We are witnessing lately a gradual decay of the authority of what Jacques Lacan called “the big Other,” the shared space of public values within which only our differences and identities can thrive. This phenomenon is often falsely characterized as the “post-truth era.” Liberal resistances against vaccination on behalf of human rights make one nostalgic for Leninist “democratic socialism” (free democratic debate, but once a decision is taken, everybody has to obey it). One should interpret this democratic socialism in the sense of Kant’s formula of Enlightenment: not “Don’t obey, think freely!” but: “Think freely, state your thoughts publicly, and obey!” The same holds for vaccine doubters: debate, publish your doubts, but obey regulations once public authorities impose them. Without such practical consensus we will slowly drift into a society composed of tribal factions.
Here we can see clearly the link between individual freedom and social cohesion. The freedom to choose being vaccinated or not is, of course, a formal kind of freedom; however, to reject vaccination effectively implies limiting my actual freedom as well as the freedom of others. Within a community, being vaccinated means that I am a much less of a threat to others (and others are to me), so I can to a much greater degree exercise my social freedoms to mix with others in the usual way. My freedom is only actual as freedom within a certain social space regulated by rules and prohibitions. I can walk freely along a busy street because I can be reasonably sure that others on the street will behave in a civilized way towards me, will be punished if they attack me, if they insult me, etc.—and it is exactly the same with vaccination. No doubt, we can strive to change the rules of common life, as there are situations when these rules can be relaxed and also strengthened (as in the conditions of a pandemic), but a domain of rules is needed as the very terrain of our freedoms.
Therein resides the Hegelian difference between abstract and concrete freedom: in a concrete life-world, abstract freedom changes into its opposite, since it narrows our actual exercise of freedom. Let’s take the case of freedom to speak and communicate with others. I can only exert this freedom if I obey the commonly established rules of language (with all their ambiguities, including the unwritten rules of messages between the lines). The language we speak is not ideologically neutral; it embodies many prejudices and makes it impossible for us to formulate clearly certain uncommon thoughts. As, again, Hegel knew it, thinking always occurs in language and it brings with itself a common-sense metaphysics (view of reality), but to truly think, we have to think in a language against this language. The rules of language can be changed in order to open up new freedoms, but the trouble with Politically Correct newspeak clearly shows that direct imposition of new rules can lead to ambiguous results and give birth to new, more subtle forms of racism and sexism.
The disintegration of the public space is at its worst in the US, and it can be nicely illustrated by a detail of common culture. In Europe, the ground floor in a building is counted as 0, so that the floor above it is the first floor, while in the US, the first floor is on street level. In short, Americans start to count with 1, while Europeans know that 1 is already a stand-in for 0. Or, to put it in more historical terms, Europeans are aware that, prior to beginning a count, there has to be a ‘ground’ of tradition, a ground which is always-already given and, as such, cannot be counted, while the US, a land with no pre-modern historical tradition proper, lacks such a ground. Things begin there directly with the self-legislated freedom: the past is erased or transposed onto Europe.[i] Perhaps, we should thus begin by assuming again the lesson of Europe and learn to count from 0… Should we, really? The catch is that 0 is never neutral; it is the shared space of ideological hegemony traversed by inherent antagonisms and inconsistencies. Even the “post-truth” space of rumors is still a form of the big Other, just different from the big Other of dignified public space. So, we have to put our claim in a more specific and precise way: ignoring the ground floor obfuscates an even stronger form of the big Other.
Some Lacanians (Jacques-Alain Miller included) often advocate the idea that today, in the era of “fake news,” the big Other really no longer exists. Is this true? What if it exists more than ever, just in a new form? Our big Other is no longer public space, distinguished from the obscenities of private exchanges, but the very public domain in which “fake news” circulate, in which we exchange rumors and conspiracy theories. One should not lose sight of what is so surprising about this rise of the shameless obscenity of Alt-right so well noted and analyzed by Angela Nagle.[ii] Traditionally (in our retroactive view of tradition, at least), shameless public obscenity worked as subversive, as an undermining of traditional domination, as depriving the Master of his false dignity. What we are getting today, with the exploding public obscenity, is not the disappearance of domination, of Master figures, but its forceful reappearance.[iii]
In this more precise sense, the US is today the country of the new obscene big Other: the 0 that they more and more lack is the 0 of public dignity, of a shared commitment. Furthermore, this obscene big Other is supplemented, though often in a conflictual way, by the big Other of neutral expertise in its different forms—state apparatuses, legal order, science. And here the true problem emerges: can we trust this big Other, even in its scientific form? Is science not caught in the procedures of technological domination and exploitation, and of capitalist interests? Didn’t science long ago lose its neutrality? Is this neutrality from the very beginning not a mask of social domination? Does this insight not compel us to problematize the medical-scientific justification of lockdown measures and other reactions to the pandemic?
