The Viral Emergenc(e/y) and the World of Tomorrow – Byung-Chul Han

The coronavirus is putting our system to the test. Asia appears to have the pandemic more under control than Europe. In Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore there are very few infected. In Taiwan, 108 cases have been registered and in Hong Kong, 193. In contrast, there are already 15,320 confirmed cases in Germany, after a much shorter period of time, and 19,980 in Spain (data from March 20). South Korea has also passed the worst phase, as well as Japan. Even China, the country of origin of the pandemic, has it well under control. But neither in Taiwan nor in Korea has a ban been imposed on leaving  home, nor have shops and restaurants been closed. Meanwhile, an exodus of Asians leaving Europe has begun. Chinese and Koreans want to return to their countries, because they feel safer there. The prices of the flights have multiplied. Flight tickets to China or Korea are barely available anymore.

Europe is failing. The numbers of infected are increasing exponentially. Europe cannot seem to control the pandemic. In Italy hundreds of people die daily. They remove respirators from elderly patients to help young people. But there are also useless overactions. Border closures are clearly a desperate expression of sovereignty. We feel as though we were back in the era of sovereignty. The sovereign is the one who decides on the state of emergency. It is the sovereign who closes borders, but closing borders is an empty display of sovereignty which is useless. Cooperating intensively within the Eurozone would be much more helpful than closing borders rashly (a lo loco). Meanwhile, Europe has also enacted a ban on entry to foreigners: a totally absurd act in view of the fact that Europe is precisely where nobody wants to come. At best, it would be wiser to enact a ban on European outflow (salidas), to protect the world from Europe. After all, Europe is the epicenter of the pandemic right now.

The Advantages of Asia

Compared to Europe, what advantages does the Asian system offer that are efficient in fighting the pandemic? Asian states like Japan, Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan or Singapore have an authoritarian mentality, which comes from their cultural tradition (Confucianism). People are less recalcitrant and more obedient than in Europe. They also trust the state more. And not only in China, but also in Korea or Japan, daily life is much more strictly organized than in Europe. Above all, to confront the virus, Asians are strongly committed to digital surveillance. They suspect that big data could hold enormous potential for defending against the pandemic. It could be said that epidemics in Asia are not only fought by virologists and epidemiologists, but above all, also by computer scientists and big data specialists. A paradigm shift that Europe has not yet learned about. The apologists for digital surveillance would proclaim that big data saves human lives.

Critical awareness of digital surveillance is practically non-existent in Asia. There is little talk of data protection, even in liberal states like Japan and Korea. No one is angered by the authorities’ frenzy to collect data. In the meantime, China has introduced an social credit system, unimaginable for Europeans, which allows for a comprehensive assessment or evaluation of citizens. Each citizen must be evaluated accordingly in his social conduct. In China there are no moments in everyday life that are not subject to observation. Every click, every purchase, every contact, every activity on social networks is controlled. Those who run a red light, those who have dealings or connections (trato) with critics of the regime or those who post critical comments on social networks have points taken away. Hence life can become very dangerous. Conversely, those who buy healthy food online or read newspapers related to the regime receive points. Whoever has enough points gets a travel visa or cheaper credits. Conversely, whoever falls below a certain number of points could lose his job. In China, this social surveillance is possible because there is an unrestricted exchange of data between Internet and mobile phone providers and the authorities. There is practically no data protection. The term “private sphere” does not appear in the Chinese vocabulary.

There are 200 million surveillance cameras in China, many of them equipped with a highly efficient facial recognition technology. They even capture the moles on one’s face. It is not possible to escape from the surveillance camera. These cameras, equipped with artificial intelligence, can observe and evaluate every citizen in public spaces, in stores, on the streets, in stations and at airports.

