Who's Afraid of COVID-19?

Behold! Our great queen...

Who's Afraid of COVID-19?

Photo by Spencer Cotton

When this is all over, who can say which day will punctuate our private memories of this moment? For me, that day is already Friday, March 13th.

After the latest of nearly a month of restless nights, I awoke well into the afternoon. I paced the floor in my sweats, milling over an idea conceived the previous night in the shower, searching for the courage to act on it. Not until after 4pm did I finally commit my thoughts to the surface of a poster board. Split with a razor and folded in half, I tucked it under my arm and headed to Wall Street on an empty J train from Brooklyn. Under a scaffold near George Washington’s statue, I finished a cigarette and lit another before stepping out to unfold my sign: OCCUPY AGAIN.

The presence of six or seven cops initially made me even more anxious than I already was. But then I began fantasizing about my arrest: seeing my slogan as too much of a threat, or suspecting the presence of a great many pipe bombs in my backpack, they’d surely pull me violently away—the cruelty of my pacification on full display before the reporters on scene and the legacy of my martyrdom memorialized before my work had ever really begun. Seeing no trouble, they left, taking the grandeur of my delusions with them.

I moved closer to the only other person who had come to protest. His own cursive, glittery message—FUCK YOUR GREAT WHITE PANIC—made it clear that we had not exactly showed up for the same reasons. And apart from a few raised fists and fewer head nods, I only had one more or less meaningful encounter—with Max, an Asian man in his late thirties. As he squinted from behind wireframe glasses, rarely making eye contact, it became clear that Max really just needed someone to vent to—about his $16,000 in student debt, being fired after requesting a raise, and the impossibility of making it. Without saying goodbye, he meandered off, as did two television crews and my WHITE PANIC comrade, just as the last rays of sunlight disappeared from the tips of the nearby highrises. With that light, my earlier anxiety faded into sober disappointment. I left just as quietly as I had arrived, my sign under my arm and a cigarette in my mouth.

Ostensibly, the crisis and its response presented a perfect moment for protest. As a gross display of socialism for the rich, the injection of $1.5 trillion into a stock market that nevertheless continued its precipitous decline should have rekindled the same ire of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement. And yet, this opportunity for action seems to have been largely passed up—even by the emergent Left—in favor of stockpiling toiletries at the nearest Duane Reed. Apparently, most people are perfectly content to walk down the rainbow-brick road to our techno-fascist dystopia, just as long as they are not required to do so with an itchy asshole.

I had not yet accepted, as Slavoj Žižek wrote in his recent essay Monitor and Punish? Yes, Please!, that “to go into isolation when needed is today’s form of solidarity.” All subservience to the disease was to me then only breeding complacency, as Žižek, in yet another essay on the pandemic, also suggests. “Such a focus on individual responsibility, necessary as it is, functions as ideology the moment it serves to obfuscate the big question of how to change our entire economic and social system.” Simply put, everyone now wearing a facemask is also wearing a blindfold. While so many still fear a virus that has merely uncomfortably spread our cheeks, it would seem I am alone in suffering the premonition of an altogether different monster, one lurking in the former’s shadow, waiting to truly rip our ass asunder.

The ruptures, of the past week, both social and psychological, are nothing more than the natural result of any crisis. Indeed, this is quite literally what the word has always meant. In The Ideology of Crisis, Danish scholar Søren Mau begins by giving its brief etymological history. Originally of medical import, the Greek word krisis meant “a crucial turning point in the course of an illness,” a break in the progression of the disease in which “it will be determined whether the patient will live or die.” Krisis was later used to translate the Old Testament Hebrew word for Judgment Day. It was not until the 20th century that crisis came to have economic and political implications. Strange as it is, today’s virus, for the first time in the word’s long history, seems to have fused these disparate meanings into one.

Mau identifies three defining aspects of the phenomenon of crisis: temporality, modality, and morality. Regarding temporality, Mau writes, “a crisis signifies a certain relation to the future in the sense that...it becomes difficult to imagine the future as the continuation of the present. Crisis represents a rupture in the succession of time.” Time, at least our perception of it, has seen a dissolution of its most fundamental tenets; the qualitative accentuation of our present has destroyed the utility of both the past and the reliability of the future. This temporal discontinuity necessarily imbues the historical moment with uncertainty. “Crises are...somehow capable of creating a possibility that did not exist before,” writes Mau. “The possibilities inherent in the crisis points towards another modal dimension of the concept...which is the necessity of the act that decides which possibilities will come into existence.” While it is the subsequent crisis where new possibilities lie, the necessities of the more immediate one, i.e. the pandemic, have already become apparent.

