Beyond the Plague State

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin ... No. 2089 ... May 14, 2020

Beyond the Plague State

Alberto Toscano

It is commonplace when commenting on crises of various stripes to note their capacity suddenly to reveal what the seemingly smooth reproduction of the status quo leaves unremarked, to frontstage the backstage, rip the scales from our eyes, and so on. The character, duration, and sheer scale of the COVID-19 pandemic is a particularly comprehensive illustration of this old apocalyptic truth. From the differential exposure to death engineered by racial capitalism to the fore-grounding of care work, from attention to the lethal conditions of incarceration to a drop in pollution visible to the naked eye, the revelations catalyzed by the pandemic seem as limitless as its ongoing impact on our social relations of production and reproduction.

The political dimension of our collective life is no exception to this. States of alarm and emergency proliferate, veritable sanitary dictatorships are spawned (most egregiously in Hungary), a public health emergency is militarized, and what The Economist dubs a "coronopticon" is varyingly beta-tested on panicked populations. And yet it would be far... too simple merely to castigate the various forms of medical authoritarianism that have appeared on the contemporary political stage. Especially for those invested in preserving emancipatory futures in the aftermath of the pandemic, it is crucial to reflect on the profound ambivalence toward the state that this crisis brings to the fore.

We witness a widespread desire for the state -- a demand that public authorities act swiftly and effectively, that they properly resource the epidemiological "front line," that jobs, livelihoods, and health be secured in the face of an unprecedented interruption of "normality." And, correcting a hopeful progressive conceit, whereby all repression is top-down in origin, there is also an ambient demand that public authorities swiftly punish those engaging in imprudent or dangerous behaviour.

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