In Disaster Mode
Remarks on Fabio Vighi and his theses of an emergency capitalism
by Andreas Urban
[This article posted on 2/23/2023 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.streifzuege.org/2023/im-katastrophenmodus/.]
During the Corona crisis, some "value-critical" theses about a constitutive connection between the final crisis of capitalism and Corona, in particular the lockdown policy installed in the context of the pandemic, have made news. The author of these theses is Fabio Vighi, Professor of Italian and Critical Theory at Cardiff University. An examination of his theses seems worthwhile if only because they are subsumed, among other things, in circles critical of value and value-separation under the verdict of "conspiracy theory" - a label particularly popular in the past two and a half years for denouncing all kinds of criticism of the Corona policy (cf. Böttcher 2022). After all, in these circles, like most others on the left, it has generally been preferred to side with the measure state and join the media defamation campaigns against critics of measures and vaccination, without ever engaging in substantive discussion. Therefore, the internal discussion looked accordingly, especially when occasional attempts were made to (also) adequately consider the Corona policy and the measures regime in the value-critical analysis (cf. Urban/Uhnrast 2022a & 2022b; Jappe 2022; on the value-critical Corona debate, cf. Urban 2022a).
To date, Vighi's texts are almost exclusively available in English. One exception is the contribution Von Covid-19 zu Putin-22, which was printed in June 2022 in the left-wing, Corona-critical pamphlet Der Erreger (see also my review in Urban 2022b). Apart from that, some (flawed) translations can be found in the "Schwurbelnetz" (e.g. on tkp.at).
What is the content of Vighi's theses? Vighi has dealt in particular with the macroeconomic background of the Corona crisis and has developed the thesis, which at first glance seems somewhat steep, but on closer examination - and after the experiences of the past two and a half years - is not entirely far-fetched, and has tried to justify both theoretically and empirically that the lockdown policy of the states executed during the pandemic also, or perhaps even primarily, fulfilled functions other than those of effective pandemic control. This could be supported by the fact that until March 2020 there was a broad scientific consensus on the low benefit of lockdowns in an epidemic or pandemic, while at the same time the potential for damage was immensely high - which then proved to be true in an impressive and tragic way in the Corona crisis. According to Vighi, the main function of the lockdowns was to prevent or delay an imminent financial crash that has been clearly emerging again since the fall of 2019. This was to be prevented by a gigantic going-direct liquidity program of the central banks, with which masses of money were pumped into the system (nine trillion dollars in the USA alone between September 2019 and March 2020). Since the enormous amount of liquidity, if it had entered real economic business circuits, would have triggered hyperinflation with disastrous consequences, lockdowns had been a welcome way to distract the public while suspending business transactions and preventing "contagion" to the real economy by lowering the demand for credit accordingly (Vighi 2021a).
What makes all conspiracy theory alarm bells ring about such theses, even into contexts critical of value and value diversion, is the epistemological "shift from the question of abstract rule and the actions of actors embedded in it to the immediacy of cognition and the goal-directed actions of elites" (Böttcher 2022) underlying the theses (allegedly). Indeed, Vighi exhibits a certain open flank to conspiracy theorizing, insofar as his analysis of the Corona regime of measures gives relatively strong weight to the moment of action and calculation by functional elites, while the in many respects irrational character of capitalist crisis management in general and Corona policy in particular tends to recede into the background. Certainly, there is also an internal rationality in all of this, and some actors certainly proceed "according to plan," but this internal rationality is itself fragmented by the interests of the state(s) and various capital fractions, which are becoming increasingly confused in the crisis, and, moreover, broken by crisis-induced institutional decay and the irrationality that is increasingly overshooting at all levels. Vighi gives comparatively little analytical space to this irrational moment of the commodity-producing system in its agony.
From a value-critical perspective, Vighi can without question also be considered a relatively "postmodern" theorist with a theoretically quite eclectic way of working, in which value critique (with which he is obviously familiar) is sometimes mixed up with set pieces from Lacan and Žižek. However, this does not necessarily say anything about the truth of his critical analyses. The bottom line remains and is obvious that Corona "[was] used as a means for a crisis management in the capitalist sense. This attempt at crisis management was and is, of course, a reactionary one, in effect a recourse to the authoritarian-repressive early phase of capitalism" (Bedszent 2022, p. 654). And this goal of crisis management seems to have been achieved, at least for the time being. Also, and especially, the distraction of the public by the lockdown policy, whether as part of the "plan" or merely as an effect of the regime of measures and the PR actions flanking it, has worked excellently. Vighi's argument, moreover, is explicitly crisis-theoretical and quite compatible with value-critical theorizing, insofar as he explicitly locates the developments of the last two and a half years in a fundamental crisis of capitalism:
"However, the 'going direct' blueprint should also be framed as a desperate measure, for it can only prolong the agony of a global economy increasingly hostage to money printing and the artificial inflation of financial assets. At the heart of our predicament lies an insurmountable structural impasse. Debt-leveraged financialization is contemporary capitalism's only line of flight, the inevitable forward-escape route for a reproductive model that has reached its historical limit. Capitals head for financial markets because the labor-based economy is increasingly unprofitable." (Vighi 2021a)
With his emphasis on a constitutive connection between "financialization" and the obsolescence of labor and a resulting fundamental crisis of the commodity-producing system as a whole, he is thus definitely on the level of the "litigating contradiction" (Marx).
