The Covid Blackmail

Benjamin Bratton’s The Revenge of the Real develops the “temporary” state of emergency of (failed) pandemic governance into a justification of governing society on that basis indefinitely. It’s a deeply anti-social vision of society.

The Covid Blackmail

Review of Benjamin Bratton, The Revenge of the Real (Verso, 2021).

At this point, it is hard to dispute a sad truth of modern politics: the contemporary Left is not only disconnected from the working class it purports to represent. Large swaths of it are also actively hostile to the interests of that class. The Left is dominated by the petty bourgeoisie—the most hysterical, disloyal, and compliant class in a capitalist society, trapped between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie and unable to take a leading role in society.

The petty bourgeoisie, never close to a majority in society, must simultaneously achieve two goals: to play a useful role for capital in managing working-class dissent, while at the same time legitimating its own project by alleging to speak on behalf of working-class people.

How does the professional-class Left do this? Unable to secure much support or enthusiasm for the positive project of reheated social democracy that was “Left populism,” today’s Left instead increasingly resorts to moral blackmail: do what we say, or there will be bad consequences. An archetypal example is the “fascism blackmail”: the delegitimation of working-class dissent (and the legitimation of petty-bourgeois management of that dissent) by painting any movement hostile to the interests of the Left as incipient or actual fascism. This political strategy seems to still have legs, at least for selling books. Paul Mason’s latest, How to Stop Fascism, is a pretty good illustration of the basic structure of the fascism blackmail: identify a nebulous threat, expand it to include basically everything not included in the Left, and then justify anything that capital could use to manage working-class dissent. For instance, Mason admits that far-Right groups are small, but sees their “proxies” in the Brexit Party, UKIP, and parts of the Conservative Party. To counter this threat he advocates official state surveillance of non-violent groups “that are headed towards fascism,” among other things.

But today’s Left does not just wield fascism blackmail. It also has two more tools in its arsenal: environmental blackmail and Covid blackmail. In each case the politics of fear is in operation, but nowhere is this clearer than with the Covid blackmail. If environmentalism has for decades seen humans as dangers to the environment, the Covid blackmail takes this logic to the next step: we are dangers to each other, whether we want to be or not, since we cannot choose not to spread this deadly disease. The Covid blackmail—treat yourself as a danger to others at all times and ideally stay away from them or you will have blood on your hands—works well in a society of collective powerlessness. It reinforces at a deep moral level the atomization that creates that collective powerlessness and recreates the very real material conditions for fear. Acting in concert or collectively is morally irresponsible; politics is a superspreader event.

A significant piece of Leftist theory to emerge since the start of the pandemic is Benjamin Bratton’s The Revenge of the Real. Bratton’s starting point is that the Covid pandemic was the revenge of biological reality of the planet—in particular, against the wave of populist “incoherency” of recent years. But Bratton’s project goes far deeper than a critique of populism and an advocacy of “planetary competency” (i.e. technocracy) in its attempt to undermine the individual subject as the basis of politics. Bratton attacks what he calls the “illusion of individual autonomy,” suggesting that “our hospitals and morgues are full because of the horizontal, spontaneous, individualist irrationality of the status quo.” Instead of the contemporary view of society as a set of individuals interacting, Bratton defends what he calls a “positive biopolitics,” a revealing phrase that captures the way in which he envisions building a model of governance centered on the biological risks we present to each other.

Bratton’s book is a complete social theory of the pandemic, developing a set of concepts that take key aspects of the “temporary” state of emergency of (failed) pandemic governance and drawing out a political model that seeks to justify governing society on that basis indefinitely. In his chapter on “The Epidemiological View of Society,” the older Enlightenment model of rationally thinking and acting subjects (who can collectively decide what sort of society they want to live in) is replaced by a view of society that has collective risk at its heart. Instead of seeing other people as political subjects, Bratton suggests, it is their potential to harm us through their basic biological ability to transmit infectious diseases that is their dominant social characteristic. The subject, then, is not a “self-sovereign individual” but is instead a vector of “public transmissibility.” The final death of the subject is then brought about by public health considerations. Significantly, the tying of the subject to transmissibility above all means that Bratton’s model is not restricted to a pandemic situation, but is rather an attempt to universalize and generalize the most risk-averse understanding of the pandemic into a model of society that will surely outlast Covid.

There are two major consequences of this epidemiological view of society and its understanding of subjects not as self-sovereign but as potentially dangerous vectors that ought to be subject to control on public health grounds. Bratton is, of course, not the first to justify pandemic responses through a purported placing of the collective over the (selfish, irrational) demands of the individual, but he is perhaps the most thoroughgoing and bold in drawing out the consequences of this logic.

The first consequence of elevating the epidemiological to the “first principle of the social,” as Bratton puts it, is a particular ethical position. For Bratton, the sheer biological fact that we all are vectors of infection is independent of our subjective intent; he titles his chapter on this “The Ethics of Being an Object.” Reading the chapter, it seems like the rejection of your own subjectivity, and the inhabitation of a strange world of objects, is the best we can strive for; the most we can do ethically is to wear a mask, which will communicate our “solidarity with the immunological commons.” Relatedly, Bratton takes issue with the idea that “direct and ‘unmediated’ touch is not only preferable to remote engagement, but that it is authentic in ways that mediated social relations can never be.” Objects seem to lose nothing by being presented on Zoom screens rather than face-to-face. Bratton reifies atomization and fear of others into a positive good. And given who precisely was behind the screens during Covid, it seems like a direct formalization of petty-bourgeois ideology.

The second, and more directly political, consequence is that a range of mechanisms of control are needed to govern the situation in the supposed interests of the immunological commons. In particular, Bratton advocates a deepening of what he calls the “sensing layer,” taken as the ways in which a society collects data on itself in order to create useful models. Bratton is correct that the pandemic pushed a new way of seeing the social, in the sorts of amateur epidemiology encouraged by the endless replication of graphs and charts of case numbers, R-numbers, death rates, and a whole range of other fear-inducing tools displayed on the nightly news. Above all, this epidemiological view of society calls for massively-expanded information gathering and monitoring, in order to produce more accurate and effective models and simulations. In this way, “destructive superspreader events,” such as anti-lockdown protests, can be modelled and their impact evaluated, before presumably being prohibited.

So here we arrive at the conclusion of the Covid blackmail. Bratton suggests that we are faced with a choice: either embrace the “positive biopolitics” of surveillance, post-touch, and the ethics of being an object that extends the logic of lockdowns forever, or act in such a way that—whatever our intentions—destroys our fellow citizens. Any populist or working-class dissent will have to be managed and demobilized, above all on the grounds that individuals-as-objects acting in concert is not just inadvisable, but is a death-inducing disaster.

This is not only an extremely anti-social vision for society (it’s actually difficult to imagine a more extremely anti-social vision); it’s also psychotic, bordering on sociopathic. The possibility that there is some acceptance for such views within leftist circles bodes terribly for the Left. It augurs the completeness of its petty bourgeois takeover, and at a moment when we terribly need some counter-force to neoliberal decay. Respect for the “immunological commons” is not ethical, nor is it politics: it is capitulation to a petty bourgeois fantasy.

Tony Perry is following the breadcrumb trail.