When a particular formation of the world is thrown out of joint, the first instinct is to grope for a vantage point that could provide at least a provisional perspective on what is happening. But this moment of passage, traversed in inevitable darkness, is decisive and therefore shudderingly risky. Within days decisions that usually take decades to be intellectually prepared and years to be politically accepted, are taken. Without the big Other of the status quo – whose existence willy-nilly provide a framework both for the law and for the organisation of our daily life – we tend to find provisional footholds. Some resort to fetishist disavowal, believing that as long as we decide that nothing changes, nothing changes. Some, on the contrary, look into the future with optimism and hope of building – finally, one sardonically wants to say – ‘global capitalism with nothing but a human face’ based on solidarity that we are supposed to learn during the crisis. We are hastily dusting off past concepts, Marxism included, to turn them into a Charon’s boat that will navigate us through troubled waters.
But our conceptualities have worn off through years of overuse and deconstruction. Our ability to believe in ideas has been replaced with a resigned skill to provisionally settle for faute de mieux mundane trivialities. It seems we have reached the stage that Robert Musil depicted so perspicaciously in his Man Without Qualities: our basic instinct is to wait for something to happen, amidst intellectual banality and self-complacency of the status quo from which we draw some obscene comfort. Seen against this background, liberal jurisprudence is here nothing but a token of a generalised capitalist mode of production of artificial, standardised units of knowledge.
In this transitory time, the current coronacrisis brings us three messages, a good one and two bad ones. The good one is: our conceptuality is crumbling and needs a new beginning. The first bad one is: we have used up many concepts for new beginnings. The second one goes as follows: we cannot find the new one until it arrives; we might equally waste new decades mired in empty, summer-1914 time. This frugal claim may taste more of Heidegger-flavoured Hegel than of Lenin, but – like it or not – it seems to be the main intellectual armoury for understanding the transition that nowadays we dispose of. And perhaps rightly so, because until we learn how to defuse the deadly sting of sovereignty Lenin’s path may augur another epochal derailment.
Assuming that the old Marxist term of ‘birth cramps’ of a new world has now found its next embodiment (no matter whether it will bring prolonged labour or a stillbirth), let me venture to put up some tentative goalposts – in a generally post-Frankfurt Marxist style – on the first stages of the coronacrisis.
Our deep knowledge of the developing coronacrisis is chaotic, lacunary and overdetermined. Many contradictory diagnoses have been uttered on the near future: some may be more convincing than others, but their overall cacophony points to the general insufficiency of our helplessly fragmented conceptuality. Debates straddle between two poles: one camp discusses whether the crisis is going to be a long one and how optimist one can be about the final rebound; the other discern the need and possibility of rebuilding the global capitalism as we know it today. There is no organised Marxism to speak of, at least not a one that would not be a lackey of national sovereignty.
The roots of this intellectual deficiency are at least twofold. First, for the first time in the epoch of virtual, post-Bretton Woods capitalism do we encounter a global crisis that is caused by an external cause that makes the global economy grind to a halt without an initial collapse of the financial sector. This suddenly puts states in the role of key players. Contrary to 2008, when they were expected by the markets to provide the ultimate safety net as passive guarantors, now they find themselves in the centre of the action. Feeding on the Foucauldian discourse of surveillance and medical biopower, they actively – although often blindly – adopt new measures, borrowing them from one another. Many puppets of the markets rediscover themselves as politicians. But at the same time, we return to the mode of mobilisation and provisionality – so typical for the state of exception – that makes substantiated reflection particularly difficult. The path towards the future is bifurcated at this critical point: it might lead equally either to a more equal redistribution orchestrated by the state or to the globalisation of chauvinist repressive states safeguarding ”capitalism with Asian values”.
