Questions for a Malaysian Arts Council

Some questions and contemplations after reading Datuk Ramli Ibrahim’s proposals for the creation of a Malaysian Arts Council, Malay Mail, ‘Fixing arts and culture 2020’, 19th May 2020. Accessed 21st May 2020.

The outbreak of the coronavirus in Malaysia reached severe levels right about the time a coup overthrew (perhaps this is generous, more like feebly but nevertheless winningly jostled aside) the Pakatan Harapan government elected in 2018, so as you can expect, much ire has recently been levelled at the government. In a way, the pandemic has helped to “legitimise” the coup government. In the midst of a pandemic, you can’t very well tell the government to fuck off when your job’s suddenly in question and you’ve still got rent and utilities to pay and, oh yeah, there’s an invisible virus ravaging the city. So we’re seeing more criticisms of the government, and some of the loudest and most prolific of these voices have been those coming out of the arts and cultural sectors.

Most people working and practising in the arts can probably be considered among those SMEs and freelancers whose livelihoods are totally thrown into limbo. Many of them have always been living day to day, sale to sale, without any fat company profits or personal savings to fall back on. Add to that is the burn of being totally overlooked and slighted by the government, after Minister of Tourism, Arts, and Culture Nancy Shukri went on air and tossed off the arts sector like a parent rolling their eyes at a teenager’s bad mood — they’re fine, they’ll get over it. It’s as if the government doesn’t notice us at all! …Which is a bad thing now as we’re ass deep in a global pandemic and capitalist crisis, but desirable otherwise.

This is a terrible time for the individual, and societies all over the globe are handing their lives over to their governments for protection (except for the US where many insist on “protesting” for their individual entitlements). But are we really sure that what we want is increased government involvement with the arts?

Recently, Datuk Ramli Ibrahim of Sutra Foundation published a widely-shared piece on the Malay Mail titled, ‘Fixing arts and culture 2020,’ in which he proposes the establishment of a Malaysian Arts Council, like they have in England. It is a very detailed article, not only calling for the establishment of an Arts Council but also stipulating its conditions and diagnosing current flaws in the way our government funds and organises arts and culture.

One of the issues he diagnoses is a failure to distinguish between ‘serious’ arts and ‘commercial’ arts, assuming that ‘serious’ arts are driven by more genuine “artistic” intentions, while ‘commercial arts’ are created to be crowd-pleasers. Datuk Ramli defines ‘serious’ cultural work as presentations, work, and research that ‘do not measure their success in simplistic KPIs in terms of profits.’ Not to be pedantic, but I’m not sure if the two words are really accurately used here, whether seriousness is totally incompatible with commercial success. It seems like a slippery slope into confusing ‘serious’ (and thus worthwhile?) art with poverty and a deliberate failure to garner mass appeal.

Datuk Ramli enumerates some examples of what he means by ‘serious’ arts and culture.

‘Serious Arts may be driven by non-commercial motives – such as research in indigenous music, exploring new avenues of contemporary expressions, sustainable outreach programs, new original works in music or dance choreography, archival & documentation etc. ‘Serious’ arts practitioners within the fields of our tangible and intangible heritages are engaged in less financial profitable activities but nevertheless contribute towards sustaining the ‘good life’ of the nation.’

Ok, so what he means is arts work that does not produce an end product that is consumable by the general public, or cultural work/exhibitions that are more experimental and unconventional and therefore unlikely to gain a large audience, but are done for the sake of experimentation and testing conventions. That’s an understandable definition and can be gathered under a different designation than ‘seriousness’ (implying that any commercially-driven work is unserious; as if Parasite wasn’t widely considered serious and “radical” while also bagging the Oscars) — but, again, pedantic.

Even though the Arts Council should be funded by the government, Datuk Ramli argues that it should remain ‘autonomous’ so that it avoids turning into (or solidifying their identity as) a propaganda racket for the government. ‘The government should keep an arms-length policy with regard to their dealing with Arts & Culture lest they kill its spirit when they interfere with its creative process.’ This is wise, especially given the many mis-dealings that have happened in the past in our National Art Gallery (Balai Seni Negara). Most recently, the artist Ahmad Fuad Osman suffered four of his works being mysteriously taken down from his survey exhibition, At the End of the Day Even Art is Not Important, as ordered by persons unknown and for reasons unknown. Presumably because they offended Malay-Muslim sensibilities regarding pigs and nudity.

