“Firefighters clear the way as demonstrators block a road in Ukraine, during a protest against the arrival of a plane carrying evacuees from Hubei province”
PANDEMICS WITHOUT BORDERS
Global communism or the jungle law, coronavirus forces us to decide
by Slavoj Zizek / 10 Mar, 2020
“As panic over coronavirus spreads, we have to make the ultimate choice – either we enact the most brutal logic of the survival of the fittest or some kind of reinvented communism with global coordination and collaboration. Our media endlessly repeat the formula “No panic!”
And then we get all the reports which cannot but trigger panic. The situation resembles the one I remember from my youth in a communist country: when government officials assured the public that there is no reason to panic, we all took these assurances as clear signs that they were themselves in panic.
Poland closes all schools, universities, cinemas, theaters, and operashttps://t.co/6Li4VagHcb
— Steve Lookner (@lookner) March 11, 2020
Panic has a logic of its own. The fact that, in the UK, due to the coronavirus panic even toilet paper rolls have disappeared from the stores reminds me of a weird incident with toilet paper from my youth in socialist Yugoslavia. All of a sudden, a rumor started to circulate that there was not enough toilet paper in the stores. The authorities promptly issued assurances that there was enough toilet paper for the normal consumption, and, surprisingly, this was not only true but people mostly even believed it was true.
Norway has announced "measures that will be the most extensive Norway's population has experienced in peacetime" and which involve practically shutting down the entire country in order to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.https://t.co/n0jms7l3oK
— The Week (@TheWeek) March 12, 2020
However, an average consumer reasoned in the following way: I know there is enough toilet paper and the rumor is false, but what if some people take this rumor seriously and, in a panic, will start to buy excessive reserves of toilet paper, causing this way an actual lack of toilet paper? So I better go and buy reserves of it myself. It is even not necessary to believe that some others take the rumor seriously – it is enough to presuppose that some others believe that there are people who take the rumor seriously – the effect is the same, namely the real lack of toilet paper in the stores. Is something similar not going on in the UK (and also in California) today?
The strange counterpart of this kind of ongoing excessive panic is the total lack of panic where it would have been fully justified. In the last couple of years, after the SARS and ebola epidemics, we were told again and again that a new much stronger epidemic is just a matter of time, that the question is not IF but WHEN it will occur. Although we were rationally convinced of the truth of these dire predictions, we somehow didn’t take them seriously and were reluctant to act and engage in serious preparations – the only place we dealt with them were in apocalyptic movies like Contagion.
Matt Gaetz wore a gas mask on the House floor last Wednesday to make light of the vote on coronavirus response package.
He self-quarantined today after possibly being exposed to COVAD-19 at CPAC. https://t.co/GZ8obUQHYs
— Tim O'Brien (@TimOBrien) March 9, 2020
What this contrast tells us is that panic is not a proper way to confront a real threat. When we react in panic we do not take the threat too seriously. On the contrary, we trivialize it. Just think at 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?
Carrie Lam wears face mask, incorrectly, at press conference https://t.co/n3IBZGhm3N
— Shanghaiist.com (@shanghaiist) January 28, 2020
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 the strong approach to the crisis by the Chinese state worked – at least it worked much better than what goes 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 apparently the reason why those who first shared information on a new virus were reportedly 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,” reports Bloomberg.
“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 would be needed here to expose to the public this concealed side of how China is coping with the epidemic.
“A makeshift memorial for Dr. Li Wenliang at a hospital in Wuhan. His early warnings about the coronavirus were stifled, and his death set off anger at the government”
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 last week 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 local mobilization of people outside state control as well as strong and efficient international coordination and collaboration. If thousands will be 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 of 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 they add up to is not an invocation to stay calm, as so many politicians around the globe are incessantly suggesting; it is, on the contrary, the case for changing our behavior in radical ways—right now.” https://t.co/X4Q5iPsRuv
— Yoni Appelbaum (@YAppelbaum) March 10, 2020
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,” Will Hutton wrote in the Guardian. 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 survival of all and each of us, how it is the only rational egotist 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, climate crisis kills much 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 coronavirus as a beneficial infection which allows humanity to get rid of the old, weak and ill, like pulling out the 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 the ongoing debates, as in the following note about the role of the “three wise men” if the epidemics takes a more catastrophic turn in the UK: “NHS patients could be denied life saving 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 just open up 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: this or some kind of reinvented communism.”
