Capitalism in Quarantine: Notes on the Global Crisis

Image: Silvia Faustino Saes


Preface to the Brazilian edition of the book edited by Anselm Jappe, Sandrine Aumercier, Clément Homs & Gabriel Zacarias

 “…a thousand deaths surround us every day” (Homer, Iliad)

The recent history of capitalism is a history of crises. The one we are now experiencing, and which this book is about, will perhaps be known as the “coronavirus crisis” or even by the condensed epithet, “corona crisis”. A crisis that was indeed unprecedented in many ways. Not just because of the speed with which a disease was able to spread on a planetary scale – announcing a fearful future for the era of global flows – but above all because of the reactions it provoked. We are witnessing a general blockade of the world economy and the imposition of confinement measures on populations across almost the entire planet. Fearing for its survival, global capitalism has quarantined itself. After decades of triumphant neoliberalism, we glimpse the potential return of the State. This return was welcomed by many. After all, is there any clearer proof of the nefarious nature of the neoliberal policies of cutting public services than the thousands of deaths that have multiplied due to the precariousness of hospitals and public health apparatuses? In Brazil, former President Lula caused controversy when he blessed “this monster called the coronavirus” as a blessing from nature, coming to give sight to the blind: “only the State is capable of solving certain crises”, he declared to a portal. of news. A monster to save us from another monster. Leviathan reappears not only as the guardian of the war of all against all, but as the only one capable of winning the “war” against the “invisible enemy” (in the preferred expression of the “commander in chief” of the USA). Called to action, the States initially hesitated, but finally assumed their role as administrators of the crisis: they took measures to guarantee the safeguarding of the population (approving exceptional measures without shame) and they used all their monetary and budgetary means to inject trillions into the economy in order to prevent a major market crash. This, however, did not happen without conflicts, the friction between sanitary reason and economic reason remaining constant. Hence, many commentators were led to passionately defend the power of the State, the only one that could “save lives”, and others to criticize the authoritarianism of control measures, in this incautiously aligning themselves with the fanatics of the economy for whom deaths count for less than stock market losses. Both positions ignore the fact that the State and the economy are based on a hostile complementary relationship, as parts of the same social totality that is guided by the need for the incessant reproduction of capital. This capital, which finds its substance in the abstract work that produces goods, still needs, for its own reproduction, to safeguard the lives of part of the populations – from which the sanitary reason draws strength. But the share of living labor in commodity production declines with every technological advance, and the lives of men and women rendered superfluous to the economy become increasingly disposable.

That the State is an integral part of capitalist society and that it will never be its function to create the conditions for overcoming this form of society should be, at this point, an established fact. But beyond this contradiction in principle, there is another reason why any bet on the “primacy of politics” as a way out of the crisis is doomed to failure. Any state intervention is only possible through the massive indebtedness of the States which, in this way, are increasingly undermining their own bases of action and eroding their legitimacy. The growing bankruptcy of states, with the advancing crisis of the system, makes the borders between legality and illegality blur, and that state and mafia become indistinguishable. In Brazil, this process is advancing at a rapid pace, especially since the bursting of the commodities bubble, on which its last period of “economic prosperity” was based. The bursting of the bubble swept away the left-wing government, which ruled through corruption, and enthroned the right, which, in addition to being corrupt, is not only militaristic, but worse, is militia. The future is not auspicious. Robert Kurz's assertion that the capital crisis would engender a new form of population sacrifice, a kind of bureaucratic euthanasia with anomie contours, seems to already be proven in Bolsonaro's Brazil. And the stupid cruelty of a president who, faced with thousands of deaths, only knows how to answer “so what?” it certainly makes any past sacrificial priest seem friendly.

Current events can only be understood if we insert the “virus crisis” into the broader panorama of the fundamental crisis process of capitalism, a system that is now confronting its historical limits both internally – the devaluation of value, with the irreversible reduction of part of living work – and external – the depletion of natural resources and the threat of environmental collapse. Capital's desperate attempt at a “flight ahead”, which through fictitious capital seeks to save itself by appropriating the mass of future value (supposed, but never effective) cannot last forever. The States play a central role in this process, having gradually replaced the private sector in the production of fictitious capital (which becomes more evident in times of crisis, as now). Let us not have any illusions – if States are mobilizing, it is not to save their peoples, but to guarantee the survival of the world economy, which is increasingly threatened. The self-imposed quarantine of capitalism was, for it, a necessary evil to save itself. But this bitter medicine can have a dangerous side effect, having exponentially increased the mountain of unsolvable debts that threatens to collapse at any moment. Will the avalanche take us on its precipitous fall? Or have we learned something from the brief “pause” of the automatic subject?


The elaboration of the present text mirrors its moment: it is the result of a collective construction “at a distance”, involving people confined in different corners of the globe, initially born as a simple exchange of ideas and impressions until it inadvertently took the form of a critical essay. In addition to the authors who signed the book, several other people contributed with specific suggestions and reflections that resonate in these pages. Most of them are contributors to the magazine. Jaggernaut and the association Crisis et Critique, a French group close to the critique of value-dissociation (abspaltungswertkritik). A first version of the initial chapters was released on the internet, initially through the website Palimpsion, with the title From VirusIllustribus. Deviation from the Latin formula by viris illustribus – designating the classic genre of recording “illustrious lives” – indicated our amazement at the fact that a “virus” had suddenly become the most famous personage of our time. The outrageous reactions of the “illustrious” who govern us made it clear that they are not worthy of note either… Pires (in the first four chapters); Pedro Henrique Resende, Rachel Pach and Robson JF de Oliveira (in the entirety of the text). It is thanks to this generous collaboration that Brazilian readers will have access to the text even before its full publication in France (scheduled for August). The anticipation is also justified by the vertiginous precipitation of the crisis in Brazil.

*Gabriel Zacarias He is a professor in the Department of History at the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp).



Anselm Jappe, Sandrine Aumercier, Clément Homs & Gabriel Zacarias (eds.). Capitalism in Quarantine: Notes on the Global Crisis. Translation: João Gaspar, Pedro Henrique Resende, Pedro Pereira Barroso, Rachel Pach & Robson JF de Oliveira. São Paulo, Elefante editora, 2020, 148 pages.



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