Convergence / Health / Politics / Vol. 2 No. 3

Horseman No. 5

Sheena Rose, Grawlix

Image Credit: Sheena Rose, Grawlix, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Something that hasn’t been adequately discussed about Marx’s Capital is the extent to which Marx is fascinated by capitalism’s mechanisms, precisely because the system is demented, yet works very well at the same time.
—Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “A Very Special Delirium”1

The current pandemic arrogates to itself the privilege of hastening our species’ demise, wasting little time in marshaling the effort. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death, biblical punishments given significant billing in both the Old and New Testaments—are a quartet that ordinarily travels together, displaying such versatility that any three of them can always count on a remaining Equestrian to pick up the slack when vacation time conflicts with the busy season. Pestilence, for example, easily resumes just about wherever War and/or Famine retire, and Death, the anchor of this merry band, is always available in every circumstance to mop up.

The novel coronavirus—the most efficient killer of humans in more than a century—is our time’s incarnation of Pestilence, the agent, as Death, its client, lurks handily in shadow. Through the insidious COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, Death is often uniquely situated to enact apocalyptic rapine without further help from any of its fellows, although it seems to enjoy their company. By the time you read this, the United States—over two million persons, or approximately a third of the world’s current total—will be confirmed as infected, and those will be just the known cases. As of this writing, White House and government-agency fecklessness has caused more documented cases of infection than Canada, Spain, Italy, the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Russia, China, and India combined.2

Over one hundred thousand COVID-19 deaths in the US, with approximately four percent of the world’s population, will represent nearly three percent of the world’s total dead, with hundreds more dead every day. Dislocations are everywhere, as joblessness increases, businesses close, homelessness expands, and bodies accumulate. The mightiest country and most dynamic economy in the history of the world is waylaid by a microbe in fewer than five months.

The pandemic’s death-dealing capability can easily be weaponized by any national leader. The White House routinely seeks to stifle dissent even from medical experts against a dilatory presidential policy, and the withholding or misdirecting of personal protective equipment (PPE) from doctors and nurses treating COVID-19 patients in states with Democratic governors, and in many cases sending it instead to states controlled by the GOP, has been both scandalous and devastating. Testing for the presence of the coronavirus in the body is the standard by which epidemiologists shape the best strategies for controlling the disease among populations, but while the president says confidently that tests are widely available, many throughout the country understand that in their areas such is not the case. The vice president has also lied about the availability of testing; the president’s son-in-law, who lately has been assigned the task of procuring components for tests and PPE, has gathered around him groups of young, inexperienced volunteers who have no background in either procurement, distribution, or infectious diseases. (Perhaps his schedule will open up a bit after he delivers peace in the Middle East.) Those who do—particularly the officials of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—are often silenced by the administration when questions arise as to when life can return to normalcy and when business can resume.3 But as captains of government and business worldwide view normalcy as immanent in the rapid distribution of goods and services, and with this the exploitation of workers at lower income levels, such activity in this Year of the Plague is what seems necessary, beyond all reason, to preserve.

The instability of capitalism, our fifth Horseman, was expressed as crisis theory by Marx, wherein the focus of economic dislocation is the shattering of connections of interdependent elements of capital and their transformation into independent ones. The superfluity of capital resulting in the shock of a market crash, for example, results in the dissolution of the intimate connection between worker need and wage reduction or eradication. But our present crisis is uniquely designed to have effects beyond economics while also further influencing them through debilitating disability, horrific death, and, should one escape either of these, the paralyzing fear of both.

In the service of capital accumulation, some heads of state chicane workers by limiting health benefits; even professional classes remain uninsulated (doctors; nurses; teachers, etc.) as debates are waged as to how or whether some of these will participate in a reopening of society and under what circumstances (health care personnel without, or with inadequate PPE; workers in meatpacking plants and nursing homes being unable to physically distance). In these measures and others is the US president the sage of his own self-deception: As the government seeks to restart the economy, workers who return to an uncertain landscape are considered by him to be “nation warriors,” exhorted to choose reopening the country to preserve capitalism over human health and life. (Of course, many of these warriors are doubly unarmed, given that they also risk losing unemployment benefits if they do not return to work.) Here and across the globe, these new devaluations of worker humanity are a template for the future, as fictions about safety, national security, and the preservation of capital will be the order of every new day.4

Some weeks before Brazil became widely infected with the coronavirus, its president Jair Bolsonaro declared the disease to be a nonissue. But the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, long neglected by the government, would suffer the worst ravages of the disease.5 Today, with Brazil’s confirmed death rate vying for primacy with that of the US,6 Bolsonaro still maintains that the virus poses no threat despite his continued deforestation of the Amazon rainforest on behalf of loggers and developers, producing pollution that only worsens the condition of COVID-19 sufferers while also driving out Indigenous peoples living there. During the early days of Italy’s roiling by the virus, its far-right former interior minister Matteo Salvini attacked the government by insisting that migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Africa were carriers; according to Salvini, Italy’s response should be “to make the borders armor-plated.” Migrants’ landing “from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed, is irresponsible.” At the time, there was only one confirmed case in all of Africa, in Egypt.7 In Hungary, prime minister Viktor Orbán, whose Fidesz party already controls two-thirds of the parliament as well as the courts, extended a state of emergency that included an indefinite lockdown of the country. Breaking isolation orders or spreading “distorted truths” would result in imprisonment of from three to eight years, thus constituting a direct threat to journalists and doctors who might speak to them, among others. During this state of emergency, Orbán could also suspend any laws and institute new ones as he chose, any suspension or instantiation would receive de facto approval by the parliament,8 and the most outstanding effect of the measure potentially makes nonpersons of trans people, as their rights as Hungarian citizens are erased by fiat.

