Covid-19 has brought about the era of biopolitics, an era that will continue for the foreseeable future. This is because the virus is far from being defeated; a resurgence of it is likely to happen this fall, and the neoliberal world’s refusal to sacrifice business for public health is sure to perpetuate the pandemic for as long as neoliberalism exists. Biopolitics is also here to stay because we’ve reached a point in the climate crisis where global weather patterns are much more compatible with viruses than they used to be. More viruses are going to appear in the coming years with increasing ferocity, which will necessitate an irreversible series of changes to how society functions.
What kinds of changes do multinational corporations and their partnered governments want to enact in response to this permanent crisis? Whatever they end up doing, the narratives of biopolitics are what will be used to sell it to the masses; we’ll be told that all of the corporatocracy’s measures are for our own safety, and that anyone who objects to these measures is working in the service of an enemy power.
This is at least how biopolitics is taking shape within the core imperialist countries. Preoccupied with an escalating cold war against China, the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and the other countries in the NATO empire are stirring up anti-Chinese sentiment by falsely blaming China for the pandemic. The economic isolationism from China that these countries are increasingly embracing goes along with their desire for what they call a “great reset” to their economic systems, where the initial damages to corporate profit from the pandemic are compensated for by a new approach to ordering how their societies work.
The first part of this “great reset” is the use of biopolitics to justify a growing amount of corporate censorship. In this last week alone, Venezuelan regime change operatives have blacklisted several anti-imperialist media outlets so that they can no longer be used as sources on Wikipedia, Twitter has deleted 170,000 accounts for “spreading narratives favorable to the Communist Party of China,” and Facebook has added misleading labels on Russian and Chinese media outlets about these outlets being “state controlled.” All these geopolitically motivated actions are reflective of big tech’s recent trend of openly working with governments to censor “dangerous” material related to the pandemic; because of the precedent this trend has set, suppressing dissent is now easier than ever.
Such is the deceptive nature of the narrative about the tech industry acting as an unambiguous force for good during the “great reset.” There’s been talk in the media and in elite circles about big tech needing to radically restructure how it manages online information; for example, a recent article on the “great reset” from the World Economic Forum says that “The use of digital technology during the COVID-19 crisis offers clear lessons: focus on the safety of essential organizations; protect work-from-home capabilities; and target mistrust broadly to enable specific crisis-relevant tech.”
The article was talking about mistrust as it relates to digital tools, but the same kind of language is what’s also being used in the effort to preserve trust in military, media, intelligence, and law enforcement institutions. The solution to this kind of mistrust is evidently to remove online content deemed to be “misinformation.”
Other statements about the “great reset” that are being put forth by the Western capitalist intelligentsia have to do with adapting the global economic system to the challenges it’s facing. This month, managing director of the International Monetary Fund Kristalina Georgieva made a statement saying that “From the perspective of the IMF, we have seen a massive injection of fiscal stimulus to help countries deal with this crisis, and to shift gears for growth to return. It is of paramount importance that this growth should lead to a greener, smarter, fairer world in the future.”
What does this mean? Given that the IMF’s historic and current role is to advance profits for multinational corporations, it means a campaign to expand the roles of green capitalism and the high-tech sector. Mega-corporations like Amazon, which have lately been seeking to rebrand themselves as environmentally friendly while investing in newly profitable “green” technologies, stand to profit from this aspect of the “great reset.” Amazon in particular will have a significant role to play in this reordering of global capitalism, since it’s one of the companies that’s big enough to survive the 2020 economic crash.
These monopolies that stand to profit from the crisis—the Silicon Valley giants, the Wall Street entities, the pharmaceutical companies—see the growing unrest from the increasingly impoverished lower classes, and they seek to make the “great reset” into a project for restoring order. Last year, the U.S. government organization the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence laid out a plan for creating an AI-driven mass surveillance system which far surpasses the spying apparatus of any other country. This plan, which has been gaining a more traction during the pandemic, would fulfill a truly dystopian vision of a surveillance society.
