The 2020 pandemic has reactivated the future as a space of possibility, prompting us to envisage new non-centralized forms of political action and social relations, argues Italian philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi.
During specific catastrophic points in the historical crisis of capitalism such as this one, opportunities for new solidarities can emerge through reorganizations of popular power—perhaps novel conceptions of insurrection, even. However, most importantly, this moment may also allow for the reimagination of a more inclusive “us,” constituted by a typically obfuscated, precarious surplus population. If people cannot pay rent, if they cannot work, then perhaps they have already gone on to something resembling a general strike, as described in an excellent essay in the journal Chuang. They see the contours of new forms of being together in reactions to this virus, in social distancing, in the closure of offices, and write: “The quarantine, then, is like a strike hollowed of its communal features but nonetheless capable of delivering a deep shock to both psyche and economy.” How then to reimagine our actions with intent? Will people feel the need to return to work, if reconfigured social lives are no longer dependent on the workplace as such? Perhaps now is the best time in many decades to answer a series of questions posed by Kathi Weeks in her 2011 book The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries: “How might we expose the fundamental structures and dominant values of work—including its temporalities, socialities, hierarchies, and subjectivities—as pressing political phenomena? […] How might we conceive the content and parameters of our obligations to one another outside the currency of work?” Franco “Bifo” Berardi and I have been emailing about these issues and others, as we are socially distanced in our homes. Here is an edited conversation from those letters across time zones.
This conversation was originally published in Fall Semester on April 4, 2020
The full implementation of the capitalist nightmare
Andreas Petrossiants: To my mind, much writing on the pandemic is not giving enough attention to how statist approaches to propping up social reproduction carry the imperative to protect productive value, rather than lives; furthermore, government responses have been, across the board, a reactionary defense of work’s legitimation crisis. The US government’s paltry attempt at a temporary universal basic income, for example, is essentially a stimulus package for landlords, as rent payments have been forestalled, at best. The realities of the liberal welfare state died long ago, but liberalism’s incumbent mythologies have persevered, mutated, and grown stronger. Maybe now is when these myths will crumble once and for all? What do you see as the horizon of possibility at a time like this, when certain biopowers and tactics of modern social control age and grow obsolete, and the reaction to save them grows still more violent?
Franco “Bifo” Berardi: I see different conflicting possibilities. Most commentators stress the totalitarian effect of the present emergency. When people are frightened for their own life they accept limitations on freedoms they would not accept otherwise. Western media (particularly in the US) have harshly criticized the Chinese reaction to the outbreak, but in the long run we are discovering that the Chinese have been much more effective at containing the virus. In an article in El Pais, the German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes that Chinese people have a totally different approach to big data collection and ensuing forms of control.
The hypostatization of the concept of personal freedom in the post-Romantic Western world is put to question in the Chinese cultural context, as is the very concept of the “private sphere”—in that context it has no translation and no meaning. However, the rhetoric of Western democracy is based on a Eurocentric prejudice that the imminent danger of extinction is forcing under scrutiny. So, we should expect that the current pandemic is going to prepare us for the full integration of Western Romantic individualism and eastern Confucian collectivism under the aegis of capitalist exploitation. The full implementation of the capitalist nightmare.
Nevertheless, I know that, as Naomi Klein puts it, “if there’s one thing history teaches us it’s that moments of shock are profoundly volatile. We either lose a whole lot of ground, get fleeced by elites, and pay the price for decades, or we win progressive victories that seemed impossible just a few weeks earlier.” All of a sudden, the pandemic has reactivated the future as a space of possibility, because the automatisms (both technological and financial) that disabled political subjectivity in the past neoliberal decades have been broken, or at least destabilized.
The economic and social scenario that we are going to discover when we emerge from the present pandemonium is hardly imaginable. It will not resemble past recessions, because it will be a crisis of supply and of demand simultaneously, and because the collapse is exposing the prospect of stagnation that was already visible in the last ten years, notwithstanding the efforts of reviving economic growth. Growth has slowed to the point of creating a sort of “bad utopia” in recent decades. The reason was not a provisional crisis, but the exhaustion of the physical resources of the planet, notwithstanding technological increases of productivity. Paradoxically we have been unable to see the possibility of reducing work time because we have been obsessed with the superstitions of increased national productivity—which is not a measure of how many useful things we produce, but rather the measure of the accumulation of monetary value.
Now that spell is broken. Obviously, the economic slump, if not a full-blown economic catastrophe, that the pandemic will continue to provoke will demand reconstruction efforts, but we are in the position to decide what it is that we want to rebuild, and what we want to forget. We can abandon the extractive model, and adopt non-polluting technologies, for example. Most importantly, we can abandon a model in which consumption is mandatory.
Now, one thing is crystal clear: the main cause of the present distress is the primacy of private profit over social interests. Neoliberal destroyers of the healthcare system are responsible for today’s European and US nightmares. In Italy, neoliberal austerity has slashed one-fifth of intensive care units, and one-third of general practitioners. Private clinics have invested in expensive therapies for the rich while the impoverished public system has abandoned the production of sanitary masks. Nine percent of Italian doctors have been infected because they have been obliged to work in impossible conditions. The neoliberal pundits are now silent, those who destroyed the public system are hiding, but they will come back after the end of the pandemic. They must be impeached, so to speak—forced to show themselves; they must be treated as the fascists were treated after the end of WWII.
The nation state is dead
AP: In the US, it’s an absolute nightmare—we have 924,000 hospital beds across the country, but 2.3 million prison beds. In New York City, where I’m based, we’ve lost 20,000 hospital beds in the last 20 years because of the continual privatization of medicine. In this context, it’s perhaps not so surprising that many people across political affinities have become admirers of forms of authoritarian statism as certain governments have enforced strict lockdown measures, which are necessary. The equivalence is an illusion, however. But, then how do we advocate for a popularly-organized response to containing the virus, without propping up the power of the state at the same time?
