by Gustavo Esteva
We lost floor underfoot.
Our world was reasonably predictable. Suddenly, from one day to another, deep trends that allowed us to anticipate the general and probable course of events and behaviors disappeared. We can no longer foresee what will happen. We are facing radical uncertainty.
There are inertias, obsessions, propensities and hobbies. We can correctly assume that a variety of actors and sectors of society will persist in the lines of behavior that characterize them. But we cannot know the outcome of their actions in what will undoubtedly be a new balance of forces, under radically new circumstances.
The world we will experience after the pandemic will not have changed because of it, but for previous critical conditions. We know almost nothing about the climate that is emerging after the climate collapse. Even less do we know what will remain of the institutions after the socio-political collapse. The pandemic only heightened the challenges at the crossroads we had already reached.
A few years ago, Giorgio Agamben warned us that the future has no longer future. They stole it. Financial power would have kidnapped “all faith and all future, all time and all hopes”. Agamben assumed that our time, a time of little faith or bad faith, faith sustained by force and without conviction, “is a time with no future and no hope – or empty futures and false hopes”.
Uncertainty can be distressing, particularly for those who have become accustomed to hanging their lives on some promised future and are seldom rooted in the present. But it can also offer the chance to return to reality and re-cognize it. The late Subcommander Marcos was right when he warned us a decade ago that we were at a peculiar historical moment in which, in order to sniff out the future, we had to take a look at the past. “The struggle for liberation – say those who keep the mobilization alive in Chile – draw their strength not from the vision of the future, but from the vision of the past”.
Widely criticized for his recent writings on the coronavirus, which many considered to be outright nonsense, Agamben is right. We need to pluck our future from the hands of “these gloomy and discredited pseudo-priests, bankers, teachers and officials”. And insists:
Perhaps the first thing to do is to stop looking only at the future, as we are exhorted to do, to turn instead to the past. Only by understanding what happened and, above all, trying to understand how it could happen, will it be possible, perhaps, to find freedom again. Archeology – not futurology – is the only way to access the present. (ditto).
The end of the world
It is necessary to reject vigorously the apocalyptic randiness that has been proliferating to spread panic, with expressions such as what the Director of the International Monetary Fund declared: “A crisis never seen in our history”, or what the Canadian Prime Minister said: “The biggest health crisis in history”. A simple comparison illustrates the exaggeration and perhaps the purpose. The number of deaths after three months of the pandemic, worldwide, is approximately half the number of boys and girls who die each year from viral diarrhea, due to a lack of access to clean water, or less than half of those killed by traffic accidents in 2018. It is also equivalent to the number of homicides in Mexico in the last decade.
At the same time, we need to acknowledge with integrity that the world we knew came to an end and will not return. None of the forms or definitions we can give to “normality” will return, nothing from that set of conditions that were unbearable for a large number of people, who have now been insisting that they do not want to return to it. Evade Chile stated this clearly on March 19: “We will not return to normality, because normality was the problem” (idem).
Risk and opportunity
As the Chinese symbol of crisis underlines, there is risk and opportunity in this one.
On the one hand, we can already observe that the darkest forces in society, throughout the world, are using all their capacities and resources to establish a fiercely authoritarian regime in a society of control. With the electronic means tested with the pandemic and other resources that have been experimented in these years in many parts of the world, they will create the technical possibility to control thoughts and behaviors of individuals constructed and homogenized through those same means. Experiments that governments have not dared to try will be implemented: only online teaching, for example, after closing universities and schools; “machines will replace all contact -all contagion- between human beings”. Not even Orwell was able to imagine such dystopia. They will take advantage of the fact that for years the society has been advancing in that direction, producing new entities in which it is already very difficult to recognize the human.
This aberrant social construction has begun with the declaration of a state of exception (emergency). For years it was established through the gradual dissolution of the rule of law, but it was done almost secretly, under pretexts such as terrorism or cartels; governments were reluctant to acknowledge what they were doing. It is now formally declared, on the grounds that it is needed to “save lives,” which is a ridiculous but credible pretext.
