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The state and us: The left between paranoia and abdication in the pandemic

Picture: Israeli riot police patrol Yefet Street in Jaffa after putting down demonstrations against police violence, 1 April 2020 (source: Matan Kaminer)

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly enhanced the charisma of the strong state around the world. In the West, the early knee-jerk characterization of East Asian responses as authoritarian and illiberal has been completely discredited as leading liberal democracies, like the UK and the US, succumb to a terrifying spiral of infection while countries like China, Singapore and Vietnam emerge relatively unscathed – not to mention the embarrassment of Cuban medical crews delivering emergency aid on European soil.

In recent decades, globally hegemonic voices on the left have been characterized by a deep suspicion of the state, one which emerges both from its classic Marxist characterization as the “committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie,” and from the hostility towards all forms of legitimized hierarchy typified by the anarchist tradition. But as Larisa Kurtović shows for the case of Bosnia, this attitude – most prominent in states which maintain a robust monopoly over violence, even if they have shrunk in other respects – is often seen as irrelevant by leftists and others in search of social justice in the global periphery. The state of Israel is not perceived by its citizens as “unaccountable and weak” in the way that Bosnia is. Yet even here, where the Netanyahu government has tabled one of the smallest and most regressive stimulus packages in the advanced capitalist world, some radical leftists are now leaning toward blanket endorsement of the state’s draconian safety directives, although these are clearly detrimental to organizing against the same state’s disastrous socio-economic policy.

As the eminent leftist historian Mike Davis points out, from an epidemiological point of view blanket prohibitions on outdoor activities such as those enacted in Israel are a “patent absurdity,” since “daily exercise is essential in maintaining strong immune systems.” Davis further argues, in an extensive and thoughtful interview with Daniel Denvir on The Dig podcast, for the political importance of not vacating public space:

“I don’t see a contradiction between social distancing and protest. It’s one of the ten commandments of the left, maybe the first commandment: you never relinquish the streets. […] I’m not opposing social distancing, I’m opposing house arrest. I’m opposing the fear that leads people to just want to sit this out and watch HBO or something. We need to re-assert ourselves in the public sphere.”

As I understand him, Davis is arguing for the importance of independent political collectives assuming responsibility for our own physical and mental health and the well-being of our communities. This is imperative, given that state power – necessary as some of the measures it dictates may be – also serves the agendas of powerful, malignant actors, who stand to profit from our abdication of capacity to study the situation, debate relevant measures, and adopt them voluntarily. This abdication is particularly tempting when factions of the ruling class clash over the adoption of such measures, with the immediate interests of financial capital in the continued circulation of commodities contradicting the interest of public health, which is also the medium- and long-term interest of many factions of capital. Given the disastrous results in countries where the first faction has had its way, it is easy to fall into an extreme view in which all considerations but the most narrowly defined epidemiological ones take a back-seat and cutting off all contact with others appears as the self-evident “right thing to do.”

In Israel, the clash between factions of capital has played out in recent weeks as a fight between the ministries of health and finance respectively. This internal schism points at the truth – well-known to radical scholars and activists – that the state itself, whether weak or strong, is internally politically heterogeneous. Popular expressions of admiration for the staff of public medical systems, for example, are laudatory and should be taken up enthusiastically by leftists, even as we try to extend the circle of admiration to other at-risk workers, such as garbage collectors and supermarket cashiers. Meanwhile, we can and should adamantly oppose state moves to turn over civilian affairs to the military and even to nefarious private surveillance firms, as is happening in Israel, not to mention the totally unwarranted abrogation of civil liberties taking place in Hungary.

The late anti-capitalist philosopher Mark Fisher famously argued the similarity between the psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s and the communist idea. Both, he argued, depend on a rupture with the everyday and on a conviction that things can be utterly otherwise. The pandemic bears an affinity to these other two phenomena, demonstrating in its own way that appalling aspects of life that we have become accustomed to seeing as necessary – long commutes to work, heavily polluted cities, mass incarceration, sadistic measures against migrants – can be rapidly abolished without much harm to anyone.

This sense of possibility is empowering, but also frightening, and in the abruptly opened social space of the pandemic and the nascent economic crisis the appeal of deference to state authority may grow quite strong. The best antidotes are practices of solidarity and sociability, which can build up our confidence in our collective ability to make the right decisions. Community mutual-aid groups, which have appeared in hundreds of locations in the UK and elsewhere, are one form of organization which will have to develop a sharp analysis and a nuanced approach to the state. Thus, for example, in my city of Jaffa – formerly Palestine’s main port and commercial hub, today a subordinated banlieue of Israel’s world city, Tel Aviv – the mutual aid group of which I am a part is working together with municipal officers while formulating a critical list of demands for the city and national governments and resisting police violence under the pretext of quarantine enforcement.

As the maws of crisis yawn wider and more frightening, again, many will be tempted to throw analysis and nuance to the wind and cluster under the wing of the state, the “subject supposed to know.” But those of us who have spent much of our lives preparing for this moment should know better: this is the time to exercise our intelligence and judgment. To voluntarily give up this power would be, will be, suicidal.

Matan Kaminer is a political activist and anthropologist. He has been active in the Israeli conscientious objection movement and Palestine solidarity work, in national and municipal electoral politics, and in organizing with migrants and refugees. He has a PhD from the University of Michigan, with a dissertation on settler-farmers and migrant farm-workers from Thailand in Israel’s Arabah region, and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Haifa. Matan is a member of the board of Academia for Equality, an organization for the democratization of Israeli academia and society.