In early 2021 we made the decision to conclude this project by compiling and editing it into a book. Although it was conceived as an online serial, the intention was always to treat it as a coherent project that would become a book, a plague journal of the pandemic. By January 2021 the writing collective that used the name M.I. Asma was itself dealing with pandemic exhaustion, with some members dealing with medical and social burdens that were exacerbated by the global epidemic. We were not unaffected by the necrocapitalist characteristics we were describing, but nor did we ever assume we were outside of these affects. Hence, when the vaccine roll out began, and bourgeois politicians began to speak of a post-pandemic “new normal”, we decided to wrap things up with an eye towards imperialist vaccine apartheid and the ideology of this supposed “new normal”.
After the last entry in May, we began to collectively edit the entirety of the project and speak with publishers––particularly publishers who were also invested in the kind of politics the collective as a whole espoused. We are pleased to announce that Kersplebedeb, a radical leftist press that all of us respect, is publishing the book version of this project. And here is a preview of the cover:
We were also able to obtain blurbs from authors whose works we cited at various points: Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb, Dylan Rodríguez, and Jasbir Puar. The book will be available in September 2021 and hopefully it will stand as a radical testament of the COVID pandemic that offers an analysis useful for future organizing driven by the memory of capitalist, imperialist, and settler-colonialist violence that drove the way in which this global crisis played out.
As the vaccine roll out continues, unevenly and according to capitalist and imperialist logics, it is worth briefly returning our attention to the logics of family and the private sphere, and their connection to politics and economics––what Angela Mitropoulos has called the oikos and the connection between this space and the state and economy oikonomia. (Mitropoulos, Contract and Contagion, 49-75) We know very well the ways in which capitalism maintains an ideological fiction about the private and public divide, pretending that the state is restrained from the household when in fact it intervenes upon the households of the most marginalized and when the normative households promulgate dominant ideology––sometimes the most reactionary––as part of their foundational oikos. Domestic labour, domestic abuse, and the family as a state apparatus function smoothly as part of the familial “private”. These patterns compliment the public state, the latter of which interferes in domiciles it finds threatening: the black households in the US, the Indigenous reserve homesteads in every settler-colonial formation, the migrant households where “illegals” are hidden.
But the appeal to the exceptional realm of the domicile, the oikos, has taken on an interesting characteristic during pandemic, particularly during its latter half. As new variants of the plague spread, as the vaccine roll-out is poorly managed, invectives regarding household and individual responsibility are being circulated. During an early 2021 lockdown, the Ontario government circulated an advertisement where a generic individual talked about how the regulations did not apply to him and, through this talking of his private responsibility of connecting his household with others, he was spreading the plague. Meanwhile, while this advertisement was circulating, the same government was talking about opening up the economy again––opening up the very spaces in which all medical experts indicated caused viral contact.
By March, with numbers of cases still climbing, the Ontario government again trotted out this nonsense about individual responsibility and private gatherings and declared a more draconian lockdown. A stay at home order was issued, police were mandated to stop and question pedestrians and drivers. Despite the fact that the medical experts had informed the government that the ICUs were filled with workers and the problem that workplaces, even those deemed “essential”, were not providing the proper safety measures or paid sick leave, as usual the government responded in its typical manner: policing rather than care, which is the normative necrocapitalist response. The problem, according to the government, was private responsibility: the decisions of families, the decisions of individuals. Personal choice and not the governmental choice to restrain itself from interfering with the economy.
The household and the individuals within the household are of course the units upon which the capitalist state depends. “The oikonomic nexus of family, nation and race delivers up the gift of free labour in its most forceful senses through the interrelated boundaries of the wage contract and those of citizenship (that is, the social contract),” writes Mitropoulos: “It does so in the forms of unpaid domestic labour; migrant labour that, by way of visa stipulations or outright criminalisation, is compelled to work for as little as possible; the geographic organisation of cheap and below-subsistence labour; to mention the most notable.” (Ibid., 163-164) Despite this fact, these “private” spaces are treated as the capitalist state’s exceptions, its scapegoats, as if they are outside of the economy even though they are part of this economy’s totality.
The oikos is the realm of reproductive labour; the liberal fiction of the private/public divide is in fact maintained and legislated by the state, intersecting with and paralleling the fictive division between the “free market” and the state:
“The oikonomics of present-day organisations of the economy… deliver a labour that has affective purchase, circulating as an extension of (rather than refusal of or indifference toward) care-giving domestic labour that significantly must appear as if it is not work at all, but freely and naturally given. Far from being marginal to the extraction of surplus labour, this expectation of a labour freely given has always been central to capitalist re/production.” (Ibid., 164)
Just as deregulation is a misnomer since the capitalist state has consistently enforced such deregulation by setting up multiple institutions to make the market into a Friedmanesque fever dream, the private sphere is equally regulated. It remains conveniently beyond the state in instances of domestic violence and the promulgation of reactionary ideology (that’s the private business of families!), as well as in instances of poverty and desperation (it’s the business of families to work out their home economy!). At the same time it is conveniently open to state interference––or more accurately what Dylan Rodríguez in White Reconstruction has rightly characterized as “domestic warfare”––if these families are from colonized or migrant backgrounds: let us not forget how, in the opening months of the pandemic, Regis Korchinski-Paquet was thrown from her balcony by Toronto pigs.
Moreover, the household is potentially an ideological state apparatus in that it is a space where reproductive labour might intersect with the reproduction of dominant social norms––where children are taught the ruling ideas of the ruling class by their parents and the media their parents allow them to consume. We say potentially and might, here, because not all homesteads are loyal––especially those that are exposed to domestic warfare––which is why the state interferes with those homes that do not conform to a proper oikonomia. Look at the snitch phone lines set up by various governments during pandemic, encouraging proper households to call the police on neighbours that appeared to be violating the rules of lockdown. Never mind the fact that poor immigrant households often contain more than ten people, due to the fact that they need to care for their elders and cousins, suddenly these households brimming with “foreigners” become suspect and primed for state intervention.
Writing a few years before the pandemic, Mitropoulos noted that “contagion seems to be as much a hermeneutics of everything as it is a biological model of generation, transmission and course of various diseases. Politics has become epidemiological.” (Ibid., 205) In Epidemic Empire Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb echoes Mitropoulos: “The infectious spaces of the Global South––hot, dirty, and teeming with illiterate and unhygienic bodies––have been represented by many health experts, policy makers, and popular science writers as out of sync with the supposed hypersmooth, sanitary space of the Western metropolis.” (Raza Kolb, 6) Within the imperialist metropoles, these spaces are represented as the homesteads of the migrant and racialized poor; within those imperialist metropoles that are also settler-capitalist formations, these homesteads are also those that are located in the reserves––indeed every reserve, as a whole, is treated as a collection of infectious domiciles. Raza Kolb’s point was that these tropes of infection, epidemic, and contagion have been common ways in which imperialism has conceived of its other––her historiography traces these tropes from the early 19th century to the present––and so even before a global pandemic these spaces were already conceptualized, and overrepresented, according to the language of contagion. As a priori “infections” of the imperial body politic, then, it is only logical that they would be conceived as the most frightening vectors of contagion during an actual pandemic. The general population has learned to suspect those households that represent these “infectious spaces” and to suspect that they are the ones responsible for spreading the virus rather than, as is actually the case, those economic spaces reopened during pandemic (since the capitalist economy must go on!) where many more bodies are in contact with each other in restaurants, shopping malls, and big box stores. Again, the fault is the “individual” and their households––not the economic re-openings, or the failure to safeguard workers in “essential” workplaces––and especially those individuals and households that are deemed by racist ideology to be, in Fanon’s words, “insensible to ethics.” (Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 41)
There is an irony here that requires attention. While it is indeed the case that the greatest spread of COVID has always happened when the economy is reopened––when restaurants, malls, and multiple stores open their doors to customers––thus making the notion of “waves” an artificial conception, it is also the case that the most socially marginalized populations have experienced greater rates of infection than their non-marginalized counterparts. This fact, at first glance, appears to justify the racist assumption that these “other” spaces, and these suspicious families, require surveillance and state intervention. But this perspective fails to grasp that marginalized populations possess less social assets than non-marginalized populations and are thus “expose[d] to death” (Mbembe, 66) and disease at a greater rate than those who can work from home, largely avoid disease transmission, and have better access to health care. The reality is that those populations who are a priori conceptualized as being an “infection” to the body politic have been made vulnerable and thus are always exposed to actual disease; they are made into the very vectors they were already conceptualized as being. They are the ones overwhelmingly working in the factories and other labour spaces that remain open during every lockdown; they are the ones who are not given paid sick leave and so are forced to hide whatever symptom they might experience so as to feed themselves and their families.
This irony that those vulnerable populations conceived as a “disease” are simultaneously those who are made most vulnerable to actual disease affects the practice of inoculation. As the vaccines are being produced, and those states that have access to them attempt to think how to best inoculate their general population, it becomes a general health concern to figure out what populations are most vulnerable to COVID-19 and inoculate these populations first so as to prevent further spread and stress upon state health systems. It was thus basic risk management when the Canadian state, for example, chose to distribute the first round of vaccines to at-risk Indigenous communities. This distribution was not an act of kindness, or even “benevolent” colonial paternalism (though it occasionally depicted itself as such), because settler-capitalism is far from benevolent. Rather, it was simple cost-benefit logistics: if you inoculate those most likely to contract the virus due to their social vulnerability, you end up saving money in the long run by preventing these populations from overburdening intensive care units. But when the CBC reported on this phase of the vaccine roll-out, the video on its youtube channel was flooded with thousands of comments by settlers upset about “Indigenous privilege”.