Wherein God struck fear and dread in my heart as I was about to board a plane to Italy last week https://t.co/2gJMwWZw0S
— dasha (@nobody_stop_me) March 10, 2020
APOCALYPSE SEX (cont.)
What the coronavirus & France protests have in common (and is it time for orgies yet?)
by Slavoj Zizek / 20 Feb, 2020
“Epidemic outbreaks – just like social protests – don’t erupt and then disappear; they persist and lurk around, waiting to explode when it’s least expected. We should accept this, but there are two ways to do it. People outside China thought that a quarantine would be enough to tackle the virus’s spread, and that they are more or less safe behind that ‘wall.’ But now that coronavirus cases have been reported in over 20 countries, a new approach is needed. How are we to deal with such traumatic threats?
Maybe we can learn something about our reactions to the coronavirus epidemics from psychiatrist and author Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who, in On Death and Dying, proposed the famous schema of the five stages of how we react upon learning that we have, for example, a terminal illness: Denial (one simply refuses to accept the fact, as in “This can’t be happening, not to me.”); Anger (which explodes when we can no longer deny the fact, as in “How can this happen to me?”); Bargaining (the hope we can somehow postpone or diminish the fact, as in “Just let me live to see my children graduate.”); Depression (libidinal disinvestment, as in “I’m going to die, so why bother with anything?”); and finally Acceptance (“I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”). Kübler-Ross later 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 event. Let’s take the threat of ecological catastrophe. First, we tend to deny it: ‘it’s just paranoia, all that really happens are the usual oscillations in weather patterns’. Then comes anger – at big corporations that pollute our environment and at the government which ignores the dangers. That is followed by bargaining: ‘if we recycle our waste, we can buy some time; plus, there are good sides to it also, we can now grow vegetables in Greenland, ships will be able to transport goods from China to the US much faster via the northern route, new fertile land is becoming available in northern Siberia due to the melting of permafrost.’ It is then followed by depression (‘it’s too late, we’re lost’), 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. Again, first, we tend to deny it, and consider it ‘an exaggeration’, ‘more 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. It’s 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 age of personal freedoms is over). And, finally, comes acceptance: ‘digital control is a threat to our freedom, we should render the public aware of all its dimensions and engage ourselves to fight it!’
— Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller) March 3, 2020
Even in the domain of politics, the same holds for those who are traumatized by Trump’s presidency: first, there was a denial (‘don’t worry, Trump is just posturing, nothing will really change if he takes power’), followed by anger (at the ‘dark forces’ that 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’), and depression (‘we are on the path to Fascism, democracy is lost in the US’), and then 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 can we overcome Trump’s populism.’
— Persian Rose, stay at home! 🇺🇸🇮🇷🏳️ (@PersianRose1) March 4, 2020
In medieval times, the population of an affected town reacted to the signs of 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 all the pleasures still possible – drinking, sex…’). And, finally, there was 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 epidemics 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).
Educational wash your hands 💃🏻 pic.twitter.com/ypKgQH6Juu
— Assal Rad (@AssalRad) March 5, 2020
But how would our acceptance look here? It is a strange fact that these epidemics display a feature common with the latest round of social protests such as those in France or in Hong Kong: they don’t explode and then fizzle away, they stay here and just persist, bringing permanent fear and fragility to our lives. 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, create, a stupid natural contingency like a virus or an asteroid can end it all.
This put such a huge smile on my face. Such an Iranian thing to do, try and start a viral anti-corona virus dance challenge #bringjoy #corona #coronaresponse #dancechallenge #iran https://t.co/nADz2pFX7r
— Christina Morrow (@ninamorrow_) March 5, 2020
Not to mention the lesson of ecology which is that we, humanity, may also unknowingly contribute to this end. 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.”
Coronavirus could lead to reinvention of communism
by Slavoj Zizek / 27 Feb, 2020
“The ongoing spread of the coronavirus epidemic has also triggered vast epidemics of ideological viruses which were laying dormant in our societies: fake news, paranoiac conspiracy theories, explosions of racism. The well-grounded medical need for quarantines found an echo in the ideological pressure to establish clear borders and to quarantine enemies that pose a threat to our identity. But maybe another – and much more beneficial – ideological virus will spread and hopefully infect us: the virus of thinking about an alternate society, a society beyond nation-state, a society that actualizes itself in the forms of global solidarity and cooperation.
