In this paper I will briefly situate the current coronavirus outbreak in its political context and draw attention to some key conceptual issues, before going into a little more detail, into different political responses to the crisis, from the far right and from mainstream governments, and then make some proposals for strategic demands we might make of the state and of each other to get through this in such a way as to avoid returning to the kind of business as usual that got us into this mess in the first place.
The most detailed analysis of the current coronavirus outbreak is provided by Chuǎng, which is available on the internet, called ‘Social Contagion: Microbiological Class War in China’. The analysis includes a historical survey of pandemics and, although it does not actually name itself as such, the Chuǎng analysis is ‘ecosocialist’; that is, the analysis is in line with the argument that contemporary capitalism is indeed, as Joel Kovel put it in his book of the same name ‘the enemy of nature’.
The conditions of possibility for this current viral crisis include the concentration of human populations, industrialised farming in which huge populations of genetically-similar animals are bred and contained in the same space, and the rapid destruction of natural habitats such that virus’s in the ‘wild’ are released into food production networks.
The rapid spread of a viral outbreak, including this one, then relies on a degree of calculated mismanagement, bureaucratic concern with secrecy and control of populations combined with material incentives to keep production and consumption going for as long as possible.
Contemporary capitalism is configured as ‘the enemy of nature’ not only in the sense that the planet is treated as inert matter to be exploited, a process driven by the search for profit, but also in the sense that each one of us, subjects of capitalism, become alienated from nature. This is not a new idea, actually, and was noticed by Karl Marx who described alienation as proceeding through a fourfold separation.
Alongside the separation of each human subject from the fruits of their labour, a toxic distortion of our creativity, and separation of us from each other as we compete to sell our labour power, a toxic distortion of our sociality, there is a separation of each of us from our own bodies, a fear of the body that must work for us without breaking down, and our separation from nature as such.
One can make a further conceptual link here with the distinction drawn by Lacanian psychoanalysis, between reality as that which we navigate in our day to day lives, the stuff of everyday life, and the ‘real’ as the sometimes traumatic eruption into our consciousness of brute matter, that which is impossible to fully represent to ourselves, comprehend and manage, still less for us to predict and control.
This aspect of Lacanian psychoanalysis is one of the conceptual frameworks, along with lite-touch Hegel and a sprinkle of Marxism that Slavoj Žižek brings to bear on the coronavirus crisis in his rapidly written and published recent book PANDEMIC!: COVID-19 Shakes the World. I will touch on arguments in this book here as I think it does raise some interesting issues, but does not always do that in the right way. There are attempts to conceptualise the coronavirus crisis in the book, but we need some more concrete analysis of the political situation if we are to make use of some of its insights.
We have a difficult task here of navigating our way, first, between two far-right responses to this crisis. If we at least understand how these two far-right responses operate, we will be in a better position to work out what we should do. This is especially important given that this crisis is very likely to trigger further crises as the coronavirus threat appears to recede, and the shape to those crises is already starting to appear.
Far right state-oriented response
A first far-right response is to call upon the full resources of the state and to demand total obedience to rules over social distancing and lockdown. We’ve seen in Britain, for example, calls for an increase in police powers, and those powers have already been augmented by restrictions on freedom of movement and the right of the police to detain people, so this a real threat.
Some on the left are tempted to take this kind of position. I have heard leftists argue along the lines that were we in control we would be as tough, if not tougher on those who flout social distancing rules, tougher than our government. This is where we see, of course, an increase in state surveillance of everyday life.
These calls for an increase of police powers, and such calls don’t only come from the right, include a nationalist element. The fascist ‘Tommy Robinson’ who set up the English Defence League a while back, as a case in point, is sharing videos purportedly of Muslims gathering at mosque, the message being that these gatherings are enabling contagion, with the sub-text that Islam itself is a threat. This is a time of viral signifiers, potent poisonous ones.
Note in this case that the real name for ‘Tommy Robinson’ is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, and his chosen public name is a clever semiotic blend of ‘Tommy’ (the brave working-class soldier defending Britain during world wars) and Robinson (which, in the British imagination signifies a range of things, including Robinson Crusoe and a brand of jam for which the Robinson brand ‘gollywog’ functions as a still popular and supposedly humorous but racist image). All kind of toxic ideological stuff is coming to the surface with this viral crisis.
