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We are all in this together: from global pandemic to global solidarities

To be effective, social movements’ actions must be grounded in effective organisational dynamics and democratic decision-making. Alternatively, individual isolation and social fragmentation could escalate the crisis.

Giuseppe Caruso
2 June 2020
Slavoj Žižek presenting his book "Some Blasphemic Reflexions", 2015.
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Wikicommons/Amrei-Marie. Some rights reserved.
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The spread of the current global pandemic is unprecedented. Future consequences are difficult to predict (will global geopolitics be radically altered? Will the global dominant economic system be superseded? Will the pandemic spell doom for the global metropolis?). The degree of uncertainty heightens paranoid states of mind (such as the belief that the virus was produced in a lab and unleashed on the world with perverse intentions).

In such critical moments, some believe that the time of politics accelerates, that slow decision-making must be superseded by fast-paced executive actions. The guidance of experts and the support of science (as if it were one and universally coherent) are widely invoked. But science that is itself struggling to respond to the new data and to the salvific projections that it is subjected to by citizens and governments alike. By the beginning of April, as the initial shock started to sink in, the WTO compared the current crisis to the Great Depression, warning of similar consequences especially on the most vulnerable sections of the world population.

As the weakest and most vulnerable are bracing themselves to face the brunt of the coronavirus consequences, from many parts inspired collective actions begin to create a network of activists-led responses to the crisis building potentially global solidarity networks. After the 2008 crisis, the World Social Forum, the largest global civil society initiative to date, organised one of its most successful events in Brazil. Participants were galvanized by the need to work globally to provide a response to the consequences of the global financial crisis. The event resonated with slogans like "Your crisis, Our solutions".

This slogan reverberated around the planet among movement activists and boosted the mood in the WSF for a few years. The so-called Arab Spring and the Squares movements contributed to that impetus. The crucial point made by that slogan and those protests was that the crisis was due to the global prevalence of individualistic and exploitative capitalism compounded by patriarchy and colonialism. The current systems of political participation through political representation were deemed, in fact, to be counterproductive to individual and group emancipation and were profoundly contested. An adequate response, activists all over the world believed, one that subverts that mind-set (political, economic and cultural), needed to be grounded in global solidarity and cooperation.

At the moment, however, it seems as though the WSF may have to postpone its 2021 global event. This was meant to be a particularly celebratory one as it marked the 20th anniversary since its first meeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January 2001. But it is also possible that a renewed capillary reconnection of allied networks around issues and platforms of global corona governance, could give a new boost of energy to its process. Some of its constitutive networks are particularly prominent in coordinating social movements responses to the corona crisis in all continents of the planet. Perhaps, the extent to which so much communication is currently based on the proficient use of Internet-based technologies might contribute in the future to activist organising. As activists become more adept at using technologies, the global solidarity movement in the future, could become more inclusive, less dependent on the discriminating availability of travel resources, and allow for the representation of otherwise unheard people, discourses and interests.

Global solidarities in a wide regime of global political interconnection could be strengthened by densely networked practices developed locally but also in the new global localities afforded by shared online communication platforms. The speed of the uptake of these new forms of communication and collective action was unthinkable only a few weeks ago. How they will shape collective solidarities and global narratives, will in turn impact on how the world works through the effects of the pandemic. “Collective solidarities” and the effects of “conviction narratives” and the framing of the crisis on decision-making are at the core of two recent commentaries by Slavoj Zizek and David Tuckett about the global response to the coronavirus pandemic. I will consider them in turn.

Trauma and mourning in coronavirus times

Reflecting on the reactions to the pandemic, Slavoj Zizek quotes Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s work. She proposed an analysis of the cycle of grief in five phases: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These phases are not strictly limited to mourning death, but all catastrophic losses (a job, a relationship, the failure of a project or of an idea). The progression through phases is not linear and some of them are experienced several times before the work of mourning is completed. Sometimes this process fails. Sigmund Freud called un-mourned loss melancholia, a severe psychological condition. Zizek finds that “[o]ne can discern the same five stages whenever a society is confronted with some traumatic event.” He illustrates his point with examples of ecological catastrophe, digital control, the Trump presidency and medieval plagues. On the coronavirus pandemic he writes:

“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).”

