“To create an event is thus to reject whatever is now nothing more than a ‘thirdworlding of human societies’, representing a shift from the EXOCOLONISATION of erstwhile empires to the ENDOCOLONISATION of the terminal empire”.
– Paul Virilio, City of Panic, 2005
“There will be in the next generation or so a method of making people love their servitude and producing dictatorship without tears so to speak. Producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them, but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda, or brainwashing, or brainwashing enhanced by pharmacological methods. And this seems to be the final revolution.”
– Aldous Huxley, From a speech for the Tavistock Group, California Medical School, 1961
Every catastrophe and crisis are followed by a litany of conspiracy theories. The Covid-19 pandemic has proved no exception. From tales concerning transmission of some lethal agent through 5G infrastructure, to grand theories concerning a mastermind plot to destabilise the world, the fantastical and the absurd have spread almost as quickly as the virus. While the early culprits ranged from the Bill Gates to the Iranians, George Soros to the Eco-fascists, it’s becoming more and more common to suggest either some orchestrated Chinese plot or a planned pandemic (yes, the Plandemic) to begin a massive vaccination program.
Plandemonium, along with the alleged death of Kim Jong-un which had socialists the world over speculating about the prospect of a feminine authoritarian (as if Thatcher never walked the earth) aside, Steve Bannon and then even President Trump got in on the act, peddling narratives about a Chinese lab experiment, despite the absence of any evidence and even contradicting his own “intelligence” agencies.
Conspiracies actually work to the benefit of established forms of power. We only need to remind ourselves here of the ways the United States government was active in the peddling of UFO conspiracies in Nevada during the 1980’s, in order to hide its testing of advanced military technologies.
Nevada in fact provides a perfectly apt analogy for the world we find ourselves in today. Whilst Donald Trump would learn that every crisis is an opportunity to use socialism for capitalist ends in the apocalyptic landscapes of 1970s New York, it would be in Las Vegas where he learnt best the art of distraction, and what the avid watcher Guy Debord noted to be the power of the spectacle.
Whilst early visitors in the 1950’s took part in Atomic tourism with its own novel lightshow experience, watching bombs explode in the desert and doing untold damage to their physical health, by the 1990’s this fake Oasis became globally appealing for its glitzy spectacles, made all the more alluring by semi-naked bodies, walking amongst the simulacrum of the neon-strip. But behind the lights the violence and exploitation were all too real. Everybody knew about it. Some people felt it. But most preferred not to question it, preferring instead to gaze upon the shadows of the electric lights, which radiated as much as the already polluted and toxic atmosphere.
The same is true for what’s happening in the world today. Do we honestly think that when Trump asks his medical adviser about the possibility of injecting bleach, he doesn’t know what he doing? So, while his critics are aghast at the very proposition, pointing incredulously to the idiocy of those who followed such an idiotic claim, only to be further enraged by the fact Trump tells us we can no longer even believe what we saw or be sure what we know we heard, the spectacle is working exactly as it was intended. The Vegas showman is at home.
Conspiracies used to be presented as the counter-truth to state propaganda. And state propaganda used to be the that term we once gave to what is now called “fake news”. Some things are consistent. However, what the forces on the right have effectively orchestrated over the past decade is the complete appropriation of narratives of resistance, from the language of rights, notions of victimhood, onto the idea that they are the true revolutionary force in the world.
The aim of any conspiracy is to sow the seeds of an unprovable doubt. It is uttered therefore it is true. That Trump would also harness the conspiratorial is not unexpected. It would be a further indicator of the inversion of so many logics in this wonderland we now find ourselves, where nothing is certain and nothing clear, except for the fact that the world and its inhabitants are now truly dangerous.
Such inversions are central to any understanding of politics in the current moment. The world in which we inhabit might at the personal level feel like its slowed down to almost a standstill. This is an illusion. For the mechanisms of power have been speeding up in ways that would have been unimaginable only a few months ago. This is not a rupture or lockdown, it’s an acceleration.
