It is easier to imagine the end of the world

Two quotes: 

“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

— Famously attributed to Slavoj Zizek. 

“Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.”

— Friedrich Engels. 

In the past few years, I’ve been observing the encroachment of socialism into the political establishments of leading first-world nations, specifically the United States of America and the United Kingdom. In America, I watched Bernie Sanders battling to battle Trump, and in the UK, I watched Jeremy Corbyn battling David Cameron (then Theresa May, then Boris Johnson, and their lapdogs in the media). 

The left and the right moved ever towards their extremities, and it seemed like a final decisive battle was being waged between humanity, as embodied in socialism, and barbarism, as embodied in the barely-there corpse of capitalism we insisted on dragging around. I watched UK and US electoral politics from a distance yet I always felt certain, right up till the very end, that our candidate (the people’s candidate) must win. There’s no way that he can’t win — conditions are so obviously terrible all around us! How could anyone be blind to that? How could anyone at all vote for anyone but him, unless they’re voters from 1% who only make up 1% anyway so who cares? 

Both times I’ve been proven wrong and both times, the idea that anyone would vote to maintain the status quo (or even to fight the status quo by moving right, as with Trump 2016) seemed shocking to me only up until the last minute. Maybe I just live in an echo chamber, maybe it’s difficult for me to separate what I want from what’s realistically possible. Campaign period is a huge frenzy of passion, hope, and propaganda, but the day before the election, when nothing is possible anymore, reality seems to return in a rush and settle heavily as the results come in. I thought Jeremy would win until he didn’t, and then his loss made sense; I thought Bernie might win the nomination until Joe started sweeping delegates, and the possibility already seems dead. 

In the first few days when lockdown measures started taking place all over the world and we started to feel the consequences of measures imposed desperately and recklessly in a state of crisis, I felt hopeful that this could be the start of something. With confused shock, the world watched every single thing that capitalism previously claimed was impossible become possible. Momentarily, it became easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the world. 

In Malaysia, some state governments started offering allowances to laid-off workers or one-off payments to their citizens. In a news piece I read today, the state has also stepped in to requisition face masks from a company accused of price-gouging (paralleling a case with an individual “entrepreneur” in the US). Spain has nationalised hospitals, while France and the UK have started housing homeless people in hotels, and the US Senate just passed an economic stimulus deal which proposes an emergency monthly allowance cheque of $1200 for certain individuals. Over Twitter, we watched how communist governments in Vietnam and China efficiently organised essential services during their lockdown. Vietnam put in place a centralised food production and delivery system instead of leaving it to individual businesses, which would have allowed cracks for exploitation to seep through. Doctors from China, Cuba, and Venezuela — all socialist/communist countries — were sent all over the world to help fight the pandemic. 

Momentarily, it seemed as if the contradictions within capitalism were exposing themselves faster than the virus. Graffiti appeared in London proclaiming, “MAKE THE RICH PAY FOR COVID 19” and “NO RENT” and “HANG RICHARD BRANSON”, punctuated with the hammer and sickle. People are becoming increasingly, aggressively aware that capitalism, and the governments who are colluding to protect capitalists, is incapable of dealing with a crisis. 

Where are the protections for workers? Why is the state, supposedly a “democratic” representation of “the people”, not overriding the will of landlords and employers to impose rent relief and unconditional sick pay? Why doesn’t the state provide a universal allowance, or if not that, then follow Vietnam’s lead in producing and distributing food to everyone who needs it? Many countries are announcing “stimulus packages” to alleviate the burden of Covid-19, but a lot of this money is going into ailing ventures like airline companies and the stock market. When will we stop prioritising businesses over individuals?

To start thinking in this way is to start thinking about a total revolution of all social relations. The energy is clearly there, all over the world, as governments and corporations are shown up by community efforts and soup kitchens. But just like the waves that Corbyn and Sanders rode in on, I feel like this one is going to abate. 

A friend asked me what my predictions for the aftermath of Covid-19 are, how I think this crisis may shape the new normal. I don’t think it will. (Besides perhaps an increased concern about hygiene.) Some people will be laid off, some businesses will close permanently, but this is already part of our everyday normal. All of the “socialist” measures now in place are crisis measures that will predictably be lifted again as the threat of the virus subsides and people try to square with the amount of carnage we’ve just lived through. We now know that full housing and an end to profiteering are within the realm of possibility, but the total structural change required to maintain this isn’t possible. We will most likely continue the way we were before, which is what many people want, but it means that we will never really be prepared to face another crisis without losing the same amount of people. 

When the lieutenant governor of Texas proposed that elderly people should be OK with sacrificing themselves to get the American economy back on track, or when Boris Johnson drew up his “herd immunity” plan, we should not see these as accurate reflections of the scale of the crisis. Rather, they are simply the limits of capitalism’s logic. Death and suffering are already written into capitalism’s programming code. In one of his coronavirus commentaries, Zizek points to a strange yet believable observation made by an environmental resource economist that China’s lockdown probably prevented more deaths from air pollution than which died during the entire Covid-19 outbreak there! By staying home, the amount of pollution that would have been generated by vehicles and factories decreased dramatically.

