COVID and the Rights of the Living


There were two in paradise and the choice was offered to them: happiness without freedom, or freedom without happiness. No other choice. Tertium non datur.

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921)

Just months after statues of Thomas Jefferson and other American Revolutionary figures were pulled down and smashed, the Trump administration unleashed the largest industrial mobilization in America since World War II, dubbed Operation Warp Speed. While the vaccines thus developed have been used across the world to reduce illness and mortality, vaccination mandates have been deployed in tandem with lockdowns, border closures, and severe social restrictions to protect threadbare health care systems the world over.

The Left has often championed “Zero-Covid” approaches, comparing them favorably to the supposed let-it-rip approach of the Trump administration. During the sharpest rise in unemployment since the Great Depression, Trump emphasized the need for treatments that would allow America to get back to work as soon as possible, saying, “the cure cannot be worse than the problem itself.” For the Left, this has been taken as a rationale for capitalist profiteering and exploitation at the expense of public health. But, as we have known for a century, if the American economy collapses, it is not only Americans that will suffer.

The Left has taken the opportunity to offer any number of welfare-state-policy-proposal grab bags and technocratic visions of post-pandemic politics that would attempt to use the crisis of Covid to undermine neoliberalism, which is often posited as the triumph of the negative freedom of the market and individualism over and against the positive freedom of collectivism embodied in the welfare state. Marx and Engels, critiquing “confused notions of community goods,” understood, even if today’s self-avowed Left has forgotten, that wage labor was already a means of social distribution that had fallen into self-contradiction in capitalism and that welfare was a police measure, initiated by the Bonapartist counterrevolution, most strikingly shown by the unfinished 1848 revolution in Europe. The workers were not yet able to take power and the bourgeoisie were no longer able to rule through civil society. It fell to figures like Louis Bonaparte to initiate a capitalist politics in permanence, wielding state power to manage the enduring social crisis of capitalist society; that the workers, not work, are rendered superfluous.

The freedom of labor

Man’s ability to alienate his life activity from himself in a free exchange, to both contribute to and draw from the social wealth of bourgeois society, was a giant leap forward for all mankind. The small steps of an individual, even just to and from work, had now come to continually reconstitute society. Inaugurated most spectacularly by the Dutch and the English and, later, by the Americans and the French, the arrival of the Third Estate was perhaps in no sense a “happy” occasion, but rather the tumult of a society now bound to the task of freedom. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

American radicals, on the eve of the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War had initially petitioned the constitutional monarchy in England on the ground that the subordination of the colonies betrayed the English Revolution. The English revolutionary John Locke had written that life, liberty, and property ought to be society’s guiding principles. Importantly, property for Locke wasn’t a right of ownership but rather of labour. Why did Jefferson revise it to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that property is but a means to an end, and that end is itself freedom:

The right of property being of mere human convention and institution, every man may dispose as he pleases of what he possesses: But the case is otherwise with regard to the essential gifts of nature, such as life and liberty, which every man is permitted to enjoy, and of which it is doubtful at least whether any man has a right to divest himself: By giving up the one, we degrade our being; by giving up the other we annihilate it as much as it is our power to do so; and, as no temporal enjoyments can indemnify us for the loss of either, it would be at once offending both nature and reason to renounce them for any consideration.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, it was not only the right of the people “to abolish or alter the government, and institute one of their own,” if the government contravened the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, revolution was a sacred duty. As such the American Revolution reinscribed the sovereign authority of bourgeois right for all mankind.

The Legacy of Revolution

Even before Trump publicly declared support for the 2019––20 Hong Kong Anti-Extradition Law protests, the protests were awash with American flags. But Hong Kong already has Goddess of Liberty statues, bronze replicas of the original paper mâché pro-democracy statue erected in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The Hong Kong protesters’ evocation of the American Revolution was met with deep ambivalence on the Left. Similarly, seeing Trump flags side by side with Eureka Flags in the streets of Australia’s anti-mandate and anti-lockdown rallies has caused shock and dismay in Australia. “The Eureka Flag has been co-opted by the Right!” But perhaps the Eureka radicals would have appreciated Chris Cutrone’s rejoinder to Trump’s Make America Great Again Slogan, “Make America Revolutionary Again.”

