Us vs Them: Pandemic World


Levi R. Bryant’s fragmentary musings on the Covid-19 pandemic are interesting and beautifully written and worth a read. It sparked a lot of thoughts and musings of my own. I was in particular struck by Bryant’s speculation on the possibility of constituting an Us; a planetary Us:

“Paraphrasing Badiou, the problem of politics and ethics is not that of the different, but of how to construct the Same. Ontologically, he says, there is nothing but infinitely decomposable multiplicities without one. Between me and my identical twin – if I had an identical twin – there are as many differences as there are between me and the Chinese person across the globe. Difference, he contends, is just a trivial fact of being. The question is how we can draw a transversal line across these differences to construct a space of the Same. The virus is the great leveler. It refuses to be an elsewhere. It is indifferent to whether you are rich, poor, belong to the ersatz “middle class,” black, white, male, or female. As they are thrown out of work and suffer the disease, the “middle class” discover that they have more in common with the homeless person than with the billionaire.


The terrible and cruel injustice of our economic system, the tremendous inequality of power and representation, is revealed and laid bare for all to see, and in this it becomes possible – perhaps – to construct a One or a People.


In the constitution of a planetary Us we rediscover society and our interdependence with others.”

Levi R. Bryant

There is a kind of utopian underpinning to that Us. But every Us demands a Them? Who are the Them in this binary?

The Realignment

The now crumbling international, globalist, neoconservative consensus was already trying to constitute a planetary Us. It was constructed on purely economic terms. The Us, was the global consumer, undergirded by global transportation logistics which allowed goods and people to be made and transported anywhere in the world. The Them were countries like North Korea, or Iran. They were outside of the Us global consensus, but they were also constituted as ‘future Us.’ They were the barbarians that could (and should) become Us.

This system brought us to where we are today. As the pandemic spreads the limitations of this order are revealed. It is porous. Easy movement leads to easy pandemics. The global ‘just-in-time’ supply chain can’t keep up sudden demands of crucial goods. Additionally, offshoring the production of vital goods is a problem when ‘offshore’ shuts down due to a pandemic. There are many examples.

Workers of the World Unite!

Bryant’s new Us references classic Marxist global call: “Workers of the world unite!” Identities, racial differences, all fall aside as we continue the project of the left and try to re-constitute an Us that cuts across all identitarian lines. If the Us are the workers… who are the Them? In this model the them are the 1%, the billionaires, the class with capital. By doing this, aren’t we simply re-constituting the old global order but putting an accent on the 99%. That’s fine and good, but I’m not sure that is what’s happening.

The ‘perhaps’ in Bryant’s piece:

“…and in this it becomes possible – perhaps – to construct a One or a People.”

is doing a lot of work. Just as at the beginning of his piece he says:

” A world is ending. I do not say the world is ending, but rather that a world is ending.”

The world is not just ending, it is splintering.

Consumers of the World Unite

The global order constructed the Us via consumerism:

  • The consumer is an identity based on aesthetic difference.
  • The consumer identity (consumers of the world unite) unites by the need to express a particular individuality.
  • The consumer is constituted as an individual, and a target market.

Consumer politics were expressed via identity & grievance politics. Each identity (racial, ethnic, gender, nerd, political etc.) constituted a market with specific demands and needs. Us as United Colors of Benetton. Grievances are resolved by contracts or complaints to the HR department. For consumers, Them are those choose the wrong products, or those that don’t want to sign on the dotted line.

A New Them

That order was fraying for quite some time. Events like 9/11, 2008 financial meltdown, and now the pandemic keep revealing new weaknesses. We’re not constructing a planetary UsThe Us. We’re already busy constructing an Us, one of many Us(s)… and many Them(s). We’re proliferating new Them(s).

The response to the pandemic and the solution adopted—social distancing—is anti-social. It creates a new binary: infected/uninfected. Just as there are many clusters of infection, we also have many clusters of ‘un-infected.’ To remain uninfected, you have to create barriers: masks, distance, isolation, closed borders, etc.

Technologies of Unification

The consumer ‘global village’ was not very strong to begin with. But, with a proliferation of new Them(s) it will crumble. To preserve the current Us and the international global order requires massive investment and a new hegemonic deployment of technologies of unification. Listen to Zizek’s recent conversation (starts at timestamp 4:47):

“… it’s clear we need some kind of global healthcare system, some kind of mechanism to follow epidemics all around the world to act in a coordinated international way how to prevent them… so all this has to be controlled; and controlled at the world-wide level. This idea it doesn’t work, it’s not realistic. This is the dream of those in power.”

Zizek is describing a potential massive new global, neoliberal health regime… biometrics, quarantines, surveillance at levels unprecedented and hitherto unseen. There is already a global commercial quarantine system, set up to prevent the spread of non-native plants and animals, and to preserve unique local ecologies. This system has spectacularly failed so far. Adding infectious disease into the mix will not be easy… and it might be too late anyway.

Us or Them?

A (d)evolution of the global order into more local spheres of influence appears more likely. Will cities re-acquire walls and gates? Not for military defense this time, but as ways to lock down an entire population to prevent the entry of new diseases. Will countries strengthen their borders? Will international travel industry survive? European Union seems doomed in this scenario. Will there be a re-industrialization as some production returns from offshore? This will not be the end of trade, but the flows of people, goods, and money may become much more controlled. Is this the return of strong nation states again? Us vs Them will be constituted along new lines: infected/uninfected, local/foreign, citizen/non-citizen, etc. All these binaries have never left us, but under the current political order, they were deprecated as archaic, uncivilized, and intolerant. These tendencies (already gaining strength for some time) will be reinforced and gain new momentum in pandemic world. For many this is a nightmare scenario.

Is it possible to envision a new utopian world under those circumstances? Without holding on the world that is crumbling today? Is it possible to proliferate many new communities of insiders and outsiders without creating new tensions or awakening old ones? In other words, will it be possible to co-exist with Them and see them as Us?

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