Why Corona is Not a Material-Technical Problem
Arguably the deepest insight of Isaak Illitch Rubin (1886-1937), the well-known Soviet value theorist, was the clear recognition of Marx’s differentiation between the material-technical and the social properties of economic phenomena. In asking ‘what is a commodity’, Marx – according to Rubin – was the first to observe not its ‘technicality’ or its function – to be worn, to be eaten, to be applied in a work process – but its social dimension: why does human labour in capitalism assume the form of the commodity at all?
Obviously, commodities have not existed in every historical epoch. Marx’s question hence concerns the form of the commodity as the form by which a certain society – capitalist society – organises its production process: a production process whose ultimate aim is the production of exchangeable units of commodities for a certain sum of money. Asking the question of the social form of the commodity, or, which is the same, “why does human labour assume the form of the commodity at all?” implies the investigation of the preconditions that make the commodity form possible in the first place. And for Marx, the foremost among these is the existence of a labouring class and a capitalist class: a class that produces surplus-value by means of the wage form, and a class that appropriates the surplus value through ownership of the objective conditions of production. For Marx, there is no commodity form without social class, and no value without surplus value, a social relation implied by particular property relations.
In sum, the social dimension of the commodity concerns a particular relation betweenpeople which generates the commodity form.
We still live in a capitalist society, i.e., a class society. This also means that society must remain obscure to itself, a task for which the theoretical expression of identity politics, intersectionality theory, has proven extremely effective. Class is either denounced as irrelevant or subsumed under the race-gender-class-trinity formula, in which the meaning of class is not only obscured, but mystified and, ultimately, perverted.
If we admit that the social form of the society we live in is that of a class society, this also entails that monetary exchange drives production relations, and that production relations drive monetary exchange – since production and exchange for profit is its raison d’être. In this sense, the idea that there exists a social realm ‘outside’ of the precondition of valorisation is nonsense. Since production has been organised in such a way as to make the devaluation of labour power the condition for higher profits, we live in a world of a real (and not just formal) subsumption of labour to capital – and this means that capital has a free pass to deal with labour as it likes, as long as there is no organised resistance. The automatism of real subsumption is quite astounding: everywhere we look, everywhere we go, we face the same old principle – the ‘objective constraint’, which the production of surplus value inflicts on the world we live in. ‘Objective constraint’ is the formula for every rationale, every political decision, every self-styled ‘level-headed’ political realism. ‘Objective constraint’ is the paradigmatic bipartisan fetish, a reification par excellence of all-encompassing dimensions that exerts its power in reverse proportion to the extent one closely looks at or even dares to question it.
I remember a time when my peers regarded the discourse of ‘objective constraint’ (objektiver Sachzwang) as a scheme to undermine political and economic change. I recall Michael Heinrich’s excellent Intro to theThree Volumes of Capital, in which he unmasked the ‘talk’ of ‘objective constraint’ as ideology. But with the advent of the Corona regime, all of this has changed. The Left that once almost dared to speak its name has now completed its perversion into a Middle-Class Leviathan, made up of left-liberal PMC, tenured radicals, unconsciously false activists, and half-wit journalists – self-registered ‘leftists’ all – who see their primary mission as denouncing the slightest dissidence – not even regarding the necessity, but the usefulness of the current measures: imposing lockdown after lockdown, keeping old people and children behind locked doors, closing schools, isolating last stage-cancer patients from their closest family, shutting down every occasion to make life worth living: meeting friends, travelling, going out, performing or watching sports/music/shows, even singing in schools (now officially unlawful), teaching face-to-face – not to speak of stifling the critique of the class character of these impositions: for ‘essential workers’, the Corona regime means work-life-imbalance as usual.
