Neal Miller

This article is a follow-up to “Fever Dreaming in the General Antagonism”, available here.

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To the realists.- You sober people who feel well armed against passion and fantasies and would like to turn your emptiness into a matter of pride and an ornament: you call yourselves realists and hint that the world really is the way it appears to you…That mountain there! That cloud there! What is “real” in that? Subtract the phantasm and every human contribution from it, my sober friends! If you can!

–Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

The initial delirium that brought us the debates around UBI and proposals for a robust welfare state has entered a new phase as the parties of order have rediscovered their economic realism. At first glance, The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act appears to have surpassed The New Deal in not only spending, but in its power as a weapon of counter-insurgency. The Act’s new credit mechanisms linking the Federal Reserve and corporate financial institutions normalize emergency bailout spending and lay the groundwork for continued accumulation amidst large-scale demobilizations of the labor force. The confidence it looks to inspire in markets seems premised on the notion that they can now function without labor, as needed. The problem of the quarantine’s false strike for capital has been “solved.”  Should a true general strike ever materialize, its attack power has been pre-emptively weakened. Meanwhile, the acceleration effect of COVID-19 continues at local levels of government, too. In the case of Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois (the largest in the U.S.), which just released all of its non-violent offenders. Everywhere our agency seems to be outstripped and governments have the initiative.

And yet there are reasons for laughing at the realists. On the one hand, in all likelihood, even after we find ourselves on the other side of The Curve, historians of pandemics past such as John Barry predict that this wave will not be the last. On the other, the welfare and aid provisions of the Act are temporary in comparison to the time-line of the virus and the extended fallout of the economic recession. Crisis governance may still have to face its biggest challenges yet,and that is true even without the spread of a highly motivated housing and labor movement. We must take the initiative and answer the Act now while understanding that the struggle has just begun. Many of us have activated networks and capacities that we’ve developed over the last decade – many dating as far back as Occupy Wall Street, some even farther. But how to proceed?

Curiously, the general antagonism between life and COVID-19 has witnessed the rise of a new figure of labor: the front-liner, one who risks their life within a service or industry deemed essential to the economy. This figure cuts across the social strata of the workforce, gathering together hospital nurses and doctors, sanitation workers and grocery store clerks, formerly incarcerated transit workers and unionized transit workers, warehouse workers at Amazon and gig workers at Instacart. Rank and file workers have the cause and opportunity to take initiative and override their unions where they fail to act. More importantly, the front-liner embodies the basic contradiction of our moment: we are dependent on the economy and so it persists, despite its profound complicity with the virus. The spaces of proximity required for the accumulation of capital also feeds the accumulation of new cases and victims of COVID-19. Hence the necessity of these workers, the so-called necessity of the risks they take to survive or to care for our bodies or to drive us around plagued cities in their buses and cars is an expression of our very dependence on the economy. But for now this necessity that expresses our dependence is also the source of their power, which is proving itself in the latest wave of walk-offs and wild-cat strikes.

The general antagonism has a second front: literally, the home. This private has always been political, despite the traditional public/private schema. However, as philosopher Peter Sloterdijk might say, the home as a technical immune system that buffers our exposure to the world and its maladies has been made very present to us by the virtual threat outside. Prior to the pandemic, to immunize from the outside world was to create a shelter of relative freedom from its pressures retreating to an airspace of relief. Now that our homes have been made to feel like spaces of confinement, their effects of insulation and alleviation have been taken over by a suffocating intolerability (“‘Me time?’ I’ve had quite enough, thank you!”). Nonetheless, reinvigorated modes of resistance have seized upon their potential for antagonism: mutual aid networks reintroduce the presence of others and introduce novel forms of group belonging across households. Rent strikes and eviction resistance are spreading, contesting property relations while attesting to the fact that we dwellers have our being in our dwellings.

Currently, and most surprisingly, we are facing our own acceleration problem: the two fronts fight without grasping the singular problem they share. Hypothesis: if we are to gain the initiative, we must link these two fronts together in a common attack on not only COVID-19, but the realism of governments who turn our needs and dependency into the necessity of capitalist accumulation. We must offer not only a vision but a strategy that completes the unmasking of economic whim began by COVID-19. The emergency demands and the measures taken by governments have revealed the arbitrariness of the distribution of benefits and burdens that existed prior to the pandemic, and which for the moment continues to exist thanks to the Act. Whether it’s the “hard reality” of paying for our living spaces every month or (for some) the daily reality of risk in an “essential” job (in order to pay for living space no less!), we must complete the revelation of the economy for what it is: an unnecessary choice.

While discontinuous with the front-liners of Hong Kong, like them the risk exposure of front-liners in the context of the coronavirus invites a supporting cast of other roles and solidarities. What other figures can be drawn up from the practices of rent strikers and mutual aid-ers to intensify their confidence to strike and walk-off? How can making these explicit help them to compose a common force and be more effective? On the homefront, we have begun to see the assembling of immunological spaces into war machines, as in the networking of homes for rent strike committees (and in the use of cars in noise demonstrations). How can these networks link back up to front-liners? And between the two fronts, what public or counter-public spaces can we re-invent when Spring intensifies our wanderlust? Would something equivalent to the Lennon Walls of Hong Kong take root in U.S. cities? Finally, overall, our strategic question seems to be, how can the front-line and the home-front combine to reduce our overall dependency on economic reality by maximizing the number of needs that are met for free, at no cost?

In the ongoing delirium, our gestures are charged with the alarm and urgency of war, which always brings with it immense expenditures of effort and feats of stress endurance. The war zone in which an increasing number of doctors and nurses find themselves is too real, yet this war cannot be our object as we fight in the general antagonism. After all, our immune systems will suffer if we do. We must aim to overcome need  and necessity itself through a new spirit of communal luxury and joy. We have reason to be optimistic: when the Great Recession of 2008 hit, it took nearly three years for a movement to respond in the U.S. This time we’ve had a decade of preparation.

P.S. Thank you to the organizers and participants in the Undercommons and Destituent Power Conference for making a space to think together in a disaster.