This is a message and Islamophobic intervention that chimes with the activities of the Modi government in India where far-right groups are claiming that Muslims are a source of the virus, even that they are thereby launching a ‘Corona-Jihad’. Images of Indian police brutality against Muslims outside a mosque are then being re-tweeted by other far-right figures in Britain, with the accompanying suggestion that police here could learn something from the Indian police. Here we see the chiming of nationalist response with nationalist response.
There is an increasing globalisation of right-wing nationalist movements each pitting the population of their own nation against all the others. There is thus intensification during these times of virus crisis of already-existing alliances; of Johnson with Trump with Modi with Orbán with Netanyahu with Bolsonaro and so on. One only has to conjure up these names to realise how dangerous it is to simply call on the state to do its appointed task, and hope for the best.
Here is a point where it is necessary to disagree with Žižek’s hope that it would be possible, as he put it in his recent Pandemic book, that we could demand of the state ‘show us what you can do’ and thereby by some clever subversive overidentification with the state hasten the transition from the ‘disaster capitalism’ Naomi Klein describes to what Žižek dubs ‘disaster communism’.
Far right libertarian response
A second far-right response mirrors the first. This is to accuse the state of arrogating to itself increasing power, using the opportunity of the virus threat to increase surveillance, even, in the most extreme off-beam of these responses to claim that the virus threat is exaggerated, that it is merely a pretext for ramping up of state control.
One of the most poisonous vectors of this response lies at the heart of government itself; for example, in the case of Trump, who is keen to warrant his own denial of the scale of the problem by referring to the ‘deep state’. This is the liberal ‘deep state’ that is, we are told, intent on sabotaging Trump’s efforts to make America great again.
As with the first far-right option, there are some on the left who have been, until a very late stage of the spread of coronavirus, arguing that this is not as serious as it is made out to be, even hinting at hidden agendas. And, as with collusion with the first far-right response, this is playing with fire. We have seen this already in the United States where there has been sympathetic reporting even in some of the far-left press of the libertarian survivalist militias who are refusing to obey state directives around coronovirus.
Conspiracy theories thrive in times of coronavirus. There have, for example, been attacks on telephone masts in Britain, including some of those serving the emergency hospital building set up in Birmingham in the centre of the country, by people who are convinced that 5G mobile network signals are responsible for spreading the virus. It is not clear whether these people are on the right or left
Whatever their declared political allegiances they effectively operate on the right, peddling conspiracy theories that begin with the spreading of memes that show hidden imagery on twenty-pound banknotes of the coronavirus and of telephone masts and end with the ramblings of David Icke who believes that the British royal family are really alien lizard-beings.
Icke is a one-time sports commentator, but not a joke. A clip of an interview with him was very recently shown on BBC television in which he was suggesting a mysterious connection between the spread of coronavirus and the Israeli state. This goes along with suggestions that we, the ‘sheeple’ who follow orders, are tranquilised by way of ‘chemtrails’ released by jet planes. If that theory was right, the absence of chemtrails now should surely lead to the sheeple waking up.
The mystery is why the lizard-beings slip up so often, why they let clues slip out about their secret agenda. It is unclear that Icke really believes that the lizard-beings are Jews, the tragedy of his trajectory is probably more that he does actually believe they are lizards. I digress; it is too easy to mock these people.
The problem and the toxic political effect of all this, though, is that paranoiac suspicion of any and every authority undermines rational debate. It intensifies the segregation of the population into groupings of people who already agree with each other about alien threats, as well as intensifying ethno-nationalist segregation as such.
Alongside, and in tension with these far-right responses to coronavirus are the attempts by the liberal and neoliberal states to themselves hold things together now so that there is a better more realistic prospect of guiding us back to what they would like to see as business as usual. They operate on that premise, that capital accumulation must be allowed to resume as soon as possible, and that the kind of social relations that would enable that must be restored sooner rather than later. In reality, the so-called ‘lockdown’ in Britain has many loopholes that are encouraging businesses to break it, and many precarious workers are being pressured to leave their homes and put themselves and their families at risk.
You do not have to be a raving Marxist to acknowledge that this is what the capitalist state agenda must be. That is, production must be restored, production under private ownership, and consumer demand be encouraged. You cannot have it any other way if you believe that capitalism is intrinsically a civilizing force. This agenda establishes the contours of the ideological responses of most of the existing authorities.