Settler ideology is such, after all, that any prioritization of Indigenous populations over the “proper” Canadian citizen––no matter how logistically sound––will be seen as privilege and even the contamination of the normative rights of the [white settler] citizen. The colonized domicile ought to be exposed to death and disease, according to “empire’s disease poetics”, (Raza Kolb, 17) because the colonized (along with other racially marginalized populations), contaminate the stability of the settler-capitalist state. The notion that settler families and individuals are more deserving of state assets than their colonized counterparts is a well-worn trope that cuts against basic cost-benefit logistics. The settler domicile––the garrison building block of every settler-colonialist society––must always be prioritized or the body politic is contaminated! And those settler families who possess the economic means will defy the pandemic logistics of their own state if and when they can. Echoing the settler couple who travelled to a remote Indigenous community to escape COVID in the first months of pandemic, the wealthy Baker family travelled to the Yukon and posed as members of the community so as to receive early inoculation. Despite the fact that the Bakers were publicly castigated as “selfish” by a general population that has no tolerance for millionaires jumping the queue, the truth is that many settler families and individuals would jump this queue if they possessed the resources. The antipathy towards the Bakers was less acrimonious than the antipathy towards these Indigenous populations. The hatred of the former was more to do with the fact that they used resources that the majority of settlers did not possess. The hatred of the latter concerned their very right, as humans, to be given anything from the settler state.
Besides, let us be clear, this simple cost-benefit analysis was always paltry. While some marginalized communities were able to be inoculated first, others were ignored if and when it directly interfered with economic sphere. Aside from the instance cited above, vaccine roll-out has largely benefitted the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois who have the time to book an appointment and the training to navigate the labyrinth of state bureaucracy. The households containing individuals who work from home, possess negotiable work schedules, might even hire domestic labour to look after their kids, and are acclimatized citizens, are the households whose members are better able to get their shots.
Hence the ways in which even the vaccine rollout is understood are determined by an oikonomic reasoning that brushes up against the state’s logistics. And every time state representatives emphasize the responsibility of the private household or individual, they valorize this already politicized space (because, as discussed, it is an ideological state apparatus) so that an idea of proper social contract mediates inoculation logistics. Presuming that safety in the pandemic is primarily the business of the private sphere, individuals and private households are also under the assumption that inoculation is also primarily their business. Such an assumption not only pits individual against individual, and private home against private home, in a bid to get vaccinated first––like selfish teenagers jostling for a place at the front of a bus or movie queue––but it functions according to those dominant ideologies that are transmitted within these oikonomic spaces. This is why the multiple “biopolitical” analyses are incomplete.
After all, it makes perfect “biopolitical” sense to manage populations according to the aforementioned logistical analysis––to manage health and hygiene during a biological emergency in a way that protects state resources. There is nothing intrinsically nefarious in such management, despite the Agambens telling us otherwise, because the actual problem is pre-existing: the capitalist, imperialist, and settlerist ideology that precedes and determines “biopolitical” (and “necropolitical”) pandemic management. What Mitropoulos calls the oikos––that private sphere that among other things is also an ideological state apparatus––is indeed one space that predetermines so-called biopolitical management. “Whereas epidemics and pandemics, by definition, presume an extrinsic risk,” Mitropoulos writes, “the contagion that appears from outside the body (politic), the endemic posits uncertain oikonomic arrangements as an instrinsic pathology of, simultaneously, territory and population.” (Mitropoulos, Contract and Contagion, 132-133)
Hence, biopolitical management is mediated by pre-existing ideology that takes root within the ideological state apparatus of the family and blossoms out from this “private” sphere into the schools and other state institutions/structures. Perhaps one of the reasons that Foucault’s understanding of race/racism was so impoverished was because he located it on the level of biopolitical management rather than a pre-existing ideological affect that, having developed through colonial warfare and the plantation system, sunk itself within the dominant oikos of the capitalist-imperialist states that it also generated. As noted above, the logistical management of the pandemic––which is paradigmatically what has been called “biopolitical”––was overdetermined by pre-existing racist ideology.
Indeed, the violence of colonial conquest marked modernity and thus the rise of the tropes that would be designated as “biopolitical”. This violence is the inheritance of capitalism and has affected all of actually existing capitalism’s characteristics and mechanisms, whether we call them biopolitical, necropolitical, oikonomical, or whatever other label is useful to describe the day to day functioning of global capitalism. Again: capitalism comes into existence “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” (Marx, Capital vol. 1, 712) While a global pandemic, with its management and its tropes, is taken by some to be evidence of a foundational biopolitical logic, this logic is in fact epiphenomenal. Born out in the capitalist oikos that was generated by the period of mercantilism and so-called “primitive” accumulation:
“the conceptualization and epistemological framing first of world health and later of global health emerge from the immunological crisis of colonial contact. The management of global and potentially global epidemics is not just a figure for competing immunities, a metaphor for the struggle over the robustness and survival of state forms; it is as central to the praxis of colonialism as is the extraction of raw materials, the conscription of labor in various forms, the annexation of markets, and cultural hegemony.” (Raza Kolb, 36-37)
Hence, both the biopolitical management of pandemic and the oikonomics of contagion are secondary to the brutal material reality of capitalism coming into being through modern colonialism. All of the tropes and language existed ahead of time, derived from what capitalism actually was at is “rosy dawn”––despite early bourgeois ideologue’s vision of a utopian anti-aristocratic society, despite the Republican dreams of the Jacobins––that is, a horrendously genocidal reality. In a word: necrocapitalism, the permanent characteristic of capitalism.
As a final point in this chapter, we would be remiss not to mention that the ideological conception of othered households and colonial populations as figures of contagion is, in a very important sense, capitalist projection. Centuries before “the conceptualization and epistemological framing” of the “immunological crisis of colonial contact” colonial conquest generated epidemic as biological warfare. The intentional spread of small pox in South America that decimated the Mexica was echoed in the spread of small pox blankets in North America by the colonial formations that would become the US and Canada. Hence, imagining that the colonized and their rebellions were akin to contagion was an actual inversion of the contagions intentionally spread by the colonizers. Today’s conspiracy theory imaginary that COVID-19 was created and spread by a Chinese military facility is thus a white supremacist projection of what European colonial powers actually did from the 16th century onwards. Moreover, this colonial use of contagion has been naturalized so that there is, in Raza Kolb’s terms, a “depoliticization of conflict.” (Ibid., 47) That is, despite the fact that there is much empirical evidence that the colonizers intentionally created these epidemics as biological warfare, there is also the ideological narrative that it was non-intentional, that disease just happened to appear, and that the colonized necessarily succumbed to the forces of nature that nobody could predict. The memory of these intentional contagions, that dominant ideology refuses to recognize as biological warfare, are thus projected on an actual pandemic––and this projection comes from a history of projecting contagion upon the global peripheries.
With this final point in mind, it is worth noting that the analogy and metaphor of pandemic does not have to be colonialist or imperialist. Although this “disease poetics” has a long history of imperialist deployment, in Epidemic Empire Raza Kolb also notes how it has been requisitioned by revolutionary movements to conceptualize the ill-health generated by colonial occupation. (Ibid., 183) While it is indeed the case that imperialism has used the figure of contagion in a violent manner, it is also the case that modern colonialism has literally generated contagion. More importantly, in response to the actual contagions generated by capitalism and imperialism, revolutionary movements capable of setting up dual power have drawn on the “function of [their] proto-state as a giver of care” thus launching them “into the realm of believable governance, an organized authority that can replace [the oppressive] state.” (Ibid.)
As this global pandemic has made clear, capitalism is incapable of caring for people in a meaningful manner; thoroughly necrotic it ultimately exposes them to disease and death. Revolutionary movements that grasp the fact that the actual virus is capitalism, that might even employ a counter “disease poetics”––that is more accurate about who is responsible for creating and spreading and refusing to prevent epidemic––will generate a better understanding of health and care. “In the struggle to take care of our bodies in a new, more human way,” a collective led by James Boggs wrote in 1975, “we can discover a new humanity in ourselves––a humanity which will manifest itself not only in the good health of the individual but in healthier relations among all of us in the communities where we live and the places where we work.” (A New Outlook on Health, 90)
 Each “wave” of higher infection rates always corresponds to the reopening of the economy. It is not as if COVID-19 is a thinking creature that decides to go away with every successive lockdown, only to come back stronger when it chooses. The fact is that the possibility of infection and its exponential growth remains a constant; it blossoms when the contact between individuals is increased because it spreads through increased contact. The “waves” always correspond with social phenomena that place people in greater contact with other people. Despite claims by government officials that this is the fault of individuals and households holding large social events (and again we should ask what individuals and households are being blamed), and despite the fact that failure to abide by the suggestions of proper health during Christmas and New Years probably did contribute to the spread of infection, the multiple re-openings of the economy have been what have actually correlated with these “waves”.
