Unboxing the Hidden Labor of Saving Lives and Saving Capitalism
In your books “Contract & Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia” (2012) and “Pandemonium: Proliferating Borders of Capital and the Pandemic Swerve” (2020), you advocate a “social understanding of health and disease.” Could you briefly explain what you mean by “social”?
There are two points I think are important in this. Firstly, a social understanding of health and disease is a rejection of the premise of neoliberal health policies, according to which individuals’ health and ill-health is understood as a matter of ‘personal responsibility’ and, implicitly, of ‘personal’ decisions. That tenet of ‘personal responsibility’ mystifies the material conditions though which people become ill or enjoy good health. Since the late twentieth century, and far longer in countries such as the United States, neoliberal policies have emphasized the commercialization of healthcare, the transformation of public health into private insurance, referring to patients as clients, and, not least, shifting the burden of risk to individuals and private households.
As I point out in “Pandemonium,” the privatization of healthcare in China since the 1980s has been largely erased from discussions of the pandemic. In the United States, this system of private insurance has produced the most expensive and technologically intensive healthcare system in the world, and the largest commercial retail market for pharmaceutical drugs. It is also a system that undermines preventative healthcare, produces high rates of chronic illnesses, and is therefore terrible at handling a pandemic (particularly where the impact of COVID-19 is worsened by so-called underlying illnesses). Moreover, while the privatization of healthcare is certainly a function of capitalism, it is important to be clear that the idea of ‘personal responsibility’ is moral-economic, in that it is derived from conservative theologies of sin and redemption, according to which the causes of health and disease are mystified, treated as an effect of individuals’ moral conduct. Selective healthcare establishes the uneven material conditions of health—while its results are explained away as if they are the effect of moral failings or providence.
Secondly, in the history of the social sciences (and other disciplines such as law and philosophy), ‘social’ has often been seen as synonymous with ‘national.’ This is not the sense in which I have used it, but it is important to understand its circumstances and how this has changed. The eighteenth-century conflation of ‘social’ and ‘national’ came about because the social sciences, and particularly those fields associated with public health such as epidemiology, are involved in the statistical mapping of populations within the borders of a defined state. In politics, or healthcare policy, this assumption has been carried over as a defined split within the availability of healthcare—and this split has become more pronounced in recent decades. This selectivity should be made explicit and rejected—in “Pandemonium” I describe this as a distinction between the political representation of the demos and the economic concept of populations. Everyone should be able to access healthcare where they live and work, but the split between the demos and populations renders (working) populations disposable because it has evaluated their worth in terms of productivity. The restriction of healthcare to citizens is, among other things, a disaster for public health, and this is particularly clear in the circumstances of a pandemic.
In the present pandemic, social approaches to health care seem to be ruled out by ‘quarantine nationalism.’ Or do you see signs of social approaches nonetheless?
I think there are two, perhaps three tendencies which have overlapped to create something outside of this nationalist framing. The most obvious is the emergence of a global system of health governance, namely the World Health Organization. The WHO should not be treated uncritically. Like other agencies, it has often been influenced by neoliberal approaches to health and disease and, in any event, is comprised of national governments, and dependent on wealthier governments for funding. In the past, it has sometimes sought to persuade governments to fund its activities by fostering fears of diseases crossing borders or moving from poor countries to the global North. Nevertheless, there were key divergences between the WHO and national governments during the pandemic that illustrate the different stakes involved. The WHO, as with other public health agencies, has not given credence to quarantine nationalism and, in some notable instances, has pointed out that this course would not be effective in stemming the transmission of disease.
At the same time, social media and the Internet have changed the spatial terms of publics—less national in scope. While this has enabled conspiracy theories about the origins of the disease to circulate and dangerous ‘miracle cures’ to be promoted, it has also involved the sharing of information, research and discussion of measures which would be effective in interrupting the transmission of SARS-CoV-2. For instance, the early open sourcing of genome sequences meant that it was possible to develop tests far more quickly.
I do not want to understate the continuing influence of nationalist affect, since for many people the disease was not serious until it affected those who look like them. But I do think that a conversation emerged, particularly among health workers, that, by placing the emphasis on what is effective or will work to save lives, powerfully pushed back against both conspiracy theories and ineffective government policies.
Before getting deeper into the potentialities of social approaches to health care in the present pandemic, let us expand the critique of ‘quarantine nationalism.’ It thrives on authoritarianism, coupled with the privatization of health care. What for you are the most problematic contradictions inherent to this trend? And how are they becoming visible during the present pandemic?