The day after my failed protest, an old highschool acquaintance came in from Boston. We had planned a Bernie Sanders phone banking session, and though our phoning began in earnest—he stationed on the couch, my girlfriend in the bedroom and I at our glass dining table—our volunteering quickly reverted to catching up over tall boys. That night, several more friends arrived, turning the small gathering into an impromptu party, for which we were still using the latest adjective quarantine with hopeful irony. A few rounds of charades evolved into a casual discussion of the pandemic’s seriousness before descending into a heated argument that provided a window into its very ideological components. Unable to adequately express my growing paranoia—that the modality of the virus had created necessities which were already dangerously eclipsing those of the larger crises to come—I instead took the ostensibly reactionary stance that the response to the pandemic, in its psychological and structural manifestations, vastly outweighed its medical impact. I listened as my position became the minority, picking at my shag rug’s multicolored scraps of fabric.

My occasional interjections, increasingly bitter in their delivery, were received with suspicion and open condescension. To me, my guests seemed the unwitting arbiters of panic, zombies of the apocalypse miming the worst implications of the latest corporate headlines, yet expecting facts and figures of superior quality in return. To them, their gracious host was ill-informed, unstable, or at least quite drunk, and making things worse. Even my own cat seemed to prefer the other side of the room.

Perhaps, my interlocutors had already assumed the cognitive posture of what Mau calls the crisis subject, an individual that “accepts the naturalization of the fetishist discourse of crisis, in which the crisis itself becomes the active factor that ‘demands’ certain actions from us.” The imperatives of our immediate crisis—to do whatever is necessary to survive its form as an infectious disease—are unanimous in their call. Crises have a tendency to manufacture consensus. As a lifelong non-joiner, however, it’s been my habit to reject such unanimity. And so, as my Saturday night company swooned with narrowed consciousness over their new fetish, my irrational consternation in the face of the pandemic’s imposing urgency led to both a visceral dismissal of the virus’s demands and the early departure of at least one of my guests.

In the following days of near-complete isolation, and finding solace in all my former vices, a newfound acquiescence to the demands of the crisis emerged. As Žižek alluded, this virus is only an initial shock, a first installment to an even larger question to come. And while I no longer equated acquiescence to complacency, I still believe the coming crisis—one that has both economically vast and politically dangerous implications, and one that this pandemic necessarily obfuscates—is one we can’t afford to ignore. If a crisis is indeed a moment of opportunity, the question then becomes: who or what will take—indeed who and what already is taking—advantage of this opportunity, and towards what reality will they determine we all transition?

Of course, these are not unfamiliar questions as the last global crisis still lies in recent memory; the economic collapse of 2008 produced deep financial and psychological wounds. As these tears in the body politic remained open, radical politics, like a salt, were rubbed into its festering flesh, leading, as many have correctly observed, to Trump’s ascendance eight years later. And while Trump and his dejected and angry base have certainly been the electoral benefactors of our previous disaster, many have been far too swift in offering wildly hyperbolic analyses of the nature of his power. Anyone who was not blinded by their membership to an alarmist, milquetoast political center, knew that Trump’s election in 2016 resembled nothing approximating true fascism. Nevertheless, these differing narratives have been rendered largely inoperative by the twin crises we now face. The mistake that I and many others made was to assume that the post-Recession moment was some 21st century equivalent to the pre-FDR 1930s and not, as seems more comparable, to that of the decade preceding.

Our current president is little more than a hollow demagogue with as much control over the policies he enacts as a windsock over the direction it’s blown. Comparisons between him and the 20th century’s fascist dictators, who not only maintained staunch commitments to their base but contributed effectively to sophisticated, albeit horrifying, ideological projects, are on their face absurd. To be sure, Trump is a talented demagogue, but he is not intellectual in his maniacism. However, this new liminality provided by a novel virus not only reintroduces fascism as a political possibility, but seems to be pushing more decidedly in its direction. Given the temporal discontinuum presented to us, perhaps it is a farce to expect the past to predict our future. However, accepting the theory of time as resembling a flat circle, perhaps history, particularly the movements contained therein, is not altogether useless. It is with this in mind that we return not to the rise of Hitler but to the years before: the period of the Weimar Republic.

