Starting over

Sculpture José Resende / Santos, São Paulo
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By SLAVEJ ŽIŽEK*

Instead of looking in vain for reinforcement in some hope, we should accept that our situation is hopeless, and then act firmly on it.

Still in April 2020, reacting to the Covid-19 pandemic, Jürgen Habermas pointed out that “existential uncertainty is spreading globally and simultaneously, in the minds of mediatically connected individuals themselves”. He continues, “never has there been so much knowledge of our ignorance and about the difficulties of acting and living in uncertainty”.

Habermas is right when he says that this lack of knowledge does not only concern the pandemic – as for it, at least we have the experts – but even more to its economic, social and psychological consequences. Pay attention to its precise wording: it's not that we just don't know what happens, we know that we do not know, and this not knowing is, in itself, a social fact, inscribed in the way our institutions act.

We know, let's say, that in medieval times or at the beginning of modernity they knew a lot less - but they didn't know that, because they rested on a certain stable ideological foundation that guaranteed that our universe was a full sense of totality. The same goes for some communist perspectives, or even Francis Fukuyama's idea of ​​the end of history – everyone assumed they knew where history was going. Furthermore, Habermas is right to locate uncertainty in “the minds of media-connected individuals themselves”: our relationship with the connected universe expands our knowledge tremendously, but at the same time throws us into radical uncertainty (Are we being hacked? Who controls our access? Is what we read fake news?). Viruses attack in both senses of the term: biological and digital.

When we try to imagine what our societies will be like when the pandemic is over, the pitfall to avoid is futurology – futurology, by definition, ignores our ignorance. It is defined as a systematic prediction of the future based on current trends in society. And therein lies the problem – futurology, at best, extrapolates what will come from current trends. However, what futurology does not consider are historical 'miracles', radical ruptures that can only be explained retroactively, once they happened.

We should, perhaps, mobilize here the distinction that operates in the French language between future e avenir. 'Future' is all that will come after the present, while 'avenir' points to a radical change. When a president wins re-election, he is the “current and future president”, but he is not the “to come” president [avenir] – the president to come will be a different president. Is the post-corona universe, then, just another future or something new “to come”?

It will depend, not just on science, but on our decisions policies. The time has come to say that we must have no illusions about the “happy” ending of the US elections, which brought so much relief to liberals around the world. In the movie They Live (1988), by John Carpenter, one of the under-appreciated masterpieces of the Hollywood left, tells the story of John Nada – in Spanish and Portuguese, “hope"– a homeless worker who accidentally finds, inside an abandoned church, a pile of boxes with sunglasses. When he puts on a pair of these glasses, as he walks down the street, he notices that a colorful advertising billboard, enjoining us to enjoy chocolate bars, now shows the word "Obey", while another billboard, with a glamorous couple in a strong embrace, seen through the lenses of the glasses, orders the observer to “Marry and reproduce”.

He also sees that the banknotes bear the words "This is your God". Furthermore, he soon discovers that many people who seemed charming are, in fact, monstrous aliens with metallic heads... the image shows the two smiling with the message “time to heal” [Time to heal]; seen through the glasses, they are two alien monsters, and the message is "time to heel” [Time to bow].

This is, of course, part of Trump's propaganda to discredit Biden and Harris as masks for the anonymous corporate machinery that controls our lives. However, there is (something more than) an edge of truth to this. Biden’s victory means “future” as a continuation of pre-Trump “normality” – which is why there was such a sigh of relief after his victory. But this “normality” represents the anonymous domain of global capital, which is the true alien among us.

I remember, from my childhood, the desire for “socialism with a human face” against Soviet-type “bureaucratic” socialism. Biden now promises global capitalism with a human face, while behind the face the same reality will continue. When it comes to education, this “human face” has taken the form of our obsession with “well-being”: pupils and students must live in bubbles that will protect them from the horrors of outside reality, protected by politically correct rules.

Education no longer has the purpose of producing a sobering effect by allowing us to confront social reality - and when we are told that this security will prevent mental breakdowns, we must combat them with the opposite statement: it is this false security that opens the door. path to mental crises when we are forced to confront social reality. What “wellness activity” does is merely provide a false “human face” to our reality rather than allowing us to transform that reality. Biden is the “welfare” supreme president.

But, why is Biden still better than Trump? Critics point out that Biden also lies and represents big capital, just in a more civilized way – but unfortunately, that way matters. With his vulgarization of public discourse, Trump was eroding the ethical substance of our lives, what Hegel called Sitten (as opposed to individual morality).

This vulgarization is a worldwide process. Take the European case of Szilárd Demeter, a ministerial commissioner and head of the Petofi Literary Museum in Budapest. Demeter wrote, in a November 2020 op-ed, that “Europe is George Soros's gas chamber. Poisonous gas oozes from the capsule of an open and multicultural society, which is deadly for the European way of life”. He goes on to characterize Soros as "the liberal Fuhrer", insisting that his "Liberarian army deifies him more than Hitler's".

If questioned, Demeter would likely reduce these claims to mere rhetorical exaggerations; that, however, does not lessen its frightening implications. The comparison between Soros and Hitler is profoundly anti-Semitic: it places Soros on the same level as Hitler, asserting that the multiculturalist and open society promoted by Soros is not only as dangerous as the Holocaust and the Aryan racism that underpinned it (“liberation- Aryan”) but, even worse, more dangerous to “the European way of life”.

Is there, then, any alternative to this dire vision other than the “human face” of Biden? Activist Greta Thunberg recently offered three positive lessons about the pandemic: “It is possible to treat a crisis like a crisis, it is possible to put people’s health ahead of economic interests, and it is possible to listen to science.”

Yes, but they are possibilities – it is also possible to treat a crisis in such a way that it is used to overshadow other crises (such as: because of the pandemic, we should forget about global warming); it is also possible to use a crisis to make the rich richer and the poor poorer (which effectively happened in 2020 with unprecedented speed); it is also possible to ignore or compartmentalize the science (just remember those who refuse to take vaccines, the explosive growth of conspiracy theories, etc.). Scott Galloway offers a more or less accurate picture of things in times of corona.

We are accelerating towards a nation with three million lords being served by 350 million servants. We don't like to say it out loud, but I get the impression that this pandemic was largely invented to push the top 10% towards the top 1%, and further knock the rest of the 90% down. We decided to protect companies, not people. Capitalism is literally collapsing in on itself unless it rebuilds that pillar of empathy. We decided that capitalism means being kind and empathetic to corporations, and Darwinian and rude to individuals.

And what is Galloway's way out? How should we avoid this social collapse? His answer is that “capitalism will collapse on itself if there is no more empathy and love”: “We are entering the Big Reset, and it's happening quickly. Many businesses will be tragically lost as a result of the pandemic, and those that survive will exist differently. Organizations will be much more adaptable and resilient. Distributed teams, currently thriving with less oversight, will want the same autonomy moving forward. Employees will expect executives to continue to lead with transparency, authenticity and humanity.”

But, again, how is this to be done? Galloway proposes creative destruction that allows dilapidated enterprises to fail while protecting people who lose jobs: “About we let people get fired so that Apple can emerge and bankrupt Sun Microsystems, and then About we will embrace that incredible prosperity and be more empathetic to people.”

The problem is: who is the mysterious one "us" in the above sentence, ie, how, exactly, is the redistribution done? Do we just tax the winners (Apple, in this case) more while allowing them to maintain their monopoly position? Galloway's idea has a certain dialectical style: the only way to reduce inequality and poverty is to let market competition do its cruel work (we let people get fired), and then... what? Do we expect market mechanisms to generate new jobs on their own? Or is it the state? How will “love” and “empathy” be operationalized? Or should we rely on the winners' empathy and hope that they will all behave like Gates and Buffett?

I think this supplementation of market mechanisms by morality, love and empathy is deeply problematic. Rather than allowing us the best of both worlds (market egotism and moral empathy), we are much more likely to have the worst of both worlds.

