The Virus as a Stage of History

The success of Australia in containing COVID-19 has been an extraordinary and welcome achievement, and one that, at the beginning of the pandemic, looked less than likely. The federal government faltered early; Prime Minister Scott Morrison, it seemed, might not have the ability to step up from being PR guy to being a leader in crisis. There was a fear also that he might be drawn by the ideological Right, who wanted to turn the event into a culture war. But credit where it’s due: Morrison was able to step into that role; form, and be influenced by, the National Cabinet; and put in place a national regime that buttressed extensive state lockdown regimes (however much the politics of it were slanted towards the preservation of the status quo, and the exclusion of many marginalised groups). That slightly belated but comprehensive response has saved us from a situation that both the United States and the United Kingdom are facing, one in which the virus has taken hold at a certain level, lockdowns have been haphazardly administered, and the period in which the public was willing to tolerate them has now begun to close. That leaves those countries with a ‘stock’ of cases that, combined with a return to normal life, will provide the raw material for wave after wave of outbreaks.

Our avoidance of that is all the more remarkable because, as numerous commentators have noted, the chaotic, ideological and leaderless US and UK responses appear to be a product of the neoliberal Anglo-Americanism of the last few decades. In societies where government authority and legitimacy have been weakened, government institutions have been deliberately damaged (as Thomas Franks notes in The Wrecking Crew) so as to be beyond use, and a culture of hyper-individualism has been fostered, the capacity to draw out collective consent to state transformation of social life for an emergency period had been winnowed away. This was in contrast to European social democracies and global South nations with strong and intact collectivist traditions; their legitimised governments could draw on a level of ‘social intelligence’ and understanding at which people readily abnegated individual desires in the service of countering a present threat to self and loved ones—and thus a threat to lived meaning within the social order, which relies on a baseline of collective security to flourish as a series of individual life paths.

This led in turn to the suggestion in some quarters that the handling of COVID-19 constituted the greatest demolition yet of the legitimacy of capitalism as a mode of organising the world. Capitalism requires a velocity and volume of economic life to sustain itself that would be lethal in the context of COVID-19, thus fiscal crisis now grips individual states and the incipient global super-state as a whole. The crisis is deeply uneven, there has been a surge in capital holdings by $282 billion as the wage economy has contracted substantially, those dying from the virus and those looking to potential to sequester any cures in private intellectual-property traps. All up, capitalism has shown itself to be the antithesis of what is required for humanity to go forward, an absolutely obsolescent system, even prior to any consideration of its moral character

That is undoubtably true. A reflexive social-democratic/socialist, post-capitalist system is the only global governance framework in which the problem of virus pandemics could be managed. Such a system would require global authority, shared steering by representatives of global West, East and South, an autonomous scientific-advisory capability, and levels of funding sufficient to make it autonomous. Within that framework, medical intellectual property and manufacture would have to be controlled in a socialised fashion, but with scope for reflexive steering of action, and scope for multiple initiatives along separate lines of prevention and vaccine and cure development.

However, if we were to use that undeniable truth to bolster a belief that COVID-19 offers no need for a deeper critique of our way of life, we would be in error. Indeed, in that case, global post-capitalism—an ethical form of hyper-modernity—would simply act as a barrier to the sort of deeper critique we need to perform.

A new world system has come into being with the end of the Cold War, the development of global neoliberalism, and a new volume of post-747 ‘everyday’ air travel associated with the generalisation of Airbus planes, the Boeing 737 and cheap carrier travel. Such mobility reaches into hitherto closed societies in ways that are relatively recent; in decades past, a city such as Wuhan—where traditional agriculture and village life intersect with a global economy—would not have been laced into everyday travel and immediate connection to the cities of the world.

That is one aspect of the current pandemic; the other is the nature of the virus as an entity. The virus—a form of quasi-life, coils of RNA (a simpler cousin of DNA) within a sheath—is inert until it makes entry into a cell, which it turns into factories of virus copies. Viruses have thus evolved with a bias towards spread rather than autonomous activity as individual entities. The injury or death of host bodies is caused by the virus’s maximisation of spread. Thus Ebola, which spreads via body fluids only, turns its sufferers into human fluid bombs; COVID-19 turns its hosts into sneezing, coughing machines that, in the process, destroy their own lungs.

The ‘virus’ is the last form of quasi-living being that humans have discovered; compared to the nanoscopic nature of the virus, a bacterium is a large and complex living being. For decades after identification of the effects of viruses in the late 1800s—distinct from the recently discovered bacteria—they were thought of as a fluid of unspecified nature. Only in the 1920s were they identified as particulate quasi-life. Popular understanding of disease throughout the twentieth century did not appear to distinguish between bacterium and virus, even when the term ‘virus’ was used (as in polio). The bacterium–virus distinction appears to have come into popular use in the 1970s and 1980s (this writer can recall the ‘virus’ being bandied about as a ‘new’ concept in the late 1970s).

