COVID-19: Thinking Beyond Planet Lockdown

Pepe Escobar surveys a range of thinkers on the pandemic. 

The Triumph of Death, fresco, Palermo, Italy. (Artist unknown)

By Pepe Escobar
The Asia Times  

Between the unaccountability of elites and total fragmentation of civil society, Covid-19 as a circuit breaker is showing how the king – systemic design – is naked. 

We are being sucked into a danse macabre of multiple complex systems “colliding into one another,” producing all kinds of mostly negative feedback loops.   

What we already know for sure, as Shoshana Zuboff detailed in “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” is that “industrial capitalism followed its own logic of shock and awe” to conquer nature. But now surveillance capitalism “has human nature in its sights.” 

In “The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene,” analyzing the explosion in population growth, increasing energy consumption  and a tsunami of information “driven by the positive feedback loops of reinvestment and profit,” Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin of University College, London, suggest that our current mode of living is the “least probable” among several options. “A collapse or a switch to a new mode of living is more likely.” 

With dystopia and mass paranoia seemingly the law of the (bewildered) land, Michel Foucault’s analyses of biopolitics have never been so timely, as states across the world take over biopower – the control of people’s life and bodies.  

David Harvey, once again, shows how prophetic  was Marx, not only in his analyses of industrial capitalism but somehow – in “Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy” – even forecasting the mechanics of digital capitalism: 

Marx, Harvey writes, “talks about the way that new technologies and knowledge become embedded in the machine: they’re no longer in the laborer’s brain, and the laborer is pushed to one side to become an appendage of the machine, a mere machine-minder. All of the intelligence and all of the knowledge, which used to belong to the laborers, and which conferred upon them a certain monopoly power vis-à-vis capital, disappear.”

Thus, adds Harvey, “the capitalist who once needed the skills of the laborer is now freed from that constraint, and the skill is embodied in the machine. The knowledge produced through science and technology flows into the machine, and the machine becomes ‘the soul’ of capitalist dynamism.” 

Living in ‘Psycho-Deflation

An immediate – economic – effect of the collision of complex systems is the approaching New Great Depression. Meanwhile, very few are attempting to understand Planet Lockdown in depth – and that goes, most of all, for post-Planet Lockdown. Yet a few concepts already stand out. State of exception. Necropolitics. A new brutalism. And, as we will see, the new viral paradigm.

So, let’s review some the best and the brightest at the forefront of Covid-19 thinking. An excellent road map is provided by “Sopa de Wuhan” (“Wuhan Soup’), an independent collection assembled in Spanish, featuring essays by, among others, Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler, David Harvey, South Korean Byung-Chul Han and Spaniard Paul Preciado.

The last two, along with Agamben, were referenced in previous essays in this running series, on the Stoics,  Heraclitus,  Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tzu, and contemporary philosophy examining The City under The Plague

Franco Berardi, a 1968 student icon now professor of philosophy in Bologna, offers the concept of “psycho-deflation” to explain our current predicament. We are living a “psychic epidemic … generated by a virus as the Earth has reached a stage of extreme irritation, and society’s collective body suffers for quite a while a state of intolerable stress: the illness manifests itself at this stage, devastating in the social and psychic spheres, as a self-defense reaction of the planetary body.” 

Thus, as Berardi argues, a “semiotic virus in the psycho-sphere blocks the abstract functioning of the economy, subtracting bodies from it.” Only a virus would be able to stop accumulation of capital dead in its tracks: “Capitalism is axiomatic, works on a non-verified premise (the necessity of unlimited growth which makes possible capital accumulation). 

Every logical and economic concatenation is coherent with this axiom, and nothing can be tried outside of this axiom. There is no political way out of axiomatic Capital, there’s no possibility of destroying the system,” because even language is a hostage of this axiom and does not allow the possibility of anything “efficiently extra-systemic.”

