What you see above you is a worker from the Seattle and King County Public Health Department painting the sign of an EconoLodge black. The motel here is serving as a quarantine site for patients found to have contracted coronavirus. It is likely that up to three patients will be staying here the night of this site’s requisition. The image captures an uncanny quality in the globally significant context of its circumstance. A mundane staple in the backdrop of America’s strip mall hubs that sprawl out from the snaking pavement of the highways, now become an outpost for the containment of our most recent epidemic threat.
Panic appears to be the current order of the day. The global spread of COVID-19, the economic shocks being seen throughout, and the ensuing scrutiny on responses of world governments to contain and mitigate this moment have produced an environment that, should one glance at a typical day’s media coverage of the event, appears to have brought about a reckoning on the present world of biblical proportions. Despite the dearth of historicity characteristic of the impoverished consciousness of bourgeois society, we find ourselves at home again in the paranoia of Gilded Age waxings on panics, a spectacle of wild conjecture in a moment of crisis. Possibilities of the end times abound, even found in a delight amongst some that apply a neo-Malthusian diagnostics to the stoppages of industry undertaken to contain the spread of the virus. Such is the deep lack of possibility we see in the present moment beyond our own self-destruction. It takes the historical analysis to see that we are likely less doomed than it may bring us pleasure to realize. There are, at the time of this writing, roughly 100,000 cases confirmed worldwide, with a death toll of approximately 3,300. It remains to be seen the extent to which the current moment indicates a real fragility unacknowledged by the world’s ruling classes or simply a challenge yet to be mitigated. There is rather a truth to both of these claims apparent, though our clarity appears masked by the hysteria of an epoch of bourgeois society experiencing consistent and sustained challenges to its rule and a severe, protracted economic crisis set to intensify once more, this historical conjuncture taking place against the backdrop of disintegrating social infrastructures.
In the US, attention has been drawn to recent efforts of the Trump administration in stripping capacities from health and disease emergency response infrastructures. Within the past few years, the White House has reduced the budgets for national health spending and global disease-fighting operations by $15 billion, as well as $30 millin from the US Complex Crises Fund. While the focus of criticism has been oriented to the current head of state, it is no secret that the US health infrastructure and emergency response capacities have been in decline in the decades preceding this. It must be acknowledged that the US healthcare infrastructure has never had the capacity to mobilize for widespread public health crises as they emerge, HIV being one important example. The failure to mobilize in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2004, and many storms before and after, further demonstrates a state with little political will or capacity to effectively mobilize in the face of disaster. In China, mobilization has occurred more noticeably, though not without its own difficulties. The historical trajectory of rapid industrialization and a globally-integrated and internationally expanding economy has seen China emerge as a site where these health crises break out with a similar regularity to economic cycles. In this rapid development, the erosion of the country’s healthcare infrastructures is often not discussed, though it has followed a similar pattern of development to the decay of those in the West, facing the ongoing subsumption of required means of social reproduction to the conditions of capital’s valorization. While the state shows a strong face, much of the containment efforts have required local mobilizations and little central control over means of enforcement.
If the state response in China is currently that of one reliant upon a strong image of coordinated mobilization, though ultimately backed by a voluntarist compliance by regional and local authorities, the US response reveals an even more profound lack of any such capacity. Presently there is a resistance to fully committing to a freely accessible testing apparatus and vaccine, should one become available in the near future. A twitter thread from a worker in a physical therapy clinic in Seattle, WA, a state experiencing the most advanced spread of COVID-19 in the US to date, reveals the dysfunction in the immediate emergency response infrastructure. Doctors in Emergency Room stations are reportedly not being allowed to test for the virus in many cases due to current restrictions on epidemic response. There has been no guarantee offered that a vaccine would be made freely available, a price tag hanging over our heads. The most active media surrounding this current situation that one is likely to see in the US is largely focused on the impact of work stoppages and travel restrictions on the financial industries; stock market analysis takes on an animism touching upon themes of the supernatural in economic discourse. An interview with Larry Kudlow, now head of President Trump’s National Economic Council, reveals a compulsory culture of resilient optimism that, for clarity’s sake, must shelter itself from the media spectacle it generates for the shock application to the body politic maintaining its own cohesion. Fear and hope walk a tightrope balance for bourgeois ideology in crisis. Former candidate Buttigieg’s memetic use of the “High Hopes” dance comes to mind as a perfect emblem for its time; loosely coordinated crowds flailing through simply-patterned gestures, heroically-strained voices and robotic horn samples for the melodramatic construction of a false history in the making.
