Coronavirus and the end of the world

David Pavón-Cuéllar address to the College of Psychoanalysts – UK international conference Psychoanalysis in Adverse Conditions on 7 November 2020

Perhaps the pandemic seems to us like an end-of-the-world movie. Maybe all we want now is to get back to normal. It may be that we have not realized that normality is the real end of the world.

Normality is the devastation of everything by capitalism. It is the destruction of all life for the sake of capital accumulation. It is more and more inert money at the cost of all life in the world.

Normality is the disappearance, in the last 150 years, of almost half of the fertile soil on earth. It is the loss of an equivalent of 40 football fields of tropical forest every minute. It is the daily extinction of 150 species of animals and plants. All this is already the end of the world.

We are also witnessing the end of the world when we read that wildlife populations have fallen by more than two-thirds in less than 50 years, that land-based insects have been declining at nearly 1% per year, that annual rate of current desertification is more than 3 per cent. This global devastation is the normalcy to which many want to return.

The normal is that air pollution kills twenty thousand people per day in the world, that is, more than double of the total number of deaths from coronavirus at the peaks of the pandemic. This data allows us to understand a puzzling news that was spread in the beginning of the pandemic. The British tabloid Daily Mail reported that thousands of lives had been saved in China since the coronavirus appeared. The information was right: the interruption of industrial activities due to the pandemic drastically reduced the emission of gases, which, in turn, saved more lives than were lost by the pandemic itself.

We see that the coronavirus is much less lethal than just one of the many effects of capital. We also know that the functioning of capitalism has been affected by COVID-19, which makes us place our hope in this viral agent to cure us of the capitalist terminal illness. It is with this hope that Žižek, from the beginning of the pandemic, conceived the coronavirus as a possible deadly blow against capitalism.

It is obvious that the capitalist system will not die of coronavirus and that Žižek is not naive enough to think this. He knows what we all know, that the circumstances created by the coronavirus can help us, but that we are the ones who must free ourselves from capitalism. At this juncture, as in any other in which the space of uncertainty expands, the outcome will depend mainly on us as subjects, on the subjects that we are and that we will become.

If we want to avoid the end of the world we are living in, we need to transform ourselves. It is necessary to reverse our subjectification by the capitalist system. We must stop being possessive and cumulative, competitive and destructive, compulsive consumers, white-collar murderers, ecocidal and ultimately suicidal individuals.

It is by shaking off capitalism that we will be other than who we are and thus avoid the worst and save ourselves. At the same time, as Žižek has said, “it is through our effort to save humanity from self-destruction that we are creating a new humanity”. All this is the same process of reinvention and salvation, of liberation and transformation, in which we do not distinguish what happens before or after, since everything has to happen at the same time.

Simultaneity requires a certain anticipation like that prescribed by Rosa Luxemburg at the time of the Second International. We have to save ourselves today in order to save ourselves tomorrow. We must anticipate our destiny, prefigure what we fight for, what is achieved through our own struggle, in its development and not only in its outcome. We have to understand that our time is up. We must get rid of capitalism now, at this precise moment, through each of the manifestations of our existence, because the next moment will be too late.

We have to reject a procrastination, such as that represented by Karl Kautsky in the Second International, which will only serve to let the current cataclysm continue to unfold until its final consequences. We cannot accept that the end of the world is, as Kautsky would say, “a necessary direction of evolution”, and that our only task is to “recognize it” and wait, without pretending to act as “revolutionaries at all costs”. What we need right now is precisely a revolution at all costs. There is no time to wait.

Instead of a typically neurotic Kautskian procrastination, we should opt for a Luxembourgian hysterical prefiguration in which we do not waste the only time we have left, the present. It has never been so pressing to learn from Rosa Luxemburg when she warns us against the “vicious circles” that condemn us to wait for something, whatever it is, “before we can make history”. The best thing for us, right now at the end of the world, is to decide once and for all to intervene in the catastrophe, thus making history, which is precisely, for Jacques Lacan, what we call “hysteria”.

No matter how much damage we cause, it will not be comparable to what is happening. The worst would be that everything remains the same until at the end there is nothing left. Any error is now preferable to the patience and supposed prudence of those who fear to rush and make mistakes. Currently, in the absence of time, the most prudent thing is the haste to anticipate the end. In Lacan’s terms, the “too early” of hysteria is better than the “always too late” to which the neurotic procrastination leads us.

