“TIME IS OUT OF JOINT: Pandemic and capitalism as the condition of the world and the soul”
by Leonardo Lippolis
English translation by Lena Bloch,
Italian original here.
Pandemic and capitalism as states of the world and the soul
The framework. the sick planet.
“An increasingly sick but increasingly powerful society has recreated the world as the environment and scenario of its illness, as a sick planet.” So wrote Guy Debord in 1971 in The Sick Planet. For over a century now, some of the most brilliant minds have given us the tools to understand the many facets of the irreversible degradation of life — human, social and environmental — determined by capitalist society, by economic and technological progress in the service of utilitarianism and frenzied productivism: from the catastrophic nature of progress (Benjamin) to the antiquity of man in relation to the machine civilization (Anders) and the non-neutrality of technology in the capitalist universe (Jünger and Mumford); from the sense of the superfluity of human life with respect to totalitarianism, which if it is no longer that of political regimes (Arendt) has remained that of homo economicus (Polanyi), to the relationship between power and the mass (Canetti) and the ornamental role of the mass itself in the apparatus of megamachinery (Kracauer); from the annihilating and pervasive function of the bureaucratic apparatuses (Kafka) to the passivity and isolation induced by the society of the spectacle (Debord) to the constant renewal of the various neo-linguals (Orwell) that follow one another in the maintenance of power; from the ecological imbroglio in the face of the seriousness of the planet’s disease itself (Paccino) to the spread of the harmfulness of industrial society (Charbonneau, Ellul, Encyclopédie des Nuisances). If one hundred years ago the debate among revolutionaries was centered on the alternative that was posed to the world proletariat, in a context where the revolution was still a concrete prospect, between “socialism or barbarism” (Rosa Luxemburg), already in the seventies of the twentieth century, faced with the increasingly obvious incompatibility between capitalism and the survival of the human species, which has become a kind of universal proletariat, the crossroads for some had become unavoidable between “apocalypse and revolution” (Cesarano and Collu).
Far from any prospect of radical criticism of this model of society, but aligned on the objective conclusions of its development, scientists have long been telling us in unison that if we continue at this rate there will be no more room for the eight billion people who crowd the planet and perhaps for humanity itself. When the covid pandemic exploded worldwide, the relationship between it and the Anthropocene — or as Jason Moore more properly calls the Capitalocene — through the impact of theories such as the spillover seemed to have opened in the collective consciousness a window that made the need for a reckoning with the existing. Destruction of ecosystems, deforestation, climate change, urbanization, pollution, industrial breeding, overpopulation, increasingly invasive modes of production and lifestyles of the globalized metropolitan masses are unanimously recognized as the links in the causal chain that determines pandemics and other disasters and that, specifically, have driven this small virus fighting for its survival to attack humans. Besieged by unconscious fears that suddenly resurfaced, in the first months of the lockdown, in the desert and in the silence of the streets and of a suddenly paralyzed world, the pandemic induced an inevitable reflection on how a small biological organism had checkmated the insane apparatus of the entire mercantile and industrial system, showing us for a brief moment the obscene nakedness of the king. But this space for reflection was short-lived, immediately suffocated by the strategies of a power that felt the urgency to reorganize itself and hurry to bring public concern back into the management of an emergency that could not allow any space to question its roots and essence.