The turmoil of the stock market in recent weeks is directly attributed to the effects of the present contagion in contracting economic activity. The DOW Jones Industrial Average continues to sustain intense and daily losses, some well over 1,000 points, futures varying widely day to day. Absent from the immediately apparent surface of this is the underlying conditions of global capital preceding the shock event of this outbreak. Certainly production shutdowns in Wuhan and the rest of Hubei province, as well as other regions of China as containment responses, have brought the world’s factory to a relative standstill. Travel restrictions and working populations’ confinement to the home have further impacted oil prices and fuel consumption. Prior to this, however, we cannot lose sight of the weakening position of corporate profitability, and especially the declining profitability of fossil fuel industries and crude oil production, that had begun to take a prominent place in economic analyses throughout the previous year’s initial apprehensions of an imminent global recession. Overproduction concerns have long been present in both US and China automobile industries, with US automobile manufacturers these days making an increasing portion of their profits from financing the purchases of automobiles than they do the actual sale. A recently-released Bank of America Global Investment Strategy report finds that we currently reside within the largest asset bubble in history, and only assignable at present to a vaguely-defined investment category known as “disruptors.” Since October 16 of 2019, the US Federal Reserve is engaging in consistent overnight repo operations to support major banks’ lending capacities, using the interest on the consistent exchange of US treasury bonds and reserves inject liquidity into the banking sector. An emergency rate cut of 50 basis points came this week from the Fed, as the industrial contractions following measures to contain the viral outbreak saw the worst week in stock performance since 2008. This too follows a year where the Federal Reserve conducted four rate cuts in three quarters, and an environment where central banks globally are finding themselves cutting rates and engaging in liquidity support and debt stimulus where applicable.
All this to say, the stability of global capital at present must be understood as already existing in precarious circumstances as we enter this situation. With the current threat of epidemic, we see a vulnerable economic order undergoing the motions of contraction, possibly towards eventual recession, and, if this becomes the case, a definite global crisis given the circumstances of productive stagnation and declining profitability of major industrial sectors. There is a sense that this moment prompts capitalist production towards the regenerative crisis that is historically proven as necessary, in order to concentrate and consolidate capitals in order for future regimes of accumulation to proceed. There is demonstrably little acceptance of this situation at present, and government-backed monetary policy measures to mitigate the onset of crisis appear a display of the lack of political will for a recession even amongst the most safely-assured positions of the class. This is not to imply recessions and crises to be agent actions of the bourgeoisie, but merely to note that, despite the ideology of capital’s necessary rejection of any evidence to the contrary of capitalist social relations’ fundamental impermanence as a viable mode of social reproduction, crises are the means by which capitalists restore the functional order of these social relations, and we must never assume total ignorance of this fact amongst their class.
