Last exit to Communism
6 May 2022
Famine in Africa; Image Credit: Organisation for World Peace
The pandemic and its aftermaths are our final chance to return to communism. It looks more and more that the last exit before the final one (collective suicide of humanity) will be some version of what was once called ‘War Communism’. It includes voluntarism(tasks ventured “against the spontaneous tendency of history”), egalitarianism (“global solidarity, healthcare and a minimum of decent life for all”), and terror necessary to realize the mission defined by its first two dimensions (“limitation of many personal freedoms, new modes of control and regulation”). It is not any kind of rehabilitation of or continuity with the 20th-century ‘really existing socialism,’ even less the global adoption of the Chinese model, but a series of measures which are imposed by the situation itself. This is the paradox we have to sustain in these crazy days: to accept that we are one among the species on Earth, and simultaneously to think and act as universal beings. To escape into the comfortable modesty of our finitude and mortality is not an option, it is a path to catastrophe.
The latest data make it clear that, even after the (very uneven) spread of vaccination, we cannot afford to relax and return to the old normal. Not only is the pandemic not over (infection numbers are rising again, new lockdowns are awaiting us), other catastrophes are on the horizon. At the end of June 2021, a ‘heat dome’ – a weather phenomenon where a ridge of high-pressure traps and compresses warm air, driving up temperatures and baking the region – over the Northwest of the US and the Southwest of Canada caused temperatures to approach 50 degrees Celsius, so that Vancouver was hotter than the Middle East.
This weather pathology is just the climax of a much wider process: in the last years, northern Scandinavia and Siberia regularly see temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius. The World Meteorological Organization is seeking to verify the highest-ever temperature north of the Arctic Circle since records there began, after a weather station in Siberia’s Verkhoyansk recorded a 38-degree day on June 20. The town of Oymyakon in Russia, considered to be the coldest inhabited place on Earth, was hotter (31.6C) than it has ever been in June. In short: “climate change is frying the Northern Hemisphere.” (1)
True, ‘heat dome’ is a local phenomenon, but it is the result of a global disturbance of patterns which clearly depend on human interventions into the natural cycles. While weather is generally getting hotter, this process reaches a climax in local extremes, and these local extremes will sooner or later coalesce in a series of global tipping points. To put it bluntly, we will have to get used to live with multiple simultaneous crises.
Not only is a heat wave at least partially conditioned by reckless industrial exploitation of nature, its effects also depend on social organization. At the beginning of July 2021, in Southern Iraq temperatures swelled over 50 degrees Celsius, and what occurred simultaneously was a total collapse of the electricity supply (no air-conditions, no refrigerator, no light) which made the place a living hell. This catastrophic impact was clearly caused by the enormous state corruption in Iraq, with billions of oil money disappearing in private pockets.
If we access this (and numerous other) data soberly, there is one simple conclusion to be drawn from them. For every living entity, collective or individual, the final exit is death (which is why Derek Humphry was right to entitle his 1992 suicide self-help book Final Exit). The ecological crises which are exploding lately open up a quite realist prospect of the final exit (collective suicide) of humanity itself. Is there a last exit from the road to our perdition or is it already too late, so that all we can do is find a way to painless suicide?
So what should we do in such a predicament? We should above all avoid the common wisdom according to which the lesson of the ecological crises is that we are part of nature, not its center, so we have to change our way of life – limit our individualism, develop new solidarity and accept our modest place in the life on our earth. Or, as Judith Butler put it, “an inhabitable world for humans depends on a flourishing earth that does not have humans at its center. We oppose environmental toxins not only so that we humans can live and breathe without fear of being poisoned, but also because the water and the air must have lives that are not centered on our own.” But is it not that global warming and other ecological threats demand of us collective interventions into our environment which will be incredibly powerful, direct interventions into the fragile balance of forms of life? When we say that the rise of average temperature has to be kept below 2 degrees Celsius, we talk (and try to act) as general managers of life on earth, not as a modest species.
In 1958, at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward, the Chinese government declared that ‘birds are public animals of capitalism’ and set in motion a large campaign to eliminate sparrows who were suspected of consuming approximately four pounds of grain per sparrow per year.