Even when we behave like neurotically blameless citizens, we do not want the end of the world either. Death terrifies us and it is for this very reason that we prefer to wait, sometimes betting on the imminent collapse of capitalism. We thus play the neurotic role that Lacan associates with that of the slave in the Hegelian dialectic: that of the one who “yields to the risk of death”, since “he knows he is mortal”, but for the same reason “he also knows that the master has to die”, so that “he can accept to work for the master in the uncertainty of the moment when the master’s death will come”.

In the uncertainty, we continue to work for capitalism, for the end of the world. At least we are sure of staying alive. But perhaps we should not be so sure about it, because “while we wait, we are already dead”, as Lacan warns us. We are already dead like our gestures that translate the functioning of the system, being repeated in a blind, neurotic and compulsive, mechanical way. We are already dead like puppets, like the gears of any machinery, like the zombies, who not by chance obsess us today.

We are already dead in the first place because we renounce our life, because we allow all of it to be possessed and sucked out by the vampire of capital, only hoping in vain that some of it is returned to us at the end of the day, on the weekend, in the next holidays, in retirement or in the collapse of capitalism, which obviously never happens, not only because we are already exhausted to live, but because the lost life is never recovered. But we are also already dead because the only life that is lived is that one that is risked, because there is only self-consciousness of life, as Hegel has explained, in “the fear of death, the absolute master”. We can only exist, as Heidegger confirms, in the anguish of being for death. We only live fully when we relate immediately to death, when we touch it, when we fight to the death against what threatens to kill us, which at this very moment is mainly capitalism. Being anti-capitalist is perhaps the only way to be truly alive, alive before death, in our current situation.

At the point we’ve reached, resigning ourselves to capitalism is abandoning ourselves to our death for the very fact of forgetting it. It is dying in the unconsciousness of dying. It is allowing oneself to be killed in the absence of what Marxism still calls “class consciousness”: consciousness that our life is being annihilated by capital. Lacking this consciousness is, in Lacan’s terms, depriving ourselves of the “knowledge” that should stop us, preferring “jouissance”, the enjoyment of capital that drags us into “progress marked by death”, into the inertia of “death drive”, on the “slope towards the inanimate”.

Instead of knowing that we could face death and thus avoid the worst, we indulge in the ideological fictions of capitalism that operate exactly like the neurotic’s excuses for Lacan. They only serve to keep death “at a distance”, away from us, distracting us from it, forgetting it while we abandon ourselves to it. This is what the cultural industry of capitalism is for, but also the demagoguery of those neoliberal and now neo-fascist politicians who dedicate their lives to supporting fictions such as green capitalism, inexhaustible resources, perpetual growth, responsible companies, consumerism favorable to prosperity, the invisible hand, the self-regulation of the market, the benefits of the competition of all against all, and the democratic character of bourgeois democracy and its rule of law.

As Jorge Alemán has well noted, the “constitutive fictions of capitalism” have been “stripped” by the pandemic. This global crisis offers us a chance to break through fantasy and see capitalism for what it is behind its fictions. This is what we discover in the rows of graves for the victims of coronavirus, in the corpses scattered through the streets of Ecuador and in other images that remind us of end-of-the-world movies.

You can see David deliver this address to the conference here: https://youtu.be/7q83VlPcC9g

This is one part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements

Coronavirus as a symptom

David Pavón-Cuéllar writes:

 

It has become commonplace to say that the coronavirus pandemic has also been a pandemic of panic, stress, anxiety, ignorance, selfishness, racism, hatred, and even loneliness. This “diagnosis” should not be underestimated. It is not just a metaphor.

The metaphor is the coronavirus. The virus is like a Freudian condensation of the various personal and social experiences associated with the pandemic. These experiences have been assimilated into the viral agent that represents them metaphorically.

The coronavirus is a metaphor for everything we are living through, suffering, and fearing, just as gold is a metaphor for value, money, a sunburst, or the colour of blond hair. Just as blond hair and richness could be symbolized by gold in a dream, so too, the virus could now serve as a dream symbol of our fear and loneliness. It is as if what we are living has the form of a virus.

The coronavirus becomes the metaphorical representation of our existence in the pandemic. We must understand well that we are what the virus means. With its metaphorical structure, the coronavirus is like a dream symbol. It is the condensed symptom of what we are, live, feel, and suffer.

