The Contagious Assembly

A new book identifies the law of the household as the center of the current order

Late in the first book of ​Paradise Lost​, John Milton invents the word “Pandemonium.” Milton gives the word to English as the name of Satan’s capital, a place where his demons gather amid the chaos to dream of a new order and found a new world. Where today the word has come to mean havoc and mayhem, Milton’s Pandemonium describes a mode of organization, an operation of imagination and planning that founds itself against the current order. Angela Mitropoulos opens her new book of the same name with the incision provided by this etymology. It is a fitting introduction to Mitropoulos’s larger body of work. Her signature move is a deceptively simple cut that dissects apparent chaos in an effort to reveal the political assemblages beneath: the churning mechanisms that produce surplus, power, and plans.

Angela Mitropoulos, Pandemonium: Proliferating Borders of Capital and the Pandemic Swerve. Pluto Press, London, 2020. 144 pages.
The subject of Mitropoulos’s ​Pandemonium​ is the pandemic: the ongoing, global catastrophe of COVID-19 that has already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. In this context, there is no shortage of chaos: lockdown, shutdown, and meltdown converge and combine across capital, the state, and civil society. To listen to the news is to hear collapse and carnage as a new baseline, where hundreds of daily deaths have become an unremarkable constant. Such consistent catastrophe brings a sense of total disordering, like an unremitting earthquake at the heart of the world. Mitropoulos’s work, however, moves adroitly through it. Beneath the shaken world she sees a swerve, a “clinamen” of cascading effects that is poised to resolve itself into new political responses — some that seek to save lives, others that strive to secure surplus value. If the state and capital are a gathering of demons, and the pandemic is the chaos that surrounds them, then the swerve incorporates the new order they set out to enact, the new world they seek to found.

This book is a scalpel: a tool or a weapon if you hold it right. This particular combination of sharp critique and supple use is a defining characteristic of Mitropoulos’s thought, and it binds together the diverse works produced by the extraordinary range of her interest and intellect. I have found myself reaching for Mitropoulos’s texts countless times over the last few years, and these qualities are probably why. There are few other writers whose work I find so incisive and so comprehensive. And yet, despite my familiarity with her work, her texts seem to suggest a new way to hold them and use them each time I pick them up.

In Mitropoulos’s first book, ​Contract and Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia,​ you can find a generatively inclusive critique of both the logics that form the state and capital and the technologies of coercion and accumulation that reproduce them. Held one way, the book is a critique of “​oikonomics​,” which for her is “the nexus of race, gender, class, sexuality and nation constituted through the premise of the properly productive household.” In the classical concern for the “art of household management,” Mitropoulos locates techniques and technologies for the command of oneself and others. Through the work of Xenophon and Machiavelli, Mitropoulos explores how the patriarch is taught to properly manage their property (their land, their house, their slaves) and properties (their ability to seize fortune, their capacity to secure their own reproduction). Then, held another way, the book is a history of capitalism, and of its attempts to transform contingency into necessity. Mitropoulos argues that in its attempts to create definite consequences for indefinite events, capital is reliant on the form of the contract, brilliantly described as the “projective geometry of obligation.” Contracts are a means of organizing uncertainty, a mechanism for defining who gains and who loses when a particular event occurs.

Hold the book yet another way and you find these critiques converging in Mitropoulos’s analysis of the historical role of contagion and plague. As the black death killed patriarchs by the thousand, they sought to ensure their social reproduction through the smooth transfer of their property and properties to their sons. The early modern contract was the result — a technology born of the need to guarantee the “genealogical transcription of property inheritance” in the wake of the plague. The apparatuses of the modern world — international finance, standardized measurement, the wage contract — can all be traced to the black death’s particular clinamen, or swerve. The present is the product of plagues past.