Speculation is often heard today that the coronavirus may lead to the fall of communist rule in China, in the same way that (as Gorbachev himself admitted) the Chernobyl catastrophe was the event which triggered the end of the Soviet communism. But there is a paradox here: the coronavirus will also compel us to re-invent communism based on trust in the people and in science. In the final scene of Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill 2,’ Beatrix disables the evil Bill and strikes him with the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” – the most deadly blow in all of martial arts. The move consists of a combination of five strikes with one’s fingertips to five different pressure points on the target’s body. After the target walks away and has taken five steps, their heart explodes in their body and they fall to the ground.
This attack is part of martial arts mythology and is not possible in real hand-to-hand combat. But, back to the film, after Beatrix does it, Bill calmly makes his peace with her, takes five steps and dies… What makes this attack so fascinating is the time between being hit and the moment of death: I can have a nice conversation as long as I sit calmly, but I am all this time aware that the moment I start to walk, my heart will explode and I will drop dead. Is the idea of those who speculate about how the coronavirus epidemic could lead to the fall of communist rule in China not similar?
Like some kind of social “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” on the country’s communist regime, the authorities can sit, observe and go through the motions of quarantine, but any real change in the social order (like trusting the people) will result in their downfall. My modest opinion is much more radical: the coronavirus epidemic is a kind of “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” attack on the global capitalist system – a signal that we cannot go on the way we were up until now, that a radical change is needed.
Dr. Pak-Leung Ho, head of Centre for infection at @hkumed, thinks it was due to the stepped-up vigilance of #HKers that no. of #COVID19 cases in #HK didn't skyrocket like Iran and Italy. He highlighted universal mask-wearing as one of the reasons widespread outbreak didn't occur. pic.twitter.com/jq1V5s04l2
— Alex Lam 林偉聰 (@lwcalex) March 4, 2020
Years ago, Fredric Jameson drew attention to the utopian potential in movies about a cosmic catastrophe (an asteroid threatening life on Earth, or a virus killing humanity). Such a global threat gives birth to global solidarity, our petty differences become insignificant, we all work together to find a solution – and here we are today, in real life. The point is not to sadistically enjoy widespread suffering insofar as it helps our cause – on the contrary, the point is to reflect upon a sad fact that we need a catastrophe to make us able to rethink the very basic features of the society in which we live.
Iran's deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi wipes sweat from his brow at a news conference, before testing positive for the coronavirus
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) February 25, 2020
The first vague model of such a global coordination is the World Health Organization, from which we are not getting the usual bureaucratic gibberish but precise warnings proclaimed without panic. Such organizations should be given more executive power. Bernie Sanders is mocked by skeptics for his advocacy of universal healthcare in the US – is the lesson of the coronavirus epidemic not that even more is needed, that we should start to put together some kind of GLOBAL healthcare network?
#Iran's deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi tests positive for #Coronavirius. In a video message, he urges people to take precautions and assures that they will defeat this virus, which he says doesn't differentiate between rich and poor, minister or a worker. https://t.co/SjXQ6W6HSz
— Syed Zafar Mehdi (@mehdizafar) February 25, 2020
A day after Iran’s Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi appeared at a press conference in order to downplay the coronavirus spread and to assert that mass quarantines are not necessary, he made a short statement admitting that he has contracted the coronavirus and placed himself in isolation (already during his first TV appearance, he had shown signs of fever and weakness). Harirchi added: “This virus is democratic, and it doesn’t distinguish between poor and rich or between statesman and an ordinary citizen.”
Kerman people's rage over a car carrying a mollah from Qom.The city of Qom where the Corona virus spread.The mullahs have spread the virus in Iran with lies and secrecy.#irancoronavirus#کرونا ایران#iran pic.twitter.com/IyNv7YiARs
— @stangestani (@stangestani2) March 6, 2020
In this, he was right – we are all in the same boat. It is difficult to miss the supreme irony of the fact that what brought us all together and pushed us into global solidarity expresses itself at the level of everyday life in strict commands to avoid close contacts with others, even to self-isolate. And we are not dealing only with viral threats – other catastrophes are looming on the horizon or already taking place: droughts, heatwaves, massive storms, etc. In all these cases, the answer is not panic but hard and urgent work to establish some kind of efficient global coordination.
— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) February 11, 2020
The first illusion to dispel is the one formulated by US President Donald Trump during his recent visit to India, where he said that the epidemic would recede quickly and we just have to wait for the spike and then life will return to normal. Against these all too easy hopes, the first thing to accept is that the threat is here to stay. Even if this wave recedes, it will reappear in new, maybe even more dangerous, forms. For this reason, we can expect that viral epidemics will affect our most elementary interactions with other people and objects around us, including our own bodies – avoid touching things that may be (invisibly) dirty, don’t touch hooks, don’t sit on toilet seats or public benches, avoid embracing people or shaking their hands.
We might even become more careful about spontaneous gestures: don’t touch your nose or rub your eyes. So it’s not only the state and other agencies that will control us, we should also learn to control and discipline ourselves. Maybe only virtual reality will be considered safe, and moving freely in an open space will be restricted to the islands owned by the ultra-rich. But even here, at the level of virtual reality and 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.
Another weird phenomenon that we can observe is the triumphant return of capitalist animism, of treating social phenomena like markets or financial capital as living entities. If one reads our big media, the impression one gets is that what we should really worry about are not thousands who already died (and thousands more who will die) but the fact that “markets are getting nervous.” The coronavirus is increasingly disturbing the smooth running of the world market and, as we hear, growth may fall by two or three percent. Does all this not clearly signal the urgent need for a reorganization of the global economy which will no longer be at the mercy of market mechanisms? We are not talking here about old-style communism, of course, just about some kind of global organization that can control and regulate the economy, as well as limit the sovereignty of nation-states when needed. Countries were able to do it against the backdrop of war in the past, and all of us are now effectively approaching a state of medical war.
Plus we should also not be afraid to note some potentially beneficial side effects of the epidemic. One of the symbols of the epidemic is passengers caught (quarantined) on large cruise ships – good riddance to the obscenity of such ships, I am tempted to say. (We only have to be careful that travel to lone islands or other exclusive resorts will not become again the privilege of the rich few, as it was decades ago with flying.) Car production is also seriously affected by the coronavirus – which is not too bad, as this may compel us to think about alternatives to our obsession with individual vehicles.
The list goes on. In a recent speech, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said: “There is no such thing as a liberal. A liberal is nothing more than a communist with a diploma.” What if the opposite is true? If we designate as “liberals” all those who care for our freedoms, and as “communists” those who are aware that we can save these freedoms only with radical changes since global capitalism is approaching a crisis? Then we should say that, today, those who still recognize themselves as communists are liberals with a diploma – liberals who seriously studied why our liberal values are under threat and became aware that only radical change can save them.”
“…I think the film provides an answer to the question Steven Shaviro posed a while back in an excellent post on commodity fetishism. He was addressing Zizek’s take on Marx’s thesis in The Sublime Object of Ideology. The genius of Zizek’s take on commodity fetishism resides in his fidelity to Marx’s argument; he reinvigorates a concept that had become a tired theoretical commonplace simply by reading Marx very closely.
For Zizek, the error of the standard account of commodity fetishism was to have conceived of ideology merely as a species of illusion. Strictly speaking, however, ideology is to be located in the relationship between belief and behaviour, not at the level of belief alone. The ideological stance is thus: ‘I don’t believe it [in other words, I have no illusions] but I do it any way.’
Steven asks: ‘But why does Zizek, in this turn to material practice, still characterize what he finds there in terms of “belief,” which is to say cognition? Following Zizek’s own logic, we should say that commodity fetishism is not a matter of belief or ideology. It doesn’t belong to the category of mystification, or intellectual (mis)apprehension, at all. Rather, fetishism or animism is a set of ritual practices, stances, and attunements to the world, constituting the way we participate in capitalist existence. Commodities actually are alive: more alive, perhaps, than we ourselves are.
They “appear,” or stand forth, or “shine” (the word Marx uses is scheinen) as autonomous beings. Commodities don’t just “believe” for us; much more, they usurp our day-to-day lives, and act pragmatically in our place. The “naive” consumer, who sees commodities as animate beings, endowed with magical properties, is therefore not mystified or deluded. He or she is accurately perceiving the way that capitalism works, how it endows material things with an inner life. Under the reign of commodities, we live — as William Burroughs said we did — in a “magical universe.”’
“A live monster that is fruitful and multiplies”: Capitalism as Poisoned Rat?
by Tom Holert / July 2012
“One must wonder now whether it is useful to keep to the animist strands and currents in popular beliefs about (as well as venerable theories of) political economy, capitalism, and the commodity—or is it actually quite futile?
