14 July 2020

Live Free and Die: Notes On American Exterminism

Alexander Billet


America is crossing the Rubicon. From the outside, it appears that the richest and most powerful nation in history has simply given up the fight against coronavirus. From the inside, the reality is far more chaotic, far grimmer. In a matter of months, Covid-19 has killed more Americans than the past sixty years of military conflict combined. A third of all cases worldwide are within the country’s borders. And yet, with no vaccine or comprehensive tracing apparatus, the country has barrelled ahead into reopening. On June 24th there were almost 38,000 new cases reported, breaking the record of the previous peak in late April. We should expect more records to be broken in the coming weeks.

There is palpable indifference, often confusion, among “leaders” both elected and unelected. In May, Donald Trump said the US should prepare for 3,000 deaths a day – as many as died on September 11th – and called the high number of cases a“badge of honor”. Now he is telling country that we are going to have to “live with it.” He has withdrawn federal funding for test sites while Anthony Fauci has announced plans to ramp testing up.

In late May it came to light that two of the state governments leading the charge to reopen – Georgia and Florida – deliberately manipulated data to justify their case. Georgia literally flipped around charts that made it seem cases were declining when they weren’t. In Florida, the employee who built the software that enabled the state to track cases was fired after she reported that her higher-ups were forcing her staff to deliberately delete the record of deaths.

Texas, whose governor Greg Abbott has been one of the loudest voices in the reopen chorus, is now quickly and sheepishly re-shuttering bars and restaurants after cases skyrocketed. Lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, who several weeks ago insisted seniors would rather die than hurt the economy, has dismissed the prospect of another full lockdown. So, for that matter, has Trump.

Nurses and doctors have warned for months how ill equipped our hospitals are. In some areas, intensive care units are already at capacity, soon to be overwhelmed. Before the state of California quickly moved to re-shutter restaurants and bars in early July, it was found that more than half of those in Los Angeles weren’t following basic safety guidelines. (LA county, where this writer resides, is currently the epicenter of California’s surge in Covid-19 cases. It is the most populous county in the United States.)

Servers and retail workers are assaulted or even shot and killed for asking patrons to wear masks. Teens in Alabama have thrown beer pong parties where a payout is promised to the first one to contract the virus. Even with several states and cities and counties quickly re-closing their beaches and parks, there were still large and crowded gatherings across the country over the long July 4th weekend, including mass fireworks displays in Washington and in front of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, spearheaded by Trump himself. Both aresuper-spreader events, essentially declarations of independence from medical science and basic decency.

European sources have watched in horror, and now the EU has closed its borders to the US. Some Mexican states are doing the same, an irony that likely either infuriates the right-wing or goes over their heads entirely. This is what it looks like for an empire to be finally unmoored.

Thankfully, the (re?)normalisation of mass death in the United States it is not entirely unopposed. The nationwide rebellion for Black lives – the largest and most militant we have seen in decades – has conjured a different vision for life, one that isn’t dominated by cruel necropolitical calculi. As the editors of Spectre argue, it has drawn stark battle lines, making it clear that in this moment people will ultimately have to choose between a “disorder of life” and “the capitalist order of death.” Trump’s stroll across Lafayette Square, where cops teargassed mask-wearing protesters so that he, Bible in hand, could bluster about sending in the military, dramatises this description.

War comparisons are trite, even tiresome, but they are apt. Indeed, this is the most naked episode of class war many Americans can remember. Wars don’t just change people. They change places, landscapes, geographies. And with them our sense of what might take root in them, the futures on offer. When people die en masse, so do the spaces they inhabit and maintain. They become estranged, otherly, unheimlich. Scars linger, places that hummed with life become graveyards. Still others are reinvented in vain attempts to act like nothing happened. To rebel in this context is not just to refuse. It is to revive narratives obscured through time, to make vivid and apparent the death drive nascent in capital and empire.



When EP Thompson coined the term “exterminism” in 1980 to describe the irrational logic of the nuclear arms race, it carried with it a latent but strong geographic connotation. For him, 1945 loomed large; the atomic annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of that year was “the first annunciation of exterminist technology.”

As the Second World War made way for the Cold War, as eastern and western blocs competed in building up their stockpiles of this same technology, it was increasingly feasible to picture that mass devastation recreated elsewhere. Thompson recounted in his “Notes on Exterminism” that US generals were remarkably cavalier about the possibility of Europe reduced to wasteland: huge cities reduced to rubble, radioactive winds traveling across borders, whole countries transformed into “theatres of apocalypse.”

