The Roots of the Present Uprising: The Threefold Pandemic of Racism, Covid-19, and Disaster Capitalism

For my friend Alexey Ilyusha and his beautiful children

  1. What Can We Be? Destructive Potentialities

Barack Obama’s slogan, “Yes We Can,” the English version of the United Farm Workers’ slogan, “Sí, se puede,” was emptied of its real meaning by Obama’s failure to promote the sense of hope he so much liked to talk about. But talk is cheap, as they say. Obama’s promises and his ‘audacity’ melted before the very pathetic and ridiculous regard for his predecessor, G.W. Bush, possibly a war criminal. Obama decided that it was better to look at the future rather than try to establish degrees of accountability for the horrific crimes committed by the Bush administration after 9/11. Now we see what that future was: our present of disaster, vulnerability, and a stifled future, the nothingness of a time (not) to come—unless it is brought about by revolutionary desire. Now, Bush says he’s “anguished,” he and his wife are. But if he really were anguished, he would go and ask forgiveness from the people of Iraq. Yes, we can destroy, kill, and conquer. We can also, however, do the exact opposite –or perhaps, in a Spinozian, Nietzschean and Marxian fashion, not the opposite, but what is essentially different— destroy, yes, the old lies, destroy stupidity, and build a better world. We bear in mind the great lines from Sophocles’ Antigone, “Many wonders, many terrors, / But nothing more wonderful than the human race / Or more dangerous” (lines 332-334). Before we turn to the wonderful, let us continue with the dangerous and frightening, the despicable and –to say it in the manner of James Baldwin—the moral monstrosity. The Bush administration, before the vain promises and hopes of Obama, was the continuation of a history of contempt for life, what is dear in life, as well as contempt for intelligence and care. At the same time, Bush and his administration intensified the history of violence typical of this country, they enhanced disrespect and cruelty (with their “enhanced interrogations,” for instance, an idiotic euphemism for the torture inflicted on prisoners of war who, against the Geneva Convention, were not given the status of prisoners of war), and they promoted a culture of extreme violence and exterminism whose strange fruit is now apparent everywhere. Obama and his administration did not reverse course, but they instead strengthened and institutionalized, though in an apparently gentler (more liberal and thus more hypocritical) manner, that paradigm of violence. The war against intelligence continued under Obama as we saw the greatest ever number of prosecuted whistleblowers –though at the end of his second term, he did commute, to his credit, Chelsea Manning’s prison sentence; the drone assassination program initiated by Bush was escalated with Obama; the Guantanamo camp was not closed, and deportation of immigrants reached new heights. All these (and other similar) elements paved the way to the ‘current occupant,’ as some refer to the white and white-supremacist guy currently in the White House. (We even find mentioning his name offensive and odious.) The point is not to deny the historical importance of the election of Obama as the first Black president in U.S. history. Rather, the point is to see the continuation of business as usual under him, and thus the fact that his two terms in power ultimately constituted a useful link between what came before and after him, between these two times of great danger and, especially now, with the current occupant, especially if he is reelected (a very possible thing), of the looming end of civilization as such, the end of human care, where care is to be understood as the time between birth and death, origin and destruction. To be sure, this state of affair is not an absolute novelty, nor is it an exception; rather, it is the rule, which must be subverted and dismantled.


  1. What Can We Be? Constructive Potentialities

In a very sketchy and cursory way, I have attempted above to give a sense of the context in which the ontology of unrest expressed by the Black Lives Matter movement rests (and does not rest). The threefold pandemic of Covid-19, racism, and disaster capitalism constitutes what Walter Benjamin calls the time of now, the time for a real state of emergency, and thus the time for revolution. In his Eighth Thesis on the Philosophy of History, Benjamin says, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism” (257; emphasis added). I have highlighted what is possibly the most important moment in Benjamin’s passage. However, the final moment about the struggle against Fascism is today very important again, especially after the vile and odious attack against Antifa and Black Lives Matter itself by the current occupant. But let’s briefly look at each aspect of the threefold pandemic.


