At a time when all commentary shares a sensibility of dread, it might be apposite to extract from the complexities of the uncertain present a thread of something else. Nothing so grand as a counter-trend or insurgency, just something else.
Nietzsche exclaims ‘perhaps, though nothing else of the present has a future, our laughter itself may have a future!’ The political aesthetic of no future—that caricatured calling card of Nietzsche—is now more virulent and intimate than it was when he was reflecting on the changeability of modern Europeans in the late Nineteenth Century. Our current condition is defined by the bathos of the ‘new world order’ and its collapse into the techno-violence of the drone and the bland and narcissistic liberalism of Responsibility to Protect and the Sustainable Development Goals. It has been sharpened by the global economic crisis of 2008, the gathering scientific reportage of environmental catastrophe, and a pandemic.
Perhaps Nietzsche chose to focus on laughter because this was the trope that best allowed him the license both to pillory those who identified in modernity moral and social progress, but also allowed him to retain a sense of valuing of the human condition. Presently, Nietzsche’s adversary—whether it be liberal-Christian, utilitarian, Kantian, or whiggish—seems figuratively to be cowering behind graphs of exponential infection rates and models of authoritarian governance. Nietzsche has lost his ‘straight man’, and so we are left simply with his desire to evoke something of value, ensconced in a conjuncture where austerity has moved from a budgetary refrain into something more existential.
If we are in an eschatological historical mindset, perhaps we can move from Nietzsche’s ironic nihilism to the graveside in order to seek out a counterpoint to the flood. Marx declared that ‘what the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.’ This is just as opaque and suggestive as the Nietzsche quotation. But, we can extract an historic sensibility from this which is also present more generally in Marx’s writings. This is that capitalism’s historical dynamism and dominance is fundamentally derived from its technological and productive expansion and that this gives it a remarkable socio-political strength and a claim to historical progress. But, the relentless revolution that is capitalist production also generates new forms of sociability and poses new possibilities which—even if sotto voce—ask the question: could we do better with all of this? Furthermore, because capitalism’s productive dynamism is hardly stable or strong a lot of the time, this question is sometimes sharpened by an increased awareness that capital is neither primarily concerned with general well-being nor equipped to ensure a growing and shared prosperity.
Walter Benjamin argues that history is neither homogenous nor empty, and this behoves us to seek out grounded narratives that insist upon a political contestedness even in times when the prevailing prospective narrative appears to be some kind of closure or apocalypse. Marxism—the more ambitious sibling of Enlightenment liberalism—offers this.
Since the WHO categorised COVID-19 as a pandemic, a palpable and global social activism has emerged. An improvised and voluntary care economy in which thousands of mutual aid groups have been formed are working in neighbourhoods of the UK. Voluntary labour in the hundreds of thousands has been offered to deliver supplies to vulnerable people. Those still working are discussing how their work might be modified to reduce the impacts of the virus or to help people more effectively. Postal workers have suspended strike action to ensure postal services continue for isolated people. Those still working have also creatively modified their working days to sing and play music in what might be identified as an insurgent culture of resistance against the dourness of the pandemic. People in social isolation have engaged energetically with social media platforms to provide services to either their clients or people in general in which seems to be a socialisation of knowledge simply for the pleasure and sociability of it. This has also involved a decommodification of intellectual labour.
The innovativeness, energy, and sociability of people has been palpable. The growing body of narrative accounts of these kinds of activities serves as a vital antidote to the fatuous misanthropy dressed up as smartness that even sees some imply that the virus might be ‘good for the planet’ or some kind of just deserts. But, it also has within it a kernel of Marx’s historical optimism. It suggests—no more—that Marx is still right. Capitalism presents the conditions of possibility for the construction of a social economy of labour in which we don’t need capital. Those who produce and those who manage systems which provide goods and services are all—regardless of how much they get paid or whether they are ‘middle class’—working for capital. The scientists who will engineer a vaccine are workers. Whilst capital has been shedding labour, seeking government subsidy, worrying about rent income, far greater numbers have been engaged in some way or another in thinking about social solidarity, continued work in extremely adverse circumstances, and ways to socialising and creating knowledge. Those companies that have done well in loosening the grip of profitability to keep going or to repurpose themselves have done so under pressure from workers and people generally and in consultation with workers.
A Marxist historiography should not be one based exclusively in a relentlessly dour account of the predations of capitalism. For all of the fear, suffering, and uncertainty that the pandemic has bestowed on us, we can see how capital struggles to maintain its historical ‘progressiveness’, and in the interstices of this struggle we can see a world without capital. Mark Fisher famously said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. The world will not end and when we are let out and put back to work we should bear in mind the question Marx’s historiography properly should insist on: can we do better?