Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men
We live in the times of obsolescent capitalism—an era of decay, disintegration, fragmentation, contradictions and impasses. It condemns us to the poetics of fragments, allusions, metaphors, pastiche and patchwork. It sometimes happens that great, coherent and unambiguous syntheses are created at times of climax or even in periods of decline—such as the late thirteenth century’s Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas, or the early twentieth century’s Economy and Society by Max Weber—but then they portray a world which is beginning to fall apart or even one that no longer exists (in these particular cases, the world of Christian theocracy in Aquinas, and a triumphant Europe in Weber); perhaps they allow us to understand what was, but not what is just around the corner. Fragmentary assemblages such as Benjamin’s The Arcades Project or Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus are better at grasping a world in flux and de/re-composition, like the one we are living in.
Humanity has already experienced many an epidemic, and while none have been as global or rapidly spreading as the current one, many have dramatically affected the trajectories of entire civilizations. For instance, the Black Death—the bubonic plague epidemic in the fourteenth century—shattered the feudal world, permanently upsetting its social and economic balance. The decline in Europe’s population by 30–60%, depending on the region, destroyed the demographic foundations of the manorial economy, and the falling supply of labour stimulated evolution towards a typically capitalist hired-labour model. Polish territory remained almost untouched by the epidemic, which was one reason for the ensuing divergence between the developmental paths of the continental East and West, as well as the emergence of a ‘second serfdom’ in the East, a tightening of the serfdom regime.
Although the Black Death occurred during a time when capitalist globalisation was not even on the horizon, the origins of this epidemic were linked to transcontinental influence and flow. The extension of the Great Wall of China between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, and later, the political emancipation of the Chinese, resulting in the Mongols losing control of Far East Asia in the fourteenth century, pushed the Golden Horde to the West, intensifying wars and conflicts on Europe’s eastern fringes. From 1344 on, Djanibeg Khan tried to conquer Kaffa (present-day Theodosia), a city on the Crimean Peninsula that the Genoese had bought back from the Horde less than a century earlier. The Mongols then brought the plague with them from Central Asia, and they used what might now be called a biological weapon in the siege: Djanibeg’s soldiers catapulted the bodies of those who died of the plague over the walls and into the city to infect the Genoese defenders. The attack on Kaffa proved unsuccessful, and in 1347, the Golden Horde signed a peace treaty with the Republic of Genoa. However, as Genoese ships returned from the Crimea, they dragged the plague into Europe – first into northern Italy, then to the south of France, and from there it spread throughout the entire continent.
COVID-19 is neither the first nor the last disease that humans have contracted from other animals. The history of viral diseases tells us of the fundamental intermingling of various animal species in a single web of life. Regardless of how many arguments for the uniqueness of human beings continue to be invented by philosophical anthropology and how much effort religions put into proving the supernatural origin of human beings, the Real will always find traumatic and disturbing ways to remind us that we are just one of many animal species that coexist in the web of life, sharing genes and diseases.
In this sense, the origins of the COVID-19 epidemic have little to do with our culture, conceived as a comprehensive way of life, and could well be explained as mere biological facts. Of course, the domestication of animals has been instrumental in the transmission of other species’ viruses to man, though this also happens throughout the animal and plant kingdoms. However, everything that followed the seminal event of SARS-CoV-2 first spilling onto human beings has nothing to do with unmediated nature and was dictated by the structure and functioning of capitalist modernity.
The first significant outbreaks of the COVID-19 emerged in Europe towards the end of February 2020. At that point already, in Northern Italy, more than ten new cases were registered every day, and the first person infected by SARS-CoV-2 died in the small village of Vo’ Euganeo near Padua on February 21, having been hospitalized for two weeks. This did not affect Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, who remained reluctant to talk about a global pandemic during a press conference on February 24, when he virtually restated his opinion from early February, arguing that no regulations should be introduced that would be ‘detrimental to travel and trade’. One might have believed that Ghebreyesus was heading the World Trade Organization rather than WHO, but his action adhered to the ideological coordinates of global capitalism, where the difference between WHO and WTO is actually much less than the middle letters in the two names.
