The Coronavirus Pandemic, Capitalism, and Nation-States
by Saladdin Ahmed
State officials habitually analogize the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to a war. In addition to the typical deficiency of imagination of policy makers, the analogy exposes something characteristic of nation states, namely, their antagonistic origin and aggressive nature. The irony is that precisely because this is not a war but the very opposite of a war, governments across the world have dumfounded themselves. If it were a war, nation-states would know exactly what to do. Historically, they have excelled in the destruction of the conditions of life and lives. This is a crisis that put the nation-state – in all its governmental variations – in a unique historical examination, a test of the state’s capacity to preserve lives on a relatively large scale. There is no ambiguity about this.
Here is the brutal truth right in front of all of us: we live in a system that is never short of bullets and bombs wherever wars are fought, but it faces a deadly shortage of medical masks and gloves to meet the first pandemic of this scope in 102 years. Health workers die in the thousands precisely because they are not considered as valuable as soldiers and, unlike soldiers, they lack basic protective gear. In the leading democracy of the world, a citizen can purchase a machine gun in any town but not a germ prevention mask in all 50 states. There are enough bombs in a few nation states to eliminate life on the planet several times over, but somehow the industry is incapable of meeting basic public health needs.
Does not any of these basic facts suffice to shake a rational human being to her core? Only the stupefying spell of a dominant ideology is capable of preventing people from knowing how irrational and death-driven the existing order is. We face a historical moment at which, if a powerful cosmopolitan movement of emancipation does not emerge, engineered violence will continue its course of the totalitarian massification of people across the world. In many ways this moment resembles 100 years ago, when humanity stood at the crossroad between cosmopolitan emancipation and fascism, except this time around, the human race cannot afford another century of nationalism and capitalism. A course of continuity will amount to catastrophes far beyond what we have witnessed so far, given that the irreversible destruction that is already being inflicted on the very web of life on this planet. Those who were not alarmed by the rise of fascism in the 1920s were not shocked by the trains that carried millions to the gas chambers either. Today, those who tell us everything will be alright again – that we should be grateful, that the market will take care of everything (again), that comfortably mandate a group of hallucinating morons (whose emergency priority is setting a national day of prayer) to determine the fate of entire societies – are too possessed by their fanatical sectarian ideologies to realize the walls they are building are for death chambers and the 21 Century camps are continental in scope.
The pandemic has exposed irreconcilable contradictions in the entity of the nation-state and the capitalist world system. It has provided oppressive regimes with an opportunity for total control they could not have dreamed of under any other circumstances. Thanks to the virus, civil disobedience movements and protests from the Far East to Latin America have disappeared. Some regimes decided to seize the opportunity and put their entire populations under house arrest. These drills have been ideal for improving the means of total control. As for liberal democracies, most governments hesitated to impose lockdowns, not necessarily due to their respect for individual freedoms but rather due to the rule of the market over both the state and society.
Without vigilant analysis of the present moment and rigorous critique, we will be risking our entire political freedoms for decades to come. In my book, Totalitarian Space and the Destruction of Aura, I argue that capitalist liberalism is a more advanced form of totalitarianism than the textbook models of totalitarianism, which are overtly political and violent. Looking at totalitarianism on the societal level, it becomes clear that the extensive use of sheer force increasingly antagonizes people and thus widens the gap of trust between society at large and the ruling elite. Because of its nuanced modes of hegemony, capitalist liberalism is therefore more successful at accomplishing total control than traditional one-party totalitarian regimes. After religion, capitalism has produced the most successful ideological apparatus in history capable of making millions of people give up their own freedom freely.
State capitalism is another type of totalitarianism. It combines capitalism with direct political control by the state, as in the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese system has mastered the utilitarian instrumentality of positivism and the totalitarian function of the governmentality. The coronavirus pandemic is forcing us, among many other things, to assert an uncomfortable proposition: the Chinese government has been more successful in controlling the outbreak than Western liberal democracies. While we all know individual human rights is not one of the priorities of the Republic of China and the state always comes first, what is less admitted by liberals and those to their right is that under capitalist liberalism capital ultimately takes priority over human lives. This has become all too clear in how the coronavirus crisis has been handled in the United States and United Kingdom.
