NEW YORK, NY - MAY 24, 2020: New York Times newspaper with "U.S. Deaths Near 100,000, An Incalculable Loss" front-page article delivered to front door in Manhattan.

Pandemic Nihilism, Social Murder, and the Banality of Evil

­­By Nate Holdren

Every day in the pandemic, many people’s lives end, and others are made irrevocably worse.[1]

These daily losses matter inestimably at a human level, yet they do not matter in any meaningful way at all to the public and private institutions that govern our lives. Our suffering is inconsequential to the machinery of power and to those who compose and operate that machinery. This has been the case all along, but in this phase of the pandemic, our suffering has been nihilistically recast as not just inconsequential, but inevitable by the administration and the voices it has cultivated as its proxies. Consider, for example, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre’s remarks during President Biden’s July 2022 COVID-19 infection: “As we have said, almost everyone is going to get COVID.”

The nihilism that the Biden administration displays is both convenient and necessary for the personnel who help intensify the avoidable harms of the pandemic, which amount to what Friedrich Engels called social murder. The goal of much of the administration’s policy is to depoliticize those harms, so as not to face any responsibility for them. There appear to be no built-in limits on what the administration will attempt to achieve this goal: anyone waiting for officials’ consciences to kick in should prepare for a long, hard winter.

To that end, the government officials, employers, and middle managers helping to cause preventable harms exhibit a variant of what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil: a willful thoughtlessness and lack of imagination cultivated by the demands of bureaucracy and pursuit of professional success — they are people with “no motives at all” other than looking out for professional advancement. Institutions select for officials who are capable of the appearance of sincerity in doing what they’re told and of rationalizing uncomfortable orders. The more time people spend in such positions, the better they get at these mental operations, and the sincerity becomes more than just appearance.

The point of such officials, in part, is to help institutions navigate the larger pressures generated by what the philosopher Tony Smith calls the valorization imperative, meaning the requirement in our society that all social activity be made compatible with the ongoing generation of profit. Much of the banal evil of the pandemic arises from institutions not wanting to bear various kinds of costs that capitalist society generates, even if the result is suffering and death for others.

Indeed, an organization that comes through the pandemic relatively financially unscathed at the price of other people dying is a successful organization, according to capitalism’s social standards: this kind of society selects for antisocial behavior, and this selection pressure acts all the more intensely up the food chain.

I know all of this, but for some reason I still continue to greet the latest twists and turns of the pandemic with disbelief and a gut level sense that surely now public officials will do something. This takes a particular and tiring mental toll, and I know I’m not alone here — I have lost count of the number of friends who have quietly asked me “do you ever feel like you’re losing your mind from all of this?” Perhaps we feel what the powerful refuse to. I’m unsure.

The philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin once wrote that “the astonishment that the things we are experiencing (…) are ‘still’ possible is (…) not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.”

I continue to find myself surprised and appalled all over again each time authorities act consistently with their longstanding pattern of treating the effects of the pandemic as political consequences to avoid, rather than as a health catastrophe to substantively address. In keeping with Benjamin’s observation, I continue to learn from this repeated and distressing astonishment only that I am still in the grip of some myths about the ruling class and their functionaries.

As I repeat the unpleasant realization that help is not on the way from above, and attempt to think my way out of the assumptions that set me up for future unpleasant astonishment, I keep returning to two works of art.

The first is a scene from the film “And The Band Played On,” based on the book of the same name, about the AIDS epidemic. During a congressional hearing, a representative of the blood industry scoffs at the idea of spending a hundred million dollars merely “because we’ve had a handful of transfusion fatalities and eight dead hemophiliacs?” (The film is a bit dated in that some of the heroes work at the CDC … imagine!)

The nihilism of the cost/benefit calculation expressed in that scene — that the dead are simply too few to be worth the cost — is as appalling now as when I first saw it, but it took me some time to realize the degree of elite consensus on that nihilism, both then and now. The same nihilism led to inaction on AIDS, the workplace accidents that regularly occur in the economy, and the government’s response to the COVID pandemic.

The second is “It’s About Blood,” a song by Steve Earle about a preventable mining disaster in 2010 that killed 29 miners. “Look me in the eye,” Earle demands in the opening line, imagining a confrontation with someone responsible for the safety violations that helped cause the disaster, and fantasizing about really getting to them as he concludes the song’s first verse: “before we leave here you’re gonna understand.”

Earle’s song expresses justified outrage over these preventable deaths. As the song’s title and refrain stress, “it’s about blood,” a point he elaborates on by contrasting two sets of value systems: “the state of the economy, fiscal reality, profit and loss, none of that matters once you’re underground anyway,” adding that after the deaths of the 29, anyone concerned with such narrow economic matters “damn sure can’t tell me nothing about cost.” It’s powerful.

Yet, at the same time, what the song imagines in its anger is unrealistic, because it is too optimistic: The fiction of looking the powerful in the eye and having them look back — really see us — is satisfying in part because it helps avoid the ugly reality that they don’t look at us at all, but only through us.

The people responsible for the deaths in the pandemic do not really look anyone in the eye — certainly not when it’s inconvenient for their professional aims — and so they will never understand. They, too, cannot be told anything about cost in the sense that Earle rightly focuses on. That fact — of our lives and loved ones being so inconsequential — is hard to keep in mind, because it is so appalling. (Of course, the persistent political and managerial gaslighting doesn’t help either.)

I would like to believe this sketch is a bit of an overstatement, and to hope people in government and middle and upper management are, in fact, uncomfortably aware of the harms they help inflict on vulnerable people. Feeling some level of squeamishness at their own actions, I’m sure they would try to think about something else, perhaps by pointing to some good they do elsewhere in their sphere of influence (the limits of which they are quick to emphasize).

We know from the Spiderman principle that responsibility is directly proportional to power. Hence the powerful, when in need of restored legitimacy or an eased conscience, minimize the extent of their power. (If I may, the final chapter of my book is about a physician cut from this same cloth, by all accounts a sensitive man and devoted father who built a program of employment discrimination against disabled people, his personal misgivings apparently figuring not at all in what he actually did.)

Government and employers will provide only as much justice as they are forced to by the political consequences we create, no less and no more. To borrow from an old activist slogan, there’s no justice, there’s just us. Our challenge is to figure out what sorts of activism and organizing can create meaningful consequences for the various banal functionaries enacting and abetting this latest evil. Our goal should be to bring the pandemic to a substantive end — by promoting justice and actual human health — rather than by bringing it to a merely ideological end by normalizing social murder. In the longer term, our goal should be to end the social patterns that make this society murderous in so many ways — to make this the last such catastrophe, rather than what threatens to be one of many as the global climate emergency continues to worsen.

I admit I find all of this an incredibly daunting prospect. Still, aside perhaps from sheer luck, there is no other starting place from which we can reasonably expect this nightmare to truly end.

Nate Holdren is the author of Injury Impoverished and an occasional contributor to Bill of Health, Legal Form, and Organizing Work. He lives in Iowa where he is employed as an associate professor in the Program in Law, Politics, and Society at Drake University.

[1] A contrarian may rush to argue with me about what exactly constitutes “many” deaths — an experience I’ve often had in response to my book about workplace injuries — to which the answer with the most integrity is that, as far as any person of conscience is concerned, one who gets out a ruler to argue that what they see before them is in fact a short and not a tall stack of corpses is a ghoul beneath contempt.

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