Stripped of colonial holdings, saddled with war debt, and barred membership to the League of Nations—all conditions of the Treaty of Versailles—the nominally socialist Weimar Republic was doomed from the outset. Unemployment rose in the post-WWI years, and inflation spiked, peaking in 1924 at a rate of 29,000% per month. Though somewhat steady economic gains were made until the late 1920s, the severity of these structural conditions had already led to a widespread disillusionment with the social democratic establishment, priming the greater public for a further shift towards radical politics. In Germany’s Weimar Ghosts, Princeton University’s Harold James elucidates the correlation between austerity and extremism writing, “Economic insecurity and hardship persuade people that any regime must be better than the current one.”

The hardship experienced by the Weimar’s citizens was only exacerbated when, in 1929, the Great Depression destroyed the value of their US-backed currency and pushed unemployment to its 1932 peak of 31%. Prior to the stock market crash, Hitler’s Nazi party was actually experiencing a decline in both popularity and representation in the Weimar’s Reichstag. The depression, however, ensured the Nazis another opening to claim more seats, and within three years, Hitler was the new president-elect. Like the Versailles Treaty, the corporate friendly—and, therefore, anti-worker—response to the rather diminutively labeled Great Recession of 2008 allowed for the emergence of our own radical politics, albeit without direct representation in government.

It is this new health crisis, with its severe economic consequences, that offers a better parallel to the Great Depression as suffered by the Weimar Republic. On March 16th, dubbed Black Monday II (in reference to its predecessor just a week prior) our ailing stock market finally limped off its lofty cliff. The Dow plummeted by 12.9%, an even larger drop than that of October 29th 1929, the Black Tuesday that signalled the beginning of the Great Depression. What was already, by virtue of a pandemic, a moment of discontinuum, has grown immensely. Current estimates predict the loss of as many as 37 million jobs, representing as much as 21% of the US workforce, in the wake of this new outbreak.

James claims that the Weimar’s economic guarantees (one of which gave workers the authority to set prices for labor in coordination with employers) had an ultimately corrosive effect on the republic’s stability. And while this aspect of his scholarship seems more akin to reductive anti-capitalist Business-101 propaganda, he is certainly right about the fact that a constitution cannot save you. The Weimar’s famously progressive constitution could not stanch the insecurity and ineptitude of an essentially Third Way mixed economic system. Despite being controlled by ostensible social democrats, the Weimar government had already been cut off at the knees by tremendous war reparations and inflation, and was therefore unable to respond to the Great Depression with anything other than extreme austerity measures.

As a typical result of academia’s ideological erasure of the Left, little has been written about the moderate Weimar establishment’s actions against the communists (as opposed to its actions in favor of the Nazis, such as campaign contributions) and their impact on the national balance of power. Though, in 1919, the moderate government violently crushed an armed strike of communists known as the January Uprising, executing its leaders and killing thousands of members, it’s less certain if or how the center’s antagonism towards the Left continued. Regardless, the social democratic leadership, in all its liberalism, had no response to the greater appeal being made by national socialism. The latter’s promises of full employment and universal healthcare restored a humiliated nation’s sense of dignity, albeit at the most severe expense of those falling outside its accepted categories of race and gender. Hence, it was the tremendous rupture of the Great Depression that swung open a door that could not be closed by centrist liberalism.

The early management of our own nascent depression—the $1.5 trillion in quantitative easing and the now-approved $2 trillion bailout package, most of which will go directly to the oil and gas, airline and cruise industries—already bears the mark of those entities which intend to make the most of it. “Political and economic elites understand that moments of crisis [are] their chance to push through their wish list of unpopular policies that further polarize wealth,” said Naomi Klein in a recent interview with VICE. This is what Klein refers to as the shock doctrine, in her book by the same name, demonstrating the ways in which capital is reproduced and inequality exacerbated by an opportunistic political elite that, as Mau has suggested, weaponizes the crises “as a kind of reserve of legitimacy.”

