Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

How to think about Covid-19: Slavoj Zizek, Han Byung-Chul and Yuval Noah Harari

  • There are two types of people in the world today: medical workers who wage an existential struggle on our behalf and the rest of us trapped in this quasi-reality of social distancing and lock-ups, and ripe for control, manipulation and exploitation

One thing that immediately strikes me is that all three philosophers – Slavoj Zizek, Han Byung-Chul and Yuval Noah Harari – are from countries that have dealt with the pandemic relatively successfully, that is, respectively, Slovenia, South Korea and Israel. Maybe that gives them an intellectual or physical “safe space” to think more coolly and confidently, without panic, about the long-term implications of the global health crisis. Maybe it’s just a coincidence. I don’t know.

All three make many different and often intriguing observations, some of which will be considered below. But what they have all focused on extensively – what really worries them – is the use of big data and surveillance technologies in monitoring and containing the outbreak. Such state monitoring will be here to stay, they warn, whether you live in a democratic or authoritarian country, whether in the West or the East, with all the implications on personal space, privacy and civil liberty; or rather their erosion.

Liberty and digital surveillance

A postmodern philosopher and cultural theorist, what Han calls “digital biopolitics”, is being pioneered in Asia both because of “the digital intoxication of the Asians”, as well as their willingness to comply with state demands. It may not be physically intrusive, but it makes you totally transparent to those who monitor you.

But that’s OK with people in China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan, he claims. “A critical consciousness of digital surveillance and big data [does not exist],” he told Die Welt, a leading German newspaper last March.

“They are intoxicated by digitisation. There are cultural reasons: collectivism rules in Asia, but not radical individualism.

“Big data has shown itself to be more effective containing the virus than the stupid border closings presently under way in Europe. Due to data protection, a digital battle against the virus is not possible in Europe as it is in Asia.

“In China, telecoms and internet providers share sensitive client data with state security agencies and health authorities. The government knows where I am, [the people] I meet, what I do, what I search for, what I think, what I eat, what I buy … In future, [it’s possible] the state will monitor my body temperature, weight, blood sugar levels … A digital biopolitics goes with a digital psychopolitics.”

Asians are totally committed to digital surveillance, especially in its use to fight the virus. The heroes are not just virologists and epidemiologists but computer scientists and big data analysts. “Big data saves lives, the apologist argues,” Han said.

Western countries have not caught up yet, but they will.

“China now sells its digital state regime as a successful model against the pandemic,” Han said. “It claims the superiority of its system with even greater pride … It’s possible that the West will adopt a Chinese-style state digital politics.”

Han argues the shock caused by the pandemic may cause Europe to imitate features of the Chinese digital police state. “The state of exception will become normal. The virus will have succeeded where even Islamic terrorism has not,” he said.

Harari agrees, but offers an alternative explanation internal to many Western countries: populist politics and growing public distrust of authorities, including the scientific and medical establishments, whether international or domestic.

“To achieve such a level of compliance and cooperation, you need trust,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times.

“People need to trust science, to trust public authorities, and to trust the media. Over the past few years, irresponsible politicians have deliberately undermined trust in science, in public authorities and in the media. Now these same irresponsible politicians might be tempted to take the high road to authoritarianism, arguing that you just cannot trust the public to do the right thing. Trust that has been eroded for years cannot be rebuilt overnight.”

Democratic leaders will claim those as only temporary measures, but they may end up becoming permanent.

“You could make the case for biometric surveillance as a temporary measure taken during a state of emergency. It would go away once the emergency is over. But temporary measures have a nasty habit of outlasting emergencies, especially as there is always a new emergency lurking on the horizon,” Harari said.

“Even when infections from coronavirus are down to zero, some data-hungry governments could argue they needed to keep the biometric surveillance systems in place because they fear a second wave of coronavirus, or because there is a new Ebola strain evolving in central Africa, or because . . . you get the idea. A big battle has been raging in recent years over our privacy. The coronavirus crisis could be the battle’s tipping point. For when people are given a choice between privacy and health, they will usually choose health.”

Speaking to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Zizek argues that there is no escape from “the strong state” to fight pandemics and ecological disasters. For all its criticism and antagonism, the West may end up following China’s example in citizen surveillance and the elimination of privacy.

“As I always said, even before the coronavirus, with all these new techniques of digital control, we’re approaching a new model. I can smell it in the air. You’re not openly controlled, you still appear to retain your personal freedoms, you order this and that food, you can do whatever you want in your own little isolated world, you can have your personal perversions,” he said.

“But in practice the control isn’t any less tight than in the Chinese model – maybe even more so. In China at least nobody has great democratic illusions, you know you’re tightly controlled by the party, the state apparatus and so on. The mechanisms of control in the West don’t work like that; I am very wary of the authorities’ cooperation with Google.”

The real and the unreal

The digital lies between the real and the unreal, and the global panic caused by the pandemic is triggered by this compromised or (quasi-) reality, according to Han.

“There is another reason for this immense panic, and it has to do with digitisation. Digitalisation eliminates reality. Reality is experienced through the resistance it offers, which can cause pain.

“Digitalisation eliminates the negativity of resistance. [We are in] a post-fact era where fake news and deep fakes give rise to indifference or apathy towards reality.

“Yet, this is a real virus, not a computer virus. Reality and resistance once again cause this chaos [or the shock of reality].”

Yet, the methods being used by governments and medical authorities – social distancing, work from home, isolation and lock-ups, videoconferencing – push us more and more into the unreality of the digital world.

“This is what I really fear, the combination of viral and ecological catastrophes and the subsequent self-isolation, with these escapes into a digital world, where we’re directly connected to a computer. Combine this with Neuralink and you get a Matrix-like vision of our future,” Zizek said.

Besides those dying from the disease, there are two types of people in the world today: medical workers who wage an existential struggle on our behalf and the rest of us trapped in this quasi-reality of social distancing and isolation.

“To fight against the pandemic not by way of withdrawing from life but as a way to live with utmost intensity,” Zizek wrote in an op-ed for RT News, the Russian news network.

“Is there anyone more ALIVE today than millions of health care workers who with full awareness risk their lives on a daily basis? Many of them died, but till they died they were alive. They do not just sacrifice themselves for us in exchange for our hypocritical praise. Even less could they be said to be survival machines reduced to the bare essentials of living. In fact, they are those who are today most alive.”

He sounds a bit absurd here. Perhaps he expresses it better in his Haaretz interview where he quoted Sigmund Freud, who once observed that first world war veterans who were seriously wounded were much less likely than those who survived unscathed to suffer from what we today call post-traumatic stress disorder.

Today, medical workers, facing real danger and death every day, are much more grounded in reality than the rest of us – the digitally confused crowds ripe for control, manipulation and exploitation.