Each one suffers their own symptom. Each one has, as Lacan would say about the symptom, their own “knowledge about oneself,”1 their own “enjoyment of the unconscious,”2 and their own “opaque enjoyment of excluding meaning.”3 In other words, each person has their own coronavirus.

There are as many different coronaviruses as there are different subjects. We could classify them into structures. Each structural configuration would then correspond to a particular manifestation of the viral agent as a symptom of our irreducibly unique existence.

The phobic coronavirus causes us to panic and makes us avoid information about the pandemic. The obsessively neurotic coronavirus forces us to scrupulously maintain good sense and realism, to consult endlessly as to the numbers of infections and deaths, but also to “take terribly protective measures against infection,” as Lacan says when pretending to quote Freud.4 The perverse coronavirus gives us a good pretext with which to attack nurses, burn down sick houses, or prevent the installation of hospitals. The normopathic coronavirus leads us to take advantage of the situation by enriching ourselves through financial profit, either by speculating in the stock exchange, buying and reselling face masks, or increasing the prices of ventilators or disinfectant gel.

The melancholic coronavirus comforts us with the certainty that the planet is finally beginning to get rid of something as despicable as us humans. The paranoid coronavirus makes us believe not in the news, but in conspiracy theories as we think that confinement is a ploy to control us or that the virus is either a biological weapon invented in laboratories or an effect of the fifth generation of mobile networks. Meanwhile, the hysterical virus alternately causes us to be suggestible, to sneeze, yawn and sigh, to long for lost contacts, or to console ourselves with computer screens, indulge in the spectacle on social networks, enjoy the pleasures of confinement and oscillate between boredom and desire, between love and heartbreak at a distance, and between despair and hope in the imminent revolution and end of capitalism.

The various coronaviruses could be easily exemplified by the political leaders of the world and the great intellectuals who have spoken on the subject. Perhaps we have the right to have a little fun by thinking, for example, about the hysterical coronavirus of Žižek, the obsessive of Han, the paranoid of Agamben, and so on. It would be interesting to continue this, but it is not the most important thing.

What matters is that the various coronaviruses have something in common. This commonality is, first, our shared existence in the capitalist world in which we live. It is, however, also capitalism itself, which unfolds in our existence and, now, in its symptomatic viral manifestation. It is here, in the capitalist system, where Marx discovered the notion of “symptom” that will later be applied in psychoanalysis, as Lacan has well noted.5

On the one hand, as a symptom of our existence in capitalism, the coronavirus is revealing to us our loneliness in alienation; that is, for Lacan, the only “social symptom”, the one of our “proletarian” condition, for which we do not have “speech to tie between us.”6 On the other hand, as a symptom of the capitalist system, the virus itself is like a lens that reveals much of capitalism. These revelations include the devastation of nature that destroyed the ecosystem in which the viral agent was trapped, the contempt for human life that has caused thousands of infections and deaths by not shutting factories and shops in time, and the inequality that opens a gap in each society between the lucky and the damned, between those who can confine themselves and those who must continue working, and between those who have and those who lack medical care, hospital beds, respirators, and other requirements for survival.7

Everything revealed by the “coronavirus of capitalism,” as I have called it elsewhere,8 must be heard. Real listening, as psychoanalysis teaches us, requires us to act accordingly. The resulting anti-capitalist action must leave Han behind, avoid Agamben’s wall, and reach the Žižekian hysterical point where the impossible is recognized. For the impossible to become the real that it could be, however, we must go further and follow Marx when he prescribes that we face, “in a practical way,” those problems that we cannot solve in theory.9

 

References

1 Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire, livre 12, Problèmes cruciaux pour la psychanalyse. Unpublished. Class of the 16th June 1965.

2 Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire, livre 22, RSI. Unpublished. Class of the 18th February 1975.

3 Jacques Lacan, Joyce le symptôme, in Autres écrits (Paris, Seuil, 2001), p. 570.

4 Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire, livre III, Les psychoses (Paris, Seuil, 1981), p. 281.

5 Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire XVII, L’envers de la psychanalyse (Paris, Seuil, 1991), p. 235.