Ultimately, his distinctly original thesis, which he further developed and substantiated in subsequent articles (e.g. Vighi 2021b, 2022a & 2022b), that the fundamental crisis in which the commodity-producing system finds itself has meanwhile reached a stage in which only real or staged states of catastrophe allow capitalism to continue its zombie existence (for the time being) by making it possible to prolong crisis management qua financial bubbles and a policy of cheap money at the necessary level. What should perhaps be added here, as a further part of a corresponding crisis management program, is the braking of the fall of profit rates by means of a highly dimensioned, state-subsidized "meaningless production" (cf. Hüller 2019, p. 187) for the benefit of large fractions of capital and certain leading sectors. "Meaningless production" in this context means production beyond the previous capitalist business as usual just for the sake of production, if necessary also of goods with no apparent benefit, but with a more or less large potential for damage. That something like this is taking place in the context of the Corona crisis (pharmaceutical and digital industry), but also currently against the backdrop of the Ukraine war (arms industry), is palpable. Also the senselessness and harmfulness of this commodity production devouring hundreds of billions of state money on a material level can hardly be overlooked - in the case of the arms industry anyway, but also with regard to the products of the "pandemic industry", e.g. mRNA vaccinations with little efficacy but many side effects, corona test kits for epidemiologically meaningless mass testing (including the test laboratories that have sprung up everywhere in the last two and a half years), or the tens of billions of masks for whose benefit there is no valid scientific evidence whatsoever. The ecological damage caused by the mountains of waste from used (and unused) masks and corona tests alone is simply enormous.
Vighi also sees a similar connection between the corona crisis and the Ukraine war. According to him, the Ukraine war, much like Corona before it, is a viable vehicle, or at least a welcome justification, for continuing to sustain the ever-increasing money printing on which capitalism depends at the current stage of crisis maturity:
"Putin's war is the ideal continuation of the War on Covid. The overarching goal is to mask the real problem. It consists of the mountains of cheap money being funneled into the debt-ridden economy. The disaster spiral is the macroeconomic event of our time." (Vighi 2022c, p. 104, orig. ed.)
Indeed, it was impressive to observe how, with the onset of the war, the logic of the Corona exceptionalism, along with its entire propaganda apparatus, spilled over almost seamlessly to the Ukraine crisis (cf. Urban 2022c) and, in particular, how the money floodgates, already wide open during the "pandemic," immediately found another black hole into which they could pour. Shortly after the war began, for example, Germany immediately adopted the largest arms package since World War II, amounting to 100 billion euros. The debt dynamics, already massively increased by Corona, on whose drip postmodern crisis capitalism hangs, have thus once again climbed to new heights:
"In essence, 'Mad Vlad' with his military offensive has allowed the Federal Reserve (and other major central banks) to further postpone the day of reckoning for our ultra-financialized economic system. After all, cheap debt invested in even more debt is what is keeping the Titanic from sinking. [...] Mountains of cheap money are created out of thin air and used as financial leverage. The appetite for borrowing is now truly endemic, as it also affects the real economy, households and, above all, governments. For this reason, global distress is the main driver of artificial monetary expansion, which in turn is the capitalist flight forward from the crisis of exploitation (inability to generate socially sufficient quantities of surplus value and thus real wealth) that has plagued our mode of production since the Third Industrial Revolution and the implosion of the Bretton Woods system in the 1970s." (Vighi 2022c, p. 106f.) As Corona has already pointed out, the war gives central banks "carte blanche to continue their monumental money-printing sprees, which boost markets while further depressing the global economy. This is the one-way street of contemporary capitalism" (ibid., p. 107).
