Santiago López Petit: The political construction of the emergency

The social malaise spreads moment by moment. The endless sequence of confinement – de-confinement – re-confinement – is the rope that slowly asphyxiates us. It is the rope that a State, incapable and seized by panic, holds to, to try to impose its new normal. Now we know that the announced new normal is nothing more than the continuation of this nightmare. When it all started, it seemed that we were in a science fiction movie, and that we were masked protagonists. The contained emotion of the first month was made up of fear and relief; the fear of dying and the relief of not having to work. The balconies strove to open up to the sky. Now there are no songs. The slogan “Everything will be fine” sounds even more stupid, and we have learned that we are only the useful fools of a moment in the history of capitalism. The plot can be summed up in a few words: unbridled capitalism – what is usually known as neoliberalism – produces a virus that capitalism itself reuses to control us. In the silence of the night subjected to a curfew, the cry of “Enough!” is heard. We are tired, fed up with so much uncertainty, fed up with so many falsehoods and, above all, fed up with so much arbitrariness.

It is obvious that the coronavirus exists and kills, which does not mean accepting the perverse use of the word “negationist” to disqualify any critical position. The spread of the pandemic grows, and every day new European countries apply forms of confinement. The State which sought to regulate populations biopolitically has ended up resorting to the oldest practice of disciplinary society: isolation. Lockdowns, controls and punishments, they leave the jails and spread through the cities. Society must be protected from itself. The failure of authoritarian management in the West however is flagrant. The crisis of forms of political representation, the distrust of expert discourse, is total. To measure oneself against non-knowledge implies daring and courage. This is what has happened in hospitals and in the admirable fight to save lives that has taken place there. In contrast, the non-knowledge conveyed by the spectacle of the mass media – with its solemn press conferences, with its specialists and its macabre statistics – only serves to increase the confusion. Ultimately, that was the objective pursued. Confusion besets as much as fear, and promoting it has served an increasingly delegitimised State very well, because of its inefficiency and inability to anticipate.

Confinement carries with it and entails a class stratification, in the same way as the mobilisation of life – which is the current mode of exploitation – also differentiates between those who get ahead and those who sink into the hole, between those who manage to make of their self a brand, and those who can only be shadows, scraps. Confinement thus acts as a discriminating house arrest, and yet, during the first days, it possessed a dangerous ambivalence. The most appropriate philosophical term to describe this situation is epoché. The epoché or phenomenological reduction consists of a kind of “radical questioning”, in putting everyday life and our relationship with it in parentheses. For a few moments, our gaze on the world and on ourselves is totally transformed, and like the central character in the film El taxista ful, there comes a moment when we say to ourselves: “life can’t be this…”. So holding to the wind of doubt, we discover our wanting to live, a wanting to live that does not belong to us since it is common and shared, because in truth what belongs to us is only the being that reality forces us to be.

Confinement could have been a sanitary epoché that, despite being imposed, opened a space/time capable of subverting common sense, that fearful common sense that incessantly repeats: “This is what there is.” Or in its most current form: “The virus has come to stay”. The silence of the confined night, that other life felt, allowed one to think (or dream?) of another way to face the pandemic based on collective potentiality and creativity. The ideas that can arise from free cooperation are endless, from home-made face masks to creating software to connect struggling schools. The first confinement could motivate an interior search that, far from ending in an intimate and private space, pushed outward towards direct action and mutual aid. It has not been so. The sequence of confinement – de-confinement – re-confinement – has blocked that possible path of liberation and imploded the time that had been slowed down by silence. Inside the capitalist machine we were its units or elements to be mobilised. From now on, each one of us lives in their own waiting time. We are simple “waiting structures”. Where is the bifurcation?

The State again takes the initiative and sets out to manage this desperate wait through a cruel and cynical practice: humanitarianism. Humanitarianism does not change anything radically, and that is why it is very comfortable. It is enough to give money to those who go to the corresponding window even if they do so shouting a lot. The sequence confinement – de-confinement – re-confinement – constructs the state of emergency as something indisputably obvious: “Hey you: would you rather die?” Supported by the law, unlike the state of exception, an immense machinery is set in motion to save our lives. The paradoxes are innumerable: the mobilisation to which we must submit to subsist is transmuted into confinement; every day they tell us that our life is worth nothing, and now it turns out that they want to save us; we have to work everyday, but we cannot go out on the weekends; yes, we can travel by subway, but not go to the theater or the cinema; and so we may continue.

The state of emergency renders us definitively victims. We are all declared actual or potential victims. But what is paradoxical – once again – is that this condemnation is made in the name of the right to life. Life, understood as a supreme value, ends up justifying every repressive and control measure, and the war-State that has shot out eyes in Chile or France, that detains people for their ideas, pretends to present itself as our protective father. A parenthesis: to lament at this point for the loss of rights is hypocritical because rights are only defended by a counter-power. Little by little, the construction of the state of emergency shows itself for what it really is: an operation of political neutralisation that uses separation as its main weapon. Recent historical memory is erased; public space is restricted to the supermarket; health is reduced to the absence of disease; death is the opposite of life … The state of emergency puts into operation every form of separation: social distance, teleworking, blame, confinement … Political conflict disappears from an atomised society. The party system vehemently disputes how many dead the drain can swallow without clogging.

The state of emergency, because it is the political translation of the naturalisation of death, does not admit any dissent. Like any authoritarian parent, it puts us before the obey/disobey dilemma, and we know that both options reinforce authority. The extreme right has chosen disobedience. Reactionary thought knows very well the political centrality of death and does not hesitate to use it. It defends the deception of an individual freedom, and reduces the desire to live to a pure instinct for survival. Taking off the mask in the street is not an act of courage but of stupidity. The left, for its part, remains silent. We are in a season of sales, of lowering prices, and the lesser evil has replaced social experimentation. 15M is far off. However, the recent street riots that have taken place in different cities seem to have awakened it: “It is a thing of the extreme right!”, denounce their representatives. Even the police are smarter: “This is a typical 21st century social movement. There is a spark and it ignites. It has no internal structure or organisation. The people who were there respond to a cross-sectional profile. At first there were hoteliers (sic), angry people… ”.

It would be easy to say that the solution consists in politicising that social unrest so feared by the left. Yet as Miguel Hernández says: “cut that pain, but with what scissors?” To get out of the cursed dilemma that they hand out to us, to reject victimhood and affirm over and over again that “life cannot be this”. To unfold this truth and start a collective exodus, which does not mean traveling to a second residence or hiding under a non-existent authenticity, but rather trying to think outside the State. In the epoché there would be a possible against the possible. The state organises panic within a closed system. We can self-organise panic within an open system. The immune system is not the bulwark that defends a besieged organism; on the contrary, it is an “engine of experimentation” that works for life. Differentiate risk from danger. Health has a social and political dimension. From death, the extreme right only knows how to infer threats and fear disguised as feigned bravery. We would have to extract from death the courage necessary to de-occupy, to vacate, the State.

The article above was originally published by el critic (06/11/2020) and can also be found at lobo suelto (10/11/2020).

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