As Karl Marx noted, in 1854 when the Eureka radicals in Australia, denouncing a tax directly on labor and demanding self-legislation, burned their mining licenses and took up arms against the colonial bureaucracy, it was a continuation of the American Revolution under changed conditions. The Ballarat Reform League which had helped ferment and lead the revolutionary situation in Victoria, as well as the rebels themselves, included many exiled Chartists and “Forty-Eighters” from across Europe and elsewhere. They regarded the question of self-determination and independent politics as transcending national bounds.

A decade later, after Bonapartist counter-revolution in Europe had teetered on the edge of intervention in support of the Confederacy, Marx wrote to Abraham Lincoln on behalf of the newly minted First International, again noting the world-historical significance of the fate of the revolution of free labor.

The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.

But Lincoln was assassinated soon after the Civil War ended and the Reconstruction Acts and the freedmen themselves were met with hostility by the Democratic Party and its supporters. The self-contradiction of the social relations of labor under conditions of capitalism seemed further cemented by the Second Industrial Revolution. As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, this epoch seemed to give lie to the revolutionary bourgeois aspiration embodied in Lincoln “of the son rising to a higher economic level than the father.”

Soviet America?

Today, in lieu of the ostensibly progressive pole of the Soviet Union, much of the Left points to the enduring potential of “actually existing socialism.” With this question of progress or regress on the Left, it might serve us well to ask ourselves, what was the historical task of the workers’ movement for socialism?

At the start of the twentieth century, capitalist politics was in a period of crisis and transition. Progressive capitalism sought to direct the potential and curb the excesses of Gilded Age capitalism. For example, Republican Theodore Roosevelt’s “Square Deal” sought to stabilize capitalism via regulation of the trusts and social reforms that served to temper the demands of organized labor and attempted to undermine the growing influence of the Socialist Party of America. Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s “New Freedom” similarly proposed social reforms, but wanted to break up monopolies. Wilson cut to the chase and simply threw Socialist Party founder Eugene Debs in jail for denouncing U.S entry into World War I.

Most prominently in Europe, but also in the United States and elsewhere, the Second International sought to intervene in, and lead, the class struggle to clarify the world-historical political task of socialism. They weren’t out to palliate the self-contradiction of labor and capital or to resist imperialism, but rather to clear a path for the international working class to take control of the imperialist state. Australian Socialist Dora Montefiore wrote in 1912 following the election of Woodrow Wilson,

They have not elected Debs, who knows what to do with the trusts, but have elected a representative of the master class, who, even if he does know what to do with them, is not going to do it. . . The question for the workers is how to combine industrially and politically to get hold of the combines and distribute their products throughout the whole community, according to the needs of those who have worked to produce. That is what Debs and the International Socialists all over the world stand for.

However, the socialist leadership of the working class was in contest between those who sought to affirm the gains of the labor movement as preparing the working class for taming capitalism and those who thought the gains of organized labor ought to show the historical impossibility of overcoming capitalism without taking state power. The revolution in Europe fell into a deepened crisis as the leading member parties of the Second International sided with their national governments and with the momentary working-class enthusiasm in support of World War I. The 1917 October Revolution and the failed 1919 November Revolution in Germany inaugurated the Third International. But the isolation of the revolution in the Soviet Union degenerated into a Stalinist affirmation of an accomplished fact, and the political horizons of labor movements the world over began to retreat into nationalist frameworks.

The “last man standing,” Leon Trotsky, sought to split and regroup the international socialist movement, to preserve the consciousness of the unfinished political task, in regressed conditions. The Great Depression saw FDR carry through the aspirations of the earlier progressive capitalism with the New Deal, which the Left ultimately supported. Unlike Theodore Roosevelt’s Square Deal, it was no longer to stave off socialist influence but to save capitalism itself from collapsing.

Today, a history of defeat and regression might sit uncomfortably with a Left committed to salvaging the supposed “socialistic” aspects of “mixed” economies, from Cuba to China and even Sweden and beyond. But the horizon of the task of freedom was, for Marxism, the perspective of totality—the self-contradiction of the entire cosmos of bourgeois life under capitalism. This objectively given task could only be raised to the level of world historical class consciousness with the self-critical, “remorseless and cruel” accounting of its practical and theoretical failures.

Left under Lockdown

As with Trump, the protests against lockdowns and vaccine mandates have been denounced as far right or even fascist. In the interwar years, during the retreat of the socialist movement following the failed revolution, Trotsky, in his analysis of the rise of fascism, noted the role of conservative labor parties crushing the potentially revolutionary situation, suppressing civil society and quelling the rise of class struggle. Despite the obvious anachronism of there being no revolutionary situation and no class consciousness, and hence no class struggle today, it would seem the shadow play of historical echoes is not without a sense of irony. The Left has been ambivalent about the state crushing not only the protests around Covid but especially Trump and his supporters. Remembering, of course, that the freedom of civil society to organize itself independently is essential to the struggle for socialism, we might return to Rousseau: “Free peoples, be mindful of this maxim: ‘Liberty may be gained, but can never be recovered.’”

