Blog post


The virus communizes us because we have to face it together, even if by isolating ourselves. It is a chance to really experience our community, argues Jean Luc Nancy

Jean Luc Nancy27 March 2020


An Indian friend of mine tells me that back home they talk about the ‘communovirus’. How could we not have thought of that already? It’s so obvious! And what an admirable and complete ambivalence: a virus coming from communism, a virus that communizes us. That is much more fertile than the derisory ‘corona’, which evokes old monarchical or imperial histories. And ‘communo’ is good for dethroning ‘corona’, if not decapitating it.

This is what it seems to be doing in its first meaning, since it comes from the largest country in the world whose regime is officially communist. It is not just officially so: as President Xi Jinping has said, its management of the viral epidemic demonstrates the superiority of the ‘socialist system with Chinese characteristics’. Though communism consists essentially in the abolition of private property, Chinese communism has consisted, for many years now, in a careful combination of collective (or state) property and private property (apart from land ownership). [1]

As we know, this combination has led to remarkable growth in China’s economic and technical capacities and its global role. It is still too soon to know how to designate the society produced by this combination: in what sense is it communist and in what sense has it introduced the virus of individual competition, even its ultraliberal extreme? For the time being, the Covid-19 virus has enabled China to demonstrate the effectiveness of the collective and state aspect of its system. This effectiveness has proved itself to the point that China is now coming to the aid of Italy and France.

Of course, there is no shortage of comments on the enhanced authoritarian power that the Chinese state is currently enjoying. In fact, it is just as if the virus appeared at the right time to shore up official communism. What is irksome is that in this way the meaning of the word ‘communism’ gets ever more blurred – and it was already uncertain.

Marx wrote very precisely that private property had meant the disappearance of collective property, and that both would be replaced in due course by what he called ‘individual property’. By this he did not mean goods owned individually (i.e. private property), but the possibility for individuals to become properly themselves. One could say: to realize themselves. Marx did not have the time or means to take this line of thought further. But we can at least recognize that it already opens up a convincing – if very indeterminate – perspective on a ‘communist’ proposal. ‘To realize oneself’ does not mean acquiring material or symbolic goods: it means becoming real, effective, existing in a unique way.

We need then to dwell on the second meaning of ‘communovirus’. In fact, the virus actually does communize us. It essentially puts us on a basis of equality, bringing us together in the need to make a common stand. That this has to involve the isolation of each of us is simply a paradoxical way of experiencing our community. We can only be unique together. This is what makes for our most intimate community: the shared sense of our uniquenesses.

Today, and in every way, we are reminded of our togetherness, interdependence and solidarity. Testimonies and initiatives in this sense are coming from all sides. If we add to this the decline in air pollution due to the reduction of transport and industry, some people already anticipate with delight the overthrow of techno-capitalism. We should not scoff at this fragile euphoria, rather ask ourselves how far we can better understand the nature of our community.

Solidarity is called for and activated on a large scale, but the overall media landscape is dominated by the expectation of state welfare – which Emmanuel Macron took the opportunity to celebrate. Instead of confining ourselves, we feel confined primarily by force, even if for the sake of our own welfare. We experience isolation as a deprivation, even when it is a protection.

In a way, this is an excellent catch-up session: it is true that we are not solitary animals. It is true that we need to meet up, have a drink and visit. Besides, the sudden rise in phone calls, emails and other social flows shows a pressing need, a fear of losing contact.

Does this mean we are in a better position to reflect on this community? The problem is that the virus is still its main representative; that between the surveillance model and the welfare model, only the virus remains as a common property.

If this is the case, we will make no progress in understanding what transcending both collective and private property could mean. That is to say, transcending both property in general and what it designates in terms of the possession of an object by a subject. The characteristic of the ‘individual’, to speak as Marx did, is to be incomparable, incommensurable and unassimilable – even to themselves. It is not to possess ‘goods’. It is to be a unique, exclusive possibility of realization, whose exclusive uniqueness is realized, by definition, only between all and with all – also against all or in spite of all, but always in relation and exchange (communication). This is a ‘value’ that is neither one of the general equivalent (money) nor, therefore, one of an extorted ‘surplus-value’, but a value that cannot be measured in any way.

Are we capable of thinking in such a difficult – and even dizzying – fashion? It is good that the ‘communovirus’ forces us to ask ourselves this question. For it is only on this condition that it is worthwhile, in the end, working to eliminate it. Otherwise we will end up back at the starting point. We will be relieved, but should be prepared for other pandemics.

[1] The published text has here ‘individual property’, which seems accidental in view of the author’s use of the term below [Translator].

Translated by David Fernbach, originally published in Libération