The Bomb was a dramatic distillation and obvious avatar, but the truly dreaded development was the willingness to use it, to give into its logic and accept the scenario of society destroyed wholesale. Exterminism was, therefore, bigger than the Bomb itself. It was, in Thompson’s words, “characteristics of a society – expressed, in differing degrees, within its economy, its polity, and its ideology – which thrust it in a direction whose outcome must be the extermination of multitudes.”

The year 1945 should loom large for us too. Though debates among climate scientists continue, many see it as the inaugural year of the Anthropocene. It makes sense. The boom in industrialisation since the end of the war has spewed 75 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, the fastest pace in recorded history. Any system willing to split the atom for the sake of mass destruction is easily able to undo the balance of global ecology for the sake of growth, human consequences be damned. 

The results are what we live with now: erratic weather patterns, floods, wildfires, crop failures. It is not for nothing that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (also founded in 1945) now factors climate change in its annual calculations of the Doomsday Clock. That clock currently stands at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest to Doomsday it has ever been.

What Peter Frase describes in his book Four Futures is, therefore, not a freak reintroduction of exterminism into the American zeitgeist. Frase’s adaptation of Thompson’s term is appropriate precisely because the climate crisis has, since the end of the Cold War, supplanted the arms race as the primary avatar of exterminism. It is an evolution, a deepening of its phenomenological structure even if the shape of that structure has changed.

In a recent article for Jacobin, Frase further updates the framework to include the American approach to Covid-19. He argues the pandemic brings the impulse further out of the shadows and places it right at the centre of American polity. “The rise of the Party of Death” is what he calls it. Dramatic it may be, but it is a sound argument. While it would be overly-simplistic to lay blame for the outbreak of Covid at the door of climate change itself, the same widening of the metabolic rift that has exacerbated climate change is also at fault for outbreaks such as this. Deforestation and other disruptions to nature release and spread previously contained pathogens. Ecologists and epidemiologists alike are warning that Covid is merely the first of many pandemics unleashed as climate change accelerates.



In hindsight it seems obvious that much of the relief intended for workers in the CARES Act was intended not as preparation for quarantine but to prime us for an early return to work. The added $600 a week in unemployment benefits that Bernie Sanders and others raised hell for is set to expire in July. Trump and congressional Republicans have promised that any extensions of this provision will be dead on arrival. Even the paltry $1200 relief checks seems to have come with certain loopholes, as immigrants and their families well know. (A second round of relief checks is included in the HEROES Act, passed by the House in May. The bill explicitly includes payments to undocumented individuals, but it still has yet to be passed by the Republican-dominated Senate. The White House has promised to veto it.)

In many states, workers who are offered their jobs back will also have their unemployment benefits withdrawn. Ohio’s state government initially encouraged employers to report employees who refuse to come back out of concern for their safety. This was scrapped thanks to public outrage and a very skilfull computer hacker, but Trump and his administration are encouraging companies and bosses to engage in the practice. The Department of Labor has specified that states are legally permitted to kick workers off unemployment so long as their employer makes “reasonable accommodations” for social distancing. Provisions for personal protective equipment are similarly vague. With already-paltry eviction moratoria set to expire soon, a third of all renters may be facing legal action – including eviction – from their landlords. Remdesivir, recently discovered to be an effective treatment in lessening Covid’s symptoms and quickening recovery, is going to cost $3,000 for a full round – and that is for those who already pay for a private insurance plan. As others have already argued, workers are faced with the impossible choice between their livelihood and their health as well as that of their families. By the time this is all done, a great many will have neither.

We should be clear that is it not just Republicans responsible for this. Yes, it is conservative politicians and other officials who are the most brazen in their rhetoric – Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick’s declaration that “some things are more important that living” comes to mind. But on the other side of the aisle, Democratic governors are making cuts to Medicare and other parts of the social safety net. New York governor Andrew Cuomo says we should “reimagine” a post-Covid economy, with Bill Gates and other tech billionaires backing him up. Their excuse is the continued observation of social distancing, but their practical vision is to eliminate as many jobs as possible, replacing them with labor-saving technology.