Currently, our art institutions suffer a lack of transparency and accountability to the very art community it is meant to uplift; hence Datuk Ramli accuses these government-funded venues of being ‘dens for iniquities, cronyism, and corruption’. He’s right that herein lies the pitfalls of government involvement with culture but I also wonder who, then, the autonomous Arts Council spending should be accountable to. Forgive me if I’m being overly literal or if I’m missing something. But if governments are created to represent and serve a nation’s people, and culture is being funded by the government, then shouldn’t those funds also be audited for how well it is serving the people? Is it realistic or even desirable to expect the government to give out public money to the cultural sector and then leave artists alone to do their own thing? (What other “autonomous” entities does it currently spend public money on?)

If we follow this logic, that governments should be answerable to the people, then bureaucracies and their requisite paper trails sort of start to make sense. The issue now is more that we have the bureaucracy without the citizen watchdog. Reams and reams of paperwork is filed and reports are duly submitted to higher-ups, but the rakyat doesn’t seem any closer to being involved with or consulted to in the arts. Many government agencies work on behalf of the people, assuming they understand the nation’s needs and desires through online surveys but not by adding them to their boards and panels. Many cultural practitioners perhaps make work with the people in mind, but, let’s be real, many of them already know their audiences.

In the battle between the cultural sector and the government (mostly fought by the former in the form of journalism and media appearances), where does the general masses of the population factor in? And, returning to the ‘serious’ vs ‘commercial’ dichotomy, why are certain cultural practitioners so averse to commercial success?… Unless the answer is that, deep down, they know and live in denial of the fact that their work can only be understood by certain intellectual and educated classes of people.

In each one of us, myself included, there is a (not-so) little narcissist who refuses to be understood by the masses, because mass understanding and appeal erodes the idea of our secret, unique, and transcendent genius. They just don’t get it. Even some of the people whose whole beat is campaigning for the masses or creating art about the masses probably act, even if just a little bit, on the influence of the little narcissist. This isn’t really a rare problem and we’ve learned to live with it; postmodern techno-capitalism has encouraged each of us to nurture this little narcissist our whole life, through rampant competition and obsessive concerns over individual identity. Who am I? What distinguishes me from everyone else? What is my “identity”? Or if we’re curating an Instagram account, What is my aesthetic?

When it comes to arts and culture, the presence of the ego is felt perhaps more keenly than in many other fields, because so much of art is an attempt by artists to sublimate their own egos or to grapple with their own lived experiences. Woody Allen is one artist who manages to pull this off — shamelessly culling material from his own life and inserting himself in nearly everything, but still creating something that is commercially successful and emotionally resonant. Many are not as successful and it sometimes shows!

In a contemporary global art market where names grow larger than their persons and a unique artist identity is nearly as important as the art itself as a curation and selling point, should artists be allowed to get government funding carte blanche? What does it mean by, ‘for the good of the nation’? 

Of course, cultural workers and practitioners are citizens of the nation too, but surely there will be an expectation that the impact should reach beyond their communities (although they are very well interlinked within Malaysia) and also include the input and involvement of the non-cultural swathes of the population. Above all, it should arguably erode the distinction between artist and the masses, with the masses just as easily being able to see themselves becoming artists, writers, directors, dancers, actors, Council board members, etc., as well.

In the not-so-distant past, Mao Zedong addressed these same problems in his “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art”, where he theorises on what an art for the people should look like. I won’t go into it, but the entire text is worth reading in full, to understand the sacrifices that will be required from artists as well if they truly want to transform culture into something that can serve the broad masses. Personally, I don’t have issues with any artwork that’s created to pander to the sensibilities of a select few. But why should we use public money to fund that?

And a final question: when one’s national culture seems to have always been defined by protests against the government and political conventions, are we really as capable as we think of working with the government? I suspect that those who have always acted independently and deliberately chosen to fly under the radar will continue finding ways to maintain their independence.

Datuk Ramli Ibrahim’s argument is relentless and clearly informed by years of involvement in the industry, enumerating clear demands for a better world for Malaysian arts. One of the major points where I’m in total agreement with him is that arts and culture should be de-linked from tourism. If the arts community had won more battles, I wonder if they would continue asking for the same things. For all my questionings, of course I hope Datuk Ramli’s proposals do gain traction nevertheless and become a serious topic of national debate.


Header image:

Designer: Revolutionary Committee of Tianjin Industrial Exhibition Hall (天津市工业展览馆革命委员会)
1971, February
Turn philosophy into a sharp weapon in the hands of the masses
Rang zhexue bian wei qunzhong shoulide jianrui wuqi (让哲学变为群众手里的尖锐武器)
Publisher: Tianjin renmin meishu chubanshe (天津人民美术出版社)
Part of the IISH / Stefan R. Landsberger / Private Collection, chineseposters.net.