The regeneration of the earth obviously does not depend upon ‘our smaller and more mindful role’ – it depends upon our gigantic role which is the truth beneath all the talk about our finitude and mortality. If we have to care also about the life of water and air, it means precisely that we are what Marx called “universal beings,” as it were able to step outside ourselves, stand on our own shoulders, and perceive ourselves as a minor moment of the natural totality. To escape into the comfortable modesty of our finitude and mortality is not an option, it is a false exit to a catastrophe. As universal beings, we should learn to accept our environment in all its complex mixture that includes what we perceive as trash or pollution, as well as what we cannot directly perceive since it is too large or too minuscule (Timothy Morton’s “hyperobjects”). For Morton, being ecological
is not about spending time in a pristine nature preserve but about appreciating the weed working its way through a crack in the concrete, and then appreciating the concrete. It’s also part of the world, and part of us. Reality is populated with ‘strange strangers’ – things that are ‘knowable yet uncanny.’ This strange strangeness, Morton writes, is an irreducible part of every rock, tree, terrarium, plastic Statue of Liberty, quasar, black hole, or marmoset one might encounter; by acknowledging it, we shift away from trying to master objects and toward learning to respect them in their elusiveness. Whereas the Romantic poets rhapsodized about nature’s beauty and sublimity, Morton responds to its all-pervading weirdness; they include in the category of the natural everything that is scary, ugly, artificial, harmful, and disturbing. (2)
Is not a perfect example of such a mixture the fate of rats in Manhattan during the pandemic? Manhattan is a living system if humans, cockroaches… and millions of rats. Lockdown at the peak of the pandemic meant that, since all restaurants were closed, rats who lived off the trash from restaurants were deprived of the source of their food. This caused mass starvation: many rats were found eating their offspring… A closure of restaurants which changed the eating habits of humans but posed no threat to them was a catastrophe for rats, rats as comrades.
Another similar accident from recent history could be called ‘sparrow as comrade.’ In 1958, at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward, the Chinese government declared that ‘birds are public animals of capitalism’ and set in motion a large campaign to eliminate sparrows who were suspected of consuming approximately four pounds of grain per sparrow per year. Sparrow nests were destroyed, eggs were broken, and chicks were killed; millions of people organized into groups, and hit noisy pots and pans to prevent sparrows from resting in their nests, with the goal of causing them to drop dead from exhaustion.
These mass attacks depleted the sparrow population, pushing it to near extinction. However, by April 1960, Chinese leaders were forced to realize that sparrows also ate a large number of insects on the fields, so that, rather than being increased, rice yields after the campaign were substantially decreased: the extermination of sparrows upset the ecological balance, and insects destroyed crops as a result of the absence of natural predators. By this time, however, it was too late: with no sparrows to eat them, locust populations ballooned, swarming the country and compounding the ecological problems already caused by the Great Leap Forward, including widespread deforestation and misuse of poisons and pesticides. Ecological imbalance is credited with exacerbating the Great Chinese Famine, in which 15–45 million people died of starvation. The Chinese government eventually resorted to importing 250,000 sparrows from the Soviet Union to replenish their population. (3)
So, again, what can and should we do in this unbearable situation – unbearable because we have to accept that we are one among the species on the earth, but we are at the same time burdened by the impossible task to act as universal managers of the life on earth? Since we failed to take other, perhaps easier, exits (global temperatures are rising, oceans are more and more polluted…), it looks more and more that the last exit before the final one (collective suicide of humanity) will be some version of what was once called ‘War Communism.’ What I have in mind here is not any kind of rehabilitation of or continuity with the 20th-century ‘really existing socialism,’ even less the global adoption of the Chinese model, but a series of measures which are imposed by the situation itself. When (not just a country but) all of us are facing a threat to our survival, we enter a war-like emergency state which will last for decades at least. To simply guarantee minimal conditions of our survival, mobilizing all our resources is inevitable to deal with unheard-of challenges, inclusive displacements of dozens, maybe hundreds, of millions of people due to global warming. The answer to the ‘heat dome’ in the US and Canada is not just to help the affected areas, but to attack its global causes. And, as the ongoing catastrophe in southern Iraq makes it clear, a state apparatus capable of maintaining a minimal welfare of the people in catastrophic conditions will be needed to prevent social explosions.
All these things can – hopefully – be achieved only through strong and obligatory international cooperation, social control and regulation of agriculture and industry, changes in our basic eating habits (less beef), global healthcare, etc. Upon a closer look, it is clear that the representative political democracy alone will not be sufficient for this task. A much stronger executive power capable of enforcing long-term commitments will have to be combined with local self-organisations of people as well as with a strong international body capable of overriding the will of dissenting nation-states.
I am not talking here about a new world government – such an entity would give opportunity to immense corruption. And I am not talking about Communism in the sense of abolishing markets – market competition should play a role, although a role regulated and controlled by state and society. Why then use the term “Communism”? Because what we will have to do contains four aspects of every truly radical regime.
