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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

On the Plague of Neoliberal Capitalism

In war the enemy is the ‘other’ who poses a threat to my life or bodily integrity. The more proximate, the greater the threat. Distance can be life-saving. Then there is the kind of hatred, racism and discrimination that creates a world of human beings considered ‘untouchable’: the poor, the destitute, the black and brown who we are told to ‘keep our distance from’. In yet another sense, when we are angry or upset with our companion the first thing we seek is distance: “don’t touch me”!

In each of these cases something has gone wrong—hatred, anger, jealousy, selfishness are allowed to weaken and even destroy a normal sense of belonging, trust and solidarity with others. These moments of enforced distance and alienation are experienced as ‘unnatural’ because we are a species for whom intimacy, contact, touch and connection with others is inextricably bound up with physic balance and social well-being.

We are embodied animals who touch and can be touched by others. In the womb we are enveloped by a body, we come into the world through the body of another; we are nursed, embraced, hugged, cuddled, nestled and touched by those who care for and love us. As infants and young children, we see the world around us, but just as importantly we experience a primordial urge to connect with the observed world by touching what we see. When we meet someone that we are attracted to, we long for the intimacy of touch—and those first moments of contact through touch with a new love are often experienced as exciting and ‘electric’.

In a pandemic we are prevented from touching many of those we love—we may be fortunate enough to live inside a ‘pandemic bubble’ with our life partners, but for the most part we are necessarily isolated, separated, ‘distanced’ from friends, children, mothers, fathers, grandparents. Those moments of human contact with others which were once natural and taken for granted are discouraged for the sake of our individual and collective health, and even survival. This too is considered unnatural—something that is not welcomed, and after a time barely tolerated. Indeed, to be deprived of the company of others during a festive season that celebrates sharing, giving and gathering together, is not something most of us look forward to.

The present pandemic has shown us how crucial human touch and connection with others is to our psychic well-being—we are nourished and affirmed through our embodied social relations with others. But it has also, in a related way, demonstrated just how fundamentally dehumanizing and alienating is the ‘disease’ of modern capitalism. Like a pandemic there is something fundamentally abnormal or unnatural about the latter. How so?

In order to flourish modern capitalism must assume that the human ‘state of nature’ is at bottom a war of all against all, only mediated when competitiveness is rerouted through the ‘free market’ guided by an invisible hand. But the invisible hand is not one that touches or can be touched—it is an abstract hypothesis, a phantom hand that operates behind the scenes, justifying the exponential accumulation of wealth into fewer and fewer hands.

Modern neoliberal capitalism flourishes best when human beings act as disembodied strangers and wholly self-interested competitors. Its primary goal is to reconfigure human beings into discrete economic units: into atomized, isolated buyers and consumers with insatiable appetites, oriented by brute selfishness and unqualified greed. It is, indeed, the most virulent and lethal of global plagues—one that for the past 160 years has left a trail of human misery and death, of war and environmental destruction, unprecedented in human history.

When Robert Oppenheimer repeated the words of the Bhagavad Gita "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds" he was speaking of the devastating destructive power of the atomic bomb that he had a hand in developing. He might well have been speaking from the perspective of modern neoliberal capitalism. It too is a destroyer of worlds; it too is a viral pandemic—one that we can only be immunized against when we rise up in solidarity with our brothers and sisters and take back our precious world from the ‘squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, hands of financial elites’.

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