Pandemonium: Proliferating Borders of Capital and the Pandemic Swerve
Angela Mitropoulos, Pandemonium: Proliferating Borders of Capital and the Pandemic Swerve, London: Pluto Press, 2020.
And Trumpets sound throughout the Host proclaim
A solemn Councel forthwith to be held
At Pandæmonium, the high Capital
Of Satan and his Peers...
— John Milton, Paradise Lost
Angela Mitropoulos begins her book about the current failed responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the capitalist logic behind them, with a brief discussion of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton coined the term “Pandaemonium” in a reference to the fallen angels of Heaven— “All demons.” It was the name he gave the central city of Hell where the fallen angels met to deliberate whether they should attempt a return to heaven or begin a new world. In her book, the term Pandemonium refers to the “emergence of an order from the treatments of chaos.” Unlike Milton’s characters, she does not assume that the old order, here meaning the global economic and political order as it functioned before the pandemic, “was a paradise undone by disobedience and sin.” Looking at the current rhetoric of “reopening the economy” and “getting back to normal,” in the face of a spreading plague, it seems that most capitalists do.
Whether or not there will be a “swerve,” or major turn in outlook and policy, and what forms it will take is the question she addresses in the book (2). Ultimately, she faults the capitalist logic behind the approaches to containing Covid-19 for these failures, after having traced their reactionary ideological underpinnings historically. It will be necessary to reject the capitalist calculus behind such approaches to save ourselves, not as separate, nationalized, categorized, hierarchically ranked populations, but as a collective humanity. As much of a cliche it may be, the current pandemic has clarified how pressing it is that we abolish class society if there is to be any hope of a humane future.
The responses to the current pandemic have been “centuries in the making” in that they stem from ideas and policies that Mitropoulos traces back a long way. There are the Biblical roots of the Latin “Quarantine,” a period of forty days, such as the journey of Noah’s ark, or Jesus in the wilderness. Plagues were believed to be divine punishment designed to restore God’s natural order, and accordingly forty days of segregation was one approach to stopping their spread through atonement (43). She examines Plato’s rationalist philosophy to interrogate what tactics he found acceptable and necessary for leaders to rule effectively, and how current responses to the crisis adhere to his anti-democratic (and, it turns out, irrational)insights. She traces threads of thought undergirding present day capitalist ideology in which taxonomies categorize those whose lives will be protected and those whose lives will be risked, based on the need to maintain law and order, defend borders, control labor, and continue capitalist extraction and accumulation.
Enlightenment Era moral economies as outlined by Adam Smith and Herbert Malthus shared the view that the household was the primary unit around which to organize the “natural order of things.” For Smith, self-interested property owners would act to bring about a natural economic order so long as monarchs left them be. Malthus believed that withdrawing charity from the poor would stand in for the Biblical plagues that eliminated surplus populations and restored the natural order. For him “the price of bread would be the spur to individual moral-economic decisions” (4). The belief in a natural economic hierarchy came out of medieval estates and their norms of household management. The lord’s domain over women, children, servants and slaves, as head of the household became the model of later plantation economies from which capitalism emerged. Capitalist forms of management are in part based on this model of the “oikos” (household), which is the basis of “almost all systems of modern political authoritarianism and economic liberalism” (5).
The spread of capitalism as a global system over the last two centuries means similar organization in non-Western countries (or in places where “actually existing socialism” is allegedly in power). The popular notion of an “East-West dichotomy” is an “orientalist fiction” (7) The “exoticist” explanations of the origins of the virus seek to emphasize the alleged alien nature of China to lay blame for the virus there, rather than seeing the common (capitalist) traits between China and Western nation states that are at the root of why Covid-19 has exploded.
In the port city of Wuhan, China, the likely origin point of Covid-19, the back story sounds much like any Western capitalist country. Coastal cities were relatively privileged compared to inland ones. Wuhan is a major logistics hub, and, as with many Chinese cities, has been experiencing massive rural-to-urban migrations. Strike waves rocked the country, and in Wuhan, healthcare had been privatized and commercialized in the 1980s and 90s as the prelude to their initial failure to contain Covid-19. This “might shake the idea of a unique cultural bond between the government and the populations” in the mind of the modern tankie (19). There is also bad air pollution in the city. A “commercially oriented health system and the lack of healthcare coverage” probably worsened the Covid-19 crisis (20).
In the reactionary taxonomy (hierarchical categorizing of life) of peoples, there is a divide between “the entitled demos” (the citizenry or people who belong to a place, which incorporates only “parts of the working class while excluding others” ) and the “populations treated as living stock” (30). Indeed, in 2007, of the 140 million workers in China’s informal economy, most had no healthcare (20). Mitropoulos traces back the metaphor of “stock” to feudal cattle management, and finds the grounds for the modern capitalist concept of “herd immunity” which Boris Johnson’s administration and later Trump’s pushed.