Necrocapitalism is on a rampage. But if all you did was listen to the official media organs and figureheads you would think that capitalist society was making progress toward justice and that things are getting better. But they are not. Necrocapitalism is on a rampage.
On April 21 of 2021 one of George Floyds killers, the pig Derek Chauvin was found guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. That same day, figurehead for the U.S. empire, President Joe Biden, said in a statement that the verdict was “a step forward”, while claiming that “systemic racism is a stain on our nation’s soul.” Systemic racism, a term in long currency among oppressed people critical of the United States, its “justice” system, and all the structures of capitalist oppression is today a talking point for people like Joe Biden who are responsible for legitimizing and carrying out that oppression. Minnesota attorney general, Keith Ellison, a person who has made it his life’s work to uphold systemic racism as part of America’s “justice” system, also said “I would not call today’s verdict justice, however, because justice implies true restoration. But it is accountability, which is the first step toward justice.” Ellison’s comment, drawing a distinction between justice and accountability, resembles something that oppressed people fighting for the abolition of capitalism and its police have also long emphasized: that the repressive institutions of capitalism, the prisons, the courts, and the police, are not vehicles for justice.
We have emphasized in previous chapters that the revolutionary left must refuse the call to “return to the normalcy” of capitalism. And that we must also refuse to be conned into believing that the rolling out of vaccination in the imperialist countries is guided by anything more benevolent or “equitable” than the distribution patterns and logistics of necrocapitalism. We raise the same warning flag about the use of revolutionary sounding language by the representatives of capitalism.
After the conviction of the pig Derek Chauvin will Joe Biden and Keith Ellison and all the other politicians making claims about justice and “first steps towards” it become committed fighters against the systems and institutions that brought about the murder of George Floyd? No. What Joe Biden and Keith Ellison and so many other figureheads of imperialism are committed to is the continuation of the normalcy in the “return to normalcy” that we’ve noted time and again is founded on the material conditions that produce all of the nightmarish features of necrocapitalism, including the current pandemic and the continued mass incarceration and murder of oppressed people at the hands of the police and the “justice” systems of capitalism. In the very same statement quoted above, Keith Ellison went whole hog as an agent of capitalist repression and demanded that the oppressed carry out any further expressions of rage against injustice “calmly, legally, and peacefully”––a scornful reference to the year-long, global, mass actions of oppressed people that took to the streets to protest the police murder of George Floyd and which were indispensable for pressuring the capitalist justice system to bring charges against and convict Derek Chauvin.
Meanwhile, it is business as usual: on the same day that pig Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murder, and only a few minutes after the verdict was announced, Makiyah Bryant, a Black girl who called the police because she was being jumped was shot dead by the pigs in Columbus, Ohio. Bystander video shows crowds gathered at the scene after Makiyah Bryant’s murder began shouting “No racist police!” and “Enough is enough!”. The video also captured the pigs yelling the racist slogan “blue lives matter” at the crowd.
Capitalism is not only incapable of producing justice for Black people and the oppressed; it is not only incapable of stopping the death of Black people and the oppressed at the hands of the police it is also a state of affairs where even the possibility of stopping the mass death of the oppressed due to COVID-19 is controversial.
Take for instance the global deployment of COVID-19 vaccines. According to Abby Maxman of Oxfam America, “one in four citizens of rich countries have been vaccinated, and just one in 500 in poorer countries have done so.” This is stemming from the fact that the United States, the UK and other WTO countries oppose a waiver on international bourgeois patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines that would allow poor countries to manufacture the medicines. The consequence of this profits-before-people approach that is status quo of capitalism is the increased spread of the COVID-19 virus, new variations of the virus, and the countless deaths of people from poor countries.
The imperialist class and the ruling classes in the imperialist countries are vehemently opposed to this waiver. Bill Gates, poster boy for “philanthropic” capitalism and a parasite that thrives solely because of the existence of bourgeois intellectual property rights, recently said that rich countries should not share vaccine recipes with poor countries. His “argument”, which he gave no support for other than chauvinism against the poor, is that only by maintaining this inequitable status quo, can the quality of vaccines be guaranteed. Of course, we can ask “who cares about the opinions of a billionaire completely removed from global health concerns?” and move on, but there are other interests that are involved in the inequitable distribution of vaccines that also oppose patent rights wavers. Lobbyists for vaccine manufacturers have instructed the United States that patent rights waivers for COVID-19 vaccines could have the unthinkable, catastrophic result of other countries developing not only vaccines for COVID-19, but also cancer and heart disease and should be opposed.
The position of the pharmaceutical industry reminds us of what Lenin described as the “parasitism and decay of capitalism” in its imperialist stage (Lenin 1939, p. 119). The decay of capitalism refers to the tendency of advanced capitalism to halt technical progress and innovation by limiting production to what can produce monopoly profits. Lenin notes that it is the same in imperialism’s relationship to the neo-colonies. (Lenin, Imperialism The Highest Stage of Capitalism, 119. In the case of the manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, pharmaceutical companies have little interest in producing life saving vaccines if they are unable to profit from them. So, they pressure their lackeys in the imperialist governments to secure their monopoly on vaccine manufacture, no matter how many people die in the poor countries.
While keeping Lenin in mind, we recall that in The State and Revolution, Lenin tells us that the exploiting classes need political rule to maintain exploitation. (Lenin, 20) What we see happening right now is the rich, imperialist countries condemning poor people all over the world to death while squeezing neo-colonial governments for profit. Joe Biden and the representatives of imperialism provide that political rule. On the one hand Joe Biden talks about taking steps to achieve justice after the Derek Chauvin verdict, but on the other, his government colludes with the pharmaceutical companies to carry out injustice on a global scale, resulting in mass death. This situation is endemic to necrocapitalism and a powerful reminder that there is no “return to normalcy” that does not carry a death toll for the poor and exploited. No matter what the figureheads of imperialism say about justice and no matter how many times they project a faux optimism about things getting better, only the political rule of the proletariat can stop the rampage of necrocapitalism.
We have so far cautioned against the ideological trap of a “return to normalcy.” Since what is unprecedented in the pandemic indexes only the functioning of the inner logic of capitalism under specific historical conditions rather than any radical rupture, the return to normalcy is a concession to the very crisis-ridden system that we should rather be aiming to overcome.
On the other hand, we are everywhere enjoined to embrace a “new normal.” It’s worth reflecting further on this because here again the theme of novelty, the unprecedented, is perniciously mobilized while the old logic of capitalism churns on. Irrationalities in vaccine rollouts and the proliferation of coronavirus variants are certainly emerging faces of crisis (not to mention parallel and compounding crises like the deadly climate-driven cold shock in Texas at the time of writing). But we must never forget that capitalism runs on crisis. Because it does, the contradiction between the “return to normalcy” and the “new normal” is only apparent.
What we are witnessing is capital seizing the moment not simply to keep its grip on us, but also to tighten it. In a very basic way, pandemic-related unemployment swells the reserve army of labour and therefore puts pressure on those who are still working. But there are more specific ways the grip tightens as well. To take one example, many of us work in the education sector, and have had to shift to telework and online learning. The writing is on the wall that the current investment in this shift––in large part by workers themselves, to be sure––is here to stay. Doubtless, we can point to emerging coronavirus variants or even to the “next pandemic” as reasons why a robust online infrastructure and workforce capacity are vital. But such work also offloads infrastructure costs onto workers, and potentially increases the pace and volume of their labour through the modification of spatial and temporal limits to teaching, grading, research, administrative tasks, and meetings. Let’s not miss the implication: the more capitalism manifests openly as necrocapitalism––that is the more it mows people down by exposing frontline workers to infection for economic reasons––the better it can sell fixes that help it to extract even more surplus value from workers. More simply still: the more it kills us, the more capitalism can steal from us. This sounds perverse, but that’s precisely the point: talk of “the new normal” masks capital’s core perversion. It does this by conflating “normal” in the sense of usual or typical, with “normal” in the sense of normative. For this reason, we reserve the use of the term “normal” to simply mean the functioning of capitalism according to its core logic––which of course can manifest in various ways according to capital’s needs of the moment.
Two of David Harvey’s concepts are helpful here. (Harvey, Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason) First, he often refers to “accumulation by dispossession,” basically Marx’s “primitive accumulation” but more forthright in name and further differentiated beyond the baseline examples of colonialism and plunder. In a word, accumulation by dispossession is the phase of capitalism in which “startup capital” is acquired through theft, force, or coercion. Harvey’s terminology is preferable to Marx’s because “primitive” has the ring to it of “historically prior” whereas this is not at all what Marx meant. “Primitive” accumulation––basically stealing, therefore “accumulation by dispossession”––can occur in any historical period and is likely to happen during crises of capital, when the market as such can no longer iron out capitalist contradictions.
Second, Harvey often references the “free gifts of nature” that human beings give capitalism. Take reproduction and childrearing, which we’ve discussed at some length in previous chapters. It is costly to raise children, which is odd when you realize that by doing so you are equipping new workers for entry into the market. Basically, parents subsidize capital when they care for their children. And in other ways, such as through our creativity and our capacity for mutual aid, we likewise furnish capital with much it can put to its own uses and sell back to us at an inflated cost.
