Amador Fernández-Savater: Questions engendered by a virus

A transcription (in translation) of a talk by Amador Fernández-Savater at a colloquium held in Madrid at Espacio La Atenea, “To Inhabit and to govern uncertainty. Reflecting together in confusing times ”. Wednesday, July 15. Published by the online magazine Ají.

To inhabit and to govern uncertainty

To pass through the coming times, we will need a great effort of creation, because what was there before no longer serves, it no longer works. Or at least its meaning is canceled or put in parentheses.

At the moment at which we find ourselves, an effort of invention is necessary in the ways of relating, of being and of sharing; or, we are going to live in what I would call a diminished (or mutilated or trimmed) reality. In the sense that we are going to live the old normality from before, the old normality with its relationship of production, work, consumption, etc., but without the many encounters with the other, which will be absent or limited.

So either we find new ways to meet, to gather, or we are going to live a diminished reality; in which the “bad”, that is, the obligation to work in precarious conditions, the obligation to consume, the overflowing traffic, etc., will continue to be there, but we will lack the dimension of encounter. As never before, our present demands an effort of invention. If there is no invention, we will sadly live in a devalued reality, which will be the same as before, but less; unless we create another reality, which is not the same as the previous one, but is different, and more.

Around this concept of diminished reality, a key today is the challenge of inventing new ways of living.

I am thinking about the coronavirus pandemic with a concept from a Belgian thinker – which I especially recommend – who is very powerful and at the same time very accessible, whose name is Isabelle Stengers. In a book entitled In Catastrophic Times, she proposes the concept of the intrusion of Gaia (mother earth, nature, the planet). She says (before covid-19) that a time of catastrophe is coming, and she tries to think it through with this concept of the intrusion of Gaia, as a reaction from what she calls the living planet, to the predation, abuse, and exploitation of a blind capitalist system. In other words, it is not a reaction of revenge. During all this time, much has been said about whether the coronavirus was a punishment of nature. She says no, the intrusion of Gaia is not a punishment, it is not a revenge. Gaia is indifferent to the fears and projects of human beings. Nor is it a message (many say “the virus brings a message”). She says there is no message. In any case, there is a reality that imposes questions on all of us. But it is not that it brings us a message. For Stengers, to say that nature punishes us is to remain within an anthropocentric position. The human being is the most important thing and nature punishes me or brings us a message, and thus we remain the center of creation. Stengers says, by contrast: “she is indifferent to us.” It is rather that she has been disturbed by our politics of predation and does as we do when we remove a fly. That is the intrusion of Gaia.

What this does is raise questions. And there are no answers. And we must invent an answer and that answer demands creation from us, in all domains: political, economic, cultural, existential, labor, etc. The answer to the catastrophe is to invent new ways of life. It turns out that Gaia does not ask or expect anything from us. She was here before and she will surely continue after. Accordingly, what are we going to do? It is the question of these catastrophes force upon us: Are we going to continue the same? Or are we going to be able to invent new ways of inhabiting the planet?

Thinking more specifically about covid-19, I draw three possible answers, which I see underway. At least two in progress and one that we should invent.

