Books like Christian Fuchs’s Communicating COVID-19 are necessary for our time. They are documents and analyses of global human civilization’s violent mutation, already catastrophically in progress. They document the causes and conditions of how humanity has failed the great test that the pandemic offered us. Since Fuchs writes from an unabashedly Marxist perspective, he clearly expresses the nature of that test: We failed to mobilize any solidarity across the globe to defend all our lives against the virus. … [please read below the rest of the article].
Riggio, Adam. 2021. “Pathologies of a Shuddering Civilization: Review of Fuchs’s Communicating COVID-19.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 10 (12): 58-65. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-6o2.
🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
Communicating COVID-19: Everyday Life, Digital Capitalism, and Conspiracy Theories in Pandemic Times
Emerald Publishing Limited, 2021
Our politics have instead fallen to nationalist mobilization to secure our resources against other peoples, and fascist mobilization to suppress and murder minorities and political dissidents. The dissidents most dangerous to the new fascism are those who work to build solidarity across borders around the globe. But their work is mostly neutered by the very architecture of our online communications media we must use to reach each other. It was a disheartening coincidence for this reviewer to have read this book during the testimony of Frances Haugen and the release of her Facebook Papers. Fuchs offers further confirmation that the spread of conspiracy and violent extremism is, for the attention-based revenue model of social platform media, an enormous flow of money.
All Too Literally Mediated Perception of the World
Communicating COVID-19 has, essentially, two parts. The first is a theoretical analysis of our current global political crisis. The second part of Communicating COVID-19 is a set of case studies that illustrate the structure and dissemination of the conspiratorial beliefs fuelling the building wave of political violence in the West. These chapters comprise about two-thirds of the book. The main cause of this bifurcation is that the second chapter was originally composed and published as a standalone article. One result of this is that the concepts that Fuchs develops in his theoretical analysis of what the pandemic did to us do not play much role in the analysis of the conspiracies themselves.
Ironically, separating the theoretical analysis could help us understand how people around the world became so vulnerable to our ongoing mass derangement of disinformation. Though his theoretical language is emotionally neutral, Fuchs describes the mechanism under which our entire civilization underwent a shared traumatic experience. Using a 3×3 framework of social ontological categories, he describes how each of us had to cram the physical structure of our entire social world into our homes. The framework itself is beautiful, a presentation simple enough to be understood easily, but whose elements relate to each other in complex ways that reward reflection with insight into the great injury that the pandemic did to all of us.
Based on concepts David Harvey developed in his 2005 essay “Space as Keyword,” three styles of human engagement with space are interpreted according to three structures of spatial experience. In pre-pandemic circumstances, our physical experience of space is constituted primarily through social relationships with other people in physical locales. We conceive of space as maps of those physical locales on which we organize our relationships using linguistically meaningful symbols. Our living experience of that physical space is a field of multifaceted human action, structured according to the norms of our social roles. Those norms and relationships are constituted through complex networks of communicative actions. These are the most abstract aspects of human social experience, so serious changes to these can cause profound disruptions and instability to fundamental aspects of human daily life.
Radically changing the character of these features of human life quickly, as happened to most of the human population at the onset of the COVID pandemic, would be intensely traumatic. As, indeed, it was, continues, and remains. Under constant assault by the spread of COVID, we fled the shared locales of our public spaces, and our physical experience of space folded almost entirely into our homes. All our social relationships that used to connect in shared physical space were now mediated by technologies for distanced communication like videoconferences and social platforms. All our conceptions of the space where we live became problem solving flowcharts to build and maintain social relations without leaving the home. The living reality of our physical space became messy jumbles of overlapping concerns and projects whose mutual interference constantly threatened breakdown. This massive transition in the physical, social, and spatio-temporal organization of our lives took place over a mere few weeks, deeply compounding an already bruising experience.
The Role of Marxism in Fuchs’s Analysis
I think it would be problematic to say that the conventional Marxist analysis which Fuchs brings to this book’s inquiries could provide a complete understanding of the trauma caused by the pandemic, even that specifically flowing from the catastrophic shock to the shape of human social space. The catalogue of human trauma from the pandemic will require political, economic, sociological, psychological, and historical philosophical and theoretical resources to comprehend fully. The Marxist elements of Fuchs’s analysis largely applies to the chapters on the pandemic’s conspiracy mongering. He correctly identifies that this epistemology of social paranoia and conspiracy mongering is the most dangerous element of the social breakdown of the pandemic. However, it remains a weakness of Communicating COVID-19, the book, that the concepts with which he analyzed how the pandemic transformed social space do not feature in later chapters’ work on the period’s own conspiracy communication infrastructure.
