Apocalypse, Biopolitics and the Destituent State: Precarization in the Time of Cholera
Professor of Peninsular Literature and Culture at Michigan State University and author, among other books, of Globalizaciones. La nueva Edad Media y el retorno de la diferencia [Globalizations and the New Middle Age: On the Return of Differences] (2018), published by Siglo XXI.
Originally published in Spanish on March 20, 2020. Translation by Alejandro M. Díez Alonso
At first sight, the crisis that the coronavirus has unleashed seems to be characterized by our almost anthropological and medieval encounter with the unknown. References to the Black Death or post-apocalyptic scenarios such as The Walking Dead have been voiced, creating a spectrum of responses ranging from paranoid to comical. But the most widespread response to the unknown has focused on scatology: on the need for control and cleansing of the body that toilet paper represents. The first product to disappear from the supermarket shelves has become a fetish, a symptom and symbol of our helplessness and ignorance (we will all starve to death, but clean and with dignity!). Moreover, people are even saying that reality is beginning to resemble those post-apocalyptic films that we all have already seen. It has therefore the retroactive and perverse logic of a déjà vu, in which reality copies (visual) art, just the way MacLuhan and Debord (1) warned us — a reality that post-colonial (2) nations as well as indigenous and LGBTQ communities are watching today through the irony of someone who has already suffered from marginalization. The two scenes of the coronavirus that we all know from films are precisely the frenetic assault on supermarkets by mobs that leave endless empty shelves in their wake, and a more civilized assault on our homes that leaves behind other empty spaces we call streets, avenues and squares — but whose most cruel and lethal arena will be Lesbos and other such refugee camps. Alain Badiou would say that this is an event , in its most radical sense (3).
First, it should be stated that this encounter with what is presented as an unknown scenario that nobody knows whether it is an alien invasion or a large-scale zombie attack, and that most governments have failed to address — thus creating a viscous feedback loop of panic and anxiety — is quite the opposite. We know exactly what this ignorance is and, in fact, we already have all the elements needed to deal accurately with this viral uncertainty. We know what the virus is; we simply do not know what we know. Therefore, it is a matter of understanding why the situation triggered by the coronavirus is presented to us as an unprecedented horizon of uncertainty and anxiety, and not as what it really is, what we already know it is: the coronavirus is the logical, clear and direct conclusion of an economic and social order known as capitalism, neoliberalism and heteropatriarchy. The coronavirus merely reveals itself as the latest episode in a series that we have seen coming for a long time now: the ecological apocalypse of a globalized world. It must be said clearly: the coronavirus is a rehearsal of the unstoppable ecological disaster that is coming.
But the coronavirus cannot be thought of as a natural phenomenon — technically speaking, viruses are not even alive, they are objectively pure still life. This virus is nothing but the most radical, most unexpected, least anticipated trial of an apocalypse into which we have to insert that other «epidemic» that also always jumps in unexpectedly and overwhelmingly: the grassroots revolts that have been multiplying virally since the 2008 neoliberal crisis. Corona virus has to be thought in opposition to this other equally contagious human virus that are the popular revolts that go back to the Arab Spring and the Indignant (15M, 2011) and that have stretched out to the recent «Red October» (2019) where, not China, but Chile was the new contagious source of revolt and protest.
Therefore, if we reconsider the coronavirus in view of the post-2008 grassroots revolts, as two viral effects of a single globalizing and heteropatriarchal neoliberal capitalist logic, we have to conclude that this double viral phenomenon (coronavirus/revolts) is another scenario, another step, another episode, whose final chapter will be the crisis or ecological collapse that such capitalism is already causing. In the very near future, say 2050, it will become irreversible. Therefore, what we need is an apocalyptic thought regarding today’s politics. Apocaliptic in the literal sense of the word: apocalypse means revelation, that is, uncovering/decovering what was covered, thus allowing access to the truth in the very act of revelation, in unveiling the cover-up.
In light of this un-/dis-covery, most philosophers have debated the function of the State in the face of the viral and lethal expansion of capitalism: is the State the only protector, the last bastion against a viral and global capitalism that leads us to the final ecological crisis? Or, the opposite, is this supposedly sovereign subject the executioner that will organize and distribute, in a capitalist and one-percentual way, this virus that is undoubtedly destined to generate more grassroots revolts? From Giorgio Agamben and Luciana Cadahia to Jean Luc Nancy, Slavoj Zizek or José Luis Villacañas, this has become the central debate. I say philosophy, because science has no answers to this central dilemma. Having said that, this article will try to make an apocalyptic reading and critique, via Walter Benjamin. It will try to reveal the continuity between the viral event we are living, the post-2008 revolts, and the much more lethal ecological crisis that is slowly approaching.
The Schrödingerian calculation of the epidemic
The arithmetic panoply of numbers, percentages, algorithms and mathematical, epidemiological and sociological simulations, through their numerical precision, have made our «unawareness of what we already know» about this virus even more evident. This uncertainty has been exacerbated by one of the most interesting Schrödingerian contradictions in the treatment of the virus: the more successful the prevention, the less we will know about this plague’s potential lethal consequences. The only way to access the true nature of the coronavirus, our new plague, would be precisely to do nothing and observe the results scientifically, objectively, and dispassionately.