Criticisms of capitalism are sometimes equated with moral condemnation of greed. This is not the point. Greed is a possible disposition of a subject, not limited to any one form or type of socio-economic organisation. While obviously predominant in capitalist societies, this disposition is not their defining feature, which is the extension of the principles of market exchange to the entire realm of social relations. This is what Marx called its real subsumption (subordination) under the rules of capital accumulation: everything becomes commodified, and all areas of life become regulated according to the market model: education, culture, environment, science and everything else becomes a form of merchandise, and schools, forests, art galleries or universities start to be viewed as businesses, i.e. organisations meant to generate profit. This goes far beyond greed as a character trait; it is the very structure of te capitalist world that makes a certain way of doing things the only one possible, even when the entities involved are not, or even actively refuse to be greedy. The legal framework that regulates how corporations function separates ownership from management, imposing the imperative of maximizing financial profits upon its managers. Officially, this must be done within the framework of existing legal regulations, but the law, unlike annual company profit reports, is not a meaningful element of the market game; semi-legal or even illegal profits look exactly the same on the charts as profits from completely legal activities. Pecunia non olet. The management of a corporation has no choice but to strive to maximize profits, and if it does not deliberately do so, shareholders may sue it for acting against corporate interests. In this system, the interests of any other individual or collective entities, human or inhuman, can only be expressed in terms of the profits or losses of commercial entities, because capitalism has no other language in which to talk about anything. With the ongoing subsumption of society under capital, the same logic becomes grounds for reorganizing all areas of social life. WHO and WTO become fundamentally indistinguishable, regardless of whether Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is greedy or not.
The problematic nature of this situation does not involve any moral judgement. It is a far more structural issue—to make it short and sweet, the social machinery functions well at a price. Social expenditures are much more than charitable aid for the poor, as liberal critics of welfare policies would have it. Sociologists who have researched welfare states, from Thomas Humphrey Marshall to Niklas Luhmann, emphasize that the inclusion guaranteed by such states is a key factor in building a civic ethos—it allows anyone and everyone to identify with public institutions which tangibly serve their interests. This strengthens the sense of belonging to a political community and concern for its institutions. Just as social capital is a side-effect of grassroots civic activity—hence American sociologist Robert Putnam joking that whoever cares about the state of democracy should form amateur brass bands and organise neighbourhood picnics—so identification with political institutions is linked to the sense of support individuals receive from society. The defenders of the ‘free courts’ in Poland would achieve more if they also uncompromisingly fought for the highest standards in public health services, education or transportation. For the time being, many of them would like to have a world without taxes—and without populism. Everything seems to indicate that this is quite impossible—a good political system, like anything else, has its price. This should be understandable for the economically thinking enthusiasts of the free market. As the English saying goes: You pay peanuts—you get monkeys.
After years of cutbacks in the West and neglect in the East, we have the best health service that neoliberal capitalism can buy, which is still very bad. The coronavirus epidemic painfully shows the flaws of the private alternative. It is not just that private health care is only available to the rich, which is difficult to come to terms with when thousands of poor, elderly people will literally suffocate without access to specialist equipment. The very structure of private medical services makes them a poor alternative in times of pestilence—clinics that offer cosmetic surgery or those specialized in treating flu and colds, dental and dermatological offices or specialist oncology institutes are of little use against the coronavirus. Only a well-organised and widely accessible public health service can cope with it. This, however, requires the existence of two things: structures for collective action, and higher taxes—precisely those things that, according to fundamentalist market orthodoxy, is totally superfluous or even harmful, since everything can be dealt with by the private entrepreneurship and the invisible hand of the market. We have yet to see how ventilators operated by that hand might work…
Κρίνω (krino), the ancient Greek verb meaning ‘select, sort out, judge, or put in order’, is the root of the word crisis. Crisis is a moment of judgement, as well as choice: Is our world working as it should and could? Why do we find ourselves where we are? Do we want this to continue? What order of things would we like to substitute for this one, which is obviously failing? Thus every crisis is also a possibility, an opportunity to restructure the world. What kind of world will emerge from the crisis we are experiencing?