The first response we could call neoliberal-neoliberal and we could identify it with some proper names: Trump, Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson. The idea would be to return to normality. What has happened has been a moment, a bad moment, and we must return to normalcy as soon as possible, no matter what. The idea is: there was a stumble, we are back to normal. The economy, it is said, is above life, health care, the care for life. In reality, what the neoliberals are arguing is that economics is life; that life is productivity, that each one of us is a company, that we are entrepreneurs of ourselves, that we must permanently manage our capital; that living is doing business, it is projecting into the future and that we must leave those behind who cannot keep up; because life is productivity, those who cannot maintain the rhythm should be abandoned, because somehow they fall outside what is natural, what is productive. It is the “Sacrifice the weak” banner of some Trump supporters. And what seems very strange is actually the content of the politics in place. This slogan is stupid but it does nothing more than make present what is latent; it makes evident what was implicit, it makes explicit what was implicit. It would be what we can call a necro-politics or a necro-logic, a logic of death or a politics of death. It is the case with the production of populations that were considered disposable, superfluous, in excess. In the United States, poor blacks and Latinos are dying with diabetes problems, from being overweight, etc. These are people who are in excess. This is necro-politics. There are populations that are “in excess” because they are not “necessary” to the life of “production.” This neoliberal response is scandalous, but in reality I think that to be scandalised is too easy and it is getting us nowhere. Saying “what a brute Trump is” is a very easy criticism. Because in reality we should ask ourselves if it is not already in ourselves. For example, with respect to what has happened in some homes for the elderly in Spain (abandonment, neglect, death), has not a necro-logic been operating there, have not perhaps the most vulnerable fallen there? Does that matter to us? Are we pushing for a change in the logic of nursing homes? Or do we consider that they were older people, that they had already reached the limits of possible life? Or are we naturalising the same logic as the neoliberal? I say this because many times we believe that neoliberalism is in others, it is something to do with others. I believe rather that it is an unconscious that runs through us all. And that that unconscious is what leads us to think, well, what are you going to do, it was old people. They were old people and at some point the virus was going to get to them. This way of thinking, feeling, is naturalised, when it is part of a necro-logic or a necro-politics. This then would be one of the answers: there has been an intrusion, but we are going to continue as if nothing happened. It is a form of Social Darwinism: the strong will be stronger after this shock. It is a somewhat perverse version of what is called resilience, that is, we have received a blow, but that blow makes us stronger and the weak fall. The neoliberal response, in a way, runs through all of us. In fact, I believe that within all of us there is a voice that tells us, “I would like to live as before”.

We could call the second response neoliberal-social democratic. It would carry the name of Pedro Sánchez in Spain or Alberto Fernández in Argentina, for example. Obviously, for me, the answer that is given in Spain is far preferable to the one that is being given in Brazil or the U.S.A. (the non-answer); not only preferable, but defensible for a thousand reasons. But it seems to me that one has to think, that one has to make things more complex, and make them more complex by saying that what there is, is not the only thing possible, and therefore, one has to continue to think, to not stop here.

This response proposes a combination of social rights (such as a minimum income) and health measures within a production and consumption framework that is neither questioned nor touched.

The combination of social measures with health measures is important, but with a limit that is neither touched nor questioned: the production and consumption framework in which we are installed. It is what we can call the “new normal”.

The neoliberals want to return to the old normality, that is, it is not so important that there are masks or that there are no social rights and that the weak fall by the wayside; and the social democratic-neoliberal response (in the sense that it does not question the production and consumption framework in which we live) speaks of health measures, social rights, but the framework cannot be changed. Second response then: to the intrusion of Gaia, we respond with some rights, with some sanitary measures. New normality but we do not question the framework, the conditions that have produced the situation, that are producing the catastrophes. But then why are not others going to be produced, if we continue under the regime of predation and blind development that forces Gaia to react?

This response has advantages over the neoliberal, but it has limits that we have to see, that we have to see what to do with them; a way, a production and consumption framework (that has to do with our lives) that is not being questioned, that is not being altered, that is not being dismantled, that is not being transformed.

And a third and final answer, the one that is not there. At least I do not know how to see it. And in any case, it cannot come from the mind of any single individual. In other words, it is an answer that must be created by the people, not by intellectuals; because it is people who create ways of living. They are neither the governments, nor the militants, nor the intellectuals. It is ordinary people who have to create the third answer.

We have a raw material in which this answer could take root, which is to think about what has happened during the confinement, in what have been the two or three months of confinement and its different phases. Because it seems to me that in that interruption (you have to think about what the potentials of interruption are) there has been an interruption of the production-consumption framework, an interruption that has not been brought about by a proletarian, workers’ revolution, but that has been brought about by the smallest bug on the planet; it is the latter that has interrupted the production and consumption framework. It is a very strange thing, something that forces us to think, to invent new categories, to think more than ever because the answers we have are of no use …

Whoever has managed to interrupt the logic of production, consumption, accumulation, growth, is a bug, not a proletarian or anarchist insurrection.