Very few understood the importance of speed as a political concept better than the late French philosopher Paul Virilio. Recognising that speed had conquered space, Virilio was ever mindful of the emerging power of technology and its effects on our both our sense of place and our emotional states. As he wrote in one of his later books, The Futurism of the Instant:
“Just like the elementary particle at the heart of Geneva’s Great Accelerator – the large Haidron Collider – we will then not only be ‘filed’, but tracked, making knowing where we permanently reside completely pointless… The pathological sequelae of this are unknown. The myth of some happy, beneficial neo-nomadism wont long survive the experience of being locked down in a closed circuit, within the now relative non-expanse of this life-bearing star of ours”.
Crucially for Virilio, such endo-colonisation was not about the world “catching up”, it was an accelerating regression. A world where technological advance was synonymous with borderland conditions:
“So, let’s not be under any illusions! What is happening in Africa and Asia, with the 50 million people qualified by the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees as ‘victims of forced displacement’, is no more than a clinical symptom of the domiciliary emancipation, the freeing up of settled living currently underway that will in turn hit Europe and the Americas and the rest of the developed world”.
Virilo forces us to confront contradictions, which beneath the surface are not contradictory whatsoever. It is possible to accelerate while regress, support life while destroying existences.
Long before this lockdown occurred, the physical separations between people were already becoming far more entrenched. As the wall around the West was being violently policed from refugees and other undesirables, the United States and United Kingdom demanded ever greater restrictions to mobility and entry into its sovereign domains. This was never about “sovereignty” however, but a reorganisation in the nature of global capitalism. A system that did very well in times of crisis and continues to do so for the disaster capitalists. But what we have today is no longer simply the lock-down of Nations. Every city, every street, every park, and every home has become a border. We also know these measures are not going to be temporary; they will be part of the new normal. But do we really want to live in a world where such segregations are acceptable, where we feel ashamed for getting too close, where the very idea of physical presence and touch become social taboo, and where we have to request permission to cross whatever imaginary border is placed upon the conduct of life?
We already lived in a world where financial power was dominated by the tech-giants who had amassed such wealth it was comparable to the Gilded Age. Operating in the post-political clouds far removed from democratic oversight (aside from the occasional theatrical performance to assure us the invisible have nothing to hide), they had a vision for a networked society, where globalisation wasn’t about us traveling around the world; it was about the world coming to us, in the confines of our homes. It is no coincidence that corporations such as Amazon and Facebook are the most to profit from these times. We now have no option but to live virtual lives. There is no opting out of this social morphology, which now governs most planetary life. But do we really want however to live a screened existence, where the office and the home, the public and the private are truly indistinguishable? An existence where it actually becomes an exception to venture out into some unknown place, somewhere off the map, somewhere that might be unexpected and unchartered, and enjoy the “real world”?
The Wars on Terror had already put forward the idea of some ominous invisible enemy, lurking with devastating intent, waiting for the right moment to indiscriminately strike us down. This made us appreciate that our societies, our lives, our futures, were fundamentally insecure. But the War on Terror framework has proved to be limited and its language exhausted. The very doctrine in fact has evaporated into the discursive ether. Was it still really happening? Nobody knew. While some were critical of its pervasiveness however, as far as private security firms were concerned, the doctrine simply did not go far enough in terms of exhausting its potential. So, while the problem still remains invisible today, there is one fundamental difference: everyone is now truly the source of potential endangerment. That doesn’t mean to say we are all in this together. That is also an illusion. What it does mean is tried and tested drones that were experimented upon populations in the “global South” can be let loose over democratic skies. But do we really want to live under the continued presence of such atmospheric devices, which will at some point undoubtedly become armed and lethal?
Our privacy rights have been under-attack for some considerable time. This had less to do with militarised police on the streets, though certainly that still mattered in areas of social exclusion and depravation, than the well-documented use of eavesdropping and invasive technologies, feeding into complex digital algorithmic systems for the surveillance and manipulation of all human habits, opinions and desires. And yet despite our encouraged willing to broadcast some of the most intimate details of our lives into the public domain, we largely kept our health a closely guarded secret. What’s terrifying today is the speed in which tracking apps to record, monitor and assay the entire health of nations has entered into the public discourse, without any serious critique as to their political implications beyond the mere notion that “ethics” have been considered. By whom exactly? Do we really want to live in a world in which every breath, sweat and tear is monitored? A world where our health is yet another complex dataset, not only fed into the system, but proving of our health credentials and right to move around every social sphere, every public space, every virtual landscape?