6 Jacques Lacan, La troisième, intervention au Congrès de Rome, Lettres de l’École freudienne 16, 1975, p. 187.

7 David Pavón-Cuéllar, El coronavirus como síntoma del capitalismo, Rosa, una revista de izquierda, http://www.revistarosa.cl/2020/04/06/el-coronavirus-como-sintoma-del-capitalismo/

8 David Pavón-Cuéllar, El coronavirus del capitalismo, Lacanemancipa, 28 de abril 2020, https://lacaneman.hypotheses.org/1532

9 Karl Marx, Manuscritos económico-filosóficos de 1844, in Marx y Engels, Escritos económicos varios (Ciudad de México, Grijalbo, 1966), p. 87.

 

This paper by David Pavón-Cuéllar was first published in Lacan Salon.

 

This is one part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements

 

 

Viral Resistance

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.

Viral crisis

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.

Neoliberal response

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.

Liberal response

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.

Ecosocialist response

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Ian Parker

 

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.

Disaster Communism

Ian Parker reads Slavoj Žižek’s PANDEMIC!: COVID-19 Shakes the World very fast.

A few days ago a little old lady at the greengrocers edged to the side of the vegetable display to let me pass, smiling as she said brightly ‘we are all enemies now’. In the midst of the lockdown, at a time when there is enforced separation from others and when we are urged, quite rightly, to engage in a measure – two metres – of social distancing, we are faced again and again with a paradox. We are divided from others, yet the very social process through which we do that brings about a heightened sense of solidarity. As we stand on our doorsteps in Britain at 8pm each Thursday evenings to clap for the NHS, we glimpse a sight of neighbours we may never otherwise speak to, and the distant glances create new forms of connection.

Slavoj Žižek’s latest book mines the possibilities of exactly these new conditions in which we respect others in a quite new way, and he repeatedly returns to the question of what kind of social link COVID-19 creates in the world now. The answer: ‘Full unconditional solidarity and a globally coordinated response are needed, a new form of what was once called Communism’. These new conditions, in which he admits to his own anxiety, and nightmares, and of the need to respond to these new conditions and the difficulty of doing that, seem to have shaken him into a new radical sensibility in which some of the more ridiculous of his recent pronouncements about politics are thankfully shorn away.

This book, some potential readers will be delighted to hear is also Hegel and Lacan-lite, and all the better; his engagement with some key ideas from these theorists is simply in order to make directly political points. It is Hegel, for example, who shows us how that paradox of distance entailing a new sense of solidarity is more than that, can be understood dialectically, we learn that ‘It is only now, when I have to avoid many of those who are close to me, that I fully experience their presence, their importance to me’. Lacan appears in the book quite late on, implicitly so in the distinction between reality and the real, and explicitly so in exploration of fantasies about what the mysterious causes of the emergence of the virus is, and who benefits.

In these terms, ‘reality’ is what we appeal to in order to make sense of the world, organised symbolic frameworks which might include ideological commonsense and also radical theoretical analysis of political-historical conditions, and we do our best to incorporate what is happening to us now into those contradictory frameworks. The ‘real’ is something else, the brute matter and unpredictability of the world which appears in the forms of shocks and trauma which disorganise our reality, throw it into question: ‘viral epidemics remind us of the ultimate contingency and meaninglessness of our lives’. What is COVID-19 but the name through which we try to tame and make sense of what is emerging, take it into reality, something senseless that is hitting us, and killing us, something of the real.

The shock of the real, of viruses of this kind, produces a sense of disorientation, but also provokes attempts to come to terms with it, and, in the process, to seize on any and every explanation that is swirling around. Here Žižek takes off into some fruitful sideways moves, into the international dimension of the COVID-19 crisis, describing how Russian media continues its programme of ambiguous and deliberately disorientating propaganda. It continues sowing seeds of suspicion of the West as site of mysterious ideas about the virus, which include conspiracy theories of various kinds, and, while reporting on these, suggests that each and every theory may have a kernel of truth. These are the masters of fake news who understand full well how it can corrode our grasp of reality and our ability to make sense of what emerges from the real.

Other theoretical forays are into a critical engagement with the work of Giorgio Agamben, the Italian philosopher of ‘state of exception’, that is, of the idea that the rule of law around the world is being suspended in such a way as to render certain categories of human being as less than human. Reporting of COVID-19 is fertile ground for exactly such a suspicion that someone somewhere is benefitting from the spread of the virus, and although Agamben is broadly on the left, it is right-wing libertarians today who are objecting to lockdown, seeing in it another attempt to impose a ‘state of exception’. Agamben himself gives licence to this kind of thing in his comments that the virus is really just a bad kind of flu, the kind of line that leads us to a Trump-like response; denial then omnipotence.