As viruses were described by biotech researchers, there was a shift in expectations of curability of common diseases and the limits of such. It was around this time that we began to be instructed that the common cold was a virus, and that antibiotics did not work on viruses. Though there was little by way of a public picture of what a virus was, it was understood to be smaller, and weirder, than a bacterium.

The virus is thus a simpler form of quasi-life, but a more abstract conceptual object, relying on an understanding of the molecular mechanism of life-forms (RNA in this case). Presumably, the ability to understand the distinction, at a mass level, only became possible in a culture with access to many levels of abstraction, via the early stages of a digitised, atomised, bioteched world (video as opposed to film, increasing computerisation, telex communication, molecular medicine via the CAT scan and radiotherapy etc.). In the current era, with whole classes of people trained to manage a knowledge-information economy, both understanding and misunderstanding of the character of a virus are more widespread (perhaps this is the root of the spread of conspiracy theories as a general social phenomenon: where one social group has the capacity to talk an entire abstract language of control—viruses, RNA, DNA, proteins, hosts, parasites, receptor sites—a class-resistant form of concrete reasoning prefers to take the ‘virus’ whole and sees it as either government myth or the product of 5G towers, things that can be seen and identified.)

Does our capacity to name, figure, identify and study the virus thus give us a false conception of our ability to control it? It was inevitable that the Promethean-optimistic mainstream of capital and technology would portray the virus as nothing other than an interruption, a ‘once-in-a-century’ occurrence, compared to which the expansion through time of a hyper-mobile accumulation society is ‘normal’. A version of this techno-optimism is evident in sections of the radical Left that offer their social conception as superior to capitalism because it offers a form of superior control, one that can reach down to the level of the viral-molecular, and separate unwanted elements from a wider context. Through this celebration of techno-control, do they underestimate the meaning and potential power of the virus as badly as the commanders of the capitalist mainstream do?

This underestimation would reside in a hidden notion of an ‘arrow of progress’ in our dealing with the living world. Having tamed poisonous plants (through folk knowledge, then botany), dangerous animals (through walled cities and weapons), and bacteria (through antibiotics), the assumption is made that the viral realm will rapidly yield to relatively straightforward intervention. Effectively, the technological control of viruses would substitute for the species-historical manner in which we have hitherto survived them: by the geographical separation of small human populations. 

There is no guarantee that that will be the case in the immediate future, or at any time. To protect ourselves against bacteria—discrete creatures that interact with our internal elements as discrete adversaries—we introduce other creatures, antibiotics, to do battle with them. There is less difference between using a dog to hold off a bear, and penicillin to attack an infection, than there is between the bacterial and the viral, the latter being an entirely other level of the real. Vaccines work by denying the virus access to the body’s receptor cells. To contest the virus as an entity would require a whole new level of molecular engineering, which would be both biological and non-biological, an entree into the post-human, as a way of tackling an entity on the life–non-life border. Doubtless some would welcome that as an exciting transcendent possibility, but it is nowhere near possible at the moment, and its occurrence would be as part of a more generalised near-post-human order, with its own systems of control and possibilities of catastrophe.

The alternative to both these scenarios is to suggest that ‘virus’ is inextricably bound up with a world of atomised hyper-mobility, in which every point on earth can potentially be connected to any other with steadily limited degrees of mediation. Without abstracted modes of understanding the world, i.e. molecular biological science, we would not know that the virus was even there—how many viral outbreaks throughout history have been attributed to evil spirits or sins against the gods?—but without that abstracted science we would not have been capable of making the world that serves as a planet-wide host for the viral order.

That raises the question as to whether the viral age is a stage of history that would emerge within the technological development of any cell-constituted species, a historical emergence that would form a genuine conclusion to the period of modernity, as characterised by human world-shaping through steadily increased rational reflexive control. If that is the case, then it is the new dominance of the viral order that is most distinctive about this period—hyper-mobility, globalisation etc. were just agents of its success. Such a designation is only perverse if one adopts teleological notions of human progress as essential to a ‘stageist’ theory of human history, which it clearly is not. In Australia, the relatively mild impact we have suffered to date may have made us, as a community, less attuned to the possibility that this is the beginning of a period, rather than an isolated incident.

If we are in a ‘viral age’, then as humanity we are in a jam, with a permanent gap between the problem and a techno-solution, and the world too globalised to undertake the very radical disentangling that would restore earlier barriers to viral spread.

Unless, of course, the next virus does it for us.

About the author

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle was founding co-editor of Arena Magazine and is Associate Editor of Arena (third series). He is a well-known essayist and is writer-at-large for Crikey. His most recent book Practice: Journalism, Essays and Criticism was published by Black Inc. in 2019.

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