There is no escaping COVID-19. And by now, most agree we all must contribute what we can to minimize the impact of this deadly virus. Unfortunately, there is less agreement about what has changed and even more uncertainty about what will be our “new normal” as we pass through this crisis. The battle lines over what is or isn’t “normal” have never been more clearly drawn. Do we return to the system as it once was, resurrecting what brought us to this moment, or do we engage some other way of living, working, and celebrating together?
The (brutal) unveiling of interdependence
What we have observed more and more, and may have forgotten was possible, are people cooperating and working together, affirming that we are and always have been connected. Part of a dense web of relations, we no longer “have the luxury” to imagine ourselves outside a thick, tangled skein of sociality. Before COVID-19, our interdependence may have been less visible, poorly understood, or dismissed as a result of the interference of commodity intensive society and the static from everything in place to prop it up. COVID-19, and, more importantly, the failed institutional response to it has not only exposed our underlying cooperation and shared desires, it has also brutally revealed the limits and corrosive impact of racial patriarchal capitalism as a social mediating system.
COVID-19 as disruption to the capitalist system
Even before the virus started to wreak havoc, capitalism had been dying. Robert Kurz and the wertkritik school of Marxist critique, for example, have long since warned that the shelf life of the current mode of production has expired. Autonomist Marxists of different stripes have also been sounding alarm bells about capitalism’s final stage. COVID-19’s rapid spread has not only disrupted just in time production and supply chains, it has also exposed the system’s multiple, intertwined fictions, especially that people’s worth depends on what they earn or consume. Western governments like the U.S.’s mad scramble to send out checks to everyone they can along with businesses, small and large, further undermines that fiction, even if lawmakers still can’t agree who is worthy and who is not, and how much people deserve or should be allocated to keep the system functioning. The point remains: if people don’t buy stuff, especially buying stuff that they don’t really need, the system collapses. And now, they can’t get stuff, especially the basic, life-saving items people actually need. The neoliberal conceit that there is no alternative to capitalism seems foolish now that there is talk of a universal basic income and coordinating across industries while also facilitating public and private cooperation to produce badly needed equipment to confront the COVID-19 threat. Trump’s limited application of the Defense Production Act, some argue too little too late, highlights the system’s contradictions. The result remains, the world’s industrial leader and the center of world consumption cannot produce enough ventilators, protective equipment, and swabs to protect first responders and slow the spread. We have been content to build “a world,” according to Max Brooks, “built on comfort and not resilience.”
Of course, the absurdities of neoliberal planners and the brutalities imposed by state and supra-state institutions on ordinary people have long been contested. When the Zapatistas entered the world stage in 1994 they helped mark an entirely new collective refusal, one that advanced in conjunction with a litany of convergences and rebellions that accumulated definitive force in 1999, again in 2006 with the massive migrant marches, and with the Occupations of 2011, up to the present—these few notable moments unfolding alongside the countless insurgencies across the globe contesting structural adjustment, extractivist predation, and operational warfare.
Not surprisingly, governments across the globe, especially highly industrialized ones like the U.S., have followed the well worn ruts of war —mobilizing against COVID-19 as an enemy of the state. Bureaucrats and pundits alike easily mouth the bellicose rhetoric, ballyhooing about wartime sacrifices and cajoling a collective austerity secured through affirmations to national identity to defeat the newest threat to the people. But zealous, national chauvinism can’t hide self-serving interest. The two trillion dollar bailout recently steered through Congress by Trump’s cabinet and the new package currently under consideration promise to be a massive bailout for industry and as many warn, a transfer of funds to the lever pullers with little to no safeguards. The 2008 crisis is replayed as farce barely a decade later.
More to the point, these are the same self-serving paid spokespeople, politicians and pundits alike, who relentlessly promoted a complex, interconnected series of seemingly endless wars: the war on drugs, the war on terror, war against immigrants, and the numerous wars on crime. But, it’s really one war, what the Zapatistas call the Fourth World War. It is war fought out to ruthlessly extract what can be taken, one where the U.S. military dollar backs up the new world order of a divided globe organized through what W.E.B Du Bois called a democratic despotism, that is an armed national association propped up by a collaboration between capital and labor that systematically exploits the “darker nations” of the world, at home and abroad, for their own luxury.