Pandemonium​ enacts a complex regeneration of Mitropoulos’s thinking in the wake of this new pandemic, the book itself another unpredictable consequence of the swerve. Like ​Contract and Contagion​ before it, ​Pandemonium c​uts through any stable division between the afformative and the generative — by turns it adds on and creates anew; across its pages, established ideas entwine themselves around the stems of new critiques. This book is an instrument that not only identifies the coercive and accumulative drives playing out in this pandemic but also locates their weaknesses and proposes means to stop their function. ​Pandemonium​ is not an abstract work of theory but an explanation of what the conjuncture is doing, and of what must be done against it.

Pandemonium ​begins where the virus is said to have begun, in Wuhan, China. In the response of “the West” — that nebulous name for the indefinite edges of Europe and its settler colonies — to the initial epidemic in Wuhan, Mitropoulos identifies what she calls “geoculturalism”: a mode of thinking that attributes perceived differences in social orders to supposed anthropological variations. This mode collapses the vast differences of East Asian nations into a ludicrously homogenous picture of “the East,” an image that is really just a racist caricature of China daubed over all nearby states.

The geocultural explanation for the virus attributes its growth and suppression in this “East” to allegedly “cultural” differences. Supposedly archaic and unclean practices (the much demonized “wet market”) are met with a “Confucian” intolerance of disorder and a uniform acceptance of authoritarian countermeasures. The East is alternately a pariah and a paragon, both the racialized source of contagion and the orientalized symbol of control. In my own research, I can easily see the resonances between this geocultural explanation of coronavirus and the colonial conceptions of the plague in late 19th​ century India. When the bubonic plague hit Mumbai in 1896, British scientists such as James Lowson were quick to identify the “filthy habits of the country” as the cause of the rapid spread of the disease. In colonial India the racialized population was seen as incapable of self-administering the authoritarian response necessary to contain the contagion created by its own predisposition toward filth. That is, the geocultural inferiority supposedly responsible for these filthy habits was also present in the inability of the Indian population to govern itself. For officials like Lowson, the coercive force of the British Empire was thus necessary to control the plague. If India’s innate, disorderly contagiousness made it a pariah, then Britain’s coercive response was a paragon of order.

As the old colonial powers in the West applaud elements of China’s response to COVID-19, it is easy to detect these geocultural views papering over the persistence of empire. For example, in India, the most coercive elements of the state’s response to coronavirus depend upon the powers of the Epidemic Diseases Act, authored by the British in 1897 to counter the Mumbai plague. Instead of searching for Wuhan’s particular vulnerability in wet markets and restaurants, Mitropoulos looks to its privatized hospitals and choking steel mills, dirty air and corrupted lungs. It is no coincidence that this virus spread so fast in this city, amid some of the worst sustained air pollution in the world and among a population with extraordinary rates of pulmonary disease.

As COVID-19 began to spread beyond China, discussion turned to how the responses of other states might differ. In Europe and the U.S., much was made of the distinction between the authoritarianism of “the East” and the economic liberalism of “the West.” China played both pariah and paragon, with the coercive strength of the state simultaneously criticized for hastening the spread of the virus and celebrated for containing it. Both critics and cheerleaders agreed, however, that what was done in “the East” could not be repeated in “the West.” Mitropoulos goes to work on this false dichotomy, and sets about explaining the common roots of supposedly authoritarian and liberal states. By reading key architects of both forms of rule — namely Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith — Mitropoulos demonstrates that both authoritarianism and economic liberalism depend on the same fundamental premise: the idea of the household, or the oikos of oikonomia.

Drawing on and developing ideas from ​Contract and Contagion, Mitropoulos claims that the household is simultaneously the “primordial economic unit,” the “model of proper law and order,” and the “justification of exploitation, on which both authoritarianism and liberalism depend.” Both approaches, ultimately, are based on the rights to property held by the master of the household. To quote a recent interview with Mitropoulos: “Authoritarianism represents the elimination of property rights or their absolute transfer; whereas liberalism implies the preservation of individual property rights.” Authoritarianism depends upon the capacity of the master of the household to coercively transfer all property rights to himself, while liberalism defends the recognition of property rights between masters. The extraction of surplus, and the transfer of the property and properties it begets, is an operation founded in the oikos — liberalism and authoritarianism are simply different modes of its administration.