While any simulation or estimate is suspected of being seriously inaccurate, the following is an example: In an article for The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof and Stuart A. Thompson estimated that at the rate preventive measures are being deployed in the United States, if they don’t act more aggressively, 100 million citizens will contract the virus and, more impressively, 1 million will die — which means that in the richest and supposedly most advanced country in the world, this could be Trump’s final legacy (4). The sooner we establish preventive measures, the less we will know about the threat posed by the virus. So, we can already expect a whole post-virus discourse of «it was not such a big deal», that the general alarm was only «global mass hysteria», etc. Ironically, globalization has created a diversification of scenarios (a successful South Korea, a chaotic USA, etc.). Unfortunately and tragically, one of them, «a laboratory of state dimensions», will be the most significant in reaching the contradictory and «unknown» «truth» of the coronavirus: in this regard, the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has decided not to take any preventive measures and to let the virus complete its «natural» cycle of contagion and death. He plans to confront the virus only once it has reached its peak in approximately two months. Rafael Ramos summed up this strategy for La Vanguardia in the phrase: «it is better to try to protect the economy for those who may survive» (5) Put in more perverse terms, as The Telegraph journalist Jeremy Warner has already said (6) Johnson’s goal, therefore, would be to make more public money available to then transfer it to the private sector, to 1% of the UK. I very much doubt that Johnson will be able to maintain this coronavir-exit’ position. However, unfortunately, we will be able to follow the events in real time, in all their cruelty.
The two bodies of the epidemic: biopolitics or necropolitics?
But as in Kantorowicz’s theory of the two bodies of the king (the political or symbolic king remains alive after the death of the natural or physical king to then move to the new monarchical body without interruption) (7), the coronavirus is also a double plague. Double because a second type of plague is already spreading more rapidly and virulently than the coronavirus itself and will leave more important social consequences after the disappearance of the coronavirus: economic hardship. This second plague, a consequence of the suspension of all economic activity in public spaces where the contagion can multiply, affects everything from the event, festival and sports industries to the retail trade (anything other than supermarkets and pharmacies) and non-official education. In other words, this second epidemic is going to brutally affect an entire population that had already suffered a first wave of precarization in 2008 — i.e., waiters with weekly or even shorter contracts who earn 4 euros an hour. The wave of work and family problems it will cause among individuals (women) who are already disproportionately responsible for the care of the family will only be devastating. This is a direct result of the cancellation of the school semester and the aggravation of conditions among older people, such as grandmothers and parents-in-law. As yet, I have no news on how this is affecting vulnerable immigrants whose work also focuses on the care of non-immigrant nationals. Although we will talk later about the activity of the State to correct this precariousness, let’s say that this second economic and social plague presents all the omens for being much more deadly than the first one, viral and biological. Hence the invocation of Kantorowicz’s theory. But just as with the figure of the double political-natural king, this second plague will go unnoticed, like no plague, in contrast with the alarm caused by the direct mortality generated by the coronavirus. Many sick will die, but the army of those who are vulnerable and will end up committing suicide, suffering the health deficiencies that will push them to a premature death, or to murderous gender violence, will be far superior. However, there is no predictive model available yet for this second invisible plague, devoid of clear and detectable physical symptoms. This is where science once again demonstrates its incompetence. This is also where the news and data on the imminent rise of precarization and mortality is bound to alarm and move us. Newspapers will report all kinds of extreme events and situations which, by their very extreme nature, will point to this second plague, which is more deadly and devastating. This second plague will shock us as much as that of the coronavirus. Headlines will once again say that we are up against something unknown and unprecedented. Yet the only unknown will be, once again, our surprise at something that has already been happening since 2008 at an accelerated pace. Naomi Klein has called it «disaster capitalism», the kind of capitalism that resorts to shock in order to benefit from the confusion (8).
In order to observe this known but ignored continuity, it is enough to read Rolling Stone’s article on juvenile suicide, entitled «Teen Suicide Is on the Rise and No One Knows Why» (9). According to the American CDC, the same agency that is in charge of coronavirus control, juvenile suicide has increased by 56% since 2007 becoming the second cause of juvenile mortality, after accidents. This rise in youth suicide, which «no one knows why it is on the rise», will need detailed studies to move from correlation to cause. Nevertheless, the general reason is well known: the 2008 economic crisis and, more generally, the expansion of neoliberal capitalism with its precaritating effect at many levels, from health to the economy. Among the general population of the United States, suicide has risen from 12.1/100,000 in 2010 to 14.2/100,000 in 2018, an increase of 17.3 %, becoming the tenth largest cause of mortality in the general population. This is more than the number of deaths from traffic accidents and homicides combined (10). In Argentina, youth suicide has tripled in the last 30 years (with very different proportions among young men and women) (11).
