The affect-laden political fight against Covid-19 represents today’s dominant ideological battlefield. On the one hand, ‘neutral’ statistics and forecasts determine political decisions as never before. On the other hand, the abolition of basic freedoms is justified with an ‘emotional’ appeal to ‘compassion’ and one’s ‘love for the neighbour’. Whoever questions long-term obligatory masking or enforced vaccinations is immediately branded as a-social and reactionary. But lessons learnt from Germany offer an alternative reading: the outburst of utilitarian morals leads to an unethical impasse ignoring radical freedom.
‘Politics of fear’: How to govern with prognostics
Germany is predestined to exemplify the gradual division of an entire society, of how a ‘politics of fear’ combined with a media strategy of ‘fear induction’ govern political decision-making, and how security understood as the elimination of any ‘virological health risk’ becomes the fulcrum point of the current political strategy to fight a pathogen. Meanwhile, officially available leaks show how, already at the beginning of the crisis, German politicians instrumentalized wrong predictions of millions of deaths within months, only to shift power towards an executive monopoly.[i]
This is not new regarding epidemic prognostics: Neil Ferguson, an ‘epidemiological expert’ of the British government, used prognostic ‘worst-case scenarios’ for decades. “In 2002, he predicted up to 150,000 deaths from BSE (mad cow disease) (not in cows, but in humans). In fact, there were about 2,700 deaths at that time. This represents a 55-fold overestimate. For swine flu in 2009, he predicted 65,000 deaths in the U.K., but in fact there were 457, a misestimate by a factor of 142. And for bird flu in 2005, he predicted 200 million deaths worldwide, but there were only 455, a misestimate by a factor of 439,000.”[ii] Retrospectively, Ferguson himself was the ‘real threat’, as millions of animals were slaughtered due to his wrong calculations, causing immense ethical and economic damage. Still, Ferguson is not yet tired of scaremongering: in March 2020 he painted new ‘worst case scenarios’ in a study modelling potential effects of Covid-19,[iii] which was massively criticized by other scientists.[iv] Although the liberal German philosopher Markus Gabriel too often misses the point, he correctly described the ‘game with prognostics’: “Some epidemiologists like to play this card, especially in Germany: They warn and warn – and people then love them for the fact that their evil forecasts never come true because measures were taken to prevent them. Not only does the prevention paradox lie dormant here, but also a cover-up of our factual unknowing of the future. The exact waves of the virus are not predictable, period. If they were, we would not be able to defend ourselves.”[v]
We find in figures like Ferguson examples of the old proverb: ‘fear is a bad counsellor’. In this sense, Giorgio Agamben’s ambivalent metaphor ‘not to run out in panic, even if the house is on fire’ is a legitimate intervention on current ideological ground. A good illustration of intentional political fearmongering represents the ‘triage dilemma’ – a dilemma we all take, independent of our political colour, very seriously: after more than one year of massive deprivations people ask how in a country like Germany, with a population of 80 million, with general health insurance, the highest number of intensive care beds (around 30000), and one of the highest tax rates within Europe/worldwide, the government can repeatedly talk about a complete system breakdown in case of 5000 more intensive care bed patients due to a virus?
But the situation is more complex than that. The Hospital Financing Act that was passed on November 18, 2020 was intended to compensate hospitals for losses incurred due to the ‘pandemic’. However, hospitals only received the money if they had at least 75% intensive care unit utilization. And lo and behold: since that very day, intensive care beds were constantly dismantled and built up so that the utilization rate was at least 75%.[vi] At some point, even politicians like Sahra Wagenknecht[vii] were beginning to wonder where over 4000 intensive care beds have actually disappeared to within the statistics since November 2020. Economists simply call this a ‘false incentive’. At the same time, the eight-month long lockdown (November 2020 – June 2021) was legitimized by the very lack of available intensive care beds: we got stuck in a self-made dead-end, in a perverted perpetuum mobile within a discourse of pure quantification. So, despite the fact that we had no lack of intensive care beds, but a politically caused ‘false incentive’ for new areas of profit-making, the ‘triage dilemma’ was permanently instrumentalized as a constant imminent danger that can hit anyone.
