01. 06. 2022
Against Pandemic Realism
We’re told it’s inevitable that everyone will be infected with COVID. Yet there are nearly 1.5 billion people now alive who may well be able to delay their encounter with the world-remaking coronavirus until effective antivirals and second-generation vaccines are widely available. Those people have the chance to avoid the significant risk that even a “mild” COVID infection, even post-vaccination, may cause long-term damage to the heart, brain, immune system, and more. They have this chance because they live in so-called COVID Zero countries or regions. Most schools there are open. Stadiums, too. While COVID cases in such territories aren’t kept literally to zero, governments there don’t tolerate uncontrolled viral transmission, but instead extinguish outbreaks with tools like mass testing, targeted lockdowns (including supports for those affected), public education campaigns, mask mandates, and entry quarantines. China’s control of the virus with these methods, across a vast land area with a huge population, is particularly striking: it’s saved at least 3.5 million lives and averted at least 22 million cases of Long COVID disability within that country’s borders over the past two years, taking US deaths and cases as a standard of comparison. But Taiwan, New Zealand, the Canadian Maritime provinces, and several other jurisdictions also adopted a zero-tolerance approach to COVID and either maintain it today or did so for a long time.
Many of the COVID Zero territories are politically and culturally unlike each other. And their governing officials’ intentions in adopting a virus suppression strategy – to protect the public, or to serve the state’s long-term economic and geopolitical interests, or to maintain social control – are bound to be plural, contradictory. But what those experiences all reveal, at a minimum, is that millions of lives may be saved during an ecological disaster if a politics that places human well-being over private short-term profits is coordinated through the state, which appears to be the only now-existing social infrastructure able to carry out that life-saving work on a mass scale. Though new possibilities may yet emerge, today there’s no obvious public alternative to state mechanisms for, say, promptly conducting millions of COVID tests in an area experiencing an outbreak, or engaging with other states to end global vaccine apartheid.
The state isn’t neutral, of course, but serves the interests of a dominant class, which means it can be influenced by processes of class struggle unfolding within and around it. Social movements and labour rebellions have contested state pandemic policies in important ways; Hong Kong, for example, was a site of extensive social movement and union mobilization during the pandemic’s first wave, including a health-care workers’ strike, in which strikers demanded that the border with China be closed. And state power has everywhere expressed itself not only as protection but also as repression, biometric surveillance technology assisting public health officials but also the police. As the communist collective Chuǎng has noted, methods of pandemic control can easily double as, and lay more groundwork for, counterinsurgency.
At the same time, it feels crucial to grapple with how the COVID Zero territories have achieved their remarkable successes – the number of lives saved in China exceeding the population of Toronto – primarily through the exercise of state capacities. And to think through what that dynamic means for pandemic-era projects of building emancipatory mass politics in so-called Canada and elsewhere.
Canada’s far right certainly seems to be thinking about the uses of the state. By weaving itself into and championing reactionary anti-vax, anti-mask social movements; and by presenting a clear, if grotesquely ableist, overall vision of how the pandemic should be addressed by government – a libertarian notion of “individual responsibility” against a background of deliberate mass infection – the new People’s Party of Canada (PPC) more than tripled its electoral vote in two years. That process has been a case study in right-wing, white nationalist, potentially proto-fascist class politics: a petty-bourgeois layer of society (“small business owners”) building power by setting up a feedback loop between social movement and political party, which become mutually enhancing. The movement gives the party its base; the party offers the movement, at least in principle (and all too suddenly, maybe, in practice), a point of entry into the state. Even the party’s growth, in years when it still appears to be far from official forms of power – the threat its popularity implies – exerts pressure on those in power now.
