Pandemic Politics: Neoliberalism and its Faces of Death

A crisis is a turning point wherein an organism undergoes one of two changes; recovery or death. Put differently, it is the question of whether or not the organism’s internal capacities are strong enough to enable recovery without aid of an external mechanism. To illustrate, consider the average Covid-19 patient. The crisis does not depend on the patient’s access to a ventilator. The crisis begins at the point where we ask if recovery is possible without the ventilator. 

In a similar manner, capitalism’s disciplinary regime organizes itself as a ‘body.’ In fact, capitalism claims for itself a perfect body, the market as its primary organ governed by the invisible hand and autoregulated by a capacity for self-correcting. Indeed, its very claim to self-sufficiency – laissez-faire – is the market’s defining and most essential characteristic. Beneath the masquerade of algorithms, economic and financial modelling, and calculated risk assessments, is an underlying belief in a sort of divination. In fact, the allure of capital stems from a “collective faith in market forces” that is “more than human,” rendering capital a supernatural source for knowledge.[1] The purpose of such insight is to maintain the status-quo, that is to say, to conceal the fragility of what was supposed to be god-like. What is forgotten amidst this collective neurosis, as Nietzsche warns, is that even the most beautiful of music is all-too-human. So what happens when this body is in crisis and is facing rapid organ failure? 

The supposedly omniscient market and its oracles on Wall Street could not have predicted the looming black swan known as Covid-19. Paul Mason explains that the 2008 financial crisis was limited to a “collapse of the roof” onto the main structure. This time, Mason warns, “it is the foundations that are collapsing – because all economic life in a capitalist system is based on compelling people to go to work and spend their wages.” – more accurately – on exploitation. In response, capitalism has had to put itself on a ventilator, violating even its most strict commitments. The market once again hinges on external help but this time through issuing universal payments and the funding of state debts by central banks. This is nothing short of an admission that capitalism cannot rely only on internal mechanisms  – competition and entrepreneurship – to overcome its shortness of breath. It is now hooked on addictive medications known as the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve.[2] This, however, will not mark the end of capitalism. After all, crisis and internal contradictions have been, historically, a constitutive and inevitable feature. History has also demonstrated capitalism’s ability to thrive on crises, as evidenced by the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. The roof, that is to say, can always be rebuilt and even remodeled. Capitalism merely mutates into a new body, as it did when industrial capitalism evolved into neoliberalism.

However, the current crisis that has been all the more exacerbated by Covid-19 poses a more existential threat. The most fundamental internal mechanism sustaining capitalism is the collective faith in the market and its divinity. ‘It is not the individuals who are set free by free competition; it is, rather, capital which is set free,’ as Marx put it. The individual is beset by the mantra “There is No Alternative” and that in the face of financial loss, bankruptcy, and eviction none is to blame but the “losers” who failed to compete in the “fair” playing field known as the benevolent market. The personal culpability for “‘losing” in the market is much like sin; evil is the product of your own free-will, not God.[3]

The product of such a faith is the homo economicus: an aggregate of atomized individuals who have been created in the image of the market. Collective faith in the market depends on an instrumental rationality, whereby the atomized individual imputes value and meaning onto persons and things on the basis of the function they serve. The extends even to politics. In its neoliberal guise, the ‘political’ and its human face are effaced by a subordination of politics to the economic and the technological, culminating in what Dussel called “the age of the abolition of politics.” At the very core of neoliberal politics is the negation of the ‘Other’ predicated on transforming a community into an aggregate of atomized individuals on a neurotic ‘auto-pilot’ of consumption. A favorite illustration of Enrique Dussel is the taxi-driver: to the commuter, the taxi-driver is an extension of the vehicle, and both the taxi-driver and the vehicle mean – in my world – the function that it serves: to transport me to a desired location. The teller is but an extension of the establishment, the cashier reduced to an extension of the organic food market, and so forth. Capitalism forces us to put on masks concealing realities that lay beyond its perversions, namely, the human face, the fragile and suffering.

Covid-19 may very well change all that. An event, an irruption, shattering the atomized and reclusive walls of our worlds. In his op-ed on Covid-19 and its implications on the world order, Henry Kissinger warns,

The historic challenge for leaders is to manage the crisis while building the future. Failure could set the world on fire.

