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”.