Let’s put these concepts together. What we are suggesting is that we are living through a new round of accumulation by dispossession. But to speak solely of teleworkers, what is being demanded and taken also falls increasingly in the category of erstwhile free gifts of nature: unless we are deemed essential and put in harm’s way as a matter of course, our working lives are shifted increasingly into our home or intimate lives, where care relations have to keep the whole damned thing going. The reduction of “junk time” through telework is double-edged because in the very instant it opens up free time, it also recasts us as beings who are available for work. This is, of course, what the poorest workers have always been to capital; but there is a palpable sense in the pandemic of digital proletarianization, and this is precisely one facet of what is peddled as a “new normal”.
This finally bears on what we previously termed the “indeterminate miasmatic temporality” of the pandemic’s opening. Arguably, almost a year into the pandemic, this temporality continues into the calls for normalcy, but it now does so with a twist. We are told to wait; specifically, that we must wait for capital and its neoliberal political bunglers to outrun the rapidly mutating coronavirus through vaccination rollouts and therapeutics. But, simultaneously, we are also told that we can no longer wait; however grudgingly, we must accept the new normal, which is after all a return to the old normal but now with more of an employment blackmail hanging over us and more of our free “gifts” demanded as tribute to capital. Our call here is therefore simple: we must fight the imposed miasmatic temporality of waiting while working, of being made more and more available for work, with an active temporality of resistance and organizing. At a minimum, if telework imposes a broader span of time where we are available for work, then our watchword must be to practice time theft whenever and as often as we can. But beyond this minimum, we must also form links in an organized chain of workers capable of constituting a genuine rupture, a break beyond the wildest dreams of capital’s impoverished, stagnant, and utterly “normal” imagination.
We began this project in April of 2020. Our plan was to present a running commentary that followed events related to necrocapitalism, COVID-19, and political struggle as they unfolded. As various governing bodies rollout and implement vaccination plans, we have decided that we would follow the policy pivot with an analytic pivot looking at the relationship between vaccinations and necrocapitalism. If the project began in the midst of an indeterminate miasmatic temporality, the beginning of vaccinations—regardless of their success—draws us back into periodization and demarcations. From the dichotomy of “before times” and the pandemic, back to past, present, and future. Political leaders tout not the end, but the “beginning of the end” of the pandemic, though, given that vaccination will follow distribution patterns and logistics shaped by necrocapitalism, we can anticipate a long interregnum of an uneven geography of (potentially) post-pandemic life. The return to “normalcy” will constitute a regression toward the capitalist system that enabled the pandemic to reach the scope that it has—and which continues to enable successive environmental crises.
The guiding hypothesis of this project has been that, to quote Lenin, all crises “make manifest what has been hidden; they cast aside all that is relative, superficial, and trivial; they sweep away the political litter.” Our explicit goal has been to relate what is unprecedented to constitutive features of capitalism. Thus we began very early on by challenging the hyperbolic assertions of several prominent philosophers. Giorgio Agamben’s position veered very quickly toward close proximity to COVID-denialism—the coronavirus was merely a ploy to extend the state of exception into everyday existence, stifling the meaningful bonds of public life. Ironically, it is the United States, which once stood as the contemporary paradigm of the state of exception, that then underwent an inversion into spontaneous Agambenian resistance. And for that, it has recorded a disproportionate amount of preventable harm and death (though again, it is marginalized and oppressed groups which have disproportionately suffered this already disproportionate harm). Slavoj Žižek, by contrast, grasped that the COVID-19 pandemic would occasion a capitalist crisis, but hoped that capitalist states and non-governmental institutions would suddenly impose the communist social relations they’ve so brutally suppressed over the last century.
Again, the concept of necrocapitalism does not constitute a radical rupture with the supposedly normal, smooth functioning of capital. In our view, what the pandemic casts in relief is the fact that capital accumulation is premised on exposing and subjecting the poor, the oppressed, the dispossessed, and the wretched of the earth to environmental harm and premature death. Crisis focuses the intensity of this exposure and subjection.
If public health officials are correct, and vaccination heralds the beginning of the end of the pandemic, then revolutionary and leftist theorists and organizers must move forward while avoiding two mistakes.
First, we must refuse the widespread appeals to a return to normalcy. In what follows we will draw examples from North America. The implementation of neoliberal policy in the United States and Canada resulted in drastic cuts and/or privatization in public healthcare and disease-control infrastructure. However, this criticism of government policy should be understood in the broad sense that includes policy changes over decades. Yet even if these policies were different, this would not modify the fact that, as Angela Mitropoulos points out, shortages or supply-chain breakdowns in supplies of personal protective equipment are due to the fact that PPE is a commodity. (Mitropoulos, Pandemonium, 96ff)
Furthermore, the normalcy to which public officials appeal rests on a system of transnational capitalism which is powered by fossil fuel. There’s already an attempt on the part of wealthier nations to pin responsibility for carbon emissions on countries which produce commodities—for export to these wealthier nations—without acknowledging how the drive to extract surplus-value by following cheap labor costs drives increased carbon emissions. As Andreas Malm shows in Fossil Capital, “globally mobile capital will speed up the consumption of fossil energy through its perpetual drive to maximise surplus-value.” (Malm, Fossil Capital, 339) More recently, Malm has expanded the scope of his analysis to examine how, beyond the concern of carbon emissions, ecologically unequal exchange between the Global North and Global South, enabled by fossil capital, is a “deep driver of deforestation, hence of biodiversity loss, hence of zoonotic spillover”—meaning that the present system of producing products such as coffee, beef, tea, sugar, and palm oil exercises more and more pressure on biodiverse ecosystems. (Malm, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, 54) As Malm notes, according to a 2012 study:
the top seven importers of biodiversity threats were…the United States, Japan, Germany, France, UK, Italy, and Spain….Measured per capita, the variations in consumptive claims on biodiversity are even more skewed, with rich but sparsely populated countries like Canada and Finland shooting up to the top…The forces reaching out to forests and pulling out pathogens are nowhere as strong as in the central nodes of capital.
Malm, Corono, Climate, Chronic Emergency, 53-55.
Once we consider—to take a local example for some of us—that the Canadian economy remains tied to bitumen extraction, normalcy portends more environmental degradation, the continued expansion of fossil capital, the intensified threat to biodiversity, and pathogenic zoonotic spillover. In short, normalcy involves returning back to the material conditions which have enabled climate emergency and the present pandemic despite however many so-called moral lessons we exchange in our edifying post-pandemic discourses.
Second, we must not confuse the deployment of equitable, or perhaps more accurately, aspirationally-equitable, patterns of vaccination with underlying transformations of social, political, or economic relations. The electoral left tends to organize for forms of economic and political reform and mitigation rather than revolution, and thus social democratic parties and organizations will push for half-measures of so-called new deals despite the fact that reformism lacks the scope to confront global, systemic capitalist crises. They will focus on instituting equitable patterns of distribution, but these leave inequalities in relations of production untouched.
In other words, evenif a given government institutes equitable patterns of vaccination, these equitable patterns do not constitute a rupture with underlying exploitative relations of economic production and social reproduction. And the deployment of these patterns of distribution must be examined from the totality of social relations. For example, the federal government and at least some provincial governments in Canada have prioritized vaccination for Indigenous peoples. For some analysts, this signals a shift toward fulfilling the Canadian government’s self-proclaimed mandate of nation-to-nation reconciliation between First Nations, Métis, and Inuit nations and the Crown. However, much of the government’s policy remains the same. In October of 2020, the Trudeau government announced that the pandemic will interfere with a prior pledge to end long-term boil-water advisories—which must mean that COVID-19 has been in Canada for years, since the promise was made in 2015. Nor should we exclude the fact that Indigenous communities are especially vulnerable to the pandemic due to various ongoing structural manifestations of racism: the lack of services available to remote communities, biases affecting how healthcare is administered (or denied), and the stigmatization of Indigenous communities as supposed carriers of COVID-19—and that none of these factors have been mitigated. In fact, if we consider that Indigenous struggles, from the Wet’suwet’en solidarity blockades of February 2020 to the Mi’kmaq assertion of fishing rights, were met with escalating reactionary settler vigilante violence, and what amounts to tacit consent of the RCMP in these situations for vigilantism, it is plausible that Indigenous political struggle faces more antagonism than it did at the beginning of the pandemic. And if we consider that the government policies have enriched the bourgeoisie at the expense of the working classes, increased social inequalities, left many unemployed (with women—especially racialized women and women with disabilities—significantly impacted by job losses in the US), and exposed marginalized and oppressed communities to the deepening environmental injustices of adverse healthcare outcomes through the pandemic, only a sliver of society has the means to return to “normal.” In short, when public officials herald the beginning of the end of the pandemic, we must organize so that the return to so-called normalcy is merely a condition of the beginning of a renewed struggle against the conditions that make necrocapitalism possible.