The NSCAI believes that in order to “address the national security and defense needs of the United States,” the country will need to replace its traditional infrastructure with “smart cities.” These urban centers, a document from the organization says, will consist of self-driving electric cars, shopping that’s done exclusively online, and an integration of everyday devices into the Internet.
The goal of this, aside from providing an opportunity for big tech to sell their “green” and AI-driven products, is to expand the opportunities for state surveillance. The NSCAI says that “streets carpeted with cameras is good infrastructure for smart cities,” and the “internet of things” that it envisions will no doubt be used to give the intelligence agencies more opportunities for monitoring people’s everyday activities; if the CIA can already listen to people through smart TVs, they’ll be able to do a lot more when the smart cities come.
The NSCAI explicitly praises the potentials for helping law enforcement that all these new technologies will provide, stating that “police are making convictions based on phone calls monitored with iFlyTek’s voice-recognition technology” and that “police departments are using [AI] facial recognition tech to assist in everything from catching traffic law violators to resolving murder cases.” You can imagine what such a drastic expansion of these surveillance tools will mean for political organizers who represent the “dangerous” ideas that are now being censored so heavily.
If you think this kind of future is only a far-fetched idea, look at the changes that have already been made during the pandemic. Last month, Google CEO Eric Schmidt met with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo about integrating the company’s technologies into the city, about which Schmidt explained: “The first priorities of what we’re trying to do are focused on telehealth, remote learning, and broadband…. We need to look for solutions that can be presented now, and accelerated, and use technology to make things better.”
Additionally, after partnering with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Cuomo said that we’re at “a moment in history when we can actually incorporate and advance [Gates’s] ideas…all these buildings, all these physical classrooms.” Since Gates’ long-term plans involve the creation of a “digital immunity proof” that tracks people in relation to diseases, surveillance capitalism looms over this partnership as well.
As Pepe Escobar explained in April, the next tool for social control may be universal basic income:
“You don’t need to read Michel Foucault’s work on biopolitics to understand that neoliberalism—in deep crisis since at least 2008—is a control/governing technique in which surveillance capitalism is deeply embedded. But now, with the world-system collapsing at breathtaking speed, neoliberalism is at a loss to deal with the next stage of dystopia, ever present in our hyper-connected angst: global mass unemployment… Endless permutations of the toxic cocktail of IoT, blockchain technology and the social credit system could loom ahead… Already Spain has announced that it is introducing UBI, and wants it to be permanent. It’s a form of insurance for the elite against social uprisings, especially if millions of jobs never come back.”
In the U.S., it’s unlikely that poor and working people will even get this meager version of economic relief. The Republican Party’s only plans for now are increased austerity and continued corporate bailouts, along with whatever privatizations and deregulations they can manage. So it makes sense that the U.S. is where the police state is planned to be made the most extensive and intrusive; they’ll try to use brutal repression and intensive surveillance to keep us from rising up. In the imperial core, techno-tyranny is what biopolitics will inevitably lead to.
With the Economy’s Collapse, More Waves of Unrest are Inevitable
For the 50% or so of Americans who can be considered poor by modern standards, and especially for the tens of millions of people among them who’ve lost their jobs this year, life isn’t going back to normal. Counting the discouraged and underemployed workers, well over 20% of the country is now unemployed, and this has created an irreparable hole in how the economy works. Most of these lost jobs aren’t coming back now that much of retail has permanently collapsed, many small businesses have gone under, and big companies will refuse to rehire many laid off workers in order to save on costs in the shrunken new economy. In a situation like this, all the household debt that lower class Americans have accumulated since 2008 will reach unmanageable levels, exacerbating the new housing bubble that’s also appeared this year.
The only recourse for U.S. capitalism’s victims has been to revolt. The Black Lives Matter protests have gained such wildly unprecedented numbers, and have led to the creation of an autonomous Seattle zone, because the country was a tinderbox for unrest before George Floyd’s murder. It was a tinderbox even before this latest crash. Forty years of rising inequality amid neoliberalism have made the U.S. much like the Third World Latin American countries that have erupted into unrest throughout the last year.