My intention, of course, is not to legitimize any form of totalitarianism; rather, on the contrary, it is to delegitimize all forms of totalitarianism, including those less recognized as being totalitarian. I question the philosophical foundation of liberalism. The problem of liberalism is that it is fundamentally non-liberal. Liberalism’s premature union with, or subordination to, capitalism put it on the path toward totalitarianism, at which it has finally arrived.
Liberalism fundamentally assumes the inseparability of free market capitalism and democracy. Western leaders, from Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher to George W. Bush and Tony Blair, took the magic formula of laissez-faire democracy (or capitalist liberalism) to heart, and as a result, they were keen on realizing a new world order. Their ideological support did not come only from classical liberals but also from the new prophets of capitalist liberalism, such as Milton Friedman and Francis Fukuyama. In 1992, Fukuyama expanded on his 1989 article to announce that the fall of the Eastern Bloc had opened the horizon for the eternal triumph of liberal democracy across the world. At the same time, Friedman’s Chicago Boys set out to inject the neoliberal vaccine wherever and whenever they saw an opportunity, from Latin America to Eastern Europe. The golden opportunity for implementing extreme privatization of all sectors was determined by applying what Naomi Klein called “the shock doctrine” (2007). This describes the situation where a disaster creates a unique window of time during which the society is so shocked that its defense mechanisms are paralyzed. As Klein discovered, the Chicago Boys would seize on such moments of utter confusion and helplessness to implement their neoliberal policies. The neoliberal dosages that were too strong even for the United States during G. W. Bush’s terms were tried out in post-2003 Iraq. The result was nothing even remotely resembling political liberalism.
Neoliberalism proved the exact reversal of liberalism’s fundamental thesis of free market democracy. Namely, it proved that laissez-faire capitalism works even better under illiberal regimes, as Slavoj i ek often reminds us. In fact, laissez-faire capitalism strengthens regimes that are already authoritarian. Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey are just two obvious proofs of this. However, the Chinese model is significantly more far-reaching given its devastating philosophical implications in relation to liberal doctrine.
If the Chinese model teaches us one thing, it is the fact that capitalism and totalitarianism are two sides of the same coin. As I describe in my book, this relationship can be exposed when the capitalist production of space is exposed. However, the Chinese model is itself a plain manifestation of the compatibility of capitalism and totalitarianism, even for scholars who rarely risk stepping out of textbook definitions. It also follows that the Chinese model has already reversed the liberalist thesis.
In fact, the Chinese state’s faithful positivism has also made it incomparably more efficient than traditional totalitarian regimes with racist or sectarian foundations. Historically, Stalinism was far more efficient in its totalitarian governmentality than German Nazism or Italian Fascism. Fascists are too impulsive and neurotic to be able to let a totalitarian system reach its mechanical perfection in terms of the utilitarian exercise of power. Moreover, the racist divisions they create within the society they govern undermine the very ideological hegemony that is essential for a durable and stable totalitarian system. In short, in fascist totalitarianism, the premodern impulsive elements are more dominant than the pragmatism of instrumental rationality (of course, racism and fundamentalism are both modern phenomena, but only as reactions to modernism, as ideologies that fetishize premodern traditions).
Instrumental rationality situates efficient and unlimited control through the means of technological perfection above the neurotic desire to inflict suffering merely for the sake of suffering or to spread terror for the sake of terrorism. Policies advanced by racist and sectarian regimes are inevitably colored by neuroses, just as their politics are derived from unconscious, destructive, and primordial phobias. Therefore, racist and sectarian regimes actively destabilize the totalitarian order they aspire to establish. My account is meant to be descriptive, not judgmental, of bourgeois modernism and its totalitarian political project, as embodied by the Chinese state (even the assimilation policies that have targeted Tibetans and Uyghurs – the Chinese equivalent of Soviet policies of Sovietization – are carried out as a function of the state’s totalitarian machine of social engineering).
Being an example of the dysfunctional totalitarian model, the Iranian regime has failed miserably in the struggle against the coronavirus outbreak. The first confirmed cases of infection were reported on February 19, yet it was only on March 17 that the regime finally decided to shut down some shrines. The Iranian regime is in the unenviable situation whereby it is left with two shattering options: A) closing religious public spaces, which would negate the ideological premise of the regime, or B) keeping religious public spaces accessible, which would exacerbate the pandemic and eventually undermine the regime’s control over society. The regime draws its legitimacy from religious sanctity, but that same sanctity limits its scientific authority, which is the most essential authority during such an outbreak. Normally, it is opponents of the theocracy who represent a threat to the regime’s control of public space. This time around, for the most part, it has been conservative segments of the population who seem to have played the main role in rendering the outbreak catastrophic. This conservative base continued visiting religious sites while the regime remained reluctant to prevent them from doing so.
