|Rajesh Kasturirangan||May 15, 2020|
I was going to continue writing about citizenship but I am waiting to show a demo that’s been delayed. Soon enough, I hope. Therefore only a brief word about the saga of citizenship towards the end of this piece. Fortunately, the COVID crisis is opening up new dimensions of inquiry all the time. I am sketching some of them below for future elaboration.
Carpenter ants in some tropical forests get attacked by a parasite fungus that takes over the their bodies and their minds. It makes the ants leave the floor of the forest and cling to a leaf (exactly!) 25 cm above the ground, a height that’s ideal for the fungus to grow. Soon a fungal stalk erupts out of the ants’ head, raining spores on other ants and possessing them in turn.
I thought to myself:
What is it like to be that possessed ant? Does it feel a new affinity for leaves in the air? Does it go from being a conservative lover of all things earthy to a radical hang-glider? Even more metaphysically challenging: if the possessed ant loves the novel feeling of the wind blowing against its cheeks, whose feeling is it: the ant’s or the fungus’?
What if humans are also ‘possessed’ by microbes? Every culture I know has a version of ‘possession’ whether by god or the devil or spirits or animals or some other totemic objects. What if some of that posession is microbial? In other words, what if the human world is partly of microbial origin?
There’s no doubt that pandemics impact human behavior. While Christian Europe was always anti-Semitic, the plagues of the 14th century made the hatred worse. To take just one example among many - hundreds, perhaps thousands of Jews were burnt alive in Strasbourg on Valentine’s day in 1349. The question I want to pose is: is the turning of minds a second-order effect of the plague or a first-order effect? In Strasbourg it was likely a second-order effect since they infection had not yet arrived in the city, but nevertheless there’s a basic question: are human minds ‘our own’ or are they partially the minds of the microbes that live in our guts and in the air?
On a related note, how has the outbreak changed behavior? We know there’s been a sharp uptick in domestic abuse, which isn’t surprising since the abuser and their victim(s) are forced to remain in close proximity for months on end and the police and the authorities have too much on their plate to pay attention to intimate violence.
The classic patterns of intimate violence such as constant surveillance and control over autonomy and movement are now being enforced by the state. The most vulnerable populations - say, migrant women in India - are in danger of violence at home and on the street, for exactly the same reasons, which is to say that those at the bottom of the power hierarchy are likely to face nested traumas from violence they suffer at home and outside.
In fact, this erasure of the boundary beween private and public violence might be a new development, and points to a new state of exception.
Carl Schmitt, the conservative/Nazi political theorist, is one of the most important political theorists of our times - despite being a Nazi. One of his most important ideas is that of the ‘state of exception,’ which Wikipedia pithily describes as:
A state of exception (German: Ausnahmezustand) is a concept in the legal theory of Carl Schmitt, similar to a state of emergency (martial law), but based in the sovereign's ability to transcend the rule of law in the name of the public good.
The COVID19 crisis is the first time that the planet as a whole is in a state of exception, though enforced by individual nation states. In this sense, state responses to the COVID19 crisis are the culmination of the apparatus of exception that arose after 9/11, when a regime of surveillance and control was set into motion, especially against Muslim populations. The fusion centers being a fiendish example.
What the COVID19 crisis has done is to universalise the exception. It’s not one population or one aspect of our lives - it’s full spectrum exception at every scale from our bodily activities to the larger corporations that we can form via voluntary association. All of us are now subject to contact tracing, restrictions on movement etc. As of today, there are no citizens in the world, only subjects (I told you I would say something about citizenship didn’t I?). What mark will this collective state of exception leave after it’s revoked? If it is.
There’s increasing anger against China in many parts of the world even as there’s a sense that the US is no longer the unchallenged leader. Australia and other ‘mid-ranking’ nations are asking for greater accountability and I would be very surprised if the China factor isn’t yuge in Trump’s re-election campaign. After the Cold War ended, the world was unipolar for a while, with the US being the only global hegemon. The rise of China has made it bipolar, but the COVID crisis might offer an opportunity for a multipolar world or even a non-polar one. What’s going to happen to the state system?
Even as nation states are both increasing their power via states of exception and losing power because of their ineptitude, it looks like the one set of actors who will emerge stronger are the tech giants. In particular, higher education might be about to get disrupted, to use a favorite term of the neoliberal elite. Or ‘thought leaders’ as they are called.
More generally, the corona virus outbreak will almost certainly strengthen the hand of capital vis-a-vis labor in the short run. It’s much easier to enforce social distancing if your employees are all robots. WFH is a potential solution for white collar workers but it obviously doesn’t work for blue collar ones. But factory and warehouse workers will either have to agree to potentially dangerous working conditions or see their jobs vanish.
If human workers complain about Amazon’s lax sanitary standards in its warehouses, they might just find themselves replaced by robots. Or the threat of being so replaced will act as a constraint on their demands. Whatever the case may be, I expect the crisis of capital is going to be dialled up a notch.