About the return of the state

Image: Engin Akyurt


The role of the State in neoliberal capitalism and its displacements in the current crisis caused by the pandemic

In this essay, the criticisms of Anselm Jappe and his collaborators will be explored in Capitalism in Quarantine: notes on the global crisis (2020) to the thesis of the return of the State in the Covid-19 pandemic. I will seek to articulate Jappe's analysis et al with other theoretical references such as Nicos Poulantzas, Louis Althusser, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Bruno Latour, Guy Debord and the Situationist International, in addition to complementing these theses with other conjunctural analyzes of the pandemic, such as those by Andityas Matos and Francis Collado (2020) , Coletivo Chuang (2020) and Alysson Leandro Mascaro (2020).

In Political Power and Social Classes, Nicos Poulantzas (2019) sets out to criticize the instrumentalist and historicist interpretations of the State in Marxist theory, seeking to bring a reading guided by the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser to political science. Articulating interpretations of texts by Marx, Engels and Lenin, Poulantzas defines the function of the State as the function of constituting the cohesion factor of the different instances of social formation. To ensure such balance In favor of class domination and the reproduction of capitalist production relations, the State mobilizes its specific functions (political, economic, legal, ideological) through its repressive and ideological apparatuses. While loci from the condensation of the contradictions of the social formation, the State organizes its apparatuses and specific functions through the concrete articulation of its dominance indices. In this way, it is possible to decipher which instance occupies the dominant role of the unit of a social formation, considering the role of ultimate determinant of the economic (Poulantzas, 2019; Althusser, 1996). Starting from the theoretical production of Althusser and Poulantzas on the theory of the State, we can construct a macro-level analysis of the role of the State in its neoliberal form and the implications of this model in the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As Poulantzas states, the State that is characterized by a specific non-intervention in the economy maintains its role as a cohesion factor in the unity of the social formation as a police State, that is, defining itself by the dominance of the properly political function. In this way, its role as a unit cohesion factor does not imply interventionism ― the State concentrates its dominant functions to maintain its unstable balance (due to the lags of the instances) through its political practice of maintaining the cohesion of the unit, its bureaucratic functions -juridical to guarantee the functioning and reproduction of capitalist production relations (organization, surveillance and general direction of the work process) and thus, by maintaining political class domination, it ensures the valorization of value: engine of the capitalist mode of production (Poulantzas , 2019; Jappe et al, 2020).

The role of the State as a cohesion factor is explored by Jappe et al (2020) in the State-economy or State-market relationship as a relationship of hostile complementarity or complementary hostility. In the neoliberal and pandemic period, the State asserts itself as the ultimate savior of capitalism for its role as a creditor (injecting trillions to save the economy) while the crisis of valuation leads to a crisis of legitimacy of its political institutions. Such a valuation crisis, which has been ongoing since before the pandemic (already in the 60s with the structural exhaustion of capitalism), is characterized by the accumulation crisis. Capitalist accumulation enters into crisis due to a desubstantialization of its substance – abstract work. There is, therefore, an absolute decrease in the exploitation of real surplus value due to the transformations of the production process by the advance of the productive forces, resulting in a system of accumulation without substance: multiplication of fictitious capital with credit, financial speculation and indebtedness based on an anticipation of the future production of surplus value (Jappe et al.

The mountains of debt arising from the successive crises of speculative bubbles place the neoliberal regime of accumulation in a relationship supported by the role of the State as the ultimate creditor of the financial industry, which negotiates a future undermined by the internal problems of capitalism and its ecological and social consequences. . With a debt that reached three times the world's GDP just before the start of the pandemic, Jappe et al (2020) argue that the Covid-19 pandemic was not the cause, but only the accelerator of the general crisis of capitalism. Faced with such an exposition about the extremely active role of the State in its neoliberal model, we can understand what happens to capitalism in quarantine.