Outside the confines of this theoretical framework, any debate on the pandemic leaves no time to be found. Everyone will be pushed to evaluate it differently according to their own fears, beliefs or individual subsistence interests. But if we position ourselves within it, the analysis of what has been happening for over a year now takes on much more sinister connotations that are both revealing and consistent. For those who have learned to read today’s world according to these categories, the total distrust towards those who manage the current situation is nourished by the awareness that there is no elite that plans and organizes in advance the emergencies and crises that are, on the contrary, endemic and structural to this system-world. There are elites that try to profit from them, turning them into opportunities (capitalism is very good at exploiting the deep meaning of the word “crisis” not only as a problem but also as an opportunity), and there are technocratic bureaucracies in charge of managing them in such a way as not to scratch the cancerous structure, but at the end of the day the real tragedy is that we are all passengers on the same train that is proceeding at crazy speed and without a guide towards the abyss and that, as in Konchalovsky’s beautiful film Thirty Seconds to Go, no one would know, even if they wanted to, how to stop it. A small minority enjoys the comforts of first class, while the vast majority travels in a huddle in third class, worried that the next carriage to disengage and plunge into the void will not be theirs. But once the current emergency is over, another one will come, and if it is not a pandemic (which they assure us will come), it will be a war or one of the thousands of other forms of which the cannibal nature of capitalism feeds its insatiable hunger, even if it is the mortal boredom of the best of the cybernetic and smart worlds dreamed up by fans of accelerationism and transhumanism, such as the World Economic Forum summits. Only with this awareness, hoping that it is not too late, we will be able to finally understand the precious message that Benjamin left us in his memorable Theses On The Concept Of History: “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of universal history. But perhaps things are quite different. Perhaps revolutions are the recourse to the emergency brake by mankind as it travels on this train.”
Analyzing the rationale of all the measures adopted in the management of the pandemic, in Italy as elsewhere, it emerges in a striking way that its objective has always been the safeguarding and eventual restructuring of the global economic megamachine. The authorities and the technocrats put in charge of the emergency are the first deniers of the changes and of the planetary disease of which covid represents a circumscribed phenomenon, a grain of sand brought by that catastrophic wind of progress that promises much worse. In this sense the real catastrophists are the indefatigable adulators of progress itself and the entire community that has become accustomed to not wanting to take note of the disease and act against it in due time. As the editors of the Encyclopédie des Nuisances wrote prophetically in 1988: “The deepest and truest historical catastrophe, the one that ultimately determines the importance of all the others, lies in the persistent blindness of the immense majority, in the abandonment of any will to act on the causes of so much suffering, in the inability to consider them at least with lucidity. This apathy will be, in the course of the next few years, more and more violently shaken by the collapse of any guaranteed survival. And those who represent and entertain it, cradling a precarious status quo of tranquilizing illusions, will be swept away. Urgency will impose itself on all, and domination will have to speak at least as loudly as the facts themselves. It will all the more easily adopt the terrorist tone that suits it so well, for it will be justified by actually terrifying realities. A man stricken with gangrene is not at all willing to discuss the causes of his own illness, nor to oppose the authoritarianism of amputation.” By paralyzing critical reflection through fear and reinforcing the factors that are the root causes of the problem (Semprun and Riesel’s Catastrophism), the technocratic bureaucracies enlisted by power among the “experts” treat the disasters of industrial capitalism as inescapable facts that only they can remedy, legitimized by the unquestionable shield of specialized knowledge of science and technology and facilitated by the lack of collective awareness that the supposed neutrality of the latter is that financed by the interests of capitalism itself.
Pandemic management: supervise and distract, culpabilize and punish
This dynamic of catastrophe and its management, which has been visible for decades, has reappeared with the current pandemic. How else to explain the fact that its resolution has been focused exclusively on an experimental biotechnological vaccination with uncertain effects, giving billions of public money to pharmaceutical giants when not a single euro has been invested in the strengthening of public health, the promotion of inexpensive, effective and available treatments, and the fight to improve the immunity of the population by combating chronic co-morbidities — cancer, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular and kidney diseases — which represent the real danger of covid? Although it is scientifically proven that the damages of covid on people’s health are a direct consequence of the harmfulness typical of the industrial society, the management of the pandemic has shown that the important thing, from the point of view of the present and the future, was to continue to be able to make MacDonald’s profits, perhaps by enhancing delivery, rather than raising awareness of the devastating effects of junk food. When schools and theaters were closed, beaches were fenced off, walks were forbidden and factories and malls were open; when freedom of movement was reserved to the worker and the consumer, never to the person, never to the citizen forced to stay at home, it became clear that the interest of the rulers was never the psychophysical health of people but the protection of the capitalist system.