The most consequent partisan of Marxist Covid-skepticism is Fabio Vighi, who argues that, if we join the dots provided by a close analysis of the financial background of the pandemic, we “might see a well-defined narrative outline emerge”:
“lockdowns and the global suspension of economic transactions were intended to 1) allow the Fed to flood the ailing financial markets with freshly printed money while deferring hyperinflation; and 2) introduce mass vaccination programs and health passports as pillars of a neo-feudal regime of capitalist accumulation. /…/ The mainstream narrative should therefore be reversed: the stock market did not collapse (in March 2020) because lockdowns had to be imposed; rather, lockdowns had to be imposed because financial markets were collapsing. /…/ SARS-CoV-2 is the name of a special weapon of psychological warfare that was deployed in the moment of greatest need. /…/ The aim of the printing-spree was to plug calamitous liquidity gaps. Most of this ‘magic-tree money’ is still frozen inside the shadow banking system, the stock exchanges, and various virtual currency schemes that are not meant to be used for spending and investment. Their function is solely to provide cheap loans for financial speculation. This is what Marx called ‘fictitious capital’, which continues to expand in an orbital loop that is now completely independent of economic cycles on the ground. The bottom line is that all this cash cannot be allowed to flood the real economy, for the latter would overheat and trigger hyperinflation.”
In short, it is not the pandemic that put the capitalist order into an emergency state; it is global capitalism itself that needed an emergency state to avoid a debilitating crisis much stronger than the 2008 meltdown, and the pandemic was fabricated as a welcome excuse for the emergency state. In contrast to Agamben, who focused on how the pandemic justified the permanent state of emergency with an unheard-of strengthening of biopolitics, Vighi puts forward capital’s reproduction. The passage from neoliberal global capitalism to corporate neo-feudal capitalism is the basic process that uses historical contingencies as excuses, and Vighi is not afraid to add to this series of excuses ecologically-grounded lockdowns. Far from just confronting capitalism with its fateful limitations, ecological crises can and will also be used as a scientifically based way to discipline and control the population. “Green capitalism” is not just a humanitarian mask of the global order; it is also a way for big corporate capital to control small capital.
Vighi takes into account the complexity of the situation: the interests of pharmaceutic corporations, the way expert “scientific” insights that justify anti-pandemic measures consolidate new forms of social control and regulation, which discipline the behavior of the population, etc. His line of argumentation contains many perspicuous insights, and the basic premise of his economic analysis hits the mark. As already Yanis Varoufakis noted, an important indication of the new phase of capitalism was the weird fact that took place in the Spring of 2020: on the same day that state statistics in the US and the UK registered a breathtaking fall of the GDP, comparable to the fall at the time of the Great Recession, stock markets registered a gigantic rise. In short, although “real” economy is stagnating or even contracting, stock markets go up in an indication that fictitious financial capital is caught in its own circle, decoupled from “real” economy. This is where financial measures justified by the pandemic entered the game: they, in a way, turned around the traditional Keynesian procedure, i.e., their aim was not to help “real” economy but to invest enormous amounts of money into the financial sphere (to prevent a financial collapse like the one of 2008) while making sure that most of this money would not flow into “real” economy (this could cause hyperinflation).
The moments of economic growth during the pandemic also exemplify what Leftist economists call the “Lauderdale paradox”: individual private riches are enhanced at the expense of the common wealth. The most precious wealth of a society consists of objects that are freely available, like water or air, but they do not count as values making you rich. If water is easily available, nobody gets rich through it; if its supply is controlled by private companies, those who own these companies get rich. So, in a technical sense of wealth as embodied in values, there is more wealth in a society where you pay for water since freely available water doesn’t count as wealth. This example gained additional actuality today when the privatization of water is on the neoliberal agenda: the owners of water supply and utility companies get richer, while the mass of those who need water get poorer…The same goes for air: if, due to worsening air pollution, we need oxygen to breath normally, our society will in a formal sense get much richer and a new profitable industry will emerge. Does the same not hold for the pandemic? There was an enormous rise of production in pharma-industry, not just vaccines but also masks, medical instruments, etc., which formally count as economic growth, even though they make actual people poorer. And one can be sure that global warming will generate even more of such “economic growth.”
