The Absence of a ‘Front Line’ and the Emergence of Feudalism During the Covid-19 Pandemic
The coronavirus epidemic confronts us with two opposed figures that prevail in our daily lives: those like medical staff and carers, who are overworked to the point of exhaustion, and those who have nothing to do since they are forcibly or voluntarily confined to their homes.
The line that divides us during the coronavirus pandemic is an arbitrary boundary enforced by the State. This line has the effect of dividing workers: the people inside and the people outside. The people who already inside hear the police telling them to stay inside, or the people working that drive by the police every day. It’s a brutally honest but transient form of warfare on people, but particularly the working class deemed ‘essential’.
The front line is a lot of things to a lot of people, and that’s kind of the point. To some, we associate it with institutions like hospitals or healthcare offices, others associate it with grocery stores and other so-called ‘essential services’. To most, it’s simply the outside, the unknown, the intangible absence of perceived freedom, and the itching duty to uphold consumerism while being told not to participate in it. This, of course, is enforced by authority.
Much like the War on Terror, there is no officially declared war so we’re in a perpetual state of war. Unlike the War on Terror, there is no ideology to fear, but rather humans itself. Here, in this pandemic, the enemy is our desire, our libido, our consumerism, our sports games, our religious ceremonies, and our working life. We find ourselves without an enemy, except our enemies are the tasks we force ourselves to do.
This sets up a doubled Front Line, made entirely possible by the insistence of technological interconnection and a decentralized free market which is collapsing, before our very eyes, into a feudal economy. The front-line of the inside/outside, disease/non-disease, essential-non-essential, and the front-line of culture dictates the response. Both front lines are invisible. Both divide and both seek to conquer. The capitalist economy is built to absorb these differences and to manage our response while keeping profit flowing.
The ‘Essential’ Worker
Unlike Zizek, who acknowledges that he falls into the category of people who sit at home and do nothing (but write books) I work on both sides of invisible lines. Right now, I’m working 10–12 hours a day as a pharmaceutical delivery driver and when I have time I freelance write for paying publications. While not exactly at the same level of a medical worker, my daytime job puts me at substantial risk, while my overnight job allows me to think intently about what and why I do what I do. The privilege of having a job on the outside and exposed to death, and the privilege of the comfortable, if cramped, inside.
This tension has always existed, though. The reshuffling of post-2009 recession turnover, followed by the hollowing out of labor laws, made professional life a constant moving from one lifeless computer-filled cubicle to another open-air boundary-less panopticon. Or maybe I was just bad at my job. Working from home was equally as miserable as being in an office, and, as many are finding out, incredibly lonely, alienating, fostering mental illness, and distanced a sense of self from almost everyone but the guy working in your local store. Now, no longer even that. Instead it’s the delivery person you see once or twice a day. Me.
Finally, the glorious and romantic bravery of being an ‘essential worker’. This heavily praised but woefully unfair title lies in the stasis between poverty and success, experiencing the ephemeral joys of having purpose, but absolutely constant exploitation from the second we walk into the job until the minute we leave. Bathroom breaks are timed, managers are overworked and pressured by upper management to run up the numbers, time is compartmentalized until anything and everything is done in the name of profit. This is as true during the pandemic as before. As Zizek points out, everyone is tired regardless of the circumstance.
That creates, on one hand, a manic pride and rallying around our value as essential workers (however little it is rewarded) and the absolute destitute laziness every precious minute the boss is not looking or we’re outside the confines of the workplace. The hours and minutes outside of the workplace are precious and fleeting. Work sucks no matter how you cut it and people are now coming to terms with exactly how disposable or undervalued their labor is, They are also becoming aware of how that corresponds to the State-dictated market, the means of production, racial prioritization, and lost freedoms.
To give you an idea of this ‘essential worker’-ness, let’s examine the benefits of my current employment. I work as an independent contractor to pick up deliveries from various pharmacies in a given neighborhood. To do my job, I require an app that a portion of my paycheck goes to paying for. I need to use my own car and pay for my own gas. The more deliveries the more gas etc. I supply my own mask and gloves as I’m not technically in the health-care industry and in the service sector.
Since the pandemic started my work load has tripled, quadrupled, quintupled. Instead of doing 50 deliveries a week, I’m making 50 deliveries a day. This increase in labor is made mildly easier by empty roads and cheaper gas, but it’s still 10 to 12 hour workdays. The people I deliver to generally fall into two categories of old people: the bourgeois living in Brownstones who can afford at-home medical care and delivery service, and the impoverished living on medicare in government NYCHA housing or nursing homes. These classes never mix but they do live side-by-side, often mere blocks away from each other.
With the pandemic, there emerges a new class of people who need deliveries: the bored, the young, and the scared mostly-white people who call me a hero and leave their tips in envelopes on their door. These are the professionals that I know so well from my other life. They sit on stoops, chatting on invisible phones to invisible friends. They are unfamiliar with boredom so they don’t know what to do. Their entire lives have existed around accumulating capital from a location. Now that has been torn from them and they don’t know what to do.
The most interesting thing about these patients is the guilt. The guilt that has been forced upon them by boredom and apathy. While they’ve always had hobbies, it often involved going somewhere: to the gym, but the gyms are closed, to a bar, but the bars are closed, to a cafe, but the cafes are closed, to the movies but the movies are closed, to the concerts but the stages are empty, to a restaurant but the restaurants are closed. I know these people because I am also one of these people, if not the person I am talking about. The subject that Capital has molded.