☾ Some tale of marvel to beguile the night

Day 48 (???) of Malaysia’s Movement Control Order (MCO); Day 2 of its Conditional Movement Control Order

In times of crisis we instinctively turn to the past for instruction, if not for a solution then at least for how to manage suffering. During the on-going Covid-19 pandemic, one point of common reference has been Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, with its gathering of friends telling stories to pass the time while they quarantine themselves from the Black Death. Instead of picking up the Italian Decameron, I picked up the Arab-Persian-Indian smorgasbord, Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, the 1972 version translated by N.J. Dawood and published by Penguin Classics. I picked it up in search of inspiration for a writing project, but really it was a way to procrastinate from that project, then the procrastination transformed into escapism.

The Nights are an unparalleled piece of escapism, a sublime world of vernacular story-telling that transports you into another time on the back of a djinn, in the twinkling of an eye: the medieval world but with shades of mysticism and supernaturalism, a world that existed but now does not, a world with different ethics and values, a simpler and straightforward yet also procedurally complex world, a world where all forms of the fantastic are possible, but strictly within the immutable hierarchy of kings.

Stories have elaborate twists that, as a writer trying to extract inspiration, make me jealous at the prospect of the disavowal — or perhaps transcendence — of logic required to even start imagining them. It seems ridiculous that a tale could turn simply on a chance meeting in a foreign land, or the fortuitous discovery that leads to safety after a shipwreck, or in the inexplicable magic and existence of djinns. Not to mention the endless racket of superlatives, the infinite riches of one story always being doubled by the next. Everyone must be ‘wealthier and more generous than any King or Sultan who ever lived before.’ Riches are described with a sort of fractal effect, starting with the construction of a magnificent palace, then an enumeration of all the richly-decorated halls within the palace and the extensive slave network to serve the palace, then zooming in on the fine detailing of the furnishings and the magnificence of each slave’s livery, and so on and so forth. An evocative example is the ‘unfinished window’ in “Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp”, a single bejewelled window set in a magnificent dome in Aladdin’s new djinn-magicked palace that he leaves unfinished so that he may challenge the King to finish it in the same style as the other windows in the dome. The King empties his coffers of precious jewels, but they are not enough for even a fraction of the window. He seizes the jewels of his Vizier and courtiers, then orders for the seizure of all jewels owned by prominent men in his land, and yet after days of work the window isn’t even halfway finished. From a fraction of the window we can extrapolate the magnificence of the other windows, the dome, the surrounding room, and ultimately the palace. With all the jewels in the city used up, Aladdin bids the craftsmen undo their work and return them to the rightful owners, and has the djinn complete the window overnight. 

If you don’t believe the stories, an excuse can be given by reverting back to the Master story, that of King Shahriyar and Shahrazad (a story quite incredulous in itself), who, remember, is simply telling ‘a tale of marvel, so that the night may pass pleasantly’. All the Tales are framed as bedtime stories, like those of our youth, but unlike us modern adults who choose to wholesale import our capacity for imagination from Disney instead, the adults in the Nights continue to have an earnest indulgence for bedtime stories. And unlike Disney’s stories (which also include Marvel and Star Wars now), the Nights do not censor life’s passionate extremities. All forms of bodily punishment are inflicted and all sorts of sexual dalliances take place across its pages; the tales don’t dwell on these either, but rather simply describe the action as yet another bead clicking into place on Fate’s thread.

In the Nights, psychology doesn’t exist, not like in our modern fixation on the Individual. Barely any of the characters are more than words on the page, simple vehicles for their story and their destiny. Stock figures abound and within the stock figures are also stock dichotomies. There are the Caliphs and Kings, who are often just and munificent, but who can also be foolish and greedy; there are the Viziers, either loyal or traitorous; the “Moors”, often deceptive pagan (= bad) sorcerers or contradictorily God-worshiping (= good) sorcerers; the everyman, who could be a porter, cobbler, fisherman, or any other from the range of jobs lower than a merchant in the marketplace hierarchy, foolish and aggressive but just as often obedient and worthy; and then there are women, fair and naive, but also wise and cunning, but also calculating and deceitful. And then, of course, there is the omniscient but invisible force of Allah, the bearer of fortune and life, but also the Destroyer of all earthly pleasures, the Annihilator of men.

This lack of psychology and, to a lesser degree, reason and justice (often, fools can become wise overnight, and even the most dastardly of characters can be redeemed and rewarded if they can spin a good yarn), is one of the most compelling escapes that reading the Nights offers. For all our self-inflicted loss and misery, all the mental lashes and beard-rendings we deal ourselves as punishment for our own foolishness, the Nights does not dwell long on these nor on the question of whether they are deserved. Often, self-inflicted suffering is tossed off with a compression of time, as for example, ‘In this way he suffered for one year’ with no other elaboration, or through a total outright passing-over (“not interesting!”) by bluntly rounding off a character’s story with, ‘so much for him’ so that another, more interesting sub-plot can be followed.

