Up until now, some of us have been desperately clinging to the hope that countries that are somehow associated with Socialism are better at containing the pandemic. I mean not only those countries where the Communist party still holds power, like China (although a non-Communist Taiwan is doing better than mainland China!), Vietnam, and Cuba, but also countries with an entrenched Social-Democratic tradition like the Scandinavian ones (and cracks are emerging even in this edifice). The story, replaying itself over and over, is that of a country, which had prepared itself well for the pandemic and, just when it seems that the virus has been contained, the pandemic explodes again.
The ultimate case of such a safe exception was New Zealand. Even I, an old hardened Marxist cynic, followed the infection numbers every day with the hope there would be no new cases in New Zealand. However, on August 11, New Zealand recorded four new cases of Covid-19 after 102 days without any community transmission. The lesson is clear: the New Zealand of our fantasies, the safe haven with no Covid-19, doesn’t exist. In short term, I wish New Zealand, one of my favorite countries, all the best, and I fully support all their measures to contain the virus. But, in the long term, it is becoming more and more clear that only a global approach will work.
The predominant reaction to the rise of new cases just when the situation seems under control is not panic but an acceptance of the epidemic: even if the numbers of the affected and the dead are rising, many places are returning to a fake appearance of normality. World Health Organization has warned of the risk of “response fatigue” given various socio-economic pressures on countries. And we can see this fatigue already on the front pages of our big media and in TV news: reports on Covid-19 are often preceded by other news (on contested elections in Belarus, on the fiasco of Barcelona against Bayern, on Kamala Karris…). However, there is something fake about this shift of attention: it is as if we are dealing with a desperate attempt to avoid the true trauma, which remains Covid-19. Furthermore, this weird fatigue is accompanied by protests and other forms of social violence. The title and subtitle of a recent report in The Guardian tell it all: “Protests predicted to surge globally as Covid-19 drives unrest. New analysis finds economic shock of pandemic coupled with existing grievances makes widespread public uprisings ‘inevitable.’” The Red Cross warns of big post-Covid migrations, another cause of possible unrest. Furthermore, the title and subtitle of another recent Guardian news item – “’Operation empty plate’: Xi Jinping makes food waste his next target. Restaurant diners told to order one dish fewer than number of people” – is a clear indication that the fear that hunger may reappear in China and not only there, as gigantic amounts of agricultural products have been destroyed by locusts and rodents, or left to rot on the fields, from Pakistan and India to France and Germany.
Isn’t it becoming clear that today, when the persistent pandemic is accompanied by a series of other threats, we need to do what the Nazis called totale Mobilmachung, a total mobilization, though, of course, in a direction that is radically opposite to that of the Nazis. J.G. Fichte, in his The Closed Commercial State (Der geschlossene Handelstaat, 1800), was perhaps the first to point in this direction. And, not unsurprisingly, his book is mostly politely ignored or dismissed as proto-totalitarian. Karl Popper himself lists Fichte among the enemies of the “open society”. But the first to criticize Fichte along these lines is none other than Hegel who mocks his idea of the state, which totally controls the acts and movements of its citizens. (Although one should add that, with the digitalization of our societies, such control is not just easily accomplished, but sometimes even needed, as in the case of the global Covid-19 pandemic). So, why should we courageously rehabilitate the entire line of the anti-liberal thinkers of a “closed” society, beginning with Plato versus Aristotle?
In the contemporary global liberal economy, Fichte’s project of the re-politicization of economy is more actual than ever. As Diego Fusaro pointed out, Fichte
“presents a concept that, on the one hand, plays a role of primary importance for a critique of the ‘liberal liberty’ and, on the other hand, allows for a critical understanding of the aporias of today’s ‘neoliberal condition’. / The Handelsanarchie destroys the primacy of the human over things, of politics over economy, and produces what Carl Schmitt defined as “depoliticization”, i.e. the deprivation of politics and its reduction to a mere ancilla oeconomiae. / Paraphrasing the well-known Carl von Clausewitz’s formula, politics is now debased and reconfigured to be a mere continuation of economy by other means. /…/ this is the mortiferous condition in which Europe has fallen into: a continent now debased as an immense Handelstaat, where the laws of economics are forcing people into misery and disintegrating every form of communitarian solidarity. /…/ when a nation has conquered the commercial hegemony, other nations are forced to undermine it, in order to restore a balance: if they can’t do so at the expense of the dominant nation, they will inevitably turn their efforts toward the weakest ones. This context of unlimited potential for conflict, generated by the auri sacra fames, leads every nation to relentlessly try to expand itself beyond its borders, in order to become an economic power: in this process, all nations are potential losers, and especially the most vulnerable ones. / As suggested by David Harvey, globalization is the flexible and postmodern form of imperialism, i.e. the exact opposite of the soothing and irenic universalism of human rights, as it is presented by the politically correct pensée unique.”