So what’s left? “The only way out is death, as we learned from Baudrillard.” The late, great grandmaster of simulacrum was already forecasting a systemic stall back in the post-modernist 1980s.  

Croatian philosopher Srecko Horvat , in contrast, offers a less conceptual and more realist hypothesis about the immediate future: “The fear of a pandemic is more dangerous than the virus itself. The apocalyptic images of the mass media hide a deep nexus between the extreme right and the capitalist economy. Like a virus that needs a living cell to reproduce itself, capitalism will adapt itself to the new 21st century biopolitics.”   

Workers disinfecting street in Tehran during Covid-19 pandemic, March 19, 2020. (Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

For the Catalan chemist and philosopher Santiago Lopez Petit, coronavirus can be seen as a declaration of war: “Neoliberalism unabashedly dresses up as a war state. Capital is scared,” even as “uncertainty and insecurity invalidate the necessity of the same state.” Yet there may be creative possibilities when “obscure and paroxistic life, incalculable in its ambivalence, escapes algorithm.” 

Our Normalized Exception 

Giorgio Agamben caused immense controversy in Italy and across Europe when he published a column in late February on “the invention of an epidemic.” He later had to explain  what he meant. But his main insight remains valid: The state of exception has been completely normalized. 

And it gets worse: “A new despotism, which in terms of pervasive controls and cessation of every political activity, will be worse that the totalitarianisms we have known so far.”  

Agamben redoubles his analyses of science as the religion of our time: “The analogy with religion is taken literally; theologians declared that they could not clearly define what is God, but in his name they dictated rules of conduct to men and did not hesitate to burn heretics. Virologists admit they don’t know exactly what is a virus, but in its name they pretend to decide how human beings shall live.”     

Cameroonian philosopher and historian Achille Mbembe, author of two indispensable books, “Necropolitics” and “Brutalisme,”has identified the paradox of our time: “The abyss between the increasing globalization of problems of human existence and the retreat of states inside their own, old-fashioned borders.”   

Mbembe delves into the end of a certain world, “dominated by giant calculation devices,” a “mobile world in the most polymorphous, viral and near cinematic sense,” referring to the ubiquity of screens (Baudrillard again, already in the 1980s) and the lexicography, “which reveals not only a change of language but the end of the word.” 

Here we have Mbembe dialoguing with Berardi – but Membe takes it much farther: “This end of the word, this definitive triumph of the gesture and artificial organs over the word, the fact that the history of the word ends under our eyes, that for me is the historical development par excellence, the one that Covid-19 unveils.” 

The political consequences are, inevitably, dire: “Part of the power politics of great nations does not lie in the dream of an automated organization of the world thanks to the manufacturing of a New Man that would be the product of physiological assemblage, a synthetic and electronic assemblage, and a biological assemblage? Let’s call it techno-libertarianism.”

This is not exclusive to the West: “China is also on it, vertiginously.” 

This new paradigm of a plethora of automated systems and algorithmic decisions “where history and the word don’t exist anymore is in frontal shock with the reality of bodies in flesh and bones, microbes, bacteria and liquids of all sorts, blood included.”

Rendering of Open Cobalt 3D hyperlinks connecting five virtual spaces. (Julian Lombardi, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The West, argues Mbembe, chose a long time ago to “imprint a Dionysiac course to its history and take the rest of the world with it, even if it doesn’t understand it. The West does not know anymore the difference between beginning and ending. China is also on it. The world has been plunged into a vast process of dilaceration where no one can predict the consequences.”      

Mbembe is terrified by the proliferation of “live manifestations of the bestial and viral part of humanity,” including racism and tribalism. 

This, he adds, confirms our new viral paradigm. 

His analysis certainly dovetails with Agamben’s: “I have a feeling that brutalism is going to intensify under the techno-libertarianism drive, be it under China or hidden under the accoutrements of liberal democracy. Just like 9/11 opened the way to a generalized state of exception, and its normalization, the fight against Covid-19 will be used as a pretext to move the political even more towards the domain of security.”