The powers of surveillance, detention and deportation have always existed at the thresholds of citizenship and legal personhood, as do selective approaches to healthcare. It has never been the case that neoliberal governments have facilitated the movements of people—which is to say, not outside a system that converts those movements into the circulation of commodities, or labor as a commodity. So, at one level it appears as if there is a contradiction, but not when these seemingly contradictory tendencies are understood as geared toward facilitating the circuit of capital. My argument in “Pandemonium”, as it was earlier in Contract and Contagion, is that neoliberalism involved endogenous turning points to authoritarian government (including fascism), and that many of these were present in colonial circumstances. Those turning points, in short, are where the threshold of surplus value is situated—and this is the importance of racism and misogyny, in that these naturalize higher rates of exploitation (as evidenced by gendered and racial wage gaps).
The most visible aspect of this during the pandemic has been the reliance of locked-down, private households on the offline work which has been deemed necessary—but which, as it happens, tends to be low-paid, and where Black and Brown people, many of whom are women and migrants, predominate. Much of that work has become increasingly dangerous, particularly in the absence of adequate personal protective equipment. But what we can say is that this aspect of pandemic policy has only functioned inasmuch as the threat of starvation, homelessness and deportation hung over the heads of those who ensured the work of those who were capable of locking down and shifting to online work.
What potential do labor struggles have for making visible, addressing, and potentially overcoming the contradictions in question?
How we understand and reckon with that interdependence in the coming months (and years) will shape a great deal. There are suggestions of a new ‘social contract’ or political-economic contract in a projected post-pandemic world, one that focuses on the repayment of government debts accrued through stimulus packages and any expansion of healthcare and welfare during the pandemic. I discuss this at greater length in “Pandemonium,” but suffice to say here that it demands a view of debt that does not sacrifice those who have already sacrificed the most.
In your essay “Workers of the World Unite” (2019), you deconstruct claims that migrants bring down the wages of non-migrant workers. In doing so, you are intervening in a discourse that foregrounds the resurgence of the nation-state as an answer to the challenges of globalization. In the current pandemic the discourse in question is reemerging with great force. As ‘quarantine nationalism’ proliferates and the separatist undertones of the lockdown get stronger, migrant workers are played out against non-migrant workers. Yet isn’t the phantasmagorical ground of this tactic revealed as such, making it clear that ‘quarantine nationalism’ is a dangerous illusion? After all, aren’t migrant workers now openly in demand where they are also usually most needed – in the domain of basic supply and social reproduction work?
I agree that it has been revealed as a dangerous illusion. But that will not halt the trajectory, no more than it has in the past. The emerging tendency in mainstream trade unions and those parties with which they are associated, particularly their conservative wings whose membership is drawn from the repressive apparatus of the state (police, border security and immigration detention), is toward corporatism. That is, excluding migrant and unemployed workers, and largely indifferent to precarious workers, and enforcing a reckoning of national debts in ways that will expand that repressive apparatus. That does not mean corporatism will triumph. The Black Lives Matter movements, in circumstances where Black people are more likely to die from encounters with the police and in prisons no less than from their encounters with a virus, is a powerful movement against this trajectory. How we treat the connections between the pandemic, exploitation and repression is key. Those connections are not forged within national spaces but instead occur along the fragile lines of supply chains and the extent (or not) of solidarity.
For us, globalization also has something to do with “world revolution,” also in the sense of “das Weltweite” (approximately, the worldwide) as Karl Marx thought and anticipated it. This became tangible in the 1960s, in the form of worker (and student) revolts in the Global North and resistance movements in (former) colonies. Such a “world revolution” goes beyond the borders of the nation state. And that is the crux of the matter. This became clear for the first time when the idea of the nation state fully shifted to the center of politics from the 18th century onwards. The viral spread of the idea of the nation state and the nationalism associated with it managed to contain the nascent “we” of the “globally” oppressed and disadvantaged and to redirect the energies of this emerging “we” to the national: instead of global class struggle, a struggle among nations flared up. It seems that this mechanism is still at work today. Do you nonetheless see potential in the current pandemic such a transnational “we” emerging? And how can (and how do) workers in the domains of basic supply and social reproduction contribute to this?
It is important to keep recalling that the nation-state is a modern invention and not a phenomenon that occurs naturally. I also agree that it contained (and split) workers’ movements at pivotal historical moments. As to your question, and besides my remarks above, two of the most powerful moments I saw during the Black Lives Matter protests in the US recently were of medical staff lined up outside of a New York City hospital, in full protective equipment, applauding protesters as they walked by, most of whom were also wearing masks. The other moment was of ambulance drivers using their ambulance megaphone as they were driving past a protest march in support of those protests. These moments are poignant illustrations of solidarity during the pandemic that has particularly taken its toll on Black lives, and in one of the most diverse and largest protests occurring in circumstances of a massive rise in unemployment.