In Turkey, the situation has not been much better. Erdogan’s populist regime has been trying its best to put up the appearance of the only state that has been successful in both preventing the outbreak and also helping the rest of the world, including the United States, to do so as well. While the virus continues to hunt lives in Turkey, Erdogan’s regime is busy maneuvering with Russia, Greece, the EU, and Libya to maintain the position of an imperial power in the region. The catastrophe will very soon surface in Turkey, but for Erdogan, as for a typical fascist leader, the loss of human lives does not necessarily constitute a crisis – only loss of power and influence does. The Iranian and Turkish models are merely two examples of regimes that are neither successful totalitarian states nor liberal democracies. Other regimes in that category are India, Pakistan, and Brazil.
Where public health is privatized, as in the United States, the small-government reality has catastrophic consequences. By the time the state elite finally realize the scope of the calamity, the state itself could become a victim of the crisis. In times like this everyone will be forced to realize that a public safety net, universal health-care infrastructure, sustainable management of natural resources, and institutions designed for the well-being of everyone in the society are both rationally and ethically worthwhile of political support. What has been considered a radical socialist platform until now (at least in the United States) will appear conservative in the face of the emerging reality, just as the “invisible hand” will, once again, shamelessly expose itself as the hand that holds both the freedom of the market and the unfreedom of the 99%.
Nonetheless, we should not be deceived by the temporary success of any nation-state, be it China, South Korea, Australia, or Germany. The pandemic, like countless ecological catastrophes, is a global crisis. Nation-states at best might be able to control the spread of the disease for a while, but they will not be able to go back to business as usual. If they keep their borders closed, they will undermine their capitalist function in the world system, which amounts to undermining their reason for existence. If they reopen their borders, they will open themselves up to the scenario of the pandemic once again. Ultimately, even if this pandemic is controlled across the world, the capitalist world system and its nation-state guards will not survive future crises with cross-border and cross-class affects.
Global problems cannot have national solutions. In fact, the idea of nationhood has become so lethal and catastrophic that it will have to be put to death to save humanity, as well as the planet’s life system at large, from more irreversible destructions. If there is one political reality the COVID-19 crisis has revealed, it is the disastrous inadequacy of nation-states. The nation-state is an abnormal creature that continues to constitute a problem, not a solution. The ecological crisis is the only the latest and most devastating result of a world violently divided by nation-states locked in deadly capitalist competition. Unlike the climate effects of the ecological crisis, however, the coronavirus is making its fatal threat felt immediately across classes and continents. This crisis will force us to accept not only the end of capitalism and nation-statism but also the beginning of a postnational-communist world.
The sociopolitical creature called “nation” can best be described as a modern reincarnation of the primordial patriarchal tribe. Despite nationalist ideologues’ self-authorization to speak in the name of the public against the old aristocracy and monarchs, the new ideology was destined to reproduce hierarchical relations inwardly and imperialist impositions outwardly. Nationalism’s mature form is fascism. The same self-victimization, demonization of the Other, romanticization of a mythic pure (tribal) past, and sense of metaphysical mission gave birth to Kemalism, Fascism, Nazism, Nasserism, and Baathism. Supported by the masses, guided by experts of instrumental rationality, and armed with the most destructive means of killing, nationalism simply crafted what it deems natural, the nationthe pure nation. How else could the glories of the past be revived if the nation, with its pure blood and legendary will, is not revived first? How else could the nation be revived in its original purity if not through a process of cleansing to rid itself of any contamination, to resolve the problem once and for all through a “final solution”?
Let us not forget that in the years leading to the Great War and the interwar period, one of the core charges against Jewish intellectuals was that of “cosmopolitanism,” a label proudly owned by all communists, of course, including those who were exiled or murdered by Stalin’s regime. Today, many nationalists try to label their liberal rivals as “globalists,” and of course labels such as “socialist” and “communist,” especially in the United States, are reserved for those deemed irredeemably evil. In the meantime, anti-Semitism is still strongly present in various anti-universalist discourses. If fascist movements have one common denominator, it is anti-Semitism, the enduring hatred against the eternal Other, the perceived Jew, whose universal presence ruins the incestuous utopia of nationalism everywhere.
