The Red Critique

  The War Against the Virus is a Class War

Stephen Tumino

The global Covid-19 pandemic is not a causeless "event," nor a return of repressed "nature," but the intensification of the underlying conflict between the global organization of labor and private ownership for profit. Millions are losing their jobs and health care as companies downsize or go bust from what was not only a foreseeable but foreseen global health problem because of an economy that puts profits before needs. Such a crisis would not have been allowed to occur in a centrally planned socialist society run by the workers, who are becoming all too aware of the dangers posed by the commodification of human needs for profit. And yet, the revelation of this basic economic truth in the wake of the pandemic is occulted by the post-al Left, who use an "event-al" logic that disconnects effects from their underlying causes lying in the exploitation of labor by capital, to make the pandemic seem a break from the "normal" order rather than its inevitable result.

Alain Badiou, for example, who in his "new communist" writings turns orthodox Marxist theory into a "State-fiction" (Idea of Communism 239) that tries to contain "the rupture of the revolutionary event" (35) defined as the "aleatory, elusive, slippery, evanescent dimension" of the "political real" (Communist Hypothesis 247), now says that the pandemic has revealed "a major contradiction of the contemporary world," showing how the global "mechanisms of Capital" exceed the power of any one nation-state ("On the Epidemic Situation"). And yet, confronted by a social reality that pressures his beliefs that social transformation occurs as a result of the spontaneous eruption of events rather than by the revolutionary praxis of workers who have acquired global class-consciousness, he cynically dismisses the idea that the epidemic situation might be the "founding event of an unprecedented revolution" on the grounds that the connection between ending capitalism and "the extermination of a virus remains opaque." Instead, using "simple Cartesian ideas," he declares that the pandemic is "a nature-society intersection," between "ill-kept markets that followed older customs" in Wuhan in which at "a certain moment the virus found itself present, in an animal form itself inherited from bats, in a very dense popular milieu, and in conditions of rudimentary hygiene," and, "a planetary diffusion of this point of origin borne by the capitalist world market". In other words, what one learns from Badiou's cynical viral ontology is that the current crisis is not a cause for revolution because the "traditionally" regulated market (of the cultural other) is its cause and thus future prevention simply requires more "hygienic" regulations.

Leaving aside the dubious science behind Badiou's tabloidy rhetoric,1 this is how Badiou's "event-al" logic simply reinscribes bourgeois common-sense as the limit of knowing by disconnecting the social and political effects from their underlying economic causes. In place of an analysis which uncovers the historical and material conditions which produce a pandemic, Badiou ontologizes these now causeless effects as novel "events" that emerge spontaneously and without class-conscious direction as a disruption of the existing. This is why he says without a trace of irony that while the cause of the current crisis is not an unprecedented event, it is still "event-al" in that while its cause remains "opaque" ("a certain moment the virus found itself present in an animal") it has "transversal" effects ("planetary diffusion of this point of origin borne by the capitalist world market"). In other words, the "real" can only be known at the level of its effects and the causal world-in-itself is "absent." On this logic, the event-al origins of the virus are, at best, only known in their local manifestations and therefore cannot be connected to the global logic of capitalism inscribed in the law of value.

The pandemic, however, is fundamentally an indictment of the global capitalist system. Leaving aside that zoonotic epidemics have and will break out in more regulated markets—just look at the numerous well-documented violations of New York City's "wet markets"2—the conditions found in Wuhan are not due to "older customs" or Badiou's thinly veiled racist pandering about "dangerous dirtiness" and "rudimentary hygiene" in China, but emerging contradictions between the tremendous productivity of labor in China—which is resulting in urbanization and development on a historic scale—and the introduction into the country of the most modern forms of "market regulation" that are designed to keep the costs of labor in China low in order to attract the biggest capitalist firms of the global North. Economics, to spell it out, is not about "markets," which is where commodities are exchanged after they have been produced from exploited labor, but the mode of production. Market regulations are merely "rules" for distributing the surplus-value added to the commodity by the labor-power of workers into the hands of the biggest transnational capitalists, and their implementation is determined by their effects on the rate of profit. Making the cause of the crisis seem like a contingent local event as Badiou does fails to explain why the commodification of animals for profit no matter how it is regulated always serves the law of value which puts profit before need. While advances in science, medicine, technology, and agriculture make it possible that everyone in the world could have access to safe and nutritious food, the commodification of food production means that profit always comes before safety. As Badiou echoes the imperialists' displacement of their own failed response to the pandemic on the "ill-kept" food markets in Wuhan, workers in the United States, the most advanced of capitalist markets, are subject to deplorable working conditions while food-borne illnesses are on the rise and are said to "cost" the U.S. economy $3 billion dollars a year.3 The connection between ending the pandemic and ending capitalism that Badiou says is too "opaque" because it violates his "simple Cartesian ideas" is not a more or better regulated capitalism, but the replacement of the anarchy of capitalist market regulation with socialist economic planning according to need not profit. And the only class that is materially positioned so as to advance such a global revolutionary project is the working class, led by workers who have become "socialist theorists" (Lenin, What Is To Be Done?), in other words, the workers "of every country" who "bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality" because they have "theoretically… over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement" (Marx and Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party).