The mask is a method of protection against both the virus and surveillance during protests and, at the same time, has come to represent those who have a social understanding of care—and those who do not, like Trump, who has refused to wear one. Black Lives Matter emerged in the US, but it is nevertheless to some extent global. As with other antiracist movements in recent years which focus on immigration detention, it has prioritized divestment and boycotts of prisons. The importance, here, is that there are already solidarities which have emerged that, firstly, value health and lives (over the circuit and value of capital) and, secondly, illustrate the strategic importance of intervening in the materialities of that circuit, from financial investments to supply chains which can be interrupted at each point, from the extraction of raw materials to the point of sale.
In the aforementioned essay you write that “The ‘movement’ in ‘workers’ movement’ is not a metaphor.” How do care, maintenance, logistics and cleaning workers assert their right to freedom of movement in the present pandemic? And how is this becoming the basis for the (re-)emergence of worker movements?
As with all other markets, the labor market is defined by contracts. In some instances, those contracts are shaped by immigration and related policies that set the terms of, for instance, ‘guest worker’ status and give rise to systems of surveillance. The most powerful response in any market, including labor markets, is the refusal or breaking of contracts—classically, this is the strike, but it is also boycott and divestment. Moreover, some of those systems of surveillance have expanded with the introduction of tracking technology that is noticeably less effective at stemming disease transmission than tracking workers’ dissent or surveillance. One vivid example is, for example, suggestions by police in the US to use such systems to trace the contacts of those arrested during protests. Intervening in these processes requires not only understanding supply chains, but also a clear assertion at each juncture of the difference between protecting lives and protecting capitalism. The precise answer given to this in each instance is complex, but it is a reckoning that I think is already occurring. Whether corporatism or the increasing levels of unemployment will manage to undermine this is still an open question—but, either way, it will be answered by whether and how austerity will be imposed on the unemployed and the scope of (or exclusions from) any ‘social contract’ assembled to reinstate a social peace and order. Will there be social and industrial peace without justice?
How can (re-)emerging worker movements contribute to the spreading of a “social understanding of health and disease” and to a “social approach” to health care?
As above, and put more bluntly, there is a sharp distinction between saving lives and saving capitalism. The distinction only becomes obscured because, on the one hand, many have become habituated to placing a lower value on the lives of Black and Brown people, women, migrants and those who are not of the same nationality and, on the other, capitalism has fostered a metaphysical view of life, as a Way of Life that, in reality, is often lethal and dangerous. Since capitalism has yet to be abolished, in the meantime the question becomes how risks are defined and distributed. It is possible to reckon these differently, to insist on other values and another accounting of liabilities.
We wonder whether and how the expanded notion of both worker movement and labor could also be mobilized by those at the presumably other side of the spectrum: tech workers and tech users who are increasingly becoming aware of themselves as laboring subjects in a shifting political economy that the big data-police state is nowadays fostering in complicity with Big Tech companies?
The first thing, as perhaps your question implies by including tech users, is to understand that labor exists even where they may not be a wage contract or a standard contract. The use of software and technology in surveillance, in systems of incarceration, policing, detention and deportation, is the most obvious. Tech workers, not the owners of technology companies, build and maintain those systems. They also know how they work, and know (though not always) who has purchased or uses them. We have not seen tech workers wield the enormous power that they have as yet, in part because of the workplace culture of tech, the ways in which migration policies subdue conflict, and the contracts under which most tech workers work. Those things have to be addressed, but even in the absence of doing so, tech workers still know how technology works in ways that most outside of tech do not. Indeed, all workers know how their systems work—or don’t.
Can there be a common ground for struggles?
I think I would say that ‘common ground’ cannot be a point of departure or assumption so much as something that can only be constructed—by which I mean, we have to honestly admit that the conditions of living are not all the same, nor are the risks, and understand the dynamics that both split and merge movements in particular directions. But there is nevertheless a clear choice between the corporatist path (in which workers’ interests are said to be aligned with those of a company and economic nationalism) and those approaches which emphasize a defense of the most vulnerable—as I put it in “Pandemonium”: on the understanding that all liquid incomes (or wages and social incomes) will gravitate to the lowest point. This is not a moral position. It is strategic, focused on where the threshold of surplus value is situated at each juncture.
About SILENT WORKS
The SILENT WORKS project is dedicated to excavating forms of labor that are buried under present regimes of AI-driven capitalism. Find all details and up-to-date information on the SILENT WORKS project here: https://silentworks.info
About Angela Mitropoulos
Angela Mitropoulos is a theorist and academic based in Sydney, Australia. Among other writings which track shifting boundaries and movements in the history of philosophy, science, aesthetics, politics and economics, she is the author of “Contract and Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia” (2012) and “Pandemonium: Proliferating Borders of Capital and the Pandemic Swerve” (2020). Her writing has appeared in numerous journals, including Social Text, South Atlantic Quarterly, Mute, Cultural Studies Review, Borderlands, and ephemera; and it has been widely translated, disseminated and taught in both academic and activist contexts. More info: https://s0metim3s.com
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