The most surprising aspect of the coronavirus pandemic is the reluctance of leaders with authoritarian ambitions, like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, to declare a state of emergency. Doing so would augment state power and give them unprecedented control over people’s activities, which is exactly what aspiring authoritarians yearn for. But, far from seizing the opportunity to declare a state of emergency, Trump and his supporters at FOX News decried the coronavirus outbreak as a nonevent, even as it began to explode. Some conservatives went so far as to label it as a leftist conspiracy. If Trump has authoritarian leanings and his FOX News followers want to push his authoritarian agenda, then what explains this reluctance to embrace the possibilities for expanded state power that the coronavirus occasions?
The reluctance has much to teach us. It reveals a contradiction where in the past we have seen symbiosis. Trump’s disinclination to declare a state of emergency discloses a hidden contradiction between capitalism and state power. Although the state most often serves the interests of capital, a natural disaster brings out their misalignment. It makes clear that we are collective creatures no matter how much the logic of capital insists that we are isolated monads, even if concern for the collective in this case requires total isolation.
Authoritarians like to declare emergencies, which provide them with a clear justification for taking extreme political measures. This is why theorists have traditionally associated such declarations with fascism. In the eighth thesis of “On the Concept of History,” anti-fascist theorist Walter Benjamin differentiates between the declaration of a state of emergency and a “real state of emergency.” The point is to transform the declared state of emergency into a real emergency that would shake the foundations of capitalist society. As he sees it, the declaration of a state of emergency is an attempt to keep a real emergency at bay, to facilitate the kind of authoritarian control that would stifle any possible emancipatory uprising. Other thinkers, most famously Giorgio Agamben, have followed Benjamin in this line of thought.
Neither Benjamin nor Agamben distinguish between emergency declarations. All are one in their thinking. But the emergency that results from a natural disaster is fundamentally different from the emergency brought about by war. War is always a conservative phenomenon because it mobilizes the friend/enemy distinction, which is the starting point of conservative politics. Ultraconservative philosopher Carl Schmitt sees this distinction as the sine qua non of politics as such, but this is simply a reflection of his political persuasion. Leftist or emancipatory politics begins with a collectivity that does not require an enemy. The introduction of an enemy indicates the triumph of conservative thinking, but natural disasters like the coronavirus do not lend themselves to the friend/enemy distinction.
In a sense, Donald Trump and the pundits at FOX News were right to consider the coronavirus a leftist phenomenon. From his own political perspective, Trump was right to resist declaring a state of emergency. Doing so avows the collectivity and rips individuals out of their illusory isolation. The declaration of a state of emergency during a natural disaster emancipates us from the falsity of capitalist subjectivity. This declaration forces us to regard ourselves from the standpoint of the collective and to put our individual pecuniary interests aside.
All natural disasters inherently place the social order on the terrain of emancipatory politics because they reveal the priority of the collective without recourse to any enemy. Even when a natural disaster demands the erection of firm national and regional barriers, it unites people in their separateness rather than setting us in opposition to them. Trump and his cohort’s desperate attempt to create an enemy—calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” or “Kung Flu”—reflects their implicit understanding of the politics of natural disasters. A natural disaster demands that even conservative leaders begin to look for leftist responses, which is why we see Republicans in the US Congress support a version of universal basic income, albeit in a temporary and bastardized fashion. This legislative initiative shows that now conservatives are playing on leftist turf as a result of the virus.
Of course, nothing guarantees an emancipatory outcome. If leaders are able to forge an effective friend/enemy distinction that most people accept, then natural disaster will become akin to a war. In this way, it will occasion an authoritarian turn and cease to be an emancipatory phenomenon. But this will require immense ideological work on the part of conservative leaders. It goes against the nature of the event itself.
In the midst of the ongoing natural disaster, the state ceases to appear as the handmaiden to the exigencies of the market. The logic of capital requires the uninterrupted accumulation of commodities, which is what the state’s response to the disaster precludes. The disaster renders the logic of capital obscene. As the threat of the virus initially began to intensify on March 5th, Rick Santelli appeared on CNBC to express this logic in unadulterated terms. He argued for allowing the virus free reign in order to minimize the economic disruption. While this would result in overrun hospitals and millions of deaths, it would keep capital flowing. Although public pressure forced Santelli to backtrack, his initial sentiment provides a nice insight into the dictates of what capital demands.
Overrun by concern for public safety during the coronavirus epidemic, the state did not take Santelli’s advice. It did not follow the logic of capital. Instead, Trump, in spite of his commitment to unrelenting accumulation, introduced restrictions on the capitalist economy. As a result of the disaster, even conservative state leaders such as Trump have to deploy state power in a directly anti-capitalist fashion. Although Trump’s ultimate goal is undoubtedly saving capitalist society, the fact that he must act to save lives at the expense of capital reveals the underlying tension between the state and capital. It is incumbent upon us to push the tension to its breaking point in the months and years that follow.
This struggle will not simply be a struggle against the forces of capital and their representatives. It must also oppose those on the Left who remain intransigent in their hostility to the state. This includes the theorists of biopower, such as Giorgio Agamben and Roberto Esposito, who have shown, in their response to the coronavirus catastrophe, the danger inherent in the very concept of biopower. Does this concept not lead them to a total suspicion of the state combined with complete silence about capital—a deadly combination not only in the time of crisis?
Agamben’s multiple screeds inveigh against a collective response to the outbreak. He sees nothing laudable in the display of a concern for life at the expense of capital, only a failure to live up to our ideals of freedom and compassion. By retreating into our private dwellings for the sake of public safety, Agamben believes, we betray what he calls “the unity of our vital experience.” He even goes so far as to upbraid Pope Francis for not visiting those sick from coronavirus in the way that his namesake visited lepers. Unable to see the concern for others at the heart of this retreat from interaction, Agamben ends up taking the side of apologists for the most rapacious version of capitalism.
What the coronavirus pandemic reveals is that, in an age of unrestrained capitalism, acting for the sake of collective survival is a political act. This is what the theory of biopower, which views the state as a site of power surveying us, cannot recognize. An ability to stop runaway capitalist production and consumption attests to the existence of compassion that resists the logic of the commodity. At this moment, the state’s declaration of a state of emergency represents a point, at which the collective says no to the imperative of accumulation.
A reconsideration of the state of emergency and of state power in the times of the coronavirus disaster enables us to reset how we think about Left and Right. We can see emancipatory possibilities in sites that used to be thought of as the domain of conservatism. The state needs no longer be seen as uniformly despotic. In this way, we maximize the opportunity given to us by the disaster. Disasters might not be able to set us free, but they can show us a path to emancipation.