At a simple level, the cardinal conceptual point on which the intrinsic logic of pandemic management is revealed lies in the concept of care. Assuming — and obviously not conceding — that the protection of people at risk has been chosen as a priority, many of the measures adopted without any objective evidence of validity and necessity have revealed a conception of health as a matter of pure biological functionality and survival. The questionable bulletins with the numbers of positives, hospitalized and covid deaths with which we have been bombarded daily for over a year have completely obscured, in a blackmailing way, a much more widespread suffering: the death in total isolation of the sick and the denial of funerals in the name of emergency; the suffering of loneliness and distance to which millions of young people of school age have been condemned indefinitely, with the related psychological damage found in the increasingly common forms of depression and self-harm; the same forms of depression that are difficult to quantify caused in people driven to poverty by the economic crisis, in the elderly and the frail.
This cynical and nihilistic contempt shown by power invites us to ask essential questions for any society. What is biological survival without mental well-being? What does the moment of death mean without the possibility of the comfort of loved ones? The invitation, certainly not encouraging for us inhabitants of the XXI century, is to look for the re-shift in the most beautiful historical essays on the relationship between man, disease and death in the “dark ages” of the Middle Ages or in the communities far away in space and time studied by the greatest anthropologists. Considering that in normal conditions, depression and mental disorders are already the characteristic pathologies of the ever-increasing capitalist anomie, the protection of an existence erected to mere biological survival, which has completely deprived social and public life of its power, is the manifestation of the deadly essence of capitalism laid bare by the virus. On the other hand, it is quite tautological that in the world of the commodity the only public health measures are those that protect its health, i.e. its production and its consumption. Since we could not suspend that cycle, we had to show that something was being done.
Innumerable times we have been told that in the emergency we had to eliminate the superfluous, that is, everything that was not going to work and shopping and then shut ourselves in and survive at home, watching television and delegating social relations to virtual networks and aperitifs on zoom.
The pandemic has literally revealed the naked life of the idea of happiness that underlies the “religion of capitalism” (Benjamin). When the authorities denied not only gatherings but free circulation and any movement other than to go to work and perform the functions of pure survival, we simply witnessed a brutal demonstration of the ideology of rationalist and disciplinary urbanism, invented by Le Corbusier with the Athens Charter in 1933, namely the necessity that cities and our lives in them should be pure functions of the needs of the economic machine. To discomfort the sanitary dictatorship in front of this emergency shift of normality is not very useful. As someone has abundantly understood and demonstrated for some time now (from Benjamin to Mumford, from Lefebvre to the Situationists), metropolises have been structurally conceived and organized for this purpose for at least a century. Where not even the most basic forms of individual freedom, completely irrelevant to the spread of the virus, have been guaranteed, it seems obvious that the implicit message that has been passed on is that sociality and public action represent the pinnacle of the superfluous. And if the history of the last century teaches that governments treasure the experiments imposed in emergency situations and almost never go back — both in terms of legislation and, above all, in the psychological imposition of a new normality -, it is easy to imagine what the dystopian reflections of this dark present might be in the near future.
The necessary compendium of this vision of health, care and collective well-being has been the rhetoric of individual responsibility and the relative guilt with which the uniform voice of power has branded as irresponsible egoists and enemies of public health all those who have dared to express perplexity about the regulations that have been imposed in the name of the health emergency. The collective administrative arrests allowed the authorities to test the power of their propaganda and police skills, measuring the level of submission of the population to arbitrary orders, often blatantly contradictory and infantilizing. This process has been made possible by a resignation in the face of catastrophe which, although in this case it is circumstantial to a small virus, at the level of the collective unconscious is evidently felt as increasingly pervasive and inescapable. “As a false consciousness that arises spontaneously from the humus of mass society — that is, from the anxiety-inducing environment that it has created everywhere — catastrophism certainly expresses first and foremost the fears and sad hopes of all those who expect their salvation from a safety net through the reinforcement of obligations.” So wrote Riesel and Semprun in 2008 in Catastrophism; with the climate created by pan-democracy, the emotional plague of sad passions by which we have been besieged for decades has accelerated paroxysmally. Although we are clearly not faced with the Black Plague of the fourteenth century, public discourse has been literally devoured by a totalitarian leaden climate, almost as if the fact of escaping from day to day from a death as invisible as it is apparently omnipresent makes a daily survival based on the need to renounce everything that separates us from being pure bio-logical organisms more bearable. If in the decades of the post-World War II economic boom, capitalism had convinced us to accept “the barter of the guarantee of not dying of hunger with the certainty of dying of boredom” (Vaneigem), today’s pandemic is used to remind us that the fun is over, that asking ourselves epochal questions about what it means to live decently is a luxury we can no longer afford, that the old “idea of happiness” metro-boulot-dodo (or the more prosaic produce-consume-crack) is the maximum we can aspire to, with a few more sprinkles of technological comfort, waiting for an end as certain as catastrophic.
