Contributions from 18 September, part 1: A Marxist analysis

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We’re pleased to publish a sequence of edited transcripts from selected panel contributions given on 18 September First up, here’s Victor Conti’s discussion of the lockdown and the biosecurity regime as a reorientation of the body to the state and capital in a new phase of capitalist development.

Left and right lockdown scepticism

VC: [… responding to the discussion so far…] I think it is important that we don’t abandon the idea of the left overall, even though it’s sometimes tempting to imagine yourself as simply no longer on the left because you have so little in common with another person on the left. It can also seem to be the case that the left is so supportive of the new order that there is no practical difference anymore between left and right on either side. I do think there is a strong case for collaboration and building bridges, that left-right is not necessarily the dividing line in the mass anti-lockdown movement, and also the left has always had to be pragmatic and practical to achieve what it wants to do. So I’m not saying that collaboration shouldn’t happen. There should be joint platforms and joint organisation. But I think it is important that the anti-lockdown left have a position too, because there are there are differences between the left and the right wing libertarian anti-lockdown approach.

The first difference is of a kind of theoretical nature: it’s the right-wing idea that the pandemic, the lockdown and everything that has followed represents some kind of monumental cock-up, that it’s a mistake that we’ve made, or perhaps an example of convergent opportunism, and so it’s possible to correct it, to reverse it, rather than understanding these events in historical and economic terms – as the left is better equipped to do.

The right also tend to see this as part of a wider culture war. And, for me, that relates to the second difference we have with the right wing libertarian freedom movement, which is how representative the right can ever be of the wider freedom movement. When I look at the makeup of the day-to-day, anti-lockdown sentiment, it’s not made up of well-off and well-educated conservatives, it’s made up of working class people from a very ethnically diverse background – and it is primarily the young who are actively resisting this.

And the working class is opposed to these measures. Even though you have this sense of a blanket support, where all the polls will say not only did the vast majority of the public support the lockdown, but they actually more of it, they want more punishment, if you dig beneath the surface just a little bit in any conversation – you will find that actually, it is probably the small minority that are in favour of this in a kind of ‘bought-in’ way.

(And unfortunately, those people are exactly the woke left, the woke middle class left who were quite important in supporting Corbyn, as people here have commented. In my mind the best analogy for this is 1984 and what the ‘outer party’ have to do to their brains in order to exist. The inner party know what’s going on, they know that this this is a fascist regime, and they’re bought into it because they’re winning from it. And that’s, in this analogy, that’s Davos, Amazon and all the rest. It’s the ‘outer party’ who must live in terrible conditions, they must bend their minds around this to actively support what’s happening. And I think that describes the Labour Party and a lot of the left: they know it doesn’t make sense, but they’re forcing themselves to make it make sense.)

So the right can’t really represent the freedom movement and, with some important and honourable exceptions, the right doesn’t have a concept of history in the way that the left does. And I think that’s a major difference because ultimately, only the left is capable of understanding what I’m just going to refer to as the Covid regime – the biosecurity state, whatever you want to call it – in historical terms. And I think as has been pointed out, the left has done this work in terms of theory.

When I started reading Giorgio Agamben I realised that there was an amazing parallels with his concepts and what we are dealing with, such as Homo Sacer, the person who is sacred but who is also allowed to be killed at the same time, along with his work on the idea of a state of exception: a state of emergency that begins in certain circumstances but grows to become more and more all pervasive, especially in the world after 9/11.

And if you look at work of Roberto Esposito, another Italian political theorist of a kind of post-Marxist orientation, which I would strongly recommend even though he, unlike Agamben, has not opposed lockdown or the pandemic restrictions … If you read Esposito’s Immunitas, which takes the immune system for its central theme, you will see this uncannily familiar processing of history as something fundamentally very simple, which is what is the relationship of the human body to the political state – and to capital.

And let’s be clear, the left has forgotten the fact that the state is in fact the embodiment of the rule of capital in a global capitalist society. Much of the left thinks the state is somehow the worker’s defence against capital, but it’s just not the case. Instead, let’s just think of the state and capital was one, which helps with this kind of theorization.

Digital enclosure: a comparison with the Industrial Revolution

To understand what is going on you need to look back to the Industrial Revolution, because the change that’s happening is really a reorientation of the body to capital, via the state, which is necessary in order for the capitalist system to achieve its perceived next level of technical progress.

In the industrial revolution, we needed to mass migrate the rural population into the cities in order to work in difficult unsanitary conditions without sufficient food supplies. So you had phenomena like parliamentary enclosure, which was designed to remove long held ancestral rights to land and the ability to farm and be self sufficient. That was an early factor in depopulating the countryside.

And then finally, by the end, in the white heat of the Industrial Revolution, as Marx records in Volume One of Capital [see chapter 10] there were people known as ‘flesh agents’ whose role was to effectively complete the job by rounding up impoverished men, women and children from the countryside and herding them into the cities where most of them would die – as average life expectancy in cities fell from around 40 or 50, to just 17.