If I mention suicide, and more precisely youth suicide, it is as if it were the canary in the mine that can lead us to a more theoretical dialogue on what Foucault called «biopolitics». In other words, on the State’s vital control over its citizens since the 18th century. In this case, it focuses on state control and prevention of lethal threats such as the coronavirus (12). What we «didn’t know about» the coronavirus is that, even if the State is mobilized biopolitically, there is a second undercurrent, still poorly analyzed, that points to an inverse process of death, of fatality, that the capitalist State itself generates. Achille Mbembe has called it «necropolitics» (13), since in sub-Saharan Africa there is a system of inverse state power: Population is controlled and regulated by systematic and massive killings — suffice to mention the 5 million deaths in the civil war in the Republic of Congo at the end of the 1990s. Therefore, only if we adopt the Kantorowiczian approach to the coronavirus, as a double pandemic, as two successive plagues, will we be able to begin to grasp the role played in globalization by the neoliberal capitalist state with respect to its citizens. This is the philosophical debate that was pointed out above. It focuses on the initial intervention of Giorgio Agamben. We can now put it in different terms: Is the state facing the coronavirus in a two-fold perspective, faced with two plagues, in order to control its citizens through the control of life (biopolitics) or death (necropolitics)? Or is this disjunction false too?
Agamben, Nancy, Villacañas: State of Emergency, Evolutionary Crisis and Civilization
This brings us to a review of the dialogue or discussion between Giorgio Agamben (14) and Jean Luc Nancy on the subject. In order to understand Giorgio Agamben’s argument, a precision must be made. He defends that the last biopolitical strategy of the State is the global State of Emergency, a new political stage that allows governments to operate above the law with the excuse of fighting an always threatening Other — either the terrorist or the immigrant (15). Thus, in his latest intervention, Agamben defended the idea that the generalised and permanent State of Emergency will increase with the excuse of the coronavirus. The Spanish government, for instance, has already decreed a State of Alarm that dictates all kinds of measures that, under normal circumstances, would be illegal. Therefore, Agamben concludes that:
there is a growing tendency to use the state of exception as a standard paradigm of government. The legislative decree immediately issued by the government «for reasons of public health and safety» leads to a real militarization «of […] all regions, since it is almost impossible to prevent other cases from developing elsewhere. […] The disproportion of the measures taken against what, according to the CNR [Italian National Research Council], is just an ordinary flu, not unlike seasonal ones, is surprising. It would seem that having exhausted terrorism as a cause for exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic may offer the ideal pretext for extending them beyond all limits (16).
For Agamben, therefore, this is an escalation of the state’s tendency to increase its biopolitical power of control over its citizens’ lives through the now widespread practice consisting in placing itself beyond the law by resorting to the state of emergency, using viruses rather than terrorists as a new excuse.
In turn, Nancy responded that Agamben’s intervention does not explain the historically growing progress in communication and connectivity which inevitably creates unavoidable conditions for contagion and accelerated mortality. What is more, Nancy’s reaction has been precisely the exculpation of the State as a passive executor of a kind of logic that should be considered beyond the State, namely in globalization where technology has allowed for levels of interaction and interconnection in new ways that were unthinkable a few years ago, not only between humans but also between species:
Giorgio [Agamben] says that governments take all kinds of pretexts to establish ongoing states of emergency. But he does not realize that the exception becomes, in reality, the rule in a world where the technical interconnections of all species (movements, transfers of all kinds, exposure or diffusion of substances, etc.) reach a hitherto unknown intensity that increases as the population grows. In rich countries, this increase in population leads to a longer life expectancy and an increase in the number of elderly people and of those at risk in general.
Let there be no mistake: an entire civilisation is being called into question, no question about it. There is some kind of viral — biological, computer, cultural — exception that pandemicizes us. Governments are nothing but the sad executors of it, and trying to get back at them is just a diversion rather than a political reflection (17).
We will return to these two interventions, but first we need to establish their chronology and their main arguments. Other philosophers such as Roberto Esposito, Sergio Benvenuto, Divya Dwivedi or Shaj Mohan have also joined in the discussion and have even revisited the passages in Foucault’s work that deal with epidemics (18).
In Spain, it was curious to see how José Luis Villacañas’s position is closer to Nancy’s. It is important to observe in his intervention how recent human evolution appears detached until the end from capitalism, as if they were two different yet convergent processes in cases such as the coronavirus:
What forces human beings to roam the Earth is not the State’ s manipulation, but the unstoppable force of will of our species for preserving its unity, its communication, its future, today just as it was millions of years ago. As long as there are different living conditions, human beings will move through them as if they were the locks of a canal. […] the set of phenomena we have described make us [sic] think that we are facing an evolutionary quagmire. In these times, apocalyptic atmospheres emerge. In them the annoyance of an almost impossible prevention surrenders to the relief of suspecting an end where all prevention becomes irrelevant. On most of the previous occasions, the human being had a sense of the quagmire. Now we know it. […] someone told me that humanity always finds a way out. This friend was not concerned about the fact that other lineages of the genus Homo were left in the dry dock. Nor was he concerned about the costs that humanity has to bear to get out of these situations. And this is the key question. Because in these circumstances all normativity is forgotten, and the species takes refuge in an extreme Darwinism that we can only identify with barbarism. When recalling the affinity between Darwinism and capitalism established by Hayek, we realize that capitalism will carry on its wealth concentration process without needing to produce risky situations through speculative bubbles. It will just capitalise on the catastrophes to come. And then the States will be all we have left (19).
