Pandemic war diaries - Of mice and humans
By Sebastian Lotzer
17 May , 2020
Sebastian Lotzer / Wu Ming
"Books don't help. Everyone needs someone else, someone close by. He went on weepily: "A person breaks down when he has no one. It doesn't make any difference who it is if you only have someone. I can tell you', he cried excitedly, 'otherwise you get too lonely and you get miserable."
John Steinbeck - Of mice and humans
Two weeks after thousands of people had gathered in Berlin Kreuzberg despite the state of emergency on 1 May, which made the Berlin Senator of the Interior speak of a gigantic "Corona Party", the Berlin hospitals reported a sharp drop in the number of people requiring inpatient treatment due to a Covid 19 disease.
Now it would make little sense to enter into a renewed discourse on infection curves at this point, because, contrary to an initial, obvious assumption, this subject of discussion largely eludes rational debate. This is due to the context in which these discussions take place, in which seemingly secondary interests are at stake, but in reality primary interests.
On the one hand, there is the interest of the state authorities in defending the prevailing narrative of the lack of alternatives to the declared state of emergency at all costs. Like a prayer wheel, every talk show, every public statement presents the current positive development as being justified by the declared state of emergency. Indications and also scientific objections that the evidence of these assertions would not be substantiated lead a shadowy existence in the public presentation (3). (For example, the irrefutable observation that the notorious reproduction figure had already reached 1.0 at the time of the declaration of the state of emergency and has remained at approximately this level ever since).
On the other hand, there is the phenomenon that a well-known psychoanalyst described so aptly recently. To put it bluntly, "the virus" is actually a gift, because it enables society to project all its unconscious, repressed fears, especially those concerning death and illness in general, onto this virus. If the virus can be defeated in a collective effort, all the inner spirits are apparently banished. ( Which of course does not work, just as somatizations of inner emotional conflicts do not resolve the original conflict, they only create a symptom level that is apparently easier to realize and, as crazy as it sounds, is usually easier to accept and bear). Now the virus will in all probability not disappear from our lives again so quickly. (Even if this projection has been so loved by many leftists in the last weeks. A few more weeks of state of emergency and then it would be possible to follow ALL chains of infection in Germany and put an end to the virus. For which there was neither scientific evidence that this would happen nor a realistic perspective. But even if this very daring assumption could have been realized, what would have followed? Build a wall around the whole of Germany and wait until there are no more proven infections worldwide :-)
No, the true gift of "the virus" might be that death regains its ancestral place in our social perception, as Giorgio Agamben stated recently. All the absurd activities, the collectively charged neuroses, the thousand escapes into all kinds of consumption, only to seemingly escape the inescapable. The terrible price we pay for this, the destruction of the earth through the necessary plundering of its resources, all the grotesque crowded beaches and huge cruise ships. The millions upon millions of flights, the tossing and turning of masses of people in which everyone is desperately digging for remnants of individuality. The constant optimization mania, all the Botox injections and fitness programs. While our old people, deported to old people's homes and nursing homes, staying among themselves, no longer bothering us with the imposition of mirroring our own decay, are vegetating. "Taken care of" by cheap labor, often recruited from other countries. (The misery of the high mortality rates in Sweden: private operators of old people's homes and nursing homes, personnel in precarious employment, often from Eastern Europe, who drag themselves to work with a lack of protective equipment, sometimes even infected themselves by necessity). And one should note that the "applause machine", the senseless clapping in the iso adhesion at the window and on the balconies was aimed at the employees of the "health service", who was talking about the employees of the "health service"?
Well, "the virus" has produced a crisis, or actually it has produced several crises, or should one better say brought them to the surface, revealed what is already present in the depths of society. Comrades from Italy asked the right question, what would have been the measures if the virus had generated a completely different, much higher mortality. (Suppose the virus would rage in the manner of Ebola, which had a mortality rate of 50-90% in phases. If one had sealed off whole districts and covered them with napalm... And one should not assume that this system is not capable of this, one only deals with the planning scenarios for a nuclear war in Europe, which were designed in the 70s and 80s). So we are currently experiencing a "health crisis", an economic crisis (which actually was already there, many say), a political crisis, a social crisis and finally a collective crisis of meaning (which actually was already there, some say).
