Many liberal and Leftist commentators have noted how the coronavirus epidemic serves to justify and legitimize measures of control and regulation of the people that had been till now unthinkable in a Western democratic society. Is the total lockdown of Italy not a totalitarian’s wet dream come true? No wonder that (at least the way it looks now) China, which had already widely practiced modes of digitalized social control, proved to be best equipped for coping with catastrophic epidemics. Does this mean that, at least in some aspects, China is our future? Are we approaching a global state of exception? Have Giorgio Agamben’s analyses gained new actuality?
It is not surprising that Agamben himself drew this conclusion: he reacted to the coronavirus epidemic in a radically different way from the majority of commentators. He deplored the “frantic, irrational, and absolutely unwarranted emergency measures adopted for a supposed epidemic of coronavirus” which is just another version of flu, and asked: “Why do the media and the authorities do their utmost to create a climate of panic, thus provoking a true state of exception, with severe limitations on movement and the suspension of daily life and work activities for entire regions?”
Agamben sees the main reason for this “disproportionate response” in “the growing tendency to use the state of exception as a normal governing paradigm.” The imposed measures allow the government to seriously limit our freedoms by executive decree: “It is blatantly evident that these restrictions are disproportionate to the threat from what is, according to the NRC, a normal flu, not much different from those that affect us every year. /…/ We might say that once terrorism was exhausted as a justification for exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic could offer the ideal pretext for broadening such measures beyond any limitation.” The second reason is “the state of fear, which in recent years has diffused into individual consciousnesses and which translates into a real need for states of collective panic,for which the epidemic once again offers the ideal pretext.”
Agamben is describing an important aspect of the functioning of state control in ongoing epidemics. But there are questions that remain open: why would state power be interested in promoting such a panic, which is accompanied by distrust in state power (“they are helpless, they are not doing enough…”) and which disturbs the smooth reproduction of capital? Is it really in the interest of capital and state power to trigger a global economic crisis in order to reinvigorate their reign? Are the clear signs that not just ordinary people, but also state power itself is in panic, fully aware of not being able to control the situation – are these signs really just a stratagem?
Agamben’s reaction is the extreme form of a widespread Leftist stance of reading the “exaggerated panic” caused by the spread of the virus as a mixture of power exercise of social control and elements of outright racism (“blame nature or China”). However, such a social interpretation doesn’t make the reality of the threat disappear. Does this reality compel us to effectively curtail our freedoms? Quarantines and similar measures, of course, limit our freedom, and new Assanges are needed here to bring out their possible misuses. But the threat of viral infection also gave a tremendous boost to new forms of local and global solidarity, plus it made clear the need for control over power itself. People are right to hold state power responsible: you have the power, now show what you can do! The challenge that Europe faces is to prove that what China did can be done in a more transparent and democratic way:
“China introduced measures that Western Europe and the USA are unlikely to tolerate, perhaps to their own detriment. Put bluntly, it is a mistake to reflexively interpret all forms of sensing and modelling as ‘surveillance’ and active governance as ‘social control’. We need a different and more nuanced vocabulary of intervention.”
Everything hinges on this “more nuanced vocabulary”: the measures necessitated by an epidemic should not be automatically reduced to the usual paradigm of surveillance and control propagated by thinkers like Foucault. What I fear today more than the measures applied by China (and Italy and…) is that they apply these measures in a way that will not work to contain the epidemic, while authorities will manipulate and conceal the true data.
Both alt-right and fake Left refuse to accept the full reality of the epidemic, each watering it down in an exercise of social-constructivist reduction, i.e., denouncing it on behalf of its social meaning. Trump and his partisans repeatedly insist that the epidemic is a plot by Democrats and China to make him lose the upcoming elections, while some on the Left denounce the measures proposed by the state and health apparatuses as tainted by xenophobia and, therefore, insist on shaking hands, etc. Such a stance misses the paradox: not to shake hands and to go into isolation when needed IS today’s form of solidarity.
Who, today, will be able to afford shaking hands and embracing? The privileged. Boccaccio’s Decameron is composed of stories told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa just outside Florence to escape the plague which afflicted the city. The financial elite will withdraw into secluded zones and amuse themselves there telling stories in the Decameron style. (The ultra-rich are already flocking with private planes to exclusive small islands in the Caribbean.) We, ordinary people, who will have to live with viruses, are bombarded by the endlessly repeated formula “No panic!”… and then we get all the data that cannot but trigger a panic. The situation resembles the one I remember from my youth in a Communist country: when government officials assured the public that there was no reason to panic, we all took these assurances as clear signs that they were themselves in a panic.
But panic is not a proper way to confront a real threat. When we react in a panic, we do not take the threat too seriously; we, on the contrary, trivialize it. Just think of how ridiculous the excessive buying of toilet paper rolls is: as if having enough toilet paper would matter in the midst of a deadly epidemic… So, what would be an appropriate reaction to the coronavirus epidemic? What should we learn and what should we do to confront it seriously?
When I suggested that the coronavirus epidemic may give a new boost of life to Communism, my claim was, as expected, ridiculed. Although it looks that a strong approach to the crisis by the Chinese state worked – at least it worked much better than what is going on now in Italy -, the old authoritarian logic of Communists in power also clearly demonstrated its limitations. One of them was that the fear of bringing bad news to those in power (and to the public) outweighs actual results. This was the reason why those who first reported on a new virus were arrested, and there are reports that a similar thing is going on now:
“The pressure to get China back to work after the coronavirus shutdown is resurrecting an old temptation: doctoring data so it shows senior officials what they want to see. This phenomenon is playing out in Zhejiang province, an industrial hub on the east coast, in the form of electricity usage. At least three cities there have given local factories targets to hit for power consumption because they’re using the data to show a resurgence in production, according to people familiar with the matter. That’s prompted some businesses to run machinery even as their plants remain empty, the people said.”
We can also guess what will follow when those in power note this cheating: local managers will be accused of sabotage and severely punished, thus reproducing the vicious cycle of distrust… A Chinese Julian Assange will be needed here to expose to the public this concealed side of how China is coping with the epidemic. So, if this is not the Communism I have in mind, what do I mean by Communism? To get it, it suffices to read the public declarations of WHO. Here is a recent one:
“WHO chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Thursday that although public health authorities across the globe have the ability to successfully combat the spread of the virus, the organization is concerned that in some countries the level of political commitment does not match the threat level. ‘This is not a drill. This is not the time to give up. This is not a time for excuses. This is a time for pulling out all the stops. Countries have been planning for scenarios like this for decades. Now is the time to act on those plans,’ Tedros said. ‘This epidemic can be pushed back, but only with a collective, coordinated and comprehensive approach that engages the entire machinery of government.’”
One might add that such a comprehensive approach should reach well beyond the machinery of single governments: it should encompass the local mobilization of people outside state control as well as strong and efficient international coordination and collaboration. If thousands are hospitalized for respiratory problems, a vastly increased number of respiratory machines will be needed, and to get them, the state should directly intervene in the same way as it intervenes in conditions of war when thousands of guns are needed. And it should rely on the cooperation with other states. As in a military campaign, information should be shared and plans fully coordinated – THIS is all I mean by “Communism” needed today, or, as Will Hutton put it: “Now, one form of unregulated, free-market globalization with its propensity for crises and pandemics is certainly dying. But another form that recognizes interdependence and the primacy of evidence-based collective action is being born.” What now still predominates is the stance of “every country for itself”: “there are national bans on exports of key products such as medical supplies, with countries falling back on their own analysis of the crisis amid localised shortages and haphazard, primitive approaches to containment.”
The coronavirus epidemic does not signal just the limit of market globalization, it also signals the even more fatal limit of nationalist populism, which insists on full state sovereignty. It’s over with “America (or whoever) first!” since America can be saved only through global coordination and collaboration. I am not a utopian here; I don’t appeal to an idealized solidarity between people. On the contrary, the present crisis demonstrates clearly how global solidarity and cooperation is in the interest of the survival of all and each of us, how it is the only rationally egotistic thing to do. And it’s not just coronavirus: China itself suffered a gigantic swine flu months ago, and it is now threatened by the prospect of a locust invasion. Plus, as Owen Jones noted, the climate crisis kills many more people around the world than coronavirus, but there is no panic about this…
From a cynical vitalist standpoint, one would be tempted to see the coronavirus as a beneficial infection, which allows humanity to get rid of the old, weak and ill, like pulling out a half-rotten weed, and thus contributes to global health. The broad Communist approach I am advocating is the only way for us to really leave behind such a primitive vitalist standpoint. Signs of curtailing unconditional solidarity are already discernible in ongoing debates, as in the following note about the role of the “three wise men” if the epidemic takes a more catastrophic turn in the UK: “NHS patients could be denied lifesaving care during a severe coronavirus outbreak in Britain if intensive care units are struggling to cope, senior doctors have warned. Under a so-called ‘three wise men’ protocol, three senior consultants in each hospital would be forced to make decisions on rationing care such as ventilators and beds, in the event hospitals were overwhelmed with patients.” What criteria will the “three wise men” rely on? Sacrifice the weakest and eldest? And will this situation not open up the space for immense corruption? Do such procedures not indicate that we are getting ready to enact the most brutal logic of the survival of the fittest? So, again, the ultimate choice is either this or some kind of reinvented Communism.
But things go much deeper than that. What I find especially annoying is how, when our media announce some closure or cancellation, they as a rule add a fixed temporal limitation: the “schools will be closed till April 4” formula. The big expectation is that, after the peak which should arrive fast, things would return to normal. In this sense, I was already informed that a university symposium is just postponed to September… The catch is that, even when life eventually returns to normal, it will not be the same normal we were used to before the outbreak: things we were used to as part of our daily life will no longer be taken for granted; we’ll have to learn to live a much more fragile life with constant threats lurking just behind the corner.
For this reason, we can expect that viral epidemics will affect our most elementary interactions with other people and objects around, inclusive of our own bodies: avoid touching things which may be (invisibly) “dirty,“ do not touch hooks, do not seat on public toilets or on benches in public places, avoid embracing others and shaking their hands… And even be careful about how you control your own body and your spontaneous gestures: do not touch your nose or rub your eyes – in short, do not play with yourself. So, it’s not only the state and other agencies that will control us; we should learn to control and discipline ourselves! Maybe, only virtual reality will be considered safe, and moving freely in an open space will be reserved for the islands owned by the ultra-rich.
But even here, at the level of virtual reality and the internet, we should remind ourselves that, in the last decades, the terms “virus” and “viral” were mostly used to designate digital viruses which were infecting our web-space and of which we were not aware, at least not until their destructive power (say, of destroying our data or our hard-drive) was unleashed. What we see now is a massive return to the original literal meaning of the term: viral infections work hand in hand in both dimensions, real and virtual.
So, we’ll have to change our entire stance toward life, toward our existence as living beings among other forms of life. In other words, if we understand “philosophy” as the name for our basic orientation in life, we’ll have to experience a true philosophical revolution. Maybe we can learn something about our reactions to the coronavirus epidemic from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who, in her On Death and Dying, proposed the famous scheme of the five stages of how we react upon learning that we have a terminal illness: denial (one simply refuses to accept the fact: “This can’t be happening, not to me.”); anger (which explodes when we can no longer deny the fact: “How can this happen to me?”); bargaining (the hope we can somehow postpone or diminish the fact: “Just let me live to see my children graduate.”); depression (libidinal disinvestment: “I’m going to die, so why bother with anything?”); acceptance (“I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”). Later, Kübler-Ross applied these stages to any form of catastrophic personal loss (joblessness, death of a loved one, divorce, drug addiction), and also emphasized that they do not necessarily come in the same order, nor are all five stages experienced by all patients.
One can discern the same five stages whenever a society is confronted with some traumatic break. Let’s take the threat of ecological catastrophe: first, we tend to deny it (it’s just paranoia, what happens are the usual oscillations in weather patterns); then comes anger (at big corporations which pollute our environment, at the government which ignores the dangers) followed by bargaining (if we recycle our waste, we can buy some time; plus, there are good sides to it also: we can grow vegetables of Greenland, ships will be able to transport goods from China to the US much faster on the northern route, new fertile land is becoming available in northern Siberia due to the melting of permafrost…), depression (it’s too late, we’re doomed…), and, finally, acceptance: we are dealing with a serious threat and we’ll have to change our entire way of life!
The same holds for the growing threat of digital control over our lives: first, we tend to deny it (it’s an exaggeration, a Leftist paranoia, no agency can control our daily activity…), then we explode in anger (at big companies and secret state agencies who know us better than we know ourselves and use this knowledge to control and manipulate us), which is followed by bargaining (authorities have the right to search for terrorists, but not to infringe upon our privacy…), depression (it’s too late, our privacy is lost, the time of personal freedoms is over), and, finally, acceptance: digital control is a threat to our freedom; we should make the public aware of all its dimensions and engage in fighting it!
Even in the domain of politics, the same holds for those who are traumatized by Trump’s presidency: first, there was denial (don’t worry, Trump is just posturing, nothing will really change if he takes power), followed by anger (at the dark forces which enabled him to take power, at the populists who support him and pose a threat to our moral substance…), bargaining (all is not yet lost, maybe Trump can be contained, let’s just tolerate some of his excesses…), depression (we are on the path to Fascism, democracy is lost in the US), and acceptance: there is a new political regime in the US, the good old days of American democracy are over, let’s face the danger and calmly plan how we can overcome Trump’s populism…
In medieval times, the population of an affected town reacted to the signs of the plague in a similar way: first denial, then anger (at our sinful lives for which we are punished, or even at the cruel God who allowed it), then bargaining (it’s not so bad, let’s just avoid those who are ill…), then depression (our life is over…), then, interestingly, orgies (since our lives are over, let’s get out of it all the pleasures still possible – drinking, sex…), and, finally, acceptance: here we are, let’s just behave as much as possible as if normal life goes on…
And is this not also how we are dealing with the coronavirus epidemic that exploded at the end of 2019? First, there was a denial (nothing serious is going on, some irresponsible individuals are just spreading panic); then, anger (usually in a racist or anti-state form: the dirty Chinese are guilty, our state is not efficient…); next comes bargaining (OK, there are some victims, but it’s less serious than SARS, and we can limit the damage…); if this doesn’t work, depression arises (let’s not kid ourselves, we are all doomed). But what would acceptance look like here? It is a strange fact that the epidemic displays a feature common with the latest round of social protests (in France, in Hong Kong…): they don’t explode and then pass away; rather, they stay here and just persist, bringing permanent fear and fragility to our lives. But this acceptance can take two directions. It can mean just the re-normalization of illness: OK, people will be dying, but life will go on, maybe there will be even some good side effects… Or acceptance can (and should) propel us to mobilize ourselves without panic and illusions, to act in collective solidarity.
What we should accept, what we should reconcile ourselves with, is that there is a sub-layer of life, the undead, stupidly repetitive, pre-sexual life of viruses, which always was here and which will always be with us as a dark shadow, posing a threat to our very survival, exploding when we least expect it. And at an even more general level, viral epidemics remind us of the ultimate contingency and meaninglessness of our lives: no matter how magnificent spiritual edifices we, humanity, bring out, a stupid natural contingency like a virus or an asteroid can end it all… Not to mention the lesson of ecology which is that we, humanity, may also unknowingly contribute to this end.
To make this point clearer, let me shamelessly quote a popular definition: viruses are “any of various infectious agents, usually ultramicroscopic, that consist of nucleic acid, either RNA or DNA, within a case of protein: they infect animals, plants, and bacteria and reproduce only within living cells: viruses are considered as being non-living chemical units or sometimes as living organisms.” This oscillation between life and death is crucial: viruses are neither alive nor dead in the usual sense of these terms. They are the living dead: a virus is alive due to its drive to replicate, but it is a kind of zero-level life, a biological caricature not so much of death-drive as of life at its most stupid level of repetition and multiplication. However, viruses are not an elementary form of life out of which more complex forms developed. They are purely parasitic; they replicate themselves through infecting more developed organisms (when a virus infects us, humans, we simply serve as its copying machine). It is in this coincidence of the opposites – elementary and parasitic – that resides the mystery of viruses: they are a case of what Schelling called “der nie aufhebbare Rest,” a remainder of the lowest form of life that emerges as a product of malfunctioning of higher mechanisms of multiplication and continues to haunt (infect) them, a remainder which cannot ever be re-integrated as the subordinate moment of a higher level of life.
Here we encounter what Hegel calls “speculative judgment,” an assertion of the identity of the highest and the lowest. Hegel’s best-known example is “Spirit is a bone” from his analysis of phrenology in Phenomenology of Spirit, and our example should be “Spirit is a virus.” Is human spirit also not some kind of virus that parasitizes of the human animal, exploits it for its own self-reproduction, and sometimes threatening to destroy it? And, insofar as the medium of spirit is language, we should not forget that, at its most elementary level, language is also something mechanic, a matter of rules we have to learn and follow.
Richard Dawkins claimed that memes are “viruses of the mind,” parasitic entities which “colonize” the human mind, using it as a means to multiply themselves. It is an idea whose originator was none other than Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy is usually perceived as a much less interesting author than Dostoyevsky – a hopelessly outdated realist for whom there is basically no place in modernity, in contrast to Dostoyevsky’s existential anguish. Perhaps, however, the time has come to fully rehabilitate Tolstoy, his unique theory of art and humanity in general, in which we find echoes of Dawkins’s notion of memes. “A person is a hominid with an infected brain, host to millions of cultural symbionts, and the chief enablers of these are the symbiont systems known as languages” – is this passage from Dennett not pure Tolstoy? The basic category of Tolstoy’s anthropology is infection: a human subject is a passive empty medium infected by affect-laden cultural elements that, like contagious bacilli, spread from one individual to another. And Tolstoy goes here to the end: he does not oppose to this spread of affective infections a true spiritual autonomy; he does not propose a heroic vision of educating oneself to be a mature autonomous ethical subject by way of getting rid of infectious bacilli. The only struggle is the struggle between good and bad infections: Christianity itself is an infection, if – for Tolstoy – a good one.
Maybe, this is the most disturbing thing we can learn from the ongoing viral epidemic: when nature is attacking us with viruses, it is in a way sending our own message back to us. The message is: what you did to me, I am now doing to you.
 Benjamin Bratton, personal communication.
 Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves, London: penguin Books 2004, p. 173.