The international dimension appears in discussion of the collusive relationship between Russia and Turkey and the cynical instrumental use of war and refugees in Syria, a phenomenon Žižek refers to as ‘Putogan’. There is discussion, of course, of the emergence of COVID-19 in Wuhan, and the role of the Chinese state in covering up the extent of the crisis, and then, as they claim that the virus is under control, warning that people will have to work weekends to make up for lost time. Here, capitalism in China shows the depth of the crisis, a crisis of the political-economic system that enabled the virus to jump into human species and then spread.

Here are whiffs of Žižek’s old Maoism, and he cannot resist claiming that in the good old days, this kind of thing would never have happened: ‘if it had happened before Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, we probably wouldn’t even have heard about it.’ This present-day disaster reminds him of Naomi Klein’s analyses of ‘disaster capitalism’; the nature of shocks to the system that are provoked in such a way as to enable capital accumulation to resume upon the broken bodies of workers.

There is actually a double response to COVID-19 by Žižek in this book. The first is a rather surprising self-help message about the importance of structure and routine in a day for people suffering in the lockdown; a message to himself, perhaps. This follows a good discussion of different forms of tiredness in which he points out that there is the kind of tiredness of physical mechanical repetitive activity – classic alienating labour during the time spent exerting labour power sold to an employer – and another kind of tiredness that afflicts those caring for others, what in feminist analysis (that he does not cite) would be called ‘emotional labour’. His advice: ‘Don’t think too much in the long term, just focus on today, what you will be doing till sleep’, and here a quasi-psychoanalytic line reappears: ‘identify with your symptom, without any shame, which means (I am simplifying a bit here), fully assume all small rituals, formulas, quirks, and so on, that will help stabilize your daily life.’

This self-help motif keys into the anxieties of people rendered passive in these new conditions, but it contains within it an injunction to maintain involvement with others. And, perhaps, ‘some people at least will use their time released from hectic activity and think about the (non)sense of their predicament’. Žižek points out something that Marxists will not be very amazed by, but it bears repeating; that those who are engaged with the world, actively doing something, are less prone to fatalistic paranoid fantasies about unearthly conspiracies that are spreading now almost as fast the virus itself: ‘if there is no great change in our daily reality, then the threat is experienced as a spectral fantasy nowhere to be seen and all the more powerful for that reason’.

The second aspect of Žižek’s response comes in his recourse to ‘communism’ as a solution to the underlying problems that COVID-19 exacerbates, problems of capitalism itself, but here we have to ask what this ‘communism’ is that Žižek is talking about. It seems in most cases, and he says it himself, that this is a kind of communism that appears at a moment when we, human beings, are ‘in it all together’ and when we must call on the state to act. This is not communism as the self-organisation of workers, but communism as a necessary dialectical moment in the development of capitalism itself at a time of crisis.

Here there are old Žižek motifs of ‘overidentification’, of making claims to the state and keeping it to account: ‘People are right to hold state power responsible: you have the power, now show us what you can do!’ This crisis opens the way to what he calls ‘“disaster Communism” as an antidote to disaster capitalism’. Meanwhile, in the midst of this, there is the injunction to keep thinking: ‘We should follow Immanuel Kant here who wrote with regard to the laws of the state: “Obey, but think, maintain the freedom of thought!”’

There are limits to this strategy, of course, and another manifestation of Žižek’s own political demoralisation after his experiences of state power in Slovenia and the collapse of actually-existing ‘communism’, what we would understand as Stalinism.

Nevertheless, he argues this very neatly in this book, with some nice dialectical reversals. In a discussion of the Orbán regime in Hungary, for example, he cites the claim levelled at the left that the liberals who criticise Orbán are really communists in disguise, but worse, a liberal elite who have been educated and are all the more devious; liberals, according to Orbán are communists with diplomas. Well, Ok, says Žižek, lets reclaim this, why not, and reverse the terms of this slur: ‘those of us who still recognize ourselves as Communists, are liberals with a diploma—liberals who seriously studied why our liberal values are under threat and became aware that only a radical change can save them.’

Žižek must have written this book quicker than I wrote this review to be so fast off the track; it’s overall good stuff, and well worth reading, and if you are quick you can get a free download of it at OR Books.

 

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This is one part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements