Against Nature? Covid and the Politics of Reaction

In order to preserve the status quo and the institutions of private power, reactionaries resort to conflating the political contingencies of society and the sublimity of nature. R. R. Reno's recent protests against the COVID-19 shutdown are a case study in this reactionary logic.
Unlike other conservatives who have recently suggested human sacrifices for the sake of the free market economy, when it comes to the stakes of the COVID-19 pandemic, First Things’ R.R. Reno is too high-minded to concern himself with something so “earthly” as the market even as he shares their opposition to the nationwide shutdowns. Rather, Reno’s main concern, expressed in two recent pieces at First Things, is with society as a “living organism,” a society at risk of atrophy if this shutdown goes on for too long. For Reno, the shutdown is an absurd attempt at “burning the village in order to get rid of the pestilence,” a doomed endeavor that reveals the extent of our fear, sentimentality, materialism, and submission to “death’s dominion.” 


Others have already sufficiently dealt with the disturbing moral calculus behind Reno’s objection to the shutdown. But there remains a certain reactionary logic to be discerned in Reno’s argument that deserves our attention.


In both of his pieces, Reno contrasts the sentimentalism and fear that drives the shutdown with the “wisdom” displayed by our forebears when faced with a similar threat. Back in the day, when the Spanish flu was ravaging the world, people apparently possessed the humble courage to insist “that man was made for life, not death.” For Reno, what sustained this generation in their determination to live in spite of their pandemic was, paradoxically, a kind of noble indifference to life. Possessing a wisdom lost on our generation, they could look beyond a mere “earthly existence” to that which is “more important than physical survival” to “love, honor, beauty, and faith.” Thus, they were able to maintain the precious institutions of society in the face of pandemic.


Unfortunately, we are modernity’s spoiled children, “stripped of whatever courage we might be capable of” and left to “cower in fear.” But Reno has fears of his own as well: namely, that out of our collective anxiety, our society will assemble a collective plan to “master nature and tame death.” We’re in for another crusade, Reno warns, with a “wartime mentality of mass mobilization” intent on fighting the pandemic. And as if the “untold consequences” of this campaign weren’t bad enough already, Reno sees our sentimental demand for safety at all costs as nothing less than demonic. Our fear of death is a mark of our subjection to “Satan’s rule” and “death’s dominion.”


That his historical account of the Spanish flu is questionable at best is beside the point, because Reno is dealing in typologies: there is Nature and then there is Politics. By framing the ensuing crisis of the pandemic as an exclusively “natural” — as opposed to “political ” — phenomenon, Reno is able to obscure how certain effects of the pandemic are due, not to the “nature” of the virus itself, but to existing political conditions established under capitalism. The biological structure and symptoms of the coronavirus do not include a determination of who receives health care and who doesn’t, how financial relief is allocated, whether medical care should be socialized or left to the market, etc. Those decisions are made by those in power, and are therefore subject to the contingencies of politics. Reno is aware of this when he acknowledges that “our finitude always requires the hard moral labor of triage,” for “even in normal times, we ration healthcare by price, waiting times, and physician discretion.” But even here, he takes something as politically contested as the price and availability of healthcare and mystifies it as a vague abstraction of “our finitude.”  


Despite what Reno would have us believe, his objection to the shutdown is not actually a matter of his concern for the “limits of nature” as represented by COVID-19. Instead, it is the “nature” as represented by our social order that is violated by the shutdown. Having conflated the political contingencies of society and the sublimity of nature, Reno can seamlessly cast our social institutions as being just as “natural” as the virus itself. A reasonable amount of precaution and safety against COVID-19 would have been one thing; as Reno himself admits, people employed modern medicine against the Spanish flu, just as we’re doing now. But in his telling, the difference is that they maintained the proper deference owed to the “nature” of society. By contrast, the present shutdown offends that deference and thereby poses a threat to the “social function” of our “body politic.” In other words, the shutdown has risen to the level of politics, and thus can only be a cowardly failure of our obligation to accept both the inevitability of death and the ineradicable sanctity of natural society.