Before directly criticizing the thesis of the 'return of the State', it is necessary to reflect on the status of the virus in relation to capitalist society. This is not an outside invader: the virus crisis is a crisis of capitalism; or as Mascaro (2020) states, “the capitalist mode of production é the crisis”. There is no biological “outside”, the pandemic is socionatural; the critique of the man-subject and nature-object separation demonstrates how such separation is the result of the relationship of material exploitation engendered by capitalism (Matos, Collado, 2020) which resonates in Bruno Latour's (2009) critique of the compartmentalization of knowledge in modernity that it does not allow thinking about the encounters between the political, the natural and the discursive. As the Chuang Collective (2020) states, the critique of capitalism is impoverished by being separated from the exact sciences. Based on this critical contribution, it is possible to attest to a coincidence between the geography of the virus and the geography of capital flows (Jappe et al, 2020; Latour, 2009; Mascaro, 2020; Chuang Collective, 2020).

In its analysis of the pandemic in China, Coletivo Chuang (2020) mobilizes the exhibition of biologist Rob Wallace (also mobilized by Jappe et al) on this relationship to demonstrate the history of pandemics with agribusiness and global capitalism, ranging from the epidemics in England in the 19th century, to the pandemics resulting from imperialism in Africa and proletarianization in the First World War. In this way, it is possible to relate the Covid-2020 pandemic to the Chuang thesis on socio-natural relations: “there is no longer any wilderness”. Emphasizing the subordination of the 'natural' to the totalizing and global chains of capitalism, an important relationship with the apparent 'outside' of these chains is exposed: the phenomenon of groups that, due to agro-industrial expansion, are forced to go deeper into the forests to survive by increasing contacts prone to proliferation of zoonotic pathogens and parasites. In the midst of globalization and ecological crisis, the virus is the detonator of the bomb – but it is not the virus that interrupts the machine of exploitation and valorization of value, but the political-state reaction: it quarantines capitalism (Coletivo Chuang, XNUMX; jappe et al.

The political-state reaction indicates a shift in the index of dominance of the social formation; which does not, however, imply a 'return of the State': it never went away. On the contrary: the State, as a cohesion factor of the social formation unit, went through periods of reorganization of its overdetermined functions, guided by the complementary hostility in the State-market polarity. In this way, the political-State reaction of putting capitalism in quarantine is analyzed as a survival mechanism (contradictory and antagonistic) to save the exploitation machine of capitalist society, in which the State shifts to the dominant function both the role of creditor in the last instance and the role of savior in the last instance guided by the sanitary reason and by the repressive and ideological functions of political-legal-bureaucratic control. Such a polarity relationship is also a determinant of which health strategies are adopted, conditioning which aspects will be dominant in the strategy: authoritarian vigilante state or indifferent state (which, in addition to mobilizing an 'ethical' health reason of sacrificing the less useful in favor of the mass that can be exploited, let it die ― in-direct extermination). Between total confinement and the laissez-faire of the virus, social Darwinism reigns in sacrifice to the fetish of global capital (Jappe et al, 2020).

Survival therefore takes place in a scenario already outlined by the situationists in the 60s and 70s: an unprecedented mediation of the image. Between the spectacular technologies of surveillance and consumption, life becomes remote and subjectivities even more repressed. The control of bodies exceeds the darkest nightmares of biopolitics with Big Data mechanisms (Jappe et al, 2020). And Debord already warned: “the circular production of isolation” is one of the foundations of the capitalist mode of production; “the spectacle gathers while separated”; separate, remote sociability, mediated by the image is the fulcrum of the expanded survival of capitalism (Debord, 1997), raised to the nth power in times of pandemic. Also with the Situationist International is Raoul Vaneigem, for whom “the spectacle is the place where forced labor is transformed into consented sacrifice” (Situationist International, 2002). The crisis of capitalism is therefore not restricted to neoliberal post-Fordism: the economic crisis leads to crises of institutional forms (juridical-political) and crises of forms of subjectivity. The scenario is one of dysfunctional accumulation, a mobilization of interventionist institutional instruments and a social breakdown that leads to a crisis of sociability - a structural crisis that opens up possibilities, from the disintegrated despair of the masses to the emergence of protest movements (Mascaro, 2020)

