Toward a Politics of Waking Up: Anarchist and Marxist Responses to COVID-19

It is not communism or mutual aid that we shall see at the other end of the pandemic but rather the new symptomatic responses of science and religion, which, in the final instance, are rather two sides of the same coin.

What is the anarchist and Marxist response to the pandemic? I want to outline two major responses. First, there has been the response of Slavoj Zizek and others — and I even include the Pope in this category — who have suggested that the pandemic offers the world the best chance to realize the possibility of international communism. Thus, this is the response which suggests that we are faced with a choice and that this choice has never been clearer: it is either communism or else it is the return to our old way of life. The catch is that it has become more and more clear that this is a forced choice, since we now have a consensus in the media that it is impossible to return to life as it was.

Second, there has been the response from anarchists who are finding in this moment — as they always do in moments of crisis — a reason to return to the old naive supposition that human beings either have a natural capacity to work together for the benefit of the entire planet or else that human beings ought to work together for the benefit of humanity. The anarchist argument always seems to collapse — whether they are aware of it or not — into a moral imperative: it is your responsibility; moreover, you should, partake in massive solidarity campaigns. This argument neglects Freud’s essential lesson about the neighbour: there is within the love of thy neighbour, within our pretensions of tolerance and mutual aid, an underlying aggression. Of course, there are also, alongside — as constitutive of the anarchist moral imperative — attacks upon the enemies of civilization (e.g., President Donald Trump, those who hoard toilet paper, those who do not share their wealth, and so on). These external enemies are constitutive of the human-centred response from anarchists, without which their discourse falls flat and their moral assertions and lust for superiority falls flat. The anarchist cannot admit the fact that humanity is at its core a monstrosity. It cannot recognize in the ‘goodness’ of its deeds the cunning super-egoic logic which smothers the subject within its asphyxiating morality.

The first response focuses on possibility: we are confronted with a choice, and it is the choice itself which becomes more and more of an imperative. The future is there in the future as the outcome of the forced choice. The second response focuses on a future which has already passed before us and we have only to concede to its cruel demands for generosity and selflessness. Yet, in both cases, humans exert themselves once again as the victor against forces which are more enigmatic and urgent than they ever were before. The agency which has now been foregrounded is not the symbolic or the imaginary but the real. Indeed, it is for this reason that scientific capitalism, which offers the world pragmatic solutions to urgent anxieties, and religion, which offers a quasi-sustainable anchoring point amidst the encroachment of the death drive, shall prevail.

It is not communism or mutual aid that we shall see at the other end of the pandemic but rather the new symptomatic responses of science and religion, which, in the final instance, are rather two sides of the same coin.

It is not communism or mutual aid that we shall see at the other end of the pandemic but rather the new symptomatic responses of science and religion, which, in the final instance, are rather two sides of the same coin. Max Weber demonstrated that the spirit of a social bond is a major factor in the determinations which follow thereafter, such that, the secular spirit of science, blended as it is with capitalism’s manufacturing of the real, is itself another formulation of the religious spirit which sustains our time. We have here, then, an altogether more pressing forced choice, since today’s master discourse is capitalist spirituality, otherwise referred to as Christianity.

If post-anarchism is to once again make an intervention into the contemporary situation then it shall only be to intervene into the field of anarchist consensus — the anarchists always seemed to gravitate toward what Jacques Ranciere named the ‘police’ function of ‘consensus’ — by demonstrating the contemporary forms of obscuration occurring amidst the pandemic by anarchists and anarchist thinkers. Such obscurations — all of those mentioned above — allow us to neglect the fact that the real has been here long before COVID-19 forced its way into our lives. COVID-19 is simply one name of the real, and we are lucky to even have a name of it. Incidentally, the word “pandemic” also obscures what is at stake, and possibly gives way to expressions of bio-politics: “pan” implies ‘universal’ and “demos” implies ‘the people.’ Yet it is precisely the people who are not at all universal in the face of the twenty-first century real: the people are proving themselves more and more singular vis-a-vis the real which compels them.

Once upon a time it was difficult to convince others that structures walked in the streets and now we are forced to convince them that the streets have fallen out from beneath our feet and have given way to an enigma which resists our knowing and controlling it.

Once upon a time it was difficult to convince others that structures walked in the streets and now we are forced to convince them that the streets have fallen out from beneath our feet and have given way to an enigma which resists our knowing and controlling it. The expression ‘blunting the curve’ sounds more and more like ‘taking the edge off.’ We attempt to sustain ourselves by tracing contours around city blocks, districts, countries, and psyches. The prior urgency of life now presents us with withdrawal symptoms so that we continue nonetheless to run after the truth about COVID-19, by refreshing our news feeds and by rediscovering self-help books and various ‘words of wisdom’ gleaned from youtube. We are like the coyote who runs off of the cliff, remaining suspended in the air with nothing beneath our feet.

A political choice does not at all present itself to us during this unique moment any more than our prior political being — our species being or our natural inclination toward sociability and mutual aid — offers us a way forward. The truth stands before us naked and traumatic. We shall return to capitalism not because we cannot find an alternative but precisely because it already is the alternative: it is the alternative to dictatorship and authoritarianism — the media is already regressing toward this narrative in their blaming of China. Political gestures of solidarity do not serve as a guarantee for this frightening new world: it too is a reality that we construct simply so that we can continue dreaming.

There is the Freudian narrative about a dream wherein the dreamer hears a child whisper: “Father, don’t you see I’m burning?” At that moment the father wakes up to see a bright glare of light in the other room. The father runs into the room and notices that his dead child was burned by the candle. The lesson is two-fold: the father incorporated the fire into the dream so that he could continue sleeping (in a world where the child is still alive), and the father woke up when the dream became too real.

There is therefore a politics to waking up on the condition that we recognize how rare it truly is to finally wake up.

It is this moment of nightmare that wakes us up. There is therefore a politics to waking up on the condition that we recognize how rare it truly is to finally wake up. We wake up only to continue dreaming. This was also the lesson I learned while in Pune, India, at the former Ashram of the crypto-Hindu sannyasin named Osho. He told his followers that our task is to live life like the Buddha with our eyes half opened, recognizing in this world only a dream outside of which there is no authentic reality.

I can only imagine the nightmare he must have had just before he died.

Associate Professor of Sociology & Psychoanalyst