Furthermore, the threat of violence and death embodied by the pandemic is just the thing we need in order for our resolve to be properly tested.  This conservative view of the self is keenly identified by Corey Robin as one in which, we are “desperately in need of negative stimuli of the sort provided by pain and danger.” Such a view is then applied to society as a whole. The danger and death inflicted by the virus itself become one and the same with the danger and death that would result if we flouted the restrictions of the shutdown. Both are indistinguishable forces of nature meant to induce us to seek that which is above and — crucially — without which we would succumb to decadence, frailty and fear.


But ask yourself: what makes this shutdown a specifically egregious assault on our social function, especially considering the innumerable assaults made against our body politic every day by capital’s inexorable pursuit of profit? As contradictory as Reno may seem here, he shows his hand in his framing of the shutdown as a “mass mobilization,” for it is the collective dimension of the shutdown that makes him nervous. Because he conflates society and nature, Reno imagines society as something established prior to politics, and therefore constituted by the private lives of individuals and the institutions that sustain their private lives of power. Which means that a public and collective action like the shutdown can only intrude upon “society” after the fact, as “politics.”


It is, therefore,  no coincidence that the institutions that Reno most laments all pertain to private life: little league, family reunions, book clubs, dinner parties, and of course, churches. Sacrificing these things to the shutdown represents the sacrifice of society itself because there is no society apart from them. For Reno, whatever protective measures are made in the face of a pandemic must maintain the institutions that make up the private realm “at any cost.” Otherwise, what would be left to protect? The political actions of the public must always defer to the private configurations of power as represented by given social institutions, along with the values and priorities they entail. And it is here that Reno ideologically rigs the game, for if we can only engage COVID-19 in a manner that doesn’t inhibit the routine maintenance of private society, then we never have to examine the structure of private society itself. Instead, we can pretend that our society is just as inevitable and inviolate as the virus which threatens it. 


Of course, there is no realm of society that is prior to politics, and the notion that there is such a thing is the great fantasy of capitalism. Nor is the private realm expressed in social institutions separable from the material conditions of capitalist society. As is always the case with reactionaries like Reno, these irreducibly political conditions must be continually mystified in metaphysical smoke and mirrors. His investment in the maintenance of the status quo is so intense that not even something on the scale of a global pandemic can warrant the slightest exception, for that would risk the exposure of the political, social and economic contingencies he so vigilantly protects. Reno’s objection to the shutdown therefore reveals the contradictory logic of reaction: the presumably natural permanence of society must be politically enforced.


Contra Reno, the shutdown is an exercise of proper “social function” —  and not just any function, but the ultimate function of any society: to struggle for the just conditions for human flourishing against the forces which would impede it. This struggle undoubtedly presents us with a formidable challenge that demands “the hard moral labor of triage,” particularly when faced by a crisis as severe as COVID-19. But the moral labor that Reno would commend is a function of the political theology of capitalism itself, which sees the threat of death as an effective impetus for human excellence — at least for those who can successfully enhance their lives by passing off the costs of suffering death onto those destined to pay them. Profit as the index of life and death.


The shutdown, by contrast, is an exercise of moral labor that seeks to mitigate the threat of death as much as possible, rather than distributing it in a manner that curiously resembles the present distribution of wealth. It thereby gestures towards a moral logic beyond that imposed by capitalism: an insistence that if humanity really is made for life, then people should not have to bet their and and their loved ones’ lives against Reno’s precious social institutions in the midst of a pandemic. If there is anything that is threatened by the shutdown, it is certainly those structures which are aligned with the virus against us — not by nature, but by the political forces of capitalism. Reno knows that it’s only in comparison to these structures that the shutdown could be defined as “unnatural,” which is why it’s up to us to change the definition.



Fr. Caleb Roberts is an Episcopal priest currently living in Champaign, Illinois. He is also co-editor of The Hour, a new online magazine dedicated to the retrieval of the Anglican socialist tradition.




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