Coronavirus has shocked the increasingly interconnected global community to its core, perhaps even more so than the ebola epidemic five, the swine flu epidemic ten, or the bird flu epidemic fifteen years ago. While I consider a cynical approach to the postmodern history of pandemics not very helpful in itself, I must also admit that it does strike one as a bit ‘odd’ that global hysteria around diseases keeps resurfacing with such clockwork-like periodicity. Why could this be the case? Do epidemics have a genuine periodicity to them, or is it the socio-economic, and socio-psychological garnish that makes them appear so? Could perhaps this ‘garnish’ be more important than the supposed epidemic itself, and has more influence on the narrative we establish than numbers in lethality, contagion, etc. in any of the respective cases? These issues are the core of what I will be trying to tackle in this post.
Rousseau argues that in humanity’s natural, primordial state the individual is fundamentally good, and it is enclosure – the early capitalist practice of land division among yeomen, but in this case referring more broadly to the emergence of societies and their inherent corruption – that makes them evil. Marx diverges from this notion into a materialistic direction, however, he also alludes to the idea that the above-mentioned corruption manifests in inequality, the alienation of labour, and other socio-economic phenomena, all of which can be examined under the umbrella-term ‘class struggle’. However, in Marxist terms the current ruling class will also always implement reactionary measures to crack down on accumulated social frustrations, which often find their way into statecraft, as well as the social psyche of a given people.
On the one hand, Marx claims that under the feudal mode of production this ‘opium’ to tranquillise and keep the masses in check with was religion. On the other hand, however, if one takes a closer look at the teachings of Christ, Paul, or any of the saints, it seems rather apparent that ‘holding the other cheek’, and ‘loving thy neighbour’ are not only a fruitful basis for building civilisations, but in fact also very much in line with socialist principles, more projectable onto extracts such as ‘it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of G-d’. What is it then that makes the Bible and its respective institutions reactionary tools in the eyes of Marx?
The present post would argue, that it is indeed the chronological facet of Christianity that led Marx to his conclusions. Eschatology is the mindset that expects the end of times. It is present in many ancient texts that the world periodically gets dismantled and then put back together, reforming into an organic continuity. However, Armageddon – the expectation of the end of times as a great final event of judgement is a very characteristically Judeo-Christian notion. According to the Book of John (or Book of Revelations, as the modern English translations puts it), four horsemen will deliver the Apocalypse, amidst serenades of trumpeting angels and the famed second coming of Christ. This image burnt into the European social psyche so deeply, that we don’t even have adjectives to describe it, other than ‘apocalyptic’, which itself originates from the very text in question. John draws analogies with the ancient Battle of Megiddo between Egypt and Babylon, suggesting that the last war, the war between the Kingdoms of Heaven and the armies of evil will also take place near Megiddo, from which the term ‘Armageddon’ is derived.
The reason the Book of Revelations is so central to understanding our relationship to time as intellectuals groomed in the western hemisphere is that it establishes time as a linear phenomenon, as opposed to the cyclical worldview of ancient contemporary cultures around the world, most notably China. ‘Linear’ in our context refers to the chronological perception of existence within G-d’s material creation. Time and the material world had a beginning, when G-d created the cosmos, and it will have an end with Armageddon. Naturally, this highly sophisticated ontological thinking rarely filtered down to the wider social subconscious under feudalism, but the promise of the world ending some day, and the gargoyles, demons, and imps carved into their places of worship kept the population perfectly in check. This linear view of time proved so effective in sweeping social frustrations under the rug, that Christendom and its mode of production, feudalism prevailed up until the 20th century in some European peripheries. There was unrest in the Middle Ages per se, such as peasant revolts, heresy, and the corresponding brutal suppression of these, but it took the inventions of the printing press, the scientific method, and centuries of philosophy to question the Book of Revelations. Enter the Enlightenment.
Nowadays we can rationally explain through empiricism and observation that even if the cosmos will cease to exist one day, it is most probably an unfathomably distant prospect, and even if there will be an end of times, it will not be biblical, epic, or climactic, but rather cold, indifferent, and uncertain. Modernity gave us tools to accumulate rational knowledge, and to better our material lives significantly. But it also ripped us of the certainty that beyond our physical existence eternal life awaits us, be it for the better (Heaven) or the worse (Hell). What Marx misunderstood about religion is that it’s not simply an ‘opium’ to give people rest while they serve their overlords. Religion in the West was all of this, but also, most fundamentally it gave the medieval common man meaning in the face of an otherwise indifferent cosmos. The sophisticated ontology changed during the Enlightenment. G-d was no longer a benevolent father figure, but an indecipherable and indifferent universe. However, the social subconscious is lagging behind to this day.
Dei gratia referred to the notion that anointed by the Pope, medieval rulers were essentially installed by G-d, and out of his grace to be more precise. We no longer hold this notion to be sacred, nor did everybody at the time. But the things we do hold sacred, such as individual freedom, or the sovereignty of the self over that of the ruler – these are all ideas we derived from the same abstract deity. Just think of the American War of Independence. Arguably the greatest experiment ever undertaken in history. The people asked themselves the question: “Can we govern ourselves instead of a king?” The answer (so far) is a resounding ‘yes’. But the success of republics over monarchies in itself does not mean that the legitimacy of one system is not based on the exact same notions as that of its predecessor. King George III answered only to G-d, and was granted sovereignty by G-d. The modern individual’s freedom is also bestowed upon him by G-d. ‘In G-d, we trust.’
What is all this? What does a reductionist summary of hundreds of pages of Marx and the Enlightenment have to do with coronavirus? The main point of this post is that while we progress and develop, some things remain constant. In our postmodern space, sensationalism and mass hysteria are no longer the exception. They are the rule. Quite literally, and in both senses of the word. We could rationally overcome the G-d problem. But we could not change that it is enshrined in us, and that we still harbour the magical thinking that the overwhelming meaninglessness has a face. And given that the Christian G-d created a linear chronology, we cannot fully get rid of Armageddon either, at least not on a subconscious level. In other words, the world has to end.
We keep inventing more and more creative and scientific ways to explain how the world is going to end. We figured out viruses – the fact that they exist, as well as how they behave. This does not mean however, that the average person understands how viruses work any more than he did during the Black Plague. The average man must still rely on G-d for those answers. of course, nowhere in this text do I aim to even suggest that there is a single person alive today, who is religious in the same way most people were in the Middle Ages. There might be, but that kind of faith is lost for good in the West. But on a subconscious level we are yet to surpass this kind of thinking. And as long as the people believe that the world is going to end ‘eventually’, in the eyes of the people in power the world will have to end ‘right now’. In the postmodern space we live in a perpetual superposition between life and death. We are never really alive, as we lead not our personal lives, but that of our consumer baskets. And we are never really dead either, as the comfort and cushion of our consumer basket keeps us alive more than sufficiently. We simply exist. And for as long as we do, the world will have to end. After all, nobody will riot in the streets as long as there is imminent danger of the world coming to an end.