‘We also rely upon socialists of all schools who, being wishful for social reform, must wish for an exact and positive knowledge of the conditions in which the working class – the class to whom the future belongs – works and moves.’ – Karl Marx (A Workers' Inquiry, 1880)
Rising out of the late career work of that most renowned thinker and formulator of socialist philosophy, Karl Marx, the idea of the worker’s inquiry is one which has enjoyed far less popular success than many other ideas to which his name is often attached. The initial premise, formulated in the text mentioned in the quotation given above, took the form of a questionnaire which Marx created in order to gather information on the conditions of the working classes in France. Even during his lifetime, the success of this idea was far less than might have been expected – there is little evidence to suggest any workers responded to this survey, and it wasn’t until the idea was resurrected almost a century later by the Italian Marxists that it regained some semblance of life.
In essence, the function of the worker’s inquiry is to elucidate the precise conditions of working class labour, such that it can be more accurately understood and methods of resistance – whether individual or union based – can be planned with reasonable consideration as to the material nature of the work at the time, rather than purely ideological means. This necessitates the inquiry as a temporally limited methodology, as conditions will change over time and render each inquiry less accurate as time goes on. There is, therefore, an assumption of continually updated knowledge; a number of reports which succeed each other – Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle, edited by Robert Ovetz and published by Pluto Press, attempts to provide a new and updated report on the conditions of the working class across a spectrum of labour.
Divided into three sections, Workers' Inquiry attempts an impressively broad description and analysis within a relatively short page count – fewer than three hundred pages are needed for essays which span transport and logistics, education, call centres, custodial work, manufacturing, and mining. While there are certainly elements of the labour market which avoid detail here, most notably the incredibly large and important world of service work, it is clear that the collection of essays gathered in this new work are an ambitious undertaking which seeks to demonstrate a clear picture of much of the labour market within a relatively compact space.
This level of accessibility continues within the essays themselves. While it is entirely true that Ovetz’s lengthy introduction contains a hefty dose of theoretical references and discussions of power, many of which are extremely interesting in their own right and give far greater context to the project of the collection than would make sense for me to give here, the majority of the book takes an altogether more overtly conversational tone that allows some intensely heavy material to be understood easily and without much in the way of barriers.
Beginning with the first essay in the book – Dario Bursztyn’s brief history and contextualisation of the Argentine trucker’s union Camioneros – we are treated to a splendidly well written and engaging history of the Argentine Republic’s tendency to ‘dodge’ the regulations of the Spanish, as well as the smuggler-trade relationship with the British Empire; the segue between this short history and the connection to Argentina’s ongoing semi-colonial economic relationship with Britain, culminating in the occupation of the Malvinas Islands (known in the UK to many as the Falklands) as a result, is executed smoothly and with an almost deceptive ease by the author. Despite the density of both time and material, the delivery is engaging and there is an undercurrent of enthusiasm in the writing which removes many of the potential barriers that such material might hold to those unfamiliar with the specifics beforehand. Further, the transition between the historical British involvement in the region towards the American engagement that waned in conflict with local labour laws and the opening of easier pathways towards capital extraction in Mexico and other places, is written with a well-balanced attitude towards the multitude of forces that conspired over time to encourage this change.
This focus on historical context may seem slightly odd in a book of such size. Indeed, while approaching the text for the first time I had a degree of concern for the dwindling of pages without having addressed the primary focus of the work itself – the worker’s inquiry. However, Bursztyn’s historical groundwork does not go to waste. Upon engaging with the modern day struggle of the worker’s, the contextual elements built into the historicisation allow for a robust and engaging analysis of the role of the trucker’s union as well as the common attitudes that make up the social power of the trade unions in Argentina without sacrifice nuance for ease of comprehension. The pivotal power of the trucker’s union, which holds a role of indispensable importance within the Argentine economy (Bursztyn informs us that ‘there is no sector’ which is not reliant on their work, and that a strike proposal from the Camioneros would leave everything ‘paralyzed’), is in direct conflict with the desires of capital to create easier modes of profit regarding trade – particularly as modern economic exchange shifts from the established relationship with the United States towards China – and the uncomfortable tension between the union and government which seeks to loosen their hold is outlined neatly by Bursztyn.
