Plagues, Power and Parasite
April 3, 2020
Our world has spun out of control. Nazis are supposedly coming into office across the world. Climate change is apparently throwing weather systems out of equilibrium. The most recent shock to the system is COVID-19 caused by a novel coronavirus that crossed from bats into humans. Scientists and doomers have been waiting for this Next Big One and it looks like this is might actually be it, either literally or by proxy when the economy tanks. Power hangs in the balance.
Balance is the key to life. The thing about balance is that it is not necessarily a symmetrical outcome. Think of a gymnast on the balance beam. If one part of her body goes up, another part must go down. If she starts to topple to the right her body darts out to the left. Balance is better understood as symbiosis, as the meeting of two or more forces to hold a subject in stasis. We live in balance until the day something big or something very small distorts our body and collapses the entire structure.
Right now SARS-COV2 is upending the balance of power in the global regime. This is a breakdown on a micro and macro level. It attacks individuals and wracks a person’s lungs, yes, but the world economy is on life support too. It’s not as if this hasn’t happened before, but like a frail old man who’s suffered two hearts attacks and smokes too much our global system was already off-kilter when the virus hit. It’s been unhealthy for a long time. Too many shocks along the way. The twin flames of panic and nonchalance are both being fanned by the discrepancy in social and news media, around the distrust inherent in a fluid information environment. Political lines are rigid though and even a pandemic can’t break them. People will be fighting the culture war even with their last virus-ridden breaths.
This novel coronavirus is not really something new at all. Viruses have been with us for all time, and in fact, were here before life as we know it began. They’re in the ocean, the forest, the soil, and even our guts. There are viruses that hitch a ride in other viruses. They are legion and they are everywhere. Recent research even implicates their importance in both plant photosynthesis and mammalian placentas. They’re an offshoot, something like bacteria and cells but not quite. Some scientists think they do not count as life while others make the case that they do, but the best way to think of them is as somewhere in the middle. They are inert until they break into a host cell, where they suddenly bloom and reproduce. They’ve always had an impact not just on our bodies, but the fact that they’re invisible gave cultures around the world reasons to be superstitious, to believe in demons, to fret over curses. The name itself has roots in the word for poison, miasma, and slime. Civilizations have risen and fallen and the entire time viruses have lived in symbiotic relationships with us.
Symbiosis is seen everywhere in nature, from feeder fish to toxoplasma. Scientists used to think of viruses as parasites, as taking from the host, but it is more generally accepted that they live inside their hosts with some nature of symbiosis. Frank Ryan in his book Virusphere says, “Through genetic symbioses with host-genome-changing viruses, cellular life has benefited from a potential for novel evolution that would not have evolved without the benefit of the viral contributions.” Nonetheless most often when a virus visits our body for the first time the balance of our immune system breaks down and the virus overwhelms us. They are, in a word, our eternal nemesis. A nemesis is not an enemy per se, not someone you want to or even are able to destroy outright. A nemesis is someone that completes you. Think Batman and Joker. A nemesis is a competitor and in that competition you both grow stronger.
Viruses are useful. They give meaning to the saying, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” Viruses can be used to fight bacterial infections, and they are being researched as vectors for cancer cures and other genome level medicine. They built this world and are the glue that holds it together. Therefore viruses hold power over us. This power resides in the fact that what a virus gives it can take away. The thing about Power is that like a virus it is invisible. Both exert incredible control over their hosts who are not immune to them with the aim of proliferating indefinitely. Power and viruses have existed since life began, and they both have their parts to play.
The dominant Power today is global capitalism, and capitalism is itself a virus. It’s inert until it enters the host, namely humanity. It proliferates remarkably well with a very high R0. It isn’t particularly virulent but when it does flare up it kills indiscriminately. Sometimes the only way to destroy a virus is with another (essentially what a vaccine is). There is a question on everyone’s lips today: can the coronavirus drive out viral capitalism from the host? The problem with viruses is that they are apt to evolve, to mutate. The capital virus will be no different. It will simply use the coronavirus like it has used countless ideological viruses for its own good. It will shift and adapt and become stronger as a result.
Our ideas of freedom and the power to choose are withering away. The modern conception of liberalism, of personal choice, is being quashed as irrational creatures panic buy toilet paper and government bureaucracy’s waver on decisive action. The Power of the people is revealed as a ghost. Capital, which is inexorably tied to democracy, resides in the smokescreen of just-in-time supply chains and cashed-up consumers. The centre is not holding. Another conception of Power is needed, not that of the power to choose. As C. A. Bond puts it:
“The model thus provided by Jouvenel is both exceptionally simple, yet of devastating importance, it is simply that in any given political configuration if there are multiple centers of power then conflict will occur as the centers of power seek to both secure their position and pursue expansion. The dominant power center will become the central Power. This dominant Power will enlarge its remit and power not by direct physical conflict (which would in effect spell outright civil war) but through means presented (and seen by both the actors in power, and those who benefit) as being beneficial to society overall.”
Right now, under the auspices of a global pandemic, Power is stirring to take back control of a world gone mad. Bond’s expansion that he develops in his book Nemesis explores how a central Power controls the subsidiary groups using the periphery group. In modernity that would be the rich, elite and government bureaucracies controlling the middle class by weaponizing the poor and/or downtrodden. When governments around the world give monetary handouts to the poor and to businesses under the auspices of altruism, what they are doing is further hindering the middle class. Big business will become richer from this because in a crisis consumers will flock to those they trust. The government handouts to the poor will be used to pay rent and bills. We are going to see Power consolidate. The middle will chained to higher taxes, debt and job loss.
