[Column] Simple things that are hard to do

Posted on : 2020-07-27 15:28 KST Modified on : 2020-07-27 15:28 KST

Traditional Marxists distinguished between Communism proper and Socialism as its first lower stage (where money and state still exists and workers are paid wages, etc.), In the Soviet Union there was a debate in 1960 about where they are in this regard, and the solution was that, although they are not yet in full Communism, they are also no longer in the lower stage (Socialism); so they introduced a further distinction between lower and higher stage of Socialism… Is not something similar going on with the Covid epidemics? Till about a month ago, our media were full of warnings about the second, much stronger, wave in the Fall and Winter; with new spikes everywhere and numbers of infections growing again, the word is that this is not yet the second wave but just a strengthening of the first wave which continues.

This classificatory confusion just confirms that the situation with Covid is getting serious, with cases exploding all around the world again. So the time has come to take seriously simple truths like the one recently announced by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus: "The greatest threat we face now is not the virus itself. Rather, it's the lack of leadership and solidarity at the global and national levels. We cannot defeat this pandemic as a divided world. The COVID-19 pandemic is a test of global solidarity and global leadership. The virus thrives on division, but is thwarted when we unite.” To take this truth seriously means that one should take into account not only international divisions but also class divisions within each country: “The coronavirus has merely lifted the lid off the pre-existing pandemic of poverty. Covid-19 arrived in a world where poverty, extreme inequality and disregard for human life are thriving, and in which legal and economic policies are designed to create and sustain wealth for the powerful, but not end poverty.” Conclusion: we cannot contain the viral pandemic without also attacking the pandemic of poverty. How to do this is in principle easy: we have enough means to reorganize healthcare adequately, etc. However, to quote the last line of Brecht’s „In Praise of Communism“ from his play Mother: „Er ist das Einfache, das schwer zu machen ist. / It is the simple thing, that is so hard to do.”

Now that Covid infections are rising and people worry again, and new restrictive measures are announced, these measures are accompanied by an explicit or at least implicit proviso: but there will be no return to full lockdown, public life will go on… This proviso echoes a spontaneous outcry from many people: “I cannot take it (full lockdown) again. I want my normal life back!” Why? Was the lockdown a standstill without dialectics (to turn around Benjamin’s famous motto “dialectics in a standstill”)? Our social life is not at a standstill when we have to obey rules of isolation and quarantine - in such moments of (what may appear) a standstill things are radically changing. The rejection of the lockdown is the rejection of change.

To ignore this means nothing less than a kind of collective psychosis. I hear in the outcries against lockdown an unexpected confirmation of Jacques Lacan’s claim that normality is a version of psychosis. To demand a return to normality today implies a psychotic foreclosure of the real of virus – we go on acting as if the infection doesn’t really take place. Look at Donald Trump’s latest speeches: although he knows about the true scope of the epidemics, he talks and acts as if he doesn’t know – he is ferociously attacking “Leftist Fascists” as the main threat to the US today, etc. But Trump is much less than we think an exception here - we regularly read in our media news which sound like: “In spite of new spikes of infection, the opening continues…” In an unsurpassable bit of irony, return to normality thus becomes the supreme psychotic gesture, the sign of collective madness.

This, of course, is not the whole truth about the psychic impact of the epidemics. In an epoch of crisis, the big Other (the substantial symbolic order that regulates our interactions) is simultaneously disintegrating, displaying its inefficiency, and strengthening (bombarding us with exact orders on how to act, on what to do not to do). That is to say, psychotic foreclosure is not the only or even the predominant reaction to the epidemics. There is also the widely-spread obsessional stance : many of us enjoy the protective rituals against the danger of infection. We compulsively wash our hands, don’t touch others or even ourselves, clean all surfaces in our apartments, etc. This is how obsessionals act: since the Thing-Enjoyment is prohibited, they perform a reflexive turn and start to enjoy the very measures that keep the Thing-Enjoyment at a proper distance.

Hegel didn’t just say that we learn nothing from history, he wrote that the only thing we can learn from history is that there is nothing to learn from it. Of course we “learn from history” in the sense of reacting to past catastrophes, of including them into narratives of a possible better future. Say, after the horror of the First World War, people were utterly horrified and they formed the League of Nations to prevent future wars - but it was followed by the Second World War. I am here a Hegelian pessimist: every work of mourning, every symbolization of a catastrophe misses something and thus opens a path towards a new catastrophe. And it doesn’t help if we know the danger that lies ahead. Just think about the myth of Oedipus: Oedipus’s parents knew what will happen, and the catastrophe happened because they tried to avoid it… without the prophecy telling them what will happen, no catastrophe would have happened. I just think that our acts are never self-transparent, we never know what we are doing, what will be the effects of what we are doing. Hegel was fully aware of this and what he called “reconciliation” is not a triumph of reason but the acceptance of the tragic dimension of our activity: we have to accept humbly the consequences of our acts even if we didn’t want this to happen. Russian Communists didn’t want Stalinist terror, this was not part of their plans, but it did happen and they are in some sense responsible for it. What if it will be the same with the corona epidemics? What if some of the measures we are taking to fight it will give birth to new catastrophes?

This is how we should apply Hegel’s idealism to the reality of Covid: here also, we should bear in mind Lacan’s claim that there is no reality without a fantasmatic support. Fantasies provide the frame of what we experience as reality - the Covid epidemics as a fact of our social reality is therefore also a mixture of the real and fantasies: the whole frame of how we perceive it and react to it is sustained by different fantasies – about the nature of the virus itself, about the causes of its social impact, etc. Already the fact that Covid almost brought the world to a standstill at a time when much more people were dying of pollution, hunger, etc., clearly indicates this fantasmatic dimension. We tend to forget that there are people – refugees, those caught in a civil war – for whom Covid epidemics is a negligible minor trouble.
Does this mean that there is no hope? Etienne Balibar wrote against me (during a Birkbeck Summer School debate): “The idea that just because the crisis is a "great" crisis (which I would agree with), all the "struggles" are potentially merging into a unique revolutionary movement (provided we cry "unite! unite!" loud enough), strikes me as a little childish... there remain some obstacles! people must survive first…” But I think something like a new form of Communism will have to emerge precisely if we want to survive! If last weeks demonstrated anything, it is that global capitalism cannot contain the Covid crisis – why not? In the finale of Mozart’s opera, don Giovanni triumphantly sings: “Giacché spendo i miei danari, io mi voglio divertir. / Since I spend my money freely, I want to be amused.” It is difficult to imagine a more anti-capitalist motto – a capitalist doesn’t spend his money to be amused but to get MORE money. However, this sacrifice is not experienced as such, it is concealed: we sacrifice now for later profit. With the Covid epidemics, the sacrificial truth of capitalism came out – how? We are openly solicited to sacrifice (some of) our lives NOW to keep the economy going.

Lockdown and isolation are relatively easy to sustain, we are aware that it is a temporary measure like taking a break; problems explode when we will have invent a new form of life since there is no return to the old. In other words, the really difficult time is coming NOW. If we don’t invent a new mode of social life, it will not be just a little bit worse but much worse. Again, my hypothesis is that the Covid epidemics announces a new epoch in which we will have to rethink everything, inclusive of the basic meaning of being-human, and our actions should follow thinking. Maybe, today we should turn around Marx’s Thesis XI on Feuerbach: in the XXth century, we tried to change the world too rapidly, and the time has come to interpret it in a new way.

Slavoj Zizek, Global Eminent Scholar at Kyung Hee University

The views presented in this column are the writer’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of The Hankyoreh.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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