COVID-19: When the Outside Erupts Inside

On one level, the viral pandemic seems to be an accident, or a contingent arising whose unwelcome emergence on the global stage disrupts the otherwise smooth functioning of the present order of things. From this view, the pandemic is a “necessarily contingent” phenomenon, bearing no essential relation to the structure of society itself, arising from seemingly nowhere. That such a system-wide crisis would emerge was not necessary, and was only catalyzed by an essentially chance occurrence of the spread of an infectious disease.

On another level, the pandemic is not at all an accident, but an inevitable consequence of some structural features of the present order of things. In this case it is through the contradictory nature of dissolving boundaries between civilization and nature without actually developing a coherent integration between the two, that produced the conditions that made it possible for infectious diseases to evolve and transmit themselves from non-human to human populations. From this view, the pandemic is “contingently necessary” in that while the character of the problem as a zoonotic epidemic is contingent, its character as a catalyst for system-wide crisis is immanent to and made possible by the very structure of the society itself, whose necessary arising was only a matter of time. That such a system-wide crisis would emerge was necessary, though its particular emergence as an infectious disease was contingent.

And on another level (somewhat resembling yet distinct from the first) we can still understand the pandemic as a contingent or accidental arising, whose contingent nature reflects the contingent nature of the current structure of society itself. The peculiar thing about society, especially today, is that it presents itself as being absolutely necessary and without challenge from alternatives, and where the extent of the possibility of modifying the system is restricted in advance by the axiomatic or foundational elements of the system itself. What the pandemic is teaching us is that actually, the structure of the system of present society is built upon pretty unstable foundations, and cannot withstand any significant challenges to its axiomatic principles (such as the drive to produce profits from every and any thing) without falling into disorder and intensifying its structural issues.

So from this view, the pandemic is neither contingent nor necessary, but “necessarily contingently contingent” in the sense that its nature as a contingent arising is a consequence of the functioning of a system that presents itself to itself as necessary in spite of its ultimately contingent nature, and so is systematically ill-equipped to deal with something that was outside the domain of its value-considerations. So the pandemic is a contingent phenomenon that is realized as contingent only because the system being infected could not recognize the nature of its own contingency, and through this lack of recognition, the contingent nature of the pandemic transforms into a necessary feature of the system’s own process of realizing itself to be of a similarly contingent nature. In this way, the pandemic seems to be operating on a higher dimensional calculus than the one in which the system of society itself operates and which the system is not able to comprehend effectively.

That such a system-wide crisis would emerge is a contingent or chance happening afforded by or made possible by the discontinuity between the actuality of the contingent nature of the system and its self-conception as being absolutely necessary. In this sense the contingency is necessary, with this necessity itself being contingent upon a system that thinks that it is the only player playing the only game in town.

COVID-19 is a disease that has brought to light the deeper disease that is class society predicated on the valorization of capital, driven by the incessant desire to accumulate wealth for the ruling class at the expense of everyone and everything else. Like the Zen master who smacks his pupil abruptly when the pupil is caught up in his own daydreaming or conceptual phantasms as a means to produce a moment of sudden awakening, COVID-19 smacks us hard to produce a great waking call. Let us just hope that we can bear the brunt of the worst aspects of the crisis (social isolation and loss of life) in order to heed the calling and wake up as quickly as possible.

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