Mitropoulos points out that this “herd immunity” is a complete distortion of the original term, coined in 1923 in a study by Topley and Wilson. Their use of the term stated that herd immunity could only be created if there was an “‘inoculation’ by a ‘protective serum’” available, meaning a vaccine (62). While the narrative coming from the UK government was upbeat, most of their policies were based on similar misunderstandings and or intentional misuse of the science that could have informed an effective containment of the virus. The author states that the misrepresentations of “herd immunity” are similar to anti-vaxxer “virus parties,” in which parents invite children with measles or mumps to play with non-infected kids to “naturally” spread immunity because they have insane views of vaccines as worse than the diseases they inoculate against (56).
Medieval agriculture provided “tropes of aristocratic right through primogeniture” (the right of the first born to inherit the estate of the parents) in late feudalism (31). Later in the 19th century there were mass outbreaks of disease among cattle and many herds were culled. In 1886, Nietzsche, writing at the time of the newly implemented Prussian state welfare laws, described the efforts to protect the weak and prevent suffering as a “herd” mentality that would weaken the human species.
A similar aversion to government spending and shouldering the burden of protecting the health of their “stock” informs modern approaches to combatting viruses under capitalism. The goal of capitalist herd immunity is to let the virus run its course until enough people contract it and survive thereby allegedly becoming immune, with the stated caveat of protecting “the vulnerable” which is not possible using this strategy. The result is that the populations who are worst hit by pandemics where capitalist herd immunity is implemented will always be the most socially vulnerable: immigrants, the poor, the elderly, people with pre-existing conditions, and those who are not financially or occupationally able to stay at home. Those who must continue to ride public transit, to report to work, to provide “essential services” whether that involves health care work, agricultural work, service sector jobs at supermarkets, or other occupations, or whether it is people trapped in “quarantined” situations like elder-care homes or prisons, will be, and are being, decimated. The strategy of capitalist herd immunity is a direct descendent of Malthus’ view of expendable populations and Mitropoulos declares that this is in reality a policy of eugenics, of culling the herd to preserve the old order, the “natural order” of capitalist accumulation.
It may remind the reader of what Mike Davis discussed in his book Late Victorian Holocausts. The introduction of market logic into food production in India led to mono-cropping and transporting food away from famine affected regions to the coasts via rail where they were exported to be sold for profit on the global market. The old protections against crises provided by the Mughals (and they were no saints either) would have mitigated the worst effects of famines that resulted from failed Monsoon rains. The British who oversaw the process described their market-induced holocaust, which killed roughly 30 million Indians in the second half of the nineteenth century, as a natural disaster. They saw the non-European Indians who died as expendable populations who perished due to their lack of (Social) Darwinian fitness.
Nietzsche was concerned, as Mitropoulos sees it, with a kind of eugenics project of improving the human species rather than seeing it degenerate. His reactionary view informed subsequent policies in which race and nation rose to the fore and “[p]opulations become a matter of distinct policy, shaped by citizenship based on land ownership, marriage laws and in time immigration policy” (34).
When discussing the strategy of the quarantine, Mitropoulos notes that it is not based on evidence of who is actually infected, but instead presumes the condition of people or groups based on where they are coming from, and this creates a “racialization of disease” (35). At the same time it makes quarantine an “incubator” because the infected and non-infected alike are thrown together into holding areas like immigration centers, cruise ships, prisons, elder care facilities, or even crowded airports (due to travel bans) which allows rapid spread of Covid-19. Quarantines
“exacerbate viral dangers because they foster the illusion that the isolation of a virus is synonymous with (or achievable through) the spatial confinement of groups of people, whose confinement is determined not by whether they are symptomatic or diagnosed with a disease but by a purportedly preemptive measure that uses geography (and by implication nationality and race) as a proxy for exposure” (37).
The “cordon sanitaire” (line of hygiene) to contain Covid-19 was not used by the US first, but by China in the case of Wuhan. Other governments reacted similarly, enacting travel bans against China, and other countries, when masks, social distancing, and hand washing, along with providing PPE, tracking and isolating cases were already known to be far more effective. The punitive strategies only make diseases harder to track because those punished are less likely to have access to or ask for medical treatment. Alternatively they may end up in one of the many “incubator” quarantine sites which increase the infection rates.
Betting Against Disaster
Flirtin' with disaster, ya'll know what I mean
You know the way we run our lives it makes no sense to me
I don't know about yourself or what you plan to be, yea
When we gamble with our time, we choose our destiny
— Molly Hatchet, Flirtin’ With Disaster
Implementing travel bans and tougher border regimes, based on geographical and national designations of what populations posed the greatest threat, failed to stop the spread of the virus. Financializing approaches to containment also failed.
The International Monetary Fund released a report in April of 2020 acknowledging that the effectiveness or failure of preventing Covid-19 transmission would directly affect the depth of the resulting economic crisis (87-88). One of the mechanisms that capitalist governments use to prepare for and address disasters is the use of “catastrophe bonds” or in this case a “pandemic bond.”
