COVID and the Rights of the Living

Jonny Black

May 23, 2022

There were two in paradise and the choice was offered to them: happiness without freedom, or freedom without happiness. No other choice. Tertium non datur.

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921)


Just months after statues of Thomas Jefferson and other American Revolutionary figures were pulled down and smashed, the Trump administration unleashed the largest industrial mobilization in America since World War II, dubbed Operation Warp Speed. While the vaccines thus developed have been used across the world to reduce illness and mortality, vaccination mandates have been deployed in tandem with lockdowns, border closures, and severe social restrictions to protect threadbare health care systems the world over.

The Left has often championed “Zero-Covid” approaches, comparing them favorably to the supposed let-it-rip approach of the Trump administration. During the sharpest rise in unemployment since the Great Depression, Trump emphasized the need for treatments that would allow America to get back to work as soon as possible, saying, “the cure cannot be worse than the problem itself.” For the Left, this has been taken as a rationale for capitalist profiteering and exploitation at the expense of public health. But, as we have known for a century, if the American economy collapses, it is not only Americans that will suffer.

The Left has taken the opportunity to offer any number of welfare-state-policy-proposal grab bags and technocratic visions of post-pandemic politics that would attempt to use the crisis of Covid to undermine neoliberalism, which is often posited as the triumph of the negative freedom of the market and individualism over and against the positive freedom of collectivism embodied in the welfare state. Marx and Engels, critiquing “confused notions of community goods,” understood, even if today’s self-avowed Left has forgotten, that wage labor was already a means of social distribution that had fallen into self-contradiction in capitalism and that welfare was a police measure, initiated by the Bonapartist counterrevolution, most strikingly shown by the unfinished 1848 revolution in Europe. The workers were not yet able to take power and the bourgeoisie were no longer able to rule through civil society. It fell to figures like Louis Bonaparte to initiate a capitalist politics in permanence, wielding state power to manage the enduring social crisis of capitalist society; that the workers, not work, are rendered superfluous.

The freedom of labor

Man’s ability to alienate his life activity from himself in a free exchange, to both contribute to and draw from the social wealth of bourgeois society, was a giant leap forward for all mankind. The small steps of an individual, even just to and from work, had now come to continually reconstitute society. Inaugurated most spectacularly by the Dutch and the English and, later, by the