While it may seem odd to spend so much time on only a single essay, the reason for this is simple: the trends which emerge through the reading of this first essay return throughout the collection and often to the same effect. There are positives to this methodology – not only does it create a sense of linear progression which interesting and engaging to the reader, but the use of a firm chronology and the granting of key information allows insight into sectors that may not have been familiar to the reader in advance, but it also creates a series of limitations in the scope of the project as well. Focus on contextual information devours page-count which, in a book that maintains a relatively slim format, leaves slightly less room than might have been expected to recount the ongoing situation, and some readers may find the analytical tone of some essay’s conclusions to be a touch disappointing; there is little in the way of compelling suggestion or recommendations for action, for example. As a reader from an anarchist background, this makes complete sense to me; the decisions to be taken by workers must be made by those workers in those moments, and scholarship can offer only tools, but for those who seek direct prompt this may be a concern.
Further, the collection falls prey to two primary limitations – limitations which, I believe, are inherent to the idea of the worker’s inquiry in itself, at least as presented. The first is a certain sense of temporal drift. While the general conditions of the working class remain stable over frustratingly long periods of time, the specifics of the conversation are prone to drift rather quickly, particularly when placed in an international context. While well under a year old, certain elements described in the book are already no longer accurate: perhaps the most obvious of these is the mentioning of US President Donald Trump. While Biden’s role in the function of capital remains identical (something which would be true for any figurehead) this is one example of the sort of change which can occur relatively quickly in the specifics. These changes can only accrue in number over time, and this re-emphasises the need for a continual update of the inquiries if any continuity might be achieved. Nothing in this contradicts the book itself, but it does highlight the need for a critical eye whilst reading, and a concerted avoidance of taking any particular as true in all cases rather than true only to the specific moment being discussed.
The second issue present in the book, to my eyes, is the reliance on the assumption of the labour union as a site of struggle. While this is far from a unique problem to Workers' Inquiry and is in fact an issue which has plagued the history of Marxist organisation and elements of the anarchist movement as well – syndicalists, as Bonanno wrote, also rely on a ‘producers’ organism’ which has often tended away from the workers themselves, as in the Spanish Civil War – the issue must be highlighted if only to be held in the mind of the prospective reader. Luckily, this reliance does not find itself in monopoly; Patrick Cunninghame’s essay The CNTE Dissident Teachers’ Movement discusses a movement which, while certainly engaged with the struggle of unions, exists beyond merely those limits and instead combats the increasingly violent neoliberal policies of the Mexican government ‘locally, nationally, and globally’ by engaging the multiplicity of the Mexican poor, which are increasingly focusing on ‘autonomy, self-organisation, and self-management’ as opposed to ‘political parties, unions, and the institutions of the state’ in a manner that might seem encouraging to any anarchist, at least in potencia.
General scepticism towards unions of this sort is present throughout the book itself, often with references to the ‘class-collaborationist’ nature of unions as they are, but it is comparatively rare to see an outright declaration of the need to move beyond them entirely, and it is vital to have pushback of this sort in contrast to essays such as Alpkan Birelma’s The Case of TÜMTİS in Turkey, which – whilst otherwise engaging and well researched – takes a suspiciously reverent tone at times towards the union structure itself, describing TÜMTİS itself as having the potential to be ‘part of a new global labor movement which may reshape the world’ and as something that ‘shows that hope is still alive’ – something which strikes me as perhaps slightly too glowing in praise for an organisation structure with such a disappointing history. I admit, here, to potentially being coloured by my own presuppositions surrounding the labour union itself, sharing as I do the views of writers such as the aforementioned Alfredo Bonanno. My commentary here must be taken with the same grain of salt for this reason – your mileage may vary.
In conclusion, Workers' Inquiry and the Global Class Struggle is an intriguing piece of scholarship, presented in a way which is at once accessible and deeply engaged with the intellectual tradition of Marxism – particularly Italian autonomism, in many ways – while pushing interest towards the very practical, in a charming and encouraging marriage between theory and practice. While there are elements which deserve careful reading, particularly the moments which rest of temporal signposts which may already be slipping in some cases, it cannot be denied that the coverage is highly interesting and in many cases shows the continued life within the labour movement itself. Pluto Press itself introduces the book with the phrase ‘rumours of the death of the global labour movement have been greatly exaggerated’, and while one may argue about whether or not this is true, reading Worker’s Inquiry calls to mind another quotation, this time from American socialist Eugene Debs; ‘there is nothing that helps the Socialist Party so much as receiving an occasional deathblow. The oftener it is killed the more active, the more energetic, the more powerful it becomes.’
