Corona Biopolitics and Life After Capitalism – A Manifesto of Hope I

[This essay eventually became the first of a four-part series. The subsequent parts can be accessed Part II here, Part III here and Part IV here]

‘It seems we are massively entering a quarantine of consumption where we will learn how to be happy just with a simple dress, rediscovering old favourites we own, reading a forgotten book and cooking up a storm to make life beautiful. The impact of the virus will be cultural and crucial to building an alternative and profoundly different world.’ – Li Edelkoort, trend forecaster and fashion advisor

As large parts of the world reel under the impact of a lockdown that has prompted several people to recall the great lockdowns during the early twentieth century Spanisht flu and even the 14th centry plague, my thoughts in fact strayed in another direction. With international and national air traffic down to the barest minimum, with arenas of conspicuous consumption shut down, zillions of cars of the roads and construction activity to a halt, I was suddenly struck by a not-so-crazy thought: with all the suffering that a lockdown necessarily entails for the poorer sections of the population in particular, there might still be a silver lining here. Perhaps the temperature of the earth will have come down a few notches by the time we are done with this crisis and what is more, it might initiate a different mode of being in the world. It might give the world an opportunity to see what is continuously being denied by climate-deniers (as Naomi Klein recorded, backed by huge funds from right-wing US based foundations and  corporations). It might – it just might – reconnect us with what we have long left behind and have been longing for – a different pace of life where slow is beautiful, as it were.

After all, I know of many people who have been in the corporate sector, in the thick of lifestyles so valorized during the neoliberal decades who have opted out of the rat race. They once enthusiastically partook of those lifestyles – of the ‘bold  and the beautiful’ – where you always had to be seen at your laptop regardless of whether you were on an international flight or vacationing by the sea. I know of many such people who have quit their cushy corporate jobs over the past decade to reconnect with life. As the neoliberal era passes us by, modernity’s romance with speed is rapidly coming to an end.

Corona virus only dramatizes that eventuality before us. The quote at the beginning of this post that underlines the ‘quarantine of consumption’ and its possible long-term impacts, is neither by a consumption-denying Gandhian ascetic nor by any born again Leftist activist-intellectual but by someone who has lived and worked in the heart of the fashion industry.

Biopolitical Machine

Before we get to the issue of ‘life after capitalism’, it is pertinent to underline the fact that unless we are able to rid ourselves of the biopolitical imagination, we are very likely stepping into a dangerous situation in the name of fighting the coronavirus. The biopolitical horrors, going far beyond Michel Foucault’s worst dreams that new technologies enable, should legitimately scare all of us. Some of these have been recently underlined by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. Biopolitics to Foucault was the taking over of life itself as the object of governmental power, starting with relatively benign concerns like bringing down mortality rates, raising life-expectancy and so on. These benign matters eventually gave modern governments the entry – and moral justification for it – into all aspects of the lives of people. Modern governments could reach into the very interiors of people’s lives like older empires and monarchs never could. The possibilities of all-powerful surveillance states consolidating their power further have grown frightfully since – and we in India too are witnessing a somewhat tragi-comic (or surreal?) version of that mad drive to untrammelled power. As Yuval Noah Harari points out in his Financial Times article linked above, in fighting against the coronavirus epidemic, many governments like China’s, are using the new technologies of surveillance in unprecedented ways:

‘By closely monitoring people’s smartphones, making use of hundreds of millions of face-recognising cameras, and obliging people to check and report their body temperature and medical condition, the Chinese authorities can not only quickly identify suspected coronavirus carriers, but also track their movements and identify anyone they came into contact with. A range of mobile apps warn citizens about their proximity to infected patients.’

I want to underline this point here because the modern state (and statecraft) itself constitutes the biopolitical machine; it is not exclusive to capital and capitalism. It really does not matter at all whether a state is Leftist or Socialist in its orientation and one reason why twentieth century socialist regimes were totalitarian (in  terms of control over citizens’ lives) was that they were biopolitical machines without respite.

I want to flag this issue here because there are ways in which a lot of our contemporary imagination seems unable to think outside the framework of the state and that is crucial if we seriously need to think of life after capitalism.