Having subjected us to the spectacle of its electoral circus for most of the pandemic, it was too much to hope that the US would stop clogging the global news cycle with the performances and rituals of its bourgeoisie’s political competition. The world is more than the US––even the imperialist camp is larger than the US––and the global deployment of the vaccine, according to the vicissitudes of world capitalism, is now happening while other events, also over-determined by the pandemic, unfold in every corner of the globe. But it is the prerogative of the most powerful imperialist country to centre its narratives, particularly the stories of its dominant class, and demand that its voice and its concerns drown out everything else. Such was the case with the British Empire when it was the preeminent imperialist nation; such will be the case if and when the US is replaced by another leading imperialist power. In the past, in the early days of capitalism, the world was predominantly the world of the British Empire, despite other European nations competing for the same perceived right of “civilizational” domination, because that imperialist power possessed the economic and political power to declare itself the owner of the world––a world it saw as its destiny, along with less powerful European nation-states, to master and plunder. Most news that was newsworthy then (although the speed of news was much slower than it is today) centred the pre-eminence of the British Empire until one of its genocidal slave-state colonies seceded and, upon secession, worked tirelessly to become the next preeminent imperialist power. Rule Britannia was eventually replaced by Manifest Destiny and the time of American Exceptionalism––for every imperialist power, especially the most powerful, accords itself an exceptionalism––was born.
Hence, the reason we keep coming back to events unfolding in the US in our discussion of the necrotic characteristics of contemporary capitalism, is because these characteristics are best represented by the leading capitalist nation-state and the imposition of its will upon the world. Every other imperialist power, along with the compradori in the global peripheries, are still dragged along by events within the US along with events the US is involved with globally. So it was that, right when the vaccines appeared and started to be distributed globally according to the dictates of imperialism, the world found itself again focused on the fallout of US “democratic” ritual, the paroxysms resulting from Donald Trump’s refusal to admit defeat that led to his loyalists storming Capitol Hill because of a supposed stolen election.
To be clear, this narrative of a “stolen election” and the democratic sanctity of Biden’s election should not matter to any militant who cares about breaking from and transcending this capitalist order. In the previous chapter we discussed how so-called “Trumpism” (a possibly American Exceptionalist term that assumes its version of right populism is unique) could not be sharply demarcated from the neoliberalism of the Biden/Harris regime. The point, here, is all the mea culpas about the potential death of US democracy due to MAGA loyalists storming a site of US power tell us more about the degeneration of the myth of US democracy than an actual existential threat on democracy in general. What we actually observed was committed settlers, the backbone of US settler-capitalist society just doing what the US has always done in every space in the world it has involved itself. There was nothing truly outside of the pale in their so-called “insurrection”––and the fact that the police collaborated with them is evidence of this––because it was merely the white settler garrison manifesting as it has always manifested, since the settler-colonial beginnings of the US monstrosity. The fact that the class composition of this supposed “insurrection” was by-and-large “upper middle class” should demonstrate that this is less of a heinous act and more of the US settler-colonial nature haunting itself. That is, it was a point of social cannibalism. The US is eating itself and its own claims to democracy. Its pro-Confederate past is showing up in its hallowed sites but it cannot condemn this past because, in the interest of “unity”, it preserved this past against black reconstruction, through Jim Crow, and right up to its current anti-black and pro-colonial carceral logic. Thus, when US Democrats complain about an attack on democracy we should not care since we are merely observing the racist basis of this so-called “democracy” working itself out in real time as a war between settler siblings.
But American Exceptionalism is such that other imperialist nation-states are forced to play along. Condemnations of Trump’s claims about the US elections have been delivered by the other imperialist nations, and all of these condemnations have also been determined by the pandemic and the worry that so-called “Trumpism” will get in the way of the roll out of vaccines. A roll out, let us be honest, that will function according to the rules of imperialism no matter what happens on that exceptionalist realm of US blood and soil. None of these nations really cared about the content of Trump’s politics when he was in power; liberal democracy is such that it can tolerate reactionaries as long as it plays by the rules of electoral ritual. What it cannot tolerate are these rules being broken––which is why it could not tolerate the violence of the rebellions in the spring and summer while also tolerating the necrotic aspects of capitalism that were laid bare over the course of the pandemic. Hence, despite Trump’s baseless claims about a stolen election in November and December, fascists such as Modi congratulated Biden for his victory. And following the January 6 events in the Capitol, a reactionary like Boris Johnson could join the chorus of other imperialist states condemning Trump for allowing the transgression of the hallowed conventions of bourgeois democracy.
For us, there is nothing truly heinous in the storming of the Capitol building by itself. Liberals will hand-wring about the violence, about the violation of “democratic” conventions, and blather on about sedition and treason. But they did the same with the rebellions in the spring and summer and, in point of fact, subjected the populations involved in these rebellions to more state violence than the fascists who stormed the Capitol who were in fact enabled by the repressive state apparatus of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie––the pigs participated, letting the Trump supporters inside––and will face far less retribution. The dictatorship of the bourgeoisie can tolerate fascism to a certain extent because it is part of its political continuum, especially in a settler-capitalist formation. As long as fascists follow the rules of liberal decorum other factions of the bourgeoisie are happy to enable them by giving their ideologues many of the platforms they desire. Biden can thus speak about “unity” amongst white supremacists and other USAmericans once the embarrassment of the Capitol storming is overcome. Republicans who were once fine with Trump can thus vote for impeachment because he broke the decorum generated by the myth of US democratic exceptionalism. Multiple adages about the singular greatness of US democracy and how it was violated by the events of January 6 should make us laugh. The white supremacy that is foundational to this “great democracy” simply manifested; it was not in contradiction with the content of US politics only with its form. “The racist in a culture with racism is therefore normal,” writes Fanon: “He has achieved a perfect harmony of economic relations and ideology.” (Fanon, Toward the African Revolution, 40.) And Devin Zane Shaw has charted the ways in which system loyalty and system opposition function within white supremacist factions of settler-capitalist formations.
In any case when we say there is nothing truly heinous in the storming of the Capitol building we don’t mean that the political perspective of those who stormed it was not heinous––it was––but that if the Capitol was stormed by revolutionaries in the interest of overthrowing settler-capitalism there would be nothing to condemn. The problem is the political content, not insurgency, whereas for liberals the problem is insurgency and they could give two shits about the politics involved––actually, they would be more likely to condemn communists, anarchists, and “Antifa” before condemning actual fascists. So for our side, and against the return to neoliberal “normalcy”, we want to remind ourselves and those we organize with that insurgency is good, that the conventions of bourgeois democracy should be torn down, but that is the political line that matters. We are now being exhorted to return to a neoliberal normalcy, and act as if the recent delirium of the most powerful imperialist nation was an aberration, when in fact we should be rejecting this violent and necrotic system altogether. As the war between siblings of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie intensifies, and thus exposes more of the intrinsic violence of the system, we should be rejecting both the fascist and liberal wings of this bourgeois dictatorship. Capitalist normalcy must die if humanity is to live.
The Biden transition team recently announced a who’s who of architects and ideologues of imperialist war, policy, and institutions that will make up part of Biden’s presidential cabinet. Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan are respectively filling the positions of Secretary of State and National Security Adviser. These are classic American warmongers instrumental in promoting Biden’s vote for the invasion of Iraq and Hilary Clinton’s support for war in Syria and Libya. Avril Hanes, ex-Deputy CIA Director under Obama will now fill the role of National Intelligence director, bringing to bear against the world’s people her experience in designing Obama’s drone program for illegal political killings and her support for Trump’s CIA Director pick, Gina Haspel—famous for implementing American black site torture sites and destroying videotape evidence of CIA torture. Alejandro Mayorkas is Biden’s pick to serve as Secretary of Homeland Security. The imperialist media has made much ado about him being the “first Latino” to hold this dystopian office, but we must remember that he served as deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under Obama and helped him earn the title “Deporter-in-Chief” by expanding deportations and family detentions. Mayorkas is so reactionary that the former head of the Florida GOP and of the American Conservative Union was prompted to tweet “hallelujah” upon learning of his selection. Biden has also selected Neera Tanden for the position of Office of Management & Budget Director, a selection that reaffirms Biden’s promise to wealthy campaign donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” with his election to the presidency. Tanden is famous for comments she made via a leaked email echoing the Trump administration’s suggestion that the United States consider further military intervention in Libya solely to exploit Libya’s oil resources. Tanden said “We have a giant deficit. They have a lot of oil…having oil rich countries partially pay us back doesn’t seem crazy to me.” Continued war for oil is the name of the game with this Biden pick, but also rabid anti-communism: in a now deleted tweet, Neera Tanden praised merely “controversial” Adolf Hitler for “fighting to the death against communism”.
Far from drawing a sharp line between the supposed oddity of far-right “Trumpism” and neoliberal administrations of empire, the Biden cabinet picks go to the core of what America is today, oddities and all, and that is a decaying settler-colonial empire overstuffed with contradictions displayed in high necrocapitalist relief.
Now, Pelosi’s comment about science is bizarre as a defense for failing to provide even the mildest relief for neo-liberal austerity during the pandemic. Science has been opportunistically dragged about during this US election cycle by American imperialists, and Pelosi’s comment is part of that. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Trump claimed that Biden would put an end to the practice of fracking to instill fear in the heart of oil profiteers and turn them against Biden. Biden denied this but had to reconcile this denial with a supposed progressive stance on the crisis of climate change. Since American presidential elections don’t challenge class power, the situation for people like Biden and the people he represents is opportunistically political: appear progressive to appease the non-revolutionary “left”—Biden called for a limited ban on fracking on Federal land— but say nothing about fracking generally on private land and let the capitalists destroying the planet continue with business as usual to garner their support. Position it as a job creation/retention issue and march on to Washington. This is exactly what Biden has done. Science is important for the world’s people and when it informs the decisions of leaders who rise above the threshold of opportunism, it may be the only thing that has a chance at averting species extinction on the planet. But science is not what Pelosi or Biden care about.
