Longing for the State in a Pandemic

Devin William Daniels

The COVID-19 pandemic has been, in many ways, a disaster of the U.S. state. A government of such power—able to bail out banks, force pipelines through Indigenous land, kill individuals around the globe with the push of a button—has proven completely incapable of providing testing and medical supplies to its front-line workers. The stark displays of the state’s priorities and (in)capacities in the recent Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act prompts serious questions for how the state will address the ongoing and imminent crises prompted by climate change. We might ask, who CARES? The answer, evidently, is not the state.

For many, this is hardly surprising. In the analysis offered by organizers and activists on the left, the mission of the state is not to protect its population but rather to protect the interests of the ruling class. A great deal of political activity in response to the crisis, thus, has seen its mission as providing the services the state has failed (or neglects) to provide. Social media is awash with posts about individuals sewing masks for hospitals or donating boxes of supplies. Hospital workers are raising funds online to procure their own equipment. Mutual aid networks are distributing goods to those unable to leave their homes. 

Many see the success of mutual aid as proof that we do not need the state at all, as exemplified in a recent television ad by Fellow Americans, a Democratic super PAC.* Over a montage of inspiring images, the ad states that “we’re in this thing together.” This “we” explicitly excludes the state, which “is not coming to save us.” Instead, “this time, we gotta do it on our own.” Rather than organize to seize state power, such that we might use that power to more just ends, the message is to simply ignore the state, buckle down, and move forward: we’ve got this. 

However, there is a problem: you can’t mutually aid your way into a functioning COVID-19 testing system. We might similarly doubt our capacity to decarbonize the global economy through the slow process of bottom-up organizing. While we pick up the state’s slack, the federal government is defunding COVID-19 testing sites, an act those of all political persuasions are sure to decry. What then, do we do with the state, as we confront a crisis that absolutely needs its capacities but cannot abide its tendencies?

This is not to reject mutual aid networks, but to recognize that even our attempts to work “outside” the state are tied up in it. Rather than seek to cut ourselves free from these messy entanglements, can we rethink our relationship to the state as one of necessary, even productive, contradiction? Can we, as Anna Kornbluh calls for “dialectically buck our reflexive anti-statism”?** Doing so, we might read the average person’s engagement in the decentralized, uncompensated work of mutual aid as constituting, in fact, a longing for the state: a state that provides ordinary people with the means to engage in the activities they clearly have a desire to engage in, one that properly valued the crucial, largely low-carbon, work that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed as “essential.” 

Is such a state possible? I believe it is, but only through the unglamorous work of building power and organization. Our problem is not one of imagination. As the writers of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal note, “the real problem” with climate change (or the current pandemic) is not with our capacity to “comprehend” it, but rather “that ordinary people have been stripped of their power.”*** People know the state is failing them; they don’t need academics or activists to tell them that. What they might need is help building power, so they can do the things they know need to be done. A world without the state is desirable, but we may in fact need to use the state to get there. If this sounds contradictory, it’s because it is. But we won’t survive climate change (let alone solve it) by fleeing from contradiction towards ideological purity. We’ve got to get our hands dirty, because, whether we like it or not, they already are. 

*Full ad viewable at

** Kornbluh, Anna. “The State of Contradiction.” Continental Thought & Theory, vol. 2, no. 4, pp. 62–70.

*** Aronoff, Kate, et al. A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal. Penguin, 2019.

Devin William Daniels is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation, “Informatics of State: The Novel and the Technologies of Administration,” considers how the U.S. novel, from the New Deal through the 1970s, has understood, depicted, and engaged with the information systems and technologies of administration through which the state comes to “know,” define, and interface with its populace and citizenry. His other interests include science-fiction, economic thought, and the theory of the novel. Off the clock, he plays guitar in Philadelphia post-punk band Recognitions.