Slavoj Žižek: Democracy and Capitalism Are Destined to Split Up

Philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues that our current brand of global capitalism is quickly outgrowing democracy. This leads to a bevy of social and geopolitical concerns all related to the public commons.

Slavoj Zizek: Well people often ask me how can you be so stupid and still proclaim yourself a communist. What do you mean by this? Well, I have always to emphasize that first I am well aware that let’s call it like this – the twentieth century’s over. Which means all not only communists solution but all the big leftist projects of the twentieth century failed. Not only did Stalinist communism although there its failure is much more paradoxical. Most of the countries where communists are still in power like China, Vietnam – their communists in power appear to be the most efficient managers of a very wildly productive capitalism. So okay, that one failed. I think that also and here I in a very respectful way disagree with your – by your I mean American neo-Keynesian leftists, Krugman, Stiglitz and so on. I also think that this Keynesian welfare state model is passé. In the conditions of today’s global economy it no longer works. For the welfare state to work you need a strong nation state which can impose a certain fiscal politics and so on and so on. When you have global market it doesn’t work. And the third point which is most problematic for my friends, the third leftist vision which is deep in the heart of all leftists that I know – this idea of critically rejecting alienated representative democracy and arguing for local grass root democracy where it’s not that you just delegate to the others. Your representatives to act for you, but people immediately engage in locally managing their affairs and so on.

 

I think this is a nice idea as far as it goes but it’s not the solution. It’s a very limited one. And if I may be really evil here I frankly I wouldn’t like to live in a stupid society where I would have to be all the time engaged in local communitarian politics and so on and so on. My idea is to live in a society where some invisible alienated machinery takes care of things so that I can do whatever I want – watch movies, read and write philosophical books and so on. But so I’m well aware that in all its versions radical left projects of the twentieth century came to an end and for one decade maybe we were all Fukuyamaists for the nineties. By Fukuyamaism I mean the idea that basically we found if not the best formula at least the least bad formula. Liberal democratic capitalism with elements of rebel state and so on and so on. And even the left played this game. You know we were fighting for less racism, women’s right, gay rights, whatever tolerance. But basically we accepted the system. I think and even Fukuyama himself is no longer a Fukuyamaist as I know that if there is a lesson of September 11 if other event is that no we don’t have the answer. That not only is liberal democratic capitalism not the universal model and is just a time of slow historical progress for it to be accepted everywhere. But again try now in Singapore and other examples of very successful economies today demonstrate that this, let’s call it ironically eternal marriage between democracy and capitalism it’s coming to an end.

 

What we are more and more getting today is a capitalism which is brutally efficient but it no longer needs democracy for its functioning. That’s my first point. My second point is that the problems that we are confronting today we can list them in different ways but my point is they are all problems of commons. For example, ecology it’s clearly a problem of commons. Nature our natural environment is our commons, something which shouldn’t be privatized because it belongs to all of us. It’s as it were the background or literally the ground of our being. And it’s clear for me that here we need to reinvent not local democracy but on the contrary also large scale solutions. The problem today is not local communitarian democracy. The problem today is how it regulates trends worldwide. Because even here I almost admire the – if I may use this old fashioned Marxist terms the ruling ideology, no. Like turning the cards upon us and making us individually guilty like did you separate all diet Coke cans. Did you separate all the newspapers and so on. I mean I find it ridiculous how not only are we made responsible. Instead of blaming not some person but the system as such how to reorganize our lives. But this solution also allows us an easy way out. Then as if you recycle, you buy green products and so on and you feel well, you did your duty.

 

And another example that I use again and again – Starbucks coffee and others. I think it’s something very ingenious that capitalists there. You know when you enter a Starbucks place they always tell you, you know, we take care of nature, five percent of our profits go for Guatemalan rainforest, for Somalian children, whatever. I think this is ingenious that when we are consumerists we feel bad. Oh my God, I’m just a consumerist. People are starving there. We are ruining Mother Earth. But here the message is our coffee is a little bit more expensive but the ideological price to do something for Mother Earth is included into it, you know. I even – that would be my idea, Starbucks you know, how they bring your bill when you pay check and then it says that – how do they call it this additional federal tax or whatever so much. I would love to have it where they would put it, you know, three percent for helping Mother Earth included, five percent for Guatemala orphans included. And it makes you feel good and so on. So what I’m saying is that, for example, this is one example of endangered commons where I’m not underestimating capitalism here. Of course one should use all capitalists and market tools like higher taxes for polluters and all of that.

 

But you cannot control in this way real ecological catastrophes. Imagine Fukushima which happened an earthquake and all that in Japan. Now it would be a couple of years ago. Imagine the same thing just some – it’s quite realistic act of imagining – just some two, three times stronger which means that probably the whole northern third of Japan would have to be evacuated. How to confront this? Who will do it and so on and so on. We need a solution here and the problem is the commons. Next point. Finances.  Everyone knows that some type of regulation is needed otherwise the way banks function today it’s simply even from the standpoint of let’s call it naively rational capitalism. It no longer works. Another thing – so called intellectual property. Jeremy Rifkin pointed out how we are already almost approaching there a kind of a weird communism. I don’t know how it is here with you but in my part of Europe, DVDs are disappearing. You download everything. It’s – I think – okay this is one phenomenon but I think that generally there is something in so called intellectual property, knowledge and so on which is communist in its very nature in the sense that it resists being constrained by private profit. It tends to circulate freely.

