The war metaphor in the Corona crisis
About the state of military rhetoric and its importance.
Jungle.World 2020/20 Background
by Johannes Hauer
[This article published on 5/14/2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://jungle.world/artikel/2020/20/die-kriegsmetapher-der-coronakrise.]
A mysterious plague has infected the world's population, zombies set out in search of the flesh of people still alive. Will the Covid 19 pandemic bring the plot of George A. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" to reality?
Governments around the world have declared war on an invisible enemy: Sars-CoV-2 A war is a violent confrontation between different human collectives, whether states or irregular groups. Inasmuch as something else is currently to be understood by war, it is a metaphorical war. The image of war is here to serve as orientation in a new, frightening situation. The sudden threat at least acquires a somewhat clearer outline if a familiar term can be found for it. Whether or not this choice has been happily made must be shown by looking at the battlefields of this strange war.
Initially, governments tried to present the viral enemy as a threat from abroad and to banish the danger to a supposed outside. As the "China virus" (US President Donald Trump), the disease was assigned to a specific group of people or a specific territory. The attacks on "Asian-looking" people follow the first attribution, the designation of risk areas the second.
The war metaphor is well suited to further strengthening the executive branch, in Hungary and Slovenia right-wing "coronacoups" have already taken place.
As the epidemic approached, an episode followed which the feminist philosopher Wendy Brown described as the "spectacle of the wall": The military protection of national borders as a symbolic staging of state sovereignty and control. The strong state protects the vulnerable nation from harmful invaders. This scenario has been known for a long time from migration defence. The armament of language goes hand in hand with the real mobilization of troops. At the end of April, for example, Polish soldiers fired warning shots at a pedestrian at the Czech border to prevent him from crossing the border.
But how useful was the display of executive power at the external borders? Covid-19 cases had been reported in Germany since the end of January. Due to the highly infectious nature of the disease, it was to be assumed that the virus had long since been able to spread within the territory unhindered by any measures taken at the border. However, by designating various risk areas beyond the national borders, vigilance was demonstrated, but at first implicitly at the same time, it was necessary to separate the own territory from this risk.
The erection of barriers between apparently safe and dangerous zones and groups of people is a well-known cultural scheme in dealing with infection and disease. Spiegel magazine initially referred to AIDS as the "gay plague", while medicine initially called the new phenomenon "gay-related immune deficiency". Such attempts to classify the disease keep it at a distance in the imagination, but at the same time can contribute to its actual spread. In the case of Covid-19, this practice led to the continuation of normal operations in the apparently safe zones for several weeks.
At some point, the virus problem could no longer be outsourced. The enemy had long since been inside the walls and the front lines shifted to the interior of the territory. Hans-Peter Bartels, the Bundestag Commissioner for the Armed Forces, spoke of "the largest deployment inside the country in the history of the Bundeswehr", but the main focus was on supporting measures by hospitals, medical units and army transport capacities. The regular troops play a secondary role, while other combatants move to the forefront of the action. Chancellor Angela Merkel said in her television address that hospital personnel are "in the front line of this fight". Author Jagoda Marinic added: "Women are like the invisible army on which families and the state rely". This metaphorical war has many unconventional settings.
truce and the "forgetfulness of institutions"
It is war, which also means: there is truce. In the Corona Crisis, it seems that there are no more parties. Wage disputes and disputes about working conditions have disappeared for weeks, capital and labor are supposedly in the same black-red-gold lifeboat. In a joint press release on March 13, the chairman of the DGB, Reiner Hoffmann, and the president of the employers' association, Ingo Kramer, announced: "The social partners place joint responsibility in the Coronakrise above differences. (...)
In times of crisis, trade unions and employers' associations have always worked together and responsibly for the common good".
The separation of powers is in retreat, but the police are everywhere. In the "Tagesschau" newspaper in mid-March, it was casually mentioned that they were looking for ways to keep the government capable of acting even without the Bundestag. The war metaphor is well suited to further strengthening the executive branch. Authoritarian forces know how to use the opportunity to expand their power, and in Hungary and Slovenia right-wing "coronacoups" have taken place.
The measures are not alarming because they represented a sharp break with the status quo. They are worrying because they exacerbate existing social developments. The new police law passed in Saxony in 2019, for example, places it at the mercy of police arbitrariness to preventatively identify so-called "endangered persons", to bind them to certain locations with electronic shackles and to impose contact bans. The practice of the police deportation of "danger areas" has been spreading since the 1990s and is used above all in migrant or left-wing neighborhoods, for example on Leipzig's Eisenbahnstraße or in Hamburg's Schanzenviertel. In these areas, the police can suspend basic rights and thus create a "local state of emergency" (Olga Montseny). The exceptions often become the rule.
The assurance that the new measures are temporary is not very reassuring, as the pandemic can easily drag on for another year or two and the criteria for ending the measures are not transparent. Above all, however, there is the threat of the "forgetfulness of institutions", of which the sociologist Wilhelm Heitmeyer warns on Deutschlandfunk radio: "If power is ever extended, such institutions do not voluntarily give back their power. That is the experience of history."
