Zero Covid now

Now, late January 2021 – 2021 when we thought it would all be over – we are well over 2 million deaths from COVID-19 worldwide, with the league table of deaths per million in different countries putting the UK at 6th, now heading toward 100,000 deaths. That really puts us in the world-beating league. But the problem is that Coronavirus is beating the world, posing questions about how we organise ourselves on the planet and what kind of priorities we have. Each dip in the numbers gives false hope, which the government claims credit for, and the next wave, like the last, will be blamed on us.

The UK government under Boris Johnson was clear from the start what its priorities were, with a brutal ideological agenda that was summed up very early on in the phrase ‘herd immunity’. What Boris Johnson meant by ‘herd immunity’ is one survival-of-the-fittest version of the phrase, one which lets the virus rip through a population, that’s us, the ‘herd’, and which weeds out the weak. The admission of Boris Johnson to hospital could have put paid to that, but he survived, and no-one should have been surprised at the headlines in the right-wing tabloid press; he survived because he was ‘resilient’, as if he was tough enough to beat the virus.

Under pressure from scientists, who the UK government at least has to pay lip service to, the ‘herd immunity’ story was put on the back burner, but has always been in the background. What we had instead was deadly ambiguity. It is difficult not to see this ambiguity as deliberate, calculated, designed to provoke anxiety while seeming to assuage it. What is for sure is that the mixed messages from the government, alongside amazingly crooked business deals for their school-chums and neighbours, chimed very well with their political-economic agenda.

What we have seen is an incitement to suspicion of the scientific evidence, not as explicit as under Trump but there nonetheless, and, more dangerous, and in the mix with that suspicion, incitement of individual choice. The message in whatever lockdown we’ve had has been that business has to be protected, that is, when it comes down to it, employer’s rights to bring people to work, and, crucially, it is up to you to decide if and when to break the lockdown. The message is work from home if you can, but go out to work if you have to. This is fake choice, one that the mass of the working class, those in work, cannot avoid to really make for themselves.

The incitement to individual choice is part and parcel of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, remember consists of stripping back the welfare functions of the state, making individuals responsible for their livelihoods, education and health, and, something sometimes forgotten, though Chile 1973 as the first big neoliberal experiment should make us remember it, strengthening of the state’s police functions. It is a combination to which we have another ingredient added, another ingredient that also provokes resentment and anger among those in lockdown when they see the likes of Dominic Cummings flouting the rules; that is conspiracy theories of different kinds, now some really bizarre ones.

What all this amounts to is death on a massive scale. Whatever your take on the origins of the Coronavirus, what is certain is that this is as much a human-made disaster as a so-called ‘natural’ disaster. Boris Johnson is responsible for many of these deaths here. Again, for them, and the idea pops out of the mouths of members of the ruling class every now and then, these are deaths of those whose lives are of ‘less value’.

One way of thinking about this is to see this COVID-19 disaster as what some medical researchers called a ‘syndemic’. A paper in The Lancet late last year argued that while it is useful as shorthand to call this crisis a ‘pandemic’, its character as a ‘syndemic’ draws attention to the way that transmission and morbidity is a function of many different existing factors. That is, the likelihood of catching and dying of the virus is linked with your other life chances and susceptibility to illness. This is a better way of thinking about it than talking about ‘underlying health conditions’, as if those underlying health conditions were the fault of those who suffer and die.

We have a key example here of the ‘intersectional’ nature of the virus crisis, the way that class, race and disability, for example, multiply your chances of dying. The Lancet article politely names this as a problem of ‘inequality’. This virus crisis intensifies every form of exploitation and oppression, and this while the super-rich have been getting richer over the past year. It is exactly a form of the ‘shock capitalism’ that is engineered through military coups, as in Chile in 1973, and wars; an economy is destroyed so it can be rebuilt and in the process the people are crushed, rendered powerless.

So, along every dimension, we have the virus hitting those already oppressed, hitting them more: Whether this is on the lines of class, with hollow cynical advice that you can stay at home to work if you choose, even that you can exercise on the tennis court in your back garden; whether this is disabled people who make up two-thirds of deaths from the virus in the UK and are told their lives are of less value; whether it is BAME people who are more likely to die and more likely to be arrested for breaking lockdown; or whether it is the working women who, according to a recent TUC report, are refused furlough seven times out of ten.

We need a response that speaks with the oppressed instead of against them, a campaign that is working from the base up. The Zero Covid campaign was set up to include the voices of the exploited and oppressed and to provide clear open scientific debate about evidence and strategy. The ‘banner drops’ organised by the campaign, for example, have made it clear that the message must be ‘eliminate the virus’, rather than pretend that the virus is a hoax, and protest rallies have been socially-distanced. We protect each other as we aim to protect everyone.