However, at the moment, my concern in this piece is not really wth doomsday scenarios as they are there aplenty today. Gloom has been the predominant rasa of these COVID-19 times – aggravated for us in India, thanks to an already gloomy situation. There are other prognostications as well, about all the diasaster that the struggle against the pandemic can lead to. These include, as Naomi Klein has suggested, an attempt by Trump and his coterie to bail out the corporations that are the real culprits driving climate change. Klein reiterates her argument about ‘disaster capitalism’ and how capitalism transforms every shock, every disaster into an opportunity for making more money and profit. In the first part of her Intercept video, reproduced below via Democracy Now, she underlines this gloomy scenario:

‘Mutating’ Capitalism

I certainly do agree with both Harari and Klein – though the second part of Klein’s video actually talks of hope insofar as she sees the crisis opening up possibilities of uiversalization of health care, as it becomes a significant issue in the forthcoming US elections. She also talks of the imortance of using the crisis to push for a Green New Deal – something that some others too have been talking about. The crisis and the responses that governments are being forced to undertake are even prompting scholars and analysts to think that this could lead to a shift in global capitalism and transform economic thinking. Scholar and analyst William Davies, writing in The Guardian, for instance, suggests that this might well turn out to be a ‘world-making event’ of sorts that ‘allows for new economic and intellectual begginnings.’ Davies still sees these new beginnings as heralding some sort of transformation within global capitalism.

However, my interest here is different for its has to do with the very possibility of a postcapitalist future as something that goes beyond whatever we might be in a position to extract from the system in the short or even in the medium term. In the short and medium term, it is certainly necessary to extract the best we can – a Green New Deal, a temporary universal basic income (UBI), and maybe even termporary nationalization of healthcare as has happened in Spain. The fact is that many governments – even right-wing ones like that of Boris Johnson in England and Trump in the United States of America –  are having to provide for the basic necessities of ordinary people. The British government has already announced that the government would cover up to 80 percent of the salaries of workers if companies kept them on the payroll (see Davies’ article linked above) – something quite unprecedented and unthinkable till just a few days ago.  In the United States, the matter of a universal basic income kind of cash transfer to all adults below a certain threshold is under serious discussion. Abby Vesoulis writing in the Time magazine goes on to observe that

‘The fact that a Republican is calling for a direct cash infusion to adults in 2020 signifies that UBI is gaining traction, says Matt Zwolinski, director of the University of San Diego’s Center for Ethics, Economics and Public Policy. “It is significant to see an actual politician on the right supporting something like this,” he says. “That might help to legitimate it among certain circles who would have otherwise viewed it as a kind of socialism.”’

Such policy measures, even though they may be short-term measures are likely, in my view, to tie up with newer trends and tendencies in economic thinking as the instance of UBI in the quote above shows. They are likely to give a much stronger push in the medium term, to a more fundamental rethinkng of some of the key questions of the kind being raised by different strands of ecological economics and by the degrowth/ post-growth movement (on which we have written on Kafila earlier) in particular. All these cannot but lead to mutations in capitalism that go way beyond minor changes that leave the basic structure of exploitation intact.

Life After Capitalism

There is something else here in the changes that I am talking about that needs to be taken into account. This is the longer term attitudinal shift that has been underway for some time now but the severity of the present crisis is likely to shake up things far more drastically. Marxists still don’t think capitalism can change without some apocalyptic transformation through a revolutionary seizure of power. And any change of the kind that entails curtailing consumption or questioning technology in any way, is seen by them as retrograde. Capitalism in their mythology can only be superseded by something ‘more advanced’  (whatver that might mean in today’s world).

As a typical instance, let me refer once more to the Li Edelkoort interview cited at the beginning of this post. When I first shared it with some Marxist friends, they were quick to dump all her talk about ‘quarantine of consumption’ and ‘slowing down’. They just assumed it was coming out of some ascetic, idiosyncratic Gandhianism. I suspect they did not even have the patience to find out who this person was. That she is someone from the heart of the corporate world – in fact from the world of fashion and design – is what actually interested me because it showed that the position she articulated is not just a fad of some lunatic Gandhians or a mad fringe of ‘deep ecologists’. And to my mind, her stance ties up clearly with the trend that I mentioned earlier, among many from the corporate sector who had opted out of that lifestyle to do various other kinds of meaningful work ranging from running schools for children to organic farming.

Whether this will lead to a post-capitalist future or not has to do, among other things, with  a refocusing of our vision, alongside a rethinking of our understanding of capitalism.