The supposed conflict between authoritarianism and liberalism serves again to conceal the exploitation and accumulation that is in fact common to both. The project of accumulation has always ultimately depended on coercion. The property rights of Xenophon and Machiavelli’s master fell back on the abuse and domination of his household, of women, workers, and enslaved people. Mitropoulos’s explanation works neatly when applied to the tension Ranajit Guha identified at the heart of colonialism, that a “metropolitan bourgeoisie who professed and practiced democracy at home” were also “quite happy to conduct the government of their Indian empire as an autocracy.” In reality, the household has long demonstrated the easy coexistence of liberal democracy and autocracy. Xenophon and Machiavelli’s republic of patriarchs was founded on the coercion and domination of their estates; one person’s property rights were dependent on their right to treat other people as their property.

In the early days of the pandemic, Europe and the U.S. attempted to differentiate themselves from what they claimed was a peculiarly “Eastern” form of coercive and deceptive rule. These states insisted that “Western” governments would have to respond to COVID-19 in a manner following the principles of economic liberalism — that the freedom of the individual would not be sacrificed for the benefit of the collective. As the pandemic hit, however, it rapidly became apparent that the freedoms guaranteed by liberalism were not as expansive or extensive as their defenders liked to believe. The only sacrosanct rights, it turned out, were the rights that guaranteed the extraction of surplus and the preservation of property. Here, Mitropoulos highlights both Boris Johnson’s pursuit of “herd immunity” in Britain and the striking words of Kevin Hassett, the White House adviser who declared that “our human capital stock is ready to go back to work.”
Mitropoulos reads these slippages on herd and stock through Marx’s suggestion that, just as agriculture had provided “the tropes of aristocratic right through primogeniture in late feudalism,” it had contributed, within capitalism, logics for both the management of populations and the philosophy of virology. Much of the established knowledge of COVID-19 still draws on the devastating outbreaks of bovine coronavirus in the late 19th​ century, and the vast culls undertaken to control them. It must be remembered that the law of the household is as much about the transfer of properties as about holding property — logics of breeding, inherited superiority, and patrilineal purity are essential to the preservation of the oikos. Ideas of natural selection, or even eugenics, are an easy partner to a concern for the inheritance of properties. This juxtaposition sets up Mitropoulos’s evisceration of the British government’s plan for herd immunity, which, if allowed to run its course, would have had more in common with a cull than with a control.

Indeed, as Mitropoulos argues, Britain’s plan to allow the disease to run unchecked through the population involved a rediscovery of eugenic principle as if it were epidemiological fact. The weakest might die, but the herd or stock would become stronger, and the economy would continue to function as before. The patriarch demands his racialized servants work themselves to death to ensure the smooth running of the household. What controls on contagion there are will only operate to protect the well-being of the economy, not those who work within it, as in late 19th​ century Mumbai, when the Plague Committee pledged to prevent not mass death but “the disturbance of the general trade of the city.” For the Committee, “No evil could be more fatal to trade than to allow the spread of Plague in the heart of the city, where its entire business activity centres.”

As I have written elsewhere, the violence of this colonial negligence continues in Britain’s current response to the coronavirus. The lives of the Black and brown people who keep the British household running — the nurses and cleaners, doctors and drivers — remain entirely disposable. Black people from the Caribbean have long occupied a disproportionate number of key worker roles in Britain. The Windrush generation — the Caribbean migrants who arrived after the Second World War — were heavily recruited by both London Transport and the National Health Service. In 2010, however, the Home Office destroyed thousands of landing cards — the only proof many Caribbean migrants had of their immigration status. People who had been in the country for decades suddenly began to lose their access to housing, health care, bank accounts, and driver’s licenses. Many were placed in immigration detention and threatened with deportation.