Second, decades of virtual capitalism that led up to the current moment have – as their obscene counterpart – fragmentation, virtualisation and deactivation of knowledge. It is even hard to blame the academia for this: it only follows the logic of late capitalism in the compulsive reproduction of commodified knowledge turning into a capital of its own. Instead of coherent streams of knowledge – be they great narratives, if you want – we dispose of dispersed signifiers that hardly offer consistent socio-political reflection. This brings us to the stage when we lose basic ideological vectors. We have too much good knowledge and too few means to use it.
A lot of stupefying claims have already been made. Perhaps proclaiming the new act of state interventionism a path to communism – heard here and there – tops them all. It is difficult not to see in such a claim confirmation of our intellectual impoverishment, precisely amidst the ocean of countless theories that we chew within the academia. The state is now entangled in the reproduction of capitalism more clearly than ever; the link between sovereignty, capitalism and biopower is laid bare.
In this intellectual turmoil traditional political and juridical concepts – class struggle, the Leviathan, state of exception – are crucial to providing footholds for understanding what is happening. Cosmin Cercel in this blog made very good use of them. Nonetheless, we need to pay special attention to their concrete historical forms which are being remoulded before our eyes. As the machine of global capitalism seeks ways out of the crisis, their combinations are not yet determined. Until then, in themselves, they are spectres: indispensable, but abstract.
Society of spectacle, our proper condition, turns representations of the coronacrisis into pictures from the exhibition of lives of the middle class. Instead of a global view of the crisis, we receive personality- and celebrity-centred accounts from the privileged, both economically and geographically. Private life, whose celebration Benjamin rightly identified with the essence of the bourgeoisie, is now being enacted as the basic mode of existence, fuelled by endless tutorials on self-management and self-sufficient aiskesis in Sloterdijk’s sense. But for those who do not have the luxury to have a private life, either because they cannot afford it or because their conditions of living rule it out, confinement may be experienced only as imprisonment in their misery. The capitalist rush – which always promises a luxurious private life as a carrot for the end of the race – is suddenly halted. What is left for many is the obscenity of everyday emptiness. ‘Experience’ has been a basic word of consumerist capitalism; now, as its inadvertent parody, we are forced to experience our private life.
Be where you already are: this is a coronacrisis mockery of Nietzsche’s adage.
When some experience home-centred private life, others – eternal others of the bourgeois society: the homeless, refugees and immigrants – are blocked in their condition of imprisonment in nowhere. They are expected not to be where they are, but there is no other place they can go. Gender imbalance and male domination, always skulking in the corners of private life, gain a new nutrient. The coronacrisis sharpens the injustices of global capitalism with the same easiness that it employs to persuade the lucky ones that it is all about their self-celebration and joyful re-establishment of mostly virtual community.
Being locked up in one’s private life is a condition that can be recognised also at the level of states. In a postmodern farce of rather bad taste countries return to what the Big Other thinks they are. France turns to état d’urgence Napoleonism, the US – to the celebration of the war-machinery of the state led by a warlike vain male, Germany hails its quiet effectiveness. Meanwhile, the populist others of Europe fare as they usually do: Poland sinks in short-sighted anarchy, Hungary gets its own Ermächtigungsgesetz. Home sweet home.
The coronacrisis makes clear the rule of contingency that late capitalism put at the heart of social life. Concealed under the ‘objective’ natural origin, the crisis cuts through classes, strata, professions and social groups, rendering some extremely vulnerable (employers of halted small enterprises, for example) while making others profit (e.g. producers of medical equipment). Obviously, the balance of profits and losses retains a class structure: those who possess are at luxury to decide whether they accept the reduction of gains, whereas those who live from their work may be fatally hit or at best subsist in a collapsing status quo. But this time, much more than with all previous crises of capitalism, contingency will be probably experienced and executed as something allegedly natural. It is a bad premonition of all future climate crises because by sucking ‘nature’ entirely into capitalism we make naturalising discourses stronger than ever.
Naturalisation can be discerned already in the biopolitical power of employers. They decide now who can work remotely, in the protection of her health, and who needs to work in their workplace. State power, capitalist domination and epidemiological surveillance conflate in their position. And, typically for our stage of capitalism, the ability to turn virtual means to escape economic and medical risk.
