WASHINGTON — During the coronavirus pandemonium, the voice of Slavoj Žižek is an essential one. The renowned Slovenian philosopher is there when you need him: decoding a mind-boggling event, explaining a new phenomenon that is shattering global society, connecting the dots, filling in loose ends, shedding light on the unknown. There isn't anybody else on this planet who could instantly transform the coronavirus into social theory. Never expect Žižek to do something banal or obvious. Always provocative, Slovenia's most famous export chose to speak from the Russian platform, RT (Russian Television), which is controlled by Vladimir Putin:
When I suggested that the coronavirus epidemic may give a new boost of life to communism, my claim was, as expected, ridiculed. Although it looks that the strong approach to the crisis by the Chinese state worked – at least it worked much better than what goes on now in Italy, the old authoritarian logic of communists in power also clearly demonstrated its limitations. One of them was that the fear of bringing bad news to those in power (and to the public) outweighs actual results – this was apparently the reason why those who first shared information on a new virus were reportedly arrested, and there are reports that a similar thing is going on now.
As Žižek says, China has done a pretty good job fighting the virus because of the Chinese state's strong approach to the crisis. Meanwhile, the predominantly noncommunist world (Italy excluded) is still awaiting a spike in the epidemic. The critical moment–when the capacity of hospitals, the number of respiratory machines, and the medics will become scarce–is still looming. The pandemic may become too big to be managed by a single country, Žižek says:
The coronavirus epidemic does not signal just the limit of market globalization, it also signals the even more fatal limit of nationalist populism which insists on full state sovereignty: it's over with ‘America (or whoever) first!" since America can be saved only through global coordination and collaboration.
I am not a utopian here, I don't appeal to idealized solidarity between people – on the contrary, the present crisis demonstrates clearly how global solidarity and cooperation is in the interest of the survival of all and each of us, how it is the only rational egotist thing to do. And it's not just coronavirus: China itself suffered the gigantic swine flu months ago, and it is now threatened by the prospect of a locust invasion. Plus, as Owen Jones noted, climate crisis kills many more people around the world than coronavirus, but there is no panic about this.
Let's recapitulate: epidemics like the coronavirus, Sars or Swine Flu are dangerous enough to teach humanity that isolation – sealing off a single country – will not block or eliminate the virus. Only global solidarity and cooperation will enable us to survive. There are only more bad viruses and climate change in our future. These upcoming calamities will not be resolved by a simple teleconference among global leaders. Obviously, something much stronger and binding will be necessary.
Žižek finishes his thought:
From a cynical vitalist standpoint, one would be tempted to see coronavirus as a beneficial infection that allows humanity to get rid of the old, weak and ill, like pulling out the half-rotten weed and thus contribute to global health.
The broad communist approach I am advocating is the only way for us to really leave behind such a primitive vitalist standpoint. Signs of curtailing unconditional solidarity are already discernible in the ongoing debates, as in the following note about the role of the "three wise men" if the epidemics take a more catastrophic turn in the UK: "NHS patients could be denied life-saving care during a severe coronavirus outbreak in Britain if intensive care units are struggling to cope, senior doctors have warned. Under a so-called ‘three wise men" protocol, three senior consultants in each hospital would be forced to make decisions on rationing care such as ventilators and beds, in the event hospitals were overwhelmed with patients."
What criteria will the "three wise men" rely on? Sacrifice the weakest and eldest? And will this situation not just open up space for immense corruption? Do such procedures not indicate that we are getting ready to enact the most brutal logic of the survival of the fittest? So, again, the ultimate choice is this or some kind of reinvented communism.
File Image: Zizek speaks in Liverpool, 2008 — Photo: Andy Miah
So this is it? Some kind of reinvented communism? Why call it communism? Communism as the new world order sounds utopian, Trotsky-esque even. "Reinvented" hints towards a more creative and open model of society instead of the pure, rude communism from the Soviet Union. But does the new model include the methods that China is applying under Xi Jinping? A decade ago, Žižek considered the challenge between authoritarian and democratic regimes to be a priority that the world needed to resolve:
Following this path, the Chinese used unencumbered authoritarian state power to control the social costs of the transition to capitalism. The weird combination of capitalism and Communist rule proved not to be a ridiculous paradox, but a blessing. China has developed so fast not in spite of authoritarian Communist rule, but because of it.
