Death Drive to the Capitols

Opposition to lockdowns has finally turned into something resembling a movement in the last few days, with protests at state capitols in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Idaho, and other states demanding a re-opening of the economy. Like a zombie return of the Tea Party movement, these protests revivify activists from across the right-wing spectrum.

Ammon Bundy’s followers refresh the Tree of Liberty with the sputum of patriots. Proud Boys express masculine vigor in violation of socialist distancing. Infowars devotees update their globalist conspiracies with new characters from the World Health Organization. And now regular Trump supporters finally have something they can do while their liberal counterparts sew masks. And it turns out, as Jason Wilson reported in the Guardian yesterday, one of the protests was organized by a group bankrolled by “dark money” funds linked to the Koch Brothers like Castle Rock and Donors Capital Fund.

There is something both potent and dangerous in this as-yet small movement. People already primed by a politics oriented toward the marketplace, the individual, and the nation will give meaning to their suffering through a seemingly coherent story about state-ordered economic shutdowns, coercive social measures, and a rival nation-state seen as responsible for this misery. As things get worse, this narrative could become more tenable.

This demand will be pressed at the top by elites at the state and national level who can’t tolerate all that surplus value sitting around the house while they are asked to provide the cordage for a new social safety net. It may be pressed from the middle by those who Tocqueville called “anxious men of small property.” Defining self-worth and the worth of others through a producerist ethic, these are people, who, instead of joining demands for state intervention and structural reform, struggle to hold onto whatever economic security they have by demanding that everyone get back to work and make things go back to the way they were.

In some sense then, these protests to re-open the economy operate like the death drive. It is not so much that people want to be killed by the virus. They are not shouting “Give me liberty and give me death.” But there is something here about what Freud called “an urge in organic life to restore an earlier state of things,” to a state of quiescence. There is much more to be explored about why elements of the right would move from complaining about shutdowns, to emphatically embracing untested cures, to willingly engaging the exact thing that clearly spreads the deadly virus itself.

But a fantasy of going back to a time before COVID 19 is for many people more compelling, and even more imaginable, than a new politics of care and mutuality that redistributes both power and resources in an egalitarian way.

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