“The Twin Fetish”: On Political Ontology and COVID-19

COVID-19 and Cultural Studies

Banner image featuring a spray painted graffiti style mask and the series title.

Tapji Garba

July 17, 2020

"[T]he nation 'forgets' its political and discursive past and how much of it is the unfolding of a twin fetish—that of race and capitalist exchange. An analysis that pursues only one element of this nested semiosis will be only partially articulate, as the conceptual narrative we continue to try to invent will expose such interrelatedness once again."
Hortense Spillers
For me the most striking thing about COVID-19 is the way it has brought the intrinsic relation between a range of social antagonisms into relief. I know that all things are connected, but I rarely see those connections. Out of the network of antagonisms two issues (and the relationship between them) have caught my attention: the economic crisis and anti-black violence. A major effect of the institution of lockdowns around the world has been a global decrease in the level of productivity. Many analysts have predicted a number of consequences: the loss of $9 trillion (USD) from the Global GDP over the next two years, the sharp decline in productivity increasing “the risk of global manufacturing entering a downward spiral” and damaging transnational supply chains, and the intensification of precarious labour due to the further erosion of formal employment and full benefits. In short, “the economy will continue to fall until the country opens back up.”

There have been anti-shutdown protests in Canada, the United States, and Brazil. With signs declaring, “Defend our rights as free citizens” and “The constitution is not conditional,” people gathered to denounce what they saw as an assault on their rights and freedoms, with the understanding that reopening the economy would allow for the exercise of the freedoms that are rightfully theirs as citizens. Other protesters came out to demand that they be allowed to return to work. At a demonstration in Pennsylvania one protester said “It’s a shame what's going on. I’d rather be out working right now...people are struggling to make ends meet.” The demands for freedom and work are two sides of the same coin, as the reproduction of civil society as a realm of formal freedom and equality provides the preconditions for the commodity-form. I take these demands to be a clear demonstration of the compulsive nature of capitalist production because even though reopening will make efforts to flatten the curve more difficult we are told that “the economy” depends on reopening. The perception that it is the economy, and not other people, that makes demands on us is a prime illustration of what Karl Marx called the fetishism of commodities, the emergent effect of the generalization of the commodity as a social mediation. This idea might help us explain how people are dominated behind their backs by structures of their own making.

The problem of freedom and social domination is further complicated by race. As a result of wealth inequality, diminished access to healthcare and housing, and significant representation among frontline workers, black people are among the most severely affected by COVID-19. The level of asymmetry is expressed in this formulation: “[T]he greater the proportion of Black people in a city, the worse the outcome of the pandemic will be.” Importantly, the social character of black vulnerability to COVID-19 is mystified, and is instead hypostatized as a law of natural history. In contrast to the life of freedom and equality heralded by modern civil society, blackness is positioned as a status governed by necessity, an existence determined by the forces of nature.

An underlying assumption of the movement to reopen the economy is that only those who are governed by necessity will be negatively affected. This does not pose any ethical or political problems because they are incapable of self-determination to begin with. In this way, blackness can serve as the negative measure of self-determination, the position that freedom defines itself against. If blackness embodies what it means to be governed by necessity then civil society—and its promises of voluntary exchange—can be framed as the transcendence of blackness. We can now see how the drive to reopen the economy and the demand to “return to freedom” are expressions of anti-black violence. A rigorous consideration of the relationship between blackness and self-determination entails a revision of the Marxian concept of commodity fetishism. Hortense Spillers’ comments on the “twin fetish” of “race and capitalist exchange” offers a way forward as she identifies an intrinsic relation between race and the commodity-form.
This brings me back to the feeling of a renewed awareness of the intrinsic relations between the many dimensions of social life and the difficult work of representing it.

Tapji Garba is a recent graduate from the University of Winnipeg and currently an independent scholar. Their research engages political theology, Marxism, and psychoanalysis from within the field of Black studies.

The banner image was designed by Lauren Bosc, adapted from an image by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash.

Return to the series's main page.                                                < Previous       |        Next >