In the same period, Canada’s left-liberal and social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) has more or less limited itself to voicing piecemeal critiques of other parties’ deadly policies. The federal NDP has largely cosigned the governing Liberals’ vaccine-only or vaccine-mostly pandemic “exit” strategy, and hasn’t seriously challenged the broken federalism that’s meant some provinces and territories have substantially mitigated the virus’s carnage while others have suffered a shitshow attempt to “live with the virus” since 2020. In British Columbia, where the NDP is in power, the party has authorized Indigenous dispossession at the hands of militarized police and denied COVID is airborne. Though it has some radicals and great community leaders in its ranks, individual representatives who have powerfully decried the state’s social murder, the party as a whole has missed a major opportunity to present a coherent alternative vision. As Chuǎng writes: “The only possible political project today is one able to orient itself within a terrain defined by widespread ecological and microbiological disaster, and to operate in this perpetual state of crisis and atomization.” If this is the case, no political program today can afford to treat the pandemic as a temporary disaster that merely intensifies the pre-existing disasters. The pandemic gives every appearance of having transformed the total social situation, which means our political frameworks will need to transform to the same degree or get washed away in the storm.
Maybe the NDP, a capitalist party with historic roots in the labour movement, was never going to do more than collaborate with the capitalist state’s social murder as COVID-19 spread. But because that party has failed to propose a systematic alternative, to offer some version of a COVID Zero goal and strategy that would at least aim to refuse capitalist eugenics, there’s been no large-scale test of whether an important political opening has appeared on the left in Canada, roughly opposite to the one that the People’s Party swept into. It means we don’t have a lot of evidence about how the public might respond to a pandemic-era political program with an actually comprehensive left vision, rather than neoliberal patchworks of support and abandonment that make no sense (and people know it).
Such a political program would not only universalize basic protections from the virus – N95 respirators mandated and provided to everyone for free, ubiquitous free rapid tests, CO2 monitoring and ventilation upgrades, employer-paid sick days, robust contact-tracing, and much more – but also explicitly use that social provision to chip away at the ideological authority of white supremacist cis-hetero-patriarchal capitalism itself. Industries or regions need to shut down (i.e. workers need briefly to stop working) to stop the spread of the virus? Pay all affected workers a living wage to stay home, and use popular messaging to articulate that survival and even comfort should never depend on people’s ability to work. State coffers too shallow to fund those measures? Tax the billionaires and defund the fucking police.
There are social forces in the Canadian state that have demanded, and often demonstrated, many key parts of that vision over the past two years. From the start of the pandemic, a number of Indigenous nations have used their sovereignty to defy the state’s norms and pursue their own COVID response. During the pandemic’s first wave, for example, when Ontario government policy led to horrific suffering and death in Long-Term Care homes, the Haudenosaunee nations at Six Nations of the Grand River set up barricades, tested and contact-traced widely, and kept their elders and broader communities safe. Faced with unsafe, precarious, exploitative work and mass eviction blitzes, organized workers and tenants have fought and won important battles. Unions have demanded a just recovery from the pandemic, including a transformed social contract around Long-Term Care. Social movements have made crucial demands, and life-saving community organizations and networks have provided for our neighbours abandoned by the state. Both in explicitly socialist organizations and within unions and movements, socialists have done important work to advance ideas that challenge capitalism root and branch.
Such organizing projects have addressed the problem of the state in various ways: refusing any engagement with the state, instead directly targeting bosses and landlords; or pressuring the state to provide social supports; or directly providing those supports, cutting the state out of the equation; or using state processes like elections to connect with community members for non-electoral ends. Yet it remains an open question if and how those projects might yet converge towards the hopeful possibilities that the ecosocialist Andreas Malm, in a roundtable discussion with Spectre Journal published in Spring 2021, described as communist politics: “Working in and with existing movements…or even creating new ones from scratch, with the ultimate aim of projecting power through the state. Will this mean popular power remote-controlling the state or ultimately constituting itself as the new state? We shall see.”
