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After the Viral Economy

In 1988, Jean Baudrillard announced “the triumph of a viral econo­my.” Already, he saw that the manic circulation of financial assets, information, and—indeed—viruses, both biological and technological, would define the new era. If everything must circulate freely, he observed, “well, so then must germs, viruses, drugs, capital, and ter­rorists. And this circulation of the worst things is much quick­er than the circulation of the best.” Thus, instead of the End of Histo­ry emerging out of an unchallenged liberalism, Baudrillard predicted the intensifying destabilization of a system “relieved of ideologies.” He described “the triumph of a virtual economy” driven by the “de­structuring of value” and speculative circulation:

The game is such as to become suicidal: big companies end up buying back their own shares, which is nonsensical from the economic point of view. . . . But this is all part of the same mad­ness. . . . Companies are not traded—do not circulate—as real capital, as units of production; they are traded as a quantity of shares. . . . That this will be a prelude to other crashes is highly probable. . . . We might imagine labour itself—labour power—moving into this speculative orbit too. The worker would no longer sell his labour power for a wage, as in the classic capital­ist process, but sell his job itself, his employment. . . .

And everyone enjoys [these excesses] as spectacle: the stock market, the art market, the Wall Street raiders. We all delight in these things as part of capital’s spectacular brightening of our lives, its mania for the aesthetic. At the same time we delight—with more difficulty and more pain, and more ambiguously—in the spectacular pathology of that system, in the viruses which, like AIDS, the stock market crash and computer viruses, latch on to this delicate machinery and knock it out of kilter. But they are in fact following out the same logic: viruses and viru­lence are part of the logical, hyperlogical coherence of all our systems.

In exposing the fragility of America’s financialized economy and pre­carious workforce, the coronavirus has revealed nothing that we did not already know. Only now we are forced to confront what, for the last thirty years, we have preferred to ignore.

When Baudrillard’s essay was published, medical shortages in the Soviet Union were seen as evidence of a system in terminal decay. Today, however, it is America that finds itself dependent on China for even the most basic pharmaceutical ingredients and equipment—not to mention many manufactured products in other strategic sec­tors. Although the media has fawned over American billionaires’ private efforts to fly in supplies from China, it is hard not to hear echoes of secret Soviet flights to London to procure medicine for the nomenklatura. (And the fact that America now rivals the late Soviet Union in the prevalence of gerontocracy—from its politicians, to its business leaders, to its intellectuals—has been brought into macabre relief.)

The degeneracy of America’s plutocratic culture is typified by no one so much as Michael Bloomberg who, after spending nearly $1 billion on a pathetic presidential campaign, has pledged all of $50 million to coronavirus efforts ($40 million for global efforts and $10 million in the United States). But at least the sight of so many “wealth creators”—from private equity titans to Boeing executives—begging for Fed bailouts should dispel any remaining myths about the invio­lability of the free market. Somehow, America’s billionaires are its worst capital allocators! Bill Gates and Ray Dalio, for their part, have redoubled their already heroic efforts to increase America’s out­put of middlebrow punditry.

As for the “experts” and the media, they managed to get the virus wrong both ways. First, it was not a major concern for the United States—even the sainted Dr. Fauci said so. Suddenly, however, the “models” were predicting two million deaths in this country; thank­fully, these catastrophic estimates have proven wildly off the mark. At one point, wearing masks was denounced as ineffectual, if not coun­terproductive, for nonmedical personnel. Then it became mandatory in many areas. #FollowTheScience, indeed.

The “populists” like Steve Bannon, despite being ahead of the curve in warning about the virus, did not really do much better. Their only response was to double down on timid “shelter in place” policies and call for more severe lockdowns. It was left to Japan, Tai­wan, Korea, and Singapore to develop effective policy responses.

President Trump, true to form, turned the entire crisis into must-see TV. His experimental miniseries “Task Force,” livestreaming what Baudrillard might have called the spectacular projection of the viral state, became the entertainment event of the quarantine. The rest of the administration’s response will have to be judged in due time.

The question now is whether this crisis might lead to a healthier society. Can this country build a state that is capable of more than bailouts, an economy based on investment rather than financial engi­neering, and a technocracy with the competence to do more than design media infographics?

Those who so confidently led us into the viral economy have left us with the baggage of ideologies—liberalism, neoliberalism, conservatism—that cannot even comprehend the system they built, much less point to a way out of it. In a supreme irony, the more liberal hegemony wanes, the more its praetorians seem to delight in locking people up. As Baudrillard also predicted, “the social order loses credibility by the day. Not being ‘personally’ responsible for anything . . . the governing classes are all the more impotent. . . . Admittedly, they can fight the symptoms . . . but they will have great problems breaking the chain of events which has led up to this point, the epidemic of cir­cumstances and objective conditions which have themselves colluded in the catastrophe.”

In the face of this systemic impotence, nothing less than a systematic program of long-term national renewal is required—an ambitious agenda underwritten by an ambitious ideological realignment. Such a program is predicated upon restoring state capacity. In addition to pro­moting reindustrialization and technological advance, it must en­cour­age the reconstruction of a common good and the revitalization of a civic culture.

In this issue, as in every issue for the past four years, we continue our efforts to articulate such a program.

—The Editors

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume IV, Number 2 (Summer 2020): 3–5.

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