A second letter in our quarantine series, penned in response to “Destitution, interrupted.”
I thank you for your reflections on the ongoing pandemic. To respond to your question: Did anything really change? What is the nature of this suspension introduced by the COVID-19? Today is January 93rd, Year 0. The weather reminds me of Spring, there are bees and butterflies, birds, people are outside wandering on the sides of streets, construction workers are still hard at work fixing roads, building new condos, though now more than ever it is unclear who will afford to live in them, and whether they won’t just sit empty for the next 2 to 3 years. Despite the circumstances at hand it is not uncommon to glimpse the sense of relief in the expressions of many of the youth running through the neighborhood with their friends laughing, talking, freed from the burdens of school. How now more than ever such displays of levity seem banished from the world for good. By nightfall the sense of living in total darkness will again prevail, surely, just as before.
Even if in all the political scenarios we’d imagined for ourselves going into 2020 – the elections, the possibility of a wave of revolt beginning to sweep across North America once again, the certainty that some kind of disaster would surely happen, even if we’d never once considered the possibility of a pandemic, we can’t say that we were completely unprepared for something like this to happen. Or, we’re completely unprepared for the situation, but our reflexes have proved adaptable. Some of our friends have gone full prepper – inevitable, really. It’s similar to the surprise we felt after Trump got elected. Our lesson is the same – we continue to find ourselves in situations that are not of our choosing or liking. We are called to respond, which does not mean reacting. This does not mean that we shouldn’t prepare, but that we must bear in mind that, “a force can, through acting, increase another that is acting in the opposite direction” (Benjamin); in other words, we cannot count on the outputs of invariant procedures anymore, including our own. We have to be water.
From my perspective, the virus makes clear two political limits we have continually run into, which some of us wrote about in 2019: firstly, that the democratic party will try to co-opt any popular revolutionary movement (AOC and all manner of politicians endorsing rent suspensions, or UBI etc.); and secondly, that our political ambitions will become essentially no different than providing for people’s basic needs in the face of a situation in which hundreds of thousands of people in this country are going to be left to die at the hands of failing state institutions. In this way, I don’t know that the virus frees us from any traps we were in before.
“Successful revolts do not only undermine existing powers, they also allow their participants a capacity to participate more fully in the world”, you wrote in “Destitution, Interrupted.” I’m wondering what implications this has for the virus. To me it seems like an attempt to set up an analogy between the effects of the contagion of revolt and those of the contagion of the virus. So when you say we are living in a ‘half-destitution’ I wonder if this formulation is the result of an inconsistency between 2 different conceptions of ‘destitution’ : 1. destitution as a natural tendency inherent within constituted powers (and in this sense comparable to crisis tendencies in capital) and 2. a destituent power as the form class war takes when it takes aim at an entire civilization. The latter implies a renewed capacity to act, while this is not the case in the former. There’s been so many takes about the virus – is it humans, or is it capitalism, etc. If neither of these alternatives seem to me satisfactory, this is because the virus shows that neither humans nor capitalism are truly sovereign in this situation. The virus has constructed its own temporality, which immobilizes everything. As our friend the biologist said, only the virus was capable of extending beyond what the insurrections proved incapable of doing, and actually shutting down the economy.
Our age is significant because the conditions that make life on earth possible are being called into question. That our species evolved within a certain temperature range is significant. That we have reduced the world to a single desert has made us susceptible to the predation of a monstrous entanglement, and that is significant. Confronted with the disaster unfolding both at a planetary scale (the climate catastrophe) and at micro-biological level (the invisible itself), everything we leverage in this situation will be tragic from the outset, incommensurate to the suffering that will follow. This is significant. In a way, we perform our own ban, our own suspension when we conceive of life in the moment of revolt as interruption or suspension of capital or normality (which is death-as-life). In other words, if we think that what happens in revolt is a more authentic experience, that leaves us unprepared for making sense of tragedies like the one we’re in, and this will surely blind us. The fact that there is not enough infrastructure in this country to care for all the people that need it is significant. This is a fissure we cannot cover over with weak conceptions of happiness, or hopes of “participating more fully”.
It is so clear to me that we have – despite all of this – the chance to reintroduce something like a global proletarian movement. The common ground is there, especially after 2019, but it needs to be distilled into forms that will enable us to truly be resilient in the face of these disasters, and not crumble when the economy does (though this is inevitable given our dependency). This means developing the capacity to coordinate resources trans-regionally, organizing people reliably at a large scale without this ever taking the form of a hegemonic or sovereign power. It is so clear that information is the most valuable thing amidst this crisis, that being a reliable source of information is one of the main tasks our movements will face in the future. This new episteme of information has so far remained neglected. Beyond that, we will continue just as before: trying to effectively produce the things we need outside of the economy while in turn impairing the latter severely, preparing ourselves to catch those who wander away from this world, as so many will have nowhere else to turn. Local struggles will certainly encounter limits in upturning a global problem. Yet they gesture towards each other, this is unmistakable. Their rhythms synchronize, bursting into chorus ever more often. This is why coordination at an international level is key to our moment.
And yet as real as this chance to stop the devastation of the planet and build a more free world feels from inside quarantine, at other times it seems like every other missed opportunity – a mirage. Dreadful panic sets in, the frozen sun goes down. Fear, uncertainty, loss; we live in the darkest of times. Our task is still to introduce a real state of emergency. Wash your hands. Wear a mask.
„Ich weiß,/ ihr berührt euch so selig, weil die Liebkosung verhält,/ weil die Stelle nicht schwindet, die ihr, Zärtliche,/ zudeckt; weil ihr darunter das reine/ Dauern verspürt“
[I know/ you touch so blissfully because the caress preserves,/ because the place you cover so tenderly/does not vanish; because underneath it/ you feel pure duration]