There is a further paradox at work here. What if the promised second stage, the democracy that follows the authoritarian vale of tears, never arrives? This, perhaps, is what is so unsettling about China today: the suspicion that its authoritarian capitalism is not merely a reminder of our past – of the process of capitalist accumulation which, in Europe, took place from the 16th to the 18th century – but a sign of our future? What if the combination of the Asian knout and the European stock market proves economically more efficient than liberal capitalism? What if democracy, as we understand it, is no longer the condition and motor of economic development, but an obstacle to it?
The image Žižek puts forward paints China as the most efficient regime when it comes to dealing with the emergencies the world is facing at the moment. It's been a week since we were flooded with reports on how successful China was in dealing with the latest plague.
These reports were sustained in a big way by an interview with Dr. Bruce Aylward, who led the W.H.O. team that visited China to assess the country's response to the coronavirus outbreak. Dr. Aylward's praises for China are endless. But if you do not want to read through all of them, you can watch the video in which a journalist from the New York Times who interviewed him shoots out a concentrated version of the Chinese model that sounds like a fairy tale. In addition to the widespread reporting on China's success, images of the dismantling of the hospital that was built to cope with the pandemic in Wuhan and a video of Chinese workers taking off their face masks are circulating throughout the internet. However, the propaganda peaks with footage of the plane loaded with Chinese experts and medicine landing in Rome a few days ago. It is supposed to show that China is now back on its feet and ready to save the world.
But let us not forget that the coronavirus sprung from the wet markets of Wuhan in China and that the Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping ordered containment— of both the virus and information about it— on January 7. Only on January 20 did the Chinese government allow any public disclosure about the deadly outbreak, losing vital weeks in which the world might have done more to prevent a pandemic if both the scientific genome sequencing and the dangers had been shared.
As Dispatch.com reports:
Xi's prime concern was not lives at risk, or containment of the virus, but rather the nation's and his reputation, place in the global supply chain and his grip on power. In this, Xi is much like every other dictator who prioritizes everything above the well-being of his own people, let alone others'.
Iran and Russia have also joined in as regimes that have mismanaged the virus for political purposes. As much as it might be hard to believe, Donald Trump joined the elite of dictatorial regimes. There is no difference between the way Xi and Trump forced their members of government into obedience, making them publicly praise their wisdom and success in leading their nations.
As Dispatch puts it, there is not much difference between the two regimes:
When we consider the United States' failings on this front, it's fair to argue that Donald Trump has been more Xi and less Abraham Lincoln than desirable. (See, in particular, his insistent tweets that the virus was "contained" in the United States and his reluctance to let in the passengers of the Grand Princess cruise ship because it would hurt the "numbers.") The president and the CDC were initially slow to face up to the challenge.
But even in this instance, the nature of the American democratic state has served to defuse Trump's selfish impulses, with institutions stepping up to fill the void. And as we will likely see, the U.S. will belatedly come to speed, with lower fatality rates that reflect the democracy/dictatorship divide.
It will only be after the pandemic ends that we can start to face what lies beyond.
Even though China's leadership finally managed to mobilize the country against the virus, how can we trust these people? The Chinese authorities put themselves at the front lines of the battle against the coronavirus, but only after they screwed it up and allowed the virus to travel from Wuhan across China and then out into the world. Trump did the identical thing when he hushed data on the potential pandemic, blocking efficient measures that would contain the virus. Was all this done to let the financial markets remain high, to get reelected?
Turning back to the always inspiring Žižek, we can ask if Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, and a dozen similar dictators, can reinvent communism ... or reinvent anything. Why did Xi Jinping not close the wild animal markets when he knew that the coronavirus could easily jump from animals to humans in these places, creating a pandemic? Why did Donald Trump abolish the protection plan that the U.S. administration created in the case of a pandemic breakout years ago? Why today, when China is claiming to have resolved the crisis, can we not read more reports about the real state of things there?
It will only be after the pandemic ends and the regimes pass by that we can start to face what lies beyond the immediate emergency. The coronavirus will definitely change our future behavior and our way of life. Take social distancing, working from home, spending more time reading and in nature: how can we go back from this? There is no doubt that even a few weeks of a lockdown will improve climate change. What will we learn from it? There's no doubt that we will have to reinvent many of the things that we took for granted in the past.
For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on the coronavirus global pandemic. Our network of multilingual journalists are busy finding out what's being reported locally — everywhere — to provide as clear a picture as possible of what it means for all of us at home, around the world. To receive the daily brief in your inbox, sign up here.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
- Long Shielded, Thailand's Monarchy Facing Hard Questions Amid ... ›
- French Monarchist Lessons For A Broken American Democracy ... ›
- Thailand To Belarus: The Divides Of Democracy Protesters ... ›