Not just by accepting our reality: the fascination with the end of our civilization makes us spectators who morbidly enjoy the disintegration of normality. A way out of this deadlock is signaled by a line from a song by the German rock band Rammstein: “we have to live till we die”.
First, there is voluntarism: changes that will be needed are not grounded in any historical necessity, they will be done against the spontaneous tendency of history – as Walter Benjamin put it, we have to pull the emergency brake on the train of history. Then, there is egalitarianism: global solidarity, healthcare and a minimum of decent life for all. Then, there are elements of what cannot but appear to die-hard liberals as ‘terror’ whose taste we got with measures to cope with the ongoing pandemic: limitation of many personal freedoms, new modes of control and regulation. Finally, there is trust in the people: everything will be lost without the active participation of ordinary people.
All this is not a morbid dystopian vision but the result of the simple realistic assessment of our predicament. If we don’t take this path, what will happen is the totally crazy situation which is already taking place in the US and Russia: the power elite is preparing for its survival in gigantic underground bunkers in which thousands can survive for months, with the excuse that the government should function even in such conditions… in short, government should continue to work even when there are no people alive on the earth over whom it should exert its authority. Our government and business elites are already preparing for this scenario, which means that they know the alarm bell is ringing.
We Have to Live Till We Die
What ethical stance would be appropriate in today’s messy situation of health crisis, global warming, social and economic antagonisms, etc.? The first one is that of an expert who deals with the specific task imposed on him by those in power, blissfully ignoring the wider social context of his activity. The second one is that of pseudo-radical intellectuals who criticize the existing order from a comfortable morally superior position, well aware that their criticism will have no actual effects. How, then, are we to go on living after we get rid of the illusions of a false critical stance? Not just by accepting our reality: the fascination with the end of our civilization makes us spectators who morbidly enjoy the disintegration of normality. A way out of this deadlock is signaled by a line from a song by the German rock band Rammstein: “we have to live till we die”. We have to fight against the pandemic and other crises not by way of withdrawing from life but as a way to live with utmost intensity. Is there anyone more ALIVE today than millions of healthcare workers who with full awareness risk their lives on a daily base? Many of them died, but till they died they were alive.
Towards the beginning of his Encyclopaedia, Hegel speaks about the three basic stances of thinking towards objectivity (“drei Stellungen des Gedankens zur Objektivität”). To deal with the basic ethical dilemmas today, it seems appropriate to me to describe the three basic stances of today’s intellectuals towards the topsy-turvy mess we’re in.
The first stance is that of an expert who deals with the specific task imposed on him by those in power, blissfully ignoring the wider social context of his activity. Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi novel Time out of Joint (published back in 1959) provides an extreme version of such a constellation. It tells the story of Ragle Gumm who (thinks he) lives in 1959 in a quiet American suburb; his unusual profession consists of repeatedly winning the cash prize in a local newspaper contest called “Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next”. As the novel opens, strange things begin to happen to Gumm: a soft-drink stand disappears, replaced by a small slip of paper with the words "SOFT-DRINK STAND" printed on it in block letters, plus other anomalies occur which signal that Gumm lives in an artificial world. A neighborhood woman invites him to a civil defense class where he sees a model of a futuristic underground military factory – Gumm has the unshakeable feeling he's been inside that building many times before… Confusion gradually mounts for Gumm, and the deception surrounding him (erected to protect and exploit him) begins to unravel: he learns that his idyllic town is a constructed reality designed to protect him from the frightening fact that he really lives in 1998 when the Earth is at war against lunar colonists who are fighting for a permanent lunar settlement, politically independent from Earth.
As we find out through the novel, Gumm has a unique ability to predict where the colonists’ nuclear strikes will be aimed. Previously Gumm did this work for the military, but then he defected to the colonists’ side and planned to secretly emigrate to the Moon. But before this could happen, he began retreating into a fantasy world based largely upon the relatively idyllic surroundings of his extreme youth. He was no longer able to shoulder his responsibility as Earth’s lone protector from Lunar-launched nuclear offensives. The fake town was thereby created within Gumm’s mind to accommodate and rationalize his retreat to childhood so that he could continue predicting nuclear strikes in the guise of submitting entries to a harmless newspaper contest and without the ethical qualms involved with being on the ‘wrong’ side of a civil war. When Gumm finally remembers his true personal history, he decides to emigrate to the Moon after all because he feels that exploration and migration should never be denied to people by any government.
Gumm’s predicament echoes perfectly the role of today’s scientists who work for the intelligence and military establishment: most of them live in an artificial idyllic space of campuses or rich suburbia protected from the mess of contemporary life, and, from their standpoint, their work appears as a playful effort to resolve mathematical riddles, while the establishment uses their work to assert social control and strengthen military force.