It may well be impossible to wield the capitalist state for emancipatory ends. The revolutionary left “constituting itself as the new state” is a project full of dangers. And anyway, it’s a prospect so remote in North America that to debate its merits risks lapsing into idle dream or nightmare, too far from the kind of speculative thinking that might help inform collective action now. But absent some sort of mechanism to at least coordinate and sustain mass pressure on the state, we’re left bailing bucketfuls of water from a torrential nightmare that’s already here – without the kind of power that might have at least a shot at changing the weather.
Movement and party in plague days
The 2020 protests for Black lives and against anti-Black state violence drew tens of thousands of people into the streets of Canadian cities, crowds risking exposure to the virus – while also modelling universal mask use as communal care – to call for the defunding and abolition of the police. That year’s mass mobilizations in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en people, who continue to defend their unceded territory against colonial invasion, both demonstrated the power of Indigenous nations asserting their sovereignty and revealed a significant breadth of anti-colonial feeling among settlers across the country. Street mobilizations explicitly about pandemic mismanagement have been more limited, at least on the left. But plenty of public anger at a number of provinces’ cruel, murderous COVID policies has been evident since the pandemic’s second wave. All told, we’ve got reason to believe there may be a basis for a transformative mass left politics in so-called Canada, even if it’s still incipient.
The obvious and perpetual and really hard question is how to build it. How might the energy of mass uprisings, and of more diffuse surges in public anger, be sustained today? Sustained, broadened, and escalated? How do we work towards a situation where brief flashes of power, moments of relief from overwhelming domination that otherwise grinds forward unabated, develop into a political force with the magnitude necessary to change everything? And how do we build that power in time, before the climate clock runs out and open fascists control the state?
Whether the pandemic keeps burning, uncontrolled viral transmission spurring the growth of dangerous new variants, or subsides and leaves us staring straight at the climate emergency of which it forms a part, we’ll need every progressive social movement, union local, and tenants’ network. We may also need at least one mass working-class organization – call it a party, though it needn’t necessarily be electoral – that can help to coordinate those local forces across the vastness and complexity of the country, and bring their concentrated power to bear upon the state. Maybe that party exists already in some embryonic form and needs to be reinvented, reconstituted along new intergenerational, multi-racial lines. Or maybe, just as the People’s Party formed out of a defection from the Conservative Party, it’ll become possible to build the organization we need by way of a break with the NDP, disaffected layers drawing with them some of the trade-union and other strategic relationships established there. Or maybe the elements of a mass working-class party will be drawn from social movements themselves, through a deliberate effort to knit together existing infrastructures of resistance.
If any of those possibilities materialize – if, enabled by shifting historical conditions, we make any of them happen – it’ll be essential to nurture living bonds between movement and party, the party helping to articulate together each of the movements’ and organizing networks’ focal points. But the movements lead: defining the party’s political agenda; applying pressure on the party where it concedes to capitalist threats and incentives; and otherwise delegating it as a proxy within, or a counter-power adjacent to, the state. We see a ghost of that relationship to the state in every social movement whose pressure today forces the ruling class and its officials to respond, however minimally, to an urgent public need. We also see the ease with which the state dismisses such demands, and represses the people who make them most forcefully, when that opposition seems fragmented, unable to sustain itself and scale. Exactly how we’ll build those capacities can’t be forecast with any confidence, but any such efforts will be energized by a political program that represents a real alternative. In pandemic terms: schools open, stadiums open, and the public offered every chance at safety from a deadly, disabling virus. And a refusal of similar false choices when the next disaster strikes.
The cultural theorist Mark Fisher coined the term “capitalist realism” for the feeling that there’s no imaginable alternative to the murderous political-economic system that shapes our lives. Today we’re drowning in a COVID-era version of the same ideological bog. Call it pandemic realism: the way capital and the state have convinced so many of us that there’s no alternative to the eugenics of mass infection. Yet that realism is a kind of capitalist fantasy made real by capitalist power. Not inevitable, not necessary; the experiences of the COVID Zero territories prove it. Who knows what impossibilities we might make real – human survival on this planet, even – if we manage to build a counterpower that’s equal to the challenges we face now?