The Economy or Life
Other languages: Français, Español
Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives in the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralyses our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it.
—E. M. Forster, “The Machine Stops” (1909)
Not every official transmission is fake news. Amidst so many disconcerting lies, today’s rulers appear genuinely heartbroken when detailing the extent to which the economy is suffering. As for the elderly left to choke at home alone so they don’t cause a spike in official statistics, or clog up our hospitals…of course, a thought for them too. But that a good corporation might die? This really forms a lump in their throats. Just look at them rushing to its bedside. It’s true, people everywhere are dying from respiratory failure – but the market must not be deprived of oxygen. The economy will never be short on the artificial ventilators it needs; the central banks will see to that. Our rulers are akin to an aging heiress who sees a man bleeding out in her living room and frets over the stains on her carpet. Or like that expert of national technocracy who remarked in the recent report on nuclear safety that, “the true victim of any nuclear disaster would be the economy.”
Faced with the present microbial storm, one that we were warned of by every wing of government since the late 1990s, we are awash in conjecture about our leaders’ lack of preparation. How could it be that masks, hairnets, beds, caretakers, tests, and remedies are in such short supply? Why all these last-minute measures, all these sudden reversals of doctrine? Why all these contradictory injunctions – confine yourself but go to work, close the shops but not the large retail outlets, stop the circulation of the virus but not the goods that carry it? Why all these grotesque impediments to mass testing, to drugs that are so obviously effective and inexpensive? Why the choice of general containment rather than detection of sick subjects? The answer is simple and ever the same: it’s the economy, stupid!
Rarely has the economy appeared so clearly for what it truly is: a religion, if not a cult. A religion is, after all, no more than a sect that has taken power. Rarely have our rulers appeared so obviously possessed. Their mad cries for sacrifice, for war, for total mobilization against an invisible enemy, their calls for unity among the faithful, their incontinent verbal deliriums no longer embarrassed in the slightest by overt paradox—it’s the same as any evangelical celebration. And we are summoned to endure every single sermon from behind our glowing screens, with mounting incredulity. The defining characteristic of this brand of faith is that no fact is capable of invalidating it. Far from standing condemned by the spread of the virus, the global reign of the economy has made use of the opportunity to reinforce its presuppositions.
The new ethos of confinement, wherein “men derive no pleasure (but on the contrary great displeasure) from being in the company of one another”, wherein everyone appears to us in our strict separation as a potential threat to our life, wherein the fear of death imposes itself as the foundation of the social contract, only fulfills the anthropological and existential hypothesis of Hobbes’ Leviathan — Hobbes, whom Marx reputed to be “one of the oldest economists in England, and among the most original philosophers”. To situate this hypothesis, it’s worth recalling that Hobbes was entertained by the fact that his mother gave birth to him while terrified by lightning. Born of fear, he logically saw in life only the fear of death. “That’s his problem,” we’re tempted to say. No one is obliged to make such a sick worldview the basis of their existence, let alone of all existence. And yet here we are. The economy, whether liberal or Marxist, left or right, planned or deregulated, is the very illness now being prescribed for general health. In this, it is indeed a religion.
As our friend Hocart remarked, there is no fundamental difference between the president of a “modern” nation, a tribal chief in the Pacific Islands, or a pontiff in Rome. Their task is always to perform the propitiatory rites that will bring prosperity to the community, that reconcile it with the gods and preserve it from their wrath, that ensure unity, and prevent the people from scattering. “His raison d’être is not coordination but to preside over the ritual” (A-M Hocart, Kings and Courtiers): the root of our leaders’ incurable imbecility lies in their failure to understand this principle. It is one thing to attract prosperity, and another to manage the economy. It is one thing to perform rituals, and another to govern people’s lives. How much of power’s nature is purely liturgical is amply demonstrated by the profound uselessness, indeed the essentially counter-productive activity of our current rulers, who view the situation only as an unprecedented opportunity to excessively expand their own prerogatives, and to ensure no one tries to take their miserable seats. In view of the calamities befalling us, the leaders of today’s economic religion really are truly the last of the deadbeats when it comes to propitiatory rites. Their religion is in fact nothing but infernal damnation.
And so we stand at a crossroads: either we save the economy, or we save ourselves. Either we exit the economy, or we allow ourselves to be drafted into the great “army in the shadows” of those to be sacrificed in advance. The whole 1914-1918 rhetoric of the moment leaves no room for doubt: it’s the economy or life. And since it’s a religion we’re dealing with, what we’re facing now is a schism. The states of emergency decreed everywhere, the expansions of police power, the population control measures already enacted, the lifting of all limits to exploitation, the sovereign decision on who lives and who dies, the unflinching praise of Chinese governmentality—such means are not designed to provide for the “salvation of the people” here and now, but to prepare the ground for a bloody “return to normal”, or else the establishment of a normality even more anomic than that which prevailed before. In this sense, the leaders are for once telling the truth: the afterwards [l’après] is indeed being played out now. It is now that doctors, nurses, and caretakers must abandon any loyalty to those attempting to flatter them into self-sacrifice. It is now that we must wrest control of our health and wellness from the disease industry and “public health” experts. It is now that we must set up mutual-aid networks of autonomous supply and production, if we are avoid succumbing to the blackmail of dependency that aims to redouble our subservience. It is now, in the extraordinary suspension we are living through, that we must figure out everything we will need in order to live beyond the economy, and all that will be required in order to prevent its return. It is now that we must nourish the complicities that can limit the impudent revenge of a police force that knows it is hated. It is now that we need to de-confine ourselves—not out of mere bravado, but gradually, with all the intelligence and attention that befits friendship. It is now that we must elucidate the life we want: what this life requires us to build and to destroy, with whom we want to live, and whom we no longer wish to live with. No care should be given to those leaders currently arming themselves for war against us. No “living together” with those who would leave us for dead. We will trade no protection at the price of submission; the social contract is dead, it is up to us to invent something else. The rulers of today know well that on the day of de-confinement we will have no other desire than to see their heads roll, and that is why they will do everything they can to prevent that day from coming, to diffract, control, and delay our exit from confinement. It is up to us to decide when, and on what terms it happens. It is up to us to give form to the afterwards. It is up to us to sketch technically feasible and humane routes out of the economy. “We’re standing up and walking out” said a deserter from Goncourt not so long ago. Or, to quote an economist attempting to detox from his own religion:
“I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue: that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanor and the love of money is detestable, that those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honor those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.” (Keynes)
Translated by Ill Will Editions