Because Badiou has established his Leftist credentials by defending the "idea of communism" (which is just an idealist desire for abstract equality in his discourse), he has to disguise his support of capitalism under the guise of "new communism." This he does by, on the one hand, cynically mouthing that President Macron "is correct… the state is compelled… to undertake practices that are… more authoritarian… while remaining within the established social order," while, on the other, claiming that to effectively "manage the situation" French imperialism is "integrating the interest of the class whose authorised representative it is with more general interests" ("On the Epidemic Situation").

How to explain Badiou's faith in the bourgeois state as guarantor of the "general interest" given that it stands in direct contradiction to his own "event-al" theory that the state cannot reconcile "two into one" because it must subsume "the truth of the collective" (Metapolitics 81) under some "identitarian assignation" of a "racial or sexual…or...social status" nomination (93-4)? It is because Badiou's "new communist hypothesis," in which all radical politics are "event-al," is really a way to make bourgeois apologetics seem "radical." How else to understand his dismissing the revolutionary communist idea of turning the pandemic into the "founding event of an unprecedented revolution" as merely the "apocalyptic" rhetoric of "revolutionaries" while embracing bourgeois hegemony as the precondition for making an "epidemic interlude" necessary for thinking about "new figures of politics, on the project of new political sites, and on the trans-national progress of a third stage of communism" ("On the Epidemic Situation")?

It might be laughable that the philosopher of the event, in encountering what is by his own parameters an "event," declares it uneventful. But it is a manifestation of the wider Left abandonment of revolutionary theory and praxis, the consequences of which have been devastating for the struggle to abolish the class relations that prioritize profit over social need.

Badiou's empty radicality is the event-al replication of market logic at the level of ideas. It argues for the spontaneous "desire" for the "new" that emerges out of an "interlude" from the normal made possible by the well-regulated background provided by the violent dictatorship of capital. What makes the "interlude" as well as the "normal" possible of course is the ongoing exploitation of labor, the disruption of which is precisely what is causing the crisis of capitalism Badiou dismisses as the "apocalyptic" rhetoric of "revolutionaries."

What explains Badiou's reversals is of course nothing new—they are what Lenin called the "hysterical impulses" of the "petty bourgeois driven to frenzy by the horrors of capitalism" ("Left Wing" Communism--An Infantile Disorder). The true communist response to the opportunistic vacillations of these Left thinkers is given by Lenin in his slogan against the first world war:

"Turn the War Against the Virus into a Civil War!"

 

Notes

1. "Wuhan seafood market may not be source of novel virus spreading globally." Science (Jan. 26, 2020).

2. See, "Not Just China, New York Too Has Over 80 'Wet Markets' That Sell & Slaughter Live Animals." india.com (April 3, 2020), as well as the origins of the 2009 H1N1 "Swine Flu" in the Eurasian-North American pig trade ("Origin of 2009 H1N1 Flu (Swine Flu): Questions and Answers." CDC.gov, November 25, 2009).

3. "2018 saw the most multistate outbreaks of foodborne illness in more than a decade, CDC says." The Washington Post (April 25, 2019).

 

Works Cited


Badiou, Alain. "On the Epidemic Situation." Verso blogs. March 23, 2020. www.versobooks.com/blogs/4608-on-the-epidemic-situation.

---. The Communist Hypothesis. New York: Verso Books, 2010.

---. Metapolitics. Trans. Jason Barker. London and New York: Verso Books, 2005.

--- and Peter Engleman. Philosophy and the Idea of Communism. Trans. Susan Spitzer. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015.

Lenin, V.I. "'Left Wing' Communism-An Infantile Disorder.V.I. Lenin Collected Works. Vol. 31. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966. pp. 17-118.

---."What Is To Be Done?: Burning Questions of Our Movement." V.I. Lenin Collected Works. Vol. 5 Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966. pp. 347-530.
 

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