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The Cult of "The Market": Biopower and the Re-Open Protests

Posted on April 26th, 2020 in Theory, Neoliberalism, Coronavirus by James Deal
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Courtesy: CNBC

The recent re-open protests, where small groups of individuals gathered at capitals across the country to protest the stay-at-home orders, were particularly disturbing given the protesters demands to return to normal operations amidst a deadly pandemic. Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick summed the sentiment of re-openers up nicely from the safety of his office during his latest interview with Tucker Carlson when he stated, "there are more important things than living… I don't want to die, nobody wants to die, but we (have) got to take some risk and get back in the game and get this country back up and running." The demands of these protesters as well as Dan Patrick's statement point to a larger systemic issue of capitalism.

Any analysis of the re-open protests would be remiss in its failure to analyze how the capitalist system and government have conditioned the working class to function as a tool to produce value for the enrichment of the wealthy and the financial system as a whole. Capitalism necessitated the state use the financial system as a means to exert its control over the life and bodies of its populace (biopower/biopolitics). According to Stefano Lucarelli, professor in Economic Policy at the University of Bergamo with a focus on the intersectionality of social policy and economics, the biopoliticization of the capitalist financial system:

"began to be discovered in the 18th century, when it was realized that the relation of power to the subject or, more precisely, to the individual, cannot be based merely on subjection—that permits power to take goods, riches and, possibly, even the body and blood from subjects—but that power must be exercised over individuals in as much as they constitute a kind of biological entity [that] is to be used as a machine to produce wealth, goods or other individuals. The logic of biopower is the production of wealth through the daily use of the population."

Re-Open protesters hold signs saying "Govt. Tyranny Socialism/Communism Are More Deadly Than The Wuhan Flu"Courtesy: ReviewJournal

Capitalism and the financial system as a whole function to legitimize the extraction of value from the working class in order to enrich the powerful and increase the output of the economic system. Given that the state has utilized capitalism and the financial system in order to increasingly exercise biopower over the working masses, this begins to shed light on how such a protest for the right to work during a pandemic could have arisen. Lucarelli elaborates on how capitalism, which aims only to maximize profit, serves as a tool to extend the state's control over its citizens:

"If the quickest way to produce abstract wealth, i.e. money, is trying to realize it minimizing the risks that are run and the conflicts that come up when raw goods production is organized, it is only rational to minimize the costs of production, including state and bank control over economic activities, thus maximizing the possibility of money's autonomously deciding what it has at its disposition. In such a way, a new power of control over the population is exerted. The risk distribution inherent to the production of money through money becomes the strategy to employ."

Political cartoon that depicts the exploitative relationship between expendable human labor and capitalism.Courtesy: Monthly Review

The nature of financialization, being at its core a means to exert biopower over populations, means that the state is not the sole agent involved in the manipulation of the working masses; powerful individuals and capitalists within such a system are also capable of exerting control over the lives and bodies of the workers:

"The power that is exercised within an accumulation system dominated by finance is something different from the power exercised by a sovereign state over its citizens. The search for governmental freedom that markets claim goes right along with the management of the populations which nation-states take responsibility for. So that the population produces wealth within money's valorization cycle, a form of social control that substantiates the different relations both between master and slave and between state and citizen… financialization represents the very form of social control necessary for such scope. It is in fact a form of socialization (of risk but also of the prospectives of enrichment that are complementary to it) that leads to a revolution in the concept of sovereignty. What financialization puts at stake is no longer the immediate application of sovereign power but the directing of the whole of the human behaviors necessary so that sovereignty is coherent with the financialization process."