Within the Kafkaesque labyrinth of CPMDs, decrees, ordinances, rules and colors with which our lives have been put in check for more than a year, the manifesto of the punitive logic of the management of the pandemics has been the imposition of the curfew, a measure that the authorities themselves have repeated ad nauseam that has no reason of health prophylaxis but of pure psychological message for the population. It was not enough to close the clubs, cinemas and theaters, that is, all those activities that in our cities eliminate 99% of life and social relations after 10 pm, especially in the winter months and on weekdays. No, the fact that you can’t even take a walk alone in the desert — as well as go to a beach in November or walk in the green — was a blatant demonstration of an authority that wanted to show off absolute power, testing the collective capacity for endurance, and giving an unequivocal warning to people: you are subjects, not citizens, and freedom is a concession not a right.
THE LANGUAGE. Propaganda and neoLanguage to manage the past and accept the future -
As Klemperer teaches in his masterful The Language of the Third Reich — a milestone in the history of the Nazis’ effectiveness in communication and propaganda — language, the choice and imposition of words, is a fundamental weapon for any form of power in contemporary mass society. The dissemination of the language of an authority that does not allow contradiction becomes a very effective device in allowing to approve on the accepted thought and to remove the critical spirit. So today, a few decades later, mutatis mutandis, the totalitarian authority constituted by the state of exception based on the health emergency has dismissed any criticism of the management of the pandemic as a denialist position — a term abominably dethroned by the horrors of Nazi history — conspiratorial, anti-scientist. Every nuance of thought has been negated by an obsessive mantra of pure propaganda.
“We are at war.” The nauseating war rhetoric that has been bombarding us for a year — the same one that justifies as “collateral damage” existential suffering of various kinds, annihilating them on the moralistic scale of “risks vs. benefits” — in a war where there is no visible enemy, in flesh and blood, has served to divide the collective army of the population into friends and enemies, labeling those who did not align themselves with the confidence in the authorities and their way of managing the pandemic automatically as a suspect, a deserter, an internal enemy of the community. Denialism and conspiracy have been overused categories in recent months to neutralize and disrupt, trivializing the ridiculous positions of a very small minority, a diffidence that is actually quite widespread towards the decisions of power. To understand the danger of this nonchalant use of certain concepts and the effective use of propaganda by totalitarian systems, it would be enough to remember how, less than eighty years ago, as conspirators were eti- cated the very few who, in spite of the certain evidence shown by those who had become aware of it, wanted to believe in the existence of the extermination camps opened by the Nazis after the Wansee conference.
Alongside the propaganda, in censoring any critical thought against the constituted authority, in recent months has gained space an update of the Orwellian neolanguage. How this neo-language of the pandemic is inscribed in the tradition of rhetoric bent to the purposes of propaganda, we are reminded by the words of Socrates reported by Plato over 2400 years ago in the Gorgia: “Therefore, the rhetorician and rhetoric are in this position compared to all the other arts: there is no need for him to know how things are in themselves, but it is only necessary that he find some device of persuasion, so as to give the impression, to people who do not know, to know more than those who know. So the precise choice to spread some concepts in the public discussion is understandable only in function of the worldview of those accelerationist elites who make no secret of wanting to turn the pandemic crisis into an opportunity for renewal of the capitalist megamachine.