All wickedness and suffering can be redeemed in the Nights if you can produce a good story from it. All claims of injustice and inaccuracies can be silenced by pointing to the nature of story-telling itself (it’s all made up; we already told you so from the start). In the end, all will perish and the only survivors will be our stories and Allah. Thus the Nights offers a perfect escape — unlike, for example, our more contemporary equivalent of “escaping” into Netflix entertainment, which isn’t very escapist considering they still rely on our common shared ethics and a background knowledge of real, current events. The Nights is pure, uncut story, hitting like a potent drug.

IMG_0924

Yet another woman to whom she won’t get through: Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters

I went into Fiona Apple’s first in 8 years, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, expecting to like it because everyone around me expects me to like it — not me specifically, but me demographically, as a millennial woman who identifies with feminism. I did like it — it’s a funny, warmhearted album with a number of super-catchy songs. My favourites were “Shameika”, “Cosmonauts”, “Relay”, and “For Her”. But I didn’t find it particularly memorable or revolutionary beyond that. 

The day it premiered, Pitchfork rushed out a perfect 10 rating for it with a review that failed to convince why it deserved a perfect 10 (although Pitchfork isn’t an arbiter of good taste either); it made me guess that they were always going to award the album a perfect 10 anyway, no matter what it sounded like, simply because of Apple’s cultural cache in building up the canon of “sad girl” music and because of the surrounding climate of #MeToo and #TimesUp. 

I don’t know much about Apple beyond being aware of her iconic status among women the world over. I’ve tried to get into her in the past, but never embraced her totally beyond a few very well-written songs. Listening to FTBC the day it came out, I think the fact that I will never be a fan of Fiona Apple finally crystallised and I’ve accepted that it’s ok.

The album has some catchy percussions and vocals from Apple, but some unremarkable work with average lyrics as well. The Pitchfork review praised its lyricism, highlighting in particular the line, “I resent you presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure” on “Relay”, a line which they believed “[offered] a critique of our hyper-socially-mediated world so savage it practically demands a standing ovation”. A reach if there ever was one; others have dissed artificial self-presentation in punchier ways. For disses that give you a genuinely soaring feeling inside, just turn to rap/trap music. Off the top of my head, I’m reminded of Jay-Z’s “all these little bitches, too big for their britches, burning their little bridges… Fucking ridiculous!” on “So Appalled”, off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which Pitchfork had also rated a perfect 10. It’s not exactly of the same tenor as Apple’s line, but a greater diss if we’re comparing them purely on the basis of being disses. It’s possible that my ear is not trained enough to be properly discerning with music, but it’s jarring contradictions such as these between the hype and what I’m actually hearing that make me suspect that the hype around Apple’s new album is more “obligatory” than genuine. 

The insurmountable barrier of Fiona Apple for me is the same thing that a lot of people love her for, which is her stringent identification as Woman. From what I’ve observed growing up on the Western-centric side of the Internet, the “sad girl” canon seems to identify womanhood, especially heterosexual womanhood, as a kind of eternal burden. The “sad girl” theme tends to be characterised by assumed universally-shared experiences of gender-based neurosis / “craziness” / wretchedness born out of guilt and self-doubt born out of patriarchal condescension and institutional oppression; and also by conflicting relationships to men and pain, to beauty and appearances, and towards other women. The “sad” part of the “sad girl” theme often involves some degree of masochism, unclear fault lines, and inexplicable self-destructive and self-harming behaviour, especially when it comes to men and sex. 

In an interview with New York Magazine, Apple talks about various details from her personal life which informed the production and writing behind FTBC. She brings up her experiences of sexual assault, experiences during her schooling years of popular girls who never accepted her within their cliques, experiences of being both cheated on and knowingly being the mistress of married men. The power of these experiences at times coalesce into warm and touching songs, like “Shameika”, and knock you over with the full force of their rawness as on “For Her” (not about Apple’s sexual assault). Other times, their specificity jars because we’re being presented not just with someone’s art for our aesthetic judgement, but also with their personal experiences and decisions. On “Ladies”, she writes about not being able to surmount a male-imposed divide between her and another woman (her lover’s wife? Her lover’s other lover? Her ex’s new lover?). The conclusion drawn here is that heterosexuality is a helluva drug that makes women hallucinate each other as the enemy while hallucinating that the man between them is worth fighting over; but an affair often takes two to tango — the man is cruel for cheating, but getting into a relationship knowing that their actions could lead to someone else being hurt is a cruelty too. This isn’t a judgement, just a statement. 