Automated “smart cities” are seen as a desirable solution. “Humans are biohazards,” says Steer Tech CEO Anuja Sonalker, “machines are not.” Healthcare and education, arguably the two most unavoidably social keystones of social reproduction, are the first mentioned for transformation. Transport is also in their sights. Even as the content moderation centres and lithium mines expand, workers in these and other fields will find themselves either out of work entirely or forced to work in hazardous “essential” fields.

What awaits these workers dropped to the bottom of the labour pool is illustrated in New Orleans. Here, city sanitation workers striking for hazard pay and better protections have been replaced by prisoners. The virus is already thriving in prisons, and inmates have little recourse to protect themselves in any event. Those who get sick or die are easily replaced. When death is prevalent and labour easily automated, those performing even the most indispensable tasks become disposable. Surplus life provides for a bottomless resource pool.

To put it in starkly Marxist terms, government and employer alike are using Covid pandemic as an experiment in the organic composition of capital, an opportunity to see just how much of the working class they can do without. This fits with a key component of climate exterminism, in which automation renders large swathes of the working class superfluous. As Frase writes:

A world where the ruling class no longer depends on the exploitation of working-class labour is a world where the poor are merely a danger and an inconvenience. Policing and repressing them ultimately seem more trouble than can be justified. This is where the thrust toward “the extermination of multitudes” originates. Its ultimate endpoint is literally the extermination of the poor, so that the rabble can finally be brushed aside once and for all, leaving the rich to live in peace and quiet in their Elysium.



This puts a twist on the traditional geographies of social control. Rather than an emphasis on who is isolated, “locked in,” be it in prisons, detention centres, or ghettoes, there is a shift toward who is “locked out.” Prisons and jails are now hotspots for the virus. So are nursing homes, warehouses, meat packing plants. These are not places designed to be isolated from the rest of the population and. Many rely on a steady connection with the world at large as a core part of their function. As these spaces become increasingly hazardous – perhaps ultimately uninhabitable – protection of the rich morphs into what Frase calls “an inverted gulag.” The gated community, the fortress-like penthouse, the tropical island bunker.

The divisions of these inverted gulags are bound to trace along the lines of racism, segregation, empire and, of course, class. In early May, the city of Gallup, New Mexico went on total lockdown after its Covid-19 outbreak spread to levels that city officials described as “uninhibited.” All roads in and out of the city were closed, and residents were ordered to stay indoors save for emergencies. Gallup, a city of 22,000, is on the edge of the state’s Navajo reservation. Almost half of its population is indigenous.

In subsequent weeks, South Dakota governor Kristi Noem declared illegal the Sioux tribal leadership’s checkpoints in and out of their reservations, ordering them taken down. In Chicago, African-Americans account for 60 percent of all Covid deaths, despite making up about a third of the city’s population. In Alabama, a quarter of all Covid deaths have been in its rural Black Belt. Meanwhile, a full 60 percent of all those tested in ICE detention facilities are testing positive for Covid.

It is, with this in mind, entirely appropriate to speak of eco-fascism. And it is similarly appropriate to use the term in relation to the anti-lockdown protests that proliferated throughout April and May. Their demands for golf and reopened country clubs – absurd though they may be – are bound up with an insular, consumption-based anxiety that is a fixture of the contemporary white middle-class. Their casual dismissal of deadly disease comes off as a celebration of death, not only in their willingness to spread the virus, but their demands to “sacrifice the weak,” and in their obvious placement of convenience and creature comfort over the lives of workers. Many of them are funded by billionaires and big business. Plenty are armed, and a few openly harkened back to the words displayed over the gates of Auschwitz and Dachau.

One of the more curious yet telling actions in these protests came early on, when the Michigan Proud Boys participating in an anti-lockdown protest at the state capitol in Lansing actively blocked ambulances from pulling into a nearby hospital. It was an action that lasted for at most a few minutes, but it was telling. What could possibly be gained from blocking a hospital? To avowed white chauvinists like the Proud Boys, the answer is very straightforward: the medical resources being used in the “world at large” are going to waste, they are better hoarded for those most deserving (read: white, straight, and so on).

