Near the end of Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, Tarrou confesses to Dr Rieux the roots of his beliefs. To kill anybody for an abstraction, for a political idea, no matter how just, is murder much like any other. In the mode of allegory sustained by the book he goes on to submit that everyone is a carrier of the plague (of a potentially murderous political ideology). We all have a capability of spreading it. And it is for this reason we need to keep an incessant watch on ourselves. We can absentmindedly cough in another’s face, condemning them to death.
Many critics, and indeed Camus himself, argued that the book, which ‘chronicles’ an outbreak of the plague in ‘194_’ in the Algerian city of Oran, was more an allegory informed by politics and the Nazi experience than a purely representational or realist account of a plague. To read it at this moment, however, one can barely see the political allegory. Its reality seems too starkly rendered. The themes of the fear of the spreading virus, of exile, of loneliness, of panic, and the pure quotidian, almost routine, heroism of the essential workers, are produced with what seems like now a mimetic precision.
When I read the book some twenty-four years ago for the first time, this was certainly not my take-away. I puzzled, like many, over its political claims and tried my best to understand it in an apartheid framework. Many like Sartre, Barthes and de Beauvoir felt that the abstraction of the plague was not concomitant with the political actions of the French collaborators and the Nazis. These Fascists, the French post-war left claimed, were humans with free will; the plague, on the contrary, contained no human face and no capacity for choice.
Of course unlike Sartre, de Beauvoir and Barthes, Camus had been an active member of the French Resistance and the editor of the famous clandestine resistance newspaper Combat. And it was an act of pure chance that he was not arrested and executed by the Nazis. The authenticity of Camus’ novel is no doubt derived from this lived experience. Another aspect of his life that he drew from was his tuberculosis, an illness he had contracted as a teenager, the result of his working-class upbringing in the poverty stricken Belcourt district of Algiers. Camus knew all too well of an illness that spread in the streets without discrimination, impalpably and with no human reason. Sartre and his bourgeois coterie, who did so much in their attempt to ruin Camus’ reputation in the 1950s, knew none of these.
There is little doubt that reading Camus’ most-sold novel today one can feel the fears that were so real to its author. But this does not discount the notion that the book was in many ways a fictional compendium to his most famous work of political philosophy The Rebel. A book in which Camus made a similar point to that of the character Tarrou: that no political abstraction, no matter how just, was worth killing for.
Camus had, however, in The Plague unwittingly lined himself up for criticism. A criticism which only rose to its real heights after his precipitate death and with the beginnings of postcolonial literary critique. In the now famous monograph, simply entitled Camus, Conor Cruise O’Brien took the dead author and The Plague to task over his failure to represent the Arabs in Oran – leaving them out much like Conrad left out black characters in Heart of Darkness. But O’Brien’s point went further, Camus was refusing to acknowledge that Nazism had some distinct similarities to colonialism and in particular to the French in Algeria. Of course like all polemical attacks O’Brien did not strictly stick to the facts. Camus had, after all, written on many occasions that this was the case. As he wrote in Combat in the same year as The Plague was published ‘we are doing [in Algeria] what we reproach the Germans for doing’. It was a line Camus had taken (unlike Sartre and many on the left) from the very beginning of his journalism. In fact Camus had left the Communist Party in 1935 due to its refusal to support the Arab political cause in Algeria. His initial role in the party was in fact to recruit Arabs into its ranks.
The politics and terrors of Nazism, colonialism and Communism (although none are specifically named) underpin many of the themes in The Plague, but it might seem wrongheaded to view our current Corona outbreak in direct political terms. Covid-19 has the faceless inhumanity that Barthes and others claimed was lacking in ideological motivation. But as those who continue the break the lockdown ‘because you don’t understand I just have to go for a run’ suggest, this thing is political. There is choice, and a potentially deadly one at that. Tarrou was right, we are all possibly carriers of the plague both literally and figuratively. We can choose to spread it and to become infected. It is a choice that derives, at least partly, from the politics of entitlement and ignorance.
And this is, in many ways, the outcome of the politics of the last thirty years. The outcome of what people have called ‘capitalism’. In fact it is hardly capitalism in Adam Smith’s sense: premised by free markets, unregulated competition and the invisible hand’s breaking up of monopolies to allow this. We instead have lived in a time of neo-materialism where an almost salvational attitude towards commodities, properties and devices has existed, a time when the profligate and avaricious have been held in sycophantic admiration.
What there has been is a plague of materialism, which is as much the fault of conservatism as it is of the Marxist left. Both, after all, have supported the claim that human beings, and indeed human history, can be explained and understood as materialist; as the acquisition, search and fight for resources. The forces of ‘progress’ and ‘reaction’ have both used materialism as an explanation for human behaviour. And it should not be surprising that a strange dissonant commodity fetishism is entrenched in the youth who choose to identify as either of the right or left. Activist, like goths or punks of previous generations, claim ‘brand loyalty’ and adhere to a tailored aesthetic that marks them out as materialistically distinct. All this has led to the tribalism we face today. A tribalism that has formed as much around identity politics as it has over materialism. In fact the two are very distinctly interlinked. And this is partly the result of what both the right and left have taught.
When finally we stand at the end of this crisis one wonders how we will look back on this period and compare it to all the others that have faced us in our lifetimes: AIDS, tuberculosis, poverty, the crisis of education, corruption and climate change. When we see the Oppenheimers and Ruperts handing over mountains of money, we can be grateful, but we can also ask, just why this money is being handed over now? Where has this money been as we (or at least the poor and disadvantaged) faced each previous calamity? And we should not fool ourselves into believing we have not been the spreaders of this virus of materialism and greed, which has been as devastating to some as the one that we are facing now. The fact that the wealthy can buy surplus houses, cars and artworks with the amounts of money that could sustain entire education projects in our townships for many years, should and now must concern us. Camus pointed out at The Plague’s end, listing a somewhat dated inventory of material possessions, that:
“those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”