This provides further insight into the means by which capitalism exerts control over the individuals within such a system. The valorization of money necessitates that capitalism's only metric to gauge the value of life is the economic productivity of that life. At its core, capitalism requires individuals work through conditions such as a pandemic because the value of their lives pales in comparison to the value of the 'lost' economic productivity. Furthermore, individuals that are deprived of the ability to work during the pandemic would be capable of rationalizing that it is their duty to return to work amidst such an outbreak so that they might do their part in contributing to the economy. Agamben discusses how the valorization of money has ultimately resulted in capitalism having a religious ideology surrounding it:

"In order to understand what is taking place, we have to interpret Walter Benjamin's idea that capitalism is really a religion literally, the most fierce, implacable and irrational religion that has ever existed because it recognizes neither truces nor redemption. A permanent worship is celebrated in its name, a worship whose liturgy is labor and its object, money. God did not die; he was transformed into money. The Bank—with its faceless drones and its experts—has taken the place of the church with its priests, and by its command over credit (even loans to the state, which has so blithely abdicated its sovereignty), manipulates and manages the faith—the scarce and uncertain faith—that still remains to it in our time. [This] is most effectively demonstrated by the headline that appeared on the front page of a major national newspaper a few days ago: 'Save the Euro Regardless of the Cost'. Well, 'salvation' is a religious concept, but what does 'regardless of the cost' mean? Even at the cost of sacrificing human lives? Only within a religious perspective (or, more correctly, a pseudo-religious perspective) could one make such plainly absurd and inhuman statements."

This religion of capitalism leads individuals to believe it is noble to sacrifice their lives and well-being in pursuit of the greater economic good. The rise of late-stage capitalism has normalized the suffering and pain brought with economic 'crisis' as a regular occurence in the day-to-day lives of the average individual in society. Agamben discusses how individuals accustomed to such a system would be skeptical of a 'crisis', such as the one cause by the current pandemic, and angrily demand the return to normal:

"These days, the words 'crisis' and 'economy' are not used as concepts but rather as words of command that facilitate the imposition and acceptance of measures and restrictions that the people would not otherwise accept. Today, 'crisis' means, 'you must obey!' I think it is very obvious to everyone that the so-called 'crisis' has been going on for decades and that it is actually nothing but the normal functioning of capitalism in our time. And there is nothing rational about the way capitalism is now functioning."

Photo of Michel Foucault; Biopolitics and BiopowerCourtesy: Critical Legal Thinking

The use of capitalism as a means to exert biopolitical control over the populace is hardly unique to the GOP as the Democratic Party's "neoliberal mandate, writ large, is to impose markets and market-like processes of production and consumption on more and more of social reality until all of life is included in the ambit of the pursuit of profit." Rather than attempting to create substantive change to the material conditions of the working class, the Democrats have blamed the systemic failures of capitalism on imperfect conditions within the free market, seeking to merely reform the market to a more 'pure' state. This can be seen in the recent COVID stimulus packages passed in a bipartisan effort through Congress that does little to assuage the suffering of those struggling during this economic crisis. The Democrats' continuous failure to secure even the slightest victory for the middle and working class makes sense given that "neoliberalism is perhaps best understood at this point as… a theodicy that endlessly justifies the sacrificial ways of markets to suffering humanity and dying earth."

Regardless of the extent of the economic crisis, the Democratic Party will never fight for meaningful improvements to the material conditions of the working class because neoliberalism requires that any failure of capitalism is understood to be the result of imperfect conditions of the free market; rather than acting to improve the lives of the masses, neoliberalism will always seek to 'reform' the free market in order to produce the perfect system that can't fail in times of crises:

"The trick of neoliberalism has been to produce a state of continuous economic emergency in which the only way out is through: only the authority of the as-yet-unrealized market can save us from market deficiencies with respect to the social good, since the true social good can only be known through full surrender to market meta-information processing. Thus the politics of divination as neoliberal political theology: the only meaning of chance to be divined is that which enforces the authority of the ideal, never-quite-realized market. The truth of that market, its true shape, is known only to the initiates."

Ultimately, the biopoliticization of capitalism and our financial system have led the working masses to believe these systemic failures of capitalism are due to some shortcoming on their part; this, coupled with the government's failure to provide adequate stimulus packages to ensure the well-being of the worker during the crisis, provides significant insight into how people are willing to demand the re-opening of the economy, against their apparent self-interest and health, amidst a deadly pandemic. While there are certainly additional factors that led to these protests, the cult-like religion of capitalism and consumption as well as the normalization of suffering under the free market economy have played a far greater role in fueling the unrest behind the re-open protests.