But all roads lead home, as the saying goes. Back in the US, the fascism of the central government and its police state is in full view in the state-sponsored murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. It should be said that this killing also highlights the most recent American-made murders of black folk: Ahmaud Arbery, gunned down by nonstate, garden-variety racists while jogging through his neighborhood in Glynn County, Georgia; Nina Pop, a black trans woman stabbed to death in Sikeston, Missouri; and Breonna Taylor, a frontline EMT worker who met with police violence while sleeping in her bed in Louisville, Kentucky. But Floyd became the avatar for these and the many thousands gone before them via the route of naked hatred as the record of his slow, excruciating death at the hands of four of Minneapolis’s finest was the perhaps the most televisual, and almost certainly the most audiovisual record we have of any such slaying, performed as they usually are in the secret service of capital. And the severest irony, perhaps felt most keenly by his captors as they will surely recall how they were killing him is that George Floyd, at his autopsy, tested positive for coronavirus.9

The irony is also not lost among those who decry his killing, as physical distancing is unrealizable during massive protests, and also as the virus’s spread is more quickly accelerated first through the spray of tear gas by the police and then through marchers’ coughing caused by irritation from inhaling the gas. But as one New York protester put it, “[T]his is also something that is happening for the health of the nation.”10 Here as elsewhere on the planet the health of the nation in any other sense is synonymized with the defense of capital, and this era of plague clearly threatens the future of that relationship. But the coronavirus itself not only assaults economies through massive dislocations and, at the least, exacerbates over time our very human frustrations with social distancing and mask-wearing. As it shares this fraught period with the much longer one of police violence against black people, now stripped to its nakedness by the passionate eye of a smartphone camera leveled at the depraved indifference of its subject, those who would march must also make the singular and terrible choice between taking the risk of faith in seeking the justice for which so many have longed and for which we ourselves have thirsted, and the virus’s much surer grip, its gnawing, choking crush of death. To embrace freedom in this instance means only one thing: We fashion our own heroism in risking for others, standing alone as we march together.

Did we know this risk when we marched for George? When we marched for Breonna? For Nina? Ahmaud? For the Malian French footballer Adama Traoré, killed in police custody in Paris in 2016? For David Dungay, the Indigenous Australian who was killed in his jail cell in Sydney by his captors in 2015?11 Yes, of course. Embracing the risks with every mile, we marched against their deaths, and for our lives.

The state’s metastasized fascism, then—its cancer and its nourishment, driven by the servants of the corporate elite for the sake of the health of the Dow, the FTSE, the Hang Seng, who everywhere further galvanize police and citizen violence with the contagion of racialized loathing and fear—meets resistance from marchers at every turn. We choose not to oil and curry the saddle on which this Horseman will ride: In every purposeful step, every brave act of civil disobedience, every plaintive, wrenching cry for freedom in every tongue, we urge the call to power; we approach fearlessly our bodily sovereignty; we advance confidently toward the ineluctable judgment of history.

Works Cited
1 In Chris Kraus and Sylvére Lotringer (eds.), Hatred of Capitalism: A Semiotext(e) Reader, (Boston: MIT Press, 2001), 215-220.
2 Johns Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center, Web.
3 Mike Stobbe, Jason Dearen, and Zeke Miller, “Experts Worry CDC Is Sidelined in Coronavirus Response,” Associated Press, May 10, 2020. Web.
4 See Garrett M. Graff, “Experts Knew a Pandemic Was Coming. Here’s What They’re Worried About Next: Nine Disasters We Aren’t Ready For,” Politico, May 7, 2020. Web
5 Uri Friedman, “The Coronavirus-Denial Movement Now Has a Leader,” The Atlantic, March 27, 2020. Web.6 Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Center, June 5, 2020. Web.7 Lorenzo Tondo, “Salvini Attacks Italy PM over Coronavirus and Links to Rescue Ship,” The Guardian, February 24, 2020: Web.
6 Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Center, June 5, 2020. Web.
7 Lorenzo Tondo, “Salvini Attacks Italy PM over Coronavirus and Links to Rescue Ship,” The Guardian, February 24, 2020: Web.
8 Elisabeth Zerofsky, “How Viktor Orbán Used the Coronavirus to Seize More Power,” The New Yorker, April 9, 2020: Web.
9 Scott Neuman, “Medical Examiner’s Autopsy Reveals George Floyd Had PositiveTest For Coronavirus,” NPR, June 4, 2020: Web.
10 “George Floyd: US Protesters Risk COVID-19 ‘for health of nation,’” Al Jazeera, June 3, 2020: Web.
11 New York Times video of David Dungay assault by prison guards:, accessed June 8, 2020.

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