Yet, we have to shed light on another side of the ongoing scandal: 9000 nurses have left their profession due to unacceptable working conditions in 2020, the year of the alleged pandemic. What German hospitals really fight for are not more intensive care beds, but a systemic change in budgeting to be able to hire more intensive care workers, who are forced with each positive PCR-test to go into quarantine and who are very few due to their long training and therefore high costs.[viii] What German hospitals more generally urgently need are better working conditions for nurses, who are leaving the care sector en masse. Quite incidentally, we would gain better nursing conditions for patients as well. This is what is meant when physicians publicly proclaim that ‘the staff is working at its limit’ – and this staff was already working at its limit during recent peaks of influenzas. The real scandal is that Germany faces an incredible mismanagement of Covid-19 based on trickery only to keep the neoliberal system it is built upon.
Phantasmatic support: the ‘wellbeing of the neighbour’
The ‘politics of fear’ influences not only current political strategies but also the cure as such. Already in one of Freud’s first published texts (1890) we find a significant note on epidemic scenarios, worth being re-read today:
“Our interest is most particularly engaged by the mental state of expectation, which puts in motion a number of mental forces that have the greatest influence on the onset and cure of physical diseases. Fearful expectation is certainly not without its effect on the result. It would be of importance to know with certainty whether it has as great a bearing as is supposed on falling ill; for instance, whether it is true that during an epidemic those who are afraid of contracting the illness are in the greatest danger. The contrary state of mind, in which expectation is coloured by hope and faith, is an effective force with which we have to reckon, strictly speaking, in all our attempts at treatment and cure. We could not otherwise account for the peculiar results which we find produced by medicaments and therapeutic procedures.”[ix]
We see here more than just another dimension of the basic ethical principle ‘primum non nocere, secundum cavere, tertium sanare’. Expectation, hope, and faith are part of a cure, while constant abstract fear hinders it. Slavoj Žižek once wrote about the ambivalent position of doctors as ‘subjects of enunciation’ with regard to the role of expectations in the following way:
“Perhaps the exemplary case of the Master’s position which underlies the university discourse is the way in which medical discourse functions in our everyday lives: at the surface level, we are dealing with pure objective knowledge which desubjectivizes the subject-patient, reducing him to an object of research, of diagnosis and treatment; however, beneath it, one can easily discern a worried hystericized subject, obsessed with anxiety, addressing the doctor as his Master and asking for reassurance from him. (And one is tempted to claim that the resistance of doctors to be treated just like other scientists resides in their awareness that their position is still that of the Master, which is why we do not expect from the doctor just to tell us the bare (objective) truth: he is expected to tell us the bad news only insofar as our knowledge of our bad condition will somehow help us to cope with it – if it would make things only worse, he is expected to withhold it from the patient).”[x]
But is this the case? It might be correct that, for some patients, the doctor is placed in the position of a Master, but, for others, he is simply a ‘subject-supposed-to-know’. However, for the doctor who acts according to the Hippocratic Oath, the desire to heal involves something that forces him to depart from ‘other scientists’: the paradox of constant self-criticism (hysterical discourse) is combined with calm certainty (analyst’s discourse). A doctor has to decide with full responsibility how to listen to a subject’s symptoms and when to use which treatment, case by case; his object of desire is the singular cure as such, otherwise he is simply no doctor, but a pervert. A medical scientist or an epidemic prognosticator works in a lab; a doctor treats singular patients (sometimes, both roles can be played by one person). The top-down enforcement of prophylactical treatments on ‘symptom-free’ individuals may fulfil the moral investments of epidemic prognostics, but it stands diametrically opposed to a doctor’s non-utilitarian ethical duty. Generally speaking, when algorithms govern politics, medicine parts ways with everyday life. Biology as an abstract quantifying science departs from ‘the work of spirit’ any singular cure relies upon ‘in reality’. Each death or survival is a unique constellation involving unknowns. There is no biometric solution ‘for all’.