 

So again how to solve this problem? I don’t think that capitalism will succeed in privatizing intellectual property. Next point biogenetics. Are we aware what is happening today? I mean I don’t want to exaggerate and I’m not a panic monger. I’m not saying tomorrow we will be robots. I’m just saying that two things are happening which are more and more reality. A, that and this is something so tremendously important philosophically. Direct contact between the inside of our brain, our thoughts, and outside like we all know, for example, that today still at a very primitive level but we can directly wire our brain so that machine can read it direct – and, for example, Stephen Hawking no longer will have needed his finger. Now he was functioning with the finger just moving it a little bit. You think forward, your wheelchair moves forward and so on. Of course one of the problems here is that if it goes outside you just think about it, it happens, it also goes inside the other way around. So all this prospect of the biogenetically changing your properties directly wiring your mind and so on. How will this be used for social control? And, for example, when I visited China five years ago I got in a conversation with some big shot from their Academy of Biogenetics. I mean biogenetic department of their Academy of Sciences. And he gave me the program of goals of biogenetics in China. A kind of a programmatic text which pretty much terrified me.

 

It opens up the text with something like the goal of biogenetics in the People’s Republic of China is to regulate the physical and the psychic welfare of Chinese people. My God, what does that mean? Now I’m not here a conservative guy who is in panic. No, it’s a new field. Who knows but we have to be aware of the problem and it cannot be decided on the market. We need new forms of global control and regulation. And the last thing, new forms of apartheid. That’s the ultimate irony for me. Berlin Wall fell down, now new walls are emerging all around. The United States, Mexico. West Bank, Israel occupied territories to even the south of Spain how to isolate Europe from Africa and so on and so on. I think the paradox of today’s global capitalism is that on the one hand it’s global, free flow of capital but the free movement of people is more and more controlled and more and more we get new forms of apartheid. Full cities and those immigrants half excluded and so on. These are all problems we are confronting today. And the big question is can we cope with these problems within the liberal democratic capitalist frame. I’m a pessimist here. I don’t see – I’m really a pessimist because I don’t see a clear solution here.  I’m certainly not an idiot who claims oh, a new Leninist party or whatever, will regulate it. No, that game is over. But I claim just two things.

 

A, all these problems are problems of commons. Biogenetics – our genetic inheritance is our humanity’s genetic commons with new forms of apartheid we are talking simply about commons as the common social space and so these are all problems of commons and how to confront them, how to deal with them because, you know, the paradox here is that on the one hand we are already getting elements aspects of communism like again with all the downloading and so on. New forms of circulation of knowledge even of commodities which no longer follow the market model. On the other hand I’m well aware that all this also brings out new problems which is why as I always repeat it, I support Julian Assange WikiLeaks. But not in the usual anti-American way. I always emphasize this. WikiLeaks should not be used for cheap anti-Americanism. Why not? Because there is a point in those who say that imagine someone like Chelsea Manning in China. There would not be a trial. She would just disappear probably together with the entire family or whatever. So why nonetheless we should also talk about United States even if the control is much worse in China, Russia and so on.

 

Because there is one problem and I can tell you I was in China and Russia. There people are well aware of the limitation of their freedom. Nobody in China has the illusion that they are actually free. You have local freedoms of choice, you know. You can do sexually whatever you want. You can more or less read books that you want. You can find a job if you find it of course that you want. But the general social network no democracy there also with us is getting worse and worse but that’s another point. What I want to say is that the importance of WikiLeaks for United States is that how here in the United States we can – our lives can also be controlled and regulated but without us being aware of it. We still experience ourselves as fully free. And this is for me the most dangerous unfreedom. The unfreedom which is not even aware of itself as unfreedom. Unfreedom which is experienced as freedom.

 

Another point here is we all know what is going on now is something incredible. TISA, T – I – S – A and other negotiations which are incredibly important. They will regulate markets, exchange of data and so on neo-liberal lines so that they will radically define the basic coordinates of our economic lives even more. But the point is we don’t – these negotiations are all done in secret. So, you see, this is for me the problem of freedom today. Yes, we have freedom at the level of freedom of choice. You buy this, you buy that, you travel here, you travel there, whatever. But for me freedom has to be more. Actual freedom has to also be the freedom to regulate the very basic coordinates of your life. You have a choice between this and that but how is the entire field which offers you these choices and not other choices – how is it structured? At that level we get more and more secret agreements, we get less and less freedom. So freedom is a big problem today but it’s the struggle for what we understand with freedom.

 

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton


 

 

Philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues that our current brand of global capitalism is quickly outgrowing democracy and that a divorce between the two is inevitable. This leads to an array of social and geopolitical concerns regarding the public commons. These problems include but are not limited to ecology, biogenetics, finance, neo-apartheid, crisis management, intellectual property rights, and personal freedom. Žižek touches on all these topics and more in this epic delivery of political and social theory.

CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

UFOs: US intelligence report finds no aliens but plenty of unidentified flying objects

A new government report describes 144 sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena.

Photo by Albert Antony on Unsplash
Surprising Science

On June 25, 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a much-anticipated report on UFOs to Congress.

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Android has won the phone world war

A global survey shows the majority of countries favor Android over iPhone.

Credit: Electronics Hub
Strange Maps
  • When Android was launched soon after Apple's own iPhone, Steve Jobs threatened to "destroy" it.
  • Ever since, and across the world, the rivalry between both systems has animated users.
  • Now the results are in: worldwide, consumers clearly prefer one side — and it's not Steve Jobs'.
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COVID and "gain of function" research: should we create monsters to prevent them?

Gain-of-function mutation research may help predict the next pandemic — or, critics argue, cause one.

Credit: Guillermo Legaria via Getty Images
Coronavirus

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

"I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

A virus and a firestorm

The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

Just three special traits

Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

"In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

"Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

And, potentially, people.

"This work should never have been done"

The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

"When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

"You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

"Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

"Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

"The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

"Nature will continue to do this"

They were dead on the beaches.

In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

"We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

"If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

"With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

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