There is great trust in the state's disaster management, even on the left. In the Junge Welt, Felix Bartels counts "concern for individual liberty rights" among the "varieties of the antisocial" in the pandemic; criticism of the bourgeois state leads to "anti-communist zeal. The renunciation of civil rights supposedly directly serves the higher purpose of survival, as whose trustee the Leviathan is presumed to be.
In this context, it is hardly possible to realize how inappropriate the war metaphor is in connection with the declared wish to save lives: especially in war, states kill in a targeted manner. War is the continuation of politics by other means; in it, a party forcibly imposes its own will on its enemy. The Covid 19 pandemic, on the other hand, is a health and welfare crisis, in which concern for ourselves and our fellow human beings should be central.
Just as in war, the pandemic has caused many deaths. In hotspots such as Bergamo in northern Italy, at times seven times as many people died as in the comparable period in previous years. Military trucks transported corpses to the crematorium, civil burial rituals were suspended, pictures of mass graves from New York and other cities went around the world.
But war, as a violent conflict of interests of collective subjects, is not a suitable model for understanding this mass death; the virus is not an opponent on which one can force one's will by force. Instead of covering up the events with fateful metaphors, we need to analyze the manifold social mechanisms through which capitalism has contributed to the pandemic. From the over-exploitation of nature, which in the form of deforestation and agribusiness contributes to the transmission of viral diseases from animals to humans, to the political pressure of capital to prevent the closure of places of infection (schools, factories, football stadiums, après-ski clubs, etc.), to the desolate state of the health system - everywhere the system of plus-making-up creates fertile ground for disaster.
The discreet charm of statism
A much sought-after catchword in connection with war and heroism is "systemic relevance". Charlotte Wiedemann pointed out the ideological implications of this cybernetic mode of expression in the Taz. The sober-sounding manner of speaking about society as a "system" is dangerous, especially in its technical neutrality. In this idea, the individual workers are presented as fungible components of an apparatus that "keeps the shop running" and is replaced when it fails.
If the social machine comes to a halt in a state of emergency, the state can confiscate those parts that are indispensable for the functioning of the system. Spain, for example, put the private health sector under government control, and Trump instructed General Motors to switch production to ventilators, using a law dating from the Korean War. The relationship between such dirigiste interventions and the war economy is thus not to be overlooked, even if the state intervened in the lockdown not in the sense of a general mobilization, but rather in the sense of demobilizing workers, by forcibly closing down entire sectors, especially in the area of services.
Left-wing commentators like Raul Zelik see such emergency measures as "something utopian". Nationalizations are no longer taboo as "socialist devil's stuff", but are finally on the agenda. Part of the climate protection movement also uses war and a state of emergency as positive reference models for agitation when it calls for the proclamation of a "climate emergency" or compares the vaguely planned green transformation of the economy with the efforts of the war economy in the Second World War.
Such ideas are part of a fatal tradition, which the Council Communist Willy Huhn traced back to the beginnings of the German labor movement in his studies on the "Etatism of Social Democracy". In large parts of the movement, the ideas of socialist emancipation were already centered on the state in the German Empire, which was misunderstood as the governor of reasonable generality in a world of private egoism. The wartime economy from 1914 onward therefore gave these socialists reason to rejoice, since it led to state planning and management of economic life by the Supreme Army Command. The "anarchy of the market" was replaced by the state organization, through which every job became a direct service to the nation.
Today, as then, the etatist left takes no offense at the fact that in so-called war socialism the proletarians do not appear as subjects of politics but as material for wear and tear. For state intervention in entrepreneurial freedom today also extends to human labor, which, if necessary, is to be requisitioned by force as a system-relevant component.
At the end of March, the government of North Rhine-Westphalia presented a draft bill that drastically extended access rights to medical personnel. According to the bill, trained doctors, nurses and rescue workers will in future be able to be required to serve even if they are not working in these professions or are retired. In Bavaria, the disaster control authority can even "require every person to provide services, material and work" if it is necessary to avert a disaster, such as a health disaster. These interventions in labor law and freedom of occupation represent steps towards an authoritarian transformation of the world of work.
Warning against civil war
The pandemic structures the sense of time. The world before the Corona crisis seems strangely remote and almost unreal, which applies to the once familiar everyday routines as well as to world events. This perception is deceptive, for no event is so disruptive that a historical tabula rasa is created.
But the opposite extreme can also be observed. The Israeli psychoanalyst Merav Roth pointed out that the human psyche tends towards conservatism in crisis situations. In order to calm the inner oscillation between hope and despair, fear and confidence, "we flip through the possibilities in our inner photo album and stick clear images from the past to the wall of the future, which is still shrouded in haze. This mechanism enables a clarified prognosis, but is accompanied by a loss of historical experience. In order to understand the historical situation, the inclusion of longer, continuous developmental tendencies is just as essential as a sensorium for the irritating moments of the new.
The global economy had been in a downturn for some time. This downturn followed a post-crisis recovery from 2007 to 2009, which in turn was the weakest in the history of capitalism. The economy grew sluggishly, investment was low, but the debt burden of states, companies and private households was enormous. While wages stagnated and working conditions deteriorated, austerity policy attacked social security systems and public services in order to restructure profits and national budgets. The class antagonisms have become more abrupt and recognizable, and nobody speaks of a "leveled middle-class society" any more. In many places capitalism is stripping itself of its liberal political forms, and variants of authoritarian capitalism are forming worldwide.
