the commodity form. Johnson, by stark contrast, has his fans but, for all his ‘Churchillian’ camp, even now after his life-threatening coronaviral collapse, he is not capable of inspiring mass love.

It is not much consolation to say that antisocial behaviour is, these refusals are, carried out by a minority. The young men making a macho show of assailing public gym equipment may be a minority. The unconscientious citizens ostentatiously coughing and sputtering in the fresh food aisle without courteously covering their mouths with their elbows may be a minority. Social animals breaking lockdown by holding house parties may be a minority. But even if it were true that all refusals were the work of a minority, even if the tensions between the old and new were not at work in all of us, so, epidemiologically, what? In all viral outbreaks it is a minority who are responsible for most transmissions.

Nor can we mitigate the significance of such behaviour by pointing to the trivial, individually minor nature of most such breaches. Wealthy families speeding away to their holiday homes in Cornwall and Devon for the Easter break are presumably not intending to convey potentially lethal viral particles to new hosts. They may even take many sensible precautions. One has no reason to doubt that Dr Catherine Calderwood, the erstwhile Scottish Chief Medical Officer, was adequately assiduous during her own repeated transgressions of the very rules she espoused. But the total effect of minor infractions, for all the certainty of those who commit them they are sensible, can make an exception in their own case, generalised across the population, is anything but minor. Among thousands will inevitably be non-trivial numbers who get careless or forgetful or who are simply unlucky. The total effect is strangers suffocating to lonely deaths, in improvised intensive care units. These are the stakes.

How, then, do we defend social solidarity without calling the cops, without pleading with the state to save us, without becoming vigilantes? How, on the other hand, do we resist tyrannical we-dom, the dark side of collectivism, without pursuing the pipe dream of an implausible, a priori ‘anti-statism’, of Left no less than of the Right? Libertarian and ultraleft criticisms and concerns are not, to be clear, without traction. It is quite true that measures taken by authorities around the world to track and to minimise the spread of the virus set dangerous precedents for expanded state power. Notoriously, citing the crisis, Viktor Orbán in Hungary has instituted rule-by-decree, and lest British citizens be complacent about the UK being immune to such pressures, a natural land of liberty, not for nothing has the civil-liberties watchdog Liberty warned of recently-passed laws that it will be ‘closely monitoring and scrutinising … the biggest restriction on our individual and collective freedoms in a generation’. But what follows from this is precisely the necessity of critique and such scrutiny, of ruthless suspicion and constraints (demands for and stern policing of sunset clauses for emergency measures, for example) – not, as many critics and contrarians imply, or even explicitly state, that the lesser evil must be to oppose any and all such emergency legislation. To suggest this is either to be lulled by the sentimentalist lullaby that antisocial behaviour will not occur, to fall prey to the epidemiological illiteracy that if it does occur it will necessarily be of negligible impact, or to stake out the turpitudinous position that mass death is a price worth paying for this principle.

Besides which, such principle is predicated on inadequate theory.

What poverty of analysis, what failure of the ‘anti-statist’ to grasp the reach and totality of the state, to posit any space ‘outside’ it. As if the state does not intervene by sitting on its hands. As if it does not act and choose outcomes in its refusal to act. As if to insist on business as usual – in Brazil, in the earlier days of the UK outbreak – rather than to enact protective measures has been the state ‘standing back’. ‘[I]t is always the American government’s position to say, in the choice between the loss of our way of life as Americans’ – Washingtonese for the capitalist economy – ‘and the loss of life of American lives, we have to always choose the latter’, announces Republican Congressman Trey Hollingworth: as if such a hard-right voice for ‘normality’, over measures he does not dispute will save lives, is advocating a diminution of the state’s repression, rather than the exercise of its murderous power. This is a fallacy akin to believing the state ‘recedes’ under neoliberalism. We are all unendingly subject to unrelenting attention and strategies of the capitalist state, in its actions and its inaction, intervention and refusal to intervene. The question is not whether but how. The task for the Left is, as always, to demand reforms without losing sight of the potentiality of rupture.