I already wrote a few weeks ago, the way the Empire reacts to the Corona Pandemic, the pressing of the panic button points to a pre-revolutionary situation. It could be that the pendulum is swinging to the right. The current mobilizations of the so-called "Hygiene Demos" indicate that the pendulum is swinging to the right, at least in Germany. Which makes it all the more important to work out a concept of the current situation. Or as comrades from Autonomie Magazin wrote recently: "We should perhaps stop working on this form of 'corona rebellion' and begin to strengthen our own narrative by starting to present our criticism in a didactically clever way again.
What follows is the translation of a recent contribution by the esteemed Wu Ming Collective, with which the translator is not really satisfied this time, but for which no one else has been found.
矛盾 (máo dùn). What traps we fall into when discussing the "corona virus emergency
by Wu Ming
More than two months ago, in the third edition of the Virus Diary, we tried to clarify what we meant by "emergency" (1). We talked about "an underlying misunderstanding, a conceptual misunderstanding, where we looked at each other lost in translation", and explained
"There were those who understood by "emergency" the danger from which the emergency originated, namely the epidemic.
Instead, we and some others - in a very small minority, but in the continuity of a debate that lasted at least forty years - called what was built on the danger "emergency": the climate that was created, the special legislation, the suspension of rights that were otherwise considered sacrosanct, the reconfiguration of powers...
Those who, whenever we talked about all this, wanted to talk again about the virus as such, its aetiology, its lethality, its differences to influenza etc., immediately accused us of "underestimating the situation".
Any state of emergency "is here to stay"
The "state of emergency" - over and over again the "anti-terror state of emergency" (2), the "state of emergency of public finances" and all the other "states of emergency" we know - is never just any old narrative. It is a grandly projected narrative which, once imposed on the imagination, has a very strong pulling effect and which one can no longer escape at will.
When the "emergency" starts to have dysfunctional effects, you work to loosen its grip, blunt the sharp edges, slow it down and let it sit down, but that takes time. And in any case, the effects will be permanent: all the emergencies we know have "accumulated", we could almost make a "stratigraphy" of it.
Almost twenty years later, we are still living - albeit no longer in an acute phase - in the state of emergency following September 11. We notice it, for example, every time our luggage is checked in at the airport. That is when the current procedures were introduced, the logic of which is not very clear and which seem more "theatrical" than anything else.
We are still experiencing the "crises in the public purse" of the early 1990s and 2011, because the cuts, counter-reforms and austerity measures that have been "imposed" thanks to these crises have so far brought us to the current situation.
Much of the special anti-terrorism legislation of the late 1970s and early 1980s is still in force.
Wolf Bukowski wrote for us about the rhetorical and "proxemic" continuity between the widespread "degradation emergency" of the decade and the coronavirus emergency of spring 2020.
No emergency is over, they all weigh on our shoulders.
Capitalism has caught the ball
So imagine that you could easily get out of the emergency imposed to deal with this pandemic. We are talking about the most drastic and ubiquitous emergency in living memory, on a planetary scale. Much of what has been experienced in these three months - let's just think of DAD (? d.Ü) - will remain, albeit in a less conspicuous (but precisely for this reason more penetrating) form. Let us also think of the exceptions to labour law or the exceptions in the environmental field, which are applied for and obtained thanks to the emergency in the name of "recovery".
All this in the difficulty of building up a concrete opposition, because the conditions of "social distancing" will continue for a long time to come, which, if they do not make the struggles impossible, will provide even more pretext and instruments than before to suppress them. Wolf Bukowski has also written a fundamental article on how the idea of "social distancing" could be immortalized in our daily lives.
Blaming the pandemic for a crisis and a recession that would come anyway is very convenient for capital: for its sectors that are profiting or trying to profit from this phase and for those that want to make up for lost ground.
Thanks to the sars-cov-2 virus, capital has had the opportunity to accelerate certain dynamics in order to manage them better. Given the inevitability of a recession, it is far better to manage it by shifting the blame onto an event presented as "natural", bad luck, a disaster, "external" conditions of the system (we know that this is not the case, that the blame for the pandemic lies with the system, but each time we have to explain it).
All this, we repeat again and again, is not the result of a plan, a plot by capital. Capital responds to what happens, naturally in a capitalist way. Political power controls what happens within the framework of capitalist compatibilities. A single emergency is never planned long in advance: It consists in taking the leap.