a) The Covid-19 pandemic started as a natural phenomenon (pace all conspiracy theory and negationist positions, typical for the most part of very reactionary and right-wing mindsets); it started as a health crisis. Much is still unknown about the novel Coronavirus, as epidemiologists and virologists say. A virus mutates. It is in the nature of viruses to do so, and this is, parenthetically, a form of perfection in the sense of Spinoza, if you will: they mutate in order to endure. Nothing wrong with that, one might say. However, containing or failing to contain the spreading of a virus is no longer part of the cycle of the virus itself. Viruses, whether they are life forms or not (this is still being debated in virology and biology), or perhaps forms at the threshold of life, they have a pattern and follow a cycle as all parasites do. Indeed, parasitology in general is a very fascinating subject. However, with a pandemic the mutation is not simply in the order of biology. There is another, perhaps more dangerous (or at least equally dangerous) mutation of the health crisis itself, for it reaches into the order of the economy and society, politics and culture, as we have seen and will continue to see with the current pandemic. Thus the response to the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed all possible shortcomings and abuses in the mismanagement of governance and society. It is interesting to notice that, as we speak, the U.S. and Brazil, governed by the two most inept and dangerous among the extraordinarily many useless (and truly harmful) ‘leaders,’ have the greatest numbers of Covid-19 cases in terms of both contagion and deaths. But let’s leave this at that for now. The mutation, not of the virus, but of the viral crisis, has enhanced the society of surveillance and control under which we have been increasingly living for the past forty or fifty years, and certainly with the novel power of digital technology. It has changed people’s habits and routines, thus people’s ethos, in a way that seems to be, once again, an exception, but that in fact normalizes and institutionalizes to ever greater degrees. It has displaced economies, impoverished people who were already at the margins or near the margins of economies and society, and it has enriched those few who, as Marx says, “have long ceased to work” (1977: 873). It has exacerbated problems of economic inequality at the local and global levels. In the U.S. in particular, where Black and Latino communities have been hit hardest by the pandemic, it has also exacerbated structures of oppression and inequality that make up the history of racist violence of this country. This situation becomes particularly evident and dangerous when one looks at the concentration camps at the U.S.-Mexico border, where detainees are contracting the virus but lack adequate care, or have no care at all, and in the prison industrial complex, where the situation is similar to that of the camp and that just like the camp must be dismantled and abolished, as many voices, notably that of Angela Davis, in the prison abolition movement constantly point out.


b) Racism is another aspect of this pandemic, or rather it is a pandemic in its own right. I cannot now rehearse the history of racist violence in the U.S. Certainly, with the public lynching of George Floyd last May, something has happened whereby racism has become the primal mask of this country’s face. For some reason, this brutal police murder made racist violence more visible in its institutional and behavioral forms. Perhaps this was in part due to the fact that in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the police did not halt or diminish their attitude of extreme violence, but augmented it. What everybody saw in the police killing of George Floyd was the brutal and tragic contraction of centuries of racist violence: the beatings, the lynchings, the burning of houses and churches, and so on. Of course, police brutality cases are at the order of the day in the U.S. Just in the past few years, we can remember the names of Eric Garner and Freddie Gray and in the past few months those of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. In fact, police brutality is a redundant expression, for the police are brutal in their very essence. This is not only true in places like Egypt or the Philippines, governed by more openly cruel and ruthless dictators, but in Western democracies as well, with the remarkable primacy of the U.S. Indeed, as Walter Benjamin says in a very important passage of his Critique of Violence, “And though the police may, in particulars everywhere appear the same, it cannot be finally denied that their spirit is less devastating where they represent, in absolute monarchy, the power of a ruler in which legislative and executive supremacy are united, than in democracies where their existence, elevated by no such relation, bears witness to the greatest conceivable degeneration of violence” (287). Perhaps the tide is beginning to change. Demands for defunding the police are growing exponentially after the murder of George Floyd, and in Minneapolis some weeks ago the City Council unanimously voted to disband the police department and replace it with community-led structures for safety and, I imagine, care.