The political dimension is clear: if expectations are part of the cure, then is an intentionally induced ‘politics of fear’ based on ideological manipulations not deeply unethical in times of fast-propagating virus?[xi] Such political manoeuvres are problematic, as they are justified in the name of the ‘wellbeing of the neighbour’. This imaginary figure of the neighbour can be read in line with Jacques Lacan’s Ego-Ideal: the proclaimed ‘solidarity’ with an anonymous ‘neighbour’, a non-existent ‘jedermann’, who is shifted to the centre of our responsibility, only serves as a moralistic pretence to care about one’s own survival.[xii] ‘Mass measures’, in all their equivocation, generally collide with psychoanalytical insights at this point, and, more abstractly, the law of desire stand opposed to the logic underlying juridical hyper-legislation and utilitarian morals:
“First of all, let’s get rid of this average Joe, who does not exist. He is a statistical fiction. There are individuals, and that is all. When I hear people talking about the person on the street, studies of public opinion, mass phenomena, and so on, I think of all the patients that I’ve seen on the couch in forty years of listening. None of them in any measure resembled the others. None of them had the same phobias and anxieties, the same way of talking, the same fear of not understanding.”[xiii]
Official narratives justifying the current political strategy are supported by such a fundamental phantasy about how ‘the neighbour’ is endangered by the very existence of ‘an-other’ – a phantasy that should be met with reasonable scepticism. Its flipside is ‘unconditional love’ for the ‘general public’ (the new ‘jedermann’). The biblical command ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ was for Freud a problematic “ideal standard” of civilized society. In Chapter V of ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ Freud counters: “Why should we do this? What good is it to us? Above all, how can we do such a thing? How could it possibly be done? My love seems to me a valuable thing that I have no right to throw away without reflection. It imposes obligations on me which I must be prepared to make sacrifices to fulfil. If I love someone, he must be worthy of it in some way or other..[…] And there is a second commandment that seems to me even more incomprehensible, and arouses still stronger opposition in me. It is: Love thine enemies.” Freud concludes: “I will not withhold the two principal objections we have to raise against this view. A love that does not discriminate seems to us to lose some of its own value, since it does an injustice to its object. And secondly, not all men are worthy of love.” If we love the ‘general public’, we lose sight of the abyss of the ‘real neighbour’ next to us, who cannot be generalized.
Lacan formulated in his essay ‘Kant avec Sade’ an ethical dilemma that lays dormant if we read Marquis de Sade as a strict Kantian. Alenka Zupančič explored the impasse that emerges, when a subject makes the “good of the other” the anchor-point of ethical decisions. Whoever “puts duty and the good of the neighbour into one, cannot avoid this problem”, it “even doubles: 1. does the other also consider for his good what we consider for it, or do we rather impose on him our idea of the good? 2. whose good is at stake, since one can have more than one neighbour?”[xiv] – and more than one good.
Governing, the impossible profession, must be based on strategies that refuse drawing worst-case scenarios only to nurture a vague fear lurking behind any encounter with the unfathomable small other, the fear that is today used to effect a permanent shift towards an executive monopoly on the idea of a ‘general public,’ to which we owe our unconditional love. While infection numbers become a fetishized quantity, the in/visible costs of long-term isolation are ignored, deleted from the epistemological landscape. At the same time, the German share index DAX rose by +60% (from 10000 up to 16000 points) since March 2020. While cultural achievements disappear, international capital appears better off than ever.[xv] The entire industry that accrues around masks, tests and vaccines causes tragedy to become farce. It is the height of parody when you have to receive a vaccine or undergo a health test to be allowed to enter the cinema in order to see a subversive movie.