A spectre it is, then; an early Marx calls to his later self. ■
Workers' Inquiry and the Global Class Struggle is a available from Pluto Press
Jay Fraser is a writer, poet, and educator from the United Kingdom. His writing can be found in Organise!, Lumpen Magazine, Green Ink Poetry, The Tide Rises, and elsewhere; he also has writing upcoming in Strukturriss, and is currently writing about the political implications necromancy and industrial music. Find him on Twitter @JayFraser1 if you are so inclined.
An essay collection united around an examination of class, justice, and social perception, D. Hunter’s Tracksuits, Trauma, and Class Traitorsa powerful set of arguments delivered in a tone that switches from the personal to the academic with ease. Blending scholarship with experience, Hunter adopts the methodological framework of the auto/ethnography, and attempts to situate his often harrowing life experience within a framework that embraces class politics, restorative justice, and social understanding over the course of ten essays of varying length. As the author tells us in the introduction to the collection, ‘’one of the aims of this book was to emphasise not only the humanity, but also the insight, intellect, and determination of those living in poverty.’’
Following the author’s previous book Chav Solidarity, the thematic through-line is obvious, and Tracksuits follows through on many of the themes that were established previously. Despite this, there is no need to have read the prior work to understand the new one; this is perhaps one of the largest strengths of Tracksuits, as Hunter’s writing is clear and accessible even when dealing with some of the more academic subjects. Marrying the unornamented and raw background of their life experiences with the theoretical allows a window of insight that should make even those without much background in theory to dive in without any issue. This conversational and almost casual tone combined with the brevity of many of the essays makes it excellent introductory reading, and would be easy to pick up and dive into for anybody at any level of academic experience.
Hunter’s essay collection begins with a content warning, and although this review will not touch on everything mentioned by the author, it is my responsibility to warn any prospective readers to take the content warning serious; discussions of mental health issues, violence, drug usage, and sexual abuse are frequent throughout the book and there are visceral moments in the reading which may be difficult.
A question that is commonly asked is the role of theory and analysis on the left: for many, it is an interesting curiosity, but there is a lot of discussion of how central it should be. There are some who suggest that it is, in fact, obnoxious to insist on analysis; further, there are those who claim that theory is a barrier to the ‘real working class’, getting in the way of Real Politics. While there is some truth to that – others have written before on the class barriers built into education, as well as the difficulty of certain authors – there are also many (of whom I am a representative, in a small way) who believe that theory is often powerful and liberatory, and that there is an inbuilt classism and derision in insisting that people who are working class or from traumatic backgrounds are unable to grasp ‘advanced’ concepts.
Hunter provides a powerful example of the way theory should be used, or at least one vision for how it could be. Utilising the framework of personal experience, lived encounters with the harsh realities of life under the myriad oppressive structures of modern capitalist society, Hunter leans over the boundary between the ‘real’ class conflict and the analysis. Here, theory is a way to consider experience, to step back and think about it, rather than to dissociate from it, and Hunter’s writing moves from the merely demonstrative to the functional when it funnels trauma into, for example, ideas of restorative justice.
In the first major essay of the collection, ‘Naming Football Teams’, the question ultimately arises of how one is supposed to deal with having been wronged. Without going into the specifics, there is essentially a scenario in which somebody has harmed another in a way that seems to, under the current shape of society, scream out for punishment; for vengeance, even. There is a punitive urge that underlies out current cultural logic, but Hunter calls instead for ‘a form of justice that does not require cages, keys, police, courts, and a violent class system’, but rather a process designed to ‘deconstruct abusive interpersonal relationships, and generate responses to them which do not merely reproduce the same dynamics’. Essentially, it is a call for a justice based on empathy, but Hunter is not simply engaging in wishful thinking here: referencing various cultures which have engaged (and continue to engage) in justice that differs greatly from the carceral, as well as philosophers and activist groups, the outlines that reconciliatory justice may take are eminently practical, and yet are informed by the theory.
