The Plague Journal

Lines of Capital

The year opened with titters and tweets of WWIII, and while we did enter into a period of global struggle, it was not initially against a human enemy. The first global pandemic in living memory has by now been a staple of everyday existence for almost four months (slightly longer for the internationally aware, the specialist, or über-hypochondriac).

The novel coronavirus Covid-19 spread globally from Wuhan, carried abroad by lines of trade and capital flow. The Chinese journal Chuang 闯 (“rush,” “to temper oneself through difficulties”) wrote «Social Contagion» back in February that “Of course capitalism is culpable—but how, exactly, does the social-economic sphere interface with the biological, and what kind of deeper lessons might be drawn from the entire experience?”

“Social Contagion” 闯 The city of Wuhan is known as one of the “four furnaces” of modern China’s industrial foundry that supplies the entire world with manufactured goods.)

I, along with the Chuang author, do not consider the xenophobic coverage of Covid-19 by US-media worthy of refutation. Pandemics are not moral judgements, they are features of a natural world press-ganged into ever-smaller spaces by industrial capital. Sites of bodily labor, dense populations, and mass production carried out as cheaply as possible without regard for workers’ (like a good capitalist) will inevitably give rise to epidemics.

It is a capitalist truism that those on the bottom will be the worst-affected by any disaster. Lacking in material insulation and material power, they are at the mercy of those with an excess of both. By now, the social and economic inequalities of the pandemic are obvious to anyone with an ounce of imagination and awareness. Billionaires jetted off to bunkers in New Zealand while those suddenly deemed “essential workers” continued to work for starvation wages along the newly-militarized “front lines.” The rhetoric of war here can ironically be read as reaffirming the production boundary of modern capitalism: those “essential” at the “front lines” are responsible for keeping the world making, running, producing. The billionaires, it turns out, are rather useless to anyone but themselves. (Shocking.)

The first obvious takeaway is that, without the vast global masses of physical workers (among whom US service-workers may in part belong), all the fancy techno-capital and fin-tech “innovations” are revealed to be nothing but hype. Taking an economy “post-production” only works if production can continue elsewhere, invisible but active—you can only transition to a “knowledge economy” if you can force poor people elsewhere (in Guangdong and Wuhan, in Nairobi, in unnamed slums and maquiladoras) to produce those goods.

In the specific context of the US response SARS-CoV-2, “lockdowns” instituted by states quickly decimated the service economy, throwing the underclass into sudden fiat unemployment.[^1] Let me re-iterate that I am not denying the danger or severity of Covid-19—lockdowns, quarantines, these policies may well have been necessarily, but few would argue that they were executed in a consistent and intelligent manner. The issue was not lockdown, the issue was the manner in which lockdown was accomplished. It is unthinkable to throw a a country whose population cannot afford a $400 surprise expense into sudden unemployment without catastrophic fallout.

To add insult to injury, the US government distributed a meager $1,200 package (which I and several friends still have not seen) and begrudgingly instituted a $600/week emergency package. The “emergency wages” are good, if potentially difficult to get. To personalize for a bit: it is a sad truth as well that $600 a week is more than I make. I would be better paid on this emergency unemployment than I am working with advanced degrees. Of course, that would only be until July when the unemployment paychecks stop. And I am one of the lucky members in my generation—how long can a system survive that does nothing to care for those who produce it? Tyranny will be needed to keep unruly citizen-consumers in check (and repaying their debts).

The bailout of the bank industry, the Federal Reserve offering to buy unlimited corporate bonds, the trillions of dollars thrown to appease Jamie Dimon et al…we’ve seen this before. I imagine senate hearings in 2021 or so will play out almost exactly as those post-2008 did.

Disproportionate danger to the underclass, erosion of political power, a lack of material provisions for sudden unemployment; but a bailout for the rich, who have just fled the country. Fear turns to anger and back again so easily. So easily.


It took the country 66 days from the institution of quarantine to rebellion.

Along with the pandemic sweep of SARS-CoVID-19, opposition to state violence now dominates the US consciousness. More importantly, it dominates the streets. Despite bunker dreams of totalitarian patrols, the people have returned to the streets for almost two weeks now, and all 50 states have seen sizeable direct action (plus the territory of DC, the protectorates, and Puerto Rico) against state security forces that continue to wantonly murder.