There are two versions of established dominant ideological responses which guide policy, and they entail and feed ideological motifs that we need to grapple with.
The first, more brutal response was articulated very clearly by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the early days of the crisis. This line had it that we should allow the virus to sweep through the population, and here Johnson was pitching his theory at the British population, and this would then lead to ‘herd immunity’; the ‘herd’ in this case being the British herd, so already semiotically-speaking, a nationalist motif was being mobilised.
The rhetoric Johnson used would then come to haunt him when he ended up in hospital on oxygen, though not actually on a ventilator; this rhetoric included stating openly at press conferences that he ‘shook everyone’s hand’ during his official visits to hospitals, and that we should ‘take it on the chin’, and accept, as he put it himself, ‘that you will lose loved ones’. So sanguine was he that he reportedly flippantly suggested that the plan to bring in emergency ventilators to hospitals be called ‘operation last gasp’.
The hopes were that Johnson’s own stay in hospital with coronavirus would lead to a change of heart. The problem was that the ‘herd immunity’ motif already operated in the popular imagination as a version of quasi-Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’, and was spun as such by the tabloid press which have been functioning throughout the crisis in Britain as propaganda sheets for the Conservative Party. They have been keen to ram home Johnson’s victory over Labour in the election and to bury the threat from supporters of Jeremy Corbyn once and for all.
The discourse about Johnson’s hospitalisation and recovery was anchored by claims that he has a ‘zest for life’, that he has the strength to pull through, and that this was a victory, as one tabloid headline had it, for ‘battling Boris’. This narrative is mirrored in other contexts; in India, for example, there is anxiety about heading to hospital because, in some bizarre way, the representation of the virus as foreign to the Hindu body-politic means that to contract coronavirus is to show not only failure but to be tinged with treason, to be ‘un-Indian’.
Poor people, people from minority groups, who are more often poor, will die in greater numbers as a result of this virus. This is already the case in Britain, and not only in Britain. And so, ‘herd immunity’ of one form or another is bound up with nationalism. There is another version of nationalism, however, that is also concerned with attempting to bind the community together, which I turn to next. Here it is not so much oriented to accepting that people will die, that you will lose your loved ones, but it relies on the fiction that all will survive, that we will come through this.
The second established ideologically-framed state response is more benign, and this is the kind of thing that the left usually has in mind when it calls on the state to show what it can do, but it is also problematic. This second response can be summed up in the claim that this natural crisis, this crisis caused by a virus that emerged unbidden from the natural world that no one could predict or control, has had the effect of giving us common purpose, as if we are all in the same boat. It is a response that can be summed up in the claim that ‘we are all in it together’.
This claim, as always, is, at best, no more than a wish of liberal and social-democratic political leaders, and, at worst, a malicious attempt to occlude the inequalities that structure capitalist society, inequalities that are intensified under these crisis conditions. We are patently, not ‘all in it together’. This ‘all together’ is evoked time and time again during the crisis, for it is ideologically necessary, pragmatically necessary for the political leaders of each nation state to try and hold people together, to encourage them to obey the rule of law in potentially chaotic times.
For example, Boris Johnson was admitted to a National Health Service, NHS, hospital, which was ideologically significant, not accidental. Given the popular knowledge of his own class background, immensely rich and immensely privileged, schooled at Eton and Oxford, it was politically unavoidable. This necessity cemented by the recent election campaign in which the Labour Party, knowing full well that the NHS was already being privatised, most likely ready to be sold off to US American companies upon the conclusion of the Brexit negotiations, put most of its campaign energy into supporting the NHS. Johnson’s Conservative Party undercut that campaign with its own cynical and dishonest claim that the NHS would be safe in his hands, and more resources, insufficient but an impressive amount, were put into the NHS in the first budget after the election.
There has, during the crisis, been a significant manifestation of popular support for the NHS, gratitude to health workers. Each Thursday evening at 8pm people appear on their doorsteps or at windows clapping, sometimes banging on pans. Each week the turnout for loud public support has been greater. Some right-wing Conservatives, not far-right but connected with the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign, that is pro-Brexit, called for another manifestation on another evening while Johnson was in hospital, to clap for Boris. There was silence. It failed. And with that the line that ‘we are all in it together’ was thrown into question.