Our predicament is paradoxical in many ways. For the first time in decades, even almost a century since the depression of 1929, the absolute foundations of the capitalist order have been undermined, exposing its fundamental weakness, one its critics had been describing for a very long time: its inability to reproduce the social relations that its very existence relies on. The ‘tightening the belt’ (austerity) policies went so far as to make the belt a means of deadly torture. Over the first two decades of this century, the numbers of beds in intensive care units per 1,000 inhabitants fell from 7 to 6 in Germany, from 4.5 to 3 in France, and from 5.5 to 2.5 in Italy. It did not happen because we suddenly stopped getting ill, but because, in keeping with the neoliberal orthodoxy, public expenditures were slashed all over the world, leading to inevitable reductions in the services funded. These austerities brought no gains to the public, not even material ones – Western economies are struggling to achieve a growth rate of around 1%, whereas they were growing by more than 5% in times of high taxation. The main ‘achievement’ of the cuts and austerity policies was the transfer of wealth towards the top of the social ladder: the rapidly growing class of billionaires, mass transfers of money to tax havens, spectacular profits of the wealthiest 1%. The human cost is overwhelming and familiar to us all: tens of thousands of victims, whose lives could largely have been saved if the health care system had worked more efficiently. But even the purely economic cost will most likely be devastating—the British economy may soon shrink by as much as 35%, and Africa may be on its way to losing even half of all its jobs.
We may begin to sound silly even talking about all this. The essence of critical theory is to hermeneutically uncover and expose things that are disguised by the veil of ideology. Here, however, everything is already exposed, nothing is left to unmask, the emperor obviously has no clothes. One would like to think: great, now everything will definitely change. Well, not necessarily, or at least not necessarily for the better. In the twentieth century, capitalism went through a whole series of upheavals and transformations, some as serious as the present one, others far more important: World War I, the revolution in Russia, the Great Depression of 1929, World War II, the construction of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, the revolution in China, decolonisation, the Cold War with the haunting spectre of nuclear conflict, and finally, the collapse of the USSR and the radical reorganisation of the world order at the end of the twentieth century. Out of each of those clashes, capitalism emerged victorious, and this is the historical foundation of capitalist realism by which we are surrounded. I am not writing this to preach defeatism—on the contrary, now is the time to fight and revolt more than ever. True, a rift has now opened that may explode the system, but to seize that chance we need to understand what and why did not work out before.
Every crisis creates opportunity, but the opportunity alone is not enough. Capital knows how to turn such opportunities to its advantage, because, firstly, it pursues a clearly defined goal (maximum accumulation), and secondly, it has created structures of action to achieve this goal: multinational corporations, lobbying groups, foundations to fund political parties, think tanks etc. Although the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, we can already see how the titans of surveillance capitalism are taking advantage of the situation to feather their own nest: Apple and Google, while competing in many areas, have announced that they will jointly develop technologies to better supervise and monitor people infected with SARS-CoV-2. As always, it is all, of course, for our own good… Under His Eye… This will further push the limits of access to our private data, which for surveillance capitalism are what gold, coal and oil combined were for the earlier forms of mercantile, industrial and monopolistic capitalisms, respectively.
In his relatively short essay of 1908 titled “Civilized” Sexual Morality and Modern Mental Illness, Sigmund Freud presented the anthropological foundations of his psychoanalytical thought. For a long time—at least since Kant and Herder—philosophical anthropology had tried to determine what distinguishes man from animals. These attempts were bound to fail, for the very formulation of the question was unfortunate to say the least, even somewhat comical, like asking the difference between a table and furniture. Freud, in keeping with his logic of dethroning the human species and questioning its uniqueness, which, in his own opinion, placed him on par with Copernicus and Darwin, seems to have approached the issue with more common sense, preferring to ask what distinguishes mankind from other animal species. His answer is one of the most interesting parts of the psychoanalytic theory. Freud tracked the process of human psychosexual development, pointing out that, in the process, various objects (body parts) subsequently become the site of investment (cathexis) of psychic energy (libido): the mouth, anus, one’s own genitals, and only finally, other people’s sexual organs. Freud pushed the wedge of his ground-breaking thought into the narrow morality of his time, insisting that the only proper, final and non-pathological way of organizing the libido is to direct it towards the sexual organs of the opposite sex (which means that the only correct way to have sex is, according to Freud, by genital intercourse with a person of the opposite sex), but never mind. Columbus also thought that his feat was just a confirmation of what he already knew about the world (he believed that the land he reached was India)—which does not detract from the fact that his quest helped dismantle the old, local world and construct a new, global order. Much more important is the general conclusion to which Freud’s sexual ontogenesis led him: that the constitutive and distinctive feature of human beings is the fluidity of their libido and its capability to move around within the psychic apparatus. The psychic energy that animates our lives is not assigned to any particular object, place or process once and for all. We have the capacity to detach it from its source and direct it to virtually anything. According to Freud, this particular capacity is the foundation of human culture, a necessary condition for sublimation, or, formally speaking, the detachment of the libido from pursuits that are deemed socially unacceptable and its redirection to ‘higher’ purposes. Therefore, in Freud’s view, while in other animals the urge to copulate can only lead to the mating act or to conflicts and rituals around it (the struggle for a position in the hierarchy of the herd and access to mates), in human beings, the frustrated sex drive begets poems, as exemplified by medieval court poetry. Thus, of all the other animal species, human beings most resemble mussels: while other creatures may scratch themselves when irritated by a grain of sand, the Bivalvia will build a pearl around it.