The human face of this “leadership with transparency, authenticity and humanity” is that of Gates, Bezos, Zuckenberg, the faces of authoritarian corporate capitalism who pose as humanitarian heroes, of new aristocracy, celebrated by the media, and are considered humanitarian savants. Gates donates billions to charity, but we must remember how he opposed Elizabeth Warren's plan for a slight increase in taxes. He praised Piketty and once almost proclaimed himself a socialist – true, but in a very specific and biased sense: his wealth comes from the privatization of what Marx called our “commons”, our shared social space, where we move and we communicate.

Bill Gates' wealth has nothing to do with the production costs of the products Microsoft sells (one could even argue that Microsoft pays its knowledge workers a relatively high salary), ie, his wealth is not the result of its success in producing good software at lower prices than its competitors, or the greater “exploitation” of its contracted intellectual workers. Gates became one of the richest men in the world by appropriating the rent paid by millions of us so that we can communicate through the medium he privatized and controls. And just as Microsoft privatized the software most of us use, personal contacts are privatized by our Facebook relationships, by buying books on Amazon, by searching on Google.

There is therefore a grain of truth in Trump's "rebellion" against digital corporate powers. The podcast is worth watching War Room by Steve Bannon, the great ideologue of Trump's populism: it's impossible not to be fascinated by how many small truths he combines into one big lie. Yes, under Obama the gap between the rich and the poor widened immensely, big business became even more powerful... but under Trump this process just continued, and Trump still cut taxes, printed money mainly to bail out big business, etc. We are thus facing a horrible false alternative: a huge reset corporate or nationalist populism, which, in the end, are the same thing. The “big reset” is the formula for changing a few things (or even a lot of things) so that everything remains basically the same.

So, there is a third way, beyond the extremes between restoring the old normality and a big reset? Yes, one real big reset. It's no secret that it needs to happen - Greta Thunberg made that pretty clear. First, we must finally recognize the pandemic crisis for what it is, part of a global crisis of our entire way of life, from ecology to new social tensions. Second, we must establish social control and regulation of the economy. Third, we must trust science – trust but not simply accept it as the decision-making agency.

Why not? Let's return to Habermas, with whom we started: our dilemma is that we are compelled to act knowing that we do not know all the coordinates of the situation in which we find ourselves, and not acting would have the same function as acting. But wouldn't that be the basic situation of all action? Our big advantage is that we know how much we don't know, and this knowing about our not-knowing makes room for freedom. We act when we don't know the whole situation, but this is not simply our limit: what makes us free is the fact that the situation - at least in our social sphere - is, in itself, open, not completely closed ( pre)determined. And our situation in the pandemic is certainly open.

We learned our first lesson: a “soft shutdown” is not enough. They tell us that “we” (our economy) cannot afford a new lockdown severe – so let's change the economy. O lockdown is the most radical negative gesture in of the established order. The way to go beyond, to a new positive order, goes through politics, not through science. What needs to be done is to transform our economic life so that it can survive the lockdowns and the emergencies that certainly await us, just as a war leads us to ignore the limits of the market and look for a way to do what is “impossible” in a free market economy.

In March 2003, Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense of the United States, devoted himself to philosophizing a little, in an amateurish way, about the relationship between the known and the unknown. “There are known acquaintances. It's the things we know we know. There are the known unknowns. That is, there are things we know that we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know that we don't know.” What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “known unknowns”, things we don't know that we know – which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge that is unknown”, as Lacan used to say.

If Rumsfeld thought that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the "unknown unknowns", the threats from Saddam Hussein that we didn't even suspect what they were, our answer must be that, on the contrary, the main dangers are the "known unknowns", the repressed beliefs and assumptions we don't even notice we hold.

We should read Habermas's claim that we have never known so much about what we don't know across these four categories: the pandemic has shaken what we (thought we) knew we knew, it has made us aware of what we didn't know we didn't know, and, in The way we confront it, we lean on what we didn't know we knew (all the assumptions and prejudices that determine our action even if we are not aware of them). We are not dealing with the simple passage from not knowing to knowledge, but the – much more subtle – passage from not knowing to knowing what we do not know – our positive knowledge remains the same in this passage, but we conquer a free space for action.

