On the tendency to periodise capitalism through the event of the global pandemic


The coronavirus, by the virtue of its novelty, sudden unexpected appearance, and the scale of consequent disruption, has been easily incorporated into the pervasive tendency of mythologising what seems too ungraspable to theorise. The virus’ emergence has captured the theoretical imagination of many political projects; in fact, there is a noticeable tendency of delineating the impact of the virus temporally—the most explicit example of this is the characterisation of a ‘post-COVID’ world.

There are two fundamental renderings of the position of the virus vis-à-vis human society: a mainstream position spanning from the right of the political spectrum all the way to some ecological and liberal responses, and a more critical position associated predominantly with the anti-capitalist left. The mainstream position conceptualises a certain universality of the virus—whether it is the notion that the virus can attack us all; or, a reliance on the persistent, vague tropes of society, humanity, and civilisation; or the new-materialist focus on the biological elements of the virus and their interactions with the human body. These universalisations are unsurprising, and seem to evolve naturally out of a right-wing political project, lending themselves flexibly to certain mainstream positions as well.

In many critical responses, the authors are quick to identify the tendency (whether of the nationalist Right, or the eco-liberals, or any other group) to instrumentalise the biological elements of the virus for a particular political project. Can, however, a similar critique be extended to some of the most pervasive conceptualisations of the virus and the current situation present among the Left? Can we argue that, like many right-wing and some mainstream positions, the critical, anti-capitalist Left also relies on certain mythologising and universalising notions of the virus in order to formulate its political projects?

                  There is a volume of critical positions that vehemently attack the universalisation of the Coronavirus; instead positing that, like other unexpected events, the experience of the virus is mediated through the differences historically produced by capitalist social organisation. Rightly so, the experience of this pandemic wildly differs according to one’s position in the current social organisation. However, there is a tendency—in some of the critical positions—to locate the virus’ impact on the functioning of the capitalist political economy. What sorts of assumptions render this position possible? Moreover, how rigorous is the political project that is built upon these assumptions?

 ‘Coronavirus Capitalism’ or its analogous renderings are attempts at the periodising the current experience of capitalism through a particular, historical event. Identifying and assessing periodisations such as this one have always been integral to the historicising of capitalism. However, is the characterisation of ‘Coronavirus Capitalism’ analytically, historically, and politically sound? What sorts of assumptions does this attempt at the periodisation of capitalism rest on; and more importantly, what implications does this argument have?

A critique of these tendencies must pay particular attention to the integral difference between analytical fallacy and an active formulation of political/ideological projects. This article does not suggest that the Left did not get something correct, but rather that the relationship of the virus with the capitalist structure is drawn on a number of mythologies. Instead of viewing these as simple incoherencies in the argument, it is precisely the reliance on such mythical conception of the virus that allows for a development of a critique that aligns easily with Left’s larger project of denouncing capitalism and envisioning potential historical openings for its radical transformation.

In many recent articles published by various critical platforms, there is a discernible impulse to conceptualise the virus and its inevitable manifestations in the economic and social structures of capitalism. Even though these impulses and trends are not reducible to a defined structure, there are a number of integral commonalities which are worth reconstructing here.

While certain right-wing and mainstream positions conceptualise the virus interacting with a unified humanity, the anti-capitalist, critical conceptualisation of this interaction begins with linking the nature of the current economic system to its production of unequal positions within the relations of production and exchange. Therefore, the virus cannot encounter ‘humanity’; what it encounters are groups of people that are differentiated through the mechanisms of capitalism.

Capitalism, historically, has had the tendency to enter particular phases in its development. Phases which, for a period of time, couple the abstract ‘logic of capital accumulation’ to temporarily occurring phenomena; which lends its face to the experience of capitalism; or shapes its superstructural variation. Periodisation of capitalism has been an important theoretical tool for the Left—entire periods such as, ‘neoliberal’, ‘postindustrial’, ‘platform’, ‘digital’, ‘surveillance’, become the permutations through which capitalism is understood. Historically, these permutations are mostly associated either with technological innovations or paradigmatic shifts in economic/political development.

In the constantly developing Left analysis, there are two immediate conceptualisations of the Coronavirus; material and instrumental. In the former, the biological transmission of the virus profoundly impacts the functioning and organisation of the capitalist political economy; the latter is the revelatory function of the virus in exposing historically produced inequalities. In other words, the conceptualisation of the virus performs a crucial role in the theoretical imagination as it pertains to capitalism. While the virus is amplifying some of its elements, it temporarily incapacitates others (in a phrase often used by Varoufakis ‘it puts capitalism in suspended animation’). It renegotiates labour fault lines by demarcating the realm of essentiality; it ultimately allows capitalism to develop in new directions: we have entered the period of Coronavirus Capitalism.

