The Masked Life: Abjection, COVID-19, and the Social Division of Death 



An Open Issue on the Pandemic

The Virus is Not a New Ontology
Rob Wilkie

The War Against the
Virus is a Class War
Stephen Tumino






In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Kant writes that the human being "is not a thing, hence not something that can be used merely as a means, but must in all his actions always be considered as an end in itself." Kant, in a long line of bourgeois thought, makes human life (as such) primary. There is, however, no such thing as "life-as-such": there is no life in its own life-y-ness.

Life, as Engels puts it, "consists precisely and primarily in this—that a being is at each moment itself and yet something else" (Anti-Dühring). Life consists in the living being's interaction with the material conditions of life; the material processes "present in things" out of whose internal "contradictions" life emerges and should they cease "life, too, comes to an end, and death steps in" (Engels). Life, in other words, is always other than itself.

Human life is maintained by social production, a process "by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature" (Marx, Capital Vol. 1). As humans produce their conditions of life through their labor, so too do they produce themselves as a "species-being" (Marx). Human ideas and practices, including the "meaning(s) of life" they give it, are actively produced by people "as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms" (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology). Life is a mode of social existence which is dependent on prior conditions—there is only historically determinate life.

In class societies, the material processes upon which human life depends—from meat to protective masks, from clean water and housing to laptops, buses and the care of the dead—are produced under material relations in which the conditions of production are not owned by the immediate producers, whose unpaid surplus-labor is accumulated by the owners of the means of production.

Class relations are relations of owning, by virtue of which some, by owning the conditions of production, force others to work for them as exploited labor.

The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship of domination and servitude, as this grows directly out of production itself and reacts back on it in turn as a determinant. On this is based the entire configuration of the economic community arising from the actual relations of production, and hence also its specific political form… This does not prevent the same economic basis – the same in its major conditions – from displaying endless variations and gradations in its appearance, as the result of innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural conditions, racial relations, historical influences acting from outside, etc. (Marx, Capital Vol. 3)

Human life (as such), in other words, depends on social production and how the social surplus is shared.

Where the means of production are privately owned, as in capitalism, the only life available (notwithstanding what Bergson and other vitalists say) is a life of necessity. And this grounding in necessity makes life unfree because "the silent compulsion of the economic relations sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker" (Marx, Capital Vol. 1). The appearance of "freedom" in capitalist societies is owing to the fact that workers are not directly forced to work (except in prisons), but choose their employers. But this "freedom" ultimately resolves into the "freedom" to live as exploited labor or to die. The freedom of "our way of life" that workers are taught they should be willing to die to protect is, in other words, freedom only for the owning class which commands over the labor and therefore the lives of workers.

The deathly conditions of life in which, as Marx writes, "the wage worker has permission to work for his own subsistence—that is, to live, only insofar as he works for a certain time gratis for the capitalist" (Critique of the Gotha Programme), have been so far reduced to the life-y-ness of life by bourgeois thought that life without exploited labor appears as the end of life itself.

The life-lessons of capital however have begun to appear more as what they are: lessons for the expansion of the life of capital.

The global pandemic has once again revealed how capitalism throws the life of humans in question. COVID-19 makes the hollowing out of life by capital more stark by exposing why life under capitalism is no life, but mere survival to maintain oneself as a "physical object" (Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844), to be used and discarded by the ownership class.

The basic fact of life that is actively obscured in the cultural discourse surrounding the pandemic is that at root capitalism has reduced the amount of socially necessary labor time required to produce the means of life to an insignificant minimum so that no one need go hungry, unhoused, unfed, uncared for, uneducated, … while at the same time it has globally expanded to all the compulsion to work and submit to having one's labor exploited for profit, or to die—regardless of nation, religion, age, race, gender, sexuality or ability. 

As the interests of the ruling class in maintaining profitability at all costs comes to the surface, not only are the means of life in the pandemic being rationed to maintain the profit rates of a few financial oligarchs, but the lives of workers are themselves openly being separated into the categories of the disposable, and the non-disposable. The irony of the term "essential workers" is that they are the workers most singled out not for life but for death. In order for "our way of life" to continue, in other words, they must (they are economically compelled to) daily confront the possibility of death. They are thus placed in the position of risking their lives in order to live, and indeed are the starkest demonstration of the unfreedom of capitalist societies.

The pandemic lays bare how the conditions of life under capitalism are more like a living death. What is being daily thrown into stark relief is the hollowness of freedom in capitalist societies and the actual condition of unfreedom in which the mass of humanity lives. Bourgeois ideology obscures this basic reality of social life by sanctifying human life as a precious thing in itself—because human labor-power alone is the source of value—so that everything that threatens the regime of value extraction is made to seem the enemy of life itself. The obscuring of social life through making life as such sacred is done using biological, ethical, medical, aesthetic, political, philosophical, etc. discourses that all reify life from its un-life-y conditions as an end in itself. The unfreedom that the freedom of capital imposes on the worker cannot be ended, however, by discursively re-valuing the value of "life," as the neo-Nietzscheans preach. Making life life-y again while wage-labor is the norm of social life only imbues submission to the rule of capital with a religious aroma that tells the exploited to live on "hope" while soothing the conscience of the exploiter.

Human freedom is not an ontological, or existential, frame of mind or condition of being. To give it the form of an end in itself while human life is compelled to work or die is a sick joke which benefits only those who live only so long as they exploit the labor of others.

Human freedom is a historical condition achieved under a definite organization of social relations of production. An economic system in which the compulsion to work as an exploited laborer undergirds the possibility of life is hardly the basis for such freedom. A society in which individual rights to private property supersede the social needs of that society is a society in which the human is estranged from itself in the very conditions of its existence, in which the social products of labor belong not to the society of laborers but are privately accumulated as individual property. To supersede this human self-estrangement—this antagonistic contradiction of capitalist life which turns the social world into a war of all against all in the competitive struggle for existence—what is required is "the positive transcendence of private property" (Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844) in a communist mode of production, which is the basis for the "complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e. human) being—a return accomplished consciously and embracing the entire wealth of previous development" (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844). Only when social relations are consciously and collectively organized to produce not only the necessities required to exist, but the material basis to live freely—free from economic compulsion—does human freedom become a possibility.

This communism… is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man—the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution. (Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844)

To realize such actual freedom requires however that what must change is the imagined freedom of life in class societies, a change which begins with the acceptance of class relations as the basis of life because it is only in this way that workers will be "taught by necessity to think in Marxist terms" (Luxemburg, "Blanquism and Social Democracy") about how to end them.

There is no life outside of class relations without the abolition of private property relations. What is put outside of class—life, culture, nature, nation, family, reason, morals, faith, love,… —is itself a product of class that has only the semblance of freedom from class because of the self-alienation of labor, because the worker expends their life energy not for enriching their own life but the life of the owner (who is only capital personified). There is no freedom without labor directed according to the needs of humans to negate the conditions of necessity imposed by capital. There can be no life without humans bringing to an end the conditions that make of life a living death. It is not the ability of people to imagine a "commons" that is the issue. Rather, it is their ability to fully accept the brutal logic of the class struggle. In short, the historic task is not only to know class (how can we forget?), but to accept class as the shaping logic of capitalist life and thereby take part in the struggle to end it in order to bring a global communist society into existence.