We cannot speak of "phase 2", "phase 3" and everything else if we consider the danger only in the strict sense, that is, only in virological and epidemiological terms. We must talk about what this emergency leaves us and how we can act, how we can regain spaces of dissent and conflict in this complex reality.
The whole thing started in China, didn't it?
In Chinese, the term "dissent" is represented by the two ideograms 矛盾, "lance" and "shield". If you look closely at the two signs, you can see the stylisation of the two objects.
It has been handed down that the combination and its concept originate from a story that goes back to the third century AD. (Jìn dynasty).
A theatrical merchant passed through villages in the state of Chu and sold spears and shields among other things. In one square a man asked him what his spears looked like and he babbled that they were the best in the world and could pierce any shield.
Soon after another guy asked him what his shields looked like, and he said, still exaggerating, that they were the best in the world and that no spear could pierce them.
Then a third onlooker who had heard both paragraphs asked him, "So what would happen to one of your spears if it hit one of your shields?
Unable to answer, the merchant left the village.
"Either you underestimate the virus or you underestimate the emergency."
There is a fundamental contradiction in all discussions of the coronavirus emergency, a contradiction which takes the form of a "false dilemma" and is a consequence of the fact that we have all - some of us, some more or less - fallen into deceptive dichotomies, that we have fallen into rhetorical traps like those the ancient Chinese merchant fell into. This contradiction must be theorized and overcome in order to adopt what we have called in another article a "holistic approach" - or synthetic, if you prefer a more dialectical terminology, in the sense of seeking a synthesis that overcomes the contradictions.
Negante has found a beautiful and effective way to present this contradiction. He did so in a commentary on the previous article, of which we have reproduced an extract:
"At first I expressed it almost as a joke, but then it seemed serious: it's a kind of indeterminacy in the Heisenberg sense, between virus and emergency. You can't look at both and keep your eyes open, you underestimate either one or the other. You underestimate in the eyes of the other. In other words: for the one who sees the virus well (or thinks he sees it well), the emergency is just a contingency that passes when the virus passes; for the one who sees the emergency well (or thinks he sees it well), the virus, however serious and dangerous it may be, will always be less deadly than the consequences caused by the emergency policy. Every discussion has this instability within it, and bringing it to the surface can only be good".
This is also an excellent clue to check your reactions to any allegations about the virus and/or the emergency. How many references to the dangers of the virus do we expect from those who want to talk about the dangers of the emergency? And how many labels of the senselessness of the emergency do we want to put on those who want to talk about the sensitivity of the virus?
And this applies to more specific examples: If I believe that they must reopen libraries, how many times do I have to say that I should close factories? And if I close the factories, how many times do I have to say that this does not mean that everyone in the house should be locked up?
There is too much binary thinking, too much Manichaeism, too simple and cutting tertium non datur. Instead, there is not only tertia: there is the multiple with its complexity. To deny this leads us straight into the arms of the "double bind" on which most crisis management was based and whose logic was taken for granted by those who focused only on the virus.
Double bind: "What do you want to do? Do you want to leave the house?" If you say yes, it means you agree to the reopening of factories (and getting sick on the job). If you say no, it means that I take away your freedom of movement (and make you sick with depression and various pathologies). However you do it, it is wrong.
From now on
We will not get rid of pandemics or emergencies that will continue to affect us both. Only if we think in these terms (that we can't get rid of them) will we be able to overcome the misunderstandings of these months. At least those that have happened in good faith. For the others we can do little.
The state of emergency also leaves us with the ruins of personal and political relations. Moreover, it happened during and after all the previous states of emergency. The states of emergency, by imposing new dichotomies, disrupt relationships, alliances, friendships. This happened with tremendous firepower and with almost irresistible momentum. Unfortunately, we will not recover all the cooperation and affection we had before.
We will have to live with it.
I use various terms in translation such as emergency, state of emergency, state of exception, ... in other words, the ambiguity of terms reflects exactly the problem described by Wu Ming in this article and others.
See also the article by FABIEN JOBARD in CILIP 112, March 2017: State of Emergency in France - From state of emergency to "ordinary law of combat".
See also the prominently signed scientific thesis paper 2.0