Britain’s relation to the figure of the Black migrant is like that described by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney — it “needs what she bears but cannot bear what she brings.” This is why Britain attempts to make the lives of Black migrants unbearable. The “hostile environment” — a vicious migration policy suite initiated by former Prime Minister Teresa May during her time as Home Secretary — is, under Mitropoulos’s critique, an apparatus for intensifying exposure and vulnerability, and COVID-19 is merely another of the risks it seeks to focus on the racialized and the undocumented. COVID-19 fits neatly with existing disciplinary measures, for this new risk merely adds to the existing arsenal of Britain’s border operations. Herd immunity allows the risk to the general population to expand unchecked, ensuring an explosion in the particular risk to racialized people, especially Black migrants.

This is another of Mitropoulos’s important arguments, that borders are not a “protection against the ravages of capitalist exploitation” but rather “the arbitrage that makes exploitation possible.” Some claim that borders frustrate capital’s alleged desire for the free movement of goods and labor, but Mitropoulos demonstrates there is no such contradiction. Borders are instead a means of managing the supply of labor, by intensifying group vulnerabilities so as to facilitate the massive extraction of surplus value. I see this operation of the border at constant work in Britain — where racialized migrants without the right to remain can be exploited and abused with no recourse to the law, and summarily expelled should they make any claim to the rights or benefits of citizenship. Britain abusively extracted the entire working lives of the Windrush generation, only to threaten, detain, or deport them when they demanded health care or pensions. The border, as Mitropoulos says, serves to produce “a reservoir of hyper-exploitation.”

If borders are the arbitrage that makes surplus extraction possible, then herd immunity is inseparable from the border. Mitropoulos argues that herd immunity “underscores the slips between policy and policing – including the ways in which Black lives have been evaluated as human stock or fugitive labour and policed accordingly.” This slippage is a parallel of the easy exchange between authoritarianism and liberalism — and the way a focus on anti-Blackness in particular reveals the shared foundation of both modes. The policy of herd immunity runs alongside the policing of the border, both indirectly, through the hostile environment, and directly, through the use of borders to enact quarantine.

Mitropoulos has written a critique of quarantine in this publication. I will not rehearse its points here, other than to emphasize that quarantine is an authoritarian practice that seeks the “suspension of rights over one’s own body.” In Britain this practice has been accompanied by a liberal privatization of risk — a lockdown in which the economic and social survival of each household is made dependent on its privately accumulated property. As Mitropoulos notes, the crisis pushes liberalism and authoritarianism to reveal their shared origins in the law of the household. In the white nation-state, the boundary, the door, becomes a place of danger; the house itself, a place of security and purity. Narratives of national or racial resilience are an easy accomplice to such discourses — see Britain’s surreal certainty that having survived German bombing ensures some sort of historic immunity to catastrophe. There is also a nostalgic element to the demand for quarantine — a sense that this old tactic is tried and tested by history, that it worked before and will thus work again. Tragically the quarantine did not stem or halt the black death, the third plague, or the Spanish flu. What quarantines do offer, however, is a sense of national and racial security, premised on the exclusion of racialized, contagious others.

This sense of security, burnished by frequent use in the colonies, explains the continued allure of this defunct measure. Most states were quick to respond to coronavirus with quarantines while simultaneously delaying other, far cheaper and easier measures, such as social distancing and mask wearing. This was despite warnings from the World Health Organization that generalized border controls would do little to control the virus and might even accelerate its spread. A subsequent review of studies has revealed that, while masks and handwashing are highly effective, “global measures, such as screening at entry ports, led to a non-significant marginal delay.” Border controls clearly failed to prevent a pandemic, for coronavirus has now reached almost every country on Earth, and yet almost every country is still insisting on using their borders to attempt to contain the coronavirus.