The entire infrastructure for digital surveillance has now turned out to be extremely effective in containing the epidemic. When someone leaves the station in Beijing, they are automatically captured/percieved (captado) by a camera that measures their body temperature. If the temperature is worrisome, everyone sitting in the same car receives a notification on their mobile phones. Not surprisingly, the system knows who was sitting where on the train. Social networks say that drones are even being used to control quarantines. If someone clandestinely breaks the quarantine, a drone goes flying to him and orders him to return to his home. Maybe he’ll even print him a fine and drop it while flying by, who knows. It is a situation that for Europeans would be dystopian, but to which, apparently, there is no resistance in China.

Neither in China nor in other Asian states such as South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan or Japan is there a critical awareness of digital surveillance or big data. Digitization directly intoxicates them. This is also due to a cultural motive. Collectivism reigns in Asia. There is no accentuated individualism. Individualism is not the same as selfishness, which of course is also very widespread in Asia.

Big data seems to be more effective in combating the virus than the absurd border closures currently taking place in Europe. However, due to data protection, a digital virus engagement (combate) comparable to Asia is not possible in Europe. Chinese mobile phone and internet providers share sensitive customer data with security services and with ministries of health. The State therefore knows where I am, who I am with, what I do, what I look for, what I think about, what I eat, what I buy, where I go. It is possible that in the future the State will also control body temperature, weight, blood sugar level, etc: a digital biopolitics that accompanies the digital psychopolitics that actively controls people.

In Wuhan, thousands of digital investigation teams have been formed to search for potential infected individuals based on technical data alone. Based solely on big data analysis, they find out who is potentially infected, who has to be watched and eventually be quarantined. Here too, in regards to the pandemic, the future lies in digitization. In view of the epidemic, perhaps we should redefine even sovereignty. The sovereign is she or he who has data. When Europe proclaims a state of emergency (alarma) or closes borders, it continues to cling to old models of sovereignty.

Not only in China, but also in other Asian countries, digital surveillance has been used extensively to contain the epidemic. In Taiwan, the State simultaneously sends all citizens an SMS to locate people who have had contact with infected people or to inform about places and buildings where people have been infected. Right away, at a very early stage, Taiwan used a data connection to locate possible infected people based on the trips they had made. Anyone approaching a building where an infected person has been in Korea receives an alarm signal through the “Corona-app”. All the places where there have been infected people are registered in the application. Data protection and the private sphere are not taken into account very much. Surveillance cameras are installed in every building in Korea on every floor, in every office, or in every store. It is practically impossible to move in public spaces without being filmed by a video camera. With the data from mobile phones and the material filmed by video, the complete movement profile of an infected person can be created. The movements of all those whom are infected are published. It may happen that secret affairs are uncovered. In the offices of the Korean Ministry of Health there are some people called “trackers” who do nothing other than watch the video footage on the day and night to complete the profile of the movement of those infected withe the virus and locate the people who have had contact with them.

A striking difference between Asia and Europe is specifically the use of protective masks. In Korea, there is hardly anyone who goes around without special respirator masks capable of filtering the viruses out of the air. They are not the usual surgical masks, but special protective masks with filters, which are also worn by doctors who treat the infected. During the past few weeks, the number one issue in Korea was the supply of masks for the population. Huge lines formed in front of pharmacies. Politicians were valued based on how quickly they supplied them to the entire population. New machines for manufacturing masks were hastily built. At the moment the supply chain seems to be working well. There is even an application that informs you in which nearby pharmacy you can still get masks. I believe that protective masks, of which the entire population has been supplied in Asia, have been instrumental in containing the epidemic.

