When they poured across the border
I was cautioned to surrender
This I could not do
(Leonard Cohen, The Partisan)
LRO – COVID-19 2020 #7
18th March 2020
The Bonfire of the Vanities
For some time now contemporary capitalism in the form of bio-politics has succeeded in colonising the domain of life in order on the one hand to extract maximum profit from the health market and on the other hand to introduce new strategies for the management of populations in the name of the dynamic between risk and security.
The onset of the corona virus pandemic has exposed a number of fault lines in the assumptions by which we live, in particular the casual assumption of a cost-free superimposition between health and wealth. The British government’s initial response to the crisis provides a fairly crude demonstration of some of the calculations at stake.
Highly averse to introducing any measures that might impact on the well-being of the economy they have declared themselves quite prepared to sacrifice the lives of their citizens on the altar of business as usual. “Many of you will die. You will lose your loved ones before their time”, words we have heard emerging quite brazenly from the mouth of a Prime Minister who imagines himself to be ventriloquising Churchill.
While the British government rapidly scrabbles around to reconsider the implications of their approach, the scorn heaped on the notion of ‘herd immunity’ reminds us of the lack of scientific basis for any reference to Darwinian principles to prop up the logic of capitalism. This government’s response exposes in a particularly brutal way that a capitalist society organised around the principle of the survival of the fittest cannot escape the corollary principle of the sacrifice of the weakest.
What kind of society is prepared to contemplate the sacrifice of precisely its most vulnerable members to the supposed good of the whole? Should not the wealth of a society and the legitimacy of its government rather be measured by its ability to look after those most in need, loved ones or not? The kind of trade-off sold to us during a decade of austerity becomes a bit more difficult to sustain in the harsh light of the present crisis.
Capitalism thrives on the logic of competition, a competition in which there are inevitably winners and losers. Perhaps the stakes of this zero sum game have never been more apparent. Can competition co-habit with some kind of social cohesion and co-operation? One way for us to address this question might be to monitor the outcomes for those countries in which there is still some kind of functioning social bond or sense of social solidarity and those countries already infected with the virus of the neo-liberal discourse, whose symptoms include aggravated individualisation, extreme disparities between rich and poor, and early death for some.
Despite widespread resort to emergency measures and a renewed appreciation of the advantages of centralised authoritarian rule, the irony is that this virus appears to be one of the most democratic agents imaginable. Despite Donald Trump’s attempts to claim otherwise, it has no respect for race, nationality, origin, or for boundaries and trade barriers. Trump’s obscene billion dollar bid for exclusive rights to the outcomes of anti-viral research shows that there will always be scope for buying protection and access to treatment. None of this will be news to the victims of the far more lethal Ebola virus that has been rampaging through African countries for some years now.
But let us also not overlook the fact that those with the resources to bid for privileged access to immunity from this latest threat are also those with the most to lose. All those trillions of dollars that have been wiped off the global stock exchanges in recent weeks: who do they belong to and where have they gone? And if they could disappear like smoke into thin air in the course of a few days, under what conditions did they exist in the first place? The recent calls by traders to suspend the markets during the crisis, to pause trading in order to avoid further losses, merely poses the question of the purpose served by these financial markets and the conditions under which they claim to generate wealth.
Here we might take our reference from Lacan’s comments about the potlatch in Seminar VII. He refers to the practice of the potlatch in non-capitalist societies as a practice “conceived to have a salutary function in the maintenance of inter-subjective relations”. Considering the possibility that the destruction of goods might itself be expressive of value, he suggests that this practice serves to remind us that “not everything is caught up in the necessary dialectic of the competition for goods, of the conflict between goods, and of the necessary catastrophe that this gives rise to.”
However paradoxical the notion of the celebration of destruction might appear, this reference to the potlatch could at least provide us with an angle from which to consider an alternative form of articulation between the death drive and the desire for life, one not already subsumed to the capitalist logic of accelerated wastage. If it comes to a choice between the destruction of goods and the preservation of life, should we not in fact be celebrating the destruction of false goods and taking every opportunity to affirm our desire for life?
 Lacan, J., The Seminar Book VII, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, transl. D. Porter, Norton, 1992, pp. 234-35.
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