In Autumn 1944, amidst abominable horrors occurring in Europe, Theodor Adorno penned the following paragraph, later to be included in Minima Moralia in a section called “Out of the Firing-Line”
The idea that after this war life will go on “normally” or even that culture might be “rebuilt”—as if the rebuilding of culture were not already its negation—is idiotic. Millions of Jews have been murdered, and that is supposed to be an interlude and not the catastrophe itself. What exactly is this culture still waiting for? And even if countless waiting time remains, could one imagine that what happened in Europe has no consequence, that the quantity of victims does not change into a new quality of society as a whole, barbarism? As long as it continues step by step, the catastrophe is perpetuated. One only has to think of revenge for the murdered. If just as many of the others are killed, horror will be institutionalized and the pre-capitalist scheme of blood vengeance, prevalent from time immemorial in remote mountain regions, will be reintroduced in a broader sense, with whole nations as the subjectless subjects. If, however, the dead are not avenged and mercy is granted, then unpunished fascism will have gained its victory despite everything, and, once shown how easy it is, will continue elsewhere. The logic of history is as destructive as the people it brings forth: wherever its momentum inclines, it reproduces the equivalent of past disasters. Normality is death.1
How little has changed. It is now Spring 2020, and there is still no end in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic. With over 300,000 deaths worldwide, millions locked down, and billions unemployed, the logic of history continues step by step, catastrophe perpetuated. On top of the completely predictable barbarism of the current moment, in which some lives are deemed more expendable than others, there is the horror yet to come—the rewriting of this crisis we are now living through as a glorious battle between a unified humanity and a dangerous virus, a moment in which we all came together and sacrificed for the greater good, for the sake of civilization, for the fate of mankind. That tortured retcon of the present yet to come will be drilled into our heads and our children’s heads and our children’s children’s heads until there are no more heads left to drill. The present disaster will be remembered as the moment humanity came together, precisely when it fell apart. This lie will not be merely imposed from above but also spontaneously and joyously celebrated from below. Who wants to relive the trauma of becoming disposable? Who wants to work through the past when it is so much easier to repeat it? The erasure of the brutality of normality before corona will soon be complete. More enjoyable, more fulfilling, and more cathartic is nostalgia for an era that never was and never will be, an era of peaceful liberal globalization in which markets ruled with efficiency and states governed with legitimacy. The pandemic changes nothing—it offers no guidance, no lessons, no morals. Do we think the concentration camps were schools of morality? Primo Levi’s gray zone of extreme moral ambiguity did not stop at the gates of Auschwitz, but spread into the very fabric of modern life, clouding any possible path of right action in a wrong world. Who knows what ungodly harms are committed anymore just in trying to keep one’s head above water. The market sanitizes all interaction, impunity for all. But between the drowned and the saved, the sea keeps rising.
The barbarism of our era does not just appear in the calls to return to normality, which is, and always has been, death, but in the very awareness that this fabled return is all we have to look forward to. There is no more forward and no more back, there is only a treadmill with a screen allowing us to choose the tempo of our exhaustion. Would you like to go faster? Steeper? Louder? No matter what we choose, we are already chosen ourselves, already created in the image of the one true god, the god of economy.
Some panic, some work, some study, some bake, some eke out a life in between the cracks of the padlocked present. Borders closed, supply lines in chaos, workers divided against each other, passers-by shunned as potential risks, everybody a threat, every face an infection, every drop a conduit. Central banks approach the infinite, laws suspended to uphold the law, everyone wants to escape, but there is nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. Try to run, you will fall. Try to work, you will die. Conspiracies blossoming from right to left and back again—why wake up from our dogmatic slumber when the dreams are so good?
Calls to reopen the economy in the face of grave danger to life are not simply irrational outbursts of corona skeptics who worship the death drive. They are authentic expressions of a collective wish to sacrifice oneself for the abstraction that gives us all life, the subjectless subject of our world, the only real community any of us have left on this compromised planet—the community of capital. It is not people who give you jobs, pay your bills, feed you, teach you—it is the soft hand of capital. There are no more prophets, no more vessels of the divine in earthly garb—but there is a voice that speaks through us, a voice that guides us even in the most inner parts of our soul. That voice of conscience is not god, or the superego, or the father—it is the mutilated screams of a billion price signals telling your synapses when to fire. You can’t call it identification with the aggressor when the aggressor is normality itself.
Character masks or covid masks, there is nothing beneath the mask. The eyes in the mirror are not your eyes, the words in your mouth are not your words. There is no face to the economy because everyone’s face is the economy. Capital speaks through us not like a ventriloquist through a dummy but like a script through an actor. Every performance is unique but only because all the words are the same. Freedom to choose how to act our part is our hard-won right and if they want it back they’ll have to pry it away from our cold, dead hands. To try and break free from the hostage situation of work would be madness, for how do you answer no to a question you can’t even formulate? In a mad world, a little madness might be a sign of sanity. The species, currently insane, will need to wield its insanity like a superpower in order to escape the panic room of capital. Splintering the syntax of survival alone is suicide, doing it together is liberation. But the leap across the abyss of collective action will not come from a pandemic or any other external shock unless it is the shock of seeing ourselves as the externality to business as usual.