The question seems rather pertinent when it comes to posing Anselm Franke’s Animism project clearly and polemically within contemporary anticapitalist, anti-neoliberal, and decolonizing struggles. I see it as a potential contribution to the productive confusion generated by haggling over certainties and consensus within these struggles, and I am particularly interested in those instances where capital, capitalism, and/or “the markets” are figured as living, acting entities endowed with agency.
Moreover, I would like to ask how this assumed agency is imagined to be linked to animism as a discursive practice, as well as whether—at the very moment the concept, or indeed the word “animism,” is introduced into discourses of politics, economy, and culture—a specific and efficient metaphor becomes activated, transforming and virtualizing our relation to capital. We all know how metaphors of agency are used to describe, for instance, price movements “as action, as […] internally driven behavior of an animate entity.” Markets are regularly portrayed as agents that, although impersonal and nonhuman, nevertheless expect and react, appreciate and punish, sulk and rejoice depending on the behavior of economic actors both great and small.1 In trade papers and stock market commentary, financial markets are often served up to us in anthropomorphic or animalistic metaphors: “The Nasdaq climbed higher,” “the Dow fought its way upward,” or “the S&P dove like a hawk.”2
Markets are “sensitive to social media moods,” they have “mood swings too,” they “rise on optimism,” and have all kinds of “feelings.” At the same time, markets are perceived as threatening, capricious, vengeful, and so forth; they are envisaged as being capable of arousing emotions in us, of acting on the affects of those whose fortunes depend on their alleged volatile moods. Particularly in the current phase of capitalism, the one in which abstraction and destruction have converged to an extent that has no historical precedent, metaphors of body and soul are proffered to help comprehend the incomprehensible, intangible operations of contemporary networked financial markets. They also function as reasons for the most tangible and comprehensible structural inequalities, social catastrophes, and natural disasters that issue from them.
It may be a critical (de)constructivist commonplace to emphasize the discursive processes that lead to the “naturalization” of capital. However, it is worth mentioning that even if one critiques capitalism as a “‘system’ that profits by its reproduction” (Judith Butler), this way of speaking still tends to naturalize, even anthropomorphize, capitalism—of which one could say, it is precisely a “humanism” that uses humanity as an abstraction to propagate “the sphere of commodity exchange [as] a true Eden of innate human rights,” as Karl Marx put it.3 In other words: a world where freedom and equality rule because everybody relates to everybody else as a commodity-owner.4 No wonder Louis Althusser pushed for Marxism as an anti-humanism. But would he have also accepted the idea of an anticapitalist, or “post-capitalist,” animism?5
Here it may be useful to briefly revisit the concept of commodity fetishism, or what cultural theorist Steven Shaviro (following Michael Taussig) has dubbed “capitalist animism”: the conception of the commodity being endowed with a soul. Shaviro rightly stresses that fetishism and animism are constitutive of capitalism and life under capitalism. He writes of “commodity fetishism” as a “set of ritual practices, stances, and attunements to the world, constituting the way we participate in capitalist existence.” Shaviro further contends that “commodities [are] actually alive: more alive, perhaps, than we ourselves are … The ‘naïve’ consumer, who sees commodities as animate beings, endowed with magical properties, is therefore not mystified or deluded. He or she is accurately perceiving the way that capitalism works, how it endows material things with an inner life.”6
Here, capitalism is a reproductive power that animates (endows) inanimate things “with an inner life,” with an agency of sorts. And by being conceived as an animator of the inanimate, capitalism emerges as the source and the object of the very ritual practices that Shaviro asserts are fundamental to life under capitalism. (Toni Negri would term this the “real subsumption of life” under capital). The inner life of the commodity therefore corresponds to the inner lives of those who are subjected to the transformations of the valorization process, to the shift of surplus-value accumulation from the sphere of production to the sphere of reproduction, circulation, and exchange, thereby putting the entire lives of people to work. According to this “anthropogenetic model” (Christian Marazzi), living beings are transformed into fixed capital and value is extracted from the production of forms of life. In vintage Žižekian fashion, critic Mark Fisher responded to Shaviro’s suggestion that consumers are, by default, animists by asserting “that there is [in fact] no ‘naïve consumer’ who ‘believes’ that commodities are animate beings. Asked if they think that commodities are alive or possess will, consumers will snort derisively.