Yet, in addition to the more institutional forms of the police, the prison, and the camp, this type of racist violence remains systemic at the behavioral, ideological, and, if I may use this word here, ‘private’ level. Right-wing and white-supremacist individuals systematically practice this type of violence with a strange, and obviously false, sense of legitimacy. But the fact that their sense of legitimacy is false does not mean that it is not real at the same time, with real and tragic consequences in the lives of others. The murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia by two white men, father and son (the father, a former police officer) last February is but one of the latest examples of this type of extreme violence. But since the death of George Floyd and the powerful protests of Black Lives Matter and other revolutionary movements and formations, we have been witnessing many cases of sick and sickening whites exerting violence or calling the police because, for instance, a Black or Brown person is walking in their neighborhood or is telling them to put their dog on a leash in accordance with the law, as it happened some weeks ago in Central Park. Often those who practice this type of violence are supporters of the current occupant. But it is important to notice that it is perhaps not the case that they think and act the way they do because they are his supporters, but the other way around: they become his supporters because they think and act that way. The current administration has given shelter and (an odious and false kind of) legitimacy to all these misguided people. Therein lies one of the gravest among the many dangers we face today. At the same time, the current occupant multiplies and intensifies his attacks against those who long and struggle for a better world and the possibility of happiness and the good life for all. In his latest speech, he attacked Black Lives Matter activists, but also the Marxists and anarchists, and so on. Truly, the whole thing comes down to a question of joy and sadness, in the sense of Spinoza, of love and hate. As Sigmund Freud says, “in the last resort we must begin to love in order that we may not fall ill, and must fall ill if, in consequence of frustration, we cannot love” (66). It is then essentially a matter of health and care versus private and public illness and social pathology. It is the struggle between these two things: care and stupidity, love and hate, joy and sadness. But it is a struggle that presents the elements, the seeds, of a civil war, exemplified by the resentful and fearful stupidity of slogans like “All Lives Matter,” or “White Lives Matter,” trying to contrast the profound historical and ontological meaning of Black Lives Matter (which of course is a guide not only for Black and Brown people in the U.S., but, everywhere, for all those who have a sense of history, the ability to think adequately, the desire for love, happiness, and care, as well as the power, as potency, to move away from servitude and sadness towards freedom and joy. In other words, Black Lives Matter has nothing to do with identity politics.) This struggle is also exemplified by the war around monuments and statues. It started with the righteous demolition of monuments dedicated to racist people, like Christopher Columbus, and it has had a significant impact at least at the symbolic level. However, on July 4th, a statue of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass was torn down in Rochester, NY, in a retaliatory manner. Needless to say, Christopher Columbus signifies servitude and sadness, the history of conquest, enslavement, murder, and the brutal accumulation of capital; Frederick Douglass signifies freedom and joy, human accomplishment and love. Thus, all this whining about racist monuments being torn down –not to speak about the violent reaction to it—makes no sense whatsoever. Yes we can. As Nietzsche says in On the Genealogy of Morality, “If a shrine is to be set up, a shrine has to be destroyed” (65-66; original emphasis).


c) The third aspect of this pandemic –and, again, a pandemic in its own right—is provided by capitalism, and disaster capitalism. In Chapter 26 of Volume I of Capital, Marx says that “the methods of primitive accumulation are anything but idyllic” (874). The history of capitalism is, in fact, “written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire” (875). Extreme violence –and racist extreme violence, at that—has been a constant of capitalist development from its beginning; it is the motor of its individuating process, its innermost thisness, and the sinister glow of capital as “a general illumination” (Marx 1973: 107). Marx says, “In actual history, it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part” in creating the preconditions of capital, its primitive accumulation (Marx 1977: 874). In fact, as I have said, in addition to constituting its preconditions, this form of extreme violence has continued throughout the centuries, and it continues today. It is in this sense that David Harvey prefers to speak of accumulation by dispossession (Harvey 2003), a concept close to that of disaster capitalism, defined by Naomi Klein (2007). However, the extreme violence inherent in capitalist accumulation, expropriation and dispossession, its modus operandi, is always based on a logic of destruction and disaster, and in this sense it constitutes a terrible pandemic of its own. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels, interestingly touching on “the epidemic of overproduction” (163; emphasis added), point out that the crises through which capital proceeds always happen within the paradigm of violence, conquest, exploitation, and destruction we have seen above. Marx and Engels say, “And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented” (164). This is disaster capitalism, which brings about its own end, its own death, as it cannot withstand forever –or even just for long—the political struggles that will put it to rest. As Marx and Engels say, the capitalist and racist class is “unfit to rule because it is incompetent” (168). Indeed, “its existence is no longer compatible with society” (169).