Another great strength of Hunter’s writing must be highlighted here; it is all too easy for somebody who is distanced from, say, Indigenous American culture to simply point to the Other from the comfort of whiteness and decide to pick and choose which elements of this culture are fit to adopt. Avoiding this trap, however, Hunter tries to clarify that they are ‘’careful not to stake a claim to ownership of these ideas’’. Vital to avoid a kind of mythologising of the Other, Hunter acknowledges these other justice systems as ideas from which to draw inspiration, to prompt the thought that there are other ways to do things, rather than simply claiming that any one none-white, none-European tradition is the true path to peace.
Careful consideration of race at the intersection of class returns more prominently in another later essay, ‘You’re Just a White Boy’. While the title of this essay from other authors could be worrying – we’re not going to get another self-serving narrative about the problems of being dismissed as white in progressive spaces, are we? – Hunter quickly does away with that, opening with a quote from Jackie Wang’s incisive book Carceral Capitalism, which describes whiteness as ‘’a category [that] is, in part, maintained by ritualized violence against black people’’, and the discussion does not get any more conciliatory from there. Hunter details his relationship with MD, someone who they have known for a long period of time and who is currently in prison, and whose blackness contrasts heavily with Hunter’s whiteness despite their shared experiences and background, and who is not afraid to confront Hunter with this; ‘’ He tells me he doesn't know how much of my willingness to make the worst possible decision in every situation was generated by the assumption that being white I would get away with stuff. […] I reply by telling him that as a white person some of those repercussions don't apply. He nods, but looks far off over my shoulder and says, “I reckon you don't think they should, either”.’’
Hunter’s willingness to be challenged in these circumstances and to discuss the nature of that challenge is admirable, though it must be noted that admiration is clearly not the intention here. Moving from this personal connection and contemplation in a way that has become trademark of the author by this point in the book, Hunter crashes from anecdote to theory: ‘’ whiteness becomes a stigma that can nevertheless be inhabited as long as it is reflexively acknowledged as stigma.”, as the quote is given. Reminiscent of Slavoj Žižek’s conception of the ‘’liberal communist’’, who simultaneously disavows capitalism and inhabits it fully, allowing the disavowal to absolve him of his behaviour, Hunter outlines a perspective on race wherein as long as whiteness is performatively acknowledged and apologised for, it can be effectively surpassed. This perspective is rejected in part, in favour of a critique of whiteness that becomes more granular and sees the varieties of whiteness spread through the intersection of class and gender and sexuality and which acts in concrete ways to change everyday life. Yet we are reminded as the essay closes that this kind of examination, while important, is also one that is in part facilitated by the privilege whiteness grants: ‘’black people don’t make these cages, we just live in them. We just die in them. White people make them.’’, MD reminds us.
‘You’re Just a White Boy’ may be one of the most contentious pieces in the collection, if only for the difficulty in discussing such a monumental issue from a perspective that is necessarily cut off from that reality. Hunter takes great pains to be careful with the subject of race, acknowledging and expressing understanding of his own racial background and the differences in material conditions and experiences that people from other racial backgrounds have had to live with, but it is a difficult balance to strike. For some, it may not be entirely successful, but it does seem to be honest and frank, which mitigates some of the worst tendencies that this kind of writing can often inhabit: if it is not successful, it is at least not in bad faith, which is far from the worst misstep one could make when writing something of this kind.
While it would be very easy for me to continue in this fashion, recounting and detailing particular essays, that would be missing the point; the examples and discussions above serve to demonstrate some of the particulars to a reader and to examine that style of the analysis Tracksuits contains, but it would be inappropriate for me to continue removing pieces from context and breaking them down; instead, it is important to discuss the conclusions. After detailing and discussing various aspects of their own life and the lives of others, Hunter concludes with the following lines that echo Michel Foucault’s call in his introduction to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, which instructed us to kill the fascist inside our heads;
‘’We need to abolish the White supremacist in us, the ableist, the patriarch, the transphobe, the parts of ourselves that still think, feel, act and organise as if some humans are worth more than others, that some bodies matter more. This is collective work, this is done in vulnerability with one another, and with an openness to making mistakes, speaking the worst of ourselves and trusting in “our” class that we can find new answers to old questions.’’
This is the fundamental takeaway from Tracksuits, Trauma, and Class Traitors; the idea that the it is only through collective and communal work that recognises that the flaws in most people are not the result of their personal unpleasantness (although that can be a factor) but are in fact expressions of their lives, their circumstances, and the culture in which they have lived and survived. We have patriarchy inside us because it is impossible to escape the world, and the world is patriarchal; this is the same for white supremacy or ableism, or homophobia and transphobia, which are so commonplace as to be banal if not for their insidiousness. The way through this is not to personally disavow these things, as if stubborn refusal could change the world, but to work together, to communicate, to provide material aid wherever possible, and to challenge the world on our own terms and with the staunch acknowledgement that everyday life can and must be different.
While it is certainly possible to quibble with elements of Tracksuits – some people will certainly find the more graphic passages uncomfortable or even impossible to read, depending on their own experiences, and it is true that the tonal shifts can be abrupt and somewhat rough here and there – the final result of the collection is one that expresses solidarity and makes a demand for a new world that is made together. Ultimately, while Tracksuits fails to be a silver bullet for the world of social ills, and definitely will not be for everyone’s tastes, it does present a detailed portrait of a life lived in extreme difficulty but with a sense of awareness and sensitivity that is often left out of these kinds of narratives. Weaving back and forth through critical writing and biography, it is an experience that isn’t easily forgotten and which points arrows at many of the right places. ■
Jay is an anarchist, poet, amateur philosopher, and basketball fan. He can be found on Twitter, or anywhere that has good coffee.
Tracksuits, Trauma, and Class Traitors by D. Hunter is available for pre-order from The Class Work Project and will be be released on the August 4th. You can follow D. Hunter on Twitter at @dhuntertheclaretchav
The history of eco-fascism is somewhat cloudy, but its origin draws from the previously existent eugenics movement and combines it with a form of hideous ecological disguise that aims to justify its murderous elements. The eco-fascists, more or less, are the same people Murray Bookchin described as ‘self-professed deep ecologists who believe that Third World peoples should be permitted to starve to death and that desperate Indian immigrants from Latin America should be excluded by the border cops from the United States lest they burden "our" ecological resources.’ While there has been a great deal of trying to dress the movement up, often with deepening appeals to the sanctity of nature, the beauty of the natural world, and the ugliness of industrial pollution, the roots of the movement are inescapable; the essence of eco-fascism is the idea that the World is sick, and the illness is humanity. Therefore the eco-fascist claims that we should do our best to eliminate as many people as necessary – or at least accept their deaths – to allow the World to ‘heal’.
It would be remiss to mention this without giving a brief mention to Thomas Malthus, the 19th Century English thinker who argued that the ‘power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.’ That is, he argued that there were too many people (or at least, would be too many people) in relation to available resources, causing an inevitable issue for humanity. Malthus’ argument was, when boiled down to the most fundamental ingredients, that the Earth could only support so many individuals and that there needed to be some boundary put on how many individuals could be allowed to exist. Culminating in the idea that we should not seek to cure disease, should not seek to curb famine, and should encourage the poor to live in overcrowded and unsanitary environments, and that we should even ‘court the return of the plague’, Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population is not the first piece of eugenical writing, but is certainly one of those most responsible for popularising these perspectives. Malthus’ nonsense drew a response from early English proto-anarchist William Godwin, whose lengthy Of Population opens with the claim that Malthus’ theory is ‘evidently founded upon nothing’.
Why write about this? At least, why write about this now; isn’t there a pandemic going on? Should I not be writing about that? The answer is a simple one, although malignant in its purity; with the world thrown into yet another new flavour of turmoil due to the outbreak and subsequent global spread of COVID-19, there has been an equal rise in opportunism designed primarily to take advantage of the fact that people are scared and worried. Ever the opportunists, and ever the predators of the fearful, one of the most prominent factions in this has been the far right wing, and even more specifically, the eco-fascist movement. Social media has made this even more prevalent, since messages can be distributed widely very quickly and all it takes is a single share for a piece of carefully designed propaganda to leak out from amongst one group into a much wider pool of people who will keep the message going without really being engaged with the original sentiment. It’s easy for somebody to stumble into spreading fascist adjacent ideas without ever really meaning it – but more on that later.
