[I’m wrecked in sadness. But I wrote this and figured I’d push it out–this mix of the past and present, the odds and ends of my scholarship that resonate with this moment. Nothing feels right right now but writing this is part of what I’ve had to do to just stitch my world together, keep going]
Make live. The textbook case: John Snow, the English epidemiologist, who in 1854, convinced local officials to remove the handle of the Broad Street pump in the London suburb Soho. Snow knew residents were drawing Cholera-contaminated water from the pump and dying as a result. Pumps like this throughout London were the focal points of the waves of cholera that wracked the city. Once the Broad Street pump’s handle was removed, the local outbreak virtually stopped. It was partially in response to Snow’s intervention and the research and theorization of disease transmission that underpinned it, that London modernized its municipal water supply and sewerage, saving thousands of lives yearly by providing cheap or free clean enough drinking water and adequate sewerage. In doing so, the city expended massive amounts of resources and reformed a system of water supplied by a patchwork of private companies piping water that might have animal hair in it and pumps and wells first sunk time out of mind. Snow and the life-saving municipal infrastructure he helped make way for represent the pastoral face of the state, biopower’s desire and capacity to make live.
Now let me finally make my case for hoarders and panic buyers, something I said I’d do a few posts ago. Might they have intuitively known known the federal government, headed by a deranged hegemon, would respond to the threat of millions sick and thousands dead by first tending to the health of the economic body in the form of monetary policy then by backing actions such as tax cuts and oil and gas industry bailouts, all of which set the terms of the debate in the legislature, narrowing the horizon of what was possible in the massive coronavirus relief bill as the left spent its time and energy removing provisions like this that did nothing to help those who needed it most.
People often make decisions based on past precedent. They remember. They might remember the sub-prime mortgage crisis, which ballooned into the larger 2008 financial crisis. They might remember that the state opened its veins to protect lenders and investors while forcing working class people to jump through a series of shrinking hoops for relief that was entirely inadequate. Many people do not remember that the state could do anything in time to save their lives because it has not. So when President Glitching Turd says that states should bid against each other for live-saving ventilators then outbids them, this might be, to them, totally normal. They are used to the fact that in an emergency the state will force as much risk and cost onto individuals as it can get away with. They have no trust the state can save human lives.
As I stood, a few days ago, in several drug stores looking at empty shelves, did I think that the city, county, state, or fed would have a thermometer for me? I wanted them to. They did not. I do not trust the state will save my life.
I was part of the skeleton crew at my work for about a week into the pandemic. Then my boss told that skeleton crew to work at home. On the morning of my first true day of lockdown, a Lieutenant Governor announced he was “all in” on risking his health for the health of the economy, suggesting that America was also full of grandpas willing to jump into the maelstrom of consumption and production, selling cars and eating at Applebees, to further the national economic project. Really, the lieutenant governor was trying to measure the appetite of the country for killing people in the name of restructuring the economy to look as it did (inequitable) before the smash-job of the virus while normalizing the idea by presenting himself as an example. I’m reminded again that a mystical displacement is occurring. The political right has created a mythic over-body, the economy, which, in discourse, constantly eclipses the health and flourishing of actual human beings. Neoliberals are perhaps more pernicious as they present the economy not as the frail god-child that demands blood but as equivalent to human beings, wring their hands at length at having to choose between the two ten choose the economy while throwing a sop to people and saying they’re not. Their imagination is so bankrupt they cannot imagine a different economic order based on the flourishing of people. And this is the point: the economy is a economy, constantly reproduced and restructured by numerous actors. This could be a chance to restructure the economy in a just way. As the scholar of imperialism Ryan Kaveh Sheldon writes (on IG!) on the economy in this moment: “‘The economy is not a transhistorical or natural entity. ‘Our’ economy could–and indeed, will, one way or the other–be restructured. The capitalist class is considering how best to do that to its own advantage. It is using this crisis. That is what ‘getting back to normal’ means. We need to fight back to live.”
If the state has been retreating from its pastoral role, the make live of “To make live and to let die,” then when disease returns, aren’t hoarders correct to assume the state might abandon them if they were to be impacted? Or in the agon that seizes up the state–whether or not to assume the pastoral role, the indecision and negotiations between executives and legislators–they may assume that enough people in charge see their life as secondary to maintaining the health of the current, vastly inequitable economic order and that the state will act too late. A premise or two for hoarding and panic buying may be right, though the actions are wrong. And, of course, the capacity to hoard often means one is substituting one’s self for someone far more vulnerable and far more likely to suffer the worst of the pandemic’s fallout.