By identifying capitalism and Darwinism, emphasizing the former’s great capacity for sacrificing entire human groups — as already observed in the post-colonial world mentioned above — Villacañas modulates Nancy’s conclusion on the state’s passive attitude, and postulates instead the state as the only defender, bastion and refuge that citizens will have — «at least in the Global North». Unlike Nancy, who does not exclude the state from the global neoliberal capitalist logic, Villacañas defends the state, thus creating a third option to the question raised earlier: the state faces the coronavirus not to police its citizens through the control of life (biopolitics) or death (necropolitics), but to provide a last stronghold against the Darwinism of global capitalism. Villacañas does not clarify whether this state defense implies a biopolitical control as well. However, reviewing his work, it appears that biopolitics does not occupy a central position in his thinking — a line of thought that in its republican formulation of the State comes more from Weber. Therefore, we are confronted with three positions on the state: as an institution of biopolitical control (Agamben), as a passive and secondary agent of a global (necro)politics (Nancy) or as an institution that (in non-explicit ways) protects citizens from capitalist (necro)political Darwinism (Villacañas). Hence, we will have to repeat the question: what kind of state do we, those affected by the coronavirus, live in, at least in the Global North? It is not by chance that the Argentine philosopher Luciana Cadahia has observed the following:
It was found that young people are almost immune, that adults have little trouble recovering, and that the greatest threat is to older white men. It was also found that it has more impact in northern countries and little repercussion in the hot cultures of the tropics. In addition, it was found that it attacks those with the greatest purchasing power and opportunity to travel to Europe and the United States. In other words, it attacks those who are most responsible for turning this world into a big shithole with no prospects. Suddenly, the coronavirus is » God’s little hand» needed for Bernie to win the elections, for care-giving to become a part of world politics, for feminist praxis to become the real thing and for us to be rid, once and for all, of the fucking son-of-a-bitch white man, from the face of the earth (20).
Communist and liberal authoritarian governments: against Agamben
Before anything else, it should be assumed that such an epidemic has not been sought after by any government or even the most hegemonic neo-liberal state, and that, as Cadahia points out, it is they who are most affected. Both Xi Jinping and Trump, in two neoliberal variants of authoritarian governments (communist and liberal) first tried to deny the seriousness of the virus. It was precisely because of this attempt at suppression that the situation became most critical and contagious. There have been more lethal epidemics in recent times, such as SARS with a 10% death rate (2003-2004), however, they did not create the present level of government mobilization because they were easier to detect prior to infection — there were only 8000 cases with about 700 deaths, still no vaccine (21). Even in Italy, where there is an advanced health system by global standards, the cutbacks suffered by that system in recent years have pushed it to the brink of collapse.
While the decisions imposed by the Chinese government on entire regions and populations at an unusual scale (Guangdong, 60 million inhabitants) have had the effect of highlighting the ability to make authoritarian and exceptional decisions — to make use of the extended state of emergency in the sense of Agamben — the greatest exceptionality of the Xi government has been its inability to accept the danger posed by the virus in its initial stage and, at the same time, to repress those who first raised the alarm. What is most striking and defining about Chinese authoritarianism is its late reaction to something that could have been contained through more traditional measures for isolating individual patients.
The American case, while still (decadently) hegemonic at a global level, is still developing in unpredictable ways these days. It is therefore difficult to predict a precise result, although everything points to Trump’s government authoritarian incompetence giving similar results to those of China, if not worse. It is this incompetence in relation to the coronavirus what will define his government from the historical point of view (22).
Just to give a more local example, it should be mentioned that Iñigo Urkullu, a Lendakari of the autonomous «model» of administration that is «more efficient and less corrupt» within Spanish state (and celebrated by the PNV as an «oasis»), initially resisted to shutting down of the hotel and catering industry and to confinement. At the time, the levels of infection in Álava, for instance, were already similar to those in northern Italy. Urkullu’s resistance was due to the simple fact that such measures would have affected a Basque economy that is already eminently neoliberal. It was the people’s initiative that prompted these measures, to which Urkullu reacted late and hesitantly, just a few hours before Spanish President Pedro Sánchez decreed them with greater force. To this day, Urkullu’s government resists closing down companies, claiming that the measure is «excessive» and in so doing, ignoring the closure agreements that are being reached between workers’ committees and businesses (23).
Therefore, since the virus is accidental and unpredictable, Agamben’s thesis can be discarded: there is not a virus terrorist commando hiding in the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan that could reorganize in the border of Syria and north Iraq. There may be further outbreaks of this virus, but they will not constitute a threat that could be perceived as constant and consequently as an existential enemy that can only be fought with a general biopolitical state of emergency. In other words, the construction and deployment of a state of emergency, where the terrorist is replaced by the virus, is neither sustainable nor predictable.
As Villacañas points out, the fact that the neoliberal elites may take advantage of an accidental crisis caused by a virus is obvious. Therefore, this is just another one of those obstacles that capitalism will face in order to successfully reorganize itself, as Marx already predicted in the Grundrisse (24).
Even the provisional decision adopted by the Spanish government to make private hospitals available to the public health system does not mean the nationalization of health care at any time, nor does the package of economic measures represent an improvement in the precarious situation of the classes that will suffer most from this viral crisis — the measures decreed by Macron in France should also be interpreted in this way (25). Sooner or later, most governments in the Global North will have to rescue the different industries that will collapse, resulting in a repetition of the 2008 scenario, with important variations that we will see in the coming months. As opposed to the communism that Slavoj Zizek proposes, as a universalization of the decision-making power over these crises that individual states can poorly resolve (26), we will see how these individual states, in concert with the IMF and the World Bank, will carry out a «socialist and communist» rescue of the same capitalist economy and industry.