With this ever faster spiral of debt, the crisis of exploitation can certainly by no means be prevented, but at least the final collapse can be delayed even further by supplying the bleeding capitalism with ever greater quantities of blood, i.e. money, in ever faster succession. In this way, the (financial) markets can be temporarily stabilized, and the national debt, which has been exploding again since Corona, can also be maintained a little longer in this way. According to Vighi, the decisive factor is keeping the money floodgates open and continuing the policy of easy money (quantitative easing), which, if necessary, is "calibrated by a cyclical sequence of global emergencies" to legitimize it (ibid.). Whether these "emergencies" are real or merely staged is as irrelevant as the specific nature of the emergency, as Vighi notes, not without irony:
"pandemic, terrorist campaigns, nuclear threats, trade wars, military conflicts, or - why not - alien landings. At every available opportunity, chaos must be evoked, ideally with the figure of a brutal, bloodthirsty enemy. Whether as a media event or in reality, the emergency cycle matters because it keeps the money spigot open. Let us not forget that capital is a blind process that abhors stagnation: it must be in constant motion, even if motion means accumulating ever greater amounts of unsustainable debt, by whatever means." (Ibid., orig. emphasis added.)
According to Vighi, a "cyclical succession" of emergencies is necessary under the conditions of an ever more intensifying, crisis-like unfolding of capitalist contradictions, above all because the respective justifications and "narratives" can wear out over time-especially in the case of such crises, which are more staged than real-as, after all, could just be observed in the Corona crisis: "After two years of relentless scaremongering, [of] storytelling and money printing, however, the Covid narrative had become stale and increasingly contradictory [...]. " (ibid., emphasis in original) Against this background, the Ukraine war came just in time; it provided a new catastrophe "narrative" that could be exploited, as Corona had done before, in terms of political economy, but especially in terms of monetary policy. For if "the Fed were to take its foot off the monetary gas pedal, the world would plunge into a full-blown recession in record time" (ibid., p. 108).
Of course, if Vighi's theories are correct, this is crazy in the extreme and pure madness, especially since the constantly escalating war in Ukraine has suddenly made the nuclear threat more real than it has been for decades. But irrationality is part of the essence of the commodity-producing system that subsumes the entire material world of capital utilization and, if necessary, also destroys it. And in its fundamental crisis capitalism unfolds, as Robert Kurz has repeatedly pointed out, into a downright "program of world destruction" (Kurz 2003, p. 428). Capital tolerates nothing but itself, and where there is no more capital and no more utilization, there should be nothing at all. It is thus the irrational internal logic of capitalism itself that finally comes to its own in its final crisis and lets capitalist "civilization" race straight toward its own self-destruction. At some points, Vighi also comes to speak of the galloping irrationality of crisis capitalism. He speaks, for example, of a "psychotic[n] core of capital" that is taking on increasingly clear features today, "since it [capital, A. U.] has distanced itself almost completely from its origin (value-producing labor)."
"Even if the current use of states of exception is already perverse by its very nature, psychotic times may be just around the corner. However, by calling Putin 'Mad Vlad,' we overlook the insanity and truly criminal vocation of contemporary capitalism. To reiterate, an imploding socio-economic system sustained by financial leverage on the current scale desperately needs a continuous stream of emergencies and a Bond villain to blame. The industrial production of emergencies, in turn, requires credible actors on the world stage and an audience willing to be shocked by cynical media propaganda." (Vighi 2022c, p. 108)
The latter, as not least the past two and a half years have shown, is available en masse. The situation may be different with regard to the "credible actors," for there was and is very little that is credible about the performance of politicians, journalists, and "experts" in the Corona crisis or in the current Ukraine crisis - which in turn casts an even more telling light on the "audience," whose manipulability now apparently knows no bounds. However, the "actors," i.e., the functional elites in the state and capital, are obviously not of a significantly different ilk than their "audience" and are perhaps only something like the real overall psychotics in a crisis capitalism that is behaving ever more irrationally - actors who are meanwhile falling for their own propaganda (cf. Urban/Uhnrast 2022c).
At such points, the greatest weakness of Vighi's analyses, already mentioned at the beginning, becomes apparent: He tends to impute an internal rationality to the functional elites, which certainly - also - exists, if only in view of the competing interests of various capital factions or the attempts of states to manage the crisis (in an increasingly authoritarian way). But this rationality is already in itself thoroughly irrational - not for nothing did Horkheimer and Adorno speak of an "irrational rationality" of capitalist society. And as the crisis progresses, the dialectic of rationality and irrationality, which has always been characteristic of capitalist modernity, tends to dissolve further and further in the direction of irrationality. This tendency toward irrationality, in conjunction with the interests and calculations of states and capital fractions, which are becoming increasingly confused in the crisis, results in a highly contradictory and unstable constellation, which can increasingly find expression in highly irrational and autodestructive modes of behavior and reaction - of which the events of the past two and a half years bear eloquent witness.