In short, the target of Fichte’s ferocious critique is Handelsanarchie where the state just serves the market and guarantees the conditions necessary for its continued existence. Fichte’s critique is not based on a particular political opinion, but is directly predicated on the philosophical opposition he draws between idealism and dogmatism. The freedom we have according to the liberal anarchy of commerce is the freedom to act egotistically (as determined by our nature) in the world of the market, which is an objective order we depend upon. What is needed is a repoliticization of economy: economic life should be controlled and regulated by the free decisions of a community, not run by the blind and chaotic interactions of market forces that are accepted as objective necessity. To paraphrase Kant, Fichte wants to awaken us also from the dogmatic slumber of social life, in which our freedom is constrained by objective market mechanisms. Fichte saw clearly that liberal freedom breeds inequality, the non-freedom of the majority, and, also, brutal competition and colonization in international relations. We may not agree with Fichte’s proposed measures, but his view of the underlying problem is pertinent.
Just recall the latest bad surprise from big capital: “Governments around the world – including the UK – face a wave of lawsuits from foreign companies who complain that their profits have been hit by the pandemic.” In short, the state (i.e., taxpayers) should pay the big companies for their lost profits since the pandemic lowered profit rates, while the state is held responsible for guaranteeing the conditions for the same profit rates. If these lawsuits do go through, they will be just a logical extension of a legal regulation from around a decade ago where it was decided that, if a global company invests into a state X and if, after this investment, a Leftist government is elected in the country and raises taxes, the company can sue the government because the conditions under which the investment was made changed for the worse (a Swedish company prosecuted Germany for this reason). Now, the state is responsible even if profit is lost due to a health catastrophe, which has nothing to do with state politics… If our states do not brutally intervene here, it will be a clear sign that the worst capitalist barbarism is returning.
At the same time, the pressures to ignore the full implications of Covid-19 are not just socio-economic: there are signs that we are simply resigning ourselves to it. On Saturday, August 1, 2020, up to 30,000 people, including libertarians and anti-vaccination activists, marched in Berlin to protest against Germany’s coronavirus regulations. The crowd was a mixture of old hippies and Rightist populists; as some commentators put it, it was “reggae and Pegida” (Pegida is a German extreme right anti-immigrant populist party). Many flouted the guidance on wearing masks and social distancing, as they accused the government of “stealing our freedom”; they held homemade signs with slogans like “Corona, false alarm,” “We are being forced to wear a muzzle,” “Natural defense instead of vaccination,” and “We are the second wave.” One of the slogans was that the only real conspiracy theory is the idea that there is a Covid-19 pandemic. One of the speakers quoted Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince: “One sees clearly only with the heart.” “Heart” stands here for ideology at its purest, for all the deeply-ingrained, almost “instinctual,” stances towards our daily life: “The virus demonstrates that the separation between individuals is no less fictional than the separation between body and the world. We ‘step into’ the world with our feet, we ‘grasp’ it with our hands, we ‘talk about’ it with our mouths. This is why the right way to deal with the virus is necessarily unnatural.” We encounter here the old gap between science and our everyday life-experience, but this gap is now brought to extreme.
Nicol Barria-Asenjo has chosen Construction of a New Normality as the title of her short (not yet published) book on Covid-19. This title should be taken in the strongest sense possible: the Covid-19 pandemic shattered not only our healthcare, economy, political and social relations, as well as our mental balance; it did something much more radical, to which only philosophy can give access. It threatened our sense of “normality,” a term to which we should give all its weight. “Normality” stands for what Lacan called “the big Other”: the symbolic order, with its network of rules and practices that structure not only our psychic lives but also the way we relate to what we experience as “reality.”
Here, we should take the lesson of transcendental thought: (what we experience as) reality is not simply “out there,” waiting for us to discover it. Rather, it is mediated (“constituted”) by our symbolic universe. An elementary example: in late medieval Europe, “reality” was experienced as permeated by spiritual powers, and even natural phenomena were perceived as the bearers of hidden meaning, the cosmos appearing as a living Whole controlled by a supreme intelligence. In modernity, meaning is subjectivized; “objective reality” out there is a mechanism, following natural laws; and it is only we, humans, who project meanings onto it.