It is with regard to what we don't know that we know, our assumptions and our biases, that China (and Taiwan and Vietnam) did much better than Europe and the United States. I am getting fed up with the endlessly repeated accusation that “Yes, the Chinese contained the virus, but at what price…” I agree that we need a Julian Assange who will let us know what really happened there, the full story, but the fact is that when the pandemic broke out in Wuhan, they immediately imposed a lockdown and halted most production nationwide, clearly prioritizing human lives over the economy – with some delay, it is true, they took the crisis extremely seriously.

Now they are reaping their fruits, even economically. And – let's be clear – this was only possible because the Communist Party is still capable of controlling and regulating the economy: there is social control over the market mechanisms, albeit a “totalitarian” control. However, again, the question is not how they did it in China, but how About we should do. The Chinese route is not the only effective route, it is not "objectively necessary" in the sense that if you look at all the data you have to go the Chinese route. The epidemic is not just a viral process, it is a process that takes place within certain economic, social and ideological coordinates that are open to change.

Now, at the very end of 2020, we live in a crazy time where the hope that vaccines will work is mixed with growing depression, or even despair, due to the rising number of infections and the almost daily discoveries of new unknowns about the virus. In principle, the answer to “What must be done” is easy: we must have the means and resources to restructure our health care system so that it can meet people's needs in a time of crisis, etc. However, to quote the last line of the “Praise of Communism” from the play The mother of Brecht, “It is the simple thing that is so difficult to do”.

There are many obstacles that make it so difficult, above all the global capitalist order and its ideological hegemony. Do we need communism then? Yes, but what do I tend to call a cmoderately conservative omunism: all the necessary steps, from global mobilization against the viral threat – among other threats – to establishing procedures that will constrain market mechanisms and socialize the economy, but done in a way that is conservative (in the sense of an effort to conserve conditions for human life – and the paradox is that we will need to transform things precisely to maintain such conditions) and moderate (in the sense of carefully considering the unpredictable side effects of our measures).

As Emmanuel Renault has pointed out, the key Marxist category that introduces class struggle into the heart of the critique of political economy is that of “tendential laws”, the laws that describe a necessary tendency in the development of capitalism, such as the tendency for the rate of unemployment to fall. profit. (As noted by Renault, Ornament had already insisted on these dimensions of the concept of “Tendenz” of Marx, which make him irreducible to mere “tendency”). Describing such a “tendency”, Marx himself uses the term antagonismo: the falling rate of profit is a tendency that leads capitalists to reinforce the exploitation of workers, or workers to resist it, so that the result is not predetermined but depends on the struggle – say, in certain welfare states. being, the organized workers forcing the capitalists to make considerable concessions.

The Communism I speak of is just such a tendency: its reasons are obvious (we need global action to face health and ecological threats, the economy will have to be socialized one way or another…), and we must interpret the way in which global capitalism is reacting to the pandemic precisely as a set of reactions to the Communist tendency: the false Big Reset, nationalist populism, solidarity reduced to empathy.

So how – if – will communism prevail? A sad answer: through more and repeated crises. Let's put it bluntly: the virus is atheistic in the strongest sense of the word. Yes, one must analyze how the pandemic is socially conditioned, but it is basically the product of a meaningless contingency, there is no “deep message” in it (just as the Plague was interpreted as a divine punishment in medieval times). Before choosing Virgil's famous phrase in "acheronta movebo” as the motto of his Dream Interpretation, Freud considered another candidate, the words of Satan in the Lost paradise from Milton: “What reinforcements do we gain from Hope, / Or what resolution from despair.”

If we cannot gain any reinforcements from hope, if we must assume that our situation is hopeless, we must gain the resolution from despair. This is how we contemporary Satans who are destroying your earth must react to viral and ecological threats: instead of looking in vain for the bolster of some hope, we must accept that our situation is hopeless, and then act firmly on it. To quote Greta Thunberg again: “Doing our best is no longer good enough. Now we need to do the seemingly impossible.”

Futurology deals with what is possible, we need to do what is (from the point of view of the prevailing global order) impossible.

*Slavoj Žižek is a professor at the Institute of Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia). Author, among other books, of The year we dreamed dangerously (Boitempo).

Translation: Daniel Pavan

Originally published in the magazine Jacobin

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