Dehistorizing the crisis: Nancy and Villacañas
Although all these philosophical interventions are short and given to a not very thoughtful elaboration that a properly edited book, for instance, would not admit, they need to be weighed against the accumulated thought that lies behind them. Nancy and Villacañas’ theses are not sustainable either. Affirming in a positive, non-politicized way as a quasi-biological and evolutionary fact that the increasing exchange and globalization leads to an inevitable viralization of civilization is to naturalize or dehistorize the problem
Nancy suggests that «the exception actually becomes the rule in a world in which the technical interconnections of all species (movements, transfers of all kinds, substance exposure or diffusion, etc.) have reached a level of intensity previously unknown that grows with the population». This dehistorises global capitalism for two reasons. On the one hand, it denies that the world has always been interconnected, and that the greatest pandemics have not taken place in recent modern times, but in medieval times, when the Black Death affected the entire «global» population of the Silk Road, from Beijing to Finisterre and Alexandria (and possibly Zanzibar), with much more dire consequences — the death of 30% to 60% of the population. On the other hand, Nancy points out, rather unconnectedly, that «its multiplication also leads to a prolongation of life in the rich countries», not concluding logically that this same technological prolongation of life should at least enable the rich countries to neutralize any viral contagion and expansion. Although it seems obvious, this fact is ultimately central to this discussion: it was the medieval era that did not have the «technological development» that the Global North possesses today to eradicate any virus at its root (27). Nancy is also unaware that the virus began in China precisely because of pre-modern practices (the consumption of wild animals) that would be forbidden in «more civilized societies» such as, for instance, Germany.
Villacañas, following Nancy’s naturalizing thesis, goes so far as to mention the evolution of other failed branches of the genus Homo (Neanderthal, Denisovo, Florensis…) or the «evolutionary impasse» of our own species, homos sapiens, only to return in the end to a historical thesis: capitalism, in a Darwinian way, can benefit and reorganize itself from the sacrifice or elimination of a large part of the population, in what could be considered as a globalized or generalized necropolitical practice. Such a practice would not only affect post-colonial states such as sub-Saharan states of Africa — in their extractivist economy dependent on the Global North — but more importantly it would affect the «more developed» Western countries.
I use the word «West» intentionally to bring out the echoes of Spengler’s discourse (28) and thus point to the next step shown in articles such as those by Villacañas or Nancy: the describing of this crisis as «civilizational» (where Africa remains the uncivilized and necropolitical outside).
Even though Villacañas, unlike Nancy, goes so far as to insinuate that capitalism can make a central contribution to the civilizational crisis of pre-capitalist evolutionary origins, in the end he concludes that the state («non-biopolitical» and of Weberian and republican theorization) is the remaining stronghold against such civilizational and capitalist crisis.
This means that, in Villacañan’s elaboration, the modern Western State enters again through the back door to solve the Western existential crisis. This is because this State, genealogically speaking, is connected with the European Enlightenment, liberal democracy, the republican organization of the State, and therefore also with the industrial capitalism that made it possible and set it in motion at the end of the 18th century. In other words, in the end, Villacañas advocates for the capitalism of the historical liberal republican state against its more savage and Darwinian global version that has been exacerbated and turned into an undeniable reality by neoliberalism. It should also be remembered that, in this defence of the modern State against the Darwinian global capitalism, modern European colonialism disappears by metropolitan synecdoche (the modern Hispanic State that emerges in the XVI is the one located in the peninsula, and therefore it lacks imperialist-colonial history, etc.).
Destituent state and precarization: the post-2008 revolts
So, if Nancy and Villacañas’ discussion, prompted by Agamben, does not seem to lead to a politically relevant viral diagnosis, how can we rethink the coronavirus?
We have to go back to what «we don’t know that we already know». Ironically, that means going back to Agamben, in order to connect the coronavirus to the post-2008 riots. Although the neoliberal project already set in motion in countries such as Chile in the 1980s was aimed at destroying the social democratic state of the Global North, as well as any form of post-colonial progressist nationalism in the Global South, the 2008 crisis has been a qualitative step forward. Most of the middle and working classes in the Global North have begun to perceive the social democratic welfare state as a reality of the past. Precarization is the new horizon to which most are heading instead.
At the same time, although most of the global growth of the neoliberal capitalist economy has come from the industrialization of the Global South (neo-extractivism, maquiladoras, etc.), the religious fundamentalist responses to neoliberalism that had been proposed in many areas of the Global South have also entered into crisis and have opened the doors to a post-fundamentalist horizon of precarization and chronic dependency without a clear solution or political alternative (see the case of Egypt). Therefore, the revolts, that although having started earlier, exploded after the 2011 Arab Spring and have continued until today with the 2019 «Red October», and the explosion of feminist demonstrations, mainly from March 2018, and the mobilizations against the ecological crisis, which has become increasingly popular in the last two years, it remains to be seen how such protests and revolts will return under a regime of confinement; it is not clear whether the internet and digital activism will be effective substitutes, although, as most commentators have stressed, confinement, social distancing, and pots and pans protests are becoming political practices of solidarity, the future of which is impossible to predict.