For the imperialists, science is a ploy used to either advance imperialism or to maintain it and it is no different with the politics of COVID-19 relief packages. In their introduction to the recently republished A New Outlook on Health, the Redspark Collective notes that “fighting and containing pandemics requires both a conceptual understanding of the ‘public’ by the masses and a public infrastructure driven by public welfare rather than profit motive.” (Redspark Collective, 29) In the United States there is no public infrastructure for surviving a pandemic and the recognition of the need for such a thing among imperialist politicians is opportunistic—can a COVID-19 relief package be used to outmaneuver political opponents in a way that maintains the status quo of necrocapitalist planned inequity, depravation, and injustice? If it can, you can bet the imperialists will find a way. And they did. Pelosi’s let them wait-it-out until we go back to “normal” attitude while resisting Covid-19 relief for the people enduring hardship reveals the basic condition of capitalism regarding public welfare: the wealthy are mildly inconvenienced and get by with their hoarded wealth in a system designed for them to continue to consume, everyone else fights for base survival and figures like Pelosi and other administrators of imperialism position it as tough work to get back to “normal”. The Redspark Collective accurately writes of the United States’ “failure” during the pandemic that “it is not a mistake or malfunction of the system; it is the consequence of the steady march of imperialism, largely impervious to the public good (unless it intersects with its expansion).” (Ibid., 35). Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats did not make a “mistake” in failing to secure a more robust COVID-19 relief package, as some critics have claimed, they merely acted in accordance to the predictable workings of necrocapitalism and sided once again with death and depravation. It is important at this time for those looking to imagine and implement meaningful alternatives to science and social welfare opportunism from the imperialist camp to look to leadership that is oriented toward solving the practical problems faced by the most oppressed people and those people who don’t benefit from returning to the “normal” of Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic party. We need solutions to homelessness, unemployment, poverty, environmental destruction, disease, patriarchy, racialized national oppression, ableism, and war and there is none of that forthcoming from Joe Biden and his team of imperialist running dogs. Returning to Biden’s partial cabinet selection—leadership leaves no room for careerism. Under necrocapitalism today, the drive of the oppressed to use science and wield power to transform the world for the better and for all is whittled away to nothing within the legal channels for the expression of political will. The ruling classes set the rules for leadership and are packing their administrations with cronies and death merchants whose main skill is longevity in carrying out imperialism. We need to change this. When oppressed people set the height of the bar for leadership we arrive at Stalin and Mao levels of leadership and we move away from meaningless parliamentary elections between sectors of the ruling class posturing about science and the social good in order to keep necrocapitalism going.
Though the votes are still being counted and contested at the time of writing, it is widely recognized that Joe Biden will be the next President of the United States. He has received sufficient electoral college votes, and a wide margin in the popular vote. Trump and his enablers have taken a hard antidemocratic line in response. They have yet to concede, and have launched a preposterous barrage of legal challenges intended to change the outcome of the election. Trump has also made some characteristically lurching, inept moves that could be interpreted as preludes to a coup. It is unlikely that Trump will succeed in any of this, though much is being made of his attack on American democracy itself, and the lasting damage he can do by further (!) debasing the Republic Party and poisoning public trust in the electoral system.
Many people, particularly among the most vulnerable, may feel a sense of relief that the open authoritarian drift of the presidency seems to have been halted by a Biden win. But the spectacle of thousands of people worldwide dancing in the streets over Biden’s victory is sobering. Does Joe Biden – Joe Biden! – herald the poetry of the future? A key lesson of the election is how, structurally speaking, neoliberal centrism currently plays the erstwhile role of fascism in the management of capitalist crisis.
Crisis indexes the normal functioning of capitalism rather than being an aberration. Historically, fascism steps in as a contender when the crisis becomes acute. In this sense, fascism is birthed by capitalism. Though much is made of its “populist” roots (more on that in a minute) the backbone of fascism is arguably a mass of small and middle business owners who demand a version of capitalism without capitalism. This is to say that while ostensibly supporting free competition and bootstrapping, they default to authoritarianism to avoid being crushed between organized labour and monopoly capital. To be clear, fascism “manages” the crisis in a way that must be loudly repudiated and fought to the death. But in its way, it is embraced by segments of the population as a stabilizer.
Are we to conclude that Trump and his administration, displaying obvious fascist tendencies, have played this historical role? Not at all, in fact. Trump, rather, wields right-wing chaos in a way that permits neoliberal centrism to play the stabilizing role. To hit once more upon our usual refrain––that none of this is new––consider how in 2002, the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen advanced to the second round of the French presidential election, thus provoking panic and an overwhelming 82% vote in favour of the widely mistrusted neoliberal Jacques Chirac. Similarly, a vote for Biden is ostensibly a vote against violence, hatred, and plague––but framed in these terms, how could you lose to violence, hatred, and plague? This is hardly more than a political blackmail.
The question many have posed is whether there can be any credible alternative to neoliberalism within the Democratic Party. Here the mainstream media has muddied the waters, having steadily drubbed us with lazy and dishonest analyses of “populism,” full of false equivalencies, for several years. As per Laclau (See On Populist Reason), populism is the name of a political strategy wherein “the people” is defined and played off against an enemy. Whether populism is “left” or “right” all depends on how the enemy is defined. To hear liberals tell it, it is the naming of an enemy, and the struggle against that enemy, that is dangerous. But despite the media and the DNC’s massive efforts to block him and paint him as such, Bernie Sanders is simply not some left-wing version of Trump. True, the strategy is formally similar, but it is in laughable bad faith to pretend that Bernie’s demonizing of “the one percent” is morally equivalent to Trump’s racism, ableism, misogyny, and contempt for the very lives of the masses. The liberal discourse around populism reveals itself for what it is: an invitation to abandon the very notion of the enemy. But this amounts to abandoning politics itself, in favour of submission to neoliberal management.
While figures like Bernie, the Squad, and Cornel West therefore offer a semblance of opposition via the populist strategy, there is also a credible discourse around their role in “sheepdogging”––i.e., bringing disaffected voters back into the fold of electoral politics. But we have seen with Bernie in the Democratic primaries how in the end the system enforces neoliberal consensus within that fold. The wolf of “Trumpism,” slavering in the outer dark, helps to ensure this.
The moment requires much more than this. It requires us to push against neoliberalism itself – against necrocapitalism. This means having the courage to be the communist,the genuinely antifascist wolf.
Writing about the American presidential election, from a militant perspective, has many pitfalls. One, that Marx long ago pilloried, would be to present all social ills as the product of the opposing party, for this is the deliberate myopia of all bourgeois electoral campaigns. The other is to reverse cause and effect (or, more generally, to think them non-dialectically), by treating candidates as if they command and manage their electoral bases. Instead, we should consider elections as a snapshot that captures the momentum or motion of social tendencies and forces.
As the likelihood of a Biden victory grows, pundits and commentators have begun to assess the prospects of the American empire. There is a trend, perhaps growing, to frame the last four years around the vague and misleading term “Trumpism.” The term certainly precedes this week (it has already found its way into academic discussions), but it will serve a particular purpose if Trump is deposed from power by electoral means (of course, his administration has months to implement policy between a Biden election and inauguration, if that’s how things do in fact play out).
At present, Trumpism is said to designate a particular type of political style—demagogical nationalism, divisiveness, perhaps an explicit taste for cruelty—that, even if it is deposed from power, could potentially affect American politics for decades to come. The upshot of this analysis is that liberal and social democratic antifascists cannot merely declare that something they decried during the fall as authoritarianism, totalitarianism, or fascism was defeated by voting alone. This was a common error among Canadian critics and some activists after the electoral defeat of Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada in 2019; far-right groups quietly regrouped elsewhere.
But what looks like the mainstream recognition of the ongoing threat of far-right tendencies in the United States turns out to be the opposite. The use of Trumpism, though it might not demarcate the last four years as an aberration in American politics, severs these far-right tendencies from their roots in American history, indeed recent history. First, Democrats become able to treat the far-right as the fault of the Republicans, rather than as predicated on the conditions of American power that Democratic politicians have for decades tolerated, abetted, or supported. Second, the usage of Trumpism reverses cause and effect: Trump’s political rise (and fall?) is faulted for the rise of the far-right, rather than being seen as part of a broader set of social tendencies and forces. Though he attempted to court some factions of the far-right, as recent entries on the Three-Way Fight blog (by Matthew N. Lyons, Devin Zane Shaw, and Kristian Williams) show, we cannot consider the relationship between Trump and these factions to be one of simple top-down command of leader and base. Nor can we consider them to be merely reliably system-loyal.
At the same time, this courtship should not be given undue weight at the expense of considering his popular appeal. It must be noted that in the midst of the pandemic (which his administration failed to manage) and the antipolice uprising (which Trump opposed but never managed, in his own terms, to “dominate”), that he received at least six million more votes than 2016. Indeed, that Trump received more votes as the incumbent than as the supposed anti-establishment outsider (a rich characterization for a billionaire, whether on paper or in reality), should indicate that we must look not at perceived outliers—Trump against other politicians who observe the unwritten rules of decorum, or the far-right as opposed to other political currents in society—but at the underpinnings of American empire itself.