How could we, he wonders, gain acceptance, the final working through of the traumatic loss? What would such an acceptance look like, for individuals, groups, communities, global society? For Zizek, we need to accept that this pandemic will not “explode and then fizzle away”, it will “stay here and just persist, bringing permanent fear and fragility to our lives.” We should accept “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.”

This is literally true, but it is even more poignant in its metaphoric sense. What Zizek describes is the sub-human quality of a life that has not reconciled itself with its vulnerability and mortality. A life which is undead (not quite alive but not dead either), pre-sexual (cannot connect with others to create something new), it is stupidly repetitive (like Socrates’s unexamined life or Hannah Arendt’s parvenu existence, these are devoid of any self-determination). This anti-life drive lives in individuals, groups, and societies as a dark shadow, it is what Freud called the death drive. The virus Zizek describes is deeply nested in our depth and manifests itself through denialism, negation and disavowal of reality.

Perhaps, though, Zizek’s meditation on what he defines as the “meaninglessness of our lives” in the face of such a devastating pandemic, is somewhat overstated. We do live fragile existences destined for death, but they are not necessarily meaningless. The pandemic does not have an inherent meaning but in accepting the lack of a necessary meaning (a profound loss in itself) exists the possibility of collectively making and giving sense as, in fact, he writes later on.

If, on the one hand, acceptance may seem to indicate an act of submission to an overwhelming power against which there is no possible emancipation, on the other, accepting our existential vulnerability and mortality as facts of life does, in fact, free us. Fear and fragility can be worked through, if in incomplete and precarious ways, into creative and meaningful, autonomous existences. The time of politics and autonomous action can be reclaimed and executive actions by omnipotent leaders guided by omniscient scientists do not need to be wished for. This is also Zizek’s conclusion when he suggests “collective solidarity” as an adequate response to the pandemic and to the risk of authoritarian drifts.

Seen like this, the present coronavirus outbreak offers also an opportunity amid the death and despair it brings. The sudden and profound shock, makes denying human vulnerability impossible. Perhaps, then, we can spare ourselves the narcotic, deadening, effects of the denial pandemic. Those same effects that led us to the brink of ecological catastrophe and escalated destructive social inequities. Might we be able to appreciate the need but also the possibility to radically change our way of life, or will we want to continue on the path of denial and omnipotence that makes us believe that mere technological arrangements will prevent ecological disaster? Will we attempt to rebound into more of the same and remain on track for catastrophe? Alternatively, will we be able to accept our vulnerability and make radical changes to the way we relate to each other on a global scale and to the environment?

Zizek crucially makes an association between pandemics and protest movements. This should make us acutely aware how these processes of recognition and acceptance of human mortality and interrelatedness are very different between and indeed within communities. Individual and collective emancipation are intertwined and dependent on each other. Let me turn now to a reading of the current crisis that contributes further insight on the relationship between acceptance of the facts of life, solidarity, and meaningful collective representations and political action.

Decision-making in critical times

David Tuckett is director of the Centre for the Study of Decision-Making Uncertainty at University College London. Through his groundbreaking work he developed a model of decision-making in fast-paced and stress-intense environments where impacts are extensive on the lives of many. He recently reflected, on the response to the covid-19 pandemic by financial markets. His considerations apply to the general pattern of responses to the pandemic by national and transnational governance institutions.

Crudely simplified, Tuckett’s model pivots around three points. Individuals and groups develop 1) “conviction narratives” to justify their pursuit of 2) “phantastic objects” (unconscious beliefs) in contexts of radical uncertainties about the future. The response to traumatic events (caused by the loss of highly invested “phantastic objects”) ranges from 3) illusion-based behaviour to reality-based thinking.

After the shock of the current pandemic, a “phantastic object”, the belief of control over external events and individual lives has been shattered. Like for Zizek, what is lost in the traumatic event is also the belief in an individual and collective omnipotent self and a life devoid of uncertainty. Such belief had been structured into narratives that, in the face of an active denial of the real facts of life, sustained the decisions actors (individual and collective) took in going about their lives. With the explosion of the coronavirus, reality has made a violent irruption into the lives of virtually all human beings (though with dramatically different impacts). The shock caused by this violent disruption (in fact, invalidation) of their belief systems, compounds the actual losses caused by the pandemic (bereavement, isolation, joblessness).