To say that these post-2008 popular revolts are viral is not just a metaphor, since both the coronavirus crisis and these revolts respond to a same logic that spreads infectiously: they are both responses to failures of a global capitalist expansion that sacrifices the populations of their states. In other words, it is the tendency of capitalism to overcome any barrier, not by solving it but by avoiding it and reorganizing itself in an increasingly contradictory and self-destructive process. It is the capitalist tendency that neo-liberal governments translate by sacrificing any existing — medical, civic or human rights — law and procedure and that causes these crises or virus epidemics and revolts. If the above criticism of Nancy is accepted, there is nothing evolutionary or technological about the «viral» explosion of epidemics such as coronavirus and the global revolts of precarized classes. It is just a few cents’ increase in the price of a Chilean metro ticket in the capital what generates the viral revolt of the Chilean middle and working classes, just as it is the (possible) consumption of some wild animal in a Chinese market that causes a global epidemic. In both cases, nature and the middle/working classes become barriers or limits that global neoliberal capitalism tries to overcome, oblivious of the kind of political consequences that such expansion generates. Therefore, the question, the new question, before us is what this new limit or barrier that global capitalism has tried to overcome and incorporate into its global production apparatus in an unsuccessful and self-destructive way means (29). For that we have to go back to Agamben.
Faced with the biopolitical state that is massively implemented through the state of exception, Agamben makes an essential historicization of the last two centuries, subsuming the biopolitical state into what he calls the «security paradigm», to suggest a way out:
The security paradigm implies that every dissent, every relatively violent attempt to overthrow the existing order, becomes a new opportunity to rule them, and therefore it is profitable. This is made obvious by the dialectic that links terrorism closely to the state in an endless vicious circle. Beginning with the French Revolution, modern times’ political tradition has embodied radical changes by means of a revolutionary process that acts as a pouvoir constituant (constituted power), the «constituent power» of a new institutional order.
I believe that we must abandon this paradigm and try to think of something like a puissance destituante, a «purely destituent power» that may not be captured in the spiral of security (30).
Ironically, when the two viral irruptions — the post-2008 riots and the coronavirus — , that have pushed capitalism into its last crisis in 2020, providing it with a new opportunity to reorganize and further expand, are taken into account, Agamben’s proposal must be reversed: It is neither the people nor the nation, but capitalism and the states, its «sad executors», to use Nancy’s phrase, who alone possess destituent power. In other words, the history of neoliberal and global capitalism of the last 40 years is defined precisely by the deployment of any possible technique and procedure to precarize the middle, working and subordinate classes and in so doing exclude them from the constituent process of the State (and the nation-state). That is why we can no longer speak of the nation-state or post-colonial national projects (in which even Frantz Fanon believed (31)). Precarization, even in the definition of its initial proponent Guy Standing (32), is not only a process of loss of economic capacity or status, but of undermining political, social and human capital (affecting even the very «self» and its affections). This has been put forward, in terms of the idea that, today, global capitalism does not need liberal democracy to legitimise itself as a universal social horizon (33). In turn, thanks to post-colonial subaltern theory (Guha) and feminism (Federicci) (34), we know that this precarization or disempowerment of the middle and working classes is helping to generalize an unpaid care economy and culture that has historically been the basis of women’s oppression, but also an economy and culture with neocolonial characteristics that has historically focused on the Global South and is now spreading to the North as necropolitics. This means that the neoliberal elites are the subject in possession of that destituent power described by Agamben. The coronavirus is going to be yet another episode in this recent history of political, economic and social destitution of the non-hegemonic classes.
Ecological and political crisis of the apocalypse
If this inversion of Agamben’s destituent proposal is accepted, the current situation becomes clear: a double epidemic is increasing the destitution/precarization of most social classes (in the Global North) and is blocking precarious classes from accessing constituent processes (in the Global South). But this still does not represent a positive political moment where a political alternative is proposed and pursued.
In order to outline this positive moment we have to turn our attention to the other viral epidemic, the most deadly one, already established as such, but which has slower and more delayed necropolitical effects, making it not recognized as such: the ecological crisis of the Anthropocene.
Although we do not have enough space here to develop the different existing formulations on this crisis, I would like to advance, in an axiological way, that for the time being there is no technological solution to a global ecological crisis and that it will continue to increase irremediably until it ends up creating, due to its planetary dimension, a (partial, progressive) collapse of capitalism that infects the entire planet.
Unlike the precarization of the middle and working classes through crises like that of 2008, or the aggressive consumption of wildlife that caused the coronavirus, the ecological crisis, due to its global effects, reveals the truth that we already know about the viral crises that capitalism has already unleashed since 2008: the Anthropocene leads us to an apocalypse that is both unavoidable and hard to think of, but that we are already experiencing in these other viral crises that we have suffered in recent years.
Therefore, back to a policy that responds to neoliberal capitalist destitution and its armed arm, the destituent State, the first thing to be assumed is that any policy against this destituent process must be apocalyptic in nature. This means that any utopian idea of a better tomorrow that both the utopian Renaissance discourse and the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and, later, nineteenth-century communism have put forward as the final horizon of all politics must be abandoned.
While this requires a Copernican shift in our mindset, it is important to note that any revolt or political response must be aimed at confronting the apocalypse — an idea which has not been operational since the Middle Ages.