Certainly in our neighbourhood organisations, our mutual support groups, wherever we can, we should strive for and build non- and anti-state networks to encourage necessary forms of social solidarity in a time of virus, be part of constructing de-atomised cultures of empathy and mutual responsibility, fight not only denialism and social-darwinism but the petty sadisms of voluntary panopticism and/or cop moralism – as leftists (and others) within such groups are doing, and methods for which they are already sharing. We must learn, and are learning, from experiences in, for example, Hong Kong, in which social pressures to abide by life-saving norms have been far more distributed, consensual and community-based – and effective – than in more thoroughly neoliberalised and atomised regions. But much as we might wish it otherwise, it would be an irresponsible prefiguration or romantic horizontalism to pretend ours is a context in which all external and superordinate authority can be bypassed or overcome. Key to the politics of such demands as we must make of the state is never trusting the state of which we make them.

This is the context in which Salvage has proposed conceiving of protective policies against Covid-19 as militant health-and-safety demands. This is neither an abstract nor ahistorical analogy: it has precisely been shopfloor action at a Fiat plant in Detroit, among gig workers at the delivery app Instacart, at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, New York, that has forced companies to improve safety measures – in the latter case including, per warehouse workers’ demands, social-distancing rules. That reasonable people can debate the specific content of such measures, at a state-wide level, that such discussions are necessary, is not in doubt. Nor is it that the ruling class itself is, as it ever is on all topics, split on strategy, nor that large sections thereof will fight against such policies, and/or to minimise them, and/or to turn them to their advantage, nor that some sections will succeed in that last, as they have with all reforms. None of this implies that we can abandon the project.

We must even take seriously and investigate a counterintuitive possibility: that a clear acknowledgement that the state remains the horizon of coercion, and thus of our demands, may actually help mitigate the voluntarist petty authoritarianism inevitable in a moment of crisis in class society – the crowd-sourcing of duress and shame. To the temptations of which the Left itself has hardly, to put it judiciously, been immune.

And certainly that inability to resist an urge toward policing and surveillance shares and surrenders terrain to the co-constitutive other of the volunteer cop, the telos of the norm non-observer: the troll. What else but trolls do we consider the teens arrested for coughing in the faces of elderly people, or the men in Morecambe who solicited and revelled in public disgust by openly licking their hands and smearing their spit over food in a supermarket? What is this but spite toward the impulse of cleanliness that is itself the vigilante impulse? To feed the troll-vigilante spiral is to duck the real structural dilemma out of which we cannot wish ourselves, which is the difficulty of reconciling the exigencies of this extraordinary moment with the as yet frail and underdeveloped fabric of mutual solidarity, and the still-powerful discipline of neoliberalism.

The Left has sometimes, understandably, been eager to believe, against the misanthropic Leviathan- or Machtpolitik-hankering of reaction, that most people are mostly ‘good’ most of the time. To the questionable extent that the questionable claim is even meaningful, it is often adduced not only by the contingent essentialisation of certain expressions of (supremely protean and variable) human behaviour over others, but by sentimental and/or slightly desperate-seeming and unconvincing references (something something bonobos something). But even if it could be rescued and in some way proved, it does not follow that all acts of social spite will necessarily vanish even under socialism. To insist so is a faith position no less than is its obverse, original sin. The truth of which doctrine Augustine’s famous self-analysis, in his story of the pear-tree excerpted as an epigraph above, cannot prove. What it can do is provide distressing evidence for the long history of the appeal of ‘foulness’ for its own sake. Certainly it predates capitalism, though we might hope that it will end with it.

And, but, what if, as Marshall Berman (seemingly uncharacteristically) asks, our ‘horrific depths’ in fact abide beyond such rupture?

[B]oth Marx and Mill might say that until we have overcome social domination and degradation, there is simply no way to tell whether the horrors are inherent in human nature or whether we could create benign conditions under which they would wither away. The process of getting to that point … should be enough to give us all steady work. And if we do reach that point, and we come to see that our inner bad guys will never go away, our steady work will have given us experience, and taught us how to cooperate for our mutual self-defense.

As we are taught now, faced with these urgent immediacies. Such experience we can bring to bear, if we must, to any inherent human vice we may come to discern. Because Berman is clearly right: even such a suboptimal outcome would be an inconceivably better problem with which to grapple than those of capitalism and its brutalities. Any implication that absent universally beautiful souls the socialist project is broken would be absurd – yet another reason the Left must, with due care and nuance and abjuring moralism, shuck off any phobia of engaging with ‘antisocial behaviour’, even of turpitude.