The final sections of ​Pandemonium t​urn to consider two pandemic responses that seek to use it to redistribute risk and reward. The first of these is pharmacological, in the search for a cure. Mitropoulos makes a compelling argument that the rush for treatments for coronavirus has effectively enabled the pharmaceutical industry to bypass what she identifies as its two greatest barriers: the creation of new markets and the control of human testing. Mitropoulos explains this momentous bypassing through an analysis of the booming trade in hydroxychloroquine, a drug with no proven efficacy beyond its capacity to produce severe cardiac disorder.

Within the redistribution of risk away from industry and onto test subjects and patients, Mitropoulos finds a mirror of the shift taking place within global finance. The growing market in catastrophe bonds prefigures the redistribution of collectivized risk away from insurers and states and onto institutional investors, particularly pension funds. Among these, the workings of a new bond, the World Bank’s Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility, warrant special attention. If a pandemic causes a death toll above an agreed level, then bondholders lose their investment, and the money is paid out to low-income countries. As Mitropoulos explains, this bond represents “the transformation of intergovernmental disaster aid to cash-strapped governments into the effective purchasing of insurance on capital markets by the bond’s sponsoring governments (Australia, Germany and Japan).” In addition, the highly restrictive stipulations of the fund “froze the supply of money at the moment in which it would have been most effective in stemming disease transmission.” The financialization of pandemic aid not only redistributes risk but increases the vulnerability of those onto whom the risk is redistributed.

The pandemic bond provides a clear example of a series of cascading effects — the details of a financing facility managed in Munich can cause a shortage of masks in the Caribbean. This leads Mitropoulos back to the question of the clinamen, and the world the pandemic may leave behind. In Pandemonium,​ Mitropoulos seems to distinguish between three possible swerves. The first swerve is that the state and capital seek to respond to the pandemic as a crisis of national productivity, through the well-established approach of austerity. Mitropoulos defines this approach as a “contraction of wages and social incomes” that seeks to increase profit margins, coupled with the “elaboration of the authoritarian governance over populations” to create a “reservoir of hyper-exploitation.” As Mitropoulos notes, however, the pandemic has made old excuses for austerity untenable, while migrant laborers have become “key workers” rather than wage-depressing competition. This makes a second swerve more likely, one in which the practices of austerity are rewritten as elements of an ongoing national sacrifice — one that also includes the acceptance of a daily death toll. In this swerve, the eugenic logic of herd immunity is rewritten as a matter of simple economic necessity, an unavoidable cost of doing business.

Amid these visions of nightmarish new normals, however, Mitropoulos​ ​suggests that a third, very different, swerve may yet be possible. For Mitropoulos, the pandemic also “presents us with another understanding of debt as an acknowledgement of the interdependent conditions of survival and care.” Another order could come to be in this “moment in which what it takes to live, to be healthy and flourish, vividly clashes with the capitalist mystique of economic productivity, of the idealised household and the metrics of Gross National Product.” It is here that one can take hold of Pandemonium ​as a weapon.

In the present moment, the weakness of capital and the state is in the clear divide between their health and the health of those from whom they extract surplus. The crisis clarifies the contradiction between the reproduction of the current order and the reproduction of all those attempting to survive its cascading violence. The task is thus to see this split in the grain and to drive a deep wedge into it. What keeps this order alive is a system of differentiated death. ​Pandemonium c​alls for a militant refusal of the myths of heroism and sacrifice that will cloak any redoubled exploitation, and a furious rejection of the “necessities” of a return to productivity and growth. Mitropoulos is clear: The survival of those oppressed by race, class, and gender is irreconcilable with the survival of the workplaces, prisons, and borders that oppress them, and the law of the household that orchestrates this oppression. The fact that these people have survived up to now is a product of the debt they owe each other, their mutual interdependence for care, shelter, and safety.