Although the modern West contemplates any idea of apocalypse as radically strange or historically remote (the Middle Ages), Michael Löwy suggests that such apocalyptic reasoning had two clear advocates in Marxism: Walter Benjamin and José Carlos Mariátegui, who, on the basis of the Jewish and Native American experience respectively, knew how to articulate this seemingly contradictory scenario for us, the inhabitants of the Global North (35).
This also requires revisiting all LGBTQ thinking about AIDS. Only apocalyptic thought can simultaneously articulate revolts like those of the last nine years (Arab Spring 2011-Red October 2019) in a horizon that surpasses the destitutent state and global neoliberal capitalism. The consequent precarization and destitution that the crisis of the coronavirus will generate is most likely bound to trigger another wave of popular revolts. However, in order to explain the more detailed implications of this apocalyptic and anti-destituent idea, readers will have to wait for the publication of my forthcoming book in 2021, ‘2050: Once claves para pensar el no futuro’ (2050: Eleven Concepts to Think the Non-Future). The purpose of this article was to remind the present readers of what we did not know that we already knew about the coronavirus crisis.
(1) Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Valencia: Pre-Textos, 2015; McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man. Barcelona: Paidós, 1996.
(2) The reactions from the post-colonial world are really varied. Zimbabwe’s defence minister, for example, has claimed that the coronavirus is God’s punishment to the US and other Western countries for the economic sanctions against her country. Associated Press. «Zimbabwe Official Says Coronavirus Punishes US for Sanctions». The New York Times. 16-3-2020. www.nytimes.com. Accessed: 19-3-2020.
(3) Badiou, Alain. El ser y el acontecimiento [Being and Event]. Buenos Aires: Manantial. 1999.
(4) Kristof, Nicholas and Thompson, Stuart A. “How Much Worse the Coronavirus Could Get, in Charts”. The New York Times. 13-3-2020. www.nytimes.com. Accessed: 19-3-2020.
(5) Ramos, Rafael. “Reino Unido se declara impotente ante el coronavirus y da prioridad a la economía [The United Kingdom declares itself powerless against coronavirus and gives priority to the economy]”. La Vanguardia. 14-3-2020. www.lavanguardia.com. Accessed: 19-3-2020..
(6) In the words of Warner: “Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.” Roberts, Joe. “Telegraph Journalist Says Coronavirus ‘Cull’ of Elderly Could Benefit Economy”. Metro. 11-3-2020. www.metro.co.uk. Accessed: 19-3-2020.
(7) Kantorowicz, Ernst. The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.
(8) Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Barcelona: Booket, 2012.
(9) Dickson, EJ.: “Teen Suicide Is on the Rise and No One Knows Why”. Rolling Stone. 18-10-2019. www.rollingstone.com. Accessed: 19-3-2020.
(10) The Economist. “America’s Suicide Rate Has Increased for 13 Years in a Row”. The Economist. 30-1-2020. www.economist.com. Accessed : 19-3-2020.
(11) Centenera, Marc. “La tasa de suicidio adolescente en Argentina se triplica en solo30 años [The teenage suicide rate in Argentina has tripled in just 30 years]” El País. 3-6-2019. www.elpais.com. Accessed: 19-3-2020. I thank Eduardo Apodaka for the references.
(12) Although, in his final years, Foucault abandoned the concept of biopolitics for that of governability, he theorised, from the first volume of his History of Sexuality, that, at the end of the 18th century, the hegemonic European states went from using death (the monopoly on the death penalty) to mobilising life itself to control the population. In other words, the European state began to mobilise its power around the life of its citizens in a complex organisation of practices, institutions and discourses such as censuses, birth studies, preventive medicine, sexuality manuals, forced schooling, etc. In this way, the citizens would not respond to the threat of punishment and the death penalty, but to a biopolitical power that would come to regulate even the most irrational and intimate: sexuality and desire.
(13) Mbembe. Achille. Necropolitics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019; Necropolítica seguido de Sobre el gobierno privado indirecto [Necropolitics followed by On Indirect Private Governance]. Santa Cruz de Tenerife: Melusina, 2011.
(14) Agamben, Giorgio. “La invención de una epidemia [The invention of an epidemic]” Ficción de la razón [Fiction of reason]. 27-2-2020. www.ficciondelarazon.org. Accessed: 19-3-2020.
(15) Here we would have to explain what “vida nuda [bare life]» means to Agamben, but for reasons of space, this term will be omitted, since it does not affect the general argument.
(16) Agamben has also just published an additional text: «Chiarimenti«. Quodlibet. 17-3-2020. www.quodlibet.it. Accessed: 19-3-2020. The last paragraph, in a translation by Manuel Ignacio Moyano into Spanish, provides another complementary reflection. «It is not surprising that for the virus there is talk of war. The emergency measures oblige us in fact to live under the conditions of a curfew. But a war with an invisible enemy that can be nested in any other man is the most absurd of wars. It is indeed a civil war. The enemy is not outside; it is inside us. It is not so much the present that worries us, but the future. Even as wars have left a series of terrible technologies for peace, from barbed wire to nuclear power plants, it is very likely that we will continue, even after the healthcare emergency, with the experiments that governments had not previously given up on: universities and schools will be closed and lessons will be given only online; we will stop meeting and talking for political or cultural reasons and exchange only digital messages; everywhere it will be possible for machines to replace all contact -all contagion- between human beings.”
(17) Jean-Luc Nancy. “Excepción viral [Viral exception]”. Ficción de la razón [Fiction of reason]. 27-2-2020. www.ficciondelarazon.org. Accessed : 19-3-2020.