The coronavirus outbreak, like the ongoing ecological crisis, instantaneously invalidated everything national borders claim to be. Nonetheless, every nation-state’s immediate response to the pandemic was, once again, to close borders – the only thing they know how to do. Except this time, they tried to keep the capitalist market intact, even if it meant risking public health within the territories of their governmental authority. In the end, they failed to both sustain the stock market and prevent a public health calamity. The capitalist order is crumbling, and neither its visible or invisible hands have helped to prevent the collapse. At the same time, the public health crisis is only gaining momentum. If the historical moment is not acted upon, the crisis will become a catastrophe, and the catastrophe could take us back to an even darker age.
As every refugee knows all too well, borders have always been closed. So far, the same forces that created refugees have used refugees in every possible way, whether as slave laborers, herds of mercenaries, or the imaginary enemy with diabolical destructive powers. However, for nation-states to sustain their hegemony they need to keep borders wide open for the flow of capital and commodities. The border is the ideal revolving door to allow capital and commodities to move in and out but at the same time not allow the humans who produce both the product and profit on which capitalism stands to pass through. ‘We just want your labor; you stay where you are, in your own country,’ is what today’s laborers are told by both nationalists and “globalists” in the West.
Ultimately, without the revolving door function of borders, the international division of labor would not be possible. Commodities are produced through the exploitation of both labor and the environment to guarantee the maximum profit possible. Completing the loop, the garbage that most commodities eventually become is often shipped back to the laborers’ home countries. ‘Stay in your own country. You see, we do not invade your country. If we visit, we do so legally. You are welcome to visit our country too, but only legally,’ they are told. The Other is of course not hated if they stay where they are and as they are, faceless and nameless sustainers of “our way of life” in the global North.
However, the reaction to the coronavirus crisis by nation-states has also halted the movement of commodities. Therefore, the exposure of the entire contradiction of the capitalist system is inevitable. The moment the free movement of commodities is stopped, the entire “way of life” is under threat. National parties understand what this means. It means the third-world version of poverty is about to be globalized. The rest of the story is no mystery either: wherever there is poverty, there is unrest and violence. Nation-states are already preparing to keep their populations in check through the use of armed forces. This time, the threat is not a bunch of refugees on the other side of the sacred border but those inside the borders. Nationhood and nationalism may be useful demagogic tools to mobilize people to go to war or sanctify the leader’s endless abuses, but they do not substitute for food and shelter. The moment the invisible hand loses its ability to exploit the faceless and nameless Other, “our way of life” vanishes and the entire order implodes, leaving this revolving door like Dali’s melting clock as proof of horrible times. Yet this horror has been ongoing; COVID-19 has only exposed some of it across classes and continents.
Nation-states have already entered a stage where their very existence is at stake and will use various strategies to maintain their authority. This crossroad is the same as the one Rosa Luxembourg described two weeks before her execution over 100 years ago. In a speech she asserted that “socialism has become necessary” and warned that if not realized, “we shall crash down together to a common doom” (Luxemburg 2004, 364). Today, even a conservative organization as the UN repeatedly tells its nation-state parents that unless something urgent is done, the catastrophe is inevitable. This was stated before the coronavirus in reference to the ecological crisis. Now that the nightmare is here, to continue to rely on nationalists for protection would be the worst form of self-deception. Giving in to fear and withdrawal, giving unlimited obedience to the guardians of capital, will amount to complete disempowerment in the face of an even more fatal virus: fascism.
Ahmed, Saladdin. 2019. Totalitarian State and the Destruction of Aura. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Fukuyama, Francis. 1989. “The End of History?” The National Interest,16: 3-18. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24027184.
. 1992. The End of History and The Last Man. New York: Free Press.
Klein, Naomi. 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Luxemburg, Rosa. 2004. The Rosa Luxemburg Reader. Ed. Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Saladdin Ahmed is the author of Totalitarian Space and the Destruction of Aura (SUNY, 2019). He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Ottawa and currently a visiting professor of political theory at Union College in Schenectady, New York. @SaladdinAhme