The centrepiece of Fuchs’s analysis of the social epistemology of conspiracy is a narrow conception of ideology, developed in the Marxist tradition. Ideology, in this conception, is capitalist propaganda functioning at an abstract level of the most foundational concepts underlying people’s worldviews. He writes, “Ideologies veil class relations and domination, legitimate class relations and domination, and distract attention from the true status of society and the true nature of society’s problems.” Ideologies are, and only are, those systems of popular worldviews that express capitalist and class hierarchies, justify them, reify them, and convince those who suffer under such relationships that they are the natural and good order of human life.
This, however, is not the only way to understand the ideological character of popular worldviews. Marxist philosophy also includes a tradition of expanding the conception of ideology so that we can understand the internal relationships of any system of concepts that can be the basis of a popular or practical way of living. The approach to ideological analysis that Antonio Gramsci first developed, and which Fuchs cites Terry Eagleton as continuing, applies its analytics to all systems of thought, not only those corrosive and weaponized ideologies of capitalism. Fuchs dismisses this conception of ideology, and instead leans on the conception of ideology as inherently propagandistic, citing Max Horkheimer, György Lukács, and Eagleton.
This narrower conception of ideology fits perfectly the problem of the 2020s’ conspiratorial thinking. But Fuchs also rejects broader conceptions of ideology, even those developed in Marxist traditions. I consider it a weakness in his analysis. Conspiracies about COVID-19 vaccines and satanic cabals of authoritarian communists in disguise as corporate liberals are themselves weaponized ideologies. As I typed this sentence, they distract and misdirect people’s understanding of serious problems for humanity away from its systematic causes and toward scapegoated individuals or groups. The message of an anti-vaxx or Q-Anon conspiracy is that the cause of your suffering is a diabolical conspiracy by a cabal of evil corporate leaders (Bill Gates, Hillary Clinton, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla) and communist authoritarian and genocidal shock troops (Antifa, Black Lives Matter). These conspiracies are exquisitely perfect examples of ideology as the mystifying dissembler of capitalist hegemony.
However, conceiving of ideology only as a capitalist propaganda weapon limits Fuchs’s ability to build a solution. The contrary to a conspiracist ideology that distracts you from the real causes of your oppression is not the direct revelation of the global capitalist system in all its brutality. Understanding capitalism is an empirical and philosophical enterprise that itself requires ideological education, in both the various critiques of capitalism itself and in the conceptual frameworks for what economic and social relationships and institutions can replace globalized capitalism with a society of equity, justice, and ecological health. If we do not understand what we must build, then we cannot build it.
Omnipresent Brutality, Violence as the Only Social Relation
It may not be possible to understand the system of capitalism and its ideologies by direct revelation, but the snowballing violence of our societies under the pandemic is obvious to pretty much anyone paying attention. Over the last two years, the moral character and government policies of societies throughout the world have crossed a threshold into barbarism. The leaders of countries whose populations comprise billions, as well as influential media organizations and social movements they encourage, act as though most human life is valueless. All the trauma of the sudden catastrophic collapse of our social spaces is exacerbated by the general reaction among our leaders, and many of us as well, to those who suffered materially from the pandemic: violence applied with the total viciousness of those who refuse the possibility of empathy or sympathy.
There is a social dimension of the COVID-19 crisis in that there are a large number of persons who fall seriously ill or die. The relative standstill of society necessary for containing the virus translates into an economic crisis. And there is a political dimension of the COVID-19 crisis, where nationalism and ideology can bring about the rise of fascism and world war. The virus is a natural disaster that threatens humanity. Irrational reactions such as nationalism, ideology, and violence post a serious danger in such profound crises. The lack of solidarity and the displacement of solidarity by nationalism can turn a crisis into a political crisis that features war, mass killings, genocide, and fascism.
Fuchs admirably analyzes the normalizing brutality of social responses to the pandemic through examples of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s stiff-upper-lip approach to building herd immunity through mass infection, and Donald Trump’s denial that invisible agents of mass death are any real problem at all. If we want to see the cruelties of capitalism, they are evident in the assertions of Trump and countless other authoritarian politicians that keeping all businesses open as they were pre-pandemic is an economic benefit greater than the harm of large-scale COVID infection. If we want to see the hypocrisies of that cruelty, it lies in the persistent economic damage that results from huge numbers of people dying or becoming permanently too disabled to work. An essential cause of our failure as a global civilization to contain the pandemic is a refusal to see the fundamental causes of its catastrophes as features of a capitalist economic, social, and moral order that must change if we are to become a society without injustice.