Koreans wear anti-virus masks even on the job. Even politicians make their public appearances exclusively with face masks. The Korean president is also wearing them to set an example, including at press conferences. In Korea they badmouth and disparage you if you don’t wear a mask. On the contrary, in Europe it is often said that they are of little use, which is nonsense. Why then do doctors wear protective masks? But you have to change your mask often enough, because when they get wet they lose their filtering function. However, Koreans have already developed a “coronavirus mask” made of nano-filters that can even be washed. It is said that it can protect people from the virus for a month. It is actually a very good solution whilst there are no vaccines or medications. In Europe, by contrast, even doctors have to travel to Russia to get them. Macron has ordered masks to be confiscated for distribution to healthcare personnel. But what they received later were normal unfiltered masks with the indication that they would be enough to protect against the coronavirus, which is a lie. Europe is failing. What is the use of closing shops and restaurants if people keep crowding on the subway or bus during rush hours? How can one keep the necessary distance from others in these spaces? Even in supermarkets it is almost impossible. In such a situation, protective masks would actually save human lives. A two-class society is emerging. Whoever has their own car is exposed to less risk. Even normal masks would do a lot if worn by the infected, because then they wouldn’t release the viruses outwards.

In European countries almost no one wears a mask. There are some who wear them, but they are Asian. My countrymen residing in Europe complain that people look at them strangely when they wear them. Besides this there is a cultural difference. In Europe there is an individualism that brings with it the habit of conveying (llevando) an uncovered face. The only ones who are masked are criminals. But now, seeing images of Korea, I have become so used to seeing masked people that the bare face of my fellow European citizens is almost obscene to me. I would also like to wear a protective mask, but they can no longer be found here.

Some time ago, mask manufacturing, like that of so many other products, was outsourced to China. So now in Europe you can not get masks. Asian states are trying to supply the entire population with protective masks. In China, when they also became scarce there, they even re-purposed factories to produce masks. In Europe, not even healthcare personnel get them. As long as people continue to crowd on buses or subways to go to work without face masks, the ban on leaving the house will logically not do much good. How can you keep the necessary distance on buses or on the metro at rush hours? And a lesson that we should take from the pandemic should be the advantage of bringing the production of certain products back to Europe, such as protective masks or medicinal and pharmaceutical products.

Despite all the risk, which should not be minimized, the panic that the coronavirus pandemic has unleashed is disproportionate. Not even the “Spanish flu”, which was much more deadly, had such devastating effects on the economy. What is this really about? Why does the world react in such panic to a virus? Emmanuel Macron even talks about war and the invisible enemy that we have to defeat. Are we facing a return of the enemy? The “Spanish flu” was triggered in the middle of the First World War. At that time everyone was surrounded by enemies. No one would have associated the epidemic with a war or an enemy. But today we live in a totally different society.

In reality, we have been living for a long time without enemies. The cold war ended long ago. Lately even Islamic terrorism seemed to have moved to distant territories. Exactly ten years ago, in my essay The Society of Fatigue, I supported the thesis that we live in a time when the immunological paradigm, which is based on the negativity of the enemy, has lost its validity. Seen in the times of the Cold War, an immunologically organized society is characterized by living surrounded by borders and fences, which prevent the accelerated circulation of goods and capital. Globalization suppresses all these immune thresholds to give capital free rein. Even the widespread promiscuity and permissiveness, which today spread through all vital areas, eliminate the negativity of the unknown or the enemy. The dangers which lurk today are not from the negativity of the enemy, but from the excess of positivity, which is expressed as excess performance, excess production and excess communication. The negativity of the enemy has no place in our unlimitedly permissive society. Repression by others gives way to depression, exploitation by others gives way to voluntary self-exploitation and self-optimization. In the performance society, one wars, above all, against oneself.

Immunological Thresholds and the Closing of Borders

Thus, in the midst of this society so immunologically weakened by global capitalism, the virus suddenly breaks out. Filled with panic, we once again erect immunological thresholds and close borders. The enemy has returned. We no longer war against ourselves, but against the invisible enemy that comes from outside. Excessive panic, in light of the virus, is a social, and even global, immune reaction to the new enemy. The immune reaction is so violent because we have lived for a long time in a society without enemies, in a society of positivity, and now the virus is perceived as a permanent terror.