Traumas strike in unexpected and unpredictable ways. They provoke profound disruptions to individuals’ and groups’ sense of self and belonging. Often, responses are sought in the belief system invalidated by the trauma and that contributed to shape the configuration of the crisis in the first place. A new belief system has not yet been developed. In the interregnum, helplessness can prevail and actions may be ineffective. This state of affairs can further heighten the feeling of impotence in the face of trauma. Without mourning the loss of the phantastic object, it can be impossible to mourn the loss of a dear person, a job, one’s lifestyle.

Recall how for Zizek the first stage of grief is denial. In his interview, Tuckett reflects on how slowness to react is not surprising in the first phase of major crises. Accusations of indolence have been voiced widely. China, Italy, the UK, the US, Brazil, India, the WHO have been accused of downplaying the severity of the challenge. Whereas the reasons and the rationale attributed vary, what strikes one is the global prevalence of these accusations. Recall, again, Zizek’s characterisation: “nothing serious is going on, some irresponsible individuals are just spreading panic”. The invitations to carry on as usual have been widespread (sometimes justified by misconceptions of the real consequences of deliberately pursuing herd immunities).

The realisation of the changed circumstances comes as a shock. Tuckett describes such a shock when financial markets fell dramatically on March 9. First, there was a cut in interest rates in the US in the teeth of a president who denied that the coronavirus was more severe than the seasonal flu. Later that day, there was a drop in oil price by 10 USD. The consequence of these combined reality checks manifested itself in a spate of major value losses across the world.

In the quoted interview, referring to the market gains on March 10, Tuckett says: "The rebound on Tuesday is nothing more than the attempt by market players to try to hang on to their illusions of yesterday." Alternatively, he suggests, the current trauma can be worked through if investors, and more broadly those affected by the coronavirus pandemic, will collectively create new conviction narratives, new representations, “that will integrate the new health situation” and its implications.

The process of construction of new conviction narratives and lifestyles can be illustrated with the following image suggested by Stefano Bolognini, former president of the International Psychoanalytic Association. In an online webinar on the current pandemic, he suggested that we could think of ourselves as currently living in tents after a powerful earthquake has destroyed or made unsafe our homes. The tent, which deceptively reminds us of holiday camping and adventure, is not an exciting place at all to live in when your life has been dramatically changed by events beyond your control. The image of the tent and its associations invites us also to consider the following. Whose houses were most affected? Villas, condos, shanties? Historical buildings or more recent ones? Will the new houses be weak like the ones that fell? Or, will they be stronger and sustainable for all? These are questions that global activists have been asking also before the crisis, and are now raising once again with added stress.

The houses we lived in will not be restored, but new ones will be built. What those houses will look like, what the neighbourhood, and indeed, what the world will look like, depends on many factors. Tuckett observes that financial markets entered this crisis with a mindset of illusory optimism similar to the one preceding the 2008 crisis. Financial operators acted as though they could control financial markets to a greater extent than was in fact possible. Politically, economically, socially, global society approached this crisis with a similar mindset of denial and the delusion of control. Nuclear disaster, environmental catastrophe and increasing social inequality are three current devastating prospects the reality, or possibility, of which is being denied.

Similarly, for Zizek the acceptance of this crisis “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.” It is through widespread solidarity that meaning is found and given and crises overcome. Global activist networks including the environmental, peace, and human rights movements (human right to work, to food, to housing, to health) could contribute the energies and the thinking to work through this crisis. In turn, the struggle to work through the present crisis could contribute to addressing the denial of these environmental and social crises.

To restate this point, this crisis is a collective trauma. Both words carry the meaning of laceration and cutting. The global trauma separates each of us from everyone else and from our previous selves. When the wound is not mortal, trauma can force us to mobilise healing energies. As the trauma is collective now, it could mobilise collective healing energies.

I wish to thank the Academy of Finland for financial support to the research project ‘Democratic Decision-Making within Transnational Social Movements’.

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