Nevertheless, they will continue to act as if commodities are animate entities.” Consumers, in Fisher’s view, “are [at the level of belief] hard-headed, disenchanted Anglo-Saxon utilitarians”: they “can participate in capitalist animism—because it is not they who believe, but the commodities themselves.”7 These two versions of capitalist animism—the one which sees the practices under capitalism as structured by animist beliefs, and the other which renders the human actors as stern utilitarians while the commodity does the believing—affirm that the soul-searching of recent critiques of post-Fordism and financialization has resulted in a revival of the animist aspects of the theory of the commodity. It was Walter Benjamin, in “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” who suggested that commodities are inhabited and guided by a “soul.” Commodities acted and behaved as if they took part in a passionately affective relationship with human beings as actual or potential consumers: “If there were such a thing as a commodity-soul … it would be the most empathetic ever encountered in the realm of souls, for it would be bound to see every individual as a buyer in whose hand and house it wants to nestle.”8 Otherwise, the commodity—while it may still speak and whisper—is depleted of empathy and compassion, to use Benjamin’s words.9
Companies suddenly love sick leave. All workplaces are flexible. Republicans want socialized healthcare.
Everyone's a socialist in a pandemic. Let's hope we remember after the crisis that our tattered safety net is a huge vulnerability.
— Farhad Manjoo (@fmanjoo) March 11, 2020
“Commodity-soul” (Warenseele) had been coined by Marx—“in jest,” as Benjamin commented. Marx also once used the term “value-soul”/”soul of value” (Wertseele). Furthermore, Marx speaks of the metempsychosis or transmigration (Seelenwandrung) that takes place when productive labor combines raw material with the means of production to produce a new product. The soul of the commodity is to be understood as the relationship between exchange value and use value as it is embodied in the commodity. The commodity actually exists (as commodity) quite abstracted from its materiality, in a spectral oscillation, as a thing hovering between sensuousness and supersensuousness in the “physical immanence of value” (William Pietz).10
The Italian government is negotiating with banks to provide breaks from debt payments—including mortgages—as individuals and businesses deal with nationwide lockdown https://t.co/yBxZ7ZO839
— Bloomberg Markets (@markets) March 10, 2020
In Marx’s view, the commodity-Ding is generated by its exchange value, that is to say, as social process and relation. In this sense, to speak of the commodity-soul is to speak of value (abstracted labor) as an animating force dwelling in the “value-body” (Wertkörper) that incarnates it. Since the commodity value “deflects the incorporated creative life towards equivalence within an exchange” (Nancy), the “soul” of the commodity is the paradoxical animus of a living corpse, a zombie-soul. Consequently, Franco “Bifo” Berardi suggests that we speak of “thanato-politics”: “the submission of intelligent life to the dead object, the domination of the dead over the living.”11 Indeed, there is a well-established tradition in cultural theory and cultural production of allegorizing the “thanato-politics” of the commodity soul through the figures of the alien or the zombie.12
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— Scott Santens🧢 (@scottsantens) March 2, 2020
Of course, the notion of the “commodity-soul” must be understood in the context of Marx’s polemical theory of the “fetish character of the commodity” in Capital Volume 1. Here, he turns the materialist histories of “primitive” religions he discovered in enlightenment scholars such as Charles de Brosses against the idealist social philosophies of his time.13 Entering the “misty realm of religion,” he proposes a phenomenology of the “monetarization of social life” (Pietz).14 Marx thus draws an analogy between religious fetishism (including animism)—where “products of the human brain seem to be independent beings endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations with each other and with the human race”—and capitalism—the “realm of commodities” where the “products of people’s hands” interact independently from their makers. “This,” he writes, “I call the fetishism, which sticks to the products of labor as soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.”
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— Evan Feigenbaum (@EvanFeigenbaum) March 12, 2020
The most important step in this process of fetishization was the rise of central banks and the emergence of money as credit-money, “an object that seems to embody its own temporal existence in its capacity to bear interest.”15 William Pietz has pointed out that the “magical moment of fetish formation” introduced in the first chapter of Capital sees Marx actually illustrating a crucial “modal shift,” “the mysterious transubstantiation of common social practices into custom or law sanctioned by the community as whole,” a “transition of general form into universal form.” This universal form exists as a material object. Capitalist production has therefore become “a mode in which social value is fetishistically materialized.”16
“Banknotes may be spreading the new coronavirus so people should try to use contactless payments instead, the World Health Organization has said.” https://t.co/dgkBDa4m9S
— Laura Miers (@LauraMiers) March 7, 2020
Summarizing a complex argument about the fundamental level of fetishized relations, Pietz writes that “‘capital’ is the substantive name for the unity of a socially (if unconsciously) organized material system of growth and reproduction whose effective components and visible forms are things, people, and money.”17 The principles and rules that capitalism imposes on the social field have become universal. Capital has invaded and transformed the world on a global scale. It has, as Marx claims, only “one single-minded life impulse,” which is “the drive to create value and surplus-value.”