Furthermore, as we have seen, no policy can do without a strong, libidinously charged phantasmatic support: “It is in your hands to save a grandmother, and thereby the world!” (“It is in your hands to save the planet by recycling your garbage”, and so on). You just need to adjust to each new executive restriction, while structurally nothing is changed, not even if a pandemic openly displays our perverted politico-economic system. We will need more than Fairtrade chocolate and plastic masks to stand in for systemic change. No wonder, the formula behind the ongoing political strategy adapts to the fundamental sadistic structure of the Superego, which Žižek once perfectly developed: a psychic entity bombards the subject with impossible-to-fulfil imperatives, and then rejoices in the inevitable failure to implement them. This development towards individual responsibility by means of govern-mental Superego injunctions is perfectly illustrated in the gradual expansion of the German AHA-‘formula’ to AHA+L+C+A*[xvi] in the course of 2020/2021 – a new form of hyper(in)activity combined with a demand of self-imposed isolation and false asceticism. To make deprivations of most basic rights enjoyable, such a lack comes along with a hyperactive excess in the form of a new variety of everyday rituals.
The German ‘counter-virologist’ and former colleague of Christian Drosten, Hendrick Streeck,[xvii] recently referred to Freud. Streeck is right in claiming that we are not ready to accept our impotence towards the Real of the virus, that is, to accept that we lack any reliable cognitive mapping. Being asked if our lives will change in the long run, Streeck answered: “I find it almost philosophical. Sometimes it seems to me like the fourth grievance of humanity. Freud formulated it: The first grievances were that man is not the centre of the universe after all, that we are somehow descended from apes and that we are drive-driven. Now we are offended that we, as a technologized society, are not in control of this little virus. We have not yet learned the necessary sovereignty to deal with it.”[xviii]
Reintroducing a guarantor of univocal meaning: The pandemisation of radical freedom
While Streeck’s position can be ascribed to Lacan’s hysterical discourse, which is the underlying structure of any serious scientific engagement (the undecidability and uncertainty of selected data, Socratic questioning of one own’s premises, etc.),[xix] Merkel’s chosen chief virologist Christian Drosten takes the opposite stance, never tired of demanding stricter lockdowns without any serious consideration of their social effects. Drosten’s theoretical gambits, his unconscious inscription into a perverted form of university discourse, are paradigmatically illustrated by his recent ‘pandemisation’ of Kant’s categorical imperative, as part of his absurd speech on Friedrich Schiller’s birthday (in which he concluded that the latter would have also ‘worn a mask’):
“But what does responsible action mean? Is it enough – loosely based on Schiller – to point out to people their free decision to do the right, sensible thing in the pandemic only out of inclination and without external compulsion? Will they then participate voluntarily? Or do we need – loosely based on Immanuel Kant – a rather strict indication of duty and responsibility? A kind of pandemic imperative: ‘In a pandemic, always act as if you had tested positive and your counterpart belonged to a risk group’?“[xx]
What Drosten is obviously unaware of, next to the general confusion within his ‘freedom vs. duty’ dichotomy (“nur aus Neigung und ohne äußeren Zwang“), is how he simply falls back into pre-Kantian times: the strictness of Kant’s imperative is exactly the opposite of what he tries to sell us, as he reintroduces a guarantor of univocal meaning through a governmental Big Other, and by doing that, abolishes the abyss of human freedom that Kant implied by his radicalisation of ethics. The lesson of ‘Kant with Sade’ could then be translated into: “I set as my strict duty the jouissance of transgression and act upon such an imperative.” And are we not faced with every new restriction paradoxically through just a tighter corpus of self-limitation, opening the space for an unknown enjoyment of ‘new sins’ in the first place (keeping St. Paul’s lesson in mind)? How easy it is to be ‘transgressive’ in times, when almost every human interaction is forbidden by law or morally condemned, if you do not follow the govern-mental injunction to inject a hastily developed vaccine. How easy it is to be perceived as the ‘limitless jouisseur beyond law’, when hyper-legislation regulates even basic breathing habits. After ‘sweets without sugar’, ‘coffee without caffein’, ‘sex without contact’, we arrive at pure ‘existence without life’; we work in highly precarious conditions and then go home for private self-isolation to meet on a digital screen owned by Google & Co.