“We’re going to clamp down very, very strong,” Trump said. “The word is ‘dominate.’ If you don’t dominate your city and your state, they’re gonna walk away with you. And we’re doing it in Washington, in DC, we’re going to do something that people haven’t seen before … But we’re going to have total domination.”
  — Impeached president Donald Trump

It is terrifying to see those words spoken by the commander-in-chief of the known universe’s largest military force. In keeping with autocratic tradition, the Trump regime maintains it was democratically endowed with power.

Hatred returns from abroad in the body. Not only of the vengeful, but the invaders as well. Human reality is part of a dialectic between materiality and consciousness; what does bringing home the materiel of war do to the conciousness of those by whom it is carried? We hand cops weapons of war (including chemical weapons that are internationally illegal) and expect them to what? Be peaceful? De-escalate situations so they don’t get to use their APC?

The abuses of America’s police are too long and gruesome for me to deal with. A sampling, however:

None of this is new. It is 400 years old at least. Police are the armed border between extraction and production: they enforce property rights and oppose challenges to state power through physical separation and state-sanctioned murder. None of that is new, or radical to point out. Nixon’s “law and order” southern strategy was merely a continuation of racist appeals to white “safety” that the KKK and other terrorist organizations employed in the early 1900s. Descended itself from legacies of imperialist and colonialist slavery. The state murders people of color at a higher rate (or imprisons in “social murder”) as in some way, it always has. Who has counted as “human,” may have broadened, but the logics of policing and “protecting” have not.

Who is it that the police protect? What do they protect from? Who do they serve?[^2]

On that last question: Yesterday I too part in a smaller BLM protest in my town, a roommate and I biked into the city to attend. The meeting place was a city elementary school. While the organizers were preparing for the march there were four shots fired across the field, and two cars sped away. Organizers checked on the situation, and called police and ambulance services for a person who was lying on the ground (we assume this person was shot). It took the police almost 40 minutes to arrive, despite a precinct being ~4 blocks away, almost visible from where we were standing.

That’s the way it is here, folks. This is what it’s like to live here. The kids [here with us today] hear gunshots so often they just think they’re fireworks. But those were not fireworks, I swear to you. [The Cops] don’t show when we need them, and they harrass us the rest of the time.
— BLM Organizer

Forty minutes. Given that the location is in an “often-has-shootings” neighborhood, the neglect is all too common. It is not a bug, however, it is a feature of the police “service.” In the wake of police brtality that is now being given attention, it is worth remembering that “protection” is not a universal duty of the cops: the affluence of the area determines response. Race in the US is a fairly reliable proxy for economic status.[^3] And we all know how unfriendly and horrific it is to encounter police as a houseless individual. Petty harassment, arrests, taunting: “removal.”

So who are the police for, if they are not “protecting” those who are obviously the most at risk? Ah, they protect the powerful. The rich, the owners of material property (hence the ludicrously antagonistic attitude towards petty theft, but absolutley no cops tear-gassing the CEO who steals millions of dollars from employee’s pension funds).

In the words of Michael Franti “white collar crime’ll never send ya to the slammer.”

Connection, Distribution, Retribution

Racism alone cannot fully explain the expansive carceral power in our midst, which, as Reed notes, is “the product of an approach to policing that emerges from an imperative to contain and suppress the pockets of economically marginal and sub-employed working-class populations produced by revanchist capitalism.” Most Americans have now rejected the worst instances of police abuse, but not the institution of policing, nor the consumer society it services. As we should know too well by now, white guilt and black outrage have limited political currency, and neither has ever been a sustainable basis for building the kind of popular and legislative majorities needed to actually contest entrenched power in any meaningful way.
— Cederic Johnson «The Triumph of BLM and Neoliberal Redemption»   [^4]

[…] I’ve contended that, despite its proponents’ assertions, antiracism is not a different sort of egalitarian alternative to a class politics but is a class politics itself: the politics of a strain of the professional-managerial class whose worldview and material interests are rooted within a political economy of race and ascriptive identity-group relations.
— Adolph Reed, Jr. «How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Police Violence»

