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Mar 16, 20

The Disease of Modernity: Coronavirus and the Myth of Institutional Failure

Last week, in a class I teach, we were discussing the concept of “posthuman suffering,” which can be understood in two different ways. In the mundane sense, it is the experience of a negative emotion resulting from our dependence on technology and especially when a technology fails. For example, if you must complete an online task for work or school and the internet goes out, you may feel frustrated, irresponsible, or inadequate, despite the fault of the situation and your resulting emotional experience of it lying completely with the technology and not with you. In a deeper sense, posthuman suffering manifests as “ontological angst” brought on by the awareness that we are biological entities dependent upon technology in order to survive, to know ourselves, and to know the world around us. This awareness has implications for the construction of our sense of self as human beings when simply to be is contingent on a technological other distinct from us. As class was ending on that point, a student shared that the college just announced a temporary halt to in-person classes due to the coronavirus.

It is not difficult to see posthuman suffering play out in the face of this pandemic. In the US, we have seen test kits that don’t work or don’t exist, systems of technology that spread misinformation or fear, access to medical technologies denied to those who are or may be sick, etc. This is amplified by the emphatic, ever-present reminder of our biological fragility, the gaze toward technoscience to save us, and the worry and helplessness upon realizing that it might not – indeed, that it already has not for thousands of people.

Yet entwined with that dependence on technology is a dependence on the holders or deployers of said technology – the experts, politicians, institutions, corporations, and ultimately the nation-state – who, under late modern capitalism, have effectively established hegemonic control over the classification and production of knowledge and its deployment in the form of technology, along with determining who does and who does not get access to such technology.

If posthuman suffering describes the phenomenological encounter with our dependence on technology and its failings, I wonder if there is a term to describe a similar realization of our dependence on state and private institutions and the suffering experienced when they fail.

An argument can be made that, in general, institutions rarely actually fail but only appear to do so. The determination of failure rests on the manner of its evaluation. If one gauges institutional failure based on how well it has lived up to its mission statements or public proclamations, then yes, institutions fail repeatedly. But if instead the basis for failure is determined by the efficacy of an institution in manifesting the individual and collective worldviews held by those who comprise it – regardless of what is printed on the public-facing façade – then more often than not, institutions – from the prison system to the health care system to the system of representative democracy – succeed even when they are perceived to fail. Or more succinctly, as Aus-Rotten once screamed it, “The system works for them.”

This is useful in understanding what are being presented as institutional failures at the moment. Undoubtedly, most government responses to the pandemic have been disastrous – with the US high up there, if not in its desired position of #1. Yet to classify them as failures would be to presuppose, inaccurately, that the government is, in the first instance, primarily concerned about the well-being and thriving of its “citizens.” A government is mainly interested in the maintenance of what Max Weber described as its “legitimate domination.” Such legitimacy – traditional, charismatic, or legal-rational – is a prerequisite for it to continue exercising its authority and power over its subjects. Thus, it is forced into action to shore up its legitimacy in response to events such as COVID-19. Pandemics pose a particular threat to legitimate domination as they don’t obey the social constructs and hierarchies through which power and privilege, and life and death, are traditionally, legally, economically and culturally deployed in a society such as the United States.

As is often pointed out, crises of this nature bring into focus the priorities of the system which is experiencing it, magnifying its fault lines and absurdities, as well as forcing a reckoning with how it has instantiated its values within the psyches of those subjected to its domination.

An in-depth recitation of those priorities is unnecessary here, but in brief, in the United States it can be seen in a variety of examples. There is the obsessive concern over the economy and in particular that false barometer of its health – the stock market. There is the notion that closing those quaint, colonial constructs known as borders (only to people of course, not trade or capital) will keep a virus out that is already in. There is the fragility of the entire supply chain of neoliberal globalization. There is the abandonment of any notion of public health care, the continued cutting of safety nets, and the unequal and inadequate access to privatized health care. There is the transfer of responsibility onto the individual for ensuring their own survival of the pandemic – including those on the front lines, such as healthcare providers, and those who can’t afford to not work and thus risk infection in addition to their daily precarity.

There is the societal abandonment and isolation of our elders, the horrific conditions in the racist and classist prison industrial complex, and the xenophobic and colonial immigrant concentration camps and detention centers. There is the decision to place quarantine centers in poor neighborhoods primarily comprised of people of color. There is, on full display, a system that not by chance or mismanagement is unprepared to act in the interest of those it rules over, but rather that is intentionally designed to neglect, exploit, oppress, imprison, exclude, and kill in the service of extracting profit, maintaining various forms of supremacies, and ensuring its own survival. Thus, when to ensure its own survival it must pivot to act for our survival, it is no wonder it appears to “fail.”

Left only with panic and incoherence, it is not surprising when many reenact what we’ve consistently been taught – that we are atomized individuals who are to care only for ourselves, be fearful of the Other, and to take before it gets took. So people throw down in the toilet paper aisle and sell hand sanitizer at 200% its retail cost on eBay. These are merely simulacrums of what governments and corporations do daily, but true to the hypocrisy of the system, instead of dividends or bonuses, they are met with opprobrium and shame.

Irrational panic buyers and selfish price gougers provide easy and distracting targets for the anger of an anxiety-ridden society seeking catharsis. Yet even anger at the inept, quasi-literate tyrant in the White House is ultimately a distraction. Just as the coronavirus makes clear the underlying structures and interests of the society we live under; it also makes another thing quite clear: the interconnectedness that binds us together and is our only way out from this plague of late capitalism. Just as most of us may end up infected with COVID-19, we are all infected and suffering from the disease of modernity, though like the coronavirus, it manifests in different ways for different people. Recognition of those differences, alongside our mutual vulnerability, allow a path for us to extract ourselves collectively. Mutual aid and solidarity, communal self-organization without mediation from institutions that don’t care about us anyway, is blossoming in the face of the coronavirus and is a means to not only work for our collective survival through the pandemic but to navigate the way through the larger crisis that afflicts our everyday existence.

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Scott Campbell is the author of the "Insumisión," which was a featured column on It's Going Down and currently writes news and analysis on social movements and struggles, with an eye towards Mexico.

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