The critique of the work-form as inseparable from the autotelic logic of valuing value guides the Wertkritik and situationism, by demonstrating the importance of not falling back into the labor discourse of the 'altercapitalist' social-liberal left, of the supporters of degrowth, of the Biden-Kamala style “restoration of order” and of some sectors of traditional Marxism. Such sectors clamor for the right to work and for the State as a bastion of public hygiene, dreaming of making it instrumental and ignoring its polar relationship with the market, its role as a framework of resources and infrastructure for the valorization process and its structural function as a factor of cohesion of the social unit for the reproduction of capitalist production relations; bet on saving only the biological carcasses of workers to serve as fuel for the recovery machine ― and which in the “post”-crisis is already hinting at yet another sacrifice in favor of “economic recovery”. Faced with this confrontation with the “automatic subject” of capital due to the crisis of representation and the normalization of the state of exception, the left is facing a struggle that could be oriented towards a revolution with a counter model or an uncontrollable anomic social breakdown (Jappe et al, 2020; Poulantzas, 2019).

As Deleuze and Guattari (1996) state, “all politics is at the same time macropolitics and micropolitics”, and thus, “the administration of a great organized molar security has as its correlate a whole micromanagement of small fears, a whole permanent molecular insecurity” . Transformations at the macro level of global capitalism coexist and are in a relation of reciprocal presupposition with the transformations of subjectivities (Deleuze, Guattari, 1996).

Such new forms of subjectivation produced by spectacular and virulent capitalism in quarantine bring a series of implications for the political struggle. With the emergence of the virus and its totalizing and immeasurable intrusion into the planet's routine, Matos and Collado (2020) introduce the concept of 'bioartchy' (the policy of the doctor-priest as a figure who dictates the time of life and the time of death, personification of health reason as a complementary pole of economic reason). Biotechnological fascism, submission of the singular life in the name of an abstraction of 'Life' (spectacular survival) and a neoliberal necropolitics sustain the capital exploitation machine. These policies are constructed through a semiotic of fear and obedience that mobilizes significant and non-signifying codes (the figures of bioartchy ― masks, doctors, white coats, statistics), leading to the acceptance of new forms of telework, control mechanisms and power structures (Matos, Collado, 2020).

In this essay, we seek to present some contributions to the political debate in the covid-19 pandemic from readings of Wertkritik, situationism, structuralist Marxism and Deleuzian post-structuralism. Emphasizing the role of the State in neoliberal capitalism and its displacements in the current crisis, we insist on criticizing the thesis of the 'return of the State', considering it as an analysis that disregards the relationship of hostile complementarity State-market and the global function of the State as cohesion factor of the unit of social formation. We also point out macropolitical and micropolitical issues, emphasizing the importance of different scopes of analysis. The virus ignores the artificial borders of nature-culture, which requires the left to overcome the current political-economic system that prevents this division from breaking down: from a reconciliation with Gaia, we will have a reconciliation with ourselves (Matos, Collado , 2020).

*Bernardo Joao do Rego Monteiro Moreira is a political science major at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF).


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COLLECTIVE CHUANG. Social Contagion: Coronavirus and the Microbiological Class Struggle in China. Sao Paulo: Veneta, 2020.

DEBORD, G. The Society of the Spectacle. Rio de Janeiro: Counterpoint, 1997.

DELEUZE, G.; GUATTARI, F. A Thousand Plateaus – Capitalism and Schizophrenia (vol. 3). Rio de Janeiro: Ed. 34, 1996.

SITUATIONIST INTERNATIONAL. Situationist: Theory and Practice of Revolution. São Paulo: Conrad Editora do Brasil, 2002.

JAPPE, A. et al. Capitalism in Quarantine: Notes on the Global Crisis. São Paulo: Elephant, 2020.

LATOUR, b. We Have Never Been Modern: Essay on Symmetrical Anthropology. Rio de Janeiro: Ed. 34, 2009.

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