As someone who incurably operates within the textual tradition, I analyse a lot of music just based on their lyrical content. So I can’t help but wonder if Fiona Apple’s songs could have more impact if she just dispensed with these feminism-lite topics and lines that easily endear her to a general audience. In songs like “Under the Table”, “Newspaper”, and “Ladies”, there’s something about the lyrics that feel unpolished and overly obvious while striving to be poetic — sort of like slam poetry open mic nights, where performer-poets try to straddle the fine line between straightforward, rhythmic performance and the poeticism that would elevate it beyond mere “dramatic talking”. It’s difficult to achieve and cringe to listen to when it fails. Certain lines in FTBC feel laboured in the same way, like the hiking boot lines in “Under the Table” or the “fucking propaganda brochure” one. 

The most momentous song off the album is undeniably “For Her”, with superior lyrics-writing and a snarling rage in the second half that rips through the fluttery, a cappella singsong-ing of the first half. The other songs, despite their energetic percussions and vocals, would like to be as raging as this one is — and indeed there is a lot of growling and howling on this album — but their lyrical content is not consequential enough for them to hold up. These growls, snarls, howls, and sighs, once expressions of explosive female anger, don’t have the same bite as they used to. 

I respect the “sad girl” locus of identification for women; I’ve been through it myself. Exploring this mode of woman-centric thought enhanced my capacity for empathy and taught me to identify suffering within cruelty. However, I no longer identify with this, perhaps because the thing I could never whole-heartedly identify with is being A Woman or any other arbitrary social identity. Some have used womanhood as the basis to form solidarity and aid networks, which is admirable, but the notion of womanhood was something I ended up withdrawing from instead. I only want to be a “woman” in the strict demographical or statistical sense and no other…

In the past, I’ve mostly only written about music that I really love and seldom about music that I think is just alright, but I wanted to tackle Fiona Apple’s music because I think the hype surrounding her latest release is symptomatic of a dying liberal culture. (Note here that I specify the hype surrounding the album and not the album itself; the degree to which Apple is able to “read the current mood” and “pander” to it is not something I care enough about to consider either.) This dying culture is one wherein the political content of music gets confused with artistic quality, wherein certain figures elevated to “iconic” status by their past accomplishments are able to generate clout for their new work purely on the basis of nostalgia, wherein the sheer act of a woman singing about her experiences — regardless of what those experiences were, or how well she articulates them — inherently deserves praise. The phenomenon of categorisable, identity-based art obfuscates critical discussions about the quality of the work. In the past few days, I’ve been listening to a lot of Joy Division and The Beatles, and as fucking corny as it is to say this, I wonder why the music of decades ago still manages to sound startlingly new and original even now, when here I am in the 21st-century being told that Fiona Apple’s new album is revolutionary when it reminds me so much of Regina Spektor’s music from years ago… Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a perfectly fine album but not a perfect 10 by a long shot.

It is easier to imagine the end of the world

Two quotes: 

“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

— Famously attributed to Slavoj Zizek. 

“Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.”

— Friedrich Engels. 

In the past few years, I’ve been observing the encroachment of socialism into the political establishments of leading first-world nations, specifically the United States of America and the United Kingdom. In America, I watched Bernie Sanders battling to battle Trump, and in the UK, I watched Jeremy Corbyn battling David Cameron (then Theresa May, then Boris Johnson, and their lapdogs in the media). 

The left and the right moved ever towards their extremities, and it seemed like a final decisive battle was being waged between humanity, as embodied in socialism, and barbarism, as embodied in the barely-there corpse of capitalism we insisted on dragging around. I watched UK and US electoral politics from a distance yet I always felt certain, right up till the very end, that our candidate (the people’s candidate) must win. There’s no way that he can’t win — conditions are so obviously terrible all around us! How could anyone be blind to that? How could anyone at all vote for anyone but him, unless they’re voters from 1% who only make up 1% anyway so who cares? 

Both times I’ve been proven wrong and both times, the idea that anyone would vote to maintain the status quo (or even to fight the status quo by moving right, as with Trump 2016) seemed shocking to me only up until the last minute. Maybe I just live in an echo chamber, maybe it’s difficult for me to separate what I want from what’s realistically possible. Campaign period is a huge frenzy of passion, hope, and propaganda, but the day before the election, when nothing is possible anymore, reality seems to return in a rush and settle heavily as the results come in. I thought Jeremy would win until he didn’t, and then his loss made sense; I thought Bernie might win the nomination until Joe started sweeping delegates, and the possibility already seems dead. 

In the first few days when lockdown measures started taking place all over the world and we started to feel the consequences of measures imposed desperately and recklessly in a state of crisis, I felt hopeful that this could be the start of something. With confused shock, the world watched every single thing that capitalism previously claimed was impossible become possible. Momentarily, it became easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the world. 

