The Red Critique

  The Virus is Not a New Ontology

Rob Wilkie

1.1. In forcing the shutdown of the productive sectors of society, the coronavirus pandemic has reaffirmed what "every child knows," that "a nation which ceased to work, I will not say for a year, but even for a few weeks, would perish" (Marx to Kugelmann, July 11, 1868, Collected Works, Vol. 43, 68).

1.2. This is because, unlike war or environmental disasters which not only brings death but also destroys the means of production, the coronavirus pandemic has left the means of production intact.

1.3. Yet, the financial and commercial sectors of the economy have also collapsed, even as workers in such areas are declared socially "essential" and are forced to remain on the job, often heroically under dangerous, life-threatening conditions.

1.4 What is "missing" are productive workers.

1.5. Without the exploitation of labor at the point of production, which is the source of the profits upon which the extensive system of capitalist distribution and finance depends, the entire capitalist mode of production is being brought to a halt.

1.6. The coronavirus pandemic thus brings material reality to bear on the corporate gospel that Antonio Negri and other "priests of the bourgeoisie" have spread for decades, that "capitalist production is shifting from the exploitation of labor…toward the capitalist extraction of value (often through financial instruments)" (Assembly xix).

1.7. Financial extraction is a form of (re)distribution of surplus value. Its source is exploitation.

2.1. In displacing the exploitation of labor as the source of surplus value, the "Left" does little but promote its own versions of (re)distributing the social surplus without altering its source.

2.2. Declaring that "the coronavirus gives a new chance to communism," Slavoj Žižek fulfills his priestly duties by reassuring his flock that "by communism, I mean simply what the World Health Organization is saying. We should mobilize, coordinate, and so on…" ("What I Like about coronavirus." Spectator USA, March 14, 2020).

2.3. What the World Health Organization wants, however, is ultimately what the capitalists want: to restore the exploitative conditions of production as quickly as possible.

2.4. Communism is not restorative, it's revolutionary. It is "the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions" (Marx and Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Collected Works, Vol. 6 519).

3.1. Giorgio Agamben, echoing Donald Trump, has caused outrage by arguing that the viral pandemic is essentially a hoax, little more than a biopolitical invention for instituting a permanent "state of exception" ("The Invention of an Epidemic," European Journal of Psychoanalysis). "Men have become so used to living in conditions of permanent crisis and emergency," he writes, "that they don't seem to notice that their lives have been reduced to a purely biological condition" ("Clarifications," European Journal of Psychoanalysis).

3.2. But if, as Agamben claims, the virus is a panic invented by the (deep) state to reduce humanity to a new ontology of "bare life," then what existed before the crisis? What Agamben expresses in his desire for a return to "normalcy" are the very exploitation productive relations that are the basis of capitalist society.

3.3. It was Foucault who celebrated neoliberalism—"a society in which there is an optimization of systems of difference" (The Birth of Biopolitics 259)—as the necessary alternative to communism.

3.4. The irony, of course, is that initially the left-wing of capital was left tailing the right's populist turn to a "progressive" politics of redistribution in the form of direct payments to workers, before they returned to their traditional ideological functions of less and more overt defenses of the market.

3.5. Yet, no amount of redistribution—as needed as it is for most workers, who increasingly live paycheck to paycheck—will solve this crisis. Any money received by individuals will simply be transferred back to commercial capital—in the form of personal consumption—or finance capital—in the form of mortgages or debt payments. Redistribution always benefits capital in the end.

3.6. The economic crisis will continue as long as production remains shut down. Capitalism cannot continue without returning to exploitation.

4.1. The solution to the crisis is also not found in the spontaneity of accelerationism. The virus is not, as the Object-Oriented Ontologist Timothy Morton has posted to Twitter, a posthuman replacement for "god" (March 12) that we should "thank" for "creating a gigantic general strike" (March 9) and putting "18 000 less cars on [the] road during rush hour" (March 12).

4.2. Nor, as Žižek argues, to return to the farce in this tragedy, is the virus the Hegelian "spirit" ("Monitor and Punish? Yes, Please!" The Philosophical Salon, March 16, 2020). For Hegel, the realization of "spirit is a bone" is part of a dialectical process by which though externalization consciousness "produce(s) itself by its own activity" (Phenomenology of Spirit 370). In other words, Hegel's articulation is a spiritualization of labor, the material means by which humanity produces itself and its conditions of existence is turned into the unfolding of "reason." For Žižek, "spirit is a virus" is the sign of an undialectical unconscious, in which the agency of labor is replaced with the religious penance of "reconciling ourselves" to "the ultimate contingency and meaninglessness of our lives."

4.3. Žižek's and Morton's ghoulish celebrations of the virus as an anti-social actant-in-itself obscures the fact that private ownership of the means of production means the ability of the working class to earn the means to live (the wage) is entirely at the discretion of the capitalists.

4.4. The virus is not a new ontology. It is a historical indictment of the capitalist mode of production. It is only a death sentence for thousands of workers—not only those that are infected but all of those who, because they cannot sell their labor power for a wage, will run out of money for food, housing, medical care…—because capitalism has taken the productive power of labor and turned it toward the production of private wealth instead of the social good.

4.5. "Barbarism" is not a condition for socialism. It is its opposite. It is only the bourgeoisie and their petty-bourgeois clerks who find solace in Jameson's aphorism, "it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism" ("Future City." New Left Review 21, 76). While the rich can retreat to their bunkers, the effects of the virus will be felt for months if not years by the working class, who are promised by the priests of capital that their suffering will hasten the return to the "normalcy" of exploitation.

5.1. We say again. Communism is not restorative. It doesn't celebrate barbarism and destruction. Communism is revolutionary. It is "the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions" (Marx and Engels, Manifesto 519). It is only by seizing the means of production that labor will escape the miserable existence of "ultimate contingency and meaninglessness" foisted on it by capital, bringing to end this system of want in favor of a system based upon meeting needs.