What to do in times of Corona – Interventionistische Linke

This article was originally posted by Karin from Frankfurt iL on the online debate website of interventionistische Linke, a German radical socialist organisation. We greatly appreciate the work of Sabine Schneider from Tangimoana/Manawatu who translated the original text to assist radicals in Aotearoa.

What to do in times of Corona?

Because a virus rattles society what previously seemed inconceivable suddenly becomes possible. A comrade in Frankfurt has given some thought to the windows of opportunity this might open up for the radical left and how it could – and ultimately must – use them.

Welcome to a new reality. We’re not in an exceptional situation that is temporary – even though we might want to believe it. The Corona regulations are not geared towards ensuring that nobody gets infected. This would be simply impossible. Instead, an attempt is made to aim at the small gap between full utilisation and total overload of the treatment capacities and to slow down or accelerate the infection rate exactly to this level. There is no such thing as a current Corona crisis and then a post-Corona time. We are in a cyclical Corona crisis, in which political measures, such as curfews, a ban on contacts, shut downs, a ban on public meetings etc. are likely to be used time and time again at least until a vaccine has been found.

During these On-and-Off times something will form a sediment that is likely to stay with us: Our indifference toward things that are repeatedly introduced and then suspended, our lack of opposition, the logic of actions that anchor in our minds – all this will have a lasting impact on our political stance and our concepts of the political in general.

Some leftists believe the shut-down policy also leads to Corona holidays for us as leftists. Others are constantly busying themselves in local initiatives to establish and broaden solidarity-based supply models. Others try to fight the impending precarisation (through layoffs, debts, uncanceled rent payments, etc.) by looking to put pressure on housing corporations, employment agencies, or argue for a Corona-basic-income. Still others talk about the pros and cons of the state of emergency aka police-enforced contact ban (sic!). What has been neglected so far is foresight. And a fundamental debate about what is currently happening in our society, what potential for conflict lies beneath and/or is being shifted, and how a (radical) left should position itself politically and strategically.

A few ideas to think about, be inspired, and act upon:

Politics are back

In the Corona crisis, everything that couldn‘t even be thought before can suddenly be decided politically. Nationalisation, constraints on the property rights of landlords, abandonment of the Hartz IV1 sanctions regime, to name just a few examples. After 30 years of depoliticising political decisions, politics suddenly returns and we recognise that the world is how it is because it is decided politically. This is important to note, because we often forget this fact. Mainly because it isn’t anchored in common sense.

During the time of the antiglobalisation movement many (not just the left) had the idea that another world is possible, whereas, in fact, everyday life had not changed much at all. In contrast, the situation now is extremely unstable. The enforced restriction of movement could actually bring capitalist globalisation to a standstill. At the same time, the left itself has largely lost sight of the political big picture and is content with demanding the improvement of day-to-day life. We – ourselves – must always insist on politics, on imagining the possible. We must find the strength to reclaim politics. For ourselves and for others.

Many hope that political concessions, such as the so-called “easier access” to “Grundsicherung”2 can’t be reversed that easily and that people won’t allow it to be taken away. Lots of good and justified demands are aimed at this. However, thinking back to the [TN: 2008] financial crisis and the “summer of migration” [TN: 2015], we have seen how the hard-won financial and social relief has been destroyed by the socialisation of debts, the expansion of European deportation proceedings, and the practise of national isolation. We know any progress that now may have been made will not remain because it only came about within the context of an exceptional situation. Wherever money is now handed out a repayment plan is already waiting in the wings. The next thing after coping with the health crisis is not just the economic crisis – but also austerity.

We simply must see this coming and we must prepare for a situation in which, at best, we hold on to achievements and, at worst, join the battles against austerity and try not to lose all of them. For this, we cannot wait for a non-existent post-Corona time. We need to develop a strategy right now.