The coronacrisis brings to mastery level the rule through suspension and deferral, so characteristic of the current stage of capitalism. In 2008 we proved incapable of reforming the status quo. We did everything to maintain it instead. Capitalism deferred the 2008 crisis by going deeper into the virtual economy based on debt, which remains virtual for the privileged but can be easily turned into a whip of austerity for the working class.
The coronacrisis goes to the end and suspends whatever it can. In the state of suspension, the possessing class can profit well from a system of rents: time passes to its benefit. For those who – as Marx noticed – reproduce themselves only through work, the suspension is a cursed period that makes the passage of time equivalent just to their own debt.
If living as getting gradually indebted has so far been a ruling principle for states, it will now become one for the working class in the affected sectors.
Inequality continues well beyond the human realm. Beautiful non-human animals return to cities and are celebrated and Instagrammed. ‘Exotic’ or ‘pet’ animals, previously consumed at the cradle of the epidemic, are mourned as victims of human barbarity. At least now their death may explain why we need to atone for someone else’s sins against the so-called nature. Tasty animals are slaughtered, as usual, the carnival is open.
This symbolic and intellectual turmoil finally allows the states to reconfirm that the executive coupled with state apparatuses of repression truly play the game in the legal field. Norms that prohibit leaving the house for no vital reason elevate police officers to the rank of courts, supreme courts and executioners miraculously combined in one person. With surprising swiftness, the allegedly pre-legal fundamental right to private life and freedom of movement is replaced with the state’s permission to exist outside of one’s home arrest. Even in countries where the formal proclamation of these restrictions was done lege artis, the final interpreter of the law is a street gendarme.
State power follows the virus closely through the empty streets. Both are supposed to stop at our doorstep.
In times when the possessing classes rediscover the value of community and state regulation – when ‘even’ the Financial Times believes that demanding sacrifice from the society requires a new deal and more protectionism – we cannot forget that the state remains the tool of the ruling class. Nowadays it rules through the distribution of debt and austerity. The same state which was downgraded and ‘streamlined’ when it was profitable for capitalists will now be used to protect them against social upheaval. Rich countries will give their workers-consumers basic income sufficient to maintain some level of consumption, probably at the price of further precarisation of work; poor countries will have nothing to offer except for austerity. Boundaries between the first and the second group will be protected by reinforced state apparatuses shrouded ideologically by national chauvinism that now wallows in its renewed glory. Luxury or curse of being a citizen of some country will only increase.
As a consequence, there are slim chances for new European communitarianism, let alone a global one. Much more likely national strongholds of welfare will tower over the peripheral rest of the world.
The economic crisis has been long-awaited; it is finally coming in an unexpected form. As capitalism is now heavily dependent on consumers, locking them down deals a blow to consumerism as a form of societal organisation. We watch it in a shrunk, home version. Private houses turn into crucial nods between production and consumption. To consume is now our final and most important duty. No wonder snacks enjoy popularity comparable to toilet paper: to enjoy our importance as consumers we need a properly Batailliean meaningless spending and ways to wipe it out.
Yet the optimist thing is that for the first time since long productive work is revealed crucial for the survival of the society. That is the foothold that progressive forces should use. If we fail, the spectacle for appraisal will soon pass and the possessing class, now tactically silent, will return in its self-complacency.
As the interregnum knocked at the door, the regnum is yet to be devised, but this task finds us historically weak.
 Cosmin Cercel, ‘The Reality of the Exception and the Task of the Critical Lawyer’, Exceptions, http://exceptions.eu/2020/03/28/the-reality-of-the-exception-and-the-task-of-the-critical-lawyer/
 Peter Sloterdijk, You Must Change Your Life, Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013.
 ‘Virus lays bare the frailty of the social contract’, The Financial Times, 3 April 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/7eff769a-74dd-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca