Corona Virus and the Myth of Institutional Failure

From IGD

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.

There are 14 Comments

"There is the obsessive concern over the economy and in particular that false barometer of its health – the stock market."

It's interesting though that in the U.S. in particular, the stock market has gradually become a real barometer for economic health. The "value" of assets in the stock market are mind boggling, and the amount of debt owned by the U.S. (which by the way is nothing compared to value of assets connected to the stock market) doesn't even matter because of their broad policing powers concerning the world's economy. All recessions are essentially fabrications, it just takes a group of very wealthy people to start freaking out and then it trickles down to the point of people getting kicked out of their houses and starving.

If capitalism were able to just disappear magically...

Deep fakes:Yes Men edition.

Good points. It is no longer about value produced, but perceived value traded. Sadly, the liquidity of this process is indeed the barometer.

Last time around it wasn't even panic, but a lone speculator shorting what he felt to be a bubble emerging in the housing sector. Sure enough (and there is kind of an okay film about this called the Big Short). A number of folks that prodded and poked that bubble changed career paths. Supposedly this time around a fair chunk of vehicle loans are delinquent.

new phase of the austerity politics that has been going on since then, our country is probably going to have similar things popping up in response.

I've felt for a while now that the U.S. is slowly becoming a third world country, it's all propped up currently by the internet but there's going to be less money available for spectacular sources of income in the future. Just a thought. Corona virus panic and the ballooning debt bubble within the united states could actually trigger the second great depression.

I got the same feels that the current 'conomy is frighteningly more fragile than what many people used to believe or were taught. Currently in the major city where I live, the conomy is slowing down at a clear observable, pace day by day, and that means many useless spectacular businesses suddenly closing doors, public infrastructure already being shut down, restaurants and shops now partially closing... this looks pretty much like a gradual complete lockdown, to cushion against the social upheavals that could happen through a more sudden shutdown (there's no reason to loot for most people, when they still can legally buy and even work while pretending things will get better soon).

Is that just for the 2-weeks partial lockdown or that will be a more lasting, deeper shut down? This general state of UNCERTAINTY in itself is triggering enough to fuck up an entire 'conomy based on speculation and associated, interbreeding loan bubbles. Not sure the central banks' usual tactic of lowering the interest rates will be enough. Canadian government was somewhat clever in providing with a 27 billions emergency financial aid to workers, tenants and businesses being impacted, tho for how careless the US government is, things can systematically collapse pretty quick. And while you may be drooling at the thought of this, just keep in mind that the first things to either close or become restricted might be the ones you'll need the most, like hospitals.

So this is setting the precedent for a state of emergency, enabled already in some other countries, similar to that of a martial law, without a major conventional war being fought.

Might be enough to destroy the whole capitalist system, it will take a while but we might get lucky, or we'll be one of the first sacrifices. The second one is more likely because anarchists aren't oligarchs.

"However, the resulting mitigated epidemic would still likely result inhundreds of thousands of deaths and health systems (most notably intensive care units) being overwhelmed many times over.For countries able to achieve it, this leaves suppression as the preferred policy option. "

it's too bad that the isolation and distancing policies are going to make the problems everyone was already experiencing worse. Welcome to the next phase of the dystopia, let's keep talking about this. Let's keep nothing that isn't spam related in the dark.

This could really be it. The beginning of the end of life as we knew it, a deepening of the misery and alienation beyond what was previously conceivable to the average person.

I cannot see anything negative about this wonderful virus/thing. Its diminishing monopolized capitalist global power and as a bonus, (Warning:- sentimental humanists brace yourselves) reduces the overpopulated human species of an increasing growing aged population who are consuming and depleting resources long beyond any creative contribution they can make, if they ever did as gluttonous consumeristic destroyers of habitat during their tenure on Earth.
How about this virus/thing is given SOME DAMN WELL RESPECT IT DESERVES!!

that are investing so much time and energy into a virus that many people in the US are already carrying...i've felt a sense of relief that so many normies on my facebook and in real life who have come to the conclusion from this pandemic that humans are a virus.

stop fucking trying to guilt trip me into locking myself in my house

Yep, that about sums it up about the nazi humanist new order.
I always picture you as more of a CamusianNihilist. Oh well.

I think the last time i read any camu was in high school, and back then i had awful reading comprehension

I am mistaken, Camus was the anarchist, Kafka was the nihilist.

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