Fear is the driver of such arrangements. As Jouvenel says in On Power, “The reaction of the human flock to all dangers and terrors is like that of animals: they gather closer, they curl themselves up, they give each other warmth. They find in numbers the principle of strength and safety for themselves.” This is on display like few other times in history. Cut adrift from tradition and religion, already individualized to the point of decay, now we are being told to self-isolate, work from home and upend the local economy. Social distancing is very easy to do when everyone has the internet. Surveillance and government mandates will be accepted without question if it’s in the name of combating an invisible enemy. And Power will utilize the fears of the poor and downtrodden, and also the victim complex of many, to proceed.
Visualising how Power operates
On 9 February two major events took place. The first was that Parasite won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, the first foreign-language film to do so. It wasn’t the only thing out of Asia to be making waves. The second event was that the coronavirus encroached upon its 1000th victim. There were barely any official cases recorded outside China, but already information is coming out that it had actually started to spread in places like Italy in January. On 9 February WHO sent a team to China. It was clear that few people understood the extent of what was about to happen. How are these two events linked, you ask?
Not many people understood Parasite either, but it does serve as a visual aid to understand power dynamics. Many criticisms of the film, including those of renowned film reviewer Steve Sailer, revolved around how unrealistic it all was that a lazy, stupid poor family were able to dupe a rich family into cushy service jobs. The movie begins with the family of four folding pizza boxes for quick cash. The son lucks into a job as a tutor for the teenage girl of a wealthy family. He ingratiates himself and creates new jobs in the family for his sister and parents. It’s a beautifully shot film, the acting delivers and the pacing is perfect. Still, there is a lot of confusion about the themes that underlie it.
The problem is that no one understands that the protagonists were in fact middle-class strivers. Instead, they were considered ‘poor’. But were they really struggling? Like our protagonists, the middle-class today can’t afford good housing without being sunk in debt, but they have access to wifi. They feel that menial jobs are below them, as seen when folding pizza boxes they family put in barely any effort. They live in the gig economy, much like the father who has had multiple jobs. They are lazy to the bone yet they are bullshitting strivers, willing to put on airs if it means they can come close to perceived wealth and glamour. This so-called ‘poor’ family exemplify middle-class sensibility.
The film is not so much an indictment of the elite in a capitalist system but a stern warning to the middle class. The theme that underpins it all is “do not cross the line” which is not only explicitly made but rendered beautifully with gorgeous cinematography. The family crosses the line and in the brilliant twist that takes place in the middle of the film, their lives are completely destroyed for their disobedience to the regime. They discover that their conniving has far bigger implications for those worse off than themselves. Unbeknown to them, there is a parasite in the house, a sick man whose wife was the housekeeper that they manage to displace. This man worships the patriarch of the house, the elite owner of a tech company in Seoul. In Nemesis, Bond makes clear that the elite utilise the poor as a defence while feigning no active role, and the rich family apparently have no idea this man is living in their basement. The middle class family are not worthy to hold on to wealth, and they are punished by a demon from the depths for trying.
This is a film littered with metaphor, literally too many to go into here, and in fact there are even meta-metaphor’s as in the director’s other movies he has always relied heavily on allegory. It’s a psychotic revenge thriller with tragically ironic undertones. It plays with levels, which the location of the house provides with Gothic majesty, and how the middle class will never be able to maintain balance at the top. Everything about the movie is so obviously planned, so perfectly laid out, but similarly to Mad Max: Fury Road what could have been a contrivance instead transports the viewer into a perfect flow.
Above it was said that capitalism is a virus, one that moves us but rarely bursts out like herpes blisters. One such visual cue to the virus is greed, and in Parasite it is greedy hubris that undoes the family. The middle class family make their plans and schemes but in the end they are undone by their own greed. No plan survives contact with the enemy. Similarly, the director’s plan met with the viewers and many could not fathom what they saw. The irony is especially delicious at the film’s conclusion where the young son of the middle class family says:
“Dad, today I made a plan – a fundamental plan. I’m going to earn money, a lot of it. University, a career, marriage, those are all fine, but first I’ll earn money. When I have money, I’ll buy the house. On the day we move in, Mom and I will be in the yard. Because the sunshine is so nice there. All you’ll need to do is walk up the stairs. Take care until then. So long.”
He still has not learned his lesson. Not only does he continue to rely on middle class striving, not only does he repeat his mistakes of planning, but the last shot of the film is of the brain-damaged son sitting in his basement. None of his plans, his fantasies, will come true, and only we the viewer know it. It’s all in his head.
To see things through the Jouvenelian lens as per Parasite is to see the world differently. Left and Right fade away. The need for conspiracy theories falls by the wayside. You begin to realize that a global pandemic is not bad for the elites as stock prices fall, nor is it bad for the poor who will not have their position change. It is truly catastrophic for the middle class who will be stunted, set-back and scarred for life. The poor and the elite live in symbiosis, always needing each other to survive in a crisis. Meanwhile the subsidiary classes, the eternal striver, will once again be sent back to where they belong.