I thus highly appreciate Vighi’s work, but what I find problematic is his inverted causality. As we can see in the passages quoted above, instead of the “official” story of the pandemic triggering lockdowns and other health measures, he makes the needs of the capital into the determining agent which uses (or, according to some of his formulations, even directly produces) the pandemic in order to justify lockdown measures. Especially when he adds to the elements justifying lockdowns ecological crises, I think he proceeds too fast. The pandemic is not a fake invention or an exaggeration of the danger posed by a version of the flu; the danger is real, measures against it have to be taken. Science that investigates it is not a science in quotation marks, but actual science. Science and the measures proposed by health authorities are, of course, twisted by corporate interests and by the interests of social control and domination, but therein, precisely, resides the problem: the only agencies we have to fight a real threat are kidnapped and twisted by the establishment, which is what makes the situation so tragic. So, we are blackmailed in the real: yes, the enforced measures are twisted, but they are the only thing we have, and we cannot ignore them. What we cannot do is precisely the step implicitly advocated by Vighi, namely break out of the spell of the official narrative, which justifies emergency measures, and return to our everyday normality.
To perceive such a catastrophic by-product of capitalism as an aspect of a larger-than-life plan comes too close to a paranoiac construct. It presupposes that China is somehow, despite all its geopolitical and economic conflicts with the West, part of the same capitalist mega-plot. It presupposes that science in many different countries is easily manipulated by establishment. Vighi’s critique of the predominant notion of the pandemic is, however, resolutely not paranoiac: he remains firmly within rational reasoning, even if he comes dangerously close to such a position.
In what, then, does the difference between conspiracy theories and critical thinking reside? Although both begin by the distrust of official ideology, conspiracy theories make a fateful step further not (just) in the sense of manipulating facts, but at a very formal level. Recall Lacan’s claim (to which I often refer) about jealousy. If what a jealous husband claims about his wife (that she sleeps around with other men) is all true, his jealousy is still pathological: the pathological elements is the husband’s need for jealousy as the only way to retain his dignity, identity even. Along the same lines, one could say that, even if most of the Nazi claims about the Jews were true (they exploit Germans, they seduce German girls…) – which they are not, of course –, their anti-Semitism would still be (and was) a pathological phenomenon because it repressed the true reason why the Nazis needed anti-Semitism in order to sustain their ideological position. In the Nazi vision, their society is an organic Whole of harmonious collaboration, so an external intruder is needed to account for divisions and antagonisms. The same holds for how, today, anti-immigrant populists deal with the “problem” of the refugees: they approach it in the atmosphere of fear, of the coming struggle against the islamicization of Europe, and they get caught in a series of obvious absurdities.
In her yet unpublished manuscript “A Short Essay on Conspiracy Theories,” Alenka Zupančič perspicuously applies this formula to conspiracy theories: “even though some conspiracies really exist, there is still something pathological that pertains to conspiracy theories, some surplus investment that is not reducible to these or those facts.” She identifies three interconnected features of this pathology. First, conspiracy theories are “inherently connected with enjoyment – connected with what Lacan called jouis-sens (a world play with jouissance [enjoyment]), ‘enjoy-meant’ or the enjoyment of meaning”: Covid-skeptics like to claim that they just want a free debate, a readiness to listen to all sides and to make their own mind, against the dogmatism of experts and science in the service of the establishment. They begin with skepticism, doubting all official theories, but then they (almost magically) abolish this doubt by way of providing a unified total explanation – and this overcoming of doubt by a total explanation, the meaning of it all, provides an immense surplus-enjoyment.