Mitropoulos describes the World Bank’s launch in 2016 of the Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility (PEFF) and the way in which responses will “rely on financializing the epidemiological curve” (90). To summarize, bonds are issued that pay high interest rates. These are common investments for pension funds and other large investors. They are bets against the occurrence of a pandemic, but the bets lose if the pandemic occurs. When the investors lose the bet, their money is used to fund pandemic relief. The risk “that investors run is that they lose their investment if there is a pandemic event during the time of the bond” (90-91). Such bonds are insurance for the insurers who have to pay out in the case of pandemic related claims. It is a way to “shift the risk of a sudden escalation of numerous claims” on insurance companies “to capital markets” where the high yield, high risk catastrophe bonds are traded (90).
The capitalist calculus of when and how much disaster relief is applied has many distorting effects on the attempts to contain a pandemic. The premise for capitalists is that this strategy “theoretically offers a timely injection of liquid cash at the time of an emergency without meanwhile disrupting the rule of austerity by expanding healthcare or welfare...” (91).
There are different criteria for triggering the pay outs from these bonds. Some of them are geared toward paying out in the case of a low GDP country reaching the set critical mass of cases or deaths to collect on the aid. This can shape how deaths are counted, with the goal of minimizing or maximizing based on the considerations of the bond investors or insurance companies. This basis of allocating aid to countries or communities in need has proven a failure thus far as “the pandemic bond has resulted in the World Bank, government sponsors and investors watching the spread of an infectious disease and increasing numbers of dead in poor countries before taking steps that might have halted that spread or reduced the number of deaths” (95).
She outlines the way that a capitalist calculus also lies behind pushing Hydroxychloroquine and the demands from pharmaceutical companies for deregulation on test trials, promotion of drugs, and marketing and advertising, all resulting in a private market model of disease containment and treatment with all its profit motivated inefficiencies.
Looking back on the last six months of governmental and public responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, it sometimes feels as if the population has become hysterical, as if in a drug induced frenzy or stupor. Leaders like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump have only added to the confusion and fear and this is entirely in keeping with their primary role as defenders of capitalist accumulation.
Tracing the roots of irrational messaging as a tool to manipulate and control populations, Mitropolous critiques Jacques Derrida’s reading of The Phaedrus by Plato. He examines two types of speech described by Plato. Logistikon is well ordered speech while the pharmakon is “defined as words that act as a charming or intoxicating potion...” (76). Derrida sees the pharmakon as evidence that Plato’s rationalist system, with its taboo against intuitive knowledge, is not internally cohesive or rational after all. Mitropoulos responds that “there is no such taboo in Platonist rationalism” because “polysemic [multiple meanings] ambiguity and the embrace of falsehood by patriarchal rulers are clearly not deemed by Plato to constitute a threat to good order or its restoration” (77).
The spectacle of Trump’s clownish and unconvincing serial lying can be seen as part of a tradition stretching back to antiquity and sanctioned by Plato. As silly as it may sound to place Trump in the company and wisdom of the ancients, Mitropoulos says that, far from prohibited, the methods of pharmakon are “the specified means...by which the Platonist system permits a turn from the actually-existing republic to dictatorship and tyranny in order to save and perfect the republic” (77).
The recent “revelation” from Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book that Trump had confided in him that he knew the Covid-19 virus was highly transmittable and far more deadly than the flu, while he said the opposite publicly, is then entirely in keeping with Platonist rationalism. Mitropoulos notes that “rationalism (like intuitionism) rests on a metaphysics of a priori premises, a seemingly inexplicable but otherwise remarkably consistent feeling and desire for selecting this categorical predicate over that” (77).
Angela Mitropoulos examines the histories of various ideas and techniques, such as those of the quarantine, of population control, the recurring theme of a return to a world based on natural order, of taxonomical categorization of a human hierarchy, of groups that must be protected as opposed to those who can be sacrificed, and other histories. She relates them to accompanying ideologies that then shape the representation of knowledge as applied to policies implemented by governments and ruling classes.
In social decisions, we see a calculus based on preserving the efficiency of capital accumulation, not one that centers on preserving and enriching human and other life. A logic of moral economy based on feudal notions of patriarchal households is expanded to determine which people must be sacrificed given the accompanying Malthusian assumptions of natural scarcity and the constant alleged looming threat of surplus populations. Forming responses to a pandemic based on market mechanisms such as bonds, which only trigger the process of protecting human life when a certain cost in exchange value has been reached, is a stark example of how the capitalist priorities embody a Malthusian calculus even when presented as defending human wellness and life.
Mitropoulos’ book demonstrates in many ways that these grounds for analysis and responses to crises such as pandemics are not based in how things really are, the assumed natural order, or even rational thought, but have instead “drawn on understandings of health and disease that are models of social order recast as an eternal nature, rendering those responses ineffective in stemming the transmission of disease” (3). Her book does a great job of unravelling the layers of ideology and connecting them to specific policy failures, or simply the most misanthropic norms that underpin capitalist logic historically and in the present.
The resulting policies are punitive, based in austerity, and are extremely inefficient if the goal is protecting human life. If anything, they have worsened the effects and the spread of the virus. If they seem irrational at times it’s because they are. It is up to us then to reject the capitalist bases of analysis and resultant policy and choose a human centered approach that prioritizes compassion, care, and solidarity across ethnic, national, and cultural lines, and along class lines as against the debilitating “natural order” of capitalism.