These days I sometimes catch myself wishing to get the virus – in this way, at least the debilitating uncertainty would be over. . . A clear sign of how my anxiety is growing is how I relate to sleep. Till around a week ago I was eagerly awaiting the evening: finally, I can escape into sleep and forget about the fears of my daily life. . . Now it’s almost the opposite: I am afraid to fall asleep since nightmares haunt me in my dreams and awaken me in panic – nightmares about the reality that awaits me.
What reality? These days we often hear that radical social changes are needed if we really want to cope with the consequences of the ongoing epidemics (I myself am among those spreading this mantra) – but radical changes are already taking place. The coronavirus epidemics confronts us with something that we considered impossible; we couldn’t imagine something like this really happening in our daily lives – the world we knew has stopped turning around, whole countries are in a lockdown, many of us are confined to one’s apartment (but what about those who cannot afford even this minimal safety precaution?), facing an uncertain future in which, even if most of us will survive, an economic mega-crisis lies ahead. . . What this means is that our reaction to it should also be to do the impossible – what appears impossible within the coordinates of the existing world order. The impossible happened, our world has stopped, AND impossible is what we have to do to avoid the worst, which is – what? (I owe this line of thought to Alenka Zupančič.)
I don’t think the biggest threat is a regression to open barbarism, to brutal survivalist violence with public disorders, panic lynching, etc. (although, with the possible collapse of health care and some other public services, this is also quite possible). More than open barbarism, I fear barbarism with a human face – ruthless survivalist measures enforced with regret and even sympathy but legitimized by expert opinions. A careful observer easily noticed the change in tone in how those in power address us: they are not just trying to project calm and confidence, they also regularly utter dire predictions – the pandemic is likely to take about two years to run its course, and the virus will eventually infect 60-70 percent of the global population, with millions of dead. . . In short, their true message is that we’ll have to curtail the basic premise of our social ethics: the care for the old and weak. (Italy has already announced that, if things get worse, difficult decisions about life and death will have to be made for those over eighty or with underlying conditions.) One should note how the acceptance of such a logic of the “survival of the fittest” violates even the basic principle of the military ethics that tells us that, after the battle, one should first take care of the heavily wounded even if the chance of saving them is minimal. (However, upon a closer look, this shouldn’t surprise us: hospitals are already doing the same thing with cancer patients.) To avoid a misunderstanding, I am an utter realist here – one should even plan to enable a painless death of the terminally ill, to spare them the unnecessary suffering. But our priority should be, nonetheless, not to economize but to help unconditionally, irrespective of costs, those who need help, to enable their survival.
So I respectfully disagree with Giorgio Agamben, who sees in the ongoing crisis a sign that “our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything — the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions — to the danger of getting sick. Bare life — and the danger of losing it — is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them.” Things are much more ambiguous: it DOES also unite them – to maintain a corporeal distance is to show respect to the other because I also may be a virus bearer. My sons avoid me now because they are afraid that they will contaminate me (what is to them a passing illness can be deadly for me).
In the last days, we hear again and again that each of us is personally responsible and has to follow the new rules. The media is full of stories about people who misbehave and put themselves and others in danger (a guy entered a store and started to cough, etc.) – the problem is here the same as with ecology where media again and again emphasize our personal responsibility (did you recycle all used newspapers, etc.). Such a focus on individual responsibility, necessary as it is, functions as ideology the moment it serves to obfuscate the big question of how to change our entire economic and social system. The struggle against the coronavirus can only be fought together with the struggle against ideological mystifications, plus as part of a general ecological struggle. As Kate Jones put it, the transmission of disease from wildlife to humans is “’a hidden cost of human economic development. There are just so many more of us, in every environment. We are going into largely undisturbed places and being exposed more and more. We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.’”
So it is not enough to put together some kind of global healthcare for humans, nature should be included too – viruses also attack plants, which are the main sources of our food, like potato, wheat, and olives. We always have to bear in mind the global picture of the world we live in, with all the paradoxes this implies. For example, it is good to know that the lockdown in China saved more lives than the number of those killed by the virus (if one trusts official statistics of the dead):
Environmental resource economist Marshall Burke says there is a proven link between poor air quality and premature deaths linked to breathing that air. “With this in mind,” he said, “a natural – if admittedly strange – question is whether the lives saved from this reduction in pollution caused by economic disruption from COVID-19 exceeds the death toll from the virus itself.” “Even under very conservative assumptions, I think the answer is a clear ‘yes’.” At just two months of reduction in pollution levels he says it likely saved the lives of 4,000 children under five and 73,000 adults over 70 in China alone.
We are caught in a triple crisis: medical (the epidemic itself), economic (which will hit hard whatever the outcome of the epidemic), plus (not to underestimate) the mental health – the basic coordinates of the life-world of millions and millions are disintegrating, and the change will affect everything, from flying during holidays to everyday bodily contacts. We have to learn to think outside the coordinates of stock market and profit and simply find another way to produce and allocate the necessary resources. Say, when the authorities learn that a company is keeping millions of masks, waiting for the right moment to sell them, there should be no negotiations with the company – masks should be simply requisitioned.
The media has reported that Trump offered one billion dollars to Tübingen-based biopharmaceutical company CureVac to secure the vaccine “only for the United States.” The German health minister, Jens Spahn, said a takeover of CureVac by the Trump administration was “off the table”; CureVac would only develop vaccine “for the whole world, not for individual countries.” Here we have an exemplary case of the struggle between barbarism and civilization. But the same Trump threatened to invoke the Defense Production Act that would allow the government to ensure that the private sector could ramp up production of emergency medical supplies:
Trump announces proposal to take over private sector. The US president said he would invoke a federal provision allowing the government to marshal the private sector in response to the pandemic, the Associated Press reported. Trump said he would sign an act giving himself the authority to direct domestic industrial production “in case we need it.”
When I used the word communism a couple of weeks ago, I was mocked, but now there is the headline “Trump announces proposal to take over private sector” – can one imagine such a headline even a week ago? And this is just the beginning – many more measures like this should follow, plus local self-organization of communities will be necessary if the state-run health system is under too much stress. It is not enough just to isolate and survive – for some of us to do this, basic public services have to function: electricity, food, and medical supplies. . . (We’ll soon need a list of those who recovered and are at least for some time immune, so that they can be mobilized for the urgent public work.) It is not a utopian communist vision, it is a communism imposed by the necessities of bare survival. It is unfortunately a version of what, in the Soviet Union in 1918, was called “war communism.”
As the saying goes, in a crisis we are all socialists – even Trump is considering a form of UBI – a check for a thousand dollars to every adult citizen. Trillions will be spent violating all the market rules – but how, where, for whom? Will this enforced socialism be the socialism for the rich (remember the bailing out of the bank in 2008 while millions of ordinary people lost their small savings)? Will the epidemics be reduced to another chapter in the long sad story of what Naomi Klein called “disaster capitalism,” or will a new (more modest, maybe, but also more balanced) world order emerge out of it?
18 March 2020
[CORRECTION. For clarification, the author has asked us to modify the following: “Italy already announced that, if things get worse, those over eighty or with other heavy diseases will be simply left to die” The sentence now reads: “Italy has already announced that, if things get worse, difficult decisions about who gets to live may have to be made for those over eighty or with underlying conditions.” Furthermore, President Trump did not “invoke the Defense Production Act.” The sentence now reads: “But the same Trump threatened to invoke the Defense Production Act that would allow the government to ensure that the private sector could ramp up production of emergency medical supplies.”-Ed.]
Slavoj Žižek, dialectical-materialist philosopher and psychoanalyst, is codirector at the International Center for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London.He is a frequent contributor to Critical Inquiry.