In the novel, Gumm succeeds in breaking out of his secluded world and acquiring a critical stance that enables him to get politically engaged – but there are critical stances and critical stances, i. e., a ‘radical’ critical stance contains its own traps. In their “Nunca quedas mal con nadie” (“You never make a bad impression”), the Chilean band Los Prisonieros provide the perfect in image of a fake ‘radical’ Leftist – here are some parts of the lyrics:
Do you think you protest? / Do you think you’re some kind of rebel? / You complain about pollution / You talk about automatization / You defend humanity / you cry because the world is so bad / You critique society / you say everything should change / On the stage, you folklorize your voice / ‘down with the city and it’s contamination / with your cute melodies and romantic sympathy / you never make a bad impression on anyone / You tell me you protest / But...! / Your position doesn’t bother anyone / ... / your position, listen, you stupid beardy / sold itself to the applause of the cheesy conscious people / You contradict all of your famous protest / with your complicated and beautiful melodies / You pretend to fight... / but you’re just a nice piece of shit! (4)
I often talked about how, on today’s market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol... And the list goes on: virtual sex as sex without sex, the art of expert administration as politics without politics, up to today’s tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of other deprived of its disturbing Otherness. Los Prisonieros add another key figure from our cultural space to this series: a decaffeinated protester. A protester who says (or sings) all the right things, but somehow deprives them of their critical edge. He is horrified by global warming, he fights sexism and racism, he demands a radical social change, and everyone is invited to join in, to participate in the big sentiment of global solidarity, which means: you are not required to change your life (maybe just give a charity here and there), you go on with your career, you are ruthlessly competitive, but you are on the right side. What, then, would have been a third stance towards the madness of the topsy-turvy world of ours, a stance which allows us to avoid the traps of the critical stance without falling back into the assertion of reality as it is? Or, in more ethical terms, how are we to go on living after we get rid of the illusions of a critical stance?
The regeneration of the earth obviously does not depend upon ‘our smaller and more mindful role’ – it depends upon our gigantic role which is the truth beneath all the talk about our finitude and mortality.
In his last book La catastrophe ou la vie, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, THE theorist of (ecological, economic, etc.) catastrophes, collected his reflections on the pandemic. (5) At the beginning of the book, he describes the challenge that the pandemic presents to his own theory of the impact of catastrophes. In this theory, he takes as a starting point Henri Bergson who, in his Two Sources of Morality and Religion, describes the strange sensations he experienced on August 4 1914 when the war was declared between France and Germany. Crucial is here the modality of the break between before and after: before its outburst, the war appeared to Bergson “simultaneously probable and impossible: a complex and contradictory notion which persisted to the end” (6); after its outburst, it all of a sudden become real AND possible, and the paradox resides in this retroactive appearance of probability:
I never pretended that one can insert reality into the past and thus work backwards in time. However, one can without any doubt insert there the possible, or, rather, at every moment, the possible insert itself there. Insofar as inpredictable and new reality creates itself, its image reflects itself behind itself in the indefinite past: this new reality finds itself all the time having been possible; but it is only at the precise moment of its actual emergence that it begins to always have been, and this is why I say that its possibility, which does not precede its reality, will have preceded it once this reality emerges. (7)
Before the outburst of the war, people (the public) knew well there is the threat of a military conflict, but they didn’t really believe it can happen, i. e., they considered the war impossible. The paradox is here that, in our everyday epistemology, knowledge is considered higher (stronger) than belief: you believe something that you don’t fully know, and full knowledge should automatically entail belief – in Bergson’s case however, you have knowledge without belief. Once the war exploded, our stance was quickly and automatically renormalized: the war was accepted as possible. The paradox is that actuality precedes and grounds possibility: once a thing considered impossible actually happens, it becomes possible. With the pandemic, however, things proceeded (almost) in the opposite direction: before the pandemic exploded, its possibility, inevitability even, was widely discussed, everybody was counting with it, and one can even surmise that this knowledge was not accompanied by a lack of belief. So the viral catastrophe was held possible as long as it was just foretold, but when it really hit us, we (many of us) couldn’t really bring us to believe in it, it was not ‘normalized’ but perceived as impossible, disavowed in different modalities (outright denial, conspiracy theory...).
Is there anyone more ALIVE today than millions of healthcare workers who with full awareness risk their lives on a daily base? Many of them died, but till they died they were alive.