“But this time”, Mbembe adds, “it will be a security almost biological, bearing with new forms of segregation between the ‘immunity bodies’ and ‘viral bodies’. Viralism will become the new theatre for fractioning populations, now identified as distinct species.”

It does feel like neo-medievalism, a digital re-enacting of the fabulous “Triumph of Death” fresco in Palermo. 

Poets, Not Politicians 

It’s useful to contrast such doom and gloom with the perspective of a geographer. Christian Grataloup, who excels in geo-history, insists on the common destiny of humanity (here he’s echoing Xi Jinping and the Chinese concept of “community of shared destiny”): “There’s an unprecedented feeling of identity. The world is not simply an economic and demographic spatial system, it becomes a territory. Since the Great Discoveries, what was global was shrinking, solving a lot of contradictions; now we must learn to build it up again, give it more consistence as we run the risk of letting it rot under international tensions.”        

It’s not the Covid-19 crisis that will lead to another world – but society’s reaction to the crisis. There won’t be a magical night – complete with performances by “international community” pop stars – when “victory “will be announced to the former Planet Lockdown. 

What really matters is a long, arduous political combat to take us to the next level. Extreme conservatives and techno-libertarians have already taken the initiative – from refusal of any taxes on the wealthy to support the victims of the New Great Depression to the debt obsession that prevents more, necessary public spending.   

In this framework, I propose to go one step beyond Foucault’s biopolitics. Gilles Deleuze can be the conceptualizer of a new, radical freedom. Here is a delightful British series that can be enjoyed as if it were a serious Monty Python-ish approach to Deleuze. 

Foucault excelled in the description of how meaning and frames of social truth change over time, constituting new realities conditioned by power and knowledge. 

Deleuze, on the other hand, focused on how things change. Movement. Nothing is stable. Nothing is eternal. He conceptualized flux – in a very Heraclitean way. 

New species (even the new, AI-created Ubermensch) evolve in relation with their environment. It’s by using Deleuze that we can investigate how spaces between things create possibilities for The Shock of the New. 

More than ever, we now know how everything is connected (thank you, Spinoza). The (digital) world is so complicated, connected and mysterious that this opens an infinite number of possibilities.

Already in the 1970s, Deleuze was saying the new map – the innate potentially of newness – should be called “the virtual.” The more living matter gets more complex, the more it transforms this virtual into spontaneous action and unforeseen movements. 

Deleuze posed a dilemma that now confronts us all in even starker terms. The choice is between “the poet, who speaks in the name of a creative power, capable of overturning all orders and representations in order to affirm difference in the state of permanent revolution which characterizes eternal return: and that of the politician, who is above all concerned to deny that which ‘differs,’ so as to conserve or prolong an established historical order, or to establish a historical order which already calls forth in the world the forms of its representation.”    

The time calls for acting as poets instead of politicians.

The methodology may be offered by Deleuze and Guattari’s formidable “A Thousand Plateaus” – significantly subtitled “Capitalism and Schizophrenia,” where the drive is non-linear. We’re talking about philosophy, psychology, politics connected by ideas running at different speeds, a dizzying non-stop movement mingling lines of articulation, in different strata, directed into lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization. 

The concept of “lines of flight” is essential for this new virtual landscape, because the virtual is conformed by lines of flight between differences, in a continual process of change and freedom. 

All this frenzy, though, must have roots – as in the roots of a tree (of knowledge). And that brings us to Deleuze’s central metaphor; the rhizome, which is not just a root, but a mass of roots springing up in new directions. 

All this frenzy must have roots. (StockSnap from Pixabay)

Deleuze showed how the rhizome connects assemblies of linguistic codes, power relations, the arts – and, crucially, biology. The hyperlink is a rhizome. It used to represent a symbol of the delightful absence of order in the internet, until it became debased as Google started imposing its algorithms. Links, by definition, always should lead us to unexpected destinations. 