Perhaps it is to do with the resurgence of a global wave of revolt in the present moment. Last year, major protests against austerity policies and conditions of government repression set off in mass and caused a stir undeniable even to bourgeois media. The importance of such movement occurring in anticipation of an officially declared recession must not be understated. Though the immediacy of this wave has seen an ebb in the beginning of this year, several situations are ongoing, and we cannot mistake the apathy of media coverage surrounding others to signal a definite pause. Mass actions breaking out in Chile, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Sudan, Indonesia, South Korea, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, France, Catalonia and Hong Kong, just to name a few, demonstrate the depth and scale of the crisis to bourgeois society’s legitimacy at hand. These, however, are still disparate in movement and even more so in coordination. Demands may be unified under common threads of quality of life, restrictions on the social use of needs such as transportation and energy arising from the limited range of movement of capital at present. These struggles over basic means of subsistence are made clear in crisis as struggles for class reproduction, but these undeniably move in contradictory directions and are arising from disparate class elements; as always, unrest uncarefully tended to may possess either revolutionary or reactionary potentials. An example at present can be found in the waning street conflicts of the Hong Kong movement. A hospital workers’ union organizing and voting to go on strike within months of its founding expresses both a worker interest in strained conditions of healthcare under threat of coronavirus spreading from the Chinese mainland. Undeniable within this is a momentum fueled by the reactionary nativist elements present within the Hong Kong movement, one of the foremost demands being full border closure. This situation reveals a message of caution to the mobilization of class struggles in times of crisis, the ever-present threat that these may become movements serving the reification of capitalist geopolitical relations as a line of struggle. The struggle of the working class will not find itself exempt from the contradictions of bourgeois society’s own crisis.
This is not to say that the current epidemic is void of opportune moments for the progressive advancement of the class struggle. Indeed, no historical situation can be said to be free of this element. The aura of fear that surrounds coronavirus, while not the apparent primary site of struggle, strikes at a precarious moment, and brings the present crisis and requirement of struggle into sharp relief. The rapid surge of this epidemic and the failure of an adequate infrastructure to contain and treat it alongside the political antagonisms over a growing demand for socializing healthcare systems, notably in the popularity of Medicare For All, is a potent juxtaposition. The crisis of bourgeois political institutions’ legitimacy finds an expression here in the rapidly degenerating farce of the primary elections for the Democratic nominee, the transformation of the US healthcare infrastructure becoming the orbital center of the antagonisms and the lines of conflict increasingly drawn along class lines, this being apparent to even the most lax observer. As this circus unfolds it will increasingly be upstaged by the richly horrific textures of a backdrop composed of airlines declaring bankruptcy, oil companies encountering further limits to their declining profitability, and global supply chains roiled by work stoppages and the constricted movement of capital.
One need not construct an illusion of Bernie Sanders as anything more than a socialist-adjacent bourgeois politician in order to acknowledge that the conflict over demands for universal healthcare and the composition of US capital today is an antagonism worthy of note in the political realm. This current spark of heated debate and political will to fight the rising cost of healthcare is not isolated, and certainly a continuation of the same trajectory that made the Affordable Care Act the driving policy and hailed achievement of the Obama presidency. It is apparent to many, however, that this is only the bare minimum of needs addressed, the ultimate victor of this struggle overall still being the healthcare insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Healthcare spending in the US amounts to 18% of the nation’s GDP, the gradual transformation of this sector to the maintenance and reproduction of capitalist social relations and thus profitability a process with a long history. It is here perhaps that we may understand how the reformist movement for the reconstruction of institutions of social support would come into conflict with the US bourgeoisie, despite the fact that many within share the economically nationalist protectionism of your average domestic capitalist.
This exertion of pressure on the capacity of the state apparatus for healthcare points us to the current strains on global capital profitability in a position of the most highly developed productive forces seen in history to reproduce the proletarian subject as well as capital. The development of industry to the most efficient ends has surely seen a rising organic composition of capital, with more and more labor processes automated, thinning the base of production and conditions for valorization as this, the growing social powers of labor’s productivity in objectified form, causes a forcefully expanding contradiction in movement of surplus capital and surplus population. New pathways to the maintenance of capitalist social relations, of maintaining the coercion of labor necessary to reproduce the wage relation that may expand capital and produce surplus value, must be opened. This manifests as basic needs for social reproduction once guaranteed by some form of state or public institution requiring commodity form, wage extractions coerced by direct need as a forced bleeding of the body politic. While the base of production, the entry point for productive labor, grows narrow, the vastly inflated values of financial industries’ fictitious valorizations driven by speculation mobilize to restructure the terrain in which these social relations are constituted. The massive departure between the respective trajectories of wage gains and total factor productivity is an indicator, and the inability to sufficiently devalue constant capital in production’s wear and tear without realizing the feared crisis of effective demand that suppressed wages bring about pose a contradictory motion to capital and labor’s reproductive needs. The crisis of bourgeois political institutions at present is illustrative of this dynamic, and ultimately driven by it.