One of the most pernicious roots of eco-fascism is in the eugenics movement that preceded it. While there are clear differences, they are largely differences in tactics rather than sentiment; the eugenicist seeks to sacrifice given groups of individuals to the altar of genetic superiority that they have in their heads, arguing that the existence of whichever group being discussed is a flaw in the species. The eco-fascist seeks to sacrifice groups of individuals to the altar of the environment, arguing that the existence of whichever group is being discussed is a core ingredient in ecological disaster. To return to Bookchin, it can’t be ignored that the groups under discussion are almost always the same in either case; the poorer people, the people of colour, the people who are differently abled.
COVID-19 has drawn much of this discussion into the public sphere. Whereas it’s generally seen as poor taste to refer to groups of people as infections, diseases, and plagues – for good reason – this seems to be forgiven when the group being referred to is non-specific. Hand waving at humanity in general, as if being vague is ethical bulletproofing, gets a pass. It is relatively common today to find another viral tweet with tens of thousands of likes gesturing towards the clearing waters of Venetian canals, or the wandering deer of Japan navigating neon-lit city centres and declaring that the Earth is healing itself; the smog-cleared skies of California receive a probing enquiry – perhaps we were the real virus all along?
Strange as though it may seem, musings of this kind have become more and more common as the weeks have gone by and the evidence of nature ‘reclaiming’ previously populated areas has begun to accumulate. Suffice it to say, there is more than a little of the eco-fascist ideology floating around in the assumptions of that question; when somebody asks if humanity is the ‘real virus’, they set up a system in which the Earth is a being and humanity a problem that needs to be solved. The solution being proposed is rarely stated outright, but it doesn’t have to be because it’s implicit in the question; you cure a virus by getting rid of it. Beneath the surface level wonder at seeing a wild boar shuffle across Italian cobblestones, there is a lurking belief that maybe the world would be better off without us. Or, more commonly, the world would be better off without some of us, with who that some is being left as a blank to be filled in by the subconscious of the questioner. Unquestionably, whoever that somebody is, will be someone else.
It doesn’t take long to see the correlation between the eco-fascist ideal and the underlying logic of this line of reasoning.
Something that is vital to note is this; despite the fact that many of the assumptions of the ‘humans are the real virus’ rhetoric are shared with eco-fascists, not everyone who has spread it or internalised it is necessarily a fascist. Reality is sometimes difficult to parse, especially when so much is happening with such frequency. The difficulty is compounded by modern media, which bombards everybody with a deluge of barely intelligible nonsense composed of equal parts guesswork, blatant lies, misrepresentations, and government stenography. The baseline intuitiveness of the eco-fascist assumptions at work are easy to understand. For an individual lacking a systematic critique but searching for answers, it can be easy to adopt elements of this thought – this means that even people who would ostensibly baulk at the idea of outright genocide being discussed openly, such as liberals or social democrats, are able to buy into and spread the auto-virality meme without ever truly realising the dangerousness that underwrites the entire concept. So what’s the trick? How can this horrible concept become so natural that even relatively pleasant individuals can spread it and accept the logic at its base?
Simply put, there has been a piece of rhetorical trickery here; a bait and switch. We are constantly being told that these apparent ecological recoveries are the result of human beings receding from the world; the more of us that are quarantined or in self-isolation, the fewer of us that there are out and about causing environmental issues. On the surface, this appears to make some kind of sense; the fact that this formulation isn’t immediately and obviously nonsense is the hook that eco-fascists use to draw in even the well-meaning liberal. The trick is to realise that what has primarily changed is not humanity at all – the death toll of COVID-19 is growing, and it is both tragic and politically infuriating, but it hasn’t yet killed the millions, or potentially even billions, that would be required for the change to be attributed to fewer humans. The fact is that there are almost as many human beings today as there were months ago: what has changed is the behaviour of those human beings. That is to say, what has changed, to some degree, has been our modes of social organisation.
The language of the eco-fascist claims that human beings are the problem, and that with their self-isolation – that is, their removal from the system – has come ecological recovery. Such individualised and atomised analysis prevents the ever-important systematic approach; the real problem is capitalism, and it is with the interruptions and staggerings of capitalism that recovery has come along. Deeply embedded in the language of the right wing, the misattribution of the worst elements of capitalism to the mere existence of human beings exists as a dual weapon.