The basic premise of our project on Necrocapitalism is not that necrocapitalism is a departure from capitalism but that we are in a moment that brings capitalism’s contradictions in to sharper focus, if not intensifying the contradictions.
One would think that as the United States reported over nine million cases of COVID-19 and 200,000 deaths therefrom, that Trump’s candidacy would be imperiled. The raw numbers simplify a complex story. Of course, Trump drove misinformation about the pandemic, and after his own recovery, extolled a kind of voluntarist will to dominate the virus. But again, these are features of a broader right-wing response to the pandemic, with appeals to herd immunity, and the cultivation of a sense that the petty bourgeoisie are entitled to services and goods from the before times despite the pandemic.
One possibility is that Trump’s support has some basis in a reaction to the antipolice uprising. Without minimizing that aspect, we should also examine how Trump’s base understood his administration’s efforts to handle the coronavirus and how they self-reported their financial status in relation to the pandemic. The following are exit polls published by the New York Times:
Before we rush to judgment (there’s no need to act like liberal critics of the far right who treat it as merely a manifestation of atavism or ignorance), let us consider two passages from Angela Mitropoulos’ recent Pandemic: Proliferating Borders of Capital and the Pandemic Swerve:
What prevailing understandings of neoliberalism have obscured is the importance to capitalist extraction and accumulation of a political-economic boundary between the demos (the ostensibly proper subject of political representation and law-making) and the practices of managing (properly) productive populations. (Mitropoulos, 13)
During the pandemic, while much of the risk of the disease was displaced onto private households—and therefore the patterning of (heritable) assets and liquid wages—those households were linked through an assumed racial genealogy to larger (national and geopolitical) taxonomies of populations and the management of their health and welfare. However the viability of locked-down households was physically contingent upon and linked by the unpaid and low-paid work in which women, migrants, and Black and Brown people predominate. (Mitropoulos, 11)
Rather than dismiss those who incorrectly consider the US efforts at containing COVID-19 as going well (to some degree) as ignorant Trump voters (given their overwhelming support for him), we ought to attempt to understand their significance in light of Mitropoulos’ work. If neoliberalism is premised upon a political-economic boundary between the demos and a broader class of productive populations, and if pandemic management has functioned through buttressing those differences under Trump’s administration, then for this group the system is indeed working well. To reflect on these exit polls from another angle: 44% of the electorate reported no financial hardship due to the pandemic, and a majority voted for Trump (56%); the other 55% trended more strongly in the other direction. Associating social division or divisiveness with Trumpism is making him take the weight for vast social inequalities produced by neoliberal policy. Pin it on Trumpism and alibi the conditions that enable it.
We don’t want to make too much of exit polling. It does not include the disenfranchised parts of the working classes and those who refuse to participate in electoral politics. It presumes to discern political trends from the unsound premise that political decisions are made from the perspective of the potential legislator-voter. We merely wanted to provide a different look at data that doesn’t indulge in diving auguries of mythological white working-class everyman’s demands or demonize some particular minority group for its perceived atavistic tendencies (while, of course, the fact that white voters as a group play some serious white identity politics is normalized as playing at being a universal legislator).
As critics of Trump have noted, his administration has consistently worked to curb or remove the rights of large parts of the workforce. It might be, though, that some critics were more irked by the spectacular forms of disenfranchisement of voters and the willfully malicious use of detention and deportation. For, if Mitropoulos is correct, the Trump administration’s policy is a particular (though relatively more explicitly white nationalist) implementation of neoliberal ideological and institutional infrastructure. Biden didn’t run as an alternative to the underlying neoliberal policies, but rather as the candidate who would maintain neoliberal policy—to adopt his comments about police violence—in forms more likely to maim rather than kill. California, which overwhelmingly favoured Biden, also passed Proposition 22, which classifies app-based drivers as independent contractors rather than employees—a huge setback for workers’ rights.
We must not allow liberal critics to cordon off, in a kind of ideological cordon sanitaire, only some uses and abuses of neoliberal policy as “Trumpism,” when Biden will presumably work to shore up neoliberal hegemony through the prolonged crisis, supposedly, of COVID-19. The crisis, though, is part of capitalism itself.
If the political power necessary for changing the world is not found “in lifeless virus particles which are utterly indifferent towards the world around them” as we asserted at the end of the last chapter, nor is it found in the US electoral machine or useless political figures like Ruth Bader Ginsburg that are also utterly indifferent to the world, then where is it found and how is it built? Although we have a lot of thoughts on the answer to that question––many of which have been revealed or implicit throughout this project––to even ask it is to also recognize a kind of thinking that needs to break from the capitalist imaginary.
In some ways, we have come to think like an indifferent virus. Or, rather, the kind of thinking that is most prevalent in the imperialist metropoles––even amongst progressives––is one of denial or nihilistic indifference. This is not the result of the pandemic, nor is it the result of the fascist movements pushing reactionary leaders into power, but was already emerging as a necrocapitalist characteristic before the global pandemic and along with emergent fascism. Again, the pandemic merely revealed the already existing depredations of a decaying system that has been morbidly violent from the beginning; emergent fascism is evidence of this decay. As these depredations came more and more to resemble the death throes of the system itself, and as coherent and sustainable revolutionary organizing vanished from the imperialist metropoles, the proclamation of the “end of history” became a proclamation of “no alternative” and even “no hope” for those who could not see beyond the boundaries of the imperialist strongholds in which they resided.
Within this cancerous and necrotic capitalist reality denial or nihilism manifest as the only possible attitudes, as long as we think within its confines. Denial might take multiple forms but these forms are over-determined by fascist and liberal perspectives, both of which are invested (in their own ways) in saving capitalism from collapse. Inordinate focus on the US elections is a form of denialism, specifically a denial of our ability to organize and create another world. But such focus also demonstrates a nihilist attitude, an indifference to organizing political power because it has been drained of meaning.
Nihilism also takes multiple forms: i) its own fascist variant as the nadir where collapse is embraced as judgment against those deemed weak (who let the virus, to cite one example, “dominate” them rather than “dominating” it); ii) a liberal individualism of giving up and accepting, with a pseudo-zen magnanimity, that armageddon is fait accompli; and most importantly iii) an anti-capitalist variant of loss, mourning, raging in the face of inevitable environmental and social collapse. It is this last species of nihilism that should concern us the most since it represents the power of contemporary crisis capitalism to infect the imagination of the left.
Indeed, nihilism is an attitude that is harder and harder for anti-capitalists to avoid. We have witnessed multiple failures and have been socialized to forget or dismiss any success. We lived through the trauma of the collapse of the great revolutionary projects. We were fed the false hopes of movementism and were incapable of recognizing that these fragmented projects were doomed from the outset. We witness a world crawling towards the edge of destruction, maniacally pursuing mechanics of species suicide. We understand that everything about capitalism is a lie, we know that it cannot save itself from itself because of its logic, but our imagination is such that the possibility of rupturing from this necrotic sequence is unthinkable. Within the reality demarcated and described by the capitalist imaginary another world is impossible and it is very difficult to pursue the revolutionary slogan, famously proclaimed in May 1968, that the revolutionary imaginary is about demanding the impossible.
Faced with the vast graveyard that the world has become nihilism, when judged within the constraints imposed by capitalism’s vision of reality, certainly feels like a viable option. According to the capitalist imaginary, resistance is impossible or (as the Orwellian discourse coupled with Cold War ideology has promoted) will result in a more horrific state of affairs. Hopelessness becomes normative amongst would-be militants who are separated from the world-building projects of revolutionary communist parties. Even militants who join such party projects might drop out and give up when events do not proceed as quickly and smoothly as they would like. While there is indeed a petty-bourgeois variant of this hopeless nihilism (“nothing matters so I might as well enjoy what little time I have while complaining that capitalism has pushed the world into a death drive”) it is common amongst the exploited and oppressed masses as well. The working class is taught that there is no future but drudgery and meaningless labour, that workers’ failure to rise above their circumstances is their fault alone––because they are not creative enough, because they lack the incentive, because they are not thinking enough positive thoughts.
But it is the pseudo-progressive strain of “left” nihilism that attempts to push this sentiment enforced by capitalist ideology as a viable anti-capitalist option. Lee Edelman’s No Future is a perfect example of the petty-bourgeois wallowing in capitalism’s death drive, presented as radical. So-called “queer nihilism” (along with “nihilist communism” and “anarchist nihilism”) emerges from Edelman’s morbid acceptance of the capitalist imaginary. Nihilism is the “common sense” of necrocapitalism, even when it presents itself as critique.