But there is another reason for the tremendous panic. Again it has to do with digitization. Digitization removes reality. Reality is experienced thanks to the resistance it offers, and it can also be painful. Digitization, the whole culture of “likes”, suppresses the negativity of resistance. And in the post-factual era of fake news and deepfakes, an apathy towards reality arises. Hence, here it is a real virus, and not a computer virus, that causes a shock. Reality, and therefore resistance, is again noticeable in the form of an enemy virus. The violent and exaggerated reaction of panic to the virus is explained based on this shock due to reality.

The reaction of panic of financial markets to the epidemic is also the expression of that panic that is already inherent in these markets. The extreme upheavals in the world economy make it very vulnerable. Despite the constantly increasing curve of the stock exchange index, the risky monetary policy of issuing banks in recent years has generated a suppressed panic that was waiting for the outbreak. The virus is probably nothing more than the straw that broke the camel’s back (la pequeña gota que ha colmado el vaso). What is reflected in the panic of the financial market is not so much its fear of the virus as a fear of itself. The crash could also have occurred without the virus. Perhaps the virus is only the prelude to a much bigger crash.

Žižek claims that the virus has dealt capitalism a fatal blow, and evokes a dark communism. He even believes that the virus could bring down the Chinese regime. Žižek is wrong. None of that will happen. China will now be able to sell its digital police state as a successful model against the pandemic. China will display the superiority of its system with even more pride. And after the pandemic, capitalism will continue even more vigorously. And tourists will continue to trample (pisotear) the planet. The virus cannot replace reason. It is possible that even the Chinese-style digital police state will also reach us in the West. As Naomi Klein has already said, upheaval is a propitious moment that allows the establishment of a new system of government. The establishment of neoliberalism was also often preceded by crises that caused shocks. This is what happened in Korea or in Greece. Hopefully, after the shock caused by this virus, a digital police regime like the Chinese will not arrive to Europe. If that were to happen, as Giorgio Agamben fears, the state of exception would become the normal situation. Then the virus would have accomplished what even Islamic terrorism did not quite achieve.

The virus will not defeat capitalism. The viral revolution will not happen. No virus is capable of making revolution. The virus isolates and individualizes us. It does not generate any strong collective sentiment. In some way, each cares only for his own survival. The solidarity consisting in keeping  our distances mutual is not a solidarity that allows us to dream of a different, more peaceful, and just society. We cannot leave the revolution in the hands of the virus. Let’s hope that after the virus there comes a human revolution. It is WE, PEOPLE endowed with REASON, who have to radically rethink and restrict destructive capitalism, and also our unlimited and destructive mobility, to save ourselves, to save the climate and our beautiful planet.

Translated from Spanish by Richard James Bowling

Andean Philosophy about Byung-Chul Han

We agree that it cannot be either a communist or a centrist state, but neither can the idea of this new system be left to “reason” alone, as Chul Han says, because it was pure reason that shaped capitalism and the Enlightenment gave it the full crown; rather, we have to take advantage of the accumulated experience of humanity. What we need is a system of cooperation and solidarity that both of them enunciate. That is to say, neither a “dark communism” nor an “authoritarian collectivism”, but a solidarity cooperatavism that is neither authoritarian nor statist, but not only between human beings but between all beings that make up life.

Paul Preciado – Learning from the Virus – March 2020

4 comments on “The Viral Emergenc(e/y) and the World of Tomorrow – Byung-Chul Han

  1. […] distance becomes even clearer. “The virus isolates and individualizes us,” says the philosopher Byun Chul Han, “The solidarity…in keeping our distances mutual is not a solidarity that allows us to dream of […]

  2. […] distance becomes even clearer. “The virus isolates and individualizes us,” says the philosopher Byun Chul Han, “The solidarity…in keeping our distances mutual is not a solidarity that allows us to dream of […]

  3. […] effect on the world we will come to live in, but it is up to us what kind of world that will be. As Byung-Chul Han wrote in an early pandemic […]

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