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Epidemics and Revolution (I): Notes on the cholera riots 1830-1831

The second cholera pandemic in Russia (1826-1837) and the fifth cholera pandemic in Italy (1881-1896) are notable, not simply for a similarity in terms of the cost and suffering of human life, but for the various moments of resistance and popular revolt that were mobilized at the very moment when the fear of death (as condition) and the fear of contagion (as affect) gripped and enraptured the everyday life of each, respective, population.

Originally published by The Tragic Community.

At the height of a self-confident era of economic growth, material progress, scientific achievement and expanding European dominion over the world, here was a disease that came from the ‘uncivilized’ East and challenged common assumptions of European cultural and biological superiority by demonstrating the vulnerability of even the most civilized people to a disease associated mainly with oriental backwardness. At a time when European literature and culture was celebrating the ‘age of the beautiful death’, with diseases like typhoid or tuberculosis being accorded a transforming, almost beautifying influence on their victims, here was an affliction that killed rapidly, remorselessly and with symptoms that could not be seen as anything other than degrading. Half of all victims died from the disease.”

The progress of the disease across Europe in the early 1830s was marked by a string of riots and disturbances in almost every country it affected. Popular opinion did not accept that cholera was a hitherto unknown disease, but considered instead that an attempt was being made to reduce the numbers of the poor by poisoning them. Riots, massacres and the destruction of property took place across Russia, swept through the Hapsburg empire, broke out in Konigsberg, Stettin and Mernel in 1831 and spread to Britain the next year, affecting cities as far apart as Exeter and Glasgow, London, Manchester and Liverpool.” 

[Richard J. Evans, ‘Epidemics and Revolutions: Cholera in Nineteenth-century Europe’]

I. The Cholera Riots (1830-1831)

The second cholera pandemic in Russia (1826-1837) and the fifth cholera pandemic in Italy (1881-1896) are notable, not simply for a similarity in terms of the cost and suffering of human life, but for the various moments of resistance and popular revolt that were mobilized at the very moment when the fear of death (as condition) and the fear of contagion (as affect) gripped and enraptured the everyday life of each, respective, population. What is more, the Russian and Italian cases are linked, by a similarity at the level of statecraft and policy regarding the management of the public health crisis. As Frank M. Snowden puts it with respect to the Russian context: “Among European nations the extreme case was Russia, where the consequences of the epidemic were apocalyptic. In Russia not only did the disease cause a terrifying mortality but the regime also magnified the terror by a violent and coercive strategy of public health. The Romanovs reproduced some of the social consequences that accompanied the plague by reviving the anti-plague public health policies of early modern political authorities” (Frank M. Snowden, Naples in the Time of Cholera: 1884-1911, 150).

It is precisely this conjugation of a seemingly unmanageable public health crisis combined with archaic modes of governance that served as the epidemiological and socio-political conditions for the ‘Cholera Riots,’ which lasted between 1830 and 1831; a period that would see riot-form assume a novel mode of struggle. The Cholera Riots are not simply the means by which a surplus population resolves the crisis of social reproduction through the direct seizure of what is necessary to reproduce themselves; these were also attempts made at resolving the problem of biological, if not species-level, reproduction. 

And in light of this combination of the biological and the political, which formed their key characteristics, one would not be wrong in saying that the Cholera Riots were a political sequence defined by (i) a mass display of skepticism and resentment toward the government and political officials, and (ii) collective acts of resistance, whose composition included peasants, soldiers, and segments of the urban population, and were undertaken in light of the Tsar’s decision to embark upon a strategy of military prophylaxis (i.e. Nicholas I’s strategy of containing the spread of cholera employed a variant of early modern means of managing the plague, and ranged from a militarized enforcement of quarantines, the restriction and policing of movement through public space, and the use of ‘armed cordons’ (i.e. police kettling) if deemed necessary). A global North already familiar with the consequences of pandemics such as the plague or even the first cholera outbreak; and with the biological threat of mass contagion, an increasingly draconian nation-State, and with quarantines whose unintended consequence was that of doubling as economic sanction, thereby exacerbating already existing social inequalities; these were the epidemiological and socio-economic determinations that defined the terrain upon which this (re-)composition of popular antagonism, made up of differing subject positions, and its subsequent intervention in the sphere of circulation, would come to take place. Reflecting on this outbreak of cholera in Russia, historian Roderick McGrew perfectly summarizes the role it played in terms of the upheavals experienced throughout Russia at that time when he writes, “cholera scored the European social consciousness, exacerbated contemporary tensions, [and] intensified the impact of current social problems” (McGrew, Russia and the Cholera, 3).

And however brief its appearance in the long history of riots in the face of large scale public health crises, the Cholera Riots saw various modalities of the riot-form, including the raiding of police departments and public hospitals (i.e. expropriation as means for resolving problems of social reproduction) and the killing of landlords, local officials, and State functionaries (i.e. direct action as self-defense). Two of the most notable, if not the most spectacular, events of this period are those that took place in Tambov (1830) and Sevastopol (1831): just as the city of Tambov saw its citizens physically attack the governor, an act of resistance that would eventually be suppressed by military intervention; those who rioted in the streets of Sevastopol were successful enough to have temporarily established directly democratic forms of decision making, replete with the election of their own officials and an expanded capacity for propagandizing among peasants and serfs. 

But what comes of this analysis, if it is to avoid being a mere recounting of history? Namely: just as an understanding of the ways in which the biological helps shape the determinate social conditions of a previous era allows us to grasp more and not less of its historical and material particularity, it is only by thinking the epidemiological as reciprocally determining the economic and the political that we are better able to theorize what will ground and shape the politics to come; that we are able to grasp the coming into being of that which is not-yet. For as historian Michael Durey puts it with respect to the study of cholera, to understand the historical significance of the disease means to account for the ways in which epidemics unsettle “the normal functioning of society” while bringing “to the surface latent social antagonisms.”

Similarly, it is only by acknowledging the epidemiological as an objective tendency that mutually determines the conditions and possibilities of struggle, that our understanding of the present can account for more and not less of this reality, which is not-yet. That is, if the task remains that of constructing the horizon and internal consistency adequate to the needs of a thoroughly internationalist, anti-statist, and anti-capitalist, set of social movements, then it is a task that obliges us to think the biological and the political, the non-human and the human, as the ground of the politics to come. However, unlike the retrospective interrogation of the past, to think the ground of the politics to come means to acknowledge that it can only be understood as a determinate set of social relations (equally biological, political, and economic) that is in the process of its realization. Of course any substantively proleptic analysis of the present is nothing if not the height of theoretical hubris (in these times, reality is the best refutation of those who confidently lay claim to the future as such).

With respect to the present struggles and for those to come, the least we can say is that the spaces of antagonism will be conditioned by a set of social relations, whose reciprocal determination and co-constitution by the biological and the political, bring out into the open that sometimes latent and sometimes explicit civil war, waged by capital and against the living (e.g. living labour as well as non-human life). And therefore rendering ineluctably sensible the fact that the terrain of struggle is always more or less hostile to the real movement of abolition, that the ground of politics is continuously being made and un-made, and thus can be made into a more hospitable position from which to refine all those latent social antagonisms that are quickly coming to the surface.

part II on Italy, forthcoming ]

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