It should also be noted that Vighi's explanatory approach is less valid specifically with regard to the Ukraine war than with regard to the corona lockdowns. A number of other factors are responsible for the Ukrainian war, especially on the geopolitical level, which, however, also cannot be seen independently of the final crisis of capitalism and here, in turn, of the increasingly evident decline and decay of the West (cf. Urban 2022c; Urban/Uhnrast 2022c). However, with a view to the concrete course of the war and, in particular, the persistently pursued escalation and prolongation of the war, e.g., through Western arms deliveries, the monetary function emphasized by Vighi might well play a certain role.
Where do we go from here? According to Vighi, a protracted crisis process is to be expected:
"One must expect a tsunami of global inflation, further impoverishment and mass migration (of cheap labor) - and all of this will be blamed on Putin. One must expect the return of pandemic threats that support ongoing efforts to globalize vaccine passports and the digitization of life. One must assume a new arms race to boost stagnant GDPs around the world. If the economic environment demands it, one can expect more military damage to helpless populations caught in the middle of the capitalist charade. One must assume false flag operations and relentless disinformation campaigns." (Vighi 2022c, p. 109).
Admittedly, in some respects Vighi's analyses were overtaken (the text From Covid-19 to Putin-22 cited here was first published in English in mid-March 2022) by the course of events. For example, Vighi still assumed at the time that EU sanctions on Russian oil and gas would not be implemented as comprehensively as originally planned and announced because of the extreme dependence of European economies. This is not entirely wrong, but as we have witnessed in the meantime, the EU has persistently maneuvered itself into a situation with its sanctions frenzy that is expected to cause massive economic collateral damage and a historically unprecedented de-industrialization spurt in Europe in the near future (though it must be conceded here that probably no one in his or her right mind would have thought such insanity possible six months ago). Other things that Vighi predicted have actually occurred in one form or another (inflation, energy crisis).
In a recent article, Vighi has since updated his theses, taking into account more recent developments. For example, against the backdrop of the looming energy crisis in Europe, he again considers measures such as lockdowns possible - if only to keep the masses threatened by impoverishment and cold at bay:
"When looking at the ongoing energy crisis, which threatens to bring Europe to its knees no later than this Winter, lockdowns (or similar restrictions) cannot fail to appear as the most 'practical' way of achieving large-scale energy savings. Social restrictions would not only tame inflation but also help us conscientious citizens to 'do our bit' against climate change, feeding the noble illusion that a zero-net 'Green New Deal' - supported of course by a massive program of fiscal stimulus (i.e., more debt) - will unleash a new era of capitalist growth. Adopting lockdown policies may well be the only way for 'green capitalism' to affirm itself, for the system needs to keep both the inflationary spiral and the impoverished masses under control. The key point here is that 'sustainable growth' through green technology remains a pious illusion for a system that requires increasing levels of labor-intensive production to generate real economic value. Every leap in post-industrial technological innovation driven by capital, no matter how green or desirable, will cause unemployment and poverty to grow, together with the imposition of widespread repressive measures upon entire populations." (Vighi 2022b)
Energy or climate lockdowns? After the experiences of the past two and a half years, this can probably no longer be categorically ruled out (at least some universities, including the University of Vienna, are reportedly already planning for the winter lockdown).
In summary, it can be said that Vighi's theses are certainly worthy of discussion from a value-critical perspective. Their weak point is an overly analytical focus on the actions and interests of concrete actors and an overly inconsistent (though not consistently absent) mediation with the capitalist fetish relations that are increasingly going off the rails today due to the crisis. In this way, Vighi exposes himself (perhaps not entirely unjustifiably) to the suspicion of "conspiracy theory" - but at least he makes it unnecessarily easy for those for whom the accusation of "conspiracy theory" is in any case only a particularly popular killer argument for marking certain contents as "not open to discussion" and at the same time rendering any substantive rebuttal obsolete. However, anyone who thinks that Vighi's theses can be subsumed under the label of "conspiracy theory" and thus ticked off probably only wants to ignore those aspects of his theses that are quite illuminating and instructive from the perspective of crisis theory - which is all the easier if one has already refused to see other absurdities from the Corona period, which was so rich in absurdities. Vighi may to a certain extent have undergone an "epistemological shift" away from the abstract rule of capital and towards the actions and calculations of functional elites - at least he can be said to be still concerned with "knowledge" and not, as some others, merely with disavowing any attempt at knowledge that leaves the framework of a certain "narrative".
Besdzent, Gerd (2022): Im Herbst der Pandemie [In the Fall of the Pandemic], in: Ossietzky 19/2022, pp. 652-655, online at wertKRITIK.org.
Böttcher, Herbert (2022): You have to say "health dictatorship!" Who's the best at regreening?, exit-online.org.
Philosophical Salon has an incredible collection of articles on emergency capitalism and bubble ontology!