In Malaysia, some state governments started offering allowances to laid-off workers or one-off payments to their citizens. In a news piece I read today, the state has also stepped in to requisition face masks from a company accused of price-gouging (paralleling a case with an individual “entrepreneur” in the US). Spain has nationalised hospitals, while France and the UK have started housing homeless people in hotels, and the US Senate just passed an economic stimulus deal which proposes an emergency monthly allowance cheque of $1200 for certain individuals. Over Twitter, we watched how communist governments in Vietnam and China efficiently organised essential services during their lockdown. Vietnam put in place a centralised food production and delivery system instead of leaving it to individual businesses, which would have allowed cracks for exploitation to seep through. Doctors from China, Cuba, and Venezuela — all socialist/communist countries — were sent all over the world to help fight the pandemic. 

Momentarily, it seemed as if the contradictions within capitalism were exposing themselves faster than the virus. Graffiti appeared in London proclaiming, “MAKE THE RICH PAY FOR COVID 19” and “NO RENT” and “HANG RICHARD BRANSON”, punctuated with the hammer and sickle. People are becoming increasingly, aggressively aware that capitalism, and the governments who are colluding to protect capitalists, is incapable of dealing with a crisis. 

Where are the protections for workers? Why is the state, supposedly a “democratic” representation of “the people”, not overriding the will of landlords and employers to impose rent relief and unconditional sick pay? Why doesn’t the state provide a universal allowance, or if not that, then follow Vietnam’s lead in producing and distributing food to everyone who needs it? Many countries are announcing “stimulus packages” to alleviate the burden of Covid-19, but a lot of this money is going into ailing ventures like airline companies and the stock market. When will we stop prioritising businesses over individuals?

To start thinking in this way is to start thinking about a total revolution of all social relations. The energy is clearly there, all over the world, as governments and corporations are shown up by community efforts and soup kitchens. But just like the waves that Corbyn and Sanders rode in on, I feel like this one is going to abate. 

A friend asked me what my predictions for the aftermath of Covid-19 are, how I think this crisis may shape the new normal. I don’t think it will. (Besides perhaps an increased concern about hygiene.) Some people will be laid off, some businesses will close permanently, but this is already part of our everyday normal. All of the “socialist” measures now in place are crisis measures that will predictably be lifted again as the threat of the virus subsides and people try to square with the amount of carnage we’ve just lived through. We now know that full housing and an end to profiteering are within the realm of possibility, but the total structural change required to maintain this isn’t possible. We will most likely continue the way we were before, which is what many people want, but it means that we will never really be prepared to face another crisis without losing the same amount of people. 

When the lieutenant governor of Texas proposed that elderly people should be OK with sacrificing themselves to get the American economy back on track, or when Boris Johnson drew up his “herd immunity” plan, we should not see these as accurate reflections of the scale of the crisis. Rather, they are simply the limits of capitalism’s logic. Death and suffering are already written into capitalism’s programming code. In one of his coronavirus commentaries, Zizek points to a strange yet believable observation made by an environmental resource economist that China’s lockdown probably prevented more deaths from air pollution than which died during the entire Covid-19 outbreak there! By staying home, the amount of pollution that would have been generated by vehicles and factories decreased dramatically.

A funny point, but a reasonable one once you realise that capitalism needs to kill, pollute, and destroy in order to live. Under capitalism, people already slip through the cracks anyway. When people say that “capitalism is the only system that works”, they are saying that homelessness, destitution, discrimination, and violence are requirements for their system to function properly. As an economic philosophy that puts individual gain over collective safety, capitalism operates on profit first and humanitarian feelings second (and then only insofar as they serve or at the very least do not damage the increment of profit).

Migrants are also a “by-product” of capitalism because their labour can be bought for much cheaper than domestic labour; put in competition with domestic labour, both wages are forced down, which benefits no one except their bosses. This phenomenon of tenants being threatened with eviction by their landlords is also another symptom of capitalism, as only those with the initial capital to do so can buy up property and then squeeze tenants for rent despite performing minimal labour beyond covering some maintenance (some landlords do not even do that). Another one of capitalism’s direct products is the phenomenon of price-gouging — it seems cruel now in light of the crisis but private pharmaceutical companies make their money precisely in this manner with other essential medicines everyday. 

Socialism is the basic notion that nobody should have to struggle simply to live. Absolutely nobody. This is controversial to some. In my belief, everyone should be guaranteed, at the most minimum: food, a roof over their heads, basic education (at least literacy) and healthcare. This is not even to say that everyone should get their own house! (Even though I’m sure there are enough empty floors in all the pointless hotels, serviced apartments, and new phallic developments to house everyone.) Even just a communal apartment. Ho Chi Minh lived modestly in a traditional Vietnamese stilt house. Anyone who works really hard can get a better home or better food, whatever, but at the most minimum nobody should ever have to die just for being born, and if there are other luxuries that the elite few should give up to ensure this, then I think it is worth it.

