Photo: Gediminas Lesutis

Body politics at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic

  • April 11, 2020

Gender & Governmentality

The coronavirus, jumping from person to person, morbidly exposes our own bodies as the cogs in the global capitalist machine. But since we produce it, we can also unmake it.

This article first appeared in Spanish at the Economía Para Todos blog. English translation by the author.

Our bodies are never our own — as many feminist and queer thinkers have convincingly demonstrated, they are always implicated in the existence of others. Judith Butler shows that, from the start of our lives, we are dependent on other human beings for survival, and it is through love and care, or violence and neglect, that our bodies and subjective lives within them either flourish or perish. Silvia Federici, in turn, has demonstrated how capitalism is built upon the systematic oppression and marginalization of women, and how exploitation of their reproductive physical capacities and bodies is central in capitalist modes of accumulation.

Resonating with this, queer theorists like Jack Halberstam have shown how the economic sphere of capitalist societies is inseparable from the sphere of sexuality and desires, and that these do not constitute “the other” of the capitalist mode of production. Instead, as Nikita Dhawan and others argue, they are key forces and “a motor of economy” — sexual and other subjective desires are infused with economic needs and conditions. What we intimately crave is often strongly influenced by the phantasmagoria of consumer societies we live in. These desires, in turn, are used to secure the reproduction of a capitalist mode of production, the sphere of consumption, or labor relations.

Now that the COVID-19 pandemic is sweeping across the planet — closing down national borders, locking people into their homes, filling up hospitals and emptying supermarket shelves — these dynamics are urging us to rethink, explore and ultimately enact feminist and queer modes of politics. In a world where neoliberal thought has become so pervasive that most people seldom even recognize it as ideology, feminist and queer thinkers have made continuous efforts to expose the contradictions of this social engineering project that has made personal well-being an individual’s, rather than society’s, responsibility.

In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic we can clearly see the futility of neoliberal ideals of individuality, and understand how our subjective lives are constituted and sustained through one’s exposure to the functioning of broader social systems that order possibilities of dignified life.

The making and remaking of our bodies

A queer and feminist approach to contemporary politics, taking bodies as a starting point of social praxis, shows how abstract social and economic systems entangle us in unequal and exploitative ways. Doing this, it challenges capitalist societies that celebrate the values of individuality and competition normally attributed to white, middle-class, heterosexual, predominantly male populations, that are unable or unwilling to see how economic and social systems built on their own privileged subjectivity ignore the needs of those who do not readily fit in those categories.

Feminists, for instance, have highlighted how these systems disadvantage women by regulating their reproductive rights. That is, women’s choices about what to do with their bodies, from how to dress to when — and if — to have children, always need to be negotiated in broader social and political contexts. As Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” And this “becoming” is violently conditioned by the white, middle-class patriarchy that aims to control, sexually oppress, rape, or even kill women.

In a similar way, in the midst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the 1980s, queer thinkers highlighted how health crises are mediated through heteronormativity, thereby punishing delinquent bodies that engage in socially-unacceptable sexual practices. In other words, if one’s desire to find physical intimacy and love does not conform to broader social expectations, they will be neglected and left to die if a health pandemic hits them — as happened to too many gay men exposed to HIV in the 1980s.

What these examples show us is that, unlike the neoliberal discourse would have made us believe, people are not independent subjects capable of succeeding in the world through the virtue of one’s talents and dexterity. Instead, our bodily and subjective capacity to act in a particular way is constantly made and remade by wider social phenomena that allows some ways of being whilst refusing others. To put it differently, we are what the capitalist society allows us to be, and to change that position we have to constantly struggle without any guarantee of success.

Isolation: middle-class privilege?

So how does this relate to the current COVID-19 pandemic? What started as an inter-species virus transmission, is now a global pandemic, threatening national health systems and ravaging the global economy. As it spreads globally from one body to another, it shows how abstract structures — such as global economic or travel systems — that we often struggle to fully comprehend are nothing else but systems made of our bodies. It is not national governments, private investors, or corporations but us — the amalgamation of billions of human bodies — that produce these systems through our bodily capacity to work and relate with each other. And fundamentally, because we produce them, we can also unmake them.

Countries are dealing with the COVID-19 crisis in different ways, from national lockdowns and curfews to simply encouraging people adhere to social distancing protocols and voluntary isolation. In this unfamiliar context, all of a sudden we realize the futility and foolishness of neoliberal individualism.

As we uncomfortably touch surfaces touched by others, put on face masks, disinfect our hands, isolate ourselves at home, we are reminded that our existence and well-being is fundamentally intertwined with those of others. We cannot control this environment, where other bodies have been, and the effects that they might have on us. Our ideas of individuality or independence to act in a free market society are shattered. As the feminist and queer thinkers discussed above show, we are nothing else but intimately implicated in the complex web of our societies. To put it simply, we are never alone.

