The Time of the Virus

Capitalist time is out of joint with the time of the coronavirus. For us, there’s no time to waste. For capitalists and their ceaseless search for profit, it’s all wasted time.
Too many messages gesture to “these difficult times.” But even before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, few thought that times were good: the fires in Australia pushing the koala to near extinction, the record-breaking rise in air and ocean temperatures, the growing realization that no serious steps towards addressing climate change were going to be taken – these all were already signs pointing to serious global calamity. Likewise, despite recent soaring stocks and claims regarding the lowest unemployment in decades, most of us in the US are economically precarious: at risk of losing our jobs, carrying expensive and inadequate health insurance (or none at all), in debt, paying more than we can for rent, transportation, and sometimes food. Times were already tough.

And now our time is corona time, the time of the virus.

The time of capital, of the self-valorization of value, is futural, anticipatory, always oriented to later, not now. This is what drives intensifications of production – the speed-up and automation, the push to get more out of workers to generate the surplus that might lead to more profit in the future. The same holds for investment: forecasting what will happen is what generates bets now; they are always bets on a future.

But capitalist time is out of joint with the time of the virus. How? Tests for the virus look backward: did infection happen? What was the cause of the sickness one presents? It’s why, particularly in the United States, we are playing catch up. Capitalists didn’t see profit in anticipating the epidemic – after all, ‘too many’ ventilators and empty beds are but heaps of dead capital. We can only know where the virus was, make guesses about how it travelled.

And yet the time of the virus is not without anticipation: who will get it and who will die? It’s like capitalism subsumes the virus itself – or is it that the virus infects capitalism? The numbers and counting and graphs and predictions provide distorted mirrors of the stock market, new kinds of indicators of the health of the economy. Italy, for instance, has some of the highest numbers of COVID-19 infections and rates of deaths in the world. It is known to have implemented strict stay at home orders. And yet millions of its workers still go daily to the factories.

The time of life with COVID-19 is asynchronous, fragmented, dissonant. The rhythms of our lives have been disrupted – school, train, work, drinks, home or whatever familiar combinations gave our life its specific punctuation. Private time appears in its excesses: too much or too little, utterly alone or overbearingly together. For the critically ill and their caregivers, time is intensified, separated off from the rest of life, and concentrated on the all-absorbing task of survival. For the immune-compromised, time expands and contracts through precaution and panic – who knows where one’s friends have been?

Too much time becomes absorbed in screens. Every meeting, every communication – work, entertainment, connection, boredom – has the same digital interface whether we want it or not. Working from home makes work endless, a new elongation of the workday enabled not just by the technology but by the elimination of specific sites for work. Decades ago Julia Kristeva theorized the enclosure of repetitive tasks of preparing, cleaning, and caring as “women’s time,” the labor that Marxists understand as necessary but nonetheless unproductive, drudgery that is forever dependent on resources that the work itself does not generate.

The virus demands all our time. From the endless handwashing and sanitizing, to the constant updates, to the ceaseless news cycle; it’s hard to make time for anything else. National borders have been everywhere shut down and yet we somehow experience a global time as here and there become one space.

Capitalist time is impatient. No rest (and they never learn this means no recovery). No time to live, or to try to save lives. No time to wait out the epidemic, protect the frontline medical workers, develop a vaccine and save some lives. For us, there’s no time to waste. For capitalists, it’s all wasted time.

And instead of accepting the imperative of constraint now for the sake of a future good, with the temper of a child incapable of waiting, the US president and his class – including the bankers, the CEO’s, the uber-rich– are saying ‘Time’s up’.


Jodi Dean teaches political theory at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. She is the author or editor of 13 books, included The Communist Horizon, Crowds and Party, and Comrade, all published by Verso Books.



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