Firstly, it allows them to turn their vitriol upon individuals. Which individuals are chosen as targets is obvious beyond discussion; in this case, the virus has been racialised by members of the right as the ‘Chinese Virus’, a horrible formulation that has come with a rise in anti-Chinese racism and (as a simple visit to the front page of various popular newspapers will reveal) a desire to punish. This has leaked out even into supposedly left-wing and liberal discussions of the subject: a recent collection of essays published by the editorial iniative ASPO bears the name Sopa de Wuhan, (Wuhan Soup), and features essays by the usual list of left and liberal thinkers: Slavoj Žižek makes an appearance, alongside Georgio Agamben, Judith Butler, David Harvey, and Franco Berardi. Secondly, it allows them to imply a connection between the two; to link the existence of capitalism to the existence of individuals and bind them together ideologically; to present capitalism as human and therefore inevitable and inescapable.
It has long been argued that one of the worst impulses of capitalism, and really the one which puts a firm cap on how long it can last, is the requirement for continual growth and expansion. Capitalism, to put it lightly, is greedy and constantly demands more; more production, larger markets, more factories, more profit, and therefore more extraction, more waste-product, more fuel burned, et cetera. When left in the hands of governments and corporations, this tendency is indulged as often and as wantonly as possible. COVID-19 is a virus, and it is not beholden to capitalism, and therefore it doesn’t care that its proliferation puts a spanner in the works. People self isolate, the amount of work that’s being done slows; ‘it’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs, or legal consultants to […] vanish’, David Graeber writes in his book Bullshit Jobs, and mass quarantine and self-isolation has answered the unasked question: humanity would not suffer. These jobs are entirely superfluous and could be done away with; so much of the work humanity does is done purely to keep people occupied, and it has become abundantly clear that this occupation is no good for most people.
Further, with self isolation and the closing of so many workplaces, the number of cars on roads drops, the amount of fuel being burned drops, and the result is some measure of ecological bounce-back. But we all know, and anarchists have argued for a very long time, that nobody needs to die for this kind of thing to happen. Observations that the world has begun ‘recovering’ since the introduction of mass quarantine would be premature – you don’t ‘fix’ the environment in a few weeks – but it’s hard to argue that visibly clearer air isn’t good on at least some level. It would be entirely within the bounds of imagination to do away with millions of cars on the road in any given day and to replace them with better forms of public transport, which serve more people and vastly reduce environmental damage. The abolition of nonsense work and the re-structuring of transport are just two examples of improvements to our lives that are realistic and easy; we simply need to re-organise our society.
Slightly more than a decade ago now, British writer, theorist, and music critic Mark Fisher published his now classic book Capitalist Realism, an attempt to diagnose and decipher the cultural environment of modern capitalism and begin thinking about how we might escape its grasp. To cut a relatively short story – Capitalist Realism is a very brief work – even shorter, Fisher argues that capitalism has been perceptually fused with ‘reality’ in such a way that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism; that capitalism is the ‘only game in town’. He also argues that one of the best ways to point out how artificial and potentially changeable this kind of social organisation is, is to look towards the un-ignorable crises that appear to rip into the fabric of capitalist realism. Fisher chose, in 2009, to use mental health issues, bureaucracy, and incoming climate catastrophe as his examples. Today, these examples loom ever larger, with mental health having been largely ignored and the horrors of apocalyptic climate change bearing down on us with an increasing rage. It is now commonplace to hear statistics claiming that vast swathes of the population have serious issues with depression, anxiety, and a host of other conditions. Similarly, it’s not unusual to turn on the news or (more commonly) open up Twitter and see how yet another wildfire has ravaged yet another country, leaving smoking forests and smouldering corpses behind.
However, we can now add another example to the list of things which lift the veil and expose the levers and pulleys working behind the scenes; COVID-19 has, if nothing else, shown that a pandemic can do much the same as any wildfire. Suddenly a way of life that we were told was inescapable is swept to the side; jobs that we were told were vital become meaningless as offices and executive suites get abandoned and huge portions of the workforce either become unemployed or begin to work from home – workers that have previously been treated as scapegoats or ignored and dismissed as menial and unskilled become ‘essential workers’ without whom no country could stand. This is, of course, the message anarchists and the left in general have been pushing for well over a century; so much of the work we do is unnecessary, and so much of the work that is necessary is demeaned and under-compensated.
