Notes on the Real Meaning of Coronavirus

I took these notes two years ago at the onset of the pandemic. I might change some details of emphasis and style today (Cuomo, Australia, the great resignation), but see no reason to retreat from the basic ideas. Just as one could anticipate immediately after 9/11 what was to follow, it was possible to do so for the pandemic as well. I finally saw the movie Contagion (2011); it’s interesting how carefully the mannerisms of both elite and populist opposition that have emerged in response to the coronavirus were anticipated and dealt with in that movie (forsythia, anyone?), as a construct of supreme arrogance. I also spent these two years researching the history of the bioweapons industry around the world over the last century, the kind of inquiry the emergency disallows; often the line between what is desired and what is feared is difficult to tell.

1. Training/preparation for the apocalypse. Preview of primitive postmodernity as the trend for 2020s, each decade has a new aesthetic style associated with it. Preview of the fictional apocalypse to come. The fictional exercise that preceded it, fully anticipated it to the last detail. Foreshadows what we must learn in order to be “prepared” for the apocalypse that promises to arrive. Is it the planet taking revenge? We’re supposed to believe, no. Is the capitalist lifestyle worldwide unsustainable? Again, no. Apocalypse is built into capitalism, and we must see it through to the end, treat each disruption, even this one, as inevitable.

2. AI/algorithms/surveillance in new configuration. What does surveillance mean now? Self-surveillance, the principle of universal quarantine, free citizens exercising voluntary lockdown (no need for martial law in the U.S. or anywhere else). Global pandemic/global terrorism follow exactly the same script, untraceable “lone wolves/mutated viruses” that know no national boundaries and must be kept out at all costs.

3. Instant conversion from self-care to social distancing, discipline for the revitalized “new class,” the same group of privileged people able to practice both with equal ease (unlike the “deplorables”). What does social distancing really mean? It was part of the fictional simulations preceding coronavirus. Social distancing as opposed to the communicative potential of the liberal subject, social distancing as the antidote to the anomie of precarious capitalism, social distancing as a new form of orgasmic joy.

4. Crisis mode changes narrative, the only way we feel comfortable organizing society. Exactly the same script as post-9/11. Instantly we move to “the age of coronavirus,” overnight everyone accedes to this new technique of life. Like 9/11, this “may last forever,” America has changed forever, the same rewriting of the American myth for a new age of crisis, permanent crisis. Prolific stories about how every profession and class of people (though not yet the poor) are adapting to the age of coronavirus. Cuomo as crisis manager, new model of executive management versus Giuliani or Bush after 9/11, Obama after economic collapse.

5. Messy convention, primary election, general election completely shifted to unreality. They always felt uncomfortable with real elections, so they created the Russiagate narrative, this is what they actually want, not a contest over New Deal ideas or new age socialism. Politics, as after 9/11, becomes anti-politics, yet another step toward the abolition of politics.

6. Arbitrary nature of American scarcity, intentionally exposed and glorified. All restrictions on liberty, freedom, movement, happiness, ability to use time are being temporarily lifted, yet their return is inevitable. We are being made to yearn for a return to corporate discipline, in contrast to having to fend for ourselves, though the limits are being removed. We are being disciplined to learn who has the ability to remove limits, making the ideal of socialism ever more ludicrous, as a gradualist, sustained, long-term demographic archetype. The “young” are immune to the virus.

7. The bailout society. Need to rescue every single industry. Reprise of detested Wall Street bailout. Apparently every single industry that was flush with cash in 2010s is in need of immediate bailout. A form of fascism is being practiced. Yet this is not social welfare parternalism, this is something much more ominous: the bailouts are being demonstrated as not only insufficient but beside the point, set in the context of potential immediate death. Rewriting the script of the 2008 bailout, and the ones before that.

8. From the beginning of neoliberal globalization, it’s been seen as an impossible undertaking. From around 2005 onwards, it’s been predicting its own end. East Asia, Europe, and the U.S., the three major economic blocs, are most affected by the virus. Why these three zones in particular? There may be outbreaks in South Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but those are subsidiary to the main narrative. Globalization constantly anticipates its own end in order to make itself viable, precious, irreplaceable. The closing of borders is the necessity to make their opening both an impossible dream and an enterprise worth opposing (by the excluded classes).

9. The project of capital moves into the next gear of making everyone a neoliberal self-entrepreneur. Insufficiency of government handouts not only takes away the fire of populism everywhere, but intensifies precarious entrepreneurship. The first test case for life fully lived online, every task of existence must be transitioned online, to accelerate the distance from reality.

10. A form of parenting, discipline, chastening. Yet another step toward infantilization. Civil liberties recede farther back in time than ever. Children do not need to think for themselves, statistics swamp the solitary imagination. The capitalist individual is forced to ponder his mortality as part of a mass. The threat of the plague arose after 9/11 and was periodically recurrent throughout the next two decades: it cancels the enlightenment, like torture, because enlightenment followed plagues, not the other way around, so we must go back to point 1 about primitive postmodernity.

Heretics and believers, are you with us or against us? Do you believe in it or not?

Anis Shivani is the author of many critically-acclaimed books of fiction, poetry, and criticism. His recent political books include Why Did Trump Win?, Confronting American Fascism, and A Radical Human Rights Solution to the Immigration Problem.