Many consider this controversial but the bigger controversy should be capitalism and its requisite suffering. It is impossible to imagine its end because we have all been living under it for so long, but we must be able to try. We must question ourselves mercilessly about how badly we could want to hold on to our current way of living if someone has to die for it, or if the environment has to go to waste for it. (Nor is it a question of individual effort — while recycling and reducing one’s carbon footprint is admirable, the immense sacrifice of the environment requires an immense sacrifice in kind from us if we want to save it.) The lives we lose to coronavirus will not have been a failure of the doctors or nurses — they will have been a failure of the imagination. Many people fail to imagine how we could possibly save more people even as they refuse to do anything for the newly destitute. They keep asking how we will pay for it. Once you can start to believe the basic principle, all the answers will follow.

Dispatches from a distance

Day 3 of Malaysia’s Movement Control Order

I’m consuming a lot and posting a lot. The Movement Control Order (MCO) that started on March 18th hasn’t made me more productive or inspired at all, hasn’t turned me into a cool mysterious hermit writing the next great whatever instead of oversharing their domestic lives like everyone else. All that’s changed is that I check my phone more and sleep longer.

This renewed vigour in self-reflection and self-reinvention is another phenomenon I’ve started noticing on the Internet. It’s suddenly like New Year’s again: first, they started posting recommendations for self-isolating activities, then a girl appeared on my timeline with her ambitious social distancing schedule and then, exactly like New Year’s resolutions, I just saw my first “you don’t have to make the most out of a global pandemic” post (around New Year’s, this would be equivalent to the “you don’t have to make resolutions if you don’t want to; everyone grows at their own pace” type of posts). It’s a kind of lowkey cycle of reaction that will eat at you, if you let it, and, just like New Year’s, I’m starting to get weary. In a piece Zizek wrote on the coronavirus, he brought up Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s theory of the five stages of grief, which include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. He explains the stages of experiencing the trauma of coronavirus thus:

“First, there was a denial (nothing serious is going on, some irresponsible individuals are just spreading panic); then, anger (usually in a racist or anti-state form: the dirty Chinese are guilty, our state is not efficient…); next comes bargaining (OK, there are some victims, but it’s less serious than SARS, and we can limit the damage…); if this doesn’t work, depression arises (let’s not kid ourselves, we are all doomed). But what would acceptance look like here? It is a strange fact that the epidemic displays a feature common with the latest round of social protests (in France, in Hong Kong…): they don’t explode and then pass away; rather, they stay here and just persist, bringing permanent fear and fragility to our lives. But this acceptance can take two directions. It can mean just the re-normalization of illness: OK, people will be dying, but life will go on, maybe there will be even some good side effects… Or acceptance can (and should) propel us to mobilize ourselves without panic and illusions, to act in collective solidarity.”

Monitor and Punish? Yes, please! by Slavoj Zizek for The Philosophical Salon

I think he has a point to see traumatic world events in this way, but I also think that the Internet has sped up our reactions to things and also jumbled it, so that there’s not a linear or productive progression of grief anymore. In a day, I can go through denial (oh… it won’t get me; this MCO is useful but they did say I can go to the grocery store so it should be OK…), anger (what the fuck is going on with this world? Why is everyone so incompetent? Why is this even happening?!), and depression (this is the end, absolutely nothing will ever be the same, and there’s no going back) multiple times in different configurations according to what I read online; the only stages I haven’t felt yet are bargaining and acceptance. I’m moving forward by insistently staying at home and sending my friends the latest Covid-19 stats when they mention that they superfluously left the house (i.e. not to buy groceries or food, but perhaps even those are superfluous movements that we can’t do anything about), and there’s a glimmer of hope yet left in me that we will indeed get out of this on March 31st, but every time I read the news, especially coming out of Italy, the U.S., or the U.K., I am despondent again. Even if the tide turns, it won’t be the same — I’m convinced of that, but I don’t want to be. Based on his corona piece, Zizek would probably diagnose (correctly) that I’m afraid of confronting my own and all humankind’s mortality and contingency. 

“What we should accept, what we should reconcile ourselves with, is that there is a sub-layer of life, the undead, stupidly repetitive, pre-sexual life of viruses, which always was here and which will always be with us as a dark shadow, posing a threat to our very survival, exploding when we least expect it. And at an even more general level, viral epidemics remind us of the ultimate contingency and meaninglessness of our lives: no matter how magnificent spiritual edifices we, humanity, bring out, a stupid natural contingency like a virus or an asteroid can end it all… Not to mention the lesson of ecology which is that we, humanity, may also unknowingly contribute to this end.”