Daniel Lopez of Jacobin Magazine provides the theoretical basis for the Millennial Left’s approach to Covid in these terms: “All freedoms are subordinate to life, because the dead are not free.” Thomas Jefferson famously said that earth belonged to the living and not the dead, but he was making an entirely different point. He was pointing to the consciousness of the task of freedom, that it necessarily had to push beyond the dead weight of the past. The subordination of liberty and the pursuit of happiness to human biological survival might inform any number of dystopian futures, but not the struggle for socialism.

Covid has revealed the moribund Left’s demagogic moralism as merely an extreme rhetorical fringe of “progressive” capitalist approaches to social crisis. The plain fact that people don’t trust the state to micro-manage the most basic functions of social life has meant for the Left a large swath of civil society is complicit in “social murder.” But the Left has found reassurance that extreme social restrictions were, for a time, very popular. The Left historically was not afraid to be in a minority.

As Kolakowski wrote in 1958 in his critique of Stalinism, “The Concept of the Left,”

The Left must define itself on the level of ideas, conceding that in many instances it will find itself in the minority. Even though in today’s world there is no leftist attitude independent of the struggle for the rights of the working class, though no leftist position can be realized outside the class structure, and though only the struggle of the oppressed can make the Left a material force, nevertheless the Left must be defined in intellectual and not class, terms. This presupposes that concrete intellectual life is not and cannot be an exact replica of class interests.

This also points to the supposed class-standpoint critique of the pro-lockdown Left offered up by the likes of James Heartfield. Heartfield writes in “The Middle-Class Fantasy of Working from Home” that inessential workers who cannot work from home are bound to be less enthusiastic about lockdowns because their livelihoods are threatened and they are left begging at the table of the welfare state. Heartfield notes, however, that those in higher “social grades” might suffer equally as the line between work and home blurs. Recognizing that work is a contradictory experience under capitalism, Heartfield ultimately diagnoses the problem in these terms: “Those who promote the idea of working from home today are idealizing a specific middle-class lifestyle, one that involves a withdrawal from social life. But for most of us the best creative and social prospects arise at work.” The question arises, given that for Marxism the very existence of a “working class” was the negative condition of society, how would idealizing the working class point beyond capitalism?

Life, Liberty, and the Right to Work

Benjamin Franklin, editor of the Declaration of Independence, imagined the full flourishing of laboring society would result in full employment and a 4-hour working day. But as the industrial revolution matured it brought with it a societal crisis that Franklin and the great bourgeois revolutionaries couldn’t have foreseen; capitalism entails overwork for some and idleness for the rest.

French socialist Paul Lafargue wrote, “In capitalist society work is the cause of all intellectual degeneracy, of all organic deformity.” The idea informing the struggle for socialism was that, in the process of leading the working class to take state power, the socialist party would confront society with the self-contradiction of bourgeois right under conditions of capitalism. For example, as Lafargue suggests, under the proletarian dictatorship “the right to work” would involve a massive reduction of working hours to achieve full employment. As such, both the capitalists and workers might be compelled to “do violence” to their “taste for abstinence.”

Capitalism’s ceaseless drive to lay waste to and reconstitute new forms of labor makes possible the all-sided development of the individual, and yet the memory of the unfinished task of the workers’ movement for socialism would seem superfluous to the continued existence of the working masses. Viewed in this light, maybe life under Covid is a look at the pure modus operandi of capitalism today, with human life reduced to the “memoryless existence of hymenoptera and gastropods,” drinking and drugging ourselves into quiet resignation—intellectual and physical workers alike. However, human beings as mere facilitators of what appears a natural process was for Marx the objective potential for capitalism to be realized and overcome in social and political revolution. The project of revolutionizing our social totality, in and through capitalism, is an abandoned historical horizon.

The counterposing of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by the Millennial Left has helped assure the Left’s continued political impotence, and yet, as we count down our working days, weeks, and lives staring at a clockface, the latent revolutionary potential of capitalist society might still be made “an alarm clock that in each minute rings for sixty seconds.”

The task of freedom belongs to the living.