A generation before the Zapatistas issued their clarion call that another world is possible, Ivan Illich warned against a relentless war against subsistence, a war where we are less and less able to recognize the battle lines and the real enemy, much less how we are being defeated. A war against subsistence targets the vernacular, everyday people and the knowledges and practices they exercise on a daily basis to live in the localities they claim. This war has been executed since the dawn of capitalism through intertwined criminalizations and pacifications, but more recently has become particularly destructive for targeted groups. In the U.S. case more so since Vietnam, it has been executed through low intensity warfare and counterinsurgency mostly, but not always, managed through proxies, like the state of Israel, or where governments prosecute it themselves as in India’s ongoing occupation and persecution of Kashmir. In the end, it is the imposition of market logics and commodity intensive regimes accompanied by a discipline of individuating practices that contaminate and unravel the social fabric. It isn’t enough that there should be a Walmart in every corner of America, there has to be Walmart Super Centers and Targets across the globe. Illich presciently warned that “even when price tags are attached that reflect the environmental impact, the disvalue of nuisance, or the cost of polarization, we still do not clearly see that the division of labor, the multiplication of commodities, and the dependence on them have forcibly standardized packages for almost everything people formerly did or made on their own.” (Illich, Toward a History of Needs, p. 7)
In California, the state government’s order for citizens to shutter-in exposes the contradictions neoliberal planners refused to accept. In this new world, grocery store clerks, stockers, and deliverers have been designated emergency or essential personnel. When we are forced to stay off the streets, shop close to home, labor from within our homes, and entertain ourselves within confined spaces we are confronted with the excess and waste of a commodity intensive society organized around individual consumption and pleasures even as we may long for a return to normalcy. We are reminded of our desire to cooperate —”mutual aid!” is now shouted by more than just anarchists across America.
The excesses and destructive force of what Illich called industrial mode of production, a.k.a capitalism, have long been known. Worried about over dependence on commodities, Illich proposed a “counterfoil research” to differentiate between industrial and convivial tools and to warn against the corrosive impact of those commodities and industrial systems that impose and circulate them, e.g. transportation, education, and health industry to name just a few. Industrial tools rob us of our ability to subsist outside of market logics and commodity discipline. The battle is to reclaim convivial tools, or those practices and strategies of self-organization that insure all members of a community are involved in the process of coming to agreement about and for the community’s regeneration.
COVID 19 requires a counterfoil research
As we discover new ways to cooperate and reclaim what had been mediated, we rebuild our social networks, increase our interactive capacities, and expand our capacity for empathy taking advantage of whatever platforms and spaces might work. Zoom is overwhelmed, but it has been commandeered to bring together the dense network of relations we often take for granted when we are stuck in traffic and isolated in our cars in the race to get to our jobs. Our appropriation of that and other digital platforms can be an opportunity to seek out non-privatized alternatives, as May First Movement Technology proposes. The proliferating digital encounters not only map out our need to be connected, even if only virtually for the time being, they have also been used to organize —to postpone or end rent, student loans, and other usurious debts, as well as coordinating efforts to get food, shelter, and health care to those who desperately need it.
The challenges of working from home or virtual learning, as companies, school systems, colleges, and universities desperately try to maintain their authority and control over laborers and learners, expose a critical dilemma in this particular conjuncture, namely the challenges we face in managing information and converting it into knowledge to insure, for example, we are all well informed and able to make effective, collective decisions as we manage the COVID-19 conjuncture. As privatized and government systems break-down, we are tasked with reclaiming commons, e.g. knowledge commons, as so many have been advocating amidst the long-standing environmental catastrophe that has been further laid bare by COVID-19. As an adjunct professor, the question of how will we organize our learning to intellectually enrich ourselves, serve our communities, and collectively steward the planet becomes more urgent as we confront university degrees increasingly commodified and education converted into a site of consumption on campuses shamelessly privatized? How might we learn what we need to learn to survive? More importantly, how do we learn, as Fred Moten asks, to tread lightly on the planet?
The lesson of COVID-19 is that we need transition to conviviality, urgently
The lesson of COVID-19 is not demanding universal health care, although that is long overdue. It is making clear we need to more fully, collectively transition to a new comprehensive system that is not capitalism. In this breach, we should consider conviviality, that is not as the alternative, but as a praxis to facilitate our transition. Conviviality’s focus on interrogating the current system, distinguishing between corrosive and convivial tools, and emphasizing community regeneration is vital as we research, learn, and experiment with new tools, systems, and practices in our shared effort to rebuild the social infrastructure that was brutally destroyed by late capitalist extractivism.
Conviviality embodies the circulation of reliable information, informed collective decision making, shared obligations of coordinated action, and deliberate assessment of success which are not separated and carried out by bureaucracies, corporate/non-profit boards, or CEOs outside of a self-organized community. The point is that there must be a strategy for active members of a locally-rooted community to generate their own information rooted in local experiences, filter competing knowledges, determine shared obligations, make strategic decisions, act out of “fierce care,” and assess the success of the strategy. Decisions that impact a community cannot occur at the top or outside of the community nor exercised exclusively by elites. All elements have to be integrated. A community, or as Wendell Berry describes it, that “commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to do so,” is necessarily a decision-making body. Conviviality is about reclaiming or inventing tools, that is tools that make it possible for a community to claim and assert its dignity and regenerate itself while insuring everyone in the community is able to participate making informed decisions and entering into agreements that advance the community without negatively impacting any one member. One prominent example of a convivial tool is the assembly. Not an organization or congregation, not an aggregation of individuals, not an event, but a collective subject. Now, more than ever is the time to relearn the habits of assembly.
Teaser photo credit: Zapatista point towards Palenque (2010). By Ljuba brank at Slovenian Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0