As Boaventura de Santos warned, democracy is being democratically dismantled. Under the pretext of the pandemic, a parliamentary majority has just given Víctor Orbán all-encompassing powers to rule Hungary at his will, indefinitely, outside the laws and institutions. Little by little, all governments take the same direction (towards “total authority”, as president Trump just declared), subjecting people to control and confinement. In many places the police have been arriving long before the medical personnel. The most serious thing is that many people, until yesterday passionate advocates of democratic practices, are fervently applauding the process that eliminates them. They join those who blindly followed a leader or doctrine and were already programmed for obedience. What Foucault called the fascist that we all carry inside, the one that makes us love the power that oppress us, is exploited in the name of the pandemic. COVID-19 would be giving apparent justification for general obedience to often-foolish rules and instructions. Thus, the broth of social cultivation that is necessary to establish the new regime is formed.
In fact, without resorting to any of the conspiracy theories circulating, the conviction that this is an experiment that tests what is to come has been spreading. “The current health emergency” holds Agamben “can be considered as the laboratory to prepare the new social and political arrangements awaiting humanity”. “We could get out,” thinks Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, “under the conditions of a perfect techno-totalitarian state”. It is the conclusion of Raúl Zibechi: “Militarism, fascism and population control technologies are powerful enemies that, together, can do us immense damage, to the point that they can reverse the developments that movements have woven since the previous crisis”.
On the other hand, in parallel to this risk, opportunities have been emerging to regain meaning in our lives and recover our senses, due to the inevitable roots in the local. Millions of people, who lack economic reserves and even spaces in which to confine themselves, people accustomed to living day-by-day, once the conditions on which their livelihood depended disappeared, are forced to locally produce their own lives. In general, neither the market nor the state will be able to take care of them or will only offer limited and transitory support. Many only manage to survive in the short term thanks to forms of local solidarity sprouting everywhere. At the same time, thousands of urban and rural communities are no longer obliged to dance to the music that all kinds of social forces played for them, and now are silent. They have to create survival conditions by themselves. Suddenly, unexpectedly, the importance of the local is restored and people can abandon the roles that the larger society assigned to them and return to being themselves.
The overwhelming insufficiency of “health” services worldwide, combined with the scandalous confusion of information that governments and the media, including social media, have created, gives unusual value to the concrete experience of care and compassion. It re-discovers that for the vast majority of people nothing beats direct and personal care of oneself and loved ones. The “deadly threat of a mysterious enemy” can thus become, in most cases, a well-kept flu. Everywhere people and small associations share on a small scale what they have with those who do not have and offer protection to those who are always marginalized, supported by the uniting force of compassion. Rahamin, the Hebrew word for compassion, comes from rahem, belly, entrails. That’s where compassion comes from, from the guts, as we recover our senses and with them a new sense of who we are and what we do.
And thus, from below, often with impulses that only seek survival in extreme conditions, the world in which the Zapatistas dreamed is formed, the world in which many worlds can be embraced, when real people, in the most varied contexts, give new meaning to their lives.
We knew that long ago. All sorts of pandemics and much more serious threats lurked. The worst forms of patriarchy were manifested in its most violent forms. The dispossession already replaced a mode of production that was coming to an end and the unprecedented accumulation of wealth, in fewer and fewer hands, was parallel to the unprecedented increase and generalization of misery.
The sudden confirmation of the incapacities and distortions of the dominant regime, of its profound immorality, has reached the elites. An unexpected editorial in the British newspaper, Financial Times, calls for radical reforms “to reverse the prevailing political direction in recent decades,” because it is about “forging a society that works for all”. The editorial states: “governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy,” but in another sense, because the government support that has been given will worsen the situation. “Redistribution will have to get back on the agenda” and leave the privilege of the rich behind. One of its strongest defenders thus elegantly buries the neoliberal gospel.
For many common people, this sudden awareness of the consequences of the neoliberal trap and of the need to escape from it with remedies that until recently were anathema, like the Keynesians, as well as the tireless repetition of dogmas of those who continue to believe that everything can return to be as before if appropriate measures are taken, sound like empty language. Since the circumstance requires the majority to recover meaning in their lives and reclaim their senses, as a condition of survival, the mentality that turned abstractions into a new religion, attributing them the character of “really real” reality, begins to quake.
