By Saladdin Ahmed
There are three reasons to believe that COVID-19 is a communist agent. First, it is universalist; it does not recognize or respect national borders. Second, it is atheist; it has forced cancellations of pilgrimages, along with thousands of other religious rituals. Third, it has been threatening the capitalist economic order across the globe.
Perhaps it is inappropriate to joke about COVID-19. However, the pandemic’s increasing traumatic effects across the world are precisely the reason we should also joke about it. Those of us who have lived through calamities realize that sarcasm, far from being disrespectful to human suffering and loss, can be nobler than any serious expression that will inevitably undermine the actual experience. Those of us who have lived through something along the lines of the following examples know the indispensability of sarcasm: living defiantly in the face of the terror devised by a totalitarian regime; being a political prisoner under a fascist regime; taking the first physical steps to leave every place and everyone one has ever known; or, crossing bloody borders in a mythic-like quest in search of a place where one can continue to exist, even if merely as an ontological mistake. Humor is almost a natural coping mechanism when everydayness becomes a struggle for survival. One can easily observe that despite the apparent contradiction, there is more laughter among political prisoners who are facing death than among the affluent in luxurious social settings that are prepared specially to prevent boredom and dread.
The joke and its justification aside, everything about the COVID-19 outbreak suggests we are witnessing a historical transformation. Often, one historical era ends and another begins due an abrupt event that had not been anticipated. I am not alluding to the more recent paleontological theories regarding the extinction of the dinosaurs or even various interpretations of the prehistoric “great flood.” In recorded history, we have the plague of 1347–51 that resulted in the Italian Renaissance. A more recent pandemic that arguably ended an era is the 1918 outbreak of the Spanish flu. The impact of COVID-19, similarly, could go far beyond public health care and touch all societal and political arenas.
The political institution that is the nation-state has been normalized as a natural and eternal entity. This normalization is apparent in the way most people, including opinion makers and even academics, use the terms “country,” “nation,” and “state” interchangeably. Often, even the government and society at large are equated. For instance, “China” is sometimes used to mean: the Chinese government, the top political elite in Beijing, the Chinese society, the region that is marked as Chinese sovereign territory, or any random combination of the above. The same goes for, say, India, Egypt, Brazil, Russia, etc.
We also tend to forget that existing international institutions, such as the United Nations and its World Health Organization, are fundamentally creations of nation-states, which themselves are neither natural nor necessarily lasting as a political species. By the same token, international relations are entirely determined by the interests of nation-states. The politics of a nation-state are, at best, determined by the interests of those who are perceived as members of “the nation,” even if those interests are in direct contradiction with the interests of the same people as residents of the planet, let alone those who are considered as belonging to other nations. At worst, the members of the “the nation” are doomed by a bloody regime that, in the name of national glories, will cause countless deaths and irreversible destruction.
The good news is that all things change. Despite the widespread internalization of the Fukuyaman thesis of the neoliberal “end of history,” and despite the absolutism advanced by reactionary movements of nationalist and religious fascism, things are changing. As Arundhati Roy put it, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. Maybe many of us won’t be here to greet her, but on a quiet day, if I listen very carefully, I can hear her breathing.”
However, the bad news, too, is that all things change. As always, the question is: What kind of social movements and political philosophies can be the most effective factors of change? Who will be the agents of the change, and who will become mere objects of the ongoing historical change? In the context of American politics, for instance, it is possible that a decade from now platforms such as that of Bernie Sanders will be regarded as conservative. On the other hand, it is also possible that historians will be justified to call the first two decades of the twenty-first century the American Weimar years.
Even if COVID-19 does not end up having extensive political impact around the world, the parallelism with 100 years ago remains striking. While all the signs seem to be pointing toward a gloomier age, as always, what we do and do not do, what we say and do not say, and what we write and do not write will determine the nature of the next chapter of history. There are infinite possibilities, and any number of us could author the next chapter of history, from its very first line to its final word.
None of the horrors of the twentieth century, including the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust, were inevitable. Things could and would have been different had more individuals—like you and me—chosen to resist fascism. Progressive projects of egalitarianism, inclusivity, and the reinvention of social relations did exist. It is not that the key to the horizon had been in Ataturk’s, Mussolini’s, Franko’s, or Hitler’s pocket. Not enough people chose to reason better. Too many did not dare to know. Too many refused to stand with the marginalized. Too many were dependent on the comfort of the primordial father figure. Too many wanted to be scared and chose to obey the mythical protector, who eventually destroyed them after making them destroy the marginalized.
Today, like 100 years ago, genocides, refugee crises, and the brutalization of entire populations take place, and we are all aware of them. We are also aware of the fact that the fascist leaders are in desperate need of more followers to enlarge the circle of marginalization and the center of their own authority.
COVID-19 is the kind of event that has momentarily confused various ruling groups. Clearly, there is a confusion about how much and what kind of information the public should be allowed to access. The confusion is mainly caused by a significant degree of conflict between the priority of the stock market and the possible political consequences of a pandemic. The virus does not have an ideology, but the outbreak will certainly have ideological consequences. It is now time for creativity. It is time to simultaneously reinvent methods of resistance against all viruses and all fascists.
Saladdin Ahmed is the author of Totalitarian Space and the Destruction of Aura (SUNY Press, 2019). He is currently a visiting assistant professor of political theory at Union College.