That means that we need sharp clear lockdown with security and compensation for those unable to go to work. If we had that from the start then we would have been in a different situation than we have today. We need a test and trace system that is really organised through the NHS, with real support for health workers, this instead of the private scam apps. We need a vaccination programme for all, and that must reach out to those who are undocumented, this when there are reports that foreign workers may be excluded. We must be clear that we are against the ‘vaccine nationalism’ that is being pushed not only the Tory government but by the pathetic opposition Labour Party that has spent much of the time agreeing with the government measures. Already the going rate is 25k for a flight to UAE for a jab, while Starmer congratulates the Royal Family on getting jabs saying it is ‘wonderful news’ (for them surely it should be jobs before jabs). And, of course, it means wearing our masks; wearing a mask is a sign of our solidarity with each other.

This is not ‘beyond politics’. This Coronavirus crisis is a political crisis, a function of the kind of political-economic system we live in and struggle against, and now we must struggle in and as part of the Zero Covid campaign.

Lockdown Again: Securitisation and Social Solidarity

We have already been locked into the contradictions of capitalism, too often shuttling between bad options, and COVID-19 makes it worse. It is not only the left that is faced with these contradictions, but also those who are attempting to manage all this. They are botching it, but their incompetence is not accidental. When it is not contrived, which it sometimes is, it flows from the nature of the system they are desperately intent on keeping going, for their benefit. These five contradictions of capitalism are what make the increasing securitisation of society into such a deadly danger, and what make it necessary for us to organise in and against these measures in a way that puts social solidarity at the forefront. For that we need analysis and action, theory and change, praxis in times of lockdown.

1. The economy is torn between the imperative to generate profit – to extract more surplus value from our human labour is the organising principle of this political-economic system – and the need to keep the workforce active, to generate that surplus value that is the lifeblood of the ruling class. So, we oscillate, how else could this play out, between the demand to return to work and limited support for us to stay healthy and productive. One way the ruling class attempts to resolve this contradiction, which does not solve it but simply smoothes it for a bit, is to continue with the ‘herd immunity’ narrative in which the sick go to the wall and the strong survive. Our way through this contradiction is to say ‘to hell with surplus value’ and that kind of ‘growth’ and the kind of economy that relies on it, and to insist on the creative production of a world in which we can all live, the starting point of a decent society, an alternative to capitalism.

2. Capitalism itself is torn between appeals to society as regulative container of conflict and to the individual as the ideological linchpin of competition. Here again we oscillate between herd immunity as what Trump, in a telling slip, called ‘herd mentality’, and standalone resilience in which the message is that if our leaders can beat the virus then so can we. This is the basis of the ideological gap between the collective responsibility urged by the World Health Organisation in which our care for everyone is care for each individual, and the individualist competitive spirit relied on by the right in government in which each separate isolated unit uses their ‘commonsense’ to make sense of the rules. Our way through this is for the collective option, but one which is democratically arrived at through self-conscious appropriation of the means of production and the application of rules in times of emergency that are consistent and clear and understandable.

3. Neoliberal capitalism twists and exploits this kind of situation in order to search for profit in the rubble. It is torn between destruction, a deadly drive unleashed from the early days by capitalism as it tears down existing forms of life in order to rebuild and generate profit for a few, and adaptation in which each worker must find ways of retraining, ‘re-skilling’, living in these precarious conditions. Neoliberalism, remember, returns us to the nineteenth century times of capital accumulation, with a difference. The difference is that, alongside the message that each individual should compete to work and that collective healthcare and welfare support hampers free choice, the state becomes a powerful force, enforcing control, and now the mechanism for enforcing lockdown on its own terms. This is the kind of surveillance and control we resist, not self-destructive individualist breaking of the measures that protect us, but the active refusal of outsourced ‘security’. Defunding of the police means building accountability at every level, in every community.

4. This is where we come up against a key contradiction of the capitalist state, at base a body of armed men designed to protect private property and operate as a gigantic committee for best managing the interests of the class that is tied into that state by a million threads of privilege. The state is now torn between maintaining control, treating its population as if it were a mindless herd, and provoking disobedience, inciting individuals to distrust authority. This contradiction is the running sore of the right governments, the source of the ‘ambiguity’ and ‘confusion’ that so many of us complain about as we try to make sense of the mixed messages. The effect, egged on by government advisors, is to sow distrust, including distrust of expertise, of science itself, and to encourage every kind of irrational ‘theory’ about who is doing what and why. Our way through this is to insist that this is not our state, that it is structurally systematically geared to the needs of those with power and property, mainly white men, and that a broader more inclusive community mutual resource network is needed to build alternative forms of production and distribution and guarantees of the safety of all as the basis of the safety of each.

5. There is an underlying ideological contradiction at work here in the state and in the very economic system it is designed to protect, one which bursts forth like a lanced boil at times of crisis, a contradiction between structural stable sets of relationships – the kind of well-behaved ‘community’ or ‘big society’ that supports the existing order of things – and conspiracy. Conspiracy is demanded and fed by capitalism, already at work in the idea that those with money have it through some uncanny ability to create it out of mid-air, and mobilised at times of threat; it is then as if the problem is not structural, internal to the nature of the system, but the result of someone behind the scenes pulling the strings. This is a dangerous game for government, for conspiracy theory also threatens to rebound against it, but it is willing to play that game if it can channel resentment against others, outsiders. Our way through this is to insist, at every point, that conspiracy theory is a trap, a distortion of our analysis of the nature of this economic system that runs like a machine, and that our open resistance is the diametric opposite of conspiracy.