“Because of Corona”
What has happened? Why does the ‘objective constraint’ allegedly implied by Corona receive such a different reception than the profit/value postulate, which is rightfully dismissed as ideological? It may seem that the virus and everything concerning the technical-material or the natural-biological world is “naturally” beyond social determination. But, as noted above, in our present world, there is no longer a ‘natural world’ unaffected by the law of value. In more banal terms: “saving the health system” is a question of money, not of personal goodwill. Where money is in abundance, the national economy can provide 2 million intensive care beds, or more, if needed. But never in the history of capitalism has the economy provided use-values without a price tag attached: and why should it be different this time? Hence, in the pandemic, it’s not about the health service protecting and caring for people’s health, but the reverse, people caring for and protecting the health service. This inversion has reached a preliminary peak with the claim that it is the fault of the people, not a badly funded health service, if we face shortages and triage in hospitals. As Timandra Harkness has recently observed:
“In previous winters, when routine operations were cancelled, or acutely ill patients died on trolleys or in ambulances, the debate was about why the NHS failed to provide what we, the public who fund it and expect it to be there for us, needed. Now it is more likely to be about what we, the public, should be doing to reduce demand.”
It’s the money-mediated market which holds sway over life and death. It is irrelevant whether the health service is already privatised or still publicly funded, funded it must be. Just imagine what states can do when banks fail. Indeed, the real subsumption of labour under capital has been provided with a correlate: the real subsumption of life under the Corona regime.
To put it more bluntly – the virus is not about biology. The virus is about money. And not only the virus: even the climate was never about ‘nature’. Buy carbon emission certificates, save the planet. The real question therefore is not “what can we do to save lives?” – but “how much money is needed to save lives?” In a world where no change is implemented without its monetary equivalent, the talk of Corona as a “material-technical/natural-scientific problem” has the function of obscuring its real stakes. The same obscuration is found in bourgeois political economy who only knew capital in its technical-material function, as “that part of wealth of a country which is employed in production, and consists of food, clothing, tools, raw materials, machinery, etc., necessary to give effect to labour’, and not as a social relation between people. The concealment from view of the social implications of the pandemic, a phenomenon utterly at the grace of political decisions, can justly be called a public farce.
And yet, the material-technical, natural-scientific aspect of Corona became the single horizon within which political decision-making has been able to present itself this year. No other turn of phrase was heard and said, written and read more often this year than “BECAUSE OF CORONA”. BECAUSE OF CORONA working class children will have no future. BECAUSE OF CORONA Jeff Bezos saw his private wealth rise by an estimated $70 billion. BECAUSE OF CORONA the infant death rate in the developing world will triple. BECAUSE OF CORONA production has surged. BECAUSE OF CORONA production has stopped. BECAUSE OF CORONA you won’t get this job. BECAUSE OF CORONA you have to die alone.
In my lifetime, I have not experienced such a deep correlation between obvious social mediation and public reluctance to address it as such, insisting against all evidence that it forms an “objective constraint”. In other words, we are currently facing a total and complete reification of the social sphere. The bourgeois fetish – social relations as relations of things, and relations of things as social relations – has come full circle with the Corona regime.
And the PMC-Leviathan loves it – much so that the rescue from this predicament promised by the vaccine – “we will hug each other again!” in the words of a clothing distributors marketing campaign – is viewed as an outright threat to the ‘new normal’ global society has established to the comfort of tech giants and their ideological acolytes. “Here’s Why Vaccinated People Still Need To Wear Masks” says the NYT, and ‘experts’ all over the globe warn people of becoming too confident with their newly won liberties: “Just for the viewers out there who are planning on travelling after the second dose…this is a source of confusion…just because you get vaccinated…does not mean you should be participating in things like travelling… or that you’re liberated from masks,”, contends Dr Vin Gupta MD in an interview with MSNBC on December 15th, 2020. There is a “frustration with the slack Corona measures”, as a news platform informs the reader who has just reminded their Kindergarten-aged kid to that they won’t be allowed to sing in school.