This brings us to the second feature. The common perception that conspiracy theories are part of our relativist post-truth era when each group promotes its own subjective truth is simply wrong; conspiracy theories fanatically believe in Truth, “they take the category of truth very seriously. They believe that there is Truth; they are just convinced that this truth is different or other than the official one.” The third feature (which makes conspiracy theories totally at odds with Marxism) is that this Truth is not just an objective social process but a conspiracy, a plot of an active all-powerful agent whose main goal is to deceive us, a “subject supposed to deceive (us)” behind the apparent chaos (to add yet another variation on Lacan’s notion of “subject supposed to know”). As Zupančič notes, there is a kind of theology of an evil god at work here:
“we are basically dealing with a desperate attempt to preserve the agency of the big Other in the times of its disintegration into a generalized relativism, an attempt that can succeed only at the price of moving the big Other to the zone of malevolence and evil? The consistency of the big Other (its not being ‘barred’) can no longer manifest itself in anything else but in the Other successfully deceiving us. A consistent big Other can only be a big Deceiver (a big Fraud or Cheat), an evil Other. A consistent God can only be an evil God; nothing else adds up. Yet, better an evil God than no God.”
Only in its extreme Stalinist version did Marxism act like this: the presupposition of the Stalinist purges was that there existed one big reactionary plot that united all those who opposed the Stalinist party line. But cracks immediately appear in this edifice: the abolished uncertainty returns in the way, in which “dogmatic” conspiracy theories are as a rule inconsistent and follow the logic of the joke of the borrowed kettle evoked by Freud: (1) I never borrowed a kettle from you; (2) I returned it to you unbroken; (3) the kettle was already broken when I got it from you. Such an enumeration of inconsistent arguments confirms by negation what it endeavors to deny – that I returned your kettle broken… In the case of Covid-skeptics, they also effortlessly combine a series of contradictory claims: there is no virus causing Covid; this virus was created on purpose (to diminish population, to fortify control over people, to boost capitalist economy…); it is a natural disease much milder than the media say; vaccines are more dangerous than the virus…
In this strange paranoiac world, Trump is saying the truth, while Greta Thunberg is an agent of big capital… I personally know people who died of Covid; I know researchers who are analyzing the virus from different perspectives, including the medical, the statistical, etc.; I know their doubts and limitations, which they openly confess and which are part of their scientific approach. For them, trust in science is the very opposite of dogmatic orthodoxy: it is trust in an exploration, which is constantly progressing.
For all these reasons, I think that the idea of a mega-plot in the service of capital is infinitely less believable than the idea of the brutal reality of the pandemic as a contingent event deftly exploited by the establishment, but in a way that is in itself contradictory. The pandemic, which obviously calls for greater cooperation and social coordination, at the same time triggers a defensive reaction of capital, the reaction, which comes second and is an attempt to control the damage. I find especially problematic the idea that an ecological threat has a similar status of being invented, or at least exaggerated, to strengthen the emerging neo-feudal capitalism. Global warming is a traumatic real, which calls for the socialization of economy; the largely predominant tendency of the capitalist establishment is to downplay the threat, and the fact that it is (in a very limited way) astutely used by the global order is a limited, secondary fact.
Another moment that should draw our attention is how, at the beginning of 2020, Covid all of a sudden exploded into a central topic in our media, eclipsing all other illnesses and even political news, despite the fact that other illnesses and misfortunes were causing much more suffering and deaths. Now, infection rates are still very high, but there are less lockdowns and other defensive measures. The model here is the United Kingdom, which abandoned all regulations of public life and shifted responsibility to the individuals themselves. (In this way, the government returned to us our freedom with a price-tag: we ourselves are guilty for infections…). The media call this “learning to live with Covid.” Can this shift, which is obviously out of sync with the reality of the pandemic, be accounted for by the claim that the establishment decided we can return to a limited normality since the lockdown has already played its economic and social role, while social control is well entrenched? The weird normality we are entering into now could be much better explained by crowd psychology: in traumatic situations, the temporality of the reaction does not follow reality, people get exhausted by the permanent emergency state, and tired indifference begins to predominate.
But one has to make a further step here. Panic, as well as its opposite, tiredness and indifference, are not just categories of psychic life; they can only emerge (in the form they are taking today) as moments in the social process of change in the status of the big Other. A year and a half ago we were in a panic because of the disintegration of the big Other that we could share and trust: there was no authority able to provide a global cognitive mapping of the situation. The importance of this dimension of shifts in the mode of symbolic production was neglected already by Marx: to fight the pandemic and global warming, a new big Other, a new space of solidarity grounded in science and emancipation, is needed.