These are now some of the most emboldened and confident elements in American society now. Trump has openly encouraged these protests, using them as leverage to push states to reopen. Now, they have received a huge boost, a de facto promotion to exterminism’s street team. Some of them have returned to the state capitols to throw “Bar Lives Matter” rallies, a fairly unmistakable signal of their priorities: property and commerce over lives of colour. Still others are setting upsniper outposts at Black Lives Matter protests, carrying out lone wolf attacks on demonstrators, issuing violent provocations while cops turn a blind eye.



The ferocity of the initial explosion against the police, the quickness with which it spread from Minneapolis to the rest of the country, is at least partially explained by how apparent this exterminist streak has been made through the course of the pandemic. The disproportionate impact that Covid has had in communities of colour isn’t only in the number of cases or deaths. In some ways, the pandemic has provided a new platform on which the violence of police racism and vigilantism can be enacted. Signs declaring racism its own pandemic aren’t just clever reference but an acknowledgement that the order of death can take many forms.

In the weeks leading up to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we saw several reminders of the racist and repressive role police play in America, many of them tightly wound up with the fallout from Covid. In New York, police handed out masks to white people in parks while violently pummelling to the ground Black men standing fewer than six feet apart. In Wood River, Illinois, a police officer stopped and questioned two Black men for wearing masks inside a WalMart. And then there was the video of a white Central Park dog-walker calling the police on African-American science writer and birdwatcher Christian Cooper in retaliation for telling her to put her dog on a leash – which went viral just as protests in Minneapolis started to gain momentum.

The two white men who shot and killed Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, displayed much of the same violent, racialised anxiety as many of the armed conspiracists demanding an end to the lockdown. Gregory McMichael, a former police officer himself, and his son Travis profiled Arbery because they saw him as a racialised threat to the small, mostly white and insular unincorporated community they belonged to, which had experienced a short spate of burglaries earlier that winter. Travis is on video calling Arbery a “fucking n*gger” as he stands over his dead body. Details of the February murder came to light concurrently with a rise in anti-lockdown protests. Police had treated the McMichaels with kid-gloves, initially refusing to arrest them. Just as they had the armed protesters, even as they stormed state capitols, calling for disproportionately Black and brown workforces to be tossed back into the breach. The affinities are easy to see.

The multi-racial crowds that have flooded onto American streets since Minneapolis have watched all of this unfold, more or less helplessly, over the past four months. Many have lost their income or healthcare, been evicted or threatened with eviction, or forced to work in infectious and unsafe conditions. They’ve had loved ones and coworkers hospitalised, even dying, unable to visit in the hospital or even hold anything like a proper funeral.

Uncertainty, frustration, the profound melancholy and precarity that come with working-class existence in America; all have been sharply attenuated. And with that, the particular necropolitics experienced by marginalised communities have been generalised. This is not to suggest that white workers are suddenly subject to everything endured by communities of colour. Merely that, on a long enough timeline, every working and poor person can be easily disposed of, and this has become blatant.

Frequent invocations on marches that we “say their names,” shouting out that of Floyd, Taylor, Arbery, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Tony McDade and so many others; this has served the purpose of not just in the observation of a deflected mourning but also in reckoning with these same politics of death.

By that same token, there is also an unmistakable rejection of these politics. The ethos of mutual aid has clearly travelled from buildings and neighbourhood networks into the protests, as indicated by the widespread distribution by volunteers of masks, water, even baking soda and antacid to counter the effects of teargas and pepper spray. The bus drivers who have refused to transport arrested protesters have also been among the most exposed to Covid. Teachers now calling for cops out of schools were in many cases the same ones demanding their schools be closed at the beginning of the pandemic, often against the wishes of city officials.

This ethos is translated even further into the improvised autonomous zones that the protests have inspired, from the now sadly dismantled Capitol Hill Organized Protest in Seattle to Camp Maroon in Philadelphia. All are experiments in demanding a new paradigm from their cities – from abolition of police to the provision of decent housing – while simultaneously attempting to prove tangible alternatives are possible. The repression and violence they have faced, though, show that there remain significant obstacles. The order of exterminism still has an upper hand.



Re-reading his “Notes on Exterminism” today, it is apparent that Thompson felt overwhelmed in writing it. By his own admission, the essay could only be “notes” due to the enormity of what he was asking his audience to face. Parts of the article feel as if he is pleading with readers to stare down a vengeful and destructive Old God starting to awake. Governments had deployed a mountain of propaganda designed to put people at ease with the possibility of annihilation Cartoon turtles urged TV audiences to “duck and cover.” In the UK, programs and pamphlets titled “Protect and Survive” made survival of a nuclear attack seem relatively easy. Thompson and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rightly argued that these informationals only increased the likelihood of nuclear war, trading vigilance for a false sense of security.