A striking example of this mechanism was the choice to call the prophylactic measure of distancing “social” instead of, as would have been obvious, “physical”. In order to understand this choice, we must seriously consider the refrain that we have been repeated over and over again, that we will not return to the pre-pandemic world, that is, that many norms experimented in this year will become the habits of the way of life of the near future. In fact, social distancing is the primary matrix of this way of life. Distance learning, smart working, an increasingly virtual sociality and relationships are what the World Economic Forum and the major corporations promise us will be the future of progress in the new post-pandemic era: socially distanced and technically “augmented” lives that deny what puts people in direct contact with each other, allowing a collective life that is not the mere sum of individuals.
The city as a polis, a place of politics, definitively eclipsed in the algorithmic networks of smart cities; the public agora replaced by the virtual squares of zoom and meet; the active life of the citizen as a political animal further annihilated in the increasingly separate and technocratic trajectories of entertainment and consumption; smart working, that will decree the definitive demise of work as a collective social fact at the expense of an increasingly widespread and automatic exploitation; distance learning is even more devastating in the transformation of education into a standardized and de-socialized learning typical of a machine society. For the proponents of this progress, the pandemic is therefore a great opportunity to experiment with a “new normality” based on an eternal present of a set of monads: no longer a community that manifests itself according to political actions, but a flock (another term on whose use perhaps not accidental should be reflected, not only ironically) that, as such, must be governed with tools worthy of an intensive farming. The machine-society — already prophesied by the dystopian science fiction of Zamjatin (Us), Orwell (1984), Huxley (The New World) and Vonnegut (Mechanical Plan) and updated on a consumerist and securitarian use of technology, artificial intelligence and digitization — is the horizon that shows us the experimental meaning of the current management of the pandemic and against which the population seems increasingly devoid of moral and political defense.
The same neo-linguistic mechanism manifests itself in other concepts to which we are becoming accustomed in the discourse of politicians and the media: from “resilience”, as the ability to adapt rather than resist change, to “ecological transition”, as a coat of green paint to the future that implies the same “ecological imbroglio” that has been going on for decades. As acknowledged by the proponents of the fourth industrial revolution, which is supposed to get impetus from the pandemic crisis, what has been experienced in recent months has been the acceleration of processes already in place, with respect to whose social consequences, however, the vast majority of people would probably have been more resistant. In this sense, the pandemic emergency was an opportunity to weaken this resistance by imposing an adaptation, the “resilience” precisely.
As the Situationists wrote in their magazine in 1966 (The Captive Words): “Wherever separate power takes the place of the autonomous action of the masses, and therefore where bureaucracy takes over the direction of all aspects of social life, it comes to grips with language and reduces its poetry to the vulgar prose of its information.
Bureaucracy appropriates language, privatizing it like everything else, and imposes it on the masses. Language then has the task of communicating its messages and containing its thought: it is the material support of its ideology. That language is first and foremost a means of communication between men, the bureaucracy ignores. Since all communication passes through it, men don’t even need to talk to each other anymore: they must first of all assume their role of receptors, in the network of informationist communication to which the whole society is reduced, receptors of orders to be executed”. In the perspective of finding again spaces of accessibility in concrete spaces, it would be opportune to start again from the critique of language in function of a critical thought, that is to say from calling things by their name within a precise context, provided that the present and the future that are being designed still move us to a certain repulsion. Perhaps then we will treasure the precious definition of capitalism given by Kafka to his friend Janusch a century ago, when, in front of a drawing by Grosz reproducing a fat man with a top hat on the money of the poor, he said: “That the fat man is capitalism is not entirely accurate. The fat man dominates the poor within a given system. But he is not the system itself. He is not even the one who dominates it. On the contrary, the fat man himself wears chains that he does not show in the illustration. The drawing is incomplete. That is why it is not a good drawing. Capitalism is a system of dependencies: from the inside to the outside, from the outside to the inside, from the top to the bottom and from the bottom to the top. Everything is dependent, everything is concatenated. Capitalism is a state of the world and of the soul.” If the pandemic is an effect and a mirror of this state of the world and the soul, recovery from the former without a definitive liberation from the latter will be as ephemeral and artificial as an aperitif with friends on a zoom or a walk under the threat of curfew.
Leonardo Lippolis, June 2021