Moral outrage can be a powerful tool, but not in and of itself very useful.[^7] It seems the predominant political assumptions of our time are that politics is a setting, mode, or choice affected by an individual. As opposed to a materially-derived epistemological orientation. That is, in the tiny Overton Window that is US discourse, the major weight tends to be on what an individual (corporate or corporeal) says, and potentially what one donates (money is speech, and all fixes go through the market).[^6]

Let me also state that I am not sure I entirely agree with either Dr. Johnson or Dr. Reed above about the wrongness of “afro-pessimism”—I think there is something to the argument that black people in the US are treated substantially worse, and that it should be addressed even if only within the framework of current relations for now. I am, however, hugely sympathetic to their broadening of the debate, and their insistence on materiality as a basis for critique. All too often material reality is puttied over with liberal fantasies of such and such a “Police Reform Act,” as if a piece of paper in DC will change much for the lived day-to-day of the racialized underclass.

Fundamentally, identity may be a project whose net effect is the sustainment of neoliberalism (and the set of material relations that create it). After all, what real change or good comes from having black billionaires? Oprah’s existence, the mere fact of her blackness, does nothing to address [black] poverty. As a symbol, yes yes, there is meaning; but symbols are ephemeral, and as Adorno and Benjamin argued with regards to “the Culture Industry,” symbols can be methods of control. When the billionaires are held up as potential futures, when the glitzy life of an NBA or NFL player is bandied as a road of salvation for otherwise fucked American youth…nothing changes. No individual’s success, no matter their identity, does anything for tangible, material relations on scale. If symbols are images that point to an underlying idea, what is the idea behind the sports-industrial-complex?

As Reed points out, the material results are invariably the same: the poor get fucked over. Such is what it means to be poor: you are at the mercy of others, lacking in agency, with an ever-smaller pool of options that are not “dying in a hole.” Your options are (1) take a shitty, low-paid job for a soulless franchise that will systematically abuse you and seek to curtail your rights, for $7/hour; or (2) be unemployed and die in a ditch. Well, it’s not a hard choice. In effect, the decisions that face those poor Americans (without material) are insanely stacked.

However, as race is a proxy for class (and your FICO score may or may not use your ZIP code to proxy for race and get around federal discrimination laws), I would think Reed amenable to the suggestion that black America is disportianately kept in the underclass. The solution is not a diverse set of oppressors (the black CEO of Raytheon would still be materially supporting the mission-critical murder of poor children abroad), but a change to the lived organization of our social system. The solution is a different economic system; an alternative to capitalism.[^8]

[^1]: The term “proletariat” is not necessarily applicable any longer, as relations to capital (of the financial, ephemeral sort) have shifted in the digital and acceleration age. This concept of an underclass relies, as the name implies, on an overclass: a group of rentiers whose primary source of income is the actions of the underclass. Investors make money off home loans, auto loans, student loans, credit card loans, payday loans, construction loans, wedding loans. Aspects of existence have been privatized and value extracted. i.e. University education in the US.

[^2]: There is a great publication from Verso «Police: A Field Guide» that re-situates police within a larger, more historical framework. (Free eBook for a few months with email)

[^3]: The median black household in the US has approximately 1% of the wealth of the median white household

[^4]: Shared by a friend on Facebook—a few good things may come from that flowing trough of shit!

[^7]: See the Washington Examiner reporter fired for pretending to help board up a storefront in Santa Monica; even though the WaEx is a useless outlet, the scale of outrage at the reporter’s actions is telling. Anger because she is pretending? But what is that mass anger doing? It is still a form of pretend.

[^6]: I don’t think it’s even cynical to suggest that corporations don’t care about (moral) politics. Aside from the profit incentive, corporations cannot care about anything else. I view the whole of CSR, “corporate social responsibility,” with great suspicion. Nike’s Colin Kapernick ad comes from the same firm that uses sweat shop labor abroad, tax havens to keep corporate profit from going to the public, and the host of usual problematic business practices. It’s not Nike’s fault, it is systemic. So why, I ask, do we think that Nike will do anything about any of these problems? A corporation strong enough to change material (structural) relations like that would effectively be a state. And while the PayPal Mafia masturbates to the idea of a privatized corporate-state a la «Snow Crash», we are not there. Not yet.

[^8]: Fully automated luxury gay space communism is the one true path.