The Affective Metacrises of Capitalist Precarity
As articulated by Dr. Albena Azmanova in the article “Viral Insurgencies: Can Capitalism Survive COVID?” the concept of metacrisis describes the condition wherein resolution of a primary crisis is forestalled, extending the deleterious effects of that crisis, the drawn-out impacts of which are the cause of a secondary crisis contingent upon the first (97, 102). This secondary crisis, termed by Azmanova “a crisis of the crisis,” exacerbates latent antagonisms within a system founded upon contradiction, bringing those contradictions to the fore, often in the form of powerful affective expressions of discontent (97). In this sense, the occurrence of a metacrisis entails conscious or unconscious recognition that the extant political and economic system is not oriented towards achieving resolution, particularly not resolution that benefits those most impacted by the primary crisis. A metacrisis, then, has the potential to catalyze an awakening of critical consciousness among the effected and affected masses (102–103). However, a metacrisis does not necessarily entail such a critical consciousness: the influence of an ideologically constituted reality makes possible multiple avenues for criticism of the now bare contradictions that engendered the primary crisis, some of which may serve to reinforce rather than challenge the contradictory essence of capitalism.
Throughout her article, Azmanova emphasizes the precarity generated by neoliberal policies, consisting of two primary components: the displacement of responsibility for the maintenance of consumption of systematically overproduced commodities onto individual consumers, and subsequent increases in police enforcement of private property relations when this consumption is rendered impossible by the economic depression generated by that very overproduction. This neoliberal economic approach is expressed both on individual and national levels as the genesis of over-policing of the historically most precarious communities (in the U.S., Black communities) and of imperialist restructuring of foreign economies (primarily in the global south) to meet the interests of private extractors of surplus housed in and protected by the U.S. (96). This precarity, manifest as increased competition between wage laborers set against the threat of relegation to the surplus labor army, has generated discontent across the political spectrum, notably including the white working class. This very malaise has been successfully seized by the right-wing and motivated towards the support of politicians like Donald Trump (96–97).
Perhaps best exemplified by the Janary 6th, 2021 “storming of the capitol”, the right-wing has encountered the same precarity and the same metacrisis as the liberal/left. These majority poor white people have encountered the metacrisis of the ongoing crisis of capitalist surplus absorption, motivated towards claims that are a fundamental challenge to the neoliberal politics of the current U.S.: anti-globalization. Such an assertion is a rejection of both neoliberal pillars that Azmanova describes by way of changing U.S. economic policies so that neoliberal responses would not be necessary. The claim of the growing “alt-right” is that a truly free market, free of U.S. global interference, would not necessitate the hyper-policing that has been created as a necessity to keep out those who would take from the U.S.’ prosperity without working for it. Therefore, the alt-right rejects the underlying power of the U.S. to control the global economy while simultaneously displacing that responsibility onto individuals and the need for policing borders.
While this claim is fundamentally anti-neoliberal-capitalist politics, it rests upon the classic capitalist division of politics and economics and fails to challenge the economic relations essential to capitalism that birthed both the possibility and necessity of neoliberalism. In this way, the resolution of the right-wing affective metacrisis of precarity, the expression of a fundamentally anti-neoliberal political claim, becomes trapped in what Azmanova calls the “paradox of emancipation,” because it does not abolish the generative economics of capitalism, as it is primarily the economic interests of private capitalists to which capitalist politics are beholden, not the reverse (97). Such ideologically mediated affective responses to metacrises of precarity are realized in the election of figures like Donald Trump who feed off of the affective vigor of his supporters while simultaneously subverting their interests to reinforce the primary crisis of capitalism that enabled the metacrisis in the first place. Therefore, such “radical” political claims can constitute the resolution of an affective metacrisis, but not the primary causal crisis. For this reason, the image above evokes metacrisis for me: metacrises may be resolved by way of political intervention without attention to more fundamental economic conditions, leaving the primary crisis intact and leaving open the probability of future affective metacrises. Such an approach serves to placate the working class and divert the attention of potential radical actors away from revolutionary resolution of the source of their alienation manifest as affective metacrises of precarity.