Many of us were too young to understand how the 9/11 terror attacks were used in such a manner as a state of exception—indeed, emergency. Just as the War on Terror made possible the privatization of the war in Iraq, so too will the exigencies of this virus, as Mau claims of all crises, “be used as a tool” to create its own opportunities. Whether through conspiracy or the sheer force of incompetence, the economic consequences resulting from this primary crisis will be the same: harsh austerity and rising inequality. Klein, perhaps foolishly, remains decidedly optimistic of the Left’s ability to gain momentum amidst the rupture of our political moment.

“The reason I have some hope that we might choose to evolve is that—unlike in 2008—we have such an actual political alternative [i.e. Bernie Sanders and the Green New Deal] that is proposing a different kind of response to the crisis,” said Klein. However, since 2008, when Obama bailed out the banks, breaking off a stick in the ass of homeowners, hope seems to have been emptied of all utility. As soon as one hears there is hope, one becomes convinced of the inevitability of the change hoped for. But history is not a static phenomenon we that will into being by virtue of simple observance; it is the dynamic product of our collective action—and non-action—as individuals. To maintain hope in spite of our limitations is to be in denial of the techno-fascist future as well as to guarantee its opposition one less champion.

The contemporary Left of the US has had little more success than the communist party of Weimar Germany, which, until the 1932 elections consistently outperformed the right in electoral contests. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign for the Democratic nomination is, unfortunately, evidence of the Left’s inability to overcome the massive disadvantages presented by its moderate counterpart and the corporate media comfortably sharing its ideological bed. Thanks to Wikileaks, the Democratic establishment’s contempt for, and indeed their coordinated efforts against, Sanders is well documented. The alignment of Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar with Joe Biden, as rapid and unpredictable as it was unsurprising, indicates that the same backroom deals are being made this time around.

And despite Clinton’s loss in 2016, the media that directly aided her opponent’s ascension have been no less adversarial in their coverage of Sanders in 2020. This was made glaringly obvious during the March CNN primary debate, which exhibited what must be intentional journalistic malpractice in refusing to fact check Joe Biden’s repeated lies about his record on social security and Medicare. Ironically, the debate’s heavy focus on the response to the virus served to play up the importance and immediacy of the pandemic’s demands, restricting all consideration to an absurdly narrow present and precluding any serious discussion of the structural inequities and injustices that facilitated, and will exacerbate, the current crises.

Of course, I am not arguing that we, as Leftists, abandon hope and optimism only to let apathy take its place. Rather, I am attempting to illustrate that even as moderates fail to author a moral and compassionate vision of the future with sufficiently wide appeal, their antagonism towards the Left will nevertheless remain relentless. The mainstream press has already seized on the virus, using it as evidence of Biden’s electability and presidential demeanor—bullshit notions in their own right—gaveling the primary to a premature close. This is to say, the Left’s primary mode of political expression, vis a vis Bernie’s presidential bid, is predicated on an electoral strategy native to a space of potentiality that no longer exists.

This may have been true even before the outbreak arrived; exit poll data from the more recent democratic contests, as well as from the 2016 primary, provides ample reason to be suspicious of the viability of this tactic. And while the center has merely had to amplify its opposition to the Left, the possibilities desired by that Left clearly demand as-yet unidentified alternatives. Direct action is the likeliest of substitutions, especially when one considers the potential for effective strikes and protests resulting from the coordination of both the already arriving jobless masses with the underpaid, albeit essential, working class, freshly aware of their special status. However, this strategy would necessarily be in direct contradiction with the necessities of survival demanded byour uniquely medical crisis.

To their credit, the Republicans are acutely aware of this opening and have dominated the discourse surrounding appropriate stimulus and economic relief packages—in some cases even airing to the left of establishment Democrats. Mitt Romney, former Bain Capital executive and 2012 Republican presidential nominee, floated a $1000 per month payment to adults, dwarfing the $500 suggestion made by Kamala Harris, a former 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and potential VP nominee. Though they may temporarily act as the new workers’ party, Republicans will ultimately do nothing to prevent such crises from happening again. The mutual pursuit of corporate welfare tied to meager consumer bailouts will only deepen inequality. Furthermore, the behavioral changes necessitated by the virus (i.e. self isolation redound almost solely to the benefit of capital in its reconsolidation. The increased demand for asocial consumption will further entrench tech industry monopolies, with particular regard to online retail. The further acceleration of automation—investment in which is undoubtedly incentivized by the shift in our social circumstances—will only add to the growing ranks of an increasingly radical and irate jobless underclass.