This is because the poor in the U.S. are living in Third World conditions, despite what the U.S. capitalist ruling class says. In addition to the widespread homelessness, substandard housing, and food insecurity among the bottom poorest 50% of Americans, their lack of access to healthcare makes their Third World status clear; in the Third World, whether one can get medical care is directly tied in with whether they have enough money, and in America this has been the case for decades. With Covid-19, this extreme austerity model for healthcare has come to affect poor Americans perhaps more than ever.
So what will happen when these Third World people who’ve been promised a First World life find that their current conditions aren’t going to improve, but will only get worse as the crisis continues? What will they do when the most significant federal unemployment benefits stop coming this August, further taking both the unemployed and the entire economy downward?
All these factors are going to produce new waves of unrest. Even if the current wave of protest is repressed like the Occupy Wall Street movement was, they’ll be followed by some new spark of outrage that gets millions of people into the streets. It could be another police killing, or an outbreak of anger over the government’s refusal to keep major unemployment benefits going past July, or a rallying effort against the inadequate healthcare conditions that we’ll face as Covid-19 surges again later this year. Whatever the catalyst, it will be merely a trigger for the revolutionary momentum that’s long been building up.
“Few predicted new revolutions in Chile or Iraq or Algeria,” Yves Smith wrote last year.
“But popular uprisings have a way of confounding conventional wisdom. The catalysts for each of these uprisings have also been surprising. The protests in Chile began over an increase in subway fares. In Lebanon, the spark was a proposed tax on WhatsApp and other social media accounts. Hikes in fuel tax triggered the yellow vest protests in France, while the ending of fuel subsidies was a catalyst in both Ecuador and Sudan. The common factor in all these movements is the outrage of ordinary people at systems and laws that reward corruption, oligarchy and plutocracy at the expense of their own quality of life. In each country, these catalysts were the final straws that broke the camel’s back.”
If we actually want revolution against the systems of capitalist and colonial oppression to come from this, we’ll need to channel these waves of unrest towards building a movement for an anti-colonial and proletarian revolution. Anti-colonial organizations like the African People’s Socialist Party need to be joined and promoted in order to move the country in the direction of decolonization. Marxist-Leninist organizations like the PSL also need to be built up amid the rising interest in class struggle. Without this effort to create a revolutionary vanguard —an institutional structure that can guide the masses towards the new system they need —all this anger will fail to produce change.
The recent uprisings from other countries have shown this. In Chile, last year’s revolt has so far at best led to the scheduling of a constitutional referendum that won’t be voted on until October, and that very likely won’t lead to the end of Chilean neoliberalism given the oligarch-controlled political system that will facilitate the measure. In Ecuador, neoliberalism has also persisted, with President Lenin Moreno’s austerity policies now aggravating the harm from Covid-19. Iraq, Algeria, France, and the other capitalist regimes that have lately experienced unrest also haven’t undergone socialist revolutions.
This is the reality about spontaneous revolts that we need to recognize: just because a country experiences unrest, it doesn’t mean the country’s people will shortly overthrow their capitalist state and create a proletarian-run democracy. There are many steps that need to be taken before a country can experience something equivalent to the Russian revolution or the Chinese revolution.
The key to taking these steps is to correctly judge the material conditions within the country you’re in, and to then carry out the appropriate kinds of revolutionary actions in response to these conditions. Right now in America, educating the masses about the need for anti-colonial and proletarian revolutions is our most important goal. This outbreak of unrest has made it so that building organizations like the ones I mentioned is similarly important. It’s also increased the importance of arming the proletariat, which has been shown to be crucial for defending autonomous zones like the Seattle commune. If we do these things, we’ll bring the conditions closer to a scenario where the capitalist settler state is overthrown.
More waves of unrest are inevitable. But what’s not inevitable is a successful revolution. This will take much more work than joining in on the demonstrations of the coming months and years. We’re going to have to put in the work that’s gone into the revolutions in China, Cuba, and the other places where capitalism and imperialism no longer dictate how society functions.
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