Living standards did not recover to the peak at which they achieved in the mid 18th century, probably until the early 20th century. That was how damaging this reorientation of capitalism was, and what is happening now. You might call it some kind of digital enclosure. Certainly there are the elements of a mass fall in living standards (suddenly, to be privileged in the world is to be a member of the Zoomocracy, where your privilege is to be locked in your own home so you’re not exposed to the virus). We’ve also seen a re-justification and re-emergence of the worst kinds of racism and imperial aggression, with the imposition of lockdowns on countries that had no economic basis to sustain that kind of pressure on the economy, in which millions of additional children, as Unicef acknowledges. This, like in the industrial revolution, is the heavy cost of a new stage in capitalism.

Long capitalism, lockdown as a deflationary measure, machine-wreckers

I want to finish with the questions I think emerge out this. Firstly, what is really happening to capitalism in this process? One part of me thinks this might be a kind of state stabilisation of the system, a solidification of the capitalist system, similar to that was what was achieved by the period of you know, absolute monarchy in early modern Europe, where the instability of feudalism was corralled into a much more stable political structure. So, is this the form for a kind of ‘long capitalism’ that it will exist in the hundreds of years potentially?

Or is this simply a symptom of continued economic instability? There’s a good recent article by Fabio Vighi which, among other things, analyses the lockdown in purely monetary, financial terms. Essentially, the world economy was on the brink of – as we started to see in in 2020 – a major economic crash. The usual problem: indebtedness of the major world economies was unsustainable, and there were bubbles being created on the basis of that debt. What the system needed at that point was a huge injection of what was known as liquidity (what that really means is printing money and giving it to banks to pay their debts).

And that’s what happened simultaneously with the move towards lockdowns – and actually justified by it even through the truth is perhaps the other way around. As Vighi points out, between September 2019 and March 2020 the Fed injected nine trillion dollars, or 40% of US GDP, into the financial system. The European Central Bank also started injecting 20 billion euros a month into the financial markets in September 2019, and now has a €1.85 trillion ‘pandemic emergency purchase program’, known as PEPP, extending until 2022.

These interventions were justified on the basis of an economic crisis caused by the lockdown. But perhaps what happened is actually the other way around: the system was in a deep crisis by late 2019. Finally the thing that we’d held off since 2008 was about to hit, the cash machines were finally about to run out of money, capitalism was on the verge of collapse. In order to inject trillions of dollars into the world economy, we lock the system down in order to exert what technically is a deflationary pressure by stopping anyone from buying anything. Collapsing living standards was a way to stop the risk that you create when you inject a trillion dollars into the economy, which is Weimar Germany-style hyperinflation, which then destroys the value you created. The whole lockdown could be seen as a deflationary measure.

If that is the case, and again, these are just different interpretations, then we can expect more instability, because no fix is ever enough. And that idea, in some sense, gives me hope, because this might not be the kind of long capitalism – hundreds and hundreds of years of some kind of stable system – it might be something quite different.

To finish, I feel like we’re at the stage in this movement of almost the status of Luddites or the machine breaking movement in the 18th century. We definitely know what we’re against. The question is, what are we really for? What is the positive programme? I think we can agree on things like principles like equality, democracy, bodily autonomy, as things that we can all kind of unite around.

And we must urgently debate and talk about the role of the state. I believe that leftist theory needs a major renovation in this in this respect. For so many it seems to be a blind spot, because it’s our belief that the state is somehow different to capitalism, and better than it, that’s kind of got us into this mess.

I hope that we can talk about some of those questions.

Next up, read Emily Garcia’s contribution on why she joined Left Lockdown Sceptics from a gender-critical, radical feminist perspective.

5 thoughts on “Contributions from 18 September, part 1: A Marxist analysis

  1. As a life long leftist, I found myself over the past ten years moving further and further away.
    I enjoyed your article Victor Conti, thank you.

  2. Excellent analysis. I particularly like the critique of the state. Many “Marxists” are apparently unaware of the fact that Marx turned increasingly anti-statist in his later years, especially in the aftermath of the Paris Commune.

    I take issue with one part. “In the industrial revolution, we needed to mass migrate the rural population into the cities in order to work in difficult unsanitary conditions without sufficient food supplies. So you had phenomena like parliamentary enclosure, which was designed to remove long held ancestral rights to land and the ability to farm and be self sufficient. That was an early factor in depopulating the countryside.” Historical analysis, such as done by Ellen Meiksins Wood (who considered herself a Marxist), concluded that Enclosures were not the result of the Industrial Revolution, but started centuries earlier in the English countryside, leading to the development of agrarian capitalism, the first self-producing capitalist system in history, and its development, its requirements for productivity growth, is what led to the Industrial Revolution, which then required further enclosures. See her “The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism.”
    https://monthlyreview.org/1998/07/01/the-agrarian-origins-of-capitalism/?fbclid=IwAR1blmLND8qFdONIblk1Vutv-4Eo-iUTEZyRmAvX7b8id_Ra9aoewuEY6S4

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