Rhizomes are the antitheses of those Western liberal “democracy” standard traits – the parliament and the senate. By contrast, trails – as in the Ho Chi Minh trail – are rhizomes. There’s no masterplan. Multiple entryways and multiple possibilities. No beginning and no end. As Deleuze described it, “the rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoot.” 

This can work out as the blueprint for a new form of political engagement –as the systemic design collapses. It does embody a methodology, an ideology, an epistemology and it’s also a metaphor. The rhizome is inherently progressive, while traditions are static. As a metaphor, the rhizome can replace our conception of history as linear and singular, offering different histories moving at different speeds. TINA (“There is no alternative”) is dead: there are multiple alternatives. 

And that brings us back to David Harvey inspired by Marx. In order to embark onto a new, emancipatory path, we first have to emancipate ourselves to see that a new imaginary is possible, alongside a new complex systems reality.

So let’s chill – and de-territorialize. If we learn how to do it, the advent of the New Techno Man in voluntary servitude, remote-controlled by an all-powerful, all-seeing security state, won’t be a given.  

Deleuze: a great writer is always like a foreigner in the language through which he expresses himself, even if it’s his native tongue. He does not mix another language with his own language; he carves out a non pre-existent foreign language within his own language. “He makes the language itself scream, stammer, murmur. A thought should shoot off rhizomatically – in many directions. 

I have a cold. The virus is a rhizome. 

Remember when Trump said this was a “foreign virus?”

All viruses are foreign – by definition. 

But Trump, of course, never read “Naked Lunch” by Grandmaster William Burroughs. 

Burroughs: “The word is a virus.”

Pepe Escobar, a veteran Brazilian journalist, is the correspondent-at-large for Hong Kong-based Asia Times. His latest book is 2030.” Follow him on Facebook.

This article is from The Asia Times.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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17 comments for “COVID-19: Thinking Beyond Planet Lockdown

  1. elmerfudzie
    May 3, 2020 at 10:39

    A new military and economic paradigm needs to be established between Russia, China and the USA. China desperately needs fresh water and literally twice the tonnage of agricultural and meat products it currently buys from the US. The fix required is so blatantly obvious and would, if implemented, virtually guarantee global peace and prosperity for the next one hundred years.

    The three great powers must mutually agree to the following and without provoking any new political frictions or strings attached; Create a thousand mile fresh water pipeline from Lake Baikal in Siberia to the major metro city areas of China. This water requires heavy reprocessing, example, algal removal. I trust that Russia’s civil engineers will find a way to continuously replenish the lake from surrounding areas. Russia has one fourth of the worlds fresh water, stored on vast surfaces and in the ground. Whatever it takes folks, reverse osmosis, distillation, and solving the tremendous energy input required by constructing a huge nuclear power facility near the lake (Thorium based). No one needs to instruct the Russians on how to build a pipeline nor the Chinese on how to build a commercial Thorium nuclear power facility (they already have one up and running).

    The USA will revamp it’s entire economy to make the enormous economic effort required for doubling agricultural and meat production (perhaps by-way of one of Trumps war time powers edicts) and exports to China. Not a stitch exported to any other country..Consequently, Russian, South American and Australian food producers will need to shift towards production towards markets in India, Japan and Africa (no real challenge there)

    The Western Occident financiers, banksters must not be allowed to conspire for a third world war. They will arrested long before the staging of false flags or any other attempt to cause a major fiat currency collapse. If such a move is attempted, the conspirators will be dragged off to Nirenberg and charged with high crimes against humanity!