Given this perspective, it becomes obvious that the eco-fascist framework in which any given human is part of a planet-wide disease is flawed at the core. Similarly, the diluted and diffused version of their discourse that gets spread around by largely well-meaning people is based on a misconception that confuses a social system with those individuals who take part in it. The outbreak of COVID-19 has, to return to Mark Fisher, thrown aside many of the claims that there is no alternative to our current system, revealing a variety of ‘fractures and inconsistencies in the field of apparent reality’ that make its contingency and fragility all the more obvious. Whatever the government and popular consensus might like us to think, it’s impossible to look at a world where workplace populations can drop so drastically without damaging any vital services and then fail to imagine that things could be different.
The right wing and the state has already taken advantage of this, of course; opportunists, as mentioned earlier, are on top of this kind of thing. Governments across the world have taken this opportunity to hand out enhanced police powers, to enforce lockdowns and punishments for people who might be out of their home too often; Hungary has already managed to skip straight into out-and-out dictatorship, using the pandemic as an accelerant to Orbán’s bigoted fire. As the surface of political discourse shifts, forced into motion by the earthquake that has caused decades of neo-liberal consensus to show the cracks in the foundations, the right wing has taken every chance it can get to push towards its own goals; the left should do the same. Undeniably, there has already been a start; rent strikes have broken out in various countries; General Electric workers have demanded their factories be converted to build ventilators, and mutual aid networks have emerged in their hundreds. Those who consider themselves to be unconcerned with ideology have found that ideology is extremely concerned with them, and the already shaky grip that the centre has had on mainstream discourse for some time has become even more tenuous.
We cannot, however, allow ourselves to be fooled that a crisis will, with some minor coaching from a rent strike, end capitalism or the state. If any credit can be given to apparatuses such as these, it’s that they have demonstrated a remarkable tenacity and the ability to worm their way into surviving nearly any disaster. Anarchists can’t rely on the state to crumble under its own inadequacies; it must be pushed. Mutual aid networks are a fantastic start, despite how many of them have faced internal disruption from party political actors seeking to subvert them into hierarchical structures. The rumblings of worker solidarity found in factory walk-outs, and the backlash against landlords, too, are brilliant beginnings. But true change doesn’t come with a few good signs; there must be increasing pushback against the state, and it must be continuous. COVID-19 has torn a hole in the veil of capitalist realism; what we knew for a long time – that things can be different – is now becoming common knowledge to those who have had their world rocked by this pandemic. Anarchists and other leftists cannot allow any avenue to remain unexplored, or to be reclaimed by the right; the ecological aspect is included in this.
For years, ecological catastrophe has been one of the few continually inescapable tears in capitalist hegemony. For years, it has been looming as a threat, with each news story growing increasingly alarming; scientists have been issuing dire proclamations of end-days deadlines for a long time, and there has been little reason to doubt the legitimacy of these claims. Damage caused by industrial capitalism is there for anyone to see. Visiting a beach, seeing the endless stretches of logged forest, watching species after species vanish into extinction; all of this is undeniable to anybody willing to engage legitimately with the evidence. Capitalism is at extreme contradiction with ecological sustainability. For the eco-fascist, it has been trivial to marry these obvious observations with COVID-19 to introduce a form of self-destructive hippydom; at the core of fascism lies a desire for the end – as the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote, it is a ‘war machine that no longer had anything but war as its object’. Usurping the language of the environmentalist, the eco-fascist sees an opportunity to mask the violence and overt misanthropy of their ideology, but is only that; a mask. Fascism is, at its core, ‘a line of pure destruction’, to return to Deleuze, and any attempt to claim that the true motive is environmental sustainability is transparently absurd. The only true environmentalism is liberatory.
What needs to be enforced by the anarchist movement, at every turn, is the reality of the situation: COVID-19 and the subsequent shuffling of society has not proven that humanity is a curse with which to be done away; it has proven that capitalism is nothing but a series of choices and structures that we make and reinforce everyday, and those choices can be made differently; those structures can be torn down. Claim this moment and these apparent ecological recoveries as ideological, but claim them correctly; if there is something that needs to be sacrificed for the ongoing health of the planet and its inhabitants, it’s capitalism. ■
Jay Fraser is an anarchist, poet, amateur philosopher, and basketball fan. He can be found on Twitter or anywhere that has good coffee.
This article featured in the Organise! Pandemic Special
Polish translation: Federacja Anarchistyczna
Discussion with the author: Anarchist Bookfair In London