Monitor and Punish? Yes, please! by Slavoj Zizek for The Philosophical Salon

The immediacy of information also mixes up all signals. In the UK they’re on a crash course for disaster yet everyone is still walking free, seemingly without fear. The people who can quarantine themselves do, but it still seems like the majority of the population are waiting for someone to tell them to stay home, and that order just never comes. With that as information I’m easily able to access, one starts to doubt one’s own state-imposed movement control. Especially when I hear that some people are still making direct trips to their friends’ house for small hang-outs. 

So many laws seem so arbitrary now. As a friend on Twitter pointed out, when the MCO was announced there was a sudden spike in panic-buying and travelling, as if the virus will just pause its spread for the day and resume once the MCO is officially in place. And if Grab drivers can still pick up passengers, if Grab riders can still ride, and restaurant/pharmacy/supermarket staff can still go into work, then what’s the big deal if I just make one direct trip to a friend’s house, right?

If there are exceptions, people will always find a way to be exceptional, and that’s the whole gist of this pandemic isn’t it? That each individual is only capable of thinking of themselves. That the one thing that distinguishes us from beasts — our ability to think for ourselves — is the one thing that prevents us from the beautiful movement that some beasts are capable of, of moving blindly and intuitively with the herd, the collective. We’re making minor sacrifices now, but we don’t really know the meaning of real sacrifice yet. What happens if the government closes all restaurants, takes over food production and distribution, and you’re not allowed to go out to buy your favourite brands anymore? What happens if the government imposes a full lockdown and effectively takes over care of the vulnerable, and we find ourselves having to entrust them with our distant sick and/or elderly relatives, or young relatives in boarding schools/colleges? What happens if this outbreak really does last for as long as it takes to find a vaccine and we’re all stuck at home for the next few months, all our encounters with the outside world strictly virtual? What if production really grounds to a halt and private companies need to be nationalised? What does your government stand for and how much do you really trust them to save you in a crisis?

We may have had our opinions and misgivings about our government before, but the demographic of society that I and a lot of my friends fall into have rarely had to relinquish full agency of our lives over to the state. (This is why, in protests, you generally always have speakers acknowledging a list of other identities that are presumably more oppressed than the ones currently gathered there, such as migrant workers, refugees, indigenous peoples, etc.) Maybe a few annoyances here and there. Maybe a GST change here and there. But generally, I don’t think most of us have ever known what it is to give in totally. (Unless you’ve been in jail… which, OK, I know a couple of people.) 

The reason why I focus on the state as saviour is because the major battle now seems to be one between authority and individual will. Once the will of the capitalists and employers have been overcome, there remains the individual citizens’ will to overcome as well. There’ve been some amazing independent efforts popping up to offer the care and assistance that states are currently failing to provide, but it seems to me, based on China’s speedy recovery, that only a centralised effort can ensure that everyone is tested, everyone is equipped with the proper hygiene and safety gear to be leaving the house, and that only the people who are designated to leave the house are the ones doing so. It’s easier to not leave the house, to not stockpile, and to consider social distancing a collective effort when you trust that your government will not leave you to die. Knowing that there are vigilantes out there helps, but it’s not a proper safety net. 

In a utopic ideal, we give ourselves over to state control totally and the state fulfils its duties to the people. We look left and embrace a form of Communism like Zizek suggests, and we make sacrifices that we’ve never had to make, but which end up transforming us for the better. The relations we have with each other, and with our state, are totally revolutionised, and perhaps so are our private relations to our own mortality.

In a dystopic ending, the state bungles up their responsibility and things get massively worse with increased transgressions, with lootings and riots in the streets and violence in kind from the state; in a slightly less dystopic ending, they simply revert back to how they are now, but with greater and perhaps irreparable distrust towards the state. (Incidentally, how convenient that the one global phenomenon that is forcing such drastic considerations now is the one phenomenon that prevents people from assembling in public!)

Or maybe things continue as they are, and people continue to take risks as unprotected frontliners, and we continue to leave our houses at our own discretion. Maybe it takes a bit longer to stop the spread of coronavirus entirely (and maybe everything will change within the next few days; we live in those kinds of times now), but it is stopped eventually, sometime in the future, and the ones who remain drift back into their offices and resume their lives as before, but slightly shaken up now. During the MCO, perhaps the state is forced to implement policies that are staples of leftist ideologies such as emergency housing, rent alleviation, and monthly allowances or even a UBI, but these are reeled back when the threat dissipates. It’s up in the air whether we’d have learned our lesson or not, whether we’d be prepared to face another crisis or if the same amount of people would have to die again.

And maybe this is all exaggerated and melodramatic conjecture, but the whole world is in crisis and the only countries that seem to be handling it well are those that have imposed extensive state intervention. All around the world, people are cursing their governments for their action and inaction. What do you really expect from your state, and do you only want it now in a crisis or is it something you’re willing to live with? It’s a question worth contending with.