This “life impulse” (Lebenstrieb) is also dubbed, in the same paragraph, “the soul of capital” (Kapitalseele). And this soul feeds off the dead, since “capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” Capital is thus envisioned as a horrifying, shape-shifting, dialectical entity that combines cannibalism with autopoiesis, that consumes life in order to consume itself. It is “a live monster that is fruitful and multiplies” (Marx).
The eerie rhetoric Marx deploys to render the frantic self-digesting and self-creating activity of capital has of course not gone unnoticed. The best known example of reading Marx as a gothic novelist is arguably Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx. The pervasive presence of “fetishist phantomaticity in general and its place in Capital” and its importance as a “theoretical moment” that reaches beyond the exegesis of Marx led Derrida to claim that what is at stake is “everything which today links Religion and Technics in a singular configuration.”18 And it is clearly technics—digital technology, electronic infrastructures, databases, computing, and so forth—that constitute contemporary capital and enable the all-embracing real subsumption of life under capital that we witness today. Increasingly, capitalism is pictured as “an Alien monstrosity, an insatiable Thing that appropriates the energy of everything it touches and, in the process, propels the world toward the inorganic.”
The latter are the words of artist and writer Gean Moreno from his recent essay on “the inorganic.”19 Moreno proposes an animist turn in the critique of capitalism as an all-devouring, depleting, and dissoluting force, “a vast inhuman form, a genuinely alien life form (in that it is entirely non-organic).” He asks, “What if we propose that capitalism has something like agency and that this is manifested in ecophagic material practices? Capitalism eats the world. Whatever transformations it generates are just stages in its monstrous digestive process.” Finally, Moreno suggests that we investigate this alien life according to “an anti-anthropomorphic cartography, a study in alien finance, a Xenoeconomics,” to find the cracking or tipping points of capital’s inorganicism.20
Though this is not exactly terminology from my own lexicon, I am tempted to follow these suggestions a bit further, for they seem to address the question of animism as inspiration and conceptual hub of subversive (and quite likely aesthetic) strategies of fighting the metastable and uncontrollable/entropic order of contemporary capitalism. Moreno’s suggestions are promising because they explicitly acknowledge capitalism as the “live monster,” the beseelte Ungeheuer, whose very liveliness is to be explored in the inorganic. Or would we, by doing this, depart from the very space in which it appears appropriate and reasonable to speak of animism at all? To put it another way: Does the “post-capitalist animism” of a humanized world once envisioned by Michael Taussig continue to be a viable perspective under the rule of the inorganic?21 Or is this rule itself simply to be pitied?
When Marx wrote of the “live monster that is fruitful and multiplies,” he used, in the German original of the passage (the reference was dropped altogether in the English translation), a well-known quote from Goethe’s Faust. “Ein beseeltes Ungeheuer, das zu ‘arbeiten’ beginnt, als hätt’ es Lieb’ im Leib” is taken from the chorus of a song that appears in the scene in Auerbach’s cellar. The song tells the story of a kitchen rat that is poisoned by the cook, who sadistically watches the creature die a torturous death.
In the English translation of this scene the situation is horrifying, even more so than in the German original: “By torture driven, in open day / The kitchen he invaded / Convulsed upon the hearth he lay / With anguish sorely jaded / The poisoner laugh’d, Ha! ha! quoth she / His life is ebbing fast, I see / As if his frame love wasted / (chorus) As if his frame love wasted.” Is this perhaps the fate of Capitalism that Marx had in mind? To die like a rat poisoned by a torturing cook? Who could this cook possibly be? Who has the power to kill the Capitalism-rat, “just to watch him die” (Johnny Cash)? With the knowledge of the lyrics of the song from Auerbach’s cellar, Marx’s image of the frantic liveliness of the monster may be read as the picture of a vivacity doomed to end deplorably.”
PLANET of VIRUSES
PANIC of CROWDS
for the DISCERNING ALARMIST