Skip to content

Thinking the viral.

April 13, 2020

Never have political positions once deemed deeply radical, had such currency as common sense: property is theft – who “owns” life saving equipment? Who “owns” a hospital? The idea itself is today patently absurd.

Another: production must be directed toward human need and human happiness and not profit; the private market is useless for things that really matter: housing, education, health. Even right wing free market doctrinaires are for nationalization, but “only during the crisis…” The fantasy is that afterwards, we will go back to normal. But when a ruling ideology has been so thoroughly discredited, there is no going back. Besides, it has never been the market, but the state and, in the wake of the neoliberal hollowing out of the state, transnational finance, that has been regulating society. This too is now clear. And what has been seen cannot be unseen.

And third: the machine of production, the one that always seemed too enormous and overwhelming to be stopped, shifted, turned around, even in the face of the destruction of civilization – it can stop. And now, in an instant, “there is no alternative” has been replaced by “whatever happens, nothing will ever be the same.” Everyone good at power politics – from corporate elites to Irish nationalists – has always known that crisis is opportunity. This is ours. The ideology that says radical transformation is unrealistic: this, too, has been irrevocably discredited.

The society of the virus is something totally new, unpredictable even by the all knowing algorithm (though of course we could have known etc.), unprecedented. The feeling everywhere is that history is happening. There is an openness. A sense that things could go either way. And few plan more than a day or so out.

So what then is history? “History” today is this viral event, and viruses are essentially spatial more than temporal. All our linear notions of time, including that old hanger on, progress, are peeled back, deconstructed. Today one lives in the eternal now. People say regularly that what was once a month, now feels like an eternity. Neoliberal political and economic leaders chomp at the bit to get the machine moving again, to progress, to grow. But a slowness, a thoughtfulness, has descended, and it won’t lift easily.

In the twenty first century, social media has increasingly become the social, so the viral has increasingly become the currency the system’s connective tissue. In this way, the concept of the viral has been merging with the concept of the social. Today that merging has become complete. The virus is what we all do together, what organizes us. In the absence of the state, of much of civil society, the viral has become the social.

No longer just metaphor for the social; the virus enacts the most sociality, the most common purpose, the most solidarity (not without exceptions of course) that the contemporary world has seen. Under the consciousness of the viral, we are all in this together. Like everything social, the suffering is not evenly distributed but moves along familiar and ugly channels. Still, a few months ago it was established wisdom that Americans, for instance, were living in different “bubbles.” This is arguably no longer the case.

If finance and the market represent the anti-social, and the primitive and future commune are the social; if the market and finance feed on atomization and isolation, and communism feeds on connection, then the viral moment may prepare the ground for the transcendence of capitalism or, as Marx put it replace “the isolation of the laborers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association.”

What could the viral scene show us about where to go from here, how to build on the potential for working class solidarity offered by this moment? What kind of thinking does this new moment of Being call us toward? What is political thinking in the viral scene?

As far as a policy agenda goes, the Bernie movement – an outgrowth of Occupy Wall Street that skipped straight from an anarchist cultural intervention to a set of social democratic policy demands, without building worker power on the ground, without which no political gains for the class are possible – has done its part. Without this movement, the idea of public health care, for instance, would not so easily have taken its rightful place in American common sense as what we need from here on out. Still, the raw power of the working class vis a vis capital is, as ever, what no revolution, political or otherwise, can live without.

An explicitly viral movement logic has animated the moments of greatest working class power in the west. Called syndicalism, Larkinism, revolutionary industrial unionism, it was the animating logic of the IWW, the most powerful and influential labor movement formation in US history. It shaped the union battles that led to the formation of the CIO and to several decades of rising wages, declining hours, and culturally explosive working class leverage.

This spontaneous viral labor politics of the IWW’s revolutionary industrial unionism meant that workers who struck would be supported by other groups of workers in horizontal solidarity. Anything coming from a struck shop is “tainted goods” and won’t be touched. In this way, the strike spreads like wildfire, like a virus.

We build toward revolution through a proliferation of sympathetic, solidaristic strikes at the point of production (and, arguably, reproduction) and these strikes spread until they become a general strike, during which the workers take the reins of society and run it for themselves, without capitalists. The IWW’s defining institution, the One Big Union, often misunderstood to mean one union structure, representing all workers, always instead referred to the syndicalist, the viral logic of the sympathetic strike. The central idea of syndicalist labor politics is that “an injury to one is an injury to all” – this is the working class logic of the virus.

These are precisely the most hopeful, the most important politics we are seeing today: instacart, amazon, ups drivers, workers using their leverage, at a maximum for the moment, wildcat striking in their own workplaces and inspiring their fellow workers to strike alongside them. It is, like so much in this moment, unprecedented, to see workers without a union engage in coordinated wildcat strikes, all on the same day, with the same set of demands, and win.

This is a muscle that has atrophied. When we exercise it more and more, make it strong again, our demands will become more radical as well — more than just safety equipment at work, we will demand, we will imagine, the kind of life we want to live. For many, the interruption in routine means there is space today to consider this.

The imperative of neoliberalism is the imposition of endless useless bullshit jobs. not even for profit, but as Marcuse showed, for control, to keep people from realizing the objective possibilities of freedom that the system itself opens up. Bullshit jobs are on hiatus at the moment – the virus shows what is essential work and what is not.

This opens up a space for thinking, and for politics. We have only to understand that being is calling us to think the viral, and to avoid logics of purification and instead take the viral seriously on its own terms. In Heideggerian terms, what has brought us to this crisis point is the dominance of the technological relationship to being (see Wallace, big farms, big flu) and what we are called to do is thinking, which is less about dominating or producing and more about moving toward Being, which draws us toward it in what we call thinking. We are called to meet being, by thinking.

And being is, in important respects, viral. Eros, life, can be thought in terms of the viral. From dandelion seeds in the wind to laughter in a crowd to ideas in the age of the internet to the reproduction of cancer cells, life moves according to a viral logic. The question, as ever, is which side are you on?

The virus also brings us all to an existential moment – and this valuing of life, of the now as all you’ve got, is central to revolutionary working class politics. Only if you think you have endless moments would you sell this one cheaply to increase the hoard of some asshole. When you know it’s limited, you slow down, try to make it last. Smell the flowers, feel the breeze.

This is precisely the ethos of a strategy of the refusal of work – if the wc is to gain leverage, power, through the withholding of labor power, through the strike and then the viral, sympathetic strike, ending up in one big union, or general strike, which prefigures the new society “in the ashes of the old,” its fuel is an antiwork culture, a culture that opposes the productivist ethic that has been destroying both the planet and the human spirit for centuries. The slowness, the pause, that the virus brings, allows for the possibility of this.

Paradoxically, then, the virus is negated by the very logic that it encourages. The slow down that it, has, unexpectedly, brought about, allows for an existential moment and a pause, allows us to see that the machine can stop, that radical change can happen, and that we can live a better way. The very deadliness of the virus sharpens our perception; allows the possibility of thinking something new. If we answer the call of Being today, we think toward its viral moment, toward a strategy for working class power and for revolution.

From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: