Traditional Marxists distinguished between Communism proper and Socialism as its first lower stage (where money and the state still exists and workers are paid wages, etc.). In the Soviet Union there was a debate in the 1960s about where they were in this regard, and the solution was that, although they were not yet in full Communism, they were 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 pandemic? Until 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. 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 and so forth. 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.” There are many obstacles that make it so hard to do and, above all, the global capitalist order. But I want to focus here on the ideological obstacle, ideological in the sense of half-conscious, even unconscious, stances, prejudices, and fantasies that regulate our lives also (and especially) in the times of crisis. In short, I suggest that what is needed is a psychoanalytic theory of ideology.
In my work, I often referred to a series of Louis Buñuel’s films that are built around the same central motif of the – to use Buñuel’s own words – “non-explainable impossibility of the fulfilment of a simple desire.” In L’Age d’or the couple wants to consummate their love, but they are again and again prevented by some stupid accident; in The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz the hero wants to accomplish a simple murder, but all his attempts fail; in The Exterminating Angel, after a party, a group of rich people cannot cross the threshold and leave the house; in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie two couples want to dine together, but unexpected complications always prevent the accomplishment of this simple wish; and finally, in That Obscure Object of Desire, we have the paradox of a woman who, through a series of tricks, postpones again and again the final moment of reunion with her old lover… Are things not quite similar with our reaction to the Covid pandemic? We all somehow know what has to be done, but weird fate prevents us from doing it.
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 at 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 to be) 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 pandemic, he talks and acts as if he doesn’t know, ferociously attacking “Leftist Fascists” as the main threat to the US today. But Trump is much less of an exception here than we think. As we regularly read in the news: “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 an epidemic. 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, or 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 wide-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, and clean all surfaces in our apartments. 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.
Here, Jacqueline Rose made a critical point against me during a Birkbeck Summer School debate: “How do you square the release of obscenity, even psychosis, into public political space and your account of the progressive elements of the moment? Can ethics defeat obscenity? I fear that the whole of psychoanalysis suggests not.”
I think things are more complex. Perverse obscenity is not the moment when the unconscious erupts into the open without any ethical regulations to constrain it. Freud already wrote that, in perversion, the unconscious is most difficult to access, which is why it is almost impossible to psychoanalyze perverts. They have to be first hystericized; their assurances should be weakened by the rise of hysterical questions. I think that what we are witnessing now, when the pandemic just drags on, is precisely such a gradual hystericization of those who assumed a perverse or even a psychotic position. Trump and other new Right populists are breaking down, getting nervous, their reactions more and more inconsistent, self-contradictory, haunted by question marks. To return to Rose: I think that obscenity itself already relies on a certain ethics: it follows a certain stance, which cannot but be designated as ethical. Those who act obscenely want to shock people with their acts and, in this way, awaken them from their everyday illusions. The way to overcome this ethics of obscenity is to bring out its inconsistencies: those who act obscenely have their own taboos; they are never as radical as they think they are. There is no politician today more constrained by the repression of his unconscious than Trump, precisely when he pretends to act and speak with sincere openness, saying what comes to his mind.
Rose’s pessimism is justified, but at a slightly different level. 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 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: his parents knew what would happen, and the catastrophe happened because they tried to avoid it… Without the prophecy telling them what would happen, no catastrophe would have happened.
I just think that our acts are never self-transparent, in the sense that we never know what we are doing nor what the effects of what we are doing will be. 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. The Russian Communists didn’t want Stalinist terror, this was not part of their plans, but it did happen and they are in some way responsible for it. What if it will be the same with the corona-pandemic? 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 phantasmatic support. Fantasies provide the frame of what we experience as reality. The Covid pandemic 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 many more people were dying of pollution, hunger, and similar things, clearly indicates this phantasmatic dimension. We tend to forget that there are people – refugees, those caught in a civil war – for whom the Covid pandemic is a negligible minor trouble.
Does this mean that there is no hope? Etienne Balibar wrote against me, also 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 the past few weeks have demonstrated anything, it is that global capitalism cannot contain the Covid crisis. Why not? As Todd MacGowan pointed out, capitalism is in its core sacrificial. Instead of immediately consuming the profit we should re-invest it, and full satisfaction is forever postponed. 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 a later profit.
With the Covid pandemic, the sacrificial truth of capitalism came out. How so? We are openly asked to sacrifice (some of) our lives now to keep the economy going, by which I am referring to how some of Trump’s followers directly demanded that people over 60 should accept to die to keep the US capitalist way of life alive… Of course, workers in dangerous professions (miners, steelworkers, whale hunters) were risking their lives for centuries, not to mention the horrors of colonization where up to half of the indigenous population was wiped out. But now the risk is directly spelled out and not only for the poor. Can capitalism survive this shift? I think it cannot: it undermines the logic of an endlessly postponed enjoyment that enables it to function.
The obverse of the incessant capitalist drive to produce new and new objects are the growing piles of useless waste, piled mountains of used cars, computers, and so on, like the famous airplane “resting place” in the Mojave desert in California. In these ever-growing piles of dysfunctional ‘stuff’, which cannot but strike us with their useless, inert presence, one can, as it were, perceive the capitalist drive at rest. And did something like that not happen to all of us when, with the quarantine, our social life came to a standstill? We saw objects we used every day – stores, cafeterias, buses and trains and planes – just resting there, closed, deprived of their function. Was this not a kind of epoché imposed on us in our actual life? Such moments should make us think: is it really worth to return to the smooth functioning of the same system?
However, the true ordeal is not so much the lockdown and isolation. It begins now, when our societies start to move again. I already compared the effect of the Covid pandemic on the global capitalist order to the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” from the final scene of Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2. The move consists of a combination of five strikes with one’s fingertips to five different pressure points on the target’s body: the target can go on living and talking if he doesn’t move, but after he stands up and takes five steps, his heart explodes… Is this not how the Covid pandemic affected global capitalism? Lockdown and isolation are relatively easy to sustain, as we are aware that it is a temporary measure like taking a break. Problems explode, nonetheless, when we have to invent a new form of life, since there is no return to the old. In other words, the really difficult time is coming now.
In a yet unpublished essay “Present Tense 2020,” W.J.T. Mitchell reads the temporality of epidemics through the lenses of the Ancient Greek triad of Kronos, Aion, and Kairos. Kronos personifies the implacable linear time that leads inexorably toward the death of every living thing. Aion is the god of circular time, of the seasons and the cycle of the zodiac, and the serpent with the tail in its mouth, and the eternal return. Kairos has a double aspect of a threat and a promise: in Christian theology, it is the moment of fateful decision, the moment when “newness comes into the world,” as in the birth of Christ.
The pandemic is mostly read through the lenses of Kronos or Aion: as an event in the linear run of things, as a moment of a bad season, a low point, which will sooner or later turn around. What I am hoping is that the pandemic will follow the logic of Kairos: a catastrophe which will compel us to find a new beginning. For our liberals, the unexpected appearance of Trump was a moment of Kairos: something new shattered the foundations of our established order. I think Trump is just a symptom of what was already wrong in our societies, and we are still waiting for the new to emerge.
If we don’t invent a new mode of social life, it will not be just a little bit worse than before, but much worse. Again, my hypothesis is that the Covid pandemic announces a new epoch, in which we will have to rethink everything, including 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 twentieth century, we tried to change the world too rapidly, and the time has come to interpret it in a new way.
 I owe this point to Matthew Flisfeder, personal communication.
 Todd McGowan, personal communication.