We have a fundamental choice of political strategy here, we always had, but this choice is intensified under the coronavirus crisis. We could orientate ourselves to the state, demand action from the state, attempting to hold the state to account, and this seems to be the line argued by Žižek in his recent book. Or we can organise ourselves separately from the state, build on the networks of mutual aid and articulate these with already-existing organisations of what we can call, for shorthand, the 99% (that is working people, the excluded, marginalised, those who form the basis of the various different liberation movements around the world). This would be a form of viral resistance appropriate to this crisis, an ecosocialist response.
On the one side is the hope that this crisis will tip the state over from being a defender of property rights, of the rights of those who hold very large property, to coming over to our side, the shift that Žižek rather naively characterises as the shift from disaster capitalism to disaster communism. On this side of the choice too are the old naïve liberals who always hoped to harness the energies of the state for the social good, and the social democrats of various kinds who earnestly hope that if we play cautious we will win over everyone because, when it comes down to it, we are all in it together.
On the other side is a strategy of working from the base up, from the grassroots, and the crucial lesson we must draw from a critical analysis of the libertarians who are defying the state over the lockdown is that at the heart of our strategy must be an uncompromising internationalism.
There is an underlying conceptual and practical critique that we must take seriously here, a lesson we must draw from the nature of a political-economic system that has been despoiling the world since its inception and is now drawing us to the edge of destruction on this planet. Capital accumulation will not work unless it is driven by profit, and the profit motive underpins a double shift in human relations under capitalism, human relationships that are intimately tied to the ecology of the planet. Not to re-invent the wheel here, I acknowledge work by the Marxist geographer David Harvey on time-space compression as invaluable for understanding what has already been happening to us under classical and neoliberal capitalism.
Distance and Time
The first aspect of that double shift concerns distance, precisely involving the crisis of distance that the coronavirus faces us with. Capitalism entails globalisation, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and the key question is what kind of globalisation we are in favour of; globalisation of capital which entails and intensifies colonial oppression and postcolonial cultural domination of different kinds, or internationalism in which we acknowledge the diversity of ways of being human in a consciously articulated global response?
With train travel, essential to industrialisation, and then plane travel, and then with electronic communication, we have built a world, or a world has been built for us, which shrinks distance, as least for the sector of the population that controls and manages resources and for a significant layer of middle-class professionals, in which group we must include tenured academics.
One of the things we learn from strategies of social distancing to contain and slow the spread of coronavirus is that social distance is not necessarily segregation and alienation, but betokens new forms of solidarity. This is a point made well by Žižek in his book, that the very etiquette of respect for distance is a sign of respect and care for others. Here is the return of a notion of solidarity which is not reduced to charitable help for those we know, but internationalist solidarity, solidarity and care for those we have never met.
The second aspect of this double shift concerns time, the possibility of engaging in a quite different way with the acceleration of life under capitalism, acceleration which is always, of course, unevenly suffered or enjoyed. There has always, with the distinction between those who own the means of production and those who work to live, been a correlative distinction between those who are time-rich and those who are time-poor, a distinction that then mirrors its way down through social classes to manifest itself in relations between men and women, in which it is women who are expected to have more time, to wait in line, and to shop, and even to speak. Acceleration of the speed of life does not mean more time for all, but less.
That vector of time is radically challenged in times of lockdown, times in which there is enforced work for some, including for those neoliberal subjects that Byung-Chul Han describes where it is, indeed, as if class struggle is internalised such that each individual subject becomes at war with itself. Again, Žižek has useful critical things to say about that analysis, pointing out that this description applies to a certain limited sector of the world population.
This brings us to the many who are thrown out of work during these times, and who face time as something unstructured, empty. We are faced then with time, what to do with it when it is ours. It opens once again the question of how work could be redistributed so that there is also redistribution of time.
A crisis is a turning point, a political strategic choice point as to whether to continue and exacerbate the consequences of that double shift or to do something different. So, let’s bear in mind those background issues, for developing a strategy that is grassroots up, independent of the state, and that is international, and that aims to reconfigure our lives in such a way as to work with what the coronovirus crisis has opened up as possibilities, of a transformation of what we understand by ‘distance’ and what we understand by ‘time’.