In this passage through confinement, it seems to me that things have happened to us and those things could be the raw material, the humus, the breeding ground for another answer.

What has emerged in these three months of confinement? I would say three things:

Questions, discomforts and new desires.

Questions: the ones we want to share. Nobody has been able to continue life in the same way, all lives have been turned upside down. All lives have had to reinvent themselves – all lives: to work or not to work; what to do with the children; to obey or not to obey; how to inform myself, how not to go crazy in confinement; how to take care of my own. These have been questions. The disruption of normality poses questions that force us to invent. There are not so many times in life that we are forced to invent. That is very interesting, when life forces us to invent. Inventing ways of relating to each other, talking, etc. There are not so many moments in which we are forced to be other than who we are, to generate another than who we are. I think these are very important moments. What is going on? What will happen to us? What is essential? What and who takes care of us? Questions that I have noted, that I have detected in myself: what is significant? what is important? what relationships sustain me? what makes my life worthwhile? what do I have to take care of? what to pay attention to? There have been a great many questions.

Also discomforts. I think there have been a lot of discomforts. Discomfort is a power for revolt, discomfort is what pushes us to fight a state of affairs. Not fitting in, feeling that reality oppresses you, crushes you, suffocates you. It is a potential of subversion, to pierce reality, to go beyond what is proposed. There have been many examples of discomfort, I think, with respect to the state and with respect to the market. The state because – beyond its best intentions – its way of acting is always very faithful to inequalities. For example, it says: “you have to confine yourself” and surely going home is the most sensible thing to do. And the homeless? And what about those who cannot be confined because they cannot stay at home because they live in a very small house with an immense family? And those who live from day to day? The state legislates as if we were all of the middle class. That is why food distribution, community kitchens, have to be organised, because matters are not like that. And society has to become active because the state legislates as if everyone had a great house, with all the services to get by. And it is not like that. The state is very blind, it legislates from what things should be, but then there is what things are. And what there is are class, gender, age and other inequalities … and there is also singularity; each one of us is unique, each life has a peculiarity.

And of course, with regard to the market, we have seen that the market does not obviously take care of life, that there were no masks, that there were no respirators, that there was precariousness. Its logic is not that of use values, but that of profit. And profit is above life. Marx said that the market follows an extraterrestrial logic, because it is above the earth, above the terrestrial ones… we have all been able to see that the market does not take care of life.

What is the challenge? It seems to me that the most important challenge we face is that of inventing another conception of politics, of reconceiving the political. As long as we continue to think that politics passes through “the” politicians, through what happens in the state, through power struggles, through palace intrigues, of who occupies what positions, and so on, and we do not think of the political as something intimate that is shared with others, the intimate thing that happens to each one of us, that is, those questions, those discomforts and those desires that we manage to socialise, place them in common, share them with others and that that is the political, it seems to me that the political dries up. It does not have the force of the existential. The political would have to be reinvented, uniting the political with the existential. And what is existential? It is what happens to us. It is the questions that occur to us, discomforts and desires that happen to us and that we want to share; a space to share what happens to one through the body, what happens to one in the most intimate way. As long as we think that politics is something that happens in spheres other than the intimate, politics stays dry, falls asleep. Where is the strength of the feminist movement? In uniting daily lives, care, violence, etc. to the political. Whenever the existential meets the political, there is energy, there is strength. Whenever it separates, there is weakness, there are struggles between cliques.

Social transformation not only has to do with making demands on the state to solve them, but it is also the expression, the organisation, the elaboration of these radical questions about the meaning of life. To do politics is to share questions about what we do in this life that we share with others in society, that is politics for me. It is the question of the commons; the original question of the polis: how are we going to organise ourselves to live together? Health, education, the streets … that is politics. The question about the everyday, but that comes out of the sphere of the intimate, of the individual and is shared with others. And it seems that today the challenge is there again.

Responses to this catastrophic situation in which we live, which is not a specific catastrophe but a catastrophic state of the world due to a profit logic that does not consider consequences, the challenge would be here: to reinvent politics and endow it with existential content; that in politics, the intimacy of each can enter, that with which each concerns her/himself, their questions, their discomforts.

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