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The COVID-19 Conjuncture

In this interview, Warren Montag argues that the COVID-19 pandemic is being used by capital to enforce — through the instrument of the state — unheard-of levels of market discipline to secure profits at the expense of working people’s lives. 

Warren Montag

May 16, 2020
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From Hieronymus Bosch The Last Judgement

Warren Montag is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. Montag is the author of several books and essays on the work of Althusser and his philosophical legacy, as well as on Adam Smith, Spinoza, and others. 

In this interview, he elaborates on how the COVID-19 pandemic has become, in a way, an opening for neoliberalism to secure increasing levels of submission to the market. Montag further highlights the role of an absent state in upholding the rule of the market, and he entertains the possibility of an uptick in struggles led by workers and communities of color “in defense of life against a suicidal and genocidal capitalism.” 

Interview by Dimitris Givisis for the Greek publication, Εποχή.

 1) What is your view on the current situation? Would it be an exaggeration to talk about a complete failure of neoliberal capitalism?

Speaking for the moment of the current situation in North America and Western Europe, I would argue that this is an (but not the) apocalypse, not the end of days but in the original sense of the term, an uncovering of what was previously concealed, suddenly, unexpectedly, and with enormous consequences. The coronavirus has torn away the veil to reveal that the apparent success of the neoliberal regime rested precariously on a very specific set of circumstances; it had not yet been tested by what Machiavelli called fortune and we might call history. But can we speak of the failure of neoliberalism, a notion that suggests that it has not achieved its objectives or kept its promises, with the implication that the more humane form of capitalism that the neoliberal model replaced will return to save us? I would say, instead, that this model has been exposed, has been forced to expose itself, its norms and assumptions, and to do so in practice as well as in its theory and propaganda. What has been revealed to us is what one of the architects of neoliberalism, Ludwig von Mises, decided one day to say out loud, a truth he insisted every economist knew: that the institution of a legal right of the living individual to go on living, a legal right to existence, which in the last instance compels the state to guarantee the necessities of life, is incompatible with capitalism, above all with the operation of the market that distributes these necessities as efficiently as possible. This is not a minor point, at least for those who wish to go on living.

The pandemic has forced the guardians of the market and the conception of property it presupposes to reveal to the populations of Europe and North America what they had already proclaimed to the rest of the world long ago: the market must be allowed to provide and withhold the means of subsistence without interference (such as stockpiling food or medical supplies in anticipation of future crises). The material form of this revelation, the disease, death, and destitution, in which it is expressed, however, represents a Kairos for neoliberalism, an opening or opportunity to secure the submission of the peoples of the world to a new, unheard-of level of market discipline and subjection, and to accustom them to death by disease or starvation as unalterable facts of nature. Marx and Engels declared that the ruling class that cannot guarantee subsistence to its population does not deserve to rule. Today, the unstated slogan of capitalism in its present forms is that the ruling class, unable to deny subsistence or protection from disease to its population, does not deserve to rule. This should, in principle, mark the limit of the tolerable for the laboring masses everywhere, but limits exist only when and where these same masses impose them through action.

2) How do you see the new upgraded role of the state? What impact do you think the strengthening of the state will have due to its centralization in crisis management?

Here again, I think we have to be very careful in our analysis, and national as well as regional differences are significant. But the case of Agamben may serve as a general cautionary tale: he has argued repeatedly that the present crisis consists of the state using a fictional threat to expand its hold on the bare life of the population, and, worse, manipulating even the left into demanding this expansion. Agamben’s exclusive focus on a state that in his view seeks constantly to increase its control over the population, whose freedom in turn is always freedom from the state, even under conditions of hunger and disease, is uncannily similar to the positions of the extreme right in the U.S. The problem is that an analysis of this type prevents us from understanding how states, maneuvering to create the best conditions for capital accumulation, exercise power through abandonment, withdrawal, and the laissez-mourir (letting die) that accompanies the practice of laissez- faire, using their right, not to kill, but to expose populations or parts of populations to the risk of death without any obligation to intervene. 

They can do this only under certain circumstances: above all the disasters that appear natural, but never are, the famines and pandemics for which they think they cannot be blamed, whose effects reduce the people’s capacity for mass action, and inspire a level of fear and demoralization that weakens the capacity for critique or even the ability to propose meaningful alternatives. Such a strategy may appear as simple failure or incompetence (and it is undeniable that the world’s leaders, as a group and individually, exhibit a level of incompetence seldom seen in recent history), but to oppose it, we must recognize its coherence as a strategy. States do not always expand; they may well contract, denying education, health care, housing, and even subsistence to a growing part of the population and in doing so weaken any resistance to deprivation. Capital is now maneuvering to take maximum advantage of the demobilization.

3)What do you think are the prospects of the class struggle in the new conditions? The analyses for the next day range from those that posit that an opportunity for “progressive shifts” is opening up, to those that observe a dystopian situation and point to an “authoritarian danger.”

The danger of a dystopian outcome to the current crisis is very real. To prevent its realization, we need to understand the tendencies at work in the attempt to shift the balance of power even further in the direction of capital to achieve a relatively stable authoritarian neo-liberal regime. We are told that the cost of addressing the pandemic will be paid through massive cuts to all social programs, an end to many of the regulations concerning wages and working conditions, the protection of the environment (and reversing global warming), and the actions of the financial sector in general. This very deliberate and long-desired shrinking of one part of the state will likely be accompanied by an increase in repression (by both state and non-state forces). We can expect higher levels of violence, with police freed by declarations of emergency to act with impunity, directed above all against workers, the unemployed, the racialized, refugees, “illegals,” “sans-papiers,” etc. to enforce their abandonment or expulsion.

Political leaders, from social democrats to the far right, are everywhere calling for the resumption of economic activity to avoid substantial tax increases and other costs for the wealthiest sectors of society, without regard to the cost in human life. Increasing numbers of workers are facing an impossible choice: work, and risk your life, or starve, and face destitution. It is now the organized working class in the U.S. that is demanding a continuation of the anti-pandemic measures, with the addition of monthly payments by the state, until the safety of all can be assured. By virtue of its structural position, the working class, together with African-Americans and Latinxs who are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, has become the primary defender of medical science against the explicit or implicit denialism of the elites. The defense of life against a suicidal and genocidal capitalism could be the basis of a new struggle for socialism.

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Warren Montag

Warren is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He is the editor of décalages and author of several books on the works of Adam Smith, Spinoza and Althusser.

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