The apotheosis of contemporary nihilism is that strange sub-region of speculative philosophy known as anti-natalism, a philosophy that claims to prove, as the name of an anti-natalist article puts it, why it is better to never come into existence.1 Represented by philosophers such as Théophile de Giraud Peter Zapffe, David Benatar, Julio Cabrera, and horror author Thomas Ligotti, anti-natalism asserts that non-sentient existence is preferable to sentient existence, sentient existence is in essence pain and harm, consciousness is a monstrous evolutionary aberration, and thus it would be better if humans simply ceased to exist. As Ligotti summarizes this philosophy:
For the rest of the earth’s organisms, existence is relatively uncomplicated. Their lives are about three things: survival, reproduction, death––and nothing else. But we know too much to content ourselves with surviving, reproducing, dying––and nothing else. We know we are alive and know we will die. We also know we will suffer during our lives before suffering––slowly or quickly––as we draw near to death. This is the knowledge we ‘enjoy’ as the most intelligent organisms to gush from the womb of nature. And being so, we feel shortchanged if there is nothing else for us than to survive, reproduce and die. We want there to be more to it than that, or to think there is. This is the tragedy: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are––hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones. (Ligotti, 11)
On the speculative level, this philosophy is influenced by the very materialist understanding that the history of conscious human existence, as well as the history of any form of sentient life, is both a tiny blip in the long ancestral history of matter and takes up minuscule space in a massive unthinking universe. The upshot of this very large materialist insight is that we should not think that humans possess an especial destiny, that they are better than other forms of life, or that we are the center of existence. Anti-natalism, however, adds a warped ethical injunction to the insight that non-sentient existence is older and larger than sentient existence. The former, it asserts, is preferable to the latter. Such an assertion, though, confirms the anthropocentric conceit since its reversal merely reaffirms what the initial insight attempted to undermine: the centrality of human consciousness. Human consciousness again becomes a central focus, though one that is problematized rather than being exhorted to be de-emphasized.
Hence, to assert that we come from nothing and exist for nothing is not enough for anti-natalism. These assertions again become puzzles. Ligotti complains that “[n]o philosopher has ever satisfactorily answered the following question: ‘Why should there be something rather than nothing?’” and then asserts that such a question “suggests our uneasiness with Something.” (Ligotti, 71) And yet, if we reject the privileging of anthropocentrism we should recognize that “from nothing and for nothing” (Meillassoux, 110) are answers to this question, and answers that allow us to think an existence broader than human consciousness. The only reason that this age-old question is a puzzle is because it emerges from an anthropocentric framework. Such a framework is precisely what allows anti-natalists to focus on the monstrousness of human consciousness, the claim that existence is pain, and to move on to privileging the non-existence of humanity over its existence. By focusing on a utilitarian calculus of pain and pleasure, and claiming that pain (and harm) is normative to human existence, David Benatar asserts that “there is nothing bad about never coming into existence, but there is something bad about coming into existence, all things considered non-existence is preferable.” (Benatar, 348-349)
On the speculative level it is an exercise in futility to argue against those dedicated to the axiom that the non-existence of humanity (and indeed all sentient life) is preferable to its existence. Charges that anti-natalists should simply suicide if they truly believed in what they argued are usually met with scorn: due to the programming of human consciousness, and in the words of the character Rustin Cole from True Detective (which was based on anti-natalist philosophy), they “lack the constitution” for suicide. Besides, what do the suicides of a handful of misanthropic philosophers matter when the problem they feel like they are diagnosing concerns all of sentient existence? Hence, following Zapffe’s so-called “last messiah”, anti-natalists can simply argue that they work to “bear witness” (again, as Rustin Cole puts it), to argue this truth to the rest of ignorant, conscious humanity, and to struggle for the solution of mass sterilization where all of humanity will agree to eradicate itself. Nihilist utopianism.
It cannot be denied, after all, that reality is horrendous and that, even if we side-step David Benatar’s argument about “asymmetry” and argue that some pains and harms are simply part of life and not an insurmountable category of being (psychological and emotional pain, the fact that we will become ill and experience various level of distress simply because we are mortal and fragile), there is still the fact that the vast majority of the world experiences extreme harm and pain. Natural disasters, famines, wars, genocide, vicious labour conditions, immiseration, and multiple forms of pain and harm characterize the living conditions for the majority of humanity. Moreover, the unfolding facts of environmental devastation and now a global pandemic attenuate all of the above problems, resulting in a very bleak looking future that is becoming nearer every day.
But these terrible facts of material existence are facts that multiple radical social theorists have grappled with, have agonized over, and have concluded that the solution is to struggle against them and change society so that such predations and their affects can no longer exist. Many of these social theorists were and are not starry-eyed utopians unaware of pain and thus deceived (as anti-natalists would have it) into thinking such pain and harm was not a big deal; many of them either originated from, or embedded themselves in, those marginalized populations that experienced the worst aspects of social-historical violence. For example, Christina Sharpe writes about “the ways our individual lives [meaning individual black lives] are always swept up in the wake produced and determined, though not absolutely, by the afterlives of slavery.”( Sharpe, 8) According to Sharpe, this “wake” inheritance continues to globally affect black lives into the present, where the pain and immiseration of the past persists as a material memory upon the body of the present. “Racialization and colonization have worked simultaneously to other and abject entire peoples so they can be enslaved, excluded, removed, and killed in the name of capitalism,” writes Indigenous scholar Jodi Byrd: “These historical and political processes have secured white property, citizenship, and privilege, creating a ‘racial contract,’ as Charles W. Mills argues.” (Byrd, xxiii) Sharpe and Byrd are just two contemporary scholars, each occupying a position of social marginalization, amongst a litany of radical social theorists who have experienced and explored the multiple predations of capitalism and its colonial roots, whose response to a visceral experience of marginalization is to demand an end to the mechanics of oppression, exploitation, and predation. Indeed, the vast majority of social theorists and organizers who originate from populations that have experienced the most abject pain and harm do not argue for the obliteration of sentient life even though they understand, intimately and viscerally, what this pain and harm actually means.
Therefore, what is truly monstrous about anti-natalism is not the supposedly profound “truths” it reveals; it is that it is an ontological confirmation of the imaginary of necrocapitalism. None of the anti-natalist philosophers are individuals who have experienced the abjection of contemporary global capitalism––who have lived in what Mbembe calls the “death worlds” of the current conjuncture––and in fact most of them belong to quite privileged and largely comfortable demographics. To demand that humanity embrace extinction when those who have been historically threatened with extinction have always struggled against it, is worse than cynical. In the context of the global pandemic an anti-natalist might argue that we are merely dealing with non-sentient planet wiping out sentience, and that this is a “good” thing. Or perhaps they would take it as evidence of the pain and harm that is a normative part of existence, confirmation that we should cease to exist rather than struggle against it.
Past nihilisms were confirmations of the dominant orders of meaning by assuming that all meaning was lost with the loss of these orders; they rarely attempted, outside of polemical and aesthetic statements, to be conscious and theoretical celebrations of nihilism. Nietzsche described these past nihilisms as ressentiment or self-hatred. Of course, being the “nineteenth century dirtbag philosopher” (Mitropolous, 32) that he was, Nietzsche’s answer to nihilism was an occulted bourgeois triumphalism. But he was correct insofar that all forms of nihilism are produced by melancholia, ressentiment, and cynicism. Contemporary iterations of nihilism, however, are the most melancholic, resentful, and cynical nihilisms yet despite––or perhaps because of––their attempt to present themselves as theoretical assemblages. Anti-natalism takes this necrotic wallowing to the speculative level, reifying the current order’s hatred of existence.
To be clear, anti-natalism is a minor philosophical position. In fact, its proponents enjoy this minor status because they feel it confirms that they possess the kind of profound insight that only a few enlightened intellectuals could ever hope to gain. In this sense, it is also an elitist position and thus anti-mass as its own dismissal of the insights from the oppressed masses demonstrates: such insights, for the anti-natalist, are delusions of the herd. They are, in a weird sense, inverted Nietzscheans who have somehow managed to copper-fasten the elitism of his philosophy with the ressentiment he despised. So why should we take their claims seriously? Largely because, as noted above, anti-natalism is the apotheosis of contemporary necrocapitalist nihilism. It represents a kind of trope in contemporary thinking, a trajectory of the thought of the necrocapitalist subject. It is where the thinking encouraged by this conjuncture leads: an indifference that is so far gone it celebrates its indifference by imagining it is profound.
Although proponents of the bourgeois electoral circus argue that refusing to participate in the spectacle of elections is callous indifference, and thus evidence of a nihilist attitude, might it in fact be the opposite? After all, once we examine these electoral systems with even the smallest amount of critical thought we are presented with an avalanche of absurdity. Aside from the limited options, aside from Lenin’s joke that they are conventions where the bourgeoisie competes amongst itself to best misrepresent the people, aside from the fact that any and every elected regime has done nothing to make the world better but has in fact continued exploiting, oppressing, and straight out murdering the majority of humanity… Aside from all of this, they are always compromised within the bounds of bourgeois democracy––they cannot even guarantee the limited grounds of bourgeois reason! Legitimized political parties court the most powerful members of society and demand that the marginalized just get on board, refusing to listen to any of their demands. People wait in line for hours to vote only to discover their vote won’t be counted. Entire populations have their democratic rights suppressed; rumours are spread of illegitimate non-citizen voting while nobody cares about those citizens who are barred from voting. And all of this happens while imperialist states disparage and destabilize the conventions of voting in other nations. To find meaning in such a concatenation is impossible, and everyone who even thinks about it for more than a few minutes is forced to realize how meaningless it is. We would have to be nihilists regarding everything else about social existence to care about the electoral system: nothing really matters, and nothing will change, but we might as well vote since there is nothing better to do.