It has been relatively easy to ignore these feminist and queer modes of understanding politics, for this only concerned the lives of less privileged populations. However, in the time of a global pandemic, all our bodies are vulnerable to this virus. As we came to terms with this fact, the result was compulsive and panic-driven behavior such as the hoarding of essential products. This only demonstrates how internalized the neoliberal ideology has become: it has been ingrained in our minds that individual self-provision, unnecessary accumulation of wealth, disregard for others is the modus operandi of our “human nature.”

But that is obviously not a solution. While we can hoard all we want, our lives can be put in danger by the virus that comes from the body of another human being. Besides, the things that we buy do not appear magically out of nowhere — we still need the factory workers that produce toilet paper or pasta, the truck drivers supplying the super markets, the shop floor workers and all those other low-wage jobs that, blatantly undervalued before, are now suddenly deemed “essential labor.”

In this context of vulnerability, reflecting recommendations by the World Health Organization and national governments, the general public is increasingly accepting the necessity to stay at home. On social media the joke is doing the rounds that for the first time in history we can save the world by literally doing nothing and staying in bed all day — the solution could not be simpler. This lighthearted approach to the pandemic fails to take into account, however, the stark economic inequalities and limited access to comfortable, private living spaces, particularly for precarious populations in urban agglomerations.

Complete self-isolation, in other words, is a middle-class privilege. Even if one is determined to self-isolate, this is not necessarily a possibility. For instance, those living in house-shares with people whose work is essential for society’s functioning — including particularly under-valued roles in capitalist societies, such as nursing, care work or shop floor workers, that are often gendered in themselves — will inevitably be exposed to the coronavirus.

When home is not a home

However, rather than just focusing on these nuances of economic inequalities and the impossibility of complete self-isolation, feminist and queer thinkers would also highlight that the discourse of self-isolation romanticizes the notion of “home.”

For many women and queer people home is not a place of safety, but a site of violence. Why is that? In capitalist societies, women are exposed to double exploitation. They not only have to work to earn a living, but also are predominantly responsible for significant amounts of unpaid domestic and emotional labor that takes place at home. Therefore, during self-isolation, they will not only have to work from home, but also will inevitably focus on looking after children or other vulnerable household members.

Whilst domestic labor distribution is slowly changing with transforming gender roles in Western societies, women are still disproportionally exposed to physical and emotional abuse from their partners; and domestic violence particularly increases in situations of economic and social uncertainty that we are currently facing.

On the other hand, for queer people, particularly for those in adolescence coming to terms with their sexuality, or those financially unable to live independently, home might be a place of emotional distress and potential violence. That is, heteronormative expectations of gender expression, romantic relationships, or life aspirations that traditional family structures impose on non-heteronormative minds and bodies, are experienced as anxiety or even abuse. In this context, escaping, building queer families and emotional support networks outside one’s home is a way of coping with, and ultimately surviving, this heteronormative violence.

Considering these perspectives, we start to understand the self-isolation necessary in the time of global pandemic as inevitably characterized by emotional and physical contingency — some bodies that do not occupy positions of relative power in patriarchal, heteronormative capitalist societies, are never safe, even at home.

Our bodies are never just our own

While it is particularly the vulnerable populations that have the most unsettling experiences during this pandemic, the general public is increasingly subjected to some of its effects, too. We cannot fully control what happens to others. We are particularly anxious in contexts where public healthcare is non-universal or severely limited, where people might not have the possibility to get tested or receive treatment. How might they pass the virus around? How is our return from self-isolation based on effective social cooperation? It is in this paradoxical situation of togetherness, social distancing and self-isolation that the relevance of feminist and queer thinking is glaringly exposed.

They remind us of one inescapable truth of our existence: a human being is both a fundamentally lonely creature and, unavoidably, implicated in the existence of others. That is, pain and anxiety felt within a human body renders that body lonely in the very moment of suffering. Exposed to effects of patriarchy, capitalism or a global pandemic, with no possibility of escaping this situation, one is rendered to solitude, enclosed within the very moment of pain or anxiety.

However, if we follow feminist and queer modes of inquiry, we start to see how this condition of individual suffering is constituted and sustained through one’s exposure to the functioning of broader social systems that order possibilities of dignified life. This ordering, normally, results in the pain experienced by most vulnerable and precarious populations. In the times of global pandemic it is all of our bodies.

But it is not the virus that is most important — what is crucial is how we are fundamentally inter-related to each other. It is through tracing this relationship and our responsibilities to each other that we can start to overcome our loneliness — and the mode of individualized, consumerized being imposed by the capitalist system that increasingly render us alien to each other.

That is, we can overcome our loneliness by understanding that our bodies are never just our own but also the condition for others. As we shape each other, we also constitute the global systems of capital flows, and because we make them, we can also dismantle them.

It is this moment of the global COVID-19 pandemic — in which we are glaringly reminded of how we are fundamentally intertwined with other people — that highlights the fact that we need to care about each other not just in a time of a global pandemic, but also in the ever-present pandemic of capitalism and its current neoliberal manifestations.

Gediminas Lesutis

Gediminas Lesutis is a Research Fellow in Geography at University of Cambridge, UK. He is interested in social and political effects of contemporary capitalist development, critical theory and documentary photography.

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