The real subsumption of labor under capital did not just mean a reconfiguration of the labor process but a replacement of the soul itself. Maybe it was an improvement of the faulty one we had before, even so it is definitely time for a tune-up now. Yet all the shops are closed, all the struggles of yesteryear gone. New ones arise, like rent strikes and wildcats, walkouts and slow-downs—brave acts of collective self-defense against encroachments on one’s ability to survive. But is it possible to go from negated to negator, expropriated to expropriator in times of utter retrenchment? Some riddles of history can only be solved in practice.
Levels of exhaustion start to pile on top up of each other as the home becomes the workplace becomes the kindergarten becomes the bar becomes the toilet, where inside and outside, day and night, leisure and labor lose their meaning. Even these words I write are torn from a handful of leftover minutes saved up from the gaps between rotations of work and family and work and family and nothing is left at the end of the day but awe that life carries on despite all the obstacles against it. Video meetings, video classes, video friends, video prayers, video drinking alone together with others drinking alone together. Board games pile up, we play Pandemic to avoid the pandemic. I’ve saved the world so many times that it’s now almost more fun to try and actively destroy it, except that hits too close to home. Escapism is necessary in a world without escape, like religion in a world without justice.
Is this the emergency we’ve been waiting for? The one that will wake us up and put us back on the right path to social democracy, climate justice, human rights, a good future, in a word, progress? The pandemic is already played out, we know what will happen. This crisis will not break capitalism. It will not lead to socialism. It will not solve climate change. It will not give people better wages, more unions, less hours, more safety, better jobs. It will not lead to universal basic income, free rent, free college, cancelled debt. It will not lead to affordable housing or public infrastructure. Perhaps a new subjectivity will emerge along with a new ethics, a new corona moralia, where sickness unto health is the path to redemption. In a section of Minima Moralia entitled “The Health unto Death,” Adorno reaffirms the sickness of normality under the rule of economy:
If something like a psychoanalysis of today’s prototypical culture were possible; if the absolute supremacy of the economy did not mock all attempts to explain conditions from the inner life of its victims; and if the psychoanalysts themselves had not long ago sworn allegiance to those conditions—such an investigation would have to show that contemporary sickness consists precisely in normality.2
The longed-for normality will come again, but it will be a normality as sick as the one before. Disaster socialism, corona Keynesianism, mutant neoliberalism, state capitalism, covid communism—yes, please! Capitalism will adapt to COVID, and we will be no closer to the end of either. Perhaps we are suffering from a new stage of capitalist anti-globalization, a moment of capitalist globalization, in which a planetary sovereign arises who could declare the emergency and decide on the exception in the name of saving all. Arise ye corona leviathan and lead us to the promised land! But alas, not even that hell will come. On top of everything else, like Kissinger and the Queen, neoliberalism just won’t die. As corpses pile up, private property rights infect every social relation, and markets continue to be waged against every problem that can’t be jailed away. Labor power has become nothing but an isolated delivery mechanism for value. The only silver lining is that it may now be easier to turn off the faucet completely then try and fix any single part.
As the pandemic makes brutally clear, humans are not separate from nature, not masters of nature, not even its coworkers. Recognizing the slow violence of the metabolic rift between capital and its conditions has not yet shifted the priorities of production towards a more sustainable coexistence with its ecological foundation. Better to end a world that does not yet exist than to save one that has not yet died. The future stares at us in horror, as we stare at the past in pride.
There is a well-known distinction in climate policy between mitigation and adaptation. Whereas mitigation names the attempt to directly limit the causes of global warming by reducing carbon sources and expanding carbon sinks, adaptation is the practice of redesigning, refurbishing, and remaking our world so as to better withstand the coming catastrophes we have set upon ourselves. Without mitigation, climate change will become quickly unbearable for the vast majority of life forms on this planet; without adaptation, vulnerable populations will be nothing but cannon fodder for endless heat waves, floods, fires, and droughts. As global mitigation of greenhouse gases has completely failed, we are now moving to the stage of selective adaptation. With the pandemic, adaptation more than anything is the rule. Adapt to suffering, adapt to unemployment, adapt to isolation, adapt to fear, adapt to death, adapt to normality. There is no culture to be rebuilt after this, for that would mean there was a culture before this. The road to hell is long behind us, did we really think we could get off it now?
- Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (London: Verso, 2005), §33, translation revised. The title of the section “Weit von Schuß” could also be translated as “out of range” or “far away”.
2. Ibid., §36, translation revised.