Such a society would never have allowed the brutality of economy-at-all-costs social darwinism to take hold over governments’ pandemic policies. But there is also a shortcoming here in Fuchs’sanalysis. He describes the conflict over pandemic management policy in a stark division of two sides. One side, on which he stands, he declares the humanists, who consider short-term economic contractions to be a reasonable price to pay for saving lives. The other side, where the fascists and neoliberals stand, prioritizes continuing economic growth over human life.
But the true solution to this problem is not simply to stand with the humanists, simple and clear as that morality might be. The stronger case against neoliberal pandemic management is that indifference to people’s lives eventually results in greater economic harm than the short-term gains of keeping people at work in factories and warehouses as they fall ill and die one after another. Once enough people in a society have died of COVID, and ten times more have been permanently disabled by the virus, there will be such a shortage of workers that economic production would incurably sputter and stagger. If a million Americans, for example, die of COVID, and ten to fifteen times that many are so badly disabled by the virus that they can no longer work, a statistically significant percentage of the country’s population will have disappeared from the labour force in only two years.
Much of human society, especially in the West, has become so accustomed to capitalist frameworks of value that a Marxist perspective can show us that such nihilistic violence is capitalism’s logical conclusion. If the only worthwhile value of anything is its use in a revenue generating machine, then the quality of life for a person, animal, community, or ecosystem is only valuable insofar as one can extract profit from their existence. Fuchs’s theoretical perspective, in its widest scope as a critique of our global capitalist economic system itself, clearly shows how capitalist values inevitably hold barbarous conclusions. But we need the theory if we are to see these phenomena and understand them correctly. Dispensing with conspiratorial paranoia and the ideologies they buttress is not enough. We need to teach people the conceptual frameworks required to see capitalist society’s injustice and cruelty as contingent and changeable.
Thinking with capitalist ideology or without any ideology results in the same practical result: seeing brutality and violence, but declaring that “It is what it is.” The capitalist says it, and laughs. The one without any ideology says it, and hangs their head in sorrow because they cannot understand what else the world could be.
The Practical Impossibility of Fuchs’s Commontopia
Fuchs ends Communicating COVID-19 with a briefly sketched vision for what society should look like if we emerge from the pandemic no longer valuing wealth for wealth’s sake and the cruelties of seeing people as instruments and obstacles to your greed. He describes what the institutions of a global internet held and managed in common for the good of people, instead of our current internet, which is the private property of profit-seeking corporations who generate massive revenues from encouraging political extremism and violence. It is an admirable vision considered in the abstract, but his expression and conception is problematically naïve. I think I can only explain this by quoting his account of this Commontopia at some length.
After Google had been nationalized in 2025 by the joint policy initiative of US President Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the European Union Commission, and in 2026 Facebook had been communalized, i.e. taken over by its users as a user co-operative, online advertising disappeared. Google was renamed Public Search and is today run by a global network of public universities. Its algorithms are Creative Commons and transparent … After corporate media monopolies were communalized in 2027, Public Service Media and citizen/community media started flourishing. In Commontopia, there is a vivid non-commercial media sphere consisting both of PSM services and platforms as well as community media organized as platform co-operatives.
He describes a coalition of more than 100 countries around the world organizing legislation that essentially writes the capitalist internet out of existence and replaces it with a co-operatively run network of social communication, video, and content streaming platforms. Even his global public service streaming service has, by 2027, outpaced user growth and viewership of Netflix, Disney, and all the other corporate-owned content streamers, thanks to the algorithmic assistance of AI subtitles to deliver publicly-produced documentaries, television, and films.
Less than a decade from now, writes Fuchs, this largest coalition of people’s movements around the world have all succeeded, captured their state governments, and enacted laws that completely overturned the capitalist internet and media economy. These 100 countries all began, at last, taxing the digital giants of Silicon Valley, and even built a global digital media organization that levies a 20% tax on the profits of the major technology giants. All that funding is shifted to a network of state-owned libraries, universities, research institutions, museums, postal services, and civil society non-profits.
Yet how are we supposed to get from our own darkest timeline to the Commontopia? We are to crush the power of corporate digital capitalism everywhere in the world, take over the state governments of pretty much every liberal capitalist and authoritarian regime on Earth, all within about a decade or two. What kind of organizational muscle can achieve that and build the global administrative architecture to manage the public global internet? The only organizations with that kind of power are the tech giants themselves and the authoritarian political parties and governments who are their firmest partners.