Libido fluidity, however, is only a form or mechanism, and it can be used in all kinds of ways, not only sublimation. The opposite of sublimation, desublimation, or reducing things sublime to the lowly and crude, works in exactly the same way, equally contributing to the creation of ‘culture’. In the era of real subsumption of life under capital and digital repression we are experiencing desublimation as never before: we have Tinder instead of romance, Facebook instead of friendship, Google News instead of knowledge, corporate social responsibility instead of ethics, and in place of politics we have a media spectacle, certainly more reminiscent of professional wrestling than matter-of-fact debates between people concerned with the common good.
In this regard, a collective subject is neither different nor better than an individual one—both are governed by the same laws, which should come as no surprise since even the so-called individual subject really constitutes an internal multiplicity, which a common misunderstanding tends to view as a consistent single entity. Freud established a perspective which sheds some light on the turnabouts and displacements of the last century’s socio-political history: World War I gave birth to movements that saw Communism as their main enemy, although it is not difficult to show that the war was largely caused by the internal dynamics of the capitalist world-system; the crash of 1929 paved the way for the triumph of Nazism, whose primary victims were Jews, though only a small minority of them was part of the financial elites responsible for the economic failure of the late 1920s and early 30s; ‘Solidarity’ was an unexpected product of the ‘people’s’ rule in Poland, and the fall of the Soviet bloc and its concomitant triumph of liberal democracy, far from ushering in a period of political progress, gave rise to reactionary demons, recently dubbed ‘populism.’ Displacement is the libidinal mechanism which makes these and other surprising turnabouts possible. It would be naive to expect it to stop working just because a number of us have come down with COVID-19.
If there is still a valuable lesson to be learned from the October Revolution of 1917—which ultimately failed, if its goal is to be understood as the creation of communism, as not even Lenin doubted towards the end of his life—it is that our struggle against the capitalist status quo can be successful if, at a time of historic upheaval, we have a goal, and create the organisational means to achieve it. Do we have such a goal and such mechanisms today? Marx believed that mankind only sets goals for which it has the material means, yet the fates of labour movements over the last 150 years seem to prove the contrary: back when no cheap flights or airlines existed, when travelling was expensive, the knowledge of foreign languages was restricted to the elites, the telegraph was the only swift channel of intercontinental communication, and the army and police regularly shot protesters in the streets, international labour movements became a power that capitalists and politicians feared. Today, material opportunities for self-organisation are greater, and punishments for disobedience more lenient than ever, and yet the goals that even the ‘radical’ left sets for itself today appear ridiculously bland and uninspiring indeed. The common-sense centrist social democracy embodied by Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders looks like extreme radicalism, which is a measure of the reactionary nature of the times we live in.
So, what should we do? We are all waiting for a leader, a messiah to tell us at last what to fight for and how. For all the rhetoric of individualism and autonomy, people love being told what to do. Or don’t they? This is what every cynical politician, every efficient marketer and every resigned left-wing intellectual knows. If we remain stuck in passivity with this kind of somebody-tell-me attitude, we will end up ruled by cynical politicians and expert marketers.
“Educate, because we’ll need all your intelligence. Agitate, because we’ll need all of your enthusiasm. Organize, because we’ll need all your power”—these words by Antonio Gramsci have lost none of their relevance. We do not need politicians or parties to save us—we are not Christians waiting for the messiah, or a herd of sheep that need a sheepdog to watch them. What we need is democracy—not a parliamentary representation that will say one thing and do another, only to come back and lure us with new promises four years later, but a real chance to collectively wield power and collectively decide on our collective priorities.
Walter Benjamin died on September 26, 1940, a refugee in Portbou, a little Catalan town on the Mediterranean, bordering France. Arrested in an attempt to illegally cross the border, he feared being taken to a concentration camp. He preferred suicide. On the last page of his diary, he wrote a sentence from Kafka summing up a specific mix of optimism and resignation that filled his life and much of his writing: ‘There is an infinite amount of hope in the universe … but not for us.’