Opinion  Sociology and economics 

The Virus Era

Disease, Solidarity, and Capitalism

Byung-Chul Han 

We have been living without enemies for some time now. The Cold War ended long ago. Of late even Islamic terrorism seems to have moved far away. Exactly ten years ago, in the essay The Burnout Society, I upheld the thesis that our times have invalidated the immunological paradigm, which relies on the negativity of the enemy. As during the Cold War, immunologically organized societies are characterized by the borders and fences that are built around them, blocking the accelerated circulation of goods and capital. Globalization eliminates all these immune thresholds to give free rein to capital. Even generalized promiscuity and permissiveness, nowadays spread through all environments of life, obliterate the negativity of the unknown or the enemy. Today’s dangers threaten us not through negativity of the enemy, but through excess of positivity. Enemy negativity has no place in our unrestrainedly permissive society. In societies that give importance to performance and achievement, one is at war with oneself.

Now, suddenly, a virus bursts into this society that is so immunologically debilitated by global capitalism, and panic-stricken as we are, we erect immune thresholds and close up borders all over again. The enemy is back. We no longer wage war on ourselves, but on the invisible foe that comes from abroad. The inordinate panic surrounding the virus is a social, even global, immune reaction to the novel enemy. The immune reaction is so violent because we have long been living in a society devoid of enemies, and now the virus is perceived as a permanent terror.

But there is another reason for the tremendous panic. Once again it has to do with the digital. Digitalization eradicates reality. Reality is experienced thanks to the resistance that it exerts, which can also hurt. Digitalization, the whole “like” culture, annihilates the negativity of resistance. And the post-truth age of fake news and deepfakes breeds an apathy toward reality. But now it is a real virus, not a computer virus, that is causing a commotion. Reality, resistance, makes its presence felt anew, this time in the form of an enemy virus.

Moreover, the financial markets’ reaction to the epidemic is an expression of the panic already inherent in them. The acute convulsions that are taking place in the world economy makes the latter extremely vulnerable. Despite the constantly rising curve of the stock index, the high-risk monetary policy of the issuing banks has in recent years generated a repressed panic that was just waiting for the bang. The virus may not be much more than a droplet that has filled the glass to the brim. Reflected in the panic of the financial market is not so much a fear of the virus as a fear of itself. The crash could well have happened without the virus. Maybe the virus is simply the prelude to a much bigger crash.

Slavoj Žižek proclaims that the virus has dealt capitalism a definitive death blow; he even goes as far as saying that the virus could bring down the Chinese regime. He is mistaken. None of the sort will happen. China will now be able to sell its digital police state as the way to fight the pandemic. And when the pandemic is over, capitalism shall continue, stronger than ever.

The virus will not kill capitalism. No virus can bring about a revolution. The virus isolates and individualizes each and every one of us. It does not generate a vigorous collective sentiment. The solidarity that involves physical distancing is not the same solidarity that begets dreams of a different, new society. We cannot leave the revolution in the hands of the virus. Let us together hope that the virus will be followed by a human revolution. It is We, Persons endowed with Reason, who must save ourselves if we are to save the climate and our beautiful planet.

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