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.”

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Washington DC 09 20 2021. More than 600,000 white flags honor lives lost to COVID, on the National Mall. The art installation " In America: Remember" was created by Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg.

Depoliticizing Social Murder in the COVID-19 Pandemic

­­By Nate Holdren

Lire en français.

The present pandemic nightmare is the most recent and an especially acute manifestation of capitalist society’s tendency to kill many, regularly, a tendency that Friedrich Engels called “social murder.” Capitalism kills because destructive behaviors are, to an important extent, compulsory in this kind of society. Enough businesses must make enough money or serious social consequences follow — for them, their employees, and for government. In order for that to happen, the rest of us must continue the economic activities that are obligatory to maintain such a society.

That these activities are obligatory means capitalist societies are market dependent: market participation is not optional, but mandatory. As Beatrice Adler-Bolton has put it, in capitalism “you are entitled to the survival you can buy,” and so people generally do what they have to in order to get money. The predictable results are that some people don’t get enough money to survive; some people endure danger due to harmful working, living, and environmental conditions; some people endure lack of enough goods and services of a high enough quality to promote full human flourishing; and some people inflict the above conditions on others. The simple, brutal reality is that capitalism kills many, regularly. (The steadily building apocalypse of the climate crisis is another manifestation of the tendency to social murder, as is the very old and still ongoing killing of workers in the ordinary operations of so many workplaces.)

The tendency to social murder creates potential problems that governments must manage, since states too are subject to pressures and tendencies arising from capitalism. They find themselves facing the results of social murder, results they are expected to respond to, with their options relatively constrained by the limits placed on them by capitalism. Within that context governments often resort to a specific tactic of governance: depoliticization.

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