  2. Hide Behind
    May 3, 2020 at 01:06

    Peeps literatsure and journalistic approach took me back to early years in and after gaining my degrees , to the night’s brain game sessions with each other and the Professors.
    These sessions usually began with casual talk, a light dine, some wine and a the passing of a joint or two before the heavy talks began.
    I always awoke next morn and could not remember who said what and WTF did I say; hoping I had not embarrassed myself and shown just how lacking in intellect I was.
    I learned early on that the older theist the more overbearing and least likely to actually break down their points, and so I became an agreeable head nodder, one without an independent and original thought of own.
    I read the article and I wondered how many of the over 200 millions American nonessentials who were sent home to hide and survive on own, would know just who this Pepe was and W T F he was mumbling about.
    Who is it the poets hope to influence for changes they want emplaced, other poets and their few peers in Academia, the Essentials, or billions of those nonessentials?

    • John
      May 4, 2020 at 13:20

      Think about how rap music (non commercial) changed the ways in which an entire generation saw issues such as the war on drugs. There is definitely potential to this rhizomatic approach to looking back to history when looking forward to the future. More entertaining and furtive than anything I’ve heard on MSM by a long shot.

  3. bardamu
    May 2, 2020 at 21:22

    Systemic design should mean design of human-sized systems. These can be stable enough to be transparent (those curious enough for a good and dense read can go to Elinor Ostrom).

    A new Great Depression brought on by lockdown, whether collapse or contraction or sudden inflation by fiat monies, suggests that much of what will help populations survive or retain some elements of autonomy will involve relatively small systems that can be set up apart from an essentially hostile class of rulers.

    These might manage to unite or federate enough to establish themselves against the resistance government and large business will surely provide. Plant those yards and street dividers to crops, folks.

  4. Sam F
    May 1, 2020 at 19:48

    These times do not so much call for acting as poets rather than politicians, as for poets to inspire the people and political thinkers to work together. Political innovation requires:

    1. Losses showing that an accepted system failed, destroying its myths of perfection;
    2. The belief that specific alternatives or innovations will overcome those failings;
    3. Means to make the changes.

    We have disasters, and can innovate, but no longer have a democracy to make the changes.
    The tools of democracy (mass media, elections, and judiciary) are now completely controlled by gold, the new tyranny.
    History provides only the example of violence to replace tyranny with democratic institutions.

    In a disaster, those “acting as poets instead of politicians” can show others that new systems are needed.
    Writers can show what is wrong with a government and governing class, and suggest improvements and means.
    In situations of massive loss to most of a nation, poets may inspire the sacrifices of rebellion to permit innovation.
    They seldom design new systems, but may inspire political thinkers to make innovations.

    Emerson’s essays wander off into clouds of abstraction, but often inspire young people. I re-read all of his Essays to attribute my concept of a Universal Mind of Humanity©, but he had only inspired me to invent it, and so I credit him.
    That in turn led to its implementation as the College of Policy Debate, a potential fourth branch of federal government.
    Analysis of the defects and correction of political institutions may be inspired by imaginative essays and poetry.

    In technology, innovation can sometimes be inspired by the illusion that someone else has broken the barriers that caused one to ignore a problem: even if they have not, one can suddenly see possibilities worth exploring.

    • Skip Scott
      May 2, 2020 at 08:48

      Speaking of poets, I wonder what ever happened to F.G. Sanford?

    • Sam F
      May 2, 2020 at 18:11

      Yes, his was clever, incisive, and revealing poetry full of good ideas.
      A Google search on “F.G. Sanford” reveals potential allusions but no definite name.

      Good political poetry seems to require age and experience as well as inspiration.

  5. May 1, 2020 at 11:49

    Pepe’s writing is not always the easiest and I don’t mean this in a complimentary sense. However,he knows his stuff and always writes an interesting , if sometimes annoying to read, article. Here he has been freed from all fetters, shuffling off all mortal coils and in so doing leaves the ordinary reader earth-bound looking up open-mouthed in wonder. One senses that some of these writers may have important insights, but what those are will forever remain the preserve of a few cognoscenti and , presumably ,Pepe. Obviously a frustrated academic, Pepe is determined to be as obscure and impenetrable as some of the writers he paraphrases, reassuring himself of his membership of this elite group
    For instance, here’s an example; an example being an excellent device in aiding understanding I might add :
    dizzying non-stop movement mingling lines of articulation, in different strata, directed into lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization.