As Žižek once described it, “Ideology” in a strict sense is always reflexive, redoubled in itself: it is a name for neutral knowledge, which opposes itself to common “ideology.” A new form of ‘politics without politics’ is emerging, based on such ‘neutral knowledge’ produced by experts, a politics which secretly instrumentalizes the ego’s enjoyment of guilt and blame. Precisely such an ideological manoeuvre is needed to install obligatory vaccination through the backdoor – a former tabu in a country like Germany that is otherwise never tired of remembering its eugenic past. Keeping a critical distance to the mainstream narrative has real consequences: one can lose own’s entire economic existence, not to mention social bonds in the form of friendships. Nevertheless, a Socratic moment can be detected for our current predicament: we live in the ‘society’ we enact, support, and, therefore, no less deserve. Never has it been more obvious how ‘society’ itself is an effect of repression.
[i] As a leak of a strategy paper from the Interior Ministry from April 2020 shows, painting a worst-case scenario “to achieve the desired shock effect” was fully intended: https://www.bmi.bund.de/SharedDocs/downloads/DE/veroeffentlichungen/2020/corona/szenarienpapier-covid19.pdf;jsessionid=772C294CADB19B1C4FA774128F07F47A.1_cid287?__blob=publicationFile&v=6
[vii] Sahra Wagenknecht (from Minute 11): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5Qd6xiU55k
[viii] Exemplarily: https://berliner-krankenhausbewegung.de/
[ix] Sigmund Freud (1890): Psychical (or Mental) Treatment, bilingual version: https://freud2lacan.b-cdn.net/Psychical_Treatment.pdf
[x] Slavoj Žižek: The Structure of Domination Today. A Lacanian View, in: Studies in East European Thought, Dec. 2004, Vol. 56, No. 4, The Many Faces of Slavoj Žižek’s Radicalism (Dec., 2004), 383-403, 394.
[xi] “The strongest risk factors for death were obesity (adjusted risk ratio [aRR] = 1.30; 95% CI, 1.27–1.33), anxiety and fear-related disorders (aRR = 1.28; 95% CI, 1.25–1.31), and diabetes with complication (aRR = 1.26; 95% CI, 1.24–1.28).” https://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2021/21_0123.htm
[xii] “The one who is the ego-ideal, is also, according to the Hegelian formula of the impossibility of co-existences, the one you must kill.” [“Celui qui est l’Idéal du moi c’est aussi celui que – selon la formule hegelienne de l’impossibilité des coexistences – on doit tuer.”] Jacques Lacan, Seminar VI
[xiii] Jacques Lacan, 1974 (This is part of an interview Jacques Lacan gave to Emilia Granzotto for the Italian magazine Panorama on 21 November 1974. The interview was conducted in French and translated into Italian for publication. The original transcript has been lost, but the Italian version has since been translated back into French, and into English, and was published in Hurly Burly #12 in January 2015, 13-21.)
[xiv] Alenka Zupančič: Das Reale einer Illusion, Kant und Lacan, Suhrkamp 2001, 53. [Own translation]
[xv] For an excellent analysis of the economic dimension behind an alleged Pandemic and Lockdowns, read Fabio Vighi’s comment: “A self-fulfilling prophecy: systemic collapse and pandemic simulation”, https://thephilosophicalsalon.com/a-self-fulfilling-prophecy-systemic-collapse-and-pandemic-simulation/
[xvii] Streeck is part of Nordrhein-Westfalen’s federal Covid ‘expert-council’, an interdisciplinary 12-headed team including philosophers, social workers, and sociologists, which Germany lacks on a national level. https://www.land.nrw/de/expertenrat-corona
[xix] “That’s just the way it is in science. Knowledge evolves over time, and it is always provisional. I would like to know everything about the distribution, mechanisms of action and mutations of Sars-CoV-2. And believe me, I read all the relevant studies that come into my hands. But the more I know, the more I know what I don’t know. That’s just the way it is, and we have to deal with it.” https://www.nzz.ch/feuilleton/hendrik-streeck-ueber-corona-politik-pandemie-und-infodemie-ld.1611035?mktcid=smch&mktcval=fbpost_2021-04-15&fbclid=IwAR0FafhsAsCg2D5Gr72jXHpydTR-SDnfRq9f9lJWjF2B1cWJgeOL5wehoiA