The rhetoric of elected officials and media both exhibit this same bad optimism around Covid today. Lest this seem an unfair comparison, we only need to reference the words of Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman, who in April dismissed the need for greater coronavirus testing with her own experiences from the age of nuclear tests: “I know over the years, going back to the 1950s with the atomic bomb, ‘Don’t worry about more testing in Nevada. You’ll all be fine. Take a shower.’”

(Goodman would be brave indeed to say that to any of the Downwinders, those residents of the southwest exposed to fallout during the thousand-plus nuclear tests conducted in the region from 1945 to 1992. Incidence of leukaemia and other cancers are several times higher in these communities. Conservative estimates have tens of thousands dying as a result. Most of them probably showered regularly.)

Now, the Vegas casinos are reopening. The city’s advertising campaigns are attempting to allay potential tourists’ fears. If these same iconic casinos and hotels become viral hotspots, it will be interesting to see whether Goodman refers to it, as she did before, as “free enterprise.”

Local news stations are running segments on workplace safety literally scripted by Amazon. Blue Angels fly over hospitals thanking “hero” healthcare workers as state medical budgets are slashed. Television commercials talk reassuringly of “uncertain times,” to the point where they have become virtually identical. They are run alongside promotions and statements declaring empty solidarity with Black Lives Matter from many of the same companies, the kind that never seem to bring with them calls to abolish police or empty out the now Covid-ridden prisons.

This is the hangover of capitalist realism, which, though bruised and battered, continues to shuffle along in terms of structural policy even as it attempts to speak out of a different face. Congressional Democrats don Kente-cloths and take a knee, but refuse to entertain defunding police. They denounce the ineptitude of Trump’s Covid plans but reject calls for universal healthcare. In fact, it is fair to say that while they may disagree with certain details regarding Republicans’ push to reopen, they are willing to go along with the general thrust of it.

Meanwhile Trump has signed an executive order promising federal prosecution for leftists who damage statues of racists. In addition to raising the possibility of protesters serving life sentences for property damage, it serves to energise and rally his already armed and dangerous hardcore. To them, this is red meat, and it may get enough of them to the polls to easily defeat the doddering Joe Biden in November. Should a second round of lockdowns be in the offing, it will also be enough to pull them out yet again, clinging with even more tenacity to their “social distancing = communism” formulations.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, we might take a cue from this actually-existing-dystopia. Five years ago it seemed beyond the pale that Trump would win an election, let alone that he could rally a gaggle of stochastic fascists in front of state capitols in the middle of a pandemic. But here we are. Leaving aside any value judgments, we can say that the horizons of the possible have been expanded. And if they can do so in one direction, why not the other?

In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the resurgence of Black Lives Matter has done just that. If the ethics of protest and autonomous zones have given us messy and flawed visions of utopia, if city councils are now arguing (albeit insincerely) the disbandment of police departments, then what else can happen? Can teachers, in coalition with BLM and other anti-racist formations, push back against the premature reopening of schools? Can the healthcare workers who have spent these past few months sacrificing so much, against such incredible odds, also lead the herculean push needed to win Medicare for all? How does the anti-racist resurgence bode for organising and unionisation efforts among Amazon workers or other vulnerable essentials?

We can no longer act as if such scenarios or projects are beyond our reach. Rather, we must ask what needs to happen for them to be placedwithin our reach. Streets that were virtually deserted in the early days of quarantine are now frequently flooded with people calling for the dead to be redeemed and the living to be valued. Boarded up stores have been converted into murals, theatres of apocalypse transformed into experiments in solidarity. Things can change, dramatically at that, and it is our obligation to make them change. Against the dominance of exterminism, utopia is no longer an indulgence. It is a necessity.

Alexander Billet is an artist, writer, and cultural critic based in Los Angeles. His work encompasses topics concerning artistic expression, radical geography, and historical memory. He is a member of the Locust Arts & Letters Collective and an editor at its publication Locust Review. He also regularly contributes articles on music to Jacobin, and has appeared in Chicago Review, In These Times, and other outlets. His blog is To Whom It May Concern…