Four elements of viral resistance
It is tempting to draws up a long and ever-expanding list of strategic responses that cover each and every aspect of our lives. I first read the title of this conference as ‘The Psychology of Global Crises: State Surveillance, Solidarity and Everything Else’, which would have been a fairly good summary of what we are up against now, for the coronavirus crisis does basically demand a transformation of everything. So you can just add ‘everything else’ to this list of four strategic points I want to conclude with.
We can formulate these four strategic points as demands, and, yes, these are demands on the state authorities but also, more importantly, demands on each other.
- The first demand concerns work. There is already massively increasing unemployment, and increasing poverty as a result of this crisis, and that will get worse. The millions of pounds that have been poured into keeping the infrastructure going during lockdown and into support payments will be followed by austerity as working people, those who can return to work, will be made to pay for this crisis. We need guarantees of work and distribution of work and pay, and forms of support that are collectively organised. It is interesting, and not surprising, that calls for Universal Basic Income have increased during the crisis, including among the left, but that is a trap. What that does is to, first, rely on the state to pay out to each individual – it is a top down solution – and, second, to rely on each individual to act as a consumer, still at the mercy of competing profit-driven goods and services offered by the parasites, the ruling class, who make money out of human need.
- The second demand concerns health. We have learnt something about the nature of health provision, that private health care is not only insufficient but damaging, and that there needs to be fully-funded free health care at point of provision for everyone. In some local contexts, in the case of the National Health Service in Britain, for example, free public healthcare is a historic gain that we cannot let go, that needs to be defended and extended. In other contexts there are more limited services, but coronavirus again shows that care work in its manifold forms is vital. Coronavirus, and the role of the state in utilising existing healthcare provision, gives new impetus to this basic element of a left response, and the demand must be for an extension of care when the immediate threat recedes.
- The third demand concerns communication. The coronavirus crisis opens up new possibilities for distributed work, education and, of course, leisure, and for networks of solidarity to be formed in which there is sharing of information. The main social media companies are private companies that have benefitted from the crisis, and there should be a demand not only for these to be socialised, ensuring that information is not bought and sold for commercial gain, nor for surveillance of populations, but also that there be developed forms of internet technology that are autonomous of the state. That also means developing technology that is not enclosed by the private companies running the ‘online teaching’ we are being press-ganged into now. We have seen that it is easy for state authorities to shut down the internet at times of crisis, and so it is vital that work is put into developing alternative networks that can survive such outages.
- I like three part lists, but should add a fourth demand in the context of a broader discussion of the psychology of global crisis, which concerns mental health. This demand links with questions of work, for which distribution of time will be good for the mental health of all, it links with questions of health, free public health care which includes mental health, and it links with questions of communication, and the autonomous functioning of networks of mental health system survivors. Surveillance today is not merely a material practice involving the collection of information about the population, but also, as Michel Foucault pointed out, a practice of self-monitoring that is connected to the sense of being watched, something that activists in the Paranoia Network in Britain have long been aware of.
The times of coronavirus are indeed times of paranoia, with regimes around the world feeding off the disorientation and uncertainty that fake news creates and sustains. Žižek includes an interesting discussion of the way the Putin regime peddles through its media networks bizarre theories before suggesting that not only do they emanate from the West, and are therefore to be suspected, but also that they may each contain a kernel of truth. The lockdown increases isolation, and official indicators already show an increase in distress, as well as other intensifications of the violence of everyday life in this wretched world that include incidences of domestic violence, of femicide.
Time and time again in times of crisis, and this coronavirus is no exception, those forms of everyday violence are exacerbated, and any political programme has to attend to the ‘personal-political’ dimension that socialist-feminism drew attention to many years ago.
Each of these four demands is interlinked with the others in the sense that they need to be made not only from the base up, directed up at the state rather than calling on the state to enact the necessary reforms, and thereby strengthen itself in the process. What they have in common is an attention to the form of politics as well as, if not more than, the content. How we live is at stake now, and our response to the peculiar nature of this viral problem must be configured as an equally innovative creative form of viral response, viral resistance.
This talk was given on 22 May 2020 to the virtual ‘Psychology of Global Crises: State Surveillance, Solidarity and Everyday Life’ conference hosted by the University of Paris. The YouTube link for the talk is here and the Q&A following the talk is here.