At no time is it more urgent that we protect ourselves, and that we organise against this rotten system that will manage this emergency in ways that works against us, intensifying exploitation and oppression. This means that we do not refuse ‘lockdown’, but embrace it, claim it, reconfigure it as ‘our lockdown on our rules’, with the rules of the game being our collective responsibility for those who have already been criminally sickened and weakened by a political-economic system that makes the poor pay and the already-excluded suffer. Yes to the masks, symbol of our care and strength and solidarity! Yes to distance as a sign of respect, the basis for working together in a different way! Yes to the new networks of mutual aid that prioritise those as yet reduced to nothing.

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Asylum and mental health in the COVID-19 lockdown

Ian Parker has the latest special issue of Asylum: Radical Mental Health Magazine.

This pandemic, a function of ecological destruction under capitalism, intensifies every existing form of oppression and misery. This includes, of course, those already shunted to the margins of society because they are economically unproductive, their ‘illness’ often arising from different forms of abuse and stress that psychiatrists too-often then attempt to straighten out with drugs and other physical treatments.

Asylum Magazine, founded in 1986 as a hospital ward newsletter, described itself for many years as a magazine for ‘democratic psychiatry’. This was a reference to the attempt by the far-left Psichiatria Democratica movement in Italy to close down the old mental hospitals, one that had partial success in Trieste in the northeast of the country.

Perhaps psychiatry can be ‘democratised’ or perhaps a full-flowering of democratic self-management of our lives will enable us to dispense with psychiatry altogether, who knows. What is certain is that the medical model for the forms of distress we experience in this wretched unequal society often makes things worse, and we need much more radical approaches to ‘mental health’. The latest special issue of Asylum Magazine was assembled fast to examine the effects of COVID-19 on mental health, and the diverse responses to it from users of mental health services. It includes articles and images and resources that are indispensable for a more humane world.

Mad resources

Among the resources highlighted in this issue of Asylum are those produced by MadCovid, which includes crowd-funded small grants to help mentally ill and neurodiverse people, and ‘Quaranzine’ which explores isolation at home as well as detention in hospital. The MadCovid Diaries bring together different perspectives on the crisis; this not only to draw attention to isolation and to break that isolation with zine and quiz initiatives, but also exploration of ways in which the lockdown also gives unexpected space to people who are otherwise subject to pressure to adapt to a hurried uncaring world. One of the accounts of lockdown by Frieda B, excerpted from her longer more detailed blog shows how ‘social distancing’ repeated experiences of restraint and humiliation in hospital after initial euphoria at being safe at home, no longer driven out to live a so-called ‘normal’ life.

Long involved in Asylum has been the Hearing Voices Network that brings together those who have been given a psychiatric label for their experience, and the Paranoia Network. The report on the recent Paranoia Network lockdown support initiatives includes noting that few people in these strange times are being seen by professionals – not necessarily a bad thing – and the way ‘the real horrors of the pandemic are similar to the unreal horrors of paranoid thoughts’.

The special issue also explores longer-standing debates about medical and non-medical approaches to mental health under these new conditions, including, among other things, a reflection on the recent controversial decision of the magazine to include a contribution by a mainstream psychiatrist. This reflection by a member of the Asylum Editorial Group is also included as an open-access sample article on the magazine website. There is a sharp letter complaining about that decision and a response by the editor, pointing out that the magazine does not shut down debate around mental health, including over medical models that many users of services still look to for support.

Medical models

Also in this issue and available on the website is a service-user manifesto – one of many such that the magazine has published over the years – and a Rosenhan experiment book review; volunteers were sent to mental hospitals in the early 1970s in the US as ‘pseudo-patients’ to demonstrate how easy it was to be admitted and how difficult it was to get out of the psychiatric system. It turns out that it is likely that Rosenhan may have fabricated some of the research, and this opens a question as to the value of the story as a powerful anecdote wielded over the years against medical psychiatry.

There are other book reviews, one on the way that the Rorschach blot test was used to pathologise gay people, but also brought in as evidence in the campaign to de-pathologise homosexuality (which was removed from the main medical psychiatric classification system in the US in 1973). Another is a review of a book on what is sometimes called ‘outsider art’, and this is complemented by art by Bryan Charnley, and some other fabulous images in the magazine. There is also plenty of poetry, as usual.

This special issue makes it clear that psychiatric survivor and Mad liberation movements must be part of any serious attempt to change the world. They turn their ‘illness’ into a weapon against the psychiatric system and are part of a broader movement to understand how it is that political problems are too-often and too-conveniently reduced to biological imbalances and chemical deficits.

Previous issues of the magazine on the back issues section of the Asylum website include ones devoted to racism and sexism. There is also a detailed list of resources and campaigns on the website. These forms of oppression, whether on grounds of ‘race’ or gender or sexuality or psychiatric diagnosis, are symptoms of a sick society, and Asylum Magazine shows us that treating individuals who resist oppression as sick is part of the problem, an issue that should be on the agenda of socialists everywhere.

 

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

 

 

 

 

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.

 

You can read and comment on this article here

 

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