For these struggles, we must also prepare for a situation in which we will have a heavily restricted infrastructure. Leftist coffee shops, coffee collectives, bars, clubs, companies, festivals, book shops, as well as many medium-sized and small companies owned by migrants  – in short: All places where rent has to be paid or debts have to be repaid either will be badly damaged or won’t survive the Corona crisis at all. This doesn’t just mean they are no longer open as social and maker spaces (this may also apply to club rooms), but also that the literature and debates preserved there are no longer accessible. To make matters worse, the funding these places have created for our work will disappear. With it, the last nooks of alternative life (i. e. different life/work combos) will also disappear, or at least reduce. It’s not just the Left, but we, too,  will become much more susceptible to blackmail and structural “bourgeoisification” than during the past 30 years. Therefore, we must also prepare to re-grow our backbone and with it the prerequisite for radical subjectivity.

Neutrality as a weapon

An elusive adversary in the above dispute is the ideology of political neutrality. It is one of Neoliberalism’s central anti-communist characters that we have incorporated socially and individually over the past 30 years. This is synonymous with the negation and depletion of the political. Regarding Corona, this means that the drastic and serious measures described above do not appear as political action, as the subject of negotiation and change, but as crisis management. As neutral, even technocratic crisis management.

For us, there are advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that the current crisis management is explicitly not right wing. This doensn’t mean it cannot become so, nor does it mean that the previous measures were all justified, positive and without alternatives. That’s not what I’m talking about. Crisis management is “neutral” because its foremost aim is to implement and enforce “public health” measures that are deemed reasonable. Of course, what is reasonable can be assessed differently, but is predetermined to be without any alternative by experts, such as the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)3. But of course, this “neutrality” is quickly debunked when Germany decides to stop exporting medical equipment and when it is without question that educational and cultural institutions are the first to be closed – not factories. The neutrality of crisis management quickly turns out to be the neutrality in the logic of capitalist socialisation.

The disadvantage of this “neutrality” is the logic reproduced by this mode. True political action pretends to be pragmatism, insight into necessity, or means-end rationality. The current crisis management is propagated as being without alternatives and the more efficiently it is enforced, the better, and the fewer people will die. China is a role model for unparalleled crisis intervention. Here, crisis management is not designed to be authoritarian, but structurally, it encourages the depletion of politics via the TINA model (“There Is No Alternative”) and thus strengthens tendencies towards authoritarianism. In this mode of “rational and reasonable” measures, politics as political action is no longer visible. These measures appear as immediately obvious, just like the Black Zero4, or the unity of all political parties, the harmonisation of the political sphere, or the downgrading of parliaments to rubber-stamping organisations.

So we experience again how politics happens without it taking place. However – a requirement for rebellion and social change is the idea that political action decides how our society is set up and that everything can be changed. In the Corona crisis, this prerequisite for uncovering the capitalist absurdity – like the profit-oriented health system, flights with empty seats to retain the airline slots, exclusive trade negotiations on the sale of the vaccine, having to work, but not being allowed to visit friends … – might actually lead to something. That’s why we have to deal with it. We must expose the inner workings of the belief in neutrality and actively push it back. Especially in our own minds.

Man does not live on bread alone

The couched goal of the current interventions is to “preserve the highest good: life”. This is a genuinely left-wing position, which so far had to be defended against all those who are now harping on about it. It would be absurd to take offense. Nonetheless, we have to question the idea of the life that is being defended here. Life is more than just survival. For a very long time, the left has criticised Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: First grub and ethics later. Rightly so. In my opinion, a left-wing position must be to reject the reduction of our interests, to reject the notion that life is just survival.

Life always carries the risk of dying and allows measures to reduce this risk, not to take it, or to consciously defy it (bicycle helmet, drugs, high-risk sport, accidents, illnesses, resistance). What we deem important about life is sociality, doing things that bring us joy, fulfillment, pleasure. For a time, we can do without many of them, maybe even all of them, but not permanently, not for months, neither individually nor socially. I’m not saying that Corona is the same as not using a bicycle helmet. I want to show that ensuring survival has a price. One we should name and discuss.

There is no such debate in a political primacy of survival, which is – on top of everything – depicted as being without alternative. For example, a process of situational, but also long-term cultural depletion of society will be accepted (post-Corona, the culture and media will be considerably decimated and look much more mainstream). This, too, will spawn various forms of brutalisation and leave its traces.

At the same time, the mode of socio-cultural restriction is mainly informed by previous ideas of normality, by what constitutes a “normal life”. Physical distancing is much more compatible with a bourgeois existence that consists of work, nuclear family and three friends, than with other forms of living and loving. The current regulations on prohibiting contacts illustrate this. Walking to a partner you’re not married to might have to be justified to the police. But is it any of police’s business how I relate to people? Why should I even justify myself at all? I am being denied the right to analyse and decide. In the policeman’s mind, it’s a question of normativity whether I can see her/him or not. The standard that is applied to the current measures is therefore one we as the left absolutely have to criticise.

This isn’t about refusing to contribute to Corona prevention. It’s about not negating the discrepancy between meeting friends and still going to work in favour of the completed shutdown. Our answer has to be more complex. As a (radical) left we have to start a debate about what a (good) life (for everyone!) means and what socially vital work has to be done to achieve it. Based on this question and in contrast to the previous measures, deliberating and determining appropriate actions would open up completely new lines of discussion – for example, about the questions of reproductive work, or the needs satisfaction not in line with the normality of capitalist socialisation. Such a debate would help us to fulfill our main duty: To open up the space of the political and the utopian. To make it imaginable. To fill it and thus to reclaim it for us and in the minds of everyone.

Moralism, guilt and solidarity

The current debate on Corona is largely moralised and individualised and wants to be free from contradictions. State measures must be followed without question. Or, in some cases, they are completley rejected as Corona hysteria. Both positions have the same attitude, but different points of view. What is lost is the contradiction between solidary practices and physical distancing, between prohibited mutual assistance and permitted paid help from strangers, between working and meeting friends, between solidarity within and solidarity at the borders. What is lost in all this is the moment of careful consideration, which can always have different outcomes. The idea that people are able to consider carefully and have the right to come to different results is replaced by the idea that there shouldn’t be any variance in it. Whoever steps out of line is guilty. This is based on contempt for the masses, which is the assumption that if people deliberated and decided for themselves, the majority would act irresponsibly. We, the left, should not adopt such an approach.

Everyone’s individual responsibility should ensure that the weaker are protected. Thus, we are called upon to show solidarity. Many among the left not only share this appeal, but also actively promote it. #Staythefuckhome pointedly suggests responsibility for the death of others through one’s own perceived self-centered behaviour. This doesn’t mean individual action or behaviour doesn’t matter. It is one of the core beliefs of a left that any action (also individual action) has meaning. Nevertheless. It presents quite a number of problems.

On the one hand, invoking individual responsibility as a hegemonic discourse conceals the fact that our society is set up to be unequal, i. e. not everyone has the same, not the same opportunities, resources, etc. It also hides the fact that the reason why we must currently chose between those who live and those who die (in the case of ventilators) is contrived because it is based on a shortage of goods/services/opportunities/access geared towards maximising profit and competition, and that these goods don’t really have to be scarce. Most people will not die of Corona, but from a lack of material resources, from a lack of hygiene, from a more harmful, because cheaper lifestyle, from a lack of health insurance, etc. The focus on individual responsibility marginalises criticism of the structure of our society. It blames individuals for everything that is to come, thus encourages depoliticisation of the debate and undermines our outlook on change.

On the other hand, the term solidarity is reinterpreted. The leftist idea of solidarity is a collective, indivisible one, which can’t be pitted against each other. By pointing out that solidarity with the weaker consists in giving up individual privileges (to be allowed to go out) solidarity is de-collectivised and (unintentionally) structurally pitted against the interests of other needy groups. Sacrifice is not an active deed of solidarity. Neither is flooding social media with statements. Albeit unintentionally, it undermines the left’s present concept of solidarity. Also, because this solidarity is exclusive and Eurocentric. Not only do calls for help go unanswered from Moria, Rojava or Gaza, who have declared they do not have sufficient resources to deal with Corona – no hygiene products, no ventilators, no staff, no hospitals, sometimes not even running water.

Continuously and structurally, our way and form of life ensure that people die (and not just a few). Our way and form of life demand that we permanently decide and select what is worthy living and unworthy living (at national borders, in camps, in government departments). Governments and the media demand morality and solidarity, all the while the “normal” dying to which we have become accustomed has never sparked solidarity. That they demand it now and with such vehemence exposes what it is really all about: This time, we are the ones who die and the call for solidarity with the weaker is actually an expression of fear for our own survival. This is not the solidarity we mean.

Why is this important? Solidarity is one of the most central terms to explain why we are leftists. It presents us with some major challenges when the social understanding of solidarity changes, or narrows.

So what to do

1. Ability to act. Basically: Keeping our infrastructure accessible, changing and establishing our communication. Creating new co-ordination structures. Speeding up our ability to respond. Learning to completely rebuild left infrastructure.

2. First things first. The lists of demands already exist. We have to use the current situation and use pressure to gain what can be gained and not to lose sight of the coming fight against austerity.

3. Stimulate rebellion. We are used to finding answers for unusual situations. We’re good at that. In other situations, we (in a broader sense) have already shown creativity and the courage for rebellion (claiming back the streets against blanket bans etc.). Now we are faced with a completely new reality. But here, too, are opportunities to overcome the silence. We have to acquire and spread courage and we have to experiment. What about demos with spacers and face masks and gloves. It has never been easier to cover your face. Radio ballet, synchronised forms of running, jumping, a demo without actually staging a demo. Distance mandate and contact ban are observed. And breached at the same time. We also need to gain more experience with digital resistance practices, organise server crashes, etc, without ever giving up the physical public sphere.

4. Orient politically. Filling the blank space of our intellectual and strategic ability for orientation. For ourselves and for others, we have to broaden our horizon and continuously point out what is politically possible and that it is possible. It is important not to repeat the same old discourses, but to remove morality and insert the political. We have to shape an ideological response against depoliticisation, neutralisation, individualisation and blame. We have to create and defend sociality.

So far, the policy of the iL5 is heavily geared towards learning, raising awareness and towards the processes of change in mutual practices, in political processes, in the struggles etc. These processes are taken into our daily life and from there permanently change our view on the world. Nothing wrong with that. At the same time, we know that common sense experience rarely leads to a system of ideological coordinates, but for the most part remain piecemeal and contradictory. This means, although people have good and empowering experiences with us and our iL practices and struggles, the majority does not change the ideological neutrality figure, or the political void. Often, a person doesn’t even perceive or articulate the objectively existing contradiction as such.

It is right and important to continue to relate to social conflicts, i. e. to agents who need us as allies because they lack the collective fighting experience. Day-to-day, however, we must not limit ourselves to this level of common sense, but we must lead an ideological debate against the figure of neutrality and individualisation that is both ostensible and aggressive. This is the only way to address that the issue here is decision making. Rethinking what politics is, that the world is how it is because of active decision making, and that the structure of our society can be decided anew at any time. This is the antithesis of the active depoliticisation of the ideological neutrality figure.

At the same time, we have to focus on the utopian. We must fight for the closure of the camps, asylums, and deportation prisons. We must expose the cruelty of the functionality of capitalist globalisation. We must show utopian, yet obvious alternatives. Nothing less will do.

  1. Translator‘s note, TN: Short name for Germany’s current social welfare system
  2. TN: Basic social welfare in Germany
  3. The Robert Koch Institute is a German federal government agency and research institute responsible for disease control and prevention. … As an upper federal agency, it is subordinate to the Federal Ministry of Health.” Wikipedia
  4. TN: Literal translation: Schwarze Null. Refers to Germany’s zero deficit policy.
  5. The iL [literal translation: interventionist left] describes itself as a “multicentric post-autonomous organisation” that strives for the “abolition of all circumstances in which a human is an abject, oppressed, abandoned, contemptible being” and thus refers to Karl Marx. [3 https://interventionistische-linke.org/positionen/il-im-aufbruch-ein-zwischenstandspapier]Translated from: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interventionistische_Linke#cite_note-zpapier-3