What exactly is this event so dreaded by Kissinger and his ilk? Byung-Chul Han describes an event as:

The event, which annuls what has held until now – the standing order – proves just as incalculable and abrupt as a natural disaster or act of God. It defies all calculation and prediction. When it occurs, an entirely new state of affairs begins. The event brings into play an outside, which breaks the subject open and wrests it from subjection. Events represent breaks and discontinuities; they open up new spaces for action.[4]

The global economic crisis and growing social inequality, even before Covid-19, Zbignew Brezinski warned, “are becoming more contentious” because they have surfaced in the context of what he calls “the global political awakening.” Communities across the world are becoming politically activated, conscious, and interactive, resulting in an emergent global activism.

In the decades following this prescient warning, uprisings across the world have shifted from discourses on market choices to ethical questions that pertain to the core of the human condition. The looming crisis became ever more real in 2008 when bank bailouts and the visible public outrage caused the debate on capitalism to shift to more explicit and “profound questions of legitimacy.” Raymond Williams rightly observes that each historical epoch has its own “structure of feeling.” In the post-2008 world, we witnessed a vocal and widespread age of anger and disillusionment, and now many are convinced that the supposedly level playing ground had been fixed all along.

Then came the pandemic. In addition to the economic and financial fallout it has wrought, Covid-19 forces us to rethink what we deem to be important, of value, and meaningful.[5] In many ways, the quarantine and displacement of daily life via the closure of shopping models and mundane life at large has forced us to return to our ‘original condition’ insofar as it has stripped us of the artificial subjectivities imposed upon us by neoliberalism. The undiscriminating medical face masks are becoming symbols of the fragility of not only the market but of the human condition itself. Suffering, ‘the cry for help’ as Enrique Dussel reminds us, is a universal language and revelatory insofar as it reveals the human face hidden behind the masks imposed on them by capitalist logic. Suffering forces us out of our myopic individualism towards a sense of responsibility wherein the highest expression of human nature is no longer economic competition but empathy and solidarity with the forgotten other.

Ruptures are possible only when one returns to those fundamental questions pertaining to the human condition and its place in the polity – a shift from discussions of monetary choice and policy towards more radical philosophical questions and the status-quo. The very idea that the market represents the “natural order of things” is coming to a rapid end.[6] In the wake of Covid-19, it is imperative that our discourse revolve not around policy, but philosophy. Rather than just dwell on capitalism’s failure to mitigate Covid-19 via policy and intervention, we are in need of a new narrative which rethinks capitalism as a viable ideology for dealing with crisis. The fact of the matter is, all discussions on policy (e.g. healthcare) are grounded in pre-existing philosophical assumptions. Neoliberalism too, despite its appeal to monetary and legalistic verbs, operates on a set of philosophical presumptions regarding man, ethics, and life. These include, as we have already seen, a deeply alienating conception of man as homo economicus. There is no policy without philosophy. The question is whether or not we are cognizant of that philosophy.

From atop a newly inaugurated philosophy, we must reject the “return to normalcy” mantra promulgated by the princes of capital, a mantra that is unsurprisingly grounded in the language of economics and financial recovery. Normalcy would mean severe austerity, bank bailouts, and corporate enrichment.[7] But most importantly it would also mean a return to the desolate politics of neoliberalism. If the fear of death by Covid-19 occupies the minds of the globe, a return to normalcy would only represent a return to death by other means. No economic stimulus plan or pay-out can revive the living dead. Healing as “self-optimization” means nothing more than exhaustion and exploitation, a self-blaming society on the brink of mental collapse. The indebted and burnt-out man is forced to uphold the mantra “no pain, no gain” where pain stands as a synonym for self-exploitation.

This brings us to the first imperative amidst this crisis. It will require the boldness to welcome a ‘world set of fire’ knowing very well that it is Kissinger’s world – the short-lived world of neoliberalism – that has been set ablaze. Navigating through such fires we must bring about the death of neoliberal politics and the creative birth of the new politics of life in which freedom means self-realization through the Other.[8] It is true, as Hamlet declared, “the time is out of joint—O cursèd spite, That ever I was born to set it right! Nay, come, let’s go together.

Works Cited:

1. Joshua Ramey, Neoliberalism as a Political Theology of Chance: The Politics of Divination, 2015.
3. Joshua Ramey, Neoliberalism as a Political Theology of Chance: The Politics of Divination, 2015.
4. Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, 2017.
8. Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, 2017.

Photo by Edwin Hooper

About the Author: Ali Harfouch is a guest contributor. He is a Beirut-based lecturer and has a Masters in Political Science. His interests are Islamic politics, metaphysics, and epistemology. You can follow him on Twitter here

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