In his History of Madness, Foucault describes another aspect of this shift: the transformed status of madness. Even in the Renaissance, madness was considered a spiritual thing (possession by sacred or evil spirits), something to be investigated for its secret meaning, while with rationalist classicism, madness became a physiological process in the body, similar to other illnesses and, therefore, to be treated in a purely medical way (which is why psychiatric clinics came into being). In The Order of Things, Foucault depicts a later shift from classicist systematic rationalism to humanist evolutionism and historicism, which covers both Darwin and Marx. These shifts of episteme are not just changes in our subjective perception of reality: if we conceive them like this, we already rely on a certain notion of reality that is historically specific. They determine, instead, how we conceive and effectively interact with reality.
As Georg Lukacs put it, nature itself is a historical category. Our basic understanding of what counts as “nature” changes with great historical breaks: in the absolutist 17th century, nature appears as a hierarchical system of species and subspecies; in the dynamic 19th century characterized by capitalist competition, nature appears as the site of evolutionary struggle for survival (it is well known that Darwin invented his theory by way of transposing Malthus’s insights onto nature); in the 20th century, nature was, as a rule, perceived through the lenses of system-theory; in the last decades, after the decline of the centralized welfare state, it is a commonplace to draw the parallel between the shift to the auto-poetic, self-organizing dynamic of natural processes and the passage to new forms of capitalist dynamics.
So, why is psychoanalysis needed here? Why not just turn to philosophy? Not only because the pandemic is causing mass-scale mental breakdowns and other psychic pathologies. As Lacan made clear, Freud’s basic clinical categories (hysteria, obsessional neurosis, perversion, paranoia…) are at the same time transcendental-ontological categories, what Heidegger called modalities of the disclosure of the world. Say, obsessional neurosis is not just a feature of our psychic lives, but a specific vision of how we relate to the whole of reality. In the same way, the hysterical question is a mode of doubting our “normality” (defined by the predominant figure of the Master), and paranoia also entails a vision of reality dominated by a hidden manipulator who persecutes and controls us.
Barria-Asenjo and Hunt recently proposed to interpret the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic through the lens of the structure of dreams as it was articulated by Freud (daily remnants, dream content, its manifest form, the unconscious wish of a dream, etc.). The crucial distinction here is the one between dream content and the unconscious wish articulated in a dream. It is the very cyphering (obfuscation) of the dream content (what Freud calls “dream-thoughts”), its translation into the explicit dream texture, that engenders the properly unconscious content of a dream. This implies that the true secret of a dream is not its hidden content (dream-thoughts), but its form itself:
“The latent dream-thoughts are the material which the dream-work transforms into the manifest dream. /…/ the dream-work never restricts itself to translating these thoughts into the archaic or regressive mode of expression that is familiar to you. In addition, it regularly takes possession of something else, which is not part of the latent thoughts of the previous day, but which is the true motive force for the construction of the dream. This indispensable addition is the equally unconscious wish for the fulfilment of which the content of the dream is given its new form. A dream may thus be any sort of thing in so far as you are only taking into account the thoughts it represents—a warning, an intention, a preparation, and so on; but it is always also the fulfillment of an unconscious wish and, if you are considering it as a product of the dream-work, it is only that.”
The key insight deployed by Freud here is the “triangulation” of latent dream-thought, manifest dream-content, and the unconscious wish. This insight limits the scope of—or, rather, directly undermines—the hermeneutic model of the interpretation of dreams (the path from the manifest dream-content to its hidden meaning, the latent dream-thought). Dream-work is not merely a process of masking the dream’s “true message”: the dream’s true core, its unconscious wish, inscribes itself only through this process of masking, so that the moment we retranslate the dream-content back into the dream-thought expressed in it, we lose the “true motive force” of the dream. In short, it is the process of masking itself that inscribes into the dream its true secret. One should, therefore, reverse the standard notion of penetrating deeper and deeper into the core of the dream: the “deeper” wish is located in the very gap between the latent dream-thought and the manifest dream-content.
Maybe a parallel with the digital universe would help us. Is the distinction between the dream’s unconscious wish and the (pre-conscious, at best) dream-thoughts not similar to the distinction between Dark Web and Deep Web? One just needs a special code to gain access to a Deep Web site (like the password for an email address). Dark Web is more radically inaccessible: one needs special software to even locate a site in Dark Web, i.e., the sites themselves, not just access to them, are secret, so that only Dark Web is the Unconscious of the digital universe. Similarly, the panoply of antagonisms and crises that form the background of the Covid-19 pandemic is its Deep Web, accessible through simple social analysis, while the transcendental-ontological catastrophe triggered by the pandemic is its Dark Web, a space most of us are not even aware of.
Another case presents the same distinction between simple crimes that violate social laws and crimes committed by the state itself in its activity of fighting crime. Crimes are the Deep Web of a society, while crimes committed by the state apparatuses in their fight against crime are a society’s Dark Web (like the illegal control and persecution of individuals), something invisible, if we just rely on the opposition between the law and its violation. The question of the social unconscious is, thus: is there a necessary stain of criminality (illegality) that sticks to the power of law as such, that is, not just as an accidental misstep in the reign of law, but its constitutive moment?
