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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 20, New Delhi, May 2, 2020

COVID 19 the Crown Prince of Disaster Capitalism and the Question of the Joker

Sunday 3 May 2020

by Murzban Jal

Faust: .... And so, who are you, after all?

Mephistopheles: I am part of the power which forever wills evil and forever works good.

In 1919 in the period of the Great Revolutions, Milkhail Bulgakov, the Russian author of The White Guard and the famous The Master and Margarita whose political sympathies lay on the other side of the philosophical barricades, namely on the side of monarchy and the anti-Bolshevik counterrevolution, called communism a «malevolent disease» that was «spreading to the West and vanquishing it.» The person spreading this disease, according to Bulgakov, was Leon Trotsky whom very soon Stalin would call a «vermin» fit only to be destroyed.

That in 2020 the world bourgeoisie imagined a «vermin» spreading from even more imagined communist nations to the West makes us recoil with horror. For the figure of the vermin spreading diseases is typical of the ideological imagination of authoritarian states. The fact that Bulgakov would use the metaphor of the vermin, a metaphor perfected by the fascists and now mobilized by the world bourgeoisie needs to be stressed. But the fact that Stalin in the name of the alternative to capitalism essentialized this metaphor of the vermin needs further stressing.

For Stalin, as for the fascists, Trotsky was a «wandering Jew» refusing to be a nationalist, refusing to believe in the myth of «Socialism in One Country». Now Covid 19 has come to create the same form of havoc on bourgeois civilization that the Bolsheviks earlier executed on the Russian bourgeoisie. The problem is that authoritarianism despite the havoc it has created over the last few centuries attracts attention of not only what Theodor Adorno in his essay ’Culture Industry Reconsidered’ calls «servile intellectuals», but also attracts the attention of the masses. While Bulgakov was one example of intellectuals viewing an international communist order as a «disease», Martin Heidegger saw communism as a «danger» to «Western Dasein», a danger that could only be thwarted by the Nazis and Hitler. As Heidegger said on November 3, 1933: «Let not doctrines and ’Ideas’ be the rules of your being. Today and in the future only the Fuhrer himself is German reality and its law.»

Now that in 2020 a disease has truly come and that too of unimaginable global proportion, who would rescue Western civilization? Would it be once again Hitler, or would Donald Trump suffice, aided by all the little Trumps of the world? However in 1917 the ones spreading the imagined disease (of communism) were depicted with the sickle and hammer, in 2020 the spreader of the disease that is real and fatal is seen either with a crown, or in the form of the crown itself. Conspiracy or coincidence?

For Trump however Covid 19 is a «Chinese disease», supported by the WHO. Just as Bulgakov and Stalin saw Trotsky spreading diseases, Trump sees the Chinese spreading Covid 19. Maybe, so the bourgeoisie say, the picturization of the virus in the form of the crown is a communist Chinese conspiracy. Quite possibly, this depiction of Covid 19 in the form of crown is incorrect, even possibly to defame world monarchy. One should not call it the «Corona virus» as the crown and the consequent coronation would be put to shame.

We are told that this virus, now called «Covid 19» is hitting the entire globe, sparing no one, distinguishing not the rich from the poor, etc. etc, as all the fictions go. In this scene of dramaturgy, where all classes and consequent class struggles have been mystically dissolved, a world that is created without the revolutionary proletariat, that Todd Philip’s film Joker with Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role comes up for analysis. The conservatives wanted this film banned saying that it instigates violence and even worse makes the villain (the Joker in the Batman comic serial) a hero, where the liberal democratic order is depicted in a state of complete collapse, finally leading to mass violence against this very liberal democratic order. Why this film is important, especially in the age of Covid 19 is that it prophesized two things:

1. The masses of undefined people, without a leader, without a party and ideology come en masse on the streets—recall the Arab Spring, recall the protests in France, Greece, India, Iran, etc—against their respective states, where almost all states seem extremely vulnerable, almost in a state of collapse, and

2. The neoliberals like the famous emperor are seen without their clothes, unable to hide the fact that neo-liberalism has led to the collapse of the world economy, including the collapse of the public works, the health system most notably. Well before Covid 19 hit the world with devasting force demonstrating that the capitalist heath system is completely bogus, Joker exposes this collapse and no matter what masks the superheroes put on, from Batman and Robin to Spiderman, with their underwear on top of their pants which signify that in USA everything is upside-down including in fiction and comic books, capitalism cannot be saved.

Joker thus demonstrates that the masses are now not going to be manipulated by right-wing forces. They right now may not exactly be «class conscious», reading the classics of Marxism. But they are on the streets. And this state of being-in-the-streets is not merely a state of mere rebellion. The neo-liberals cannot save themselves, most certainly cannot save world capitalism which needs only a slight push for it to completely collapse. Even fascism cannot come to its rescue. It is here that Covid 19 enters the little scene of history. That the figure of the crown is so inexorably bound to it is no coincidence. Covid 19 is the New Prince of capitalism hurling the masses from the streets.

Now both Covid 19 as well as Joker signify horror that Slavoj Zizek analyzes in his essays on Joker. Note his ’More on Joker: From Apolitical Nihilism to a New Left, or Why Trump is No Joker’. Horror is no longer something far away. It is now everyday reality. It is also pure terror that Freud noted in his celebrated essay ’The Uncanny’ (Das Unheimlich).