A funny point, but a reasonable one once you realise that capitalism needs to kill, pollute, and destroy in order to live. Under capitalism, people already slip through the cracks anyway. When people say that “capitalism is the only system that works”, they are saying that homelessness, destitution, discrimination, and violence are requirements for their system to function properly. As an economic philosophy that puts individual gain over collective safety, capitalism operates on profit first and humanitarian feelings second (and then only insofar as they serve or at the very least do not damage the increment of profit).

Migrants are also a “by-product” of capitalism because their labour can be bought for much cheaper than domestic labour; put in competition with domestic labour, both wages are forced down, which benefits no one except their bosses. This phenomenon of tenants being threatened with eviction by their landlords is also another symptom of capitalism, as only those with the initial capital to do so can buy up property and then squeeze tenants for rent despite performing minimal labour beyond covering some maintenance (some landlords do not even do that). Another one of capitalism’s direct products is the phenomenon of price-gouging — it seems cruel now in light of the crisis but private pharmaceutical companies make their money precisely in this manner with other essential medicines everyday. 

Socialism is the basic notion that nobody should have to struggle simply to live. Absolutely nobody. This is controversial to some. In my belief, everyone should be guaranteed, at the most minimum: food, a roof over their heads, basic education (at least literacy) and healthcare. This is not even to say that everyone should get their own house! (Even though I’m sure there are enough empty floors in all the pointless hotels, serviced apartments, and new phallic developments to house everyone.) Even just a communal apartment. Ho Chi Minh lived modestly in a traditional Vietnamese stilt house. Anyone who works really hard can get a better home or better food, whatever, but at the most minimum nobody should ever have to die just for being born, and if there are other luxuries that the elite few should give up to ensure this, then I think it is worth it.

Many consider this controversial but the bigger controversy should be capitalism and its requisite suffering. It is impossible to imagine its end because we have all been living under it for so long, but we must be able to try. We must question ourselves mercilessly about how badly we could want to hold on to our current way of living if someone has to die for it, or if the environment has to go to waste for it. (Nor is it a question of individual effort — while recycling and reducing one’s carbon footprint is admirable, the immense sacrifice of the environment requires an immense sacrifice in kind from us if we want to save it.) The lives we lose to coronavirus will not have been a failure of the doctors or nurses — they will have been a failure of the imagination. Many people fail to imagine how we could possibly save more people even as they refuse to do anything for the newly destitute. They keep asking how we will pay for it. Once you can start to believe the basic principle, all the answers will follow.

Dispatches from a distance

Day 3 of Malaysia’s Movement Control Order

I’m consuming a lot and posting a lot. The Movement Control Order (MCO) that started on March 18th hasn’t made me more productive or inspired at all, hasn’t turned me into a cool mysterious hermit writing the next great whatever instead of oversharing their domestic lives like everyone else. All that’s changed is that I check my phone more and sleep longer.

This renewed vigour in self-reflection and self-reinvention is another phenomenon I’ve started noticing on the Internet. It’s suddenly like New Year’s again: first, they started posting recommendations for self-isolating activities, then a girl appeared on my timeline with her ambitious social distancing schedule and then, exactly like New Year’s resolutions, I just saw my first “you don’t have to make the most out of a global pandemic” post (around New Year’s, this would be equivalent to the “you don’t have to make resolutions if you don’t want to; everyone grows at their own pace” type of posts). It’s a kind of lowkey cycle of reaction that will eat at you, if you let it, and, just like New Year’s, I’m starting to get weary. In a piece Zizek wrote on the coronavirus, he brought up Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s theory of the five stages of grief, which include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. He explains the stages of experiencing the trauma of coronavirus thus:

“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). But what would acceptance look like here? It is a strange fact that the epidemic displays a feature common with the latest round of social protests (in France, in Hong Kong…): they don’t explode and then pass away; rather, they stay here and just persist, bringing permanent fear and fragility to our lives. 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.”

Monitor and Punish? Yes, please! by Slavoj Zizek for The Philosophical Salon

I think he has a point to see traumatic world events in this way, but I also think that the Internet has sped up our reactions to things and also jumbled it, so that there’s not a linear or productive progression of grief anymore. In a day, I can go through denial (oh… it won’t get me; this MCO is useful but they did say I can go to the grocery store so it should be OK…), anger (what the fuck is going on with this world? Why is everyone so incompetent? Why is this even happening?!), and depression (this is the end, absolutely nothing will ever be the same, and there’s no going back) multiple times in different configurations according to what I read online; the only stages I haven’t felt yet are bargaining and acceptance. I’m moving forward by insistently staying at home and sending my friends the latest Covid-19 stats when they mention that they superfluously left the house (i.e. not to buy groceries or food, but perhaps even those are superfluous movements that we can’t do anything about), and there’s a glimmer of hope yet left in me that we will indeed get out of this on March 31st, but every time I read the news, especially coming out of Italy, the U.S., or the U.K., I am despondent again. Even if the tide turns, it won’t be the same — I’m convinced of that, but I don’t want to be. Based on his corona piece, Zizek would probably diagnose (correctly) that I’m afraid of confronting my own and all humankind’s mortality and contingency. 