One should bear in mind here the aspect of temporality: when we talk about big catastrophes (epidemics, global warming, etc.), even in a mode of panic, we as a rule locate them in a not too near future (a decade or so) – ‘if we don’t act now, soon it will be too late’ –, or we at least we locate the catastrophe in a far away region (corals in the north of Australia are disappearing, glaciers are melting...). However, the pandemic, it just happened, it hit us with full power and almost brought our social life to a standstill.
What existential stance does such a situation imply? The central refrain of Rammstein’s “Dalai Lama” is: “Weiter, weiter ins Verderben / Wir müssen leben bis wir sterben” (“Further, further into ruin / We have to live till we die”). This stance is the proper one to adopt today when the pandemic reminded all of us of our finitude and mortality, on how our life depends on an obscure interplay of (what appears to us as) contingencies. As we experience it almost daily, the true problem is not that we may die but that life just drags on in uncertainty, causing permanent depression, the loss of the will to go on. The fascination with total catastrophe and with the end of our civilization make us spectators who morbidly enjoy the disintegration of normality; this fascination is often fed by a false feeling of guilt (the pandemic as a punishment for our decadent way of life, etc.). Now, with the promise of the vaccine and the spread of new variants of the virus, we live in an endlessly postponed breakdown. Notice how the temporal frame of the way out is changing: in the Spring, authorities most often mentioned two weeks (‘after two weeks, it should get better’); then, in the Fall of 2020, it was two months; now, it is mostly half a year (in the Summer of 2021, maybe even later, things will get better); voices are already heard which postpone the end of the pandemic to 2022, even 2024… Every day brings news – vaccines work against new variants, or maybe not; the Russian Sputnik is not good, but now it seems it works quite well; there are big delays in the supply of vaccines, but most of us will still get vaccinated till Summer… These endless oscillations obviously also generate a pleasure of their own, making it easier for us to survive the misery of our lives. Rammstein’s “we have to live till we die” outlines a way out of this deadlock: to fight against the pandemic not by way of withdrawing from life but as a way to live with utmost intensity. Is there anyone more ALIVE today than millions of healthcare workers who with full awareness risk their lives on a daily base? Many of them died, but till they died they were alive. They do not just sacrifice themselves for us, getting our hypocritical praise. And they are even less survival machines reduced to bare life - they are those who are today most alive.
The predominant form of thinking pandemic, is a combination of predictable motifs: in pandemic not only our social and economic tensions exploded, the pandemic also reminded us that we are part of nature, not its center, so we have to change our way of life – limit our individualism, develop new solidarity and accept our modest place in the life on our earth. But is it not that global warming and other ecological threats demand of us collective interventions into our environment which will be incredibly powerful, direct interventions into the fragile balance of forms of life? When we say that the rise of average temperature has to be kept below 2 degrees Celsius, we talk (and try to act) as general managers of life on earth, not as a modest species. The regeneration of the earth obviously does not depend upon ‘our smaller and more mindful role’ – it depends upon our gigantic role which is the truth beneath all the talk about our finitude and mortality. What we get here is the extreme form of the gap at work already in modern science and subjectivity: modern science and subjectivity which aim at mastering nature are strictly co-dependent with the vision of humanity as just another species on the earth. If we have to care also about the life of water and air, it means precisely that we are what Marx called “universal beings,” as it were able to step outside ourselves, stand on our own shoulders, and perceive ourselves as a minor moment of the natural totality. In pre-modern times when humanity perceived itself as the crown of creation, this paradoxically implied a much more modest stance.
This is the paradox we have to sustain in these crazy days: to accept that we are one among the species on earth, and simultaneously to think and act as universal beings. To escape into the comfortable modesty of our finitude and mortality is not an option, it is a path to catastrophe.
1. Angela Dewan, “Unprecedented heat, hundreds dead and a town destroyed. Climate change is frying the Northern Hemisphere.” CNN, 5 July 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/07/04/world/canada-us-heatwave-northern-hemisphere-climate-change-cmd-intl/index.html. Accessed 26 October 2021.
2. Morgan Meis, “Timothy Morton’s Hyper-Pandemic.” The New Yorker, 8 June 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest/timothy-mortons-hyper-pandemic?fbclid=IwAR0qbxs2y57TIQsOloIW9MrBtqleIMIFK3SsfBQeCcWXiGIKRpnUmRAiNTk. Accessed 26 October 2021.
4. Los Prisioneros, “Nunca quedas mal con nadie.” 8 April 2016, https://lyricstranslate.com/en/nunca-quedas-mal-con-nadie-you-never-make-bad-impression.html. Accessed 26 October 2021.
5. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, La catastrophe ou la vie. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2021.
6. Henri-Louis Bergson, Oeuvres. Paris: PUF, 1991, 1110–1111.
7. Ibid, 1340.