Anyone who has studied the history of plantation slavery understands that the management of the modern laboring classes was modeled on the management of animals. One obvious example is racial classification. Another is the micro-techniques of the labor process: forms of discipline, cleanliness, and deference, which, as Foucault showed, were based on dressage and other forms of animal training. With the legal abolition of slavery, the problems of managing herds shifted. Under slavery, the masters had an interest in maintaining the health and even longevity of the slaves, who were their main form of property. After abolition, however, maintaining the health of free workers turned into a burden, especially as the cost of medicine rose. Understanding these simple facts of modern political economy may help explain how the United States, the self-proclaimed ‘greatest country in the world’, ended up with one-third of all Covid-19 cases.

The large-scale slaughter now unfolding in America was not set in motion overnight. The herd had to be prepared. One place to start is with the response to the uprisings of the 1960s. Any herd has to have its rebellious instincts curbed. Most urgent was suppressing the African-American population since they had been the spearhead of the revolt. Almost immediately, the leaders were murdered: Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, and countless others. But state-sponsored murder is labor-intensive and unprofitable. A more effective means was mass incarceration. There are currently more than two million Americans in jail, and about 40 percent of them are black.

Also important in managing a herd is to destroy all forms of critical thinking, in particular anything that challenges the supremacy of private property. The multitude was taught to react with instinctive, even ferocious, negativity to any idea that could be described as ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’. Not only did this render the herd more submissive it created a feeling of narcissistic superiority that helped its members accept the drastic loss of long-established rights. The master class, which had lived in fear of herd uprisings until it quelled the rebellions of the 1960s, was amazed at how easily the herd gave up the belief that it was entitled to jobs, housing, and good schools. Also helpful, as with poultry and cattle, was the use of drugs (heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine). Most fundamental, however, was convincing the masses that they had little or no right to medical care.

The intense anxiety at the level of ontological security that this produced was numbed by the force-feeding of credit, entertainment, and consumer goods. The herd became fatter, more submissive, and less curious, even as the use of whips, prods, and mutilation continued. To the softening of their basic ‘species-being’ was added insensitivity to the suffering of others. The massacre of Muslims and Mexicans went along with the destruction of social ties in the process of domestication.

The wealth produced by the ‘modern’ techniques of herd management was enormous, and it sustained some of the most beautiful homes, colleges, and art institutions in the world, available to the master class and their children. There was no longer any need to fear rebellion because it was always possible to quiet discontent by pulling one of the herd into the master class. There was, however, one flaw in the system: a certain number of proles needed to be kept alive, and that drained money from the engorged and hypertrophied rich.

When the coronavirus presented them with a choice between letting people die and closing down ‘the economy’, there was no question which the masters would choose. A herd that had already had its most contentious and inquisitive members culled, and that had been rendered submissive, would easily become accustomed to the slaughter of two thousand or so per day. It was all a matter of keeping the rest of the herd healthy.

This essay originally appeared in the London Review of Books blog on May 14, 2020. It is reprinted by permission.

Eli Zaretsky is Professor of History at The New School for Social Research. He is the author of Political Freud: A History (2017).