Amadeo Bordiga, founder of the Communist Party of Italy, wrote a short article in 1961 called “In Janitzio Death is not Scary,” detailing his travels to a small Mexican island and his encounters with the ancestors of the Inca civilization, the Tarascanos.
Bordiga provides insight into a view of death that is understood as a good : “[the Tarascanos] consider life a transitional state, a brief moment that we must pass through to reach the blessing of death. Death no longer means an inevitable doom but on the contrary is considered a good, the only good thing whose value cannot be calculated. This is why the Day of the Dead is not a day of sorrow for the inhabitants of Janitzio.”
On Wednesday, June 28 2023, two concurrent events took place: first, the stabbing of a gender studies professor and two students at the University of Waterloo; second, the listing of Toronto as having the worst air quality in the world by IQAir, an air monitoring company.
Bordiga’s analysis provides a helpful frame to help us understand what is called for us in a moment that includes both the threats of targeted violence towards marginalized communities and expanding biohazards such as forest fires and COVID-19.
Right-wing seeks to exterminate queer and trans people
Three days prior to the attack at the University of Waterloo, I had attended a Pride march in Grange Park which billed itself as “anti-fascist” in reference to the No More Shit anti-police protests of 1981. There, a speaker warned about the rising violence and hate crimes against queer people and, particularly, trans people.
In 2021, Judith Butler wrote in The Guardian that the new rhetoric of today’s transphobes is fascistic in that its primary stance is anti-intellectual. Rather than viewing gender studies as a field that is internally diverse, which offers many theories of gender, and opposing one of these theories with any degree of coherence, today’s transphobic right-wing instead seeks to erase the field of gender studies altogether. That is to say, to erase any detailed exposition of trans and queerness, therefore opening the doorway for extermination.
In case any of this sounds exaggerated, one does not have to dig very deep to find the explicit call for extermination. During the Conservative Political Action Conference in the United States this year, speaker Michael Knowles said, “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.”
The University of Waterloo stabbing is clear evidence of the literal usage of “eradication” among the right-wing. It is, without a doubt, a call to arms. The stabbing left me feeling angry and powerless in ways I had not felt until then. The very place where I met and solidified my relationships with great queer luminaries, the university classroom, was now an actual site for violent hate crimes. The one place of refuge, now forever tainted.
State complicity in biohazard-based social murder
Threats to corporeal existence, however, extend beyond overt political violence in the form of terrorism.
Which leads me to the second event aforementioned: the carcinogenic air quality in our cities and the general decay of the commons. The impact of the forest fires, like that of the COVID-19 pandemic, arise from the state acquiescing to and executing the demands of capital. The state, then, is complicit in the decay of the commons. Both forms of biohazard are examples of what Friederich Engels defined as social murder, that is: whereby “the ruling power of society, the class which at present holds social and political control … places proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death.”
In a new report, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor notes that COVID-19 is a mass-disabling event which will likely cause long-term chronic illnesses for a greater number of people. Canadian workers were (and continue to be) arbitrarily forced to go back to work in the face of biohazard. Many workers were not given the ability at any point to claim the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), and were forced to return to their workplaces despite any pre-existing health concerns among themselves or their families. Also, having worked at a warehouse from 2021 to 2022, I know that even the meagre regulations handed down from the government to restrict the spread of the illness were almost never enforced in practice.
When I was working at that warehouse, I attempted (unsuccessfully) to start a labour union among my fellow workers, who were all making barely above minimum wage. One of the fissures I came up against, which could undermine solidarity, was the divide between workers who adamantly wore masks and those that did not. For the former, the mask question was one of preserving public health. For the latter, it was a response of indifference which confronted the sense that our social institutions, by excluding them from eligibility for CERB, had abandoned them.
For this latter group, the mask and vaccine question also became a site of projection for feelings of autonomy. Wearing a mask or receiving the vaccine were choices with real stakes and social consequences involved that the workers could make. Absent any sort of class consciousness, these workers would exercise what little autonomy they did have regarding masks and vaccines as a counter to the deficit of autonomy in almost every other sphere of their lives.
Therefore, we must understand that the indifference and bitterness of the proletariat in this case is entirely different from social murder. Further, the actions of working class people (or lack thereof) must also be considered as unfolding within the conditions parallel to social murder. Compare my description of the embittered warehouse worker against Engels’ analysis of the causes of alcoholism amongst the English working class:
“The working-man comes from his work tired, exhausted, finds his home comfortless, damp, dirty, repulsive; he has urgent need of recreation, he must have something to make work worth his trouble, to make the prospect of the next day endurable… Drunkenness has here ceased to be a vice, for which the vicious can be held responsible; it becomes a phenomenon, the necessary, inevitable effect of certain conditions upon an object possessed of no volition in relation to those conditions. They who have degraded the working-man to a mere object have the responsibility to bear. ”
The question raised by this state of affairs is: how do we organize with workers who we recognize as failing to take notions of public health seriously? If we refuse to answer this question, we are left only to lambast these workers and exclude them as essentially immoral people.