Identity Politics as Ideological Accomplice
But far from being the only aspect responsible for elevating Corona to the status of ‘objective constraint’, there is another, perhaps even more forceful one at work: the rise of a moralistic narcissism that proved to be the social pathology needed for the glorious (and global) triumph of identity politics. Narcissism, as anyone who had the sorry luck of dealing with narcissists knows, is unapologetic. The narcissist has no shame. He presents his subjective interest as the interest of all, for all. And only in a society that is thoroughly unshaken by class perceptions, absolutely immune to a view of class as the primary structuring mechanism of the present, can the richest of the rich assume the position of moral mouthpieces. If someone told me only 6 years ago that one of the richest individuals on the planet has publicly announced that putting “he/him” pronouns in a Twitter bio makes one an ‘oppressor’, I’d have snorted with laughter. And I’d have spilled a few cups of tea at Prince Harry’s – net worth: a meagre 30 million US $, upholstered with a 100 million $ Netflix-deal – pathetic admonitions of ‘structural racism’ and ‘unconscious bias’ as the biggest social problem of our times.
And yet today, who is an oppressor and who is not, is decided by the likes of Elon Musk and the Windsors. And no one even as much as winks. And the story goes on: Unilever, a ‘global player’ in the strict sense, “with plantations, palm oil forests, and factories around the world and a global workforce of over 150,000 people serving 2.5 billion consumers”, pushing the identitarian social responsibility card for years, has announced that “the immutable laws of intersectionality mean that the better the job that we do for women of color, the better chance we have of progressing gender equality everywhere” – regardless of the labour, sexual exploitation and even deadly assaults on the same female workers on their Kenyan tea picking fields.
With Musk, the Windsors, Unilever, Amazon’s Jeff “we-don’t-mind-losing-customers-because-of-our-stance-on-Black-Lives-Matter-while-we-sell-surveillance-gear-to-the-police”-Bezos, or Goldman-Sachs as moral instances, what could possibly go wrong? And yet, it is not merely in the world of business and finance that moralising has become the dominant form of social participation. Quite to the contrary: the academic hard left has discovered this gap in the market and turned it into an opportunity for wider distribution. On a regular basis now, academic calls-for-papers concentrate on issues that breathe the air of a damsel-in-distress attitude to social problems. Marxism-feminism’s ”Social Reproduction Theory” (SRT) is a particularly sorry variant of this kind of moralistic behavioural therapy that shows the score to lazy men who never clean up after themselves, a theoretical stream reserved for particularly dim-witted sociologists who have never made an actual argument in their lives.
Needless to say, it would not occur to them that the “social constructivism” they claim for gender (which they, at the same time, hypostasise as absolutely real) could be more rightfully applied to Covid-19. What is at stake with the Corona regime and the neoliberal restructuring following from it will make social reproduction’s lament of “gendered exploitation” look like a bad airbrush mural from the 1980s.
In sum, whether in the allegations of Marxism-feminism, the insufferable “trans debate”, or the latest racial hygiene demands from the left, “vulnerable” is a big word here – and so is the demand to “respect life”, neck and neck with the slightly stronger “you want people to die!” that still lights up Twitter like-buttons. Both the ferocity and the argument itself is heavily reminiscent of the ‘pro-life’ rhetoric of anti-abortionists whose demand to ‘respect life’ is equally uninterested in the specific conditions in which this ‘life’ must be led.
The Seamless Trajectory from Idpol Authoritarianism to Corona Authoritarianism
Once this kind of language was socially accepted however – in the media, the workplace, schools, universities – the same rhetoric, the words and language of the wokeria has now seamlessly attached itself to Corona and ‘Corona deaths’, the moralising framework without which politics no longer exists. The dystopianism of Giorgio Agamben’s “Homo Sacer” looks like a Morrissey lyric compared to the admonitions on the ‘sanctity of human life’ we find in the media today. Switzerland’s “Sunday Paper” (“SonntagsZeitung”) recently published the names of 5000 deceased Corona patients, in lachrymose “names in shape of the number 5000” graphics, titled “Relatives of Victims Criticise Swiss Indifference”, and accompanied by reports of relatives mourning the passing of their 90+-year old kin. “Where is your shame?” cries the narcissist who never thought to ask the same question with regard to pension cuts that left the elderly poorer than any generation of pensioners since 1945. Old people? They are both an argument and a counterargument, depending on your current moralistic mission.