  1. What We Can Be: Malcolm X and Working Class Kids

In an important page of his Autobiography, Malcolm X recounts the experience he had with his English teacher, a white man, when he was very young. He says, “I know that he probably meant well in what he happened to advise me that day. I doubt that he meant any harm. It was just in his nature as an American white man. I was one of his top students, one of the school’s top students—but all he could see for me was the kind of future ‘in your place’ that almost all white people see for black people” (36). The teacher asked Malcolm what he wanted to be when he grew up, and Malcolm replied he wanted to be a lawyer. The teacher said that one needed to be realistic. He told Malcolm that everybody liked him at the school, yet, he said, “you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger” (ibid.). He continued, “You need to think about something you can be” (ibid; emphasis in the original). And he advises Malcolm to consider becoming a carpenter. Malcolm X says that the more he thought about this, the more he felt uneasy. He repeats the fact that he was among the best students at the school, yet “apparently I was still not intelligent enough, in their eyes, to become whatever I wanted to be” (37). Then, the most important moment in the whole passage is when he says, “It was then that I began to change—inside” (ibid.). It is this change, an ontological term, a term of unrest, that is intimately related to the ontology of potentiality, of the can. What can be? Indeed, from history we now know what Malcolm X could be. Negation produces transformation, and as Langston Hughes says in his poem, a dream deferred will explode. Hughes says, “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun / Or fester like a sore— / And then run? / Does it stink like rotten meat? / Or crust and sugar over— / like a syrupy sweet? / Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load. / Or does it explode?” It is the explosion we are witnessing and participating in at the present moment, the now time of the convergence of negation and transformation, necessity and potentiality. In the midst of the global health pandemic, when all that seemed certain and unshakable is shaken and crumbles, what has long been deferred, kept from coming about, comes back with the potency of the possible, the “Yes it can be.” I have noted above that the Black Lives Matter movement has nothing to do with identity politics, but it has everything to do with human emancipation at all level of life: the dismantling of capitalism and all systems of oppression. The task of the present uprising is to reshape the world and make the good life, joy and happiness, available to all. What is obsolete and odious will have to be superseded and abandoned. The story recounted by Malcolm X can be applied to many other situations of oppression and exclusion, of negation and consequent transformation. To give just an example, I will quote the title of a great book that deals with much of the same problematic, where the central moment, however, is not race but class. I mean Paul Willis’s Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, which highlights the “counter-school culture” (52), the anti-intellectualism and the open attack on intelligence, so widespread today. This is very similar to what we saw in the passage by Malcolm X. Yet, the time has come for destinies of negation, servitude, and capture, to become lines of flight towards the poetry (as poiesis) of the future.

[Note: The Italian translation of this article can be found in Effimera: Critica e sovversioni del presente,, for which the article was written to begin with.] Link to the Italian version:


Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. 1968. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations, trans.

Harry Zohn. New York: Shocken Books.

____________. 1978. “Critique of Violence.” In Reflections, trans. Edmund Jephcott.

New York: Shocken Books.

Freud, Sigmund.1991. “A Note on the Unconscious in Psychoanalysis” (1912). In General

            Psychological Theory, edited by Philip Rieff. Simon & Schuster.

Harvey, David. 2003. The New Imperialism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University


Hughes, Langston. 1995. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage.

Klein, Naomi. 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York:


Malcolm X. 1964. The Autobiography as Told to Alex Haley. New York: Ballantine Books.

Marx, Karl. 1973. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin      Nicolaus. New York: Vintage Books.

_______. 1977. Capital, Vol. I, trans. Ben Fowkes. New York: Vintage.

Marx and Engels. 1994c. “The Communist Manifesto.” In Selected Writings, ed. Lawrence H.      Simon. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1997. On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. Carol Diethe. Cambridge, UK:

Cambridge University Press.

Willis, Paul. 1977. Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class          

            Jobs. New York: Columbia University Press.

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