To think a centrist Democrat—let alone a serial hair-sniffer, and possibly even digital penetrator, for whom months of scrubbing have failed to purge the scent of burnt toast from his nostrils—would handle this crisis any differently than Trump can only be a symptom of whatever cognitive ailment Biden himself is suffering from. House Democrats, under the intractably centrist leadership of Nancy Pelosi, whose face appears to have been lifted past the point her eye sockets will allow, and without the support or pressure from a progressive executive, will produce none of the revolutionary policies required to divert the crises both immediate and secondary.

Supposing, however, that Joe Biden actually does survive until the convention and overcomes the physical toll of the successive amphetamine drips required to carry him through the requisite general election debates and public appearances, it would take a Vatican-verified miracle to disguise the senility hollowing out the space just north of his colossal veneers. Given the depressingly minute chance that Biden squeaks out a November win (despite bearing no resemblance to the significant departure from the status quo for which the public yearns), a Biden administration could not aspire to much more than a modest postponement of the techno-fascism that would inevitably follow. The next five years will be nothing short of a confessional monologue of incompetence and moral corruption, and whether starring Trump or Biden, the lines won’t change.

In drawing their false equivalencies between Hitler and Trump, the dick-headed news broadcasters and editorial buffoons have further assumed that the modality of the fascism, which they falsely and self-righteously believe themselves to be combatting, has gone unchanged. Capital has already co-opted the liberal identitarianism of our contemporary politics, opening the door to a diversity-friendly form of social fascism for which the 20th century’s ethno-nationalism is wholly unnecessary. Made possible by the technological advancements of the 21st century, the hierarchical lines of the techno-fascist project will be drawn along those of consumer trends and disposable income. “In the same way as the just judgement of God was replaced with the just judgement of History,” Mau writes, “in today’s ideology of crisis, the Market fulfills the function as ultimate judge.”

Much like the Greeks were portrayed as lazy and incompetent in the aftermath of the 2008 depression, so too could the soon-to-be unemployed masses be demonized under a more brutal and unapologetically blatant application of neoliberalist scripture, as techno-fascism further weaponizes the ideology of capital in assigning moral worth in accordance with economic value.

As efficient as the concentration camps of the 20th century were in their use of labor, those of our future will be equally so in their use of energy, in addition to being millennial pink. The new underclass is remarkably diverse: former op-ed writers, aging social media influencers, dirty kids covered in boils and coughing up whatever cancer they contract by burning the computer parts they trade for the precious, edible turds of the rich. Shaded by brightly colored festival tents lining either side of the queue are digital vendors. The Unessentials occasionally leave their places in line to peruse their offerings—crystals, CBD products, thermoses emblazoned with the logo of their favorite sports team or the image of a beloved drag queen—only to obediently return, now clutching the freely given gifts, substitutes for the last rites of would-be consumers that will nevertheless be shortly scavenged from the pile of their corpses.

Suddenly, a strong pair of oily brown legs flash from left to right, weaving between the queue’s six-foot gaps in vintage white-leather skates. Their ass, visibly bulging out from under silver spandex shorts, perfectly resembles its appearance in official photos.

THIS! is our Great Queen!

Spinning to a standstill atop a dais, flanked on either side by massive speakers the color and shape of female genitalia, They place a hand over the breast of Their mesh tank top in observance of our national anthem: an electric violin rendition of All the Single Ladies played by an underprivileged street performer with vitiligo who is, nonetheless, smoking hot. A dedication is made to the Willful Martyrs of the War on COVID-19, a ribbon is cut and enormous bursts of silvery pink glitter erupt from the tips of purple canons cast to resemble large silicone dildos. As the line jolts into forward motion, a great cheer rises from within the line itself. We pass through the vulvic arches into the interior of our mausoleum, its walls decorated with prickly succulents, snaking pothos and one of our greatest commandments: Those who can’t handle you at your worst don’t deserve you at your best.

A pink mist begins to rise from the floor, and my eyes well with blood. Gasping for breath, choking back the black foam filling my mouth, I manage my final words—



Sam Broadway

is a 30-something downwardly mobile white man who is shy but will, with the right drugs, speak at greater length than is of interest about African politics, psychedelics, journalism and accelerated eco leisure communism, all subjects on which he also likes to write. He has had exactly 25 jobs and would like to die before that number reaches 27. Sam publishes short, unedited, and uncensored essays on his Substack page, Downwardly Nubile.

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