But something deeper is at stake here: the function of this rhetoric is the exertion of private control on the ‘use of public reason’ (Kant), a private self-regulation of affectations – while our lives continue to be miserable. This is a perfect template for those missionary theorists of disciplinary control mechanisms, that we remember as our Foucaultian roommates, the guys (and girls) who wouldn’t shut up about Foucault, whether discussing strawberry shortcake recipes or “The Handmaid’s Tale”. For some reason however, in this historical moment when for once they could be useful – we hear very little from them. But I’m instantly reminded of Foucault’s theoretical (and personal) partiality to neoliberalism, in both its ideological and economic dimensions, and I think better of my indignation. The vast majority of today’s Foucaultians have consequently embraced the Corona regime, a biopolitical événement par excellence, and go along with the belief in the pandemic as ‘objective constraint’.
However, without the constant drumming of the identity political drum over the last decade, the Corona regime would have faced a much harder job at attaching itself to its narcissistic moralising and, hence, maintaining its scheme of a new ‘material-technical’ world order. In absence of a global triumph of bad moral philosophy disguising itself as ‘social justice’, the regime, I’d wager, would have faced more serious political obstacles and widespread resistance. But because identity politics already represented the ideology of the ruling class, a justification of the world as it is, the Corona regime could go one step further and sell its authoritarianism as ‘objective constraint’: if everything becomes a question of personal morals, and if, just by existing, you are likely to ‘kill granny’, the state can easily put itself in a position to tell us where not to go, whom not to meet, what not to do. The Corona regime’s authoritarianism would not have been possible without the warm-up phase of the authoritarianism of identity politics. It is as consequential as it is uncanny.
‘I don’t want to live another 50 years if I’m not allowed to hug anybody’, Timandra Harkness tells us. Neither do I. Of course, we might as well put ourselves into tin barrels and put the lid on. This will certainly save the NHS. And it will make neoliberal restructuring easier. On the other hand, however, we are humans – not things. The fact that this is mocked or forgotten shows just how much most of us have complied with the great narrative of ‘objective constraint.’
 See my last entry on here: https://beefheart.substack.com/p/real-abstraction-and-the-answer-to.  see Joshua Pickett-Depaolis’s and my article https://crisiscritique.org/uploads/24-11-2020/elena-louisa-lange-and-joshua-pickett-depaolis.pdfhttps://unherd.com/2020/12/what-would-you-sacrifice-for-the-nhs/ See the latest news at Adam Tooze @adam_toozeOn Friday last carbon allowances in Europe’s Emissions Trading System smashed 31 Euros. Prices expected to stay above 30 throughout 2021. Data from: @BloombergNEF December 14th 20201 Retweet5 Likes
 David Ricardo, Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, Dent, London, Dutton, New York: Everyman‘s Library p. 53.  https://www.faz.net/aktuell/wirtschaft/digitec/bill-gates-sieht-positive-folgen-von-corona-mehr-innovationen-17091415.html https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/08/health/covid-vaccine-mask.html#click=https://t.co/A7DS0osE7XElon Musk @elonmuskDecember 14th 202026,313 Retweets277,477 Likes
 See Maria Hengeveld’s report The Corporate Parent: The Collapse of Social Responsibility at Unilever https://www.plough.com/en/topics/justice/social-justice/the-corporate-parent  I say this with a closer elaboration and critical commentary on the “arguments“ of this stream in my article in Science & Society, January 2021.  Impressively presented in Alex Gutentags’s essay “The great Covid Class War”, at https://www.thebellows.org/the-great-covid-class-war/  SonntagsZeitung, Dec 6th, 2020.  See Daniel Zamora-Vargas’ and Michael C. Behrendt’s collection Foucault and Neoliberalism, Polity 2014, and their forthcoming The Last Man Takes LSD: Foucault and the End of Revolution, Verso, Spring 2021.