In a certain sense we are all Arthur Fleck, the Joker, with our masks on, to veil our suffering, poverty, physical assaults and mental depression. Fleck’s mother does not call him by his name «Arthur». She calls him «Happy». This is because though she herself is a victim of American capitalism, she is also a «carrier» of capitalism in the form of the «mother» as the essential part of what we know since Louis Althusser as the Ideological State Apparatus. Consequently Fleck’s mother is no person from the annals of Socialist Realism. Maxim Gorky is completely alien to this figure of the mother in the age of neo-liberal capitalism. Fleck in a reversed Odeipal myth (where the father is killed by the son) kills his mother. This is unpardonable, not because this is totally mindless anti-humanism and murder most foul, but because the Oedipal myth is challenged. In Western myth, the son lusts for the mother. Joker in this sense completely demolishes this myth.

But it is the last scene which is most important in the film. Note Fleck is seen walking in the hospital with blood stains following him. Prophetic in the context of Covid 19? Would this be the scene of hospitals that have been completely privatized and commercialized?

This is where Covid 19 enters the scene of history, politics and fiction. The killing spree of Fleck and the rioting of the masses while seeming to be mindless, reminds us of the 19th century Russian Narodniki movement for whom anarchist political murders were said to trigger mass uprising. Writing in 1885 four years after Czar Alexander II was assassinated, Engels wrote to Vera Zasulich that «the country is like a charged mine which only needs a fuse to be laid to it.»

The questions posed are: «What role will Covid 19 play? Would it lead to characters like Fleck, the Joker, completely disinterested in society and politics, only obsessed with his neurosis, even having contempt for Lenin’s idea of the importance of revolutionary theory that he articulated in his celebrated What is to be Done? in fact becoming a votary of a form of unending violence where violence becomes a form of second nature, thus moving more towards the politics and ideology of anarchism?»

Immediately Lenin’s idea of revolutionary spontaneity emerges, a spontaneity that transforms itself into revolutionary praxis. But Fleck is a professional Joker in the era of late imperialism. He is no proletariat of Marx bent on understanding the mechanisms of global capitalism, eager to be the «vanguard» of the revolution. Fleck’s actions are impulsively driven by the excess functioning of the id and the consequent repression of the real humanized self. He can at best become a lumpen. But does he become involved in lumpen politics typical of fascist politics? In his ’Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda’ Adorno mentions how fascism creates the «rabble, that is crowds bent on violent action without any sensible political aim and to create the atmosphere of the pogrom».

We clearly see that Fleck does not desire the revolution. He is driven to it, to borrow a term from Orthodox Marxism, driven «independent of his will and consciousness». It is important to make the difference between desire and drive, a distinction that Zizek makes in his reading of Joker. Fleck’s actions are driven by the repressed unconscious. As he shows no inclination towards critical consciousness, he is not interested in what US imperialism is doing in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, not to forget Venezuela.

While he is trapped by the repressed unconscious, the existentialist terrain of Nothingness eludes him. He is thus totally different from Sartre’s character Roquentin from his novel Nausea. Roquentin is seized by a strange experience. He calls it «nausea». He tries to run away from this nausea, but knows that he cannot. For he himself is this nausea.

But about Fleck? Fleck is most certainly not going to write existentialist novels, nor script stuff for Marvel Comics. He will thus also not «clown» around. As Zizek says it is Donald Trump who is the clown. Not only is Trump a clown, he is an «obsessive clown» (to borrow a term from Zizek’s essay ’Don’t Insult Joker by Comparing him to Trump’. Zizek wrote this piece before Covid 19 invaded the world and thereby plagued both human existence as we know it, and also the human mind.

Zizek talks of Trump breaking all the rules of liberal governance. Not only does he defy liberalism, he defies the American bourgeois administration rule book. Note carefully his almost Mussolini-type gestures. After all is not his slogan «let us make America great again» a fascist recalling imperial Rome?

What is striking is that before Covid 19 brought the old caste apartheid system of «social distancing», Trump started building walls to separate the «dirty» and «impure» Mexicans from the «clean» and «pure» White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASP). Any coincidence? Maybe then with walls and fences built in the pre-Covid era one ought to scream: «Why did we not anticipate this?» The problem is that this caste apartheid system of social distancing which was taken over by the Nazis followed by Zionist Israel has now become both the New Norm as well as the New Normal. One has to obey this new law, lest we get attacked by this damned virus, that no ventilator could save.

In the era of liberal capitalism i.e. capitalism in its pre-monopoly stage, happiness was an ideal of bourgeois society. But then with the end of the promise of industrial capitalism happiness became an illusion. Pain thus became the substitute for pleasure. To borrow a metaphor from Freud, the reality principle overpowers the pleasure principle. Covid 19 saw to that. It also made pain into a commodity. Trump would be the biggest salesman of this latest commodity produced in the stable of global capitalism.

After all, why did he stop funding the WHO when USA is probably hit worst by Covid 19? Is this another fascist brainwave, not different from Hitler’s when he launched Operation Barbarossa by attacking the Soviet Union when he had brought liberal Europe to its knees? Is Trump another Hitler and do we need a Soviet-type resistance to world capitalism along with resistance to all the wars and diseases that it produces? Or would Fleck be doing this work for us?

At the end of Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, Hamlet the Prince of Denmark, as also the prince of liberal capitalism dies because he is doomed to die. Shakespeare saw the death of feudalism, but had no trust in the thesis of the revolutionary bourgeois. And with the death of Shakespeare’s crown prince of liberal democracy, another prince appears, this time appearing as the virus in the shape of the crown. The first, Hamlet, is the prince of liberal democracy. The second, the virus, is the prince of Disaster Capitalism.

In this sense, we could well see Fleck the Joker, accompanied by the Narodnikis entering the scene of history and radical politics to counter this awful and dreadful crown prince of Disaster Capitalism, setting fuse to the charged mines ironically produced and laid by the world bourgeoisie.

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