    A post graduate degree in literature leaves me ill-equipped to understand what the heck he’s going on about.
    As I say, there may be invaluable insights here we could all profit from but Pepe’s exegesis will render the ordinary reader forever ignorant of these.,

    • Skip Scott
      May 2, 2020 at 08:51

      “If you can’t dazzle ’em with brilliance, baffle ’em with bullshit”. Pepe does a bit of both. Still gotta love the guy!

    • Torture This
      May 2, 2020 at 12:25

      I was watching some clips of Prof. Irwin Corey the other day…

    • Gumper
      May 5, 2020 at 00:18

      Reads like something out of Flight to Lucifer,
      Or possibly Naked Lunch.

  6. Len
    May 1, 2020 at 02:13


  7. bevin
    April 30, 2020 at 23:27

    “Philosophers have interpreted the world. The point is to change it.”
    And the question is how? What is to be done ?
    The answer has to be democracy-not representative democracy, not subsitutionism but the simplest form of democracy, equality of voices moderated only by voluntary, instinctive, respect-for the elders, for the mothers, for the young full of energy and at their physical peak, for those of middle age, where strength and experience inform each other, for the eccentric, for the strange, for the oppressed.
    It was always one of the omitted keys of socialist reform that socialisation implied workers control. Somehow in all the programmes of nationalisation and collectivisation it never really gelled. And probably because it promised to be unpredictable. It is the unpredictability of democracy that makes it such an orphan among political ideas. The argument was always on the line of it being necessary-to preserve revolution from reaction- to centralise power, as in a war. Which has meant that all revolutions have been controlled by their victims. And shaped according to the desires of their enemies: Stalin was a response not to his or his allies’ idiocy, lack of imagination or nastiness but to fear of lowering the Revolution’s guard-under constant pressure, it was easy to argue that there was no time to relax and allow events to take their own course- to let the workers decide what to produce, what to eat, what to consume, to choose between dozens of types of guns and hundreds of grades of butter. Such freedom had to be postponed until victory.
    But victory requires new men, men forged in the fires of experience, men who have experimented and made their choices, men who have transcended the weaknesses born of alienation, lack of seriousness, dependence on leaders or traditions or religion.
    And such men (and of course in case there are some so foolish as to wonder) women do not emerge full armed except from their own struggles- to make democrats it requires democracy. To produce men capable of wielding their own power it is necessary for them to seize and wield power.
    The revolution is therefore permanent or it does not exist. The revolution can never be victorious, because it can never know where it is going, because it cannot understand until it has learned from experience.
    And only democracy, which mobilises every ounce of power mental and physical, can overcome the deadweight of hierarchy and authority to whose myriad forms the single simplicity of democracy is the only alternative.

  8. Ursula
    April 30, 2020 at 23:26

    We should mobilize towards slowing down in November, December, and prepare for hybernation January and February (no schools or universities), part time work or on/off division of labor March and April…safe by May 1st.

  9. April 30, 2020 at 23:20


    April 30, 2020 at 18:23

    I like The Triumph of Death fresco. This one from the Denver Airport is also appropriate, maybe even prescient if not bizarre considering its placement.

    This virus is many things. It’s quite talented. An Angel of Death that uses our weaknesses, personally physical and societal, against us. It hoists us by our own petards. It is the Growth Buster. WHO ya gonna call?

    https (colon) //imgur (dot) com/a/TI4Nivt

    • OlyaPola
      May 1, 2020 at 12:50

      “It hoists us by our own petards.”

      Co-operation is always productive although some self-absorbed, self-described “higher life forms” tend to disagree, despite being complicit in co-operation/interaction by default.

Comments are closed.