Will the Coronavirus change the world? On Gramsci’s ‘Interregnum’ and Žižek’s ethnocentric philosophy
|Ramzy Baroud – Romana Rubeo 13/05/2020|
The prophecies are here and it is a foregone conclusion: the post-coronavirus world will look fundamentally different from anything that we have seen or experienced, at least since the end of World War II.
Even before the ‘curve flattened’ in many countries that have experienced high death tolls – let alone economic devastation – as a result of the unhindered spread of the COVID-19 disease, thinkers and philosophers began speculating, from the comfort of their own quarantines, about the many scenarios that await us.
The devastation inflicted by the coronavirus is likely to be as consequential as “the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of the Lehman Brothers,” wrote Foreign Policy magazine in a widely read analysis, entitled ‘How the World Will Look After the Coronavirus Pandemic’.
While major newspapers and news media outlets jumped on the bandwagon of trying to construct the various post-coronavirus possibilities, Foreign Policy sought the views of twelve thinkers, each providing their own reading of the future.
Stephen M. Walt concluded that “COVID-19 will create a world that is less open, less prosperous, and less free”.
Robin Niblett wrote that it is “highly unlikely… that the world will return to the idea of mutually beneficial globalization that defined the early 21st century”.
‘Mutually beneficial’ is a phrase deserving of a completely different essay, as it is a claim that can easily be contested by many small and poor countries.
Be that as it may, globalization was a focal point of discussion among many of the twelve thinkers, although a major point of contention was whether globalization will remain in place in its current form, whether it will be redefined or discarded altogether.
Kishore Mahbubani wrote that, “the COVID-19 pandemic will not fundamentally alter global economic directions. It will only accelerate a change that had already begun: a move away from US-centric globalization to a more China-centric globalization”.
And so on…
While political economists focused on COVID-19’s impact on major economic trends, globalization and the resultant shift of political power, environmentalists emphasized the fact that the quarantine, which has affected the vast majority of the world’s population, raises hopes that it might not be too late for Planet Earth after all.
Numerous articles, citing scientific research and accompanied by photo galleries that illustrate the blue skies over Delhi and the clean waters of Venice, all underline the point that the upcoming ‘change’ will prove most consequential for the environment.
With prophecies afoot, even discredited philosophers such as Slavoj Zizek, tried to stage a comeback, offering their own predictions of ‘ideological viruses’, including “the virus of thinking about an alternate society, a society beyond nation-state, a society that actualizes itself in the forms of global solidarity and cooperation”.
In his article, published in the German newspaper Die Welt, Zizek proposes what he describes as a ‘paradox’: while COVID-19 constitutes a ‘blow to capitalism’ it “will also compel us to re-invent communism based on trust in the people and in science”.
Ironically, only a few years ago, Zizek, who is often referred to as a ‘celebrity philosopher’, advocated an ethnocentric discourse targeting refugees, immigrants and Muslims.
“I never liked this humanitarian approach that if you really talk with them (meaning war refugees who sought safety in Europe) you discover we are all the same people,” Zizek said in his book ‘Refugees, Terror and other Troubles with the Neighbors’. “No, we are not — we have fundamental differences.”
In an article discussing Zizek’s book, published in Quartz, Annalisa Merelli wrote, “Following the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, Zizek warned that liberals need to let go of the taboos that prevent open discussion of the problems that come from admitting people of different cultures to Europe, and in particular the denial of any public safety danger caused by refugees.”
This supposedly ‘Marxist philosopher’ went even further, borrowing from Christian theology in explaining that “the Christian motto ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ is not as simple as it appears,” criticizing the alleged ‘prohibition’ by some leftist circles of “any critique of Islam”.
“It is a simple fact that most of the refugees come from a culture that is incompatible with Western European notions of human rights,” Zizek wrote, conveniently omitting that it is Western imperialism, colonialism and wars of economic dominance that have been the main triggers of Middle Eastern crises for at least a century.
It would be safe to assume that Zizek’s unorthodox ‘reinvention of communism’ excludes millions of refugees who are paying the price, not for the ills of ‘the global economy’ – as he conveniently proposes – but for war-driven Western hegemony and neo-colonialism.
Our seemingly-disproportionate emphasis on Zizek’s unsettling ideas is only meant to illustrate that ‘celebrity philosophy’ is not only useless in this context, but also a distraction from a truly urgent discussion on the mechanics of equitable change in society, a process currently hindered by war, racism, xenophobia, and populist-centric far-right ideologies.
In truth, it is far easier to predict the future of globalization or air-pollution when analysts are confronted with straight-forward indicators – technological advancement, exports, currency valuation, and air quality.
But speaking of the reinvention of society, with little credibility to boot, is the equivalence of intellectual guesswork, especially when the so-called intellectual is almost entirely detached from the trials of everyday society.
The problem with most analyses of the various ‘futures’ that lie ahead is that very few of these predictions are predicated on an honest examination of the problems that have plagued our past and afflicted our present.
But how are we to chart a better understanding and a suitable response to the future and its many challenges if we do not truly and honestly confront and dissect the problems that have taken us to this dismal point of global crisis?
We concur. The future will bring about change. It ought to. It must. Because the status quo is simply unsustainable. Because the wars in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan; the Israeli occupation of Palestine; the dehumanization and economic strangulation of Africa and South America, and so on, must not be allowed to become an everyday occurrence.
But for that better, more equitable future to arrive, our understanding of it must be situated within a historically valid, ideologically defensible, and humane view of our troubled world, of ourselves and of others – and not within the detached and callous view of mainstream Western economists or celebrity philosophers.
It is indeed strange how Zizek and his like can still embrace an ethnocentric view of Europe and Christianity while still being viewed as ‘communist’. What strange breed of communism is this ideology that does not acknowledge the centrality and history of global class struggles?
If we are to place the Marxist class struggle within broader and more global terms, it is befitting and tenable, then to assume that Western powers have historically represented the ‘ruling classes’, while the colonized and historically oppressed Southern hemisphere makes up the ‘subordinate classes’.
It is this dynamic of oppression, usurpation and enslavement that fueled the ‘engine of history’ – the Marxist notion that history is propelled by internal contradictions within the system of material production.
It would be simply naive to assume that an outbreak of a pandemic can automatically and inexorably, in itself, propel and produce change, and that such a romanticized ‘change’ will intuitively favor the ‘subordinate classes’, whether within local societal structures or at a global level.
There is no denial that the current crisis – whether economic or within the healthcare system – is fundamentally a structural crisis that can be traced to the numerous fault-lines within the capitalist system, which is enduring what Italian anti-fascist intellectual and politician Antonio Gramsci refers to as ‘interregnum’.
In his ‘Prison Notebooks’, Gramsci wrote: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
The ‘variety of morbid symptoms’ were expressed in the last two decades in the gradual decay, if not decimation, of the very global system that was constructed ever so diligently by capitalist Western forces, which shaped the world to pursue their own interests for nearly a century.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s was meant to usher in a whole new world – uncontested, militaristic to the core and unapologetically capitalist. Little of that has actualized, however. The first US-led Iraq military adventure (1990-91), the parallel ‘new world order’ and subsequent ‘new Middle East’, and so on, ultimately, amounted to naught.
Frustrated by its inability to translate its military and technological superiority to sustainable dominance on the ground, the US and its Western allies fell apart at a much faster rate than ever expected. Barack Obama’s administration’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ – accompanied by military retreat from the oil-rich Middle East – was only the beginning of an inevitable course of decline that no US administration, however belligerent and irrational, can possibly stop.
Largely helpless before relentless crises facing the once-triumphant capitalist order, dominant Western institutions, the likes of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU), grew useless and dysfunctional. No prophecies are required here to assume that the post-coronavirus world will further undermine the very idea behind the EU. Interestingly, although not surprisingly, the ‘European community,’ at the time of Europe’s greatest crisis since World War II, turned out to be a farce, since it was China and Cuba that extended a helping hand to Italy and Spain, not Germany, France or the Netherlands.
It is rather ironic that the very forces that championed economic globalization – and derided reluctant countries that refused to join in – are the same as those that are now advocating some form of sovereignism, isolationism, and nationalism.
This is precisely the ‘interregnum’ that Gramsci has talked about. It should not be taken for granted, however, that this political vacuum can be filled through wishful thinking alone, for real, lasting and sustainable change can only be the outcome of a mindful process, one that keeps in mind the nature of future conflicts and our ideological and moral position in response to these conflicts.
Celebrity philosophers certainly do not represent, nor do they earn the right to speak on behalf of the ‘subordinate classes’ – neither locally nor globally. What is needed, instead, is a counter ‘cultural hegemony’, championed by the true representatives of oppressed societies (minorities united by mutual solidarity, oppressed nations, and so on), who must be aware of the historical opportunity and challenges that lie ahead.
A distinct symptom of ‘interregnum’ is the palpable detachment exhibited by the masses towards traditional ideologies – a process which has begun much earlier than the outbreak of the coronavirus.
“If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e., is no longer ‘leading’ but only ‘dominant,’ exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously”, Gramsci wrote.
Admittedly, there is a problem with true democratic representation all over the world, due to the rise of military dictatorships (as in the case of Egypt), and far-right populism (as in the case of the US, various Western countries, India and so forth).
Bearing all of that in mind, simply counting on ‘trust in the people and in science’ – as disconcertingly prescribed by Zizek – will neither ‘re-invent communism’, restore democracy or redistribute wealth fairly and equitably among all classes. And, needless to say, it will not bring the Israeli occupation to an end or humanely end the global refugee crisis.
In fact, the opposite is true. Under the cover of trying to control the spread of the coronavirus, several governments have carried out authoritarian measures that merely aim at strengthening their grip on power, as was the case in Hungary and Israel.
Not that Hungary and Israel have been governed according to high democratic standards prior to the spread of the coronavirus. The collective panic that resulted from the high death-toll of a barely understood disease, however, served as the needed collective ‘shock’ – see Naomi Klein’s ‘Shock Doctrine’ – required by authoritarian regimes to seize the moment and to further erode any semblance of democracy in their own societies.
Following each and every global crisis, analysts, military strategists and philosophers take on whatever available platform to prophesize seismic changes and speak of paradigm shifts. Some even go as far as declaring the ‘end of history’, ‘clashes of civilizations’, or, as in the case of Zizek, a new form of communism.
French critic and journalist, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (born November 1808), has once written that “the more things change, the more they continue to be the same thing”.
Indeed, without a people-propelled form of change, the status quo seems to constantly reinvent itself, restoring its dominance, cultural hegemony and undemocratic claim to power.
Undeniably, the global crisis invited by the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic embodies within it the opportunity of fundamental change (towards greater equality or greater authoritarianism), or no change at all.
It is us, the people, and our true authentic voices – the ‘organic intellectuals’, not the celebrity philosophers – who have the right and the moral legitimacy to rise up to reclaim our democracy and redefine a new discourse on a global, not ethnocentric, form of justice.
It is either that we exercise this option, or the current ‘interregnum’ will fizzle out into yet another missed opportunity.