Encoded in a  virus’ behaviour is the tendency to biologically compromise other organisms to the extent that their survival may be at stake; also encoded in viral behaviour is the tendency to proliferate. But, it is, quite simply, external to the capitalist political economy and social organisation. It is an apolitical RNA sequence that utilises existing structures as its vectors of mobility; it is not complicit in exploiting the existing inequalities inherent in current social organisation. However, numerous responses have theorised the proliferation of the virus by constructing links between the biological elements of its transmission and its consequences.

The periodisation of capitalism in response to the Coronavirus and the revelatory function of the virus itself are inextricably linked in the emerging Left analysis. Some analyses have asserted that the virus (or the pandemic) is responsible for showing us the precarious links between the sudden emergence of biological disasters and the capacity of our infrastructures to protect human life in such moments. Others have directly linked the slow incubation period of the virus and the consequent inadequate state responses to contain infections.

This attempt of periodisation is not an analytical fallacy; it is a political project aimed at mounting a critique against capitalism. This political project, however, is being articulated on very shaky grounds. Rather than confronting the external emergence of the virus for what it is, this project necessarily pits the Coronavirus against capitalism—whether it be in a revelatory sense or in a profoundly transformative one. This mythology is a dangerous position to critique capitalism from as it forecloses long standing, historical analyses of the functioning of capitalism; makes an external ‘divine intervention’ the impetus for its critique; and finally, assumes a position of political neutrality to posit this critique.

The emergence of this virus has had an impact on some elements of capitalist political and social organisation. However, this is not the same as asserting that the virus is profoundly reconfiguring capitalist relations itself, or that certain foundational elements of capitalist social organisation have suddenly been questioned; as certain analyses have posited. Biological disasters have periodically occurred throughout the history of capitalism. Moreover, as a rule, they have always interacted with capitalism in historically specific ways, manifesting themselves through existing structures of inequalities. However, as most left-leaning analysis seems to suggest, there is something unique about the current pandemic, which elevates its emergence to the status of a historical Event. This Event, for the Left, is crucial precisely because it is experienced unequally but is revelatory universally. 

An apolitical virus is not, and should not be, the impetus for critique. The impulse to characterise the current moment as ‘Coronavirus Capitalism’ rests on the hope that it will be an external element that reveals capitalism once and for all; an example of this is the notion that “Covid-19 has starkly revealed not only the brutal systemic priorities of capitalism —profit-making over life-making—but also the relationship between capital and the capitalist state form.”. If the crises internal to capitalism (that produce economic and social shocks) are not enough to demonstrate its failures, then, surely, an external, somewhat divine, intervention will be successful in laying bare its inherent flaws. For the Left, capitalism will always negotiate with and reconfigure in response to crises that are its own products; however, when confronted with an external disruption, capitalism will be forced to reconfigure in such a way that its inner workings are exposed. The popular argumentation of the Left, then, seems to suggest that the  ability to withstand or mitigate some thing that emerges externally to capitalism will demonstrate its viability as a system of organisation.

In such argumentation, capitalism does not betray its monstrosity openly. In order for there to be a revelation, capitalism needs to interact with an external impetus which will demonstrate its failure to protect certain groups of people. However, characterisations of the current moment are not articulating a critique in response to just any externality—it is crucial that the impetus is a neutral, biological entity. Employing the political neutrality of the virus, the Left mounts a critique against capitalism; that is, as a system, it has the propensity to fail. Thus, what better—politically neutral—moment will highlight capitalism’s failures than a pandemic? It argues that, in the moment of an unprecedented and undeniably natural ‘crisis’, capitalist organisation will be tested—and, surely, be exposed for failing to protect different groups of people that it, itself, differentiated. Not only does a critique from this position rely heavily on the apolitical, biological elements of the virus and its transmission; but it also rests on a more fundamental assumption about the functioning and development of capitalist organisation: that is, its tendency to fail.

                  Instead of constructing and mounting a critique from within, the political project outlined in this article fails to denounce capitalism for what it is; the project relies on an externality to expose the Truth about capitalist organisation and its failure to adequately provide for different groups of people. This position’s eventual implication is that the ‘normal’ functioning of capitalism—as it is experienced everyday—is not the site of its critique; instead, the political project relies on clearly demarcated crises that expose capitalism’s failures in one way or another.

                  Escaping the purview of this article, but, perhaps, being the cardinal assumption underwriting the argumentation addressed above is the clear articulation of capitalism’s failures. In other words, the assumptions that we have reconstructed and problematised in this article rest above the substratum that is the common conceptualisation of deteriorating living conditions under capitalist organisation of life as failures of the system itself. Capitalism, despite producing economic and social differentiation, is taken as a system that is capable of fulfilling needs and providing material protection to different groups of people. So even though the critique understands capitalism as a historically constructed system based on production of inequalities, it indicts it for not doing what it never aimed to do; care for the wellbeing of humanity.


Jakub Crcha and Shachi Mokashi have recently graudated from Bennington College and are going forward to study Social Anthropology and Sociology at Central European University. Crcha is based in Slovakia and Mokashi is based in India. 

Image from pixabay

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