Those tech giants have, as Communicating COVID-19 clearly describes, already permanently crippled anti-authoritarian, democratic, and socialist political movements everywhere in the world by encouraging infighting and conspiracy. The loudest left wing organizers today are not revolutionaries, but mercenary podcasters screaming sexist attacks against Representative Ocasio-Cortez, while encouraging social media mobs in the defence of Xi Jinping, Bashar Assad, and Vladimir Putin, who they depict as the true socialists liberating the oppressed people of the world from American imperialist regime change campaigns.
It Is Becoming Practically Impossible to Maintain Democracy
In the democratic countries where government has not yet been compromised by fascistic nationalists and conservatives, the liberal democrats who continue to hold state offices are proving themselves inadequate to the ongoing political struggle. Liberal parties across the world remain committed to democracy, but are largely unwilling to commit to the political and economic change required to turn struggling people away from fascist mobilization or to safeguard humanity from the coming climate catastrophe.
Consider, for example, my own country of Canada, whose Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, is generally perceived as a leading liberal democrat on the world stage. While I was composing this review, Trudeau called for global caps on greenhouse gas emissions at the Glasgow Climate Change Conference (COP26). But his domestic natural resources policy involves continuing development of oil pipeline infrastructure, and deploying large-scale federal police operations on Indigenous lands to ensure access for pipelines and strip mining.
As well as this hypocrisy on climate change, the Canadian Liberal Party’s political rhetoric equates anti-racism activism with white supremacist militias. These kinds of lies that flow from sedately liberal centrist politicians and parties are, in many ways, more destructive than the most vile racist and fascist propaganda. It denies a basic truth about leftist politics that Fuchs acknowledges: “Democratic socialists such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez respect democracy and argue for social democracy and democratic socialism,” while nationalists and bigots prioritize total domination of society through state and neighbourhood violence.
Straightforwardly Marxist analysis, such as Fuchs uses, clearly shows how ridiculous is the liberal centrist notion that political peace requires preserving the status quo. If the status quo has been leading to climate catastrophe, security state authoritarianism, and fascist political violence, then the way things have been must change. Liberal democrats dismiss and demonize socialist democratic politics because they cannot conceive of freedom without a capitalist economy that prioritizes the pursuit of profit and overconsumption of resources. Without that fundamental alliance of all democrats in defence of democracy, fascism and authoritarianism will inevitably conquer and destroy us all.
Imagining a Global Socialism in 2021
Despite Fuchs’s capacity to imagine his “commontopia,” I cannot help but read it as profoundly naïve and stupid to think such a vision is remotely possible. It is more likely that, by 2035, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will not be President, but will have been killed by an assassin’s bullet or car bomb. Fuchs’s book doesn’t offer any vision of the future beyond a fantasy description of a global institution of public internet management led by a socialist coalition of world leaders more than 100 countries strong. For all his focus on explaining the mechanics of what has gone wrong, there is nothing in Communicating COVID-19, or even anything in the realm of human possibility anymore, about the mechanics of how we can build this better world.
We must prepare for a future of omnipresent political violence and government-led mass murder. America’s right-wing media bombards their tens of millions of viewers with messages that democratic socialists are actually armed extremist terrorists, and those millions of people are preparing to take ‘preventative’ action. Fuchs has written an excellent diagnosis of how the pandemic has affected society and how the structure of conspiracist thinking encourages political violence. But instead of leaving us with some sketch of how Marxist thinking and socialist organizing could resolve the ecological and political consequences of capitalism, we have an impossible vision of commontopia. The threats we face are imminent. They are already here. I am addressing you now, the reader, directly.
We have to consider seriously that in the next three to five years, people like this will show up at our homes to kill us and our families. We must understand how to make success possible in our world.
Cacioppo, John T. and Richard E. Petty. 1989. “Effects of Message Repetition on Argument Processing, Recall, and Persuasion.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 10 (1): 3-12.
Fuchs, Christian. 2021. Communicating COVID-19: Everyday Life, Digital Capitalism, and Conspiracy Theories in Pandemic Times. Emerald Publishing.
Harvey, David. 2005. “Space as Keyword.” In Spaces of Neoliberalization by David Harvey, 93-115. Franz Steiner Verlag.
 Christian Fuchs, Communicating COVID-19, 20.
 Fuchs, 22.
 Fuchs, 64.
 Fuchs, 87.
 Because let’s not forget for a single moment that, despite widespread access to COVID vaccines in Western and wealthy Asian countries, the virus is still spreading freely among billions of people. The pandemic is not over.
 Fuchs, 275-6, 278.
 Fuchs, 273.
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