In this light, it is clear that even the most sensible and economic argument for Medicare For All would not change the fact that this reform is headed for a failure in the legislative arena. That this is being made more apparent even as a global epidemic continues to move faster than any social response can be mounted by the nominal captains of the ship is further evidence that any such transformation in the orientation of healthcare infrastructure to the needs of reproduction of human life must necessarily become a matter of force. The potential for struggle in the current situation here emerges, though is by no means a certainty. The failure of this social order to address the needs of the proletarianizing mass could very well see a transformation in the growing popularity of distributionist demands to the real necessity of expropriationary action. While the possibility that the world’s most important economies could rapidly fall into depression as a contagion continues to spread unabated appears a situation where action becomes undeniably necessary, the impasse of state-imposed and voluntary self containment in the face of the risk of social gathering towards action will surely play a role. Clampdowns on public gatherings of people are already in discussion amongst US officials and similar efforts are taking shape in China’s official response. In the US, conditions for labor that see little protections afforded in wage security in the event of such crisis and rising costs of living such as rent guarantee that health precautions may be disregarded for one’s assurance of income. There is a parallel in this contradictory pull of interests producing the present anxiety of this contingency and the inflexibility of global supply chains in adjusting to the economic pressures exerted by measures to contain the coronavirus’ spread. The conditions of commodity production, the alienation of labor-power as commodity, determines the form of these supply chains themselves, and too breeds these atomized forms of social reproduction unadaptable to the present crisis.
The panic of the present commodity runs in supermarkets displays this individualized approach to social care, generating a spectacle of crazed hoarding of the mundane taken for granted. At the base of this is the increasingly atomized subjectivity of commodity society, our poverty reflected in the empty material security of having enough toilet paper should we not wish to leave our homes in fear of the open air. Ultimately there must come a need to understand these objects as values as having come into being through the subjects engaged in their production, the infrastructure for emergency care we require ultimately only possible to come to realization through imposing the subjectivity of those it must estrange in order for the abstraction value to manifest as real. In engaging the object towards its appropriation for our own use, we undertake the expropriation of that which exists as capital, and so too the task of transforming our relations to production and further our own reproduction. This struggle may only be realized in its practice, and in the conditions that arise in which this becomes necessary, though it still must require our effort and contains no assurance of success. Such is the nature of our radically indeterminate time.
This crisis finds no better expression in the chaotic panic that has elevated what is, thus far, a strain of influenza with a comparably low fatality rate to an existential threat to the world order. What appears the present representation of our salvation is merely bare survival, and the application of shock in the hysteric message of mainstream media outlets a means of reproducing this as the sole possibility. A CNBC correspondent flails his arms wildly on the stock trading floor demanding that we revisit 17th century methods of inoculation on a world scale to avoid the worst of the economic shocks and cut our losses in global infection. It says more than one can hope to articulate that the desperate struggle for political legitimacy in a Democratic Party ripping itself apart in incompetence anoints Joe Biden’s visible cognitive decline as the seer for the cloudy future of securing bourgeois right. The sole hope of the bourgeoisie in this outpost is facing the subjects of a withering capitalist society approaching crisis with capital’s own frayed and incoherent image, the slogan mustered from this farcical Lear’s mouth a macabre joke, “I’m not dead, and I ain’t gonna die.” The economic crisis necessarily determines the form of the crisis of bourgeois ideology. The present moment’s contingent potential for rupture, the encroaching rage of the proletarian subjectivity in composition within this historical conjuncture, sees the reduction of the prevailing ideology of existence to a base survival, void of dignity and material substance. It is only in the practical engagement of overcoming this impoverished condition, in the means of composing the class internal to its development through the expropriation of these means to its own ends, through the transformation of individualized care to the unleashing of our capacity for socially realized reproduction in practice, that this existence may be realized as power.