While it would be ideal for a great revolution to occur, one in which the new regime would engage in much more ambitious efforts to restrict the spread of these illnesses and combat forest fire, this is not likely in the short- to medium-term; as the buildup to and coordination of such a revolutionary moment requires institutional capacities from organizations that do not yet exist.
What COVID-19 and the carcinogenic smog hanging over our heads show us is that, under current political circumstances, the decline of our collective biological health is inescapable. The ableism of our public policy not only marginalizes those among us who are disabled, but functions to produce and expand disability among a growing number of our population. And, viewing the root causes of fossil fuel dependence (concerning the forest fires) and the necessity of wage labour to keep our essential industries functioning (concerning the spread of COVID-19) as unchangeable facts, the only response our policymakers can offer is medically-assisted dying to those struggling with disability in a campaign of eugenics (lest we forget the story of Amir Farsoud). Hence,we are entering into a short- to medium-term period in which the destruction of our collective bodily health is assured.
Confronting the omnipresence of death
However, as discussed earlier, a similar yet distinct sort of existential dilemma, whereby one’s life could be ended at a moment’s notice, is a constant presence in the lives of marginalized people. Examples of this phenomenon are ample: the state taking the lives of George Floyd and Nahel Merzouk, and now right-wing terrorists attempting to murder professors and students of gender studies (and, by extension, all queer and trans people). When the simple act of going to class or being pulled over at a traffic stop is imbued with potential murder, death is omnipresent for such marginalized people even absent COVID-19 and forest fires.
In the face of omnipresent death, we are called to rigorously contemplate the concept of harm reduction. Harm reduction, at its best, should be understood not as some feckless utilitarianism, but as a loving action which accepts one’s own potential injury. For example, there is a possibility, no matter how small and exaggerated it is, that the person to whom one administers Naloxone may react violently. In these situations, the most literal and basic harm reduction is not guaranteed per se. Instead, the willingness to endanger oneself for others constitutes harm reduction as such. Similarly, there is a possibility that the person who appears as schizophrenic on the subway will also injure us. However, it is a feverishly paranoid and selfish denial of one’s own mortality to escalate this situation to such a degree that it results in murder, as exemplified in the tragic case of Jordan Neely.
So, when we think of solidarity, and an enduring social ethic, perhaps then we must reconsider our fundamental approach to death, and to biophysical survival.
Returning to Bordiga, it is helpful to look at how he describes the ritual observances of the Day of the Dead and connects them to the pre-Christian practice of human sacrifice.
Regarding human sacrifice, Bordiga says:
“It is not that they were primitive and ferocious enough to sacrifice the most beautiful specimens of their young to the Sun who cried out for human blood, but that such a community, magnificent and powerfully intuitive, recognised the flow of life in that same energy which the Sun radiates on the planet and which flows through the arteries of a living man, and which becomes unity and love in the whole species, which, until it falls into the superstition of an individual soul with its sanctimonious balance sheet of give and take, the superstructure of monetary venality, does not fear death and knows personal death as nothing other than a hymn of joy and a fecund contribution to the life of humanity. In natural and primitive communism, even though humanity is conceived within the limits of the horde, the individual does not aim to subtract wealth from his brother but rather is willing to be sacrificed without the slightest fear for the survival of the great phratry. Idiotic conventional wisdom sees this as the terror of a God who must be placated with blood. In the form of exchange, of money, and of class, the species’ sense of permanence [perennità] disappears, and what is ignoble in the continued existence [perennità] of private property increases. This is translated into the immortality of the soul which contracts for happiness outside of nature with the usurer-god who runs this vile bank. In these societies which pretend to be raised from barbarism to civilization we live in dread of personal death and lie prostrate before mummies, like the mausoleum in Moscow, with its infamous history.”
It is this ethic that immediately occurred to me when the news from the University of Waterloo first broke. From Stonewall to the Uvalde school shooting, we know that an active police presence avails us nothing. Police misconduct, both in terms of cowardice or further violence, cannot and will not protect us.
The only viable response to the tragedy at Waterloo is for a civilian self-defence group in the mold of the Black Panthers. A group which is not necessarily armed, but definitely willing to be injured or even die for the sake of those targeted by such malevolent forces. If our queer, trans, and racialized siblings are required to accept death in their midst, however anxiously, then the only lucid response in kind by allies is to come into our own reconciliation to death, even on the metaphysical grounds that Bordiga outlines. Though the trappings of social murder and capitalist alienation transform death into “an inevitable doom” in the minds of the masses, Bordiga suggests that the Inca provide us with a view of an un-alienated death as sacrifice.
It is not enough to be aware of our privilege, we must forgo it entirely. That is, to become prepared for the indefinite possibility of injury, not out of guilt-inflected duty or despair, but instead in view of sacrifice as “unity and love in the whole species, which … does not fear death and knows personal death as nothing other than a hymn of joy and a fecund contribution to the life of humanity.”
The worship of murder, of violence as an end unto itself, that is fascism, must be countered by heeding the call to sacrificial love. Together, we must sing that great hymn which is nothing less than the revolutionary imperative.
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