I have nothing biographical to write at this point. No bright feeling. No connection still warm with human touch. I am stuck in my apartment like you are stuck in your apartment while some people in charge can only imagine saving people by putting them back to the work which may kill them. When the state gives up the make live of biopower, it becomes a necropolitical state, because the state maintains the fiscal and coercive power it used to make live and now turns it toward making death. Achille Mbembe’s formula for necropolitics: let live, make die.
On April, 4th 1865, a crowd including 300 members of parliament, 17 lords, and 2 archbishops gathered at the Abbey Mills Pumping Station to celebrate the commencement of its operations. The Victorian pumping station was the great heart of a massive redesign of London’s sewer system, which, before, consisted of a patchwork that included leaky cesspools, drainage ditches and canals muddily making their way to the Thames. It’s only a slight exaggeration to imagine London floated on a lens of shit for much of the 19th century. Waste water constantly infiltrated sources of drinking water resulting in deadly cholera outbreaks. The pumping station signalled to the people that the state was taking action to solve this problem. The Prince of Wales ceremonially turned on the pumps, adding the royal touch to the city’s anus and guts.
Well, the station wasn’t exactly the city’s anus–that would be the point where sewage was pumped into the Thames–but it gave that anus its energy, and it was beautiful, cathedral-like, in a gauche, Victorian way.
As a fifth-rate eighteenth century scholar, I’m interested in the Abbey Mills Pumping Station. As someone trying to stay sane on coronavirus lockdown, I am also interested in how interested the internet is in a big sewage pump. This narrative has been copied, pasted, tailored across a strange spiral of sites, from Atlas Obscura to Hyperallergic (an excellent article by Claire Voon) to this one.
Perhaps people find it strange–remarkable–that a state could care for their lives and that this is what it could look like, a glamorous, utilitarian thing–a huge pump for shit made also art, a municipal anus that everyone saw and applauded. I suspect that there is a difficult to articulate nostalgia for the capacity of government to make live via municipal works. Socialists and trains. Most people and toilets that don’t empty into their own yards.
I’ve recalled Snow’s water pump and the Abbey Mills sewage pump from the leaky archive of my grad school years (w/very little citation!) because they mark transformations in trust. In 1854, the residents of Soho were drinking cholera-contaminated water without a second-thought. Upon Snow’s intervention, a partnership of scientific study with local officials who had the power to remove the pump handle, they had to accept the beginnings of the scientific municipal administration of one of the fundamentals of life. The elaborate 1865 opening of the Abbey Mills Pumping Station marked the governments’ effort to mythologize their receipt of this trust via high pageantry. A trustee acts in the best interest of other parties than themselves.
But we shouldn’t raise a flag for any king, or Prince of Wales. We should remember that British engineering capacity–waterworks–were also used to destroy communities and steal lands at home and abroad. Dams, canals, and irrigation projects were instruments of colonial domination. Often state or municipal trusteeship was the result of political struggle not benevolent, forward thinking elites. A great deal of political organizing by everyday people at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century was done in the name of forcing municipalities to provide services to its people, to create, take in hand, and maintain services and infrastructure. This movement, socialist municipalism, rejected the privatization of fundamentals for city-life and had great faith that collective provision could be supplied through the vehicle of the municipality.
The lockdown grinds on. My state, New York, with one hand, transforms a convention center into a field hospital to save lives. With the other, it works to repeal bail reform, to keep more people simply charged with crimes in the jails that have some of the highest rates of infection in the world. If New York doesn’t want to run death camps, it should open the jails. New York needs to open the jails.
My toilet flushes though I’ve been told to insure the 100 year old line and the city website makes clear that work on city waterlines could very well collapse private stem lines (i.e. my own). In such instances, you’re shit out of luck. Buffalo’s guts are brittle and public repair cascades into private damage. But this is abstract and a problem of relative privilege.
A friend lets me know that the virus has now hit Buffalo and that hospital floors are filling up with people suffering with covid. What can we do?