In the first place, in the absence of any serious analysis or explanation of the collapse of state socialism, there is no reason to believe that revolutionary ‘seizure of state power’ leads to socialism or transendence of capitalism. On the contrary, if one argues that capitalism is and always was, part of the project of the modern state for a variety of reasons (e.g. revenue generation via taxation that is only possible by creating private property, ‘creation of wealth’ as a precondition for civilization etc), we can see why every post-revolution state might only end up building capitalism or falling into crisis. Of course, this also has to do with the fallacious understanding that all commodity production, market relations, trade and entrepreneurship are signs of capitalism or inevitably lead to capitalism. These have all existed since antiquity without leading to capitalism for centuries. In fact, in countries like India, they still constitute a large segment of the informal economy that does not run on capitalist lines. (See Kalyan Sanyal’s idea of a ‘need economy’ as distinct from the ‘accumulation economy’ for a detailed discussion.) Indeed, in parenthesis one might note that for countries like India and large parts of the Global South, the idea of a UBI is ridiculous because the latter presupposes complete proletarianization. In societies where there are large swathes of small property owners, UBI will only force them into the biopolitical machine of the state, destroying the little autonomy and control they have over their lives.

In the second place, there is really no  reason to believe that capitalism  cannot be forced to transform by endlessly mutating in the face of what are crises of almost terminal nature. Just as capitalism emerged through mutation and molecular change in the old economy (‘feudalism’). There is to my mind really no ‘bourgeois revolution’ that led to capitalism supplanting ‘feudalism’.

Paul Mason has too recently talked about ‘mutations’ in capitalism in his book PostCapitalism – A Guide to Our Future where he talks of postcapitalist futures. But the crucial difference is that where he sees all previous crises leading to mutations that allow capitalism to still remain capitalism, the present world of digital technology so fundamentally transforms conditions of production and labour that capitalism will now no longer find it possible to mutate. It will have to give way to a postcapitalist future. While there is something to his argument in the imited context of the West, his take retains a fascination with technology and some recent advocates of UBI too find the demand for full automation and UBI tying together to give labour complete leisure (if I may put it thus). I do not want to get into this point in this post for my interest here is in the question of mutation. There is absolutely no  reason to suppose that postcapitalist futures will not emerge or cannot emerge from within capitalism through a range of molecular transformations.

But what precisely will that postcapitalism be? If my point above is correct, it cannot mean the complete elimination of all commodity production, small property; it cannot mean elimination of the commons, collective property, cooperatives and market relations (even money, as in Pol Pot’s Kampuchea); it cannot mean their replacement by state property and some central planning body trying to do what markets are supposed to do. In fact, such an imaginary emerged out of an obsessive preoccupation (thanks to Marx himself) with England as the ‘classic form’ of capitalism: the privatization of the commons, the transformation of everything including peasant property into bourgeois private property and the transformation of everyone but the bourgeois into the propertyless ‘proletarian’. This is the understanding that produced the imagination of socialism as the ‘expropriation of the expropriators’ via tranformation of all property into state property. Theoretically, everything else was either already bourgeois property, or worse, had to be transformed into bourgeois property by communists undertaking the task of ‘completing the bourgeois revolution.!

Enough work now exists that shows that the growth of consumption through the twentieth century was no manifestation of some ‘inexorable law of capitalist development’ but was a project ridden with anxieties of how to make people consume. From virtually destroying old cities and recasting them to make it impossible to negotiate them without automobiles, to planned obsolescence in virtually every sphere of consumption – it was business strategies all the way. The economy had to produce the consumer for it to function in the capitalist way and the anxiety was all-pervasive that if people stop consuming or reduce consumption, growth rates will fall. And there were well crafted economic and state logics to keep these processes going.

We always thought that it was unpaid labour alone that produced ‘surplus value’ and have never factored in the fact that the ecological costs remain unpaid to this day. These are not costs of ‘natural raw material’ but the costs of devastation of the ecology, of polluting the air, of poisoning the water, of drying up rivers and now subjecting the world to disasters like the current one. The aspect that we haven’t discussed in this piece but which is graphically spelt out in a recent essay on ‘microbiologcal class war in China’, drawing largely on Robert Wallace’s 2016 book Big Farms Make Big Flu, reveals what else might be lying in store for us.  Scientists also fear that the melting glaciers due to global warming will unleash many more viruses that lie inactive under layers of ice. If we add to unpaid labour, the unpaid ecological costs that capital must now be made to pay to humanity – there is no ‘surplus value’ left. The fiction of ‘surplus value’ could only be maintained as long as wealth creation was calculated at one end, without calculating the destruction and waste at the other. In the end, it might have just been a zero sum game, if not a negative sum one.

Life after capitalism is eminently imaginable today if we think of capitalism differently. We also need to think of capitalism not simply as the anti-thesis of the miniscule working class, for today capitalism stands in opposition to human existence as such – against the 99 percent and the old arguments of private ownership versus state ownership, or maket versus state are redundant in this context. What is critical is that for the first time today we are seeing possiblities of life beyond capitalism.

To  be continued…Part II will appear on 9 April 2020 and will deal with some actual and possible forms of the economy in a postcapitalist world

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