There is nothing inevitable to the way societies choose to respond to a crisis such as this pandemic. What we do however learn in our response is precisely what is valued in a society and what is less so. While there has been a managed politics at work between the dominant forces of power and the fading liberal left, behind the scenes there is a notable decimation of the arts and culture taking place outside of the corporate cultural institutions. If radical and independent presses are fighting for their lives, so it is also the case that critical cultural producers, who already occupied the margins, are being pushed into the abyss. Liberals have been complicit in this with their instance that the bio-politics of health trumps all other considerations. Critical forms of culture have never simply been a “past-time”. Speaking truth to power through their own grammatical interventions, they encourage more compassion, empathy and dignity in human affairs. We know the history of modern societies has resulted in the triumph of technical forms of thinking over the more poetic understanding of life. But do we really want to live in a world where art and culture are reduced to a virtual gallery visit, which feeding more about our aesthetic preferences into the invisible system are stripped of any political claim and given over to the power of technocratic reason?
What’s is also striking across much of the so-called “Western world” right now (which truly resembles a new technological Frontierland where all barriers are removed) is the attitude to education. Prior to the pandemic, there was already a concerted attack upon the arts, humanities and social sciences across all educational sectors, most notably within the University. With bailouts and resources primarily given to large businesses, technology firms, along with health and medical research, the already precarious nature of these areas for study have increased exponentially. Very few academics in these sectors right now feel any sense of “job security”, with announced layoffs already taking place in many “developed” countries. But such critical subjects are much more than some vocational let alone economic measure; they are critical to any viable notion of democracy and the need to create actively engaged citizens who can hold power to account and have the confidence to rethink and imagine alternative visions for the world. Do we really want to live in a society where the very subjects and pursuits which encourage people to speak truth to power and imagine better futures are the preserve of the very select elite who have a vested interest in the status quo?
There is no doubt this virus has been devastating to vulnerable people and families who have lost loved ones. And there is no doubt it continues to terrorise some people, who are locked in their homes and concerned with their lives, fearing what contagion might actually mean for them. But we now also need to be vigilant about the coming catastrophe, which is also potentially terrifying. It is fine to recognise the need to support the temporary introduction socially responsible distancing measures to protect the most vulnerable, while also asking serious questions about how we might use the crisis to rethink those conditions which make people vulnerable in the first place. This should not however be the pretext for the acceleration of those very dynamics, which create a false humanity that ends up being permanently segregated, isolated and quarantined ever fearful of venturing into the deserts of the real.
Viruses don’t wage war. Humans do. Whilst we should therefore be concerned for the health of the vulnerable, we should also be terrified by the prospect that the whole world has become a giant experimental playground for pharmaceutical companies, who can now override any medical ethics on the basis that cures needs to be found, now and into the future. We should also be terrified by the great acceleration in surveillance tracking, which is revealing a techno-pharma-militarism without rival. We should also be terrified by the eviscerating of all the viable centres for educative and cultured critique, which could hold this system of power to account for its actions. We should also be terrified by armed militia emboldened in places like the United States, looking like some monstrous white supremacist adaptation of the village people thrown into a Mad Max plot, while presenting themselves as libertarians. We should also be terrified by the fact that anybody who now criticises the techno-pharma-militaristic matrix is thrown into the same camp as the Alt-right, often by puritanical liberals who are just as pious and self-flagellating than any orthodox religion we have seen. And we should also be terrified by the claim that technology is the only thing that might save us.
They say that reality is often stranger than fiction. The lines between the two in fact are never so clear. Sometimes, the future being prepared can be even more terrifying still. The world doesn’t need another conspiracy. It needs a critical understanding of the road ahead and the crashes which are already in the making. Or as Frantz Kafka might say: “Far from here – that’s my aim”.