In ongoing struggles and conflicts, it is crucial to make the right choice. To characterize an epoch is to ask not what unites it, but what division defines it, the “difference that makes difference.” Advocates of the idea that class struggle is out often claim that today’s big division is a new one, say, between liberal establishment and populist resistance. For Jean-Claude Milner, the division that replaced class struggle is the one between Zionism and anti-Semitism, and it appears that these days, towards the end of 2021, the division that matters, at least in the developed world, is the one between partisans of anti-pandemic measures and those who resist them. It is precisely at this point that we should insist on the primacy of class struggle as the factor which “in the last instance” determines the whole. With anti-Semitism, this link is clear: anti-Semitism is distorted anti-capitalism, it “naturalizes” capitalist profiteering and exploitation in the figure of “the Jew,” an external intruder who brings antagonism into social body. But what if the same goes for Covid-deniers and skeptics? Are Covid-denying conspiracy theories not vaguely similar to anti-Semitic theories, at least in their Rightist-populist version, where anti-capitalism is displaced onto the distrust of science as serving the financial-corporate-medical establishment? In both cases, it is crucial to draw the line of distinction between a basic antagonism and its ideological displacement.
The conflict between Covid-skeptics and advocates of anti-pandemic measures cannot, therefore, be directly translated into our basic political struggle, so that even a radical Leftist has to make a choice. On September 9, 2021, Biden announced “policies requiring most federal employees to get COVID-19 vaccinations and pushing large employers to their workers inoculated or tested weekly. These new measures will apply to about two-thirds of all U.S. employees. ‘We’ve been patient,’ Biden told the tens of millions of Americans who have declined to get coronavirus shots. ‘But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us.’” Is this a move destined to assert state control over individuals and to foster the interests of big capital? No: I “naively” accept that it will help millions.
Vighi takes the side of Agamben who, in an interview attached to his collection of texts on the pandemic Where are we now?[iv], replied to the critical observation that, in his opposition to lockdown measures, he comes close to Trump and Bolsonaro, with the claim that a truth is a truth whether articulated by the Right or by the Left. Agamben ignores the tension between truth and knowledge: yes, a piece of knowledge (truth in the sense of adequately rendering a particular fact) is a piece of knowledge, but the horizon of meaning, in which it is inserted, can give a totally different spin to this piece of knowledge. In the fact that there were many Jews among art critics in Germany around 1930 resonates a different “truth” if we mean it as a confirmation that Jews have a great sensibility for art, or if we mean it as a confirmation that Jews control our artistic production and push it in the direction of “entartete Kunst” (degenerate art).
Although Vighi endeavors to do precisely this, namely to discern social truth beneath the medical knowledge that justifies measures against the pandemic, he ignores the complex social and material background of the pandemic. The circular movement of capitalist self-reproduction occurs at three interconnected levels: the speculative dance of capital itself; the social implications of this dance (distribution of wealth and poverty, exploitation, dissolution of social links); the material process of production and exploitation of our environment, which affects our entire life-world and culminates in “Capitalocene” as a new geological era of the Earth. The other side of the mad dance of fictitious capital, which ignores reality, is the real of the immense heaps of plastic trash, of forest fires and global warming, of poisonous pollution of hundreds of millions of people.
The moment we take this third level fully into account, we can see how the pandemic and global warming emerge as the material product of global capitalist economy. Yes, capitalism did produce the pandemic and the ecological threat, albeit not as part of a brutal tactic to survive its own crisis, but as a result of its immanent contradictions. The best formula to characterize Covid-skeptics is, therefore, Lacan’s les non-dupes errent (those who are not duped err most).[v] Skeptics who distrust the public narrative of a catastrophe (pandemic, global warming…) and see a deeper plot in it err the most, missing the actual process that gave birth to it. Vighi is, thus, all too optimistic: there is no need to invent pandemics and weather catastrophes, since the system produces them by itself.
[i] I’ve dealt with this more in detail in my part of The Monstrosity of Christ (co-written with John Millbank), Cambridge (Ma): MIT Press 2009.
[ii] See Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies, New York: Zero Books 2017.
[iii] I’ve dealt with this new figure of the big Other more in detail in Pandemic 2: Chronicles of a Time Lost, Cambridge: Polity Press 2021.
[iv] See Giorgio Agamben, Where are we now?, London: Eris 2021.
[v] I owe to Russell Sbriglia (private conversation) the idea to use this formula of Lacan to characterize the Covid-skeptics.