So, again, what does this have to do with the Covid-19 pandemic? My hypothesis is that we can easily locate the same triad beneath the pandemic as a social fact. Corona itself is the “manifest dream text,” the focal point of our media, what we all talk (and dream) about: not just an actual phenomenon, but an object of fantasy connections, of dreams and fears. It is, today, a Master-Signifier, but, as Claudio Magris put it, it is “a tyrant of our thoughts. Like all tyrants, it wants that we don’t talk about anything else than itself.” As we have already mentioned, lately, we have seen a shift to other news, but this shift is fake, and the pandemic remains the true Master-Signifier. This Master-Signifier is overdetermined by a whole series of interconnected real-life facts and processes (today’s riders of the apocalypse) that form its “dream content”: not only the reality of the health crisis, but also ecological troubles (global warming, the effects of deep sea pollution and mining, etc.), the economic crisis (unemployment etc., up to the threat of actual mass hunger), a new wave of social unrest and protests that bring many countries to the edge of civil war, international conflicts that can easily explode into a new big war, and, of course, mental life crises. In short, the pandemic has functioned as a kind of detonator, which brought out the tensions already there in our societies. But my further hypothesis is that this interplay between the Covid-19 pandemic and the social causes that over-determine it is not all. There is a third level at work here (which vaguely corresponds the true trauma, the “unconscious wish” of a dream), and this is the ontological catastrophe triggered by the pandemic, the undermining of the coordinates of our basic access to reality, which reaches far beyond a usual “mental crisis”.
It may appear that, at a time like ours when the virus threatens us all, the predominant stance would have been that of the will to know, the will to understand fully the workings of the virus in order to control successfully and stop its spread. However, what we witness more and more is a version of the will not to know too much about it, insofar as this knowledge could limit our everyday way of life.
We are dealing here with something that has been for a long time a part of the tradition of the Catholic Church, which, with the rise of modern science, insisted that it would be better for us not to know some things. We find an echo of this stance even in Kant, the great partisan of Enlightenment, who wrote in the Preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason that he had to “abolish knowledge in order to make space for belief,” for only belief can save our freedom and moral autonomy. Today’s cognitive sciences gave rise to the same dilemma: if brain science imposes the conclusion that there is no free will, then what does this do to our moral autonomy? Even Juergen Habermas follows this line. With the prospect of biogenetic interventions opened up by our access to the genome, the species freely changes/redefines itself, its own coordinates. This prospect effectively emancipates humankind from the constraints of a finite species, from its enslavement to the “selfish gene.” But this emancipation comes at a price:
“With interventions into man’s genetic inheritance, the domination over nature reverts into an act of taking-control-over-oneself, which changes our generic-ethical self-understanding and can disturb the necessary conditions for an autonomous way of life and universalistic understanding of morals.”
How, then, do we react to this threat? Habermas’s reasoning is that, since the results of science pose a threat to our (predominant notion of) autonomy and freedom, one should curtail science. The price we pay for this solution is the fetishist split between science and ethics (“I know very well what science claims, but, nonetheless, in order to retain (the appearance of) my autonomy, I choose to ignore it and act as if I don’t know it”). There is a supreme irony in the fact that Habermas, the contemporary philosopher of Enlightenment, co-wrote a book with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who later became pope Benedict XVI, and a conservative one at that) about the dialectic of secularization, in which, despite their differences, they both endorse the thesis that we are in a “post-secular” era where it becomes clear that the claims of science should be limited not to pose a threat to human freedom and dignity. And those who ignore the true scope of the pandemic act in a similar way: since detailed knowledge about the pandemic could lead to measures that pose a threat to our idea of a free and dignified life, it is better to act as if nothing serious is going on. Let the scientists search for the vaccine, but they should, otherwise, leave us alone to live our lives the way we are used to…
THIS is the choice we all have to make: will we succumb to this temptation of the will-to-ignorance, or are we ready to really think the Covid-19 pandemic not only as a bio-chemical health issue, but as something that is rooted in the complex totality of our (humanity’s) place in nature and of our social and ideological relations? Such a decision may include the realization we will have to behave “unnaturally” and construct a new normality.
 Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1973, p. 261–62.
 Quoted from Thorsten Jantschek, “Ein ausgezehrter Hase,” Die Zeit, 5 July 2001, Feuilleton, p. 26.
 See Juergen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger, Dialektik der Saekuralisierung , Freiburg: Herder Verlag 2011.