BY JAMES TYNER
As the coronavirus identified as Covid-19 began its steady, inexorable sweep across the globe—and, in the process, infecting not only people but the global economy—leaders in the United States sat by idly. Scientific experts, long chastised by President Trump and his followers as members of the ‘Deep State’, were silenced and subdued. Fearing his re-election chances, Trump downplayed the pending pandemic and, instead of marshalling resources in anticipation of critical shortages in medical supplies, he dismissed warnings as a Democratic hoax or with false equivalences, suggesting, for example, that Covid-19 was comparable to the seasonal flu.
As the weeks have turned into months, Trump’s stubborn unwillingness to adequately respond to the growing threat has hardened. He claimed the virus would disappear and that deaths would quickly drop to zero. In the face of accusations that he ignored threats, Trump claimed incredulously that the pandemic was unprecedented, and that he was being pilloried by a litany of so-called enemies, notably Democrats and the media. He declared unequivocally that he bore no responsibility.
Other Republican politicians—although publicly supporting Trump’s dismissal of the virus—in private took the warnings seriously. That is, serious enough to recognize an opportunity for quick and easy riches. Having been briefed on the threat posed by Covid-19, Senators Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) and Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), among others, benefitted from stock trades worth millions of dollars, selling off shares of stock that would be adversely affected by a virus-induced slowdown of the economy.
Medical experts cautioned that immediate and drastic responses were necessary: mass produce medical supplies and establish an efficient distribution system; initiate protocols for widespread testing and contact tracing; and implement ‘shelter-in-place’ orders to minimize community transmission. Trump refused; but a number of state and local politicians took the initiative. In New York, Ohio, Michigan, and elsewhere, governors made the difficult decision to close businesses and limit individual mobility. Only workers deemed essential—doctors, nurses, paramedics, retail workers, transit workers, and the like—stayed on the job. Not unexpectedly, unemployment rose precipitously; within weeks, the number of people out of work surpassed levels not seen since the Great Depression. The effects of the economic shutdown quickly rippled across the country, albeit uneven in scale and scope. Soon, the unemployed and underemployed faced severe shortages and mounting bills. Congressional attempts to address the problem proved worse than impotent, for the billions of dollars in relief initially went (perhaps not surprisingly) to the wealthy.
During April, a series of ‘astroturf’ social movements erupted—targeting key swing states or states with Democratic governors. Protestors—many armed and adorned with confederate flags—demanded the economy to ‘reopen’ immediately. And when it was noted that people would die, the protestors downplayed the threat, adopting a utilitarian ethos floated by Trump and his political and media supporters that the ‘cure’ cannot be worse than the ‘illness’; hence, the necessity to open bars and barber shops, beauty parlors and meat packing plants. Anyway, the argument went, those who succumb to the disease (notably the elderly) would die anyway.
It is easy—and necessary—to lay blame at the feet of President Trump, to decry his political and moral failings, his deflection of responsibility, and his scapegoating of others, for his inaction contributed to the premature deaths of thousands of people. It is equally easy to call out the irresponsibility and opportunism of federal, state, and local politicians. However, the unfolding tragedy reflects something deeper than the manipulations of an unqualified narcissist and his cabal of cronies that let victims of the coronavirus die needlessly. For the coronavirus has uncovered a rot within the body-politics of the United States, a rot long festering and long unchecked.
As Marx explains in the first volume of Capital, “Capital takes no account of the health and the length of life of the worker unless society forces it to do so. Its answer to the outcry about the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of over-work, is this: Should that pain trouble us, since it increases our pleasure (profit)?” As the recorded (and most likely undercounted) death toll in the United States climbs past 75,000 people, politicians and protestors—mostly on the far-right of the political spectrum—continue to demand businesses and other service sectors open, thereby exposing workers (and consumers) to the lethal machinations of an indiscriminate virus. And yet, while Covid-19 does not discriminate, one’s exposure and risk to premature death is decidedly unequal. Structural inequalities, deeply entrenched in American society, have left a landscape of suffering disproportionately experienced by precarious workers, often persons of color. Indeed, the stark differences in mortality among the Covid-19 victims highlights decades of racist policies and practices that separate not only the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ but those able to live and those left to die. How else do we square efforts among (mostly) Republican politicians to eliminate health care and food assistance programs during a pandemic? The privileging of profits over premature death is quite simply a white privilege.
In Dead Labor I argue that we are presently witness to a new political economy of premature death, an emergent mode of existence identified as necrocapitalism, a neoliberal attitude on steroids in which the valuation and vulnerability of life itself is centered on two overlapping criteria: productivity and responsibility. Capital values those bodies deemed both productive, that is, in a position to generate wealth, and responsible, conceived of as the ability to participate fully as producers and consumers in the capitalist system while simultaneously not incurring a net loss to the system. Those individuals who are deemed nonproductive or redundant, based on an economic bio-arithmetic, are disproportionately vulnerable and increasingly disallowed life to the point of premature death. They are, effectively, left to die so that others may enjoy the fruits of (dead) laborers. To this end, necrocapitalism is marked by a distorted mortality in which mortality constitutes individual risk and failure or a necessary cost. It is a super-charged utilitarian ethics whereby the lives of essential workers are sacrificed for politics, profit, or pleasure. There is a corresponding indifference to the death of the (often racialized) other, a detachment from and disinterest in those persons perceived as disposable, redundant, or simply expendable.
The capacity to hurt to the point of letting die, in other words, is inherent to capitalism at a structural level. Left unfettered, capitalism must continuously expand because, parasitic-like, it kills its host—that is, living labor. The failure to provide adequate safety measures and procedures, the life-saving masks and ventilators and testing kits, is not solely the consequence of immoral individuals. This is not a failure of capitalism but a critical feature of capitalism: it is simply not profitable to manufacture or distribute to people who are not productive.
Harm is intrinsic to capitalism; and this is why Marx focused on the structural relations inherent to capital as opposed to individuals. It is not that all capitalists (or the politicians who support them) are morally deficient; rather, the market logics of competition and continued accumulation impel owners to exploit workers. In so doing, capitalism itself infects the body-politics; it leaves behind an alienated society addicted to mindless consumption, indifferent to the death of others. And we are now witness to these alienated subjects who, zombie-like, gleefully assemble in armed protests and make demands for greater sacrifices—not of themselves but of those workers—the grocery clerks and retail workers, transit employees and sanitation workers, farm laborers and food processors—most vulnerable to premature death.
James Tyner is professor of geography at Kent State University. His books include Dead Labor: Toward a Political Economy of Premature Death and War, Violence, and Population: Making the Body Count, winner of the Meridian Book Award from the American Association of Geographers.