(18) Foucault, Michel & others. “Coronavirus and Philosophers”. European Journal of Psychoanalysis. undated. www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu. Accessed : 19-3-2020.
(19) Villacañas, José Luis. “Supervivencia [Survival]”. Levante: el mercantil valenciano [Levante: the Valencian mercantile]. 2-3-2020. www.levante-emv.com. Accessed : 19-3-2020.
(20) Personal Facebook wall. 10-3-2020. There is no data to confirm the fact that COVID-19 attacks more men than older women.
Although it is one of the most important issues for rethinking future changes in the authoritarian neoliberal ideology that is hegemonic today, I will only be able to point it out here: for the first time, the immigrant is not the universal Other that brings the plague-epidemic, as happened with the Jew in the Middle Ages, or with the Islamic terrorist and violence after 2001. There have been clear outbreaks of racism, but the immigrant has not become an existential political enemy of the authoritarian neoliberal order, unlike in past months (starting with Trump’s attacks on Latin American and African immigrants).
(21) World Health Organization. “Summary of Probable SARS Cases with Onset of Illness from 1 November 2002 to 31 July 2003” www.who.int. No date. Accessed: 19-3-2020. Influenza A (H1N1), which did infect more humans (up to half a million), did not have a higher mortality rate than the annual flu.
(22) For example, the governor of Florida, Republican Ron DeSantis, still refuses to close the beaches in mid-March. Madani, Doha. «Florida Governor Refuses to Shut Down Beaches Amid Spread of Coronavirus.» NBC News. 17-3-2020. www.nbcnews.com. Accessed: 19-3-2020.
(23) EITB. «Arantxa Tapia: ‘Closing down companies is excessive; there is no risk'». 5-3-2020. Egun On Euskadi. www.eitb.eus. Accessed: 19-3-2020. In the Basque case, moreover, the catastrophe of the Zaldibar dump, where it is believed that 11,000 tons of asbestos are buried with government complicity, highlights the neoliberal character of any health crisis, be it viral or chemical. Two workers who were buried in the dump, as a result of lack of administrative supervision, are still buried today. I am grateful to Ion Andoni del Amo for the information on the Urkullu administration.
(24) One of the first systematic attempts to benefit the neoliberal elite with the virus has come from the Trump administration, which tried to monopolise one of the first vaccine experiments in order to sell it at a profit on the market, instead of making it available globally and for free. Rico, Isaac. «Trump, Merkel and the hidden muscle of China: this is how the geopolitical battle for the vaccine is fought.» The Confidential. 17-03-2020. www.elconfidencial.com. Accessed: 19-03-2020.
(25) As the government itself has confessed: «[T]he inevitable increase in inequality that will arise will also have to be tackled […] The bulk of this contribution is made up of 100 billion euros in public guarantees for loans that companies can take out. Estévez Torreblanca, Marina. «Sánchez announces that he will mobilise 200 billion euros to combat the economic disaster caused by the coronavirus [Sánchez anuncia que movilizará 200.000 millones de euros para combatir el descalabro económico por el coronavirus ]». El Diario. 17-3-2020. www.eldiario.es. Accessed: 19-3-2020.
(26) Zizek, Slavoj. “Global Communism or the Jungle Law, Coronavirus Forces Us to Decide”. RT. 10-3-2020. www.rt.com. Accessed : 19-3-2020.
(27) Diamond, Jared. Guns, germs and steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years. Barcelona: Debate, 2006.
(28) Spengler, Oswald. The decline of the West. Barcelona: Espasa, 2011.
(29) Yago Álvarez Barba has already pointed out how the coronavirus epidemic also affects neoliberal capitalism as a whole: «[B]ut a virus that, for the moment, has killed less than other common flus, makes the world economy wobble indicates that it is precisely that economy and the system that supports it that are sick. … capital no longer finds markets that offer it high returns. …] The measures to revitalise the economy after the financial crisis a decade ago have only succeeded in treating the economy like a sick person who is kept in a coma waiting for someone to find a cure for his or her illness. » Coronavirus, la coartada perfecta para esconder una enfermedad terminal [Coronavirus, the perfect alibi for hiding a terminal illness]» El Salto. www.elsaltodiario.com. 3-3-2020. Accessed: 19-3-2020.
(30) Agamben, Giorgio. “Por una teoría del poder destituyente [For a theory of removing power]”. Red aprender y cambiar (Learn and change network). 17-5-2018. www.redaprenderycambiar.com.ar. Accessed: 19-3-2020.
(31) Fanon, Frantz . Los condenados de la tierra [The damned of the earth]. Mexico: Economic Culture Fund, 2001.
(32) Standing, Guy. El precariado: una nueva clase social [The precarious one: a new social class]. Madrid: Capitán Swing, 2012.
(33) Crouch, Colin. Post-Democracy. London: Polity, 2004.
(34) Guha, Ranajit. Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India. New York: Harvard University Press, 1998; Federicci, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. Madrid: Traficantes de Sueños, 2010.
(35) Löwy, Michael. “Dos marxistas disidentes contra la ideología del progreso [Two dissident Marxists against the ideology of progress]”. Viento Sur. 23-9-2019. www.vientosur.info. Accessed: 19-3-2020