This call for an elaboration of indebtedness makes me think again of Moten and Harney, and their irrepressible claim that “debt is social and credit is asocial.” Each time the care of another keeps you alive you become even further indebted, for how can a person ever repay such a debt? How could a debt like this ever be consolidated into credit, financialized into the distinct clarity of risk and reward? Moten and Harney suggest that the Black radical tradition is an entanglement between this embrace of debt and the rejection of property, of the rights of property, by people who were held as property themselves. This entanglement is evident in countless slave revolts in antebellum America: the debt between the enslaved people who freed each other, their commitment to elaborating this debt by freeing as many people, and destroying as much plantation property, as their strength allowed. The survival programs of the Black Panthers also ran on debt, and in particular on the contribution of Black women that was as unvalued as it was invaluable. The Free Breakfast for Children program was dependent on women like Ruth Beckford, Elaine Brown, and Barbara Sankey, who put uncounted, countless hours into sourcing donations, recruiting volunteers, and cooking the meals. As Panthers like Elaine Brown argued, this debt only ever deepens; feeding Black children meant nothing without fighting against the order of property that made them unfed. The debt every other revolutionary tradition owes to Black radicalism is, in part, a product of its insistence on this simple lesson: If you really care for someone, you don’t just alleviate the symptoms of their suffering, you fight like hell to abolish its causes. “Survival pending revolution” is a simple statement of fact — real care must always tend toward the abolition of that which threatens survival.

This real care for each other, then, means nothing less than the abolition of the differentiated forms of coercion and accumulation that separate and slaughter. The contagiousness of this ever more indebted care is nothing short of riotous. Indeed, perhaps the purest manifestation of it is the riot itself, where the meeting of immediate needs blurs into the end of the law of the household. In a recent conversation with Zoé Samudzi, Vicky Osterweil argues that riots are a way to “care for one another by getting rid of the thing that makes that impossible, which is the police and property.” Riotous care erupts in the moment “you attack the thing that makes caring impossible in order to have things for free, to share pleasure on the street.” Riots thus “gesture toward the world to come,” and their contagion is a consequence of the indebtedness that drives them, of a desire to care for each other that can only be fulfilled by destroying all that makes caring impossible.

On June 1, as the latest wave of Black Lives Matter protests reached London, ​the Spectator r​an a column by Ben Sixsmith. In the column, Sixsmith seeks to describe his particular fear of these protests. “When hundreds of people,” he writes, “stand cheek by jowl in London in the middle of a pandemic, barking ‘fuck the police’, it gives you the nasty sense that these riots could spread.” What truly confounds and terrifies Sixsmith is not the protests themselves but rather the debt and care that might yet produce riots, and that might yet ensure their spread. To quote Sixsmith’s frightened note, “rioting is contagious.” Amid his confusion and fear at this contagious quality, Sixsmith tries to explain it away, to find other, less terrifying motives for the spread of the protests. As the column proceeds, he advances ever more ludicrous explanations — the protesters in London are driven by deep frustration at the collapse of Corbynism, or a boiling resentment produced by months of lockdown. Sixsmith’s explanations demonstrate the limits of the ideology he represents — anger can only be produced by the failure of parliamentary projects, or by the frustration of one’s rights to work and consume as normal. His column serves to demonstrate that the elaboration of debt and care are simply unintelligible to the politics of rights, property and credit on which this current order is founded. While Sixsmith is unable to understand why riots spread, however, he is at least perceptive enough to grasp the simple fact that they are spreading. The column ends with a frightened prophecy: “The summer is heating up.”

I say all that to say this: What terrifies the current order is not just riots as such but the cause of their contagion. The state and capital are not scared of pandemonium in the modern sense of the word. They know that isolated outbreaks of disorder can be contained, controlled, and crushed, that small fires are easy to put out. What terrifies the current order is pandemonium in its first, Miltonian meaning. What they fear above all else is a gathering of demons, a contagious assembly of debt and care, that crowds together, amid the chaos, to found a new world.