For example, the indicator for press freedom or its restriction, which is calculated by the organization "Reporters Without Borders", has risen by twelve percent since its introduction in 2013. 2019 was a year of intense political and social struggles, a year of mass protests, uprisings and the overthrow of governments, especially in the Caribbean and Latin America, North Africa and the Middle East.
The Italian grassroots union SI Cobas stopped its members in the logistics sector to deal only with the distribution of food and medical goods.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, images of empty metropolises have been making the rounds, sociologist Hartmut Rosa welcomed the virus as "the most radical decelerator(s) of our time", dolphins in Venice's canals were much clicked symbolic images of healing and reconciliation. But despite the governments' curfews, there is enormous potential for conflict. For the pandemic does not remedy any of the grievances that recently drove the masses onto the streets. Instead, their material situation continues to deteriorate. Those who still have work have to do it under conditions that are hazardous to their health. Those who lose their jobs face impoverishment.
Although the central banks of the Western national economies initially "flattened the curve of financial panic" (Adam Tooze) with unprecedented measures, the living conditions of the vast majority are developing in a globally devastating manner. As the "Friends of a Classless Society" stated in their "Theses on the Crisis" in 2009, there is "no crisis of capital that is not at the same time a crisis of wage labour. Their' crisis is always 'ours', because 'they' and 'we' do not live on different planets, but are poles of a social relationship.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that more than 300 million full-time jobs will be cut worldwide in the second quarter of this year, and that the livelihoods of about half of the world's workers will be threatened, with informal workers being hit particularly hard. Even in the highly industrialized countries, many live from hand to mouth and have no access to savings. In the USA, only 69 percent of tenants were still paying their rent on April 1. Added to this are serious disruptions to global food supply systems, including export bans and disrupted supply chains. Price increases and a lack of supply could soon cause famines of "biblical proportions", warns the head of the UN World Food Program.
Civil commentators fear that real civil wars could soon emerge from the metaphorical war against the virus. The business news agency Bloomberg warned: "Wherever Covid-19 arrives, it exacerbates the unequal conditions that existed before. "This will soon lead to social unrest, uprisings and revolutions." Anger and bitterness grow and "soon these passions can turn into new populist or radical movements with the intent of sweeping away any ancien regime that they perceive as their enemy". From the perspective of the bourgeoisie, the irrational passions of the masses threaten to throw the rational order of the world into chaos. The rebellion of the oppressed appears even as a kind of natural disaster. The transitions between the struggle against insubordinate workers and that of natural disasters were also fluid historically, as the history of "technical emergency aid" in the Weimar Republic shows.
Indeed, the shock-like material deterioration in the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic immediately translated into protests and struggles around the world, as documented by new blogs such as "Solidarity against Corona" and "Fever Struggle". Supermarkets were looted in some countries, in cities like New York the biggest rent strikes in almost a century started, networks of mutual help were formed. Wild strikes and work stoppages are rampant. According to Kim Moody's observations, the demands for health protection and sick pay initially dominated. In the meantime, the financial bottlenecks of the entrepreneurs are becoming apparent and there is increasing resistance to dismissals and unpaid wages, for example in numerous Italian locations of the parcel delivery company TNT, at Pizza Hut in London and in textile factories in Bangladesh and Myanmar. The London-based Angry Workers wrote that some wage earners had taken "limited but real steps towards workers' control" in the disputes of recent months, demanding the power to decide if, what, for what purpose and under what conditions. For example, 5,000 workers at Mercedes in Vitoria, Spain, forced the closure of the plant.
by sit-in blockades, US workers at General Electric demanded the conversion of their production from aircraft engines to ventilators, the Italian grassroots union SI Cobas stopped its members in logistics to deal only with the distribution of food and medical goods.
In view of these approaches to proletarian self-organization during the crisis, Ben Tarnoff diagnosed in the US-American Commune Magazine that the present situation at least makes a revolution seem conceivable. Collective survival strategies may well contain the seeds of a new world, as they create arenas of direct democracy, social power, and collective need satisfaction. The real movement, which cancels out the current state of affairs, can only find its starting point in the autonomous actions of the proletarians and not in the election campaigns of Bernie Sanders, for example.
Nevertheless, caution is advised against overly optimistic assessments. The struggles of the past two months remained largely defensive, short-lived and, with a few exceptions such as the transnational coordination of Amazon workers, locally isolated. The revolution may become conceivable, but it has hardly been thought of so far. The contradictions of the "old world" are deepening, but the contours of a "new world" are not yet emerging, nor is the path to it.
Instead of a positive elimination of conditions, a social regression could also occur: intensified competition in the fight for market share, "exclusive solidarity" (Klaus Dörre) in the fight for jobs and welfare benefits. Will governments master the crisis? Will world society cannibalize itself? Or will social-revolutionary movements form? These are practical questions to which only the real, living people can give an answer.