Now they are no longer molded by Capital, Capital has been ripped away from them. Instead, they are reduced to a modern version of a primal subject. Lost in a jungle of purposelessness, they learn once again how to cook their own meals. They question the safety of their former habits, and hinge on conservative distance. They stand in lines outside of the precious resources six feet apart: at the bank to withdraw their savings; at the grocery store to do the modern equivalent of hunting; at the park doing the minimum amount of exercise. Each venture is a little dangerous. Unknowns cannot be trusted. With the absence of Capital, and the presence of an ephemeral disease, goes the trust in others
Often they come to the door with an admirable look in their eye, concerned with my safety, thankful for my alleged sacrifices, and with eyes downturned at their own shameful confinement. They’re no longer full of purpose, and their former ego of professionalism is stripped of a relationship to the world. I’m now more important and ‘essential’ than them and they’re the disposable and worthless victims of circumstance. So I am their hero and they bow before my bravery because they don’t know what else to do.
The Emergence of Pandemic Feudalism
Cut off from parents, cut off (or let go/fired) from bosses, cut off from tour guides, doctors, scientists, teachers, etc. we in liberal democracies have absolutely and unequivocally given into the idea of totalitarianism as a way to ensure our safety from an outside threat: the outside. Totalitarianism is rooted in Capital (some industry lives, some industry dies), and totalitarianism rooted in public health (some people live, some people die). These two — Capital and public health are so intertwined, that it is hard to distinguish where one begins and one ends, it’s hard to distinguish where a feudal economy begins and Public Health ends when it comes to bidding to buy ventilators and masks against an increasingly gouged market.
In this absence of authority and the mask-off democracy to reveal precarious totalitarianism, there are the avatars that stand in as political faces to enforce this kind of totality within the state. There’s, of course, President Donald Trump, the gaudy and ever-chaotic court jester, who posits that state governors are the final authority when it comes to the public health crisis, but his presidential authority is the final authority when it comes to the deployment of feudalism. At his side, there’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who is a liberal darling in the administration and the scientific face of the botched response from the federal government.
Then there’s New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the tough-talking compassionate dullard who begs the court jester for more medical supplies and gets standing ovations from an authority-starved city-nation whenever he mentions how much he loves New York and all that it supposedly stands for. On the other side of the country, there’s California Governor Gavin Newsom whose response has been more successful than New York’s by virtue of shutting down more authoritatively, while rolling out liberal plans in accordance with the shutdown — funding homelessness projects, offering paid sick leave endorsing draconian measures against essential workers who refuse to work under unhealthy conditions, and telling people to police their neighbors.
All four of these figures have been the subject of sexual objectification, with the most absurd instance being Dr. Fauci being nominated as one of the sexiest men alive. The vacuum of authority has been filled by libidinal desires for strong paternal figures to be restored at the helm of the chaos. Neoliberal capitalist subjects stuck in a media bubble of television and social distance, without anything but alienation from the fellow subjects, are drawn towards strength, compassion, the promise of freedom (but not freedom itself), and calls for more surveillance, more love shown from the government, more State-mandated bailouts for corporations, and less accountability from those in power. Basically, it clears the way for feudalism to emerge out of the ashes of the Free Market.
What does Really Existing Feudalism look like? It looks similar to what we have now, except instead of thousands of corporate-controlled entities, there’s only a handful that buy up smaller companies and re-brand them as their own individual signifiers. Banks work with the government to dole out bailouts accordingly. There’s a mandated UBI given to the working class to maintain the illusion of health and prosperity, while only slightly covering the pain, anger, alienation, and confusion with a gauze. There are riots of people resisting the feudal mandates and a demand to go back to work when their jobs no longer exist. There’s a general reorganization of the economy to be government-based incentives while maintaining a profit-driven motive that strokes the ego of Wall Street and the President.
In other words, not much different than what we already have. Amazon and Walmart will survive. But what else? This is the end — and the illusion of the end — result of capitalism: a merging of private and public sectors for the working class to be put on life support as the capitalist class reaps the benefits. Rights the working class barely held onto (like striking or political mobilization) will be stripped away in return for peanuts, bourgeois playthings like political parties and democratic elections will be subordinated for centralized feudal control, and health checkups will be a formalized total force much like mortgages or monthly rent, it will be done in Capitalism for Capitalist classes to remain safe.
These are all things that have existed before but will have to exist now as a mandated decree and defensive maneuver of the corporate class to never allow a pandemic strike again. Prioritizing public health as a reaction to the current crisis will be a cash cow dictated to us with only sour milk squirted in our faces. Capitalism is, above all, a plastic set of interests willing to be molded to support its continuation. It will survive however entwined with the officiated government and Wall Street executive boards dictating its survival route, but it will survive in a new form, and another new form, and another new form, ad nausea.
If Late-Stage Capitalism is the bloat of the elderly than Early-Stage Real Existing Socialism is the infant. Both are linked by the need to survive with the help of others, reinventing itself, making deals, giving up principles, and regarding all its detractors as betrayers of a True Cause. There can be no doubt that in the twenty-first century Neoliberal Capitalism has been struggling, almost lurching forward, zombified and crystallized, at the peak of its historical significance. It has met challenge and resistance from the right and the left, from abroad and at home. It has absorbed contradiction, cut deals to maintain power and hegemony. It has been pushed into a corner and told it must make sacrifices. It then made sacrifices and we were told we should be grateful for its continuation. This is what awaits us at the other side of the pandemic, this is what we’re told normal should look like.
But what we must resist, as Zizek reminds us, is to expect everything (and here it is not a hyperbole, everything means everything) to go back to “normal.” The coronavirus pandemic will change us all, all of us who lived through it, all of us who will tell stories about it afterwards, all of us who are going to have children during, because of, and in the after-hours of this great shadow, which will define us both in its history-swallowing and lives-swallowing hours. Will we remember how boring it was? Will we have art forms dedicated to it in the decades to come? Will a new future peak over the horizon?