The new mentality did not reach or contaminate everyone in the same way, but began to be a common experience that transformed users of tools into mere subsystems of systems – to the move from the typewriter to Word, for example. Step by step, people accepted without reservations a “consciousness” in which all of us would be homogeneous atoms of a global “reality”. Even those who could not help but cling to their immediate reality to survive began to doubt their own convictions. They came to think that, in effect, we all lived in a “globalized world” and that we shared “common problems”. Although the pandemic would be reinforcing that general way of thinking, at the same time makes it clear that this is an unbearable reduction. The virus is not the same “problem” in Brussels, in an upper-class neighborhood in Mexico City or in a community in Chiapas. It is not the same even in different neighborhoods in New York.
An awakening is taking place.
Abandoning ghosts and illusions
The invention of global ecology, at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, put the task of dealing with it in the hands of the governments and corporations that are the main causes of environmental destruction. The vigorous movement environmentalist, advocating for action at ground level, whose increased mobilization provoked the Summit, was thus undermined. The invention of global ecology, one of the forms of “globalization”, prepared people step-by-step to accept both the reality of “global problems” and the need of “equally global remedies”, which could obviously not be in the charge of ordinary people, of the majority. “Saving the planet” appeared as a sensible demand, which could only be conceived and implemented from above.
It was thus formed, a general prejudice about a “global” reality on which settled very fluidly the catechism of the “global” answers to the pandemic today, which would be the extreme evidence of a “global fact” that affects and infects us all. In the real world, a savage struggle persisted among groups and countries to seize scarce medical resources that are considered essential to “save lives”, in order to somehow compensate for the neglect of the health services. However, far from discouraging the obsessive effort, the savage struggle, the scandalous lack of coordination among institutional mechanisms created to arrange international action and the chaotic dispersal of efforts against the “common enemy”, intensified the calls to formulate a global policy and to establish the powers and institutions capable of implementing, in order to put everyone in order, on a national and global scale, under a superior and common leadership. This became accepted as the only way to win what has been considered the first truly global war in history. As we advance in that direction, power is concentrated in the medical profession, which will be the key weapon in this combat, consolidating what it already had; it can now dictate universal norms.
Plato had already warned us. While employing the formidable human capacity to abstract, we must put the abstractions we make in parentheses, so as not to confuse them with reality. In the West, however, the parentheses fell, and then something worse happened. By gradually losing confidence in the senses, in the concrete perception of reality, the condition of real reality began to be attributed to abstractions, relativizing empirical experience. Little by little, people’s abstractions began to be replaced by abstractions produced by the elites, to format mentalities and behaviors in a programmed way. Often these abstractions came packaged as “scientific truths”, to which a superior and incontestable value was attributed. Global ecology, such as pandemic, appeared as mere data of the reality actually backed by science. There was no greater objection to the fact that collective decisions began to be guided by probabilistic models with feet of clay.
Wendell Berry was right when he warned us about this, almost 30 years ago, in one more of his calls to focus on the local.
Speaking properly – he pointed out – it is not possible to think globally. Those who have “thought globally” (and among them the most successful have been imperialist governments and multinational corporations) have done so by simplifications so extreme that they do not deserve the name of thinking. Global thinkers have been and will be dangerous people.
Likewise, Iván Illich was right when he showed, 50 years ago, the counterproductivity of all modern institutions. Applying his argument to the field of medicine, in 1975, he denounced that institutionalized medicine had become a serious threat to health and that we were already living under the dictatorship of the profession, which formulated sanitary norms, applied them and penalized those who did not comply with them – as is done now when the public force is used to subdue those who do not comply with the standards formulated by medical experts. Illich considered that “the impact of professional control of medicine, which disables people, has reached the proportions of an epidemic”. He called iatrogenesis to that plague, in which iatros is the Greek name for doctor and genesis means origin.
Twelve years later, in reexamining his argument, he noted that his book had not taken into account a symbolic iatrogenic effect even deeper that those he had denounced: iatrogenesis of the body itself, the fact that since the middle of the last century “the apprehension of our bodies and of our self is the result of medical concepts and medical practices”. He had failed to discern, in writing his book, that, “like the perception of illness, disability, pain, and death, the body’s perception itself had taken an iatrogenic turn”. And he took his argument further. It seemed to him that he was facing a transition by which the iatrogen body dissolves in a body adapted by and for advanced technology.
In the text in which he reflects on his book, Ivan seems clearly horrified at a process that dismantles before his eyes the traditional art of embodying a culture, in which there is clear awareness that the body is a fundamental place of experience and it is admitted that each era has its own style for living the human condition that is traditionally called “the flesh”. Now, it seemed to him, an individual arose who objectifies himself and considers himself the “producer” of his body. It would be a component of a new epistemological matrix being formed, that would generate a new type of beings.
For Illich, what he had anticipated since 1973 was becoming real in the most unimaginable way. In Tools for Conviviality he warned that a threshold had been crossed after which the protection of a submissive and dependent population would become the main concern, and big business for the medical profession. Today, the extent to which many people who are usually critical of government policies and measures accept without saying a word and even celebrate foolish measures is astonishing.
For those who read these old Illich texts today, it will be amazing how he seems to be describing what happens with the pandemic, when what he suspected has been realized and we have begun to be treated as elements of algorithms and we have even entered into that game, to self-algorithmization. Our transformation into subsystems of systems in each of the facets of our daily life has been accepted without difficulty.
The pandemic is undoubtedly a wake-up call. It allows us to see many aspects of the horror that we had come to consider “normal”. However, even in the proposals that seem more radical and “progressive” an obsolete language and an out of place look are maintained. A group of prominent Spanish intellectuals, for example, has just rightly criticized the “Letter to the G20” signed by a prominent group of “world leaders to provide a global response to the coronavirus crisis”. In their pronouncement, “’Letter to the G20′? More of the same, not”, they reject that recipes like those of 2008 are proposed, when we need something entirely different…but they formulate their alternative proposal with multiple platitudes, using all the terms denounced by Illich, and end invoking a ghost: a “global awareness of world citizenship”, which will be able to “face-to-face or in cyberspace manifest itself without hindrance” to impose “the force of reason and not the reason of force”. They do not seem to realize the colonial universalism from which they formulate their prescriptions.
For most people, either confined or forced to struggle in the streets for survival, either constrained by imposed rules that they consider appropriate to obey -even when they seem foolish- or in the freedom of towns and neighborhoods that are defining their own norms, the pandemic requires reconsidering the direction of the gaze. Many people begin to see their places again, the specific persons around them, even those neighbors who barely said hello. They start to see each other again, with different eyes. They suddenly cease to have on the front the label identifying the roles fulfilled in everyday life, as individual components of abstract categories, by being passengers of one bus, customers of one restaurant, students, teachers, consumers, professionals in any field…because they are no longer in vehicles or institutions but in their homes, in their places.
From their guts, with the Rahamin (compassion) they already feel for others, a strange sensation of re-cognition of another ‘ I ‘ that they had submerged, within the prison of the habitual conditions of “normality”, arises. It is an ‘I’ that now has the opportunity to lift its head and make the heart beat in the sensation of a real form of us, of no longer being an individual of the homogeneous mass but the knot of a net of concrete relationships. Instead of looking towards the global, the national, the population, human lives probabilistically modeled by the experts, instead of a perception imposed by a maddened system, they recover their own gaze. Often, they manage to join on this new path those who never lost it and had been struggling to survive within it. Together, they now say firmly: “We don’t want to go back to normality”.
Thus, day after day, the mental and practical fabric that refuses to accept, rejects im-munity, the rejection of all reciprocal obligations (the common munus) to assert itself in the community, began to be forged. In the middle of “enemy’s territory”, just as Giap used the North American war machine to defeat it, new expressions appear: “cultural hacking”, which consists of “making radicalism common sense. Open source insurrectional narratives. Defend life and territory; disrupt oppression systems one meme at a time”.
Finally, it is about returning to what we are, what dharma expresses, in India, or comunalidad among the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca: persons, knots of nets of concrete relationships, which can only be what they are when those nets form community. There is no better antidote against the rampant authoritarianism that harasses us and that penetrates us through all the pores of the electronic resources that it wants to impose as a condition of survival, in the last expression of the patriarchal kingdom.
San Pablo Etla, April 15, 2020
Gustavo Esteva is a Mexican activist, “deprofessionalized intellectual” and founder of the Universidad de la Tierra in the Mexican city of Oaxaca. He publishes and speaks extensively on “development” critique, indigenous rights and knowledges, and alternatives to develpment. Gustavo is considered one of the main proponents of post-development.