“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, bring out, a stupid natural contingency like a virus or an asteroid can end it all… Not to mention the lesson of ecology which is that we, humanity, may also unknowingly contribute to this end.”

Monitor and Punish? Yes, please! by Slavoj Zizek for The Philosophical Salon

The immediacy of information also mixes up all signals. In the UK they’re on a crash course for disaster yet everyone is still walking free, seemingly without fear. The people who can quarantine themselves do, but it still seems like the majority of the population are waiting for someone to tell them to stay home, and that order just never comes. With that as information I’m easily able to access, one starts to doubt one’s own state-imposed movement control. Especially when I hear that some people are still making direct trips to their friends’ house for small hang-outs. 

So many laws seem so arbitrary now. As a friend on Twitter pointed out, when the MCO was announced there was a sudden spike in panic-buying and travelling, as if the virus will just pause its spread for the day and resume once the MCO is officially in place. And if Grab drivers can still pick up passengers, if Grab riders can still ride, and restaurant/pharmacy/supermarket staff can still go into work, then what’s the big deal if I just make one direct trip to a friend’s house, right?

If there are exceptions, people will always find a way to be exceptional, and that’s the whole gist of this pandemic isn’t it? That each individual is only capable of thinking of themselves. That the one thing that distinguishes us from beasts — our ability to think for ourselves — is the one thing that prevents us from the beautiful movement that some beasts are capable of, of moving blindly and intuitively with the herd, the collective. We’re making minor sacrifices now, but we don’t really know the meaning of real sacrifice yet. What happens if the government closes all restaurants, takes over food production and distribution, and you’re not allowed to go out to buy your favourite brands anymore? What happens if the government imposes a full lockdown and effectively takes over care of the vulnerable, and we find ourselves having to entrust them with our distant sick and/or elderly relatives, or young relatives in boarding schools/colleges? What happens if this outbreak really does last for as long as it takes to find a vaccine and we’re all stuck at home for the next few months, all our encounters with the outside world strictly virtual? What if production really grounds to a halt and private companies need to be nationalised? What does your government stand for and how much do you really trust them to save you in a crisis?

We may have had our opinions and misgivings about our government before, but the demographic of society that I and a lot of my friends fall into have rarely had to relinquish full agency of our lives over to the state. (This is why, in protests, you generally always have speakers acknowledging a list of other identities that are presumably more oppressed than the ones currently gathered there, such as migrant workers, refugees, indigenous peoples, etc.) Maybe a few annoyances here and there. Maybe a GST change here and there. But generally, I don’t think most of us have ever known what it is to give in totally. (Unless you’ve been in jail… which, OK, I know a couple of people.) 

The reason why I focus on the state as saviour is because the major battle now seems to be one between authority and individual will. Once the will of the capitalists and employers have been overcome, there remains the individual citizens’ will to overcome as well. There’ve been some amazing independent efforts popping up to offer the care and assistance that states are currently failing to provide, but it seems to me, based on China’s speedy recovery, that only a centralised effort can ensure that everyone is tested, everyone is equipped with the proper hygiene and safety gear to be leaving the house, and that only the people who are designated to leave the house are the ones doing so. It’s easier to not leave the house, to not stockpile, and to consider social distancing a collective effort when you trust that your government will not leave you to die. Knowing that there are vigilantes out there helps, but it’s not a proper safety net. 

In a utopic ideal, we give ourselves over to state control totally and the state fulfils its duties to the people. We look left and embrace a form of Communism like Zizek suggests, and we make sacrifices that we’ve never had to make, but which end up transforming us for the better. The relations we have with each other, and with our state, are totally revolutionised, and perhaps so are our private relations to our own mortality.

In a dystopic ending, the state bungles up their responsibility and things get massively worse with increased transgressions, with lootings and riots in the streets and violence in kind from the state; in a slightly less dystopic ending, they simply revert back to how they are now, but with greater and perhaps irreparable distrust towards the state. (Incidentally, how convenient that the one global phenomenon that is forcing such drastic considerations now is the one phenomenon that prevents people from assembling in public!)

Or maybe things continue as they are, and people continue to take risks as unprotected frontliners, and we continue to leave our houses at our own discretion. Maybe it takes a bit longer to stop the spread of coronavirus entirely (and maybe everything will change within the next few days; we live in those kinds of times now), but it is stopped eventually, sometime in the future, and the ones who remain drift back into their offices and resume their lives as before, but slightly shaken up now. During the MCO, perhaps the state is forced to implement policies that are staples of leftist ideologies such as emergency housing, rent alleviation, and monthly allowances or even a UBI, but these are reeled back when the threat dissipates. It’s up in the air whether we’d have learned our lesson or not, whether we’d be prepared to face another crisis or if the same amount of people would have to die again.

And maybe this is all exaggerated and melodramatic conjecture, but the whole world is in crisis and the only countries that seem to be handling it well are those that have imposed extensive state intervention. All around the world, people are cursing their governments for their action and inaction. What do you really expect from your state, and do you only want it now in a crisis or is it something you’re willing to live with? It’s a question worth contending with.