FB: The neoliberal aggression on the public sphere cuts to public spending, right-wing talk against so-called “big government,” and so on have provoked a false conception: that if neo-liberal capitalism is anti-statist, then social opposition to austerity must necessarily be pro-State. I don’t think that we need a strong state to respond to this type of crisis or others; what we need is a strong coordination of grassroots social organizations—professional, cultural, educational, medical—that can become the concrete fabric of social reproduction. The current need for the centralization of public intervention in the emergency is an administrative, technical, and organizational question that need not be answered by a state formation.
The political function of the State is another thing, and I think that the political function of the Modern State will not be revived by the present emergency. Modern statehood, the legacy of the early modern absolute monarchies, have been theorized by philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and Niccolò Machiavelli as central protectors of the function of political decision. The concept of decision (from the Latin dēcīdere, choosing one possibility from among many) is philosophically crucial here. Decision implies the ability to know all the relevant events in the social sphere, and the ability to enforce a prospective choice. These two abilities (to know and to enforce) are no longer granted to political subjects, and we must reclaim them. The vast complexity of today’s networked reality has grown beyond the possibility of any exhaustive knowledge and of effective enforcing—it is centralized. So, we must envisage a non-centralized form of political action, a dissemination of decision-making to the multiplicity of social life. The project of a new sovereignty of the State, which is the core of the theoretical proposals by people like Ernesto Laclau, Jorge Aleman, Chantal Mouffe, Carlo Formenti, and many others, is a delusion. The nation state is dead, it has been killed by neoliberal globalization and can only be revived in the form of an identitarian, totalitarian form of violence against the multiplicity of prospects that belongs to new compositions of labor. The emergence of an even stronger, re-legitimized State is a dangerous possibility in the aftermath of the pandemic: a techno-totalitarian system of control of life and of language that we are already witnessing in China.
Reprogramming the social machine
AP: On the public sphere as a site of action, the pandemic emerged on the heels of anti-neoliberal uprisings in Chile, Hong Kong, Iraq, Lebanon, Spain, and elsewhere (many of which are attempting to continue and we hope will only grow). In short, the neoliberal order was already being questioned and organized against (in anti-capitalist and reactionary formations). You ask in your recent piece in Nero (published in English on the Verso Blog) whether this pandemic is the end of that story. Do you believe it is? As workers stage walkouts, even though they must continue working to survive? As incarcerated prisoners get sick and revolt, and are punished by the state further just for the prospect of wanting to live? Is it time for us to write new stories? I’m thinking of Amazon warehouse workers that organized a successful walkout in NYC to protest unsafe working conditions, and were punished for it. I’m thinking of nurses and other medical frontliners across the United States who are publicly questioning private medicine.
FB: The global revolt that erupted in the last months of 2019 was a sort of convulsion of the worldwide social body. These different rebellions were not able to find a common strategy—for now, at least. So, the convulsion resulted in a collapse. But, now we are in something like a paralysis that follows collapse. What we are feeling now is the fear of contagion, of boredom, and of the world that we’ll find when we’ll be allowed to go out again. However, fear can be a condition for catalyzing the change that we need. Boredom can be turned into creative desire for action, curiosity for something surprising, the expectation of the unexpected.
Mike Davis argues that global capitalism “now appears to be biologically unsustainable in the absence of a truly international public health infrastructure.” I would be more radical: global capitalism is unsustainable for human life altogether. And we must invest our imaginative energies in re-programming the social machine beginning from the present lock down. This virus is the opportunity that we were waiting for: the accident that makes possible a much needed reset of the global machine.
AP: I agree with you, but we should be careful not to fall for certain pitfalls in anti-capitalist discourse, as I’m sure you will agree. It’s long been a fetish on the left (from Trotsky to Žižek) to think that specific catastrophes allow for the emergence of new political possibilities and the development of new forms of counter-power, which can be true but shouldn’t be something we depend on for imagining strategy. You’ve written very convincingly on how to sidestep this anticipation, and rather think much more specifically about the crisis, and the chaos and noise that it produces. Naomi Klein, in a less sectarian way than those referenced above, wrote in the Intercept recently: “During moments of cataclysmic change, the previously unthinkable suddenly becomes reality.” I want to ask why other, slower forms of crisis (climate collapse, precarity, military occupation, and widespread ethnic cleansing) do not seem to have the same jarring effects, at least globally? Is it just because of the slowness of epistemic violence? Because the virus will affect wealthy parts of the world as well as the poor, that the wealthy cannot imagine themselves immune to this specific cataclysm? Because they can’t techno-engineer their way out of it, at least not yet?
FB: For decades, we have been obliged to work in dangerous conditions. Climate change and the degradation of the environment have not been stopped by protests and widespread awareness. Capitalism does not give a damn about protests and people’s awareness. But now it’s different: the living body of humanity (and the interactive mind) have been somewhat paralyzed by the presentment of the end: in short, a global trauma. Yesterday, the conditions for revolution were present: the sinking of democracy, the arrogance of the powerful, rampant poverty, violent exploitation, ecological devastation, and widely accessible information about what is going on. But, to quote the Invisible Committee: “Reasons do not make revolutions, bodies do.” Now something new has happened: bodies are obliged to stop their economic frenzy. Only trauma can provoke this sudden stop and this unavoidable change of direction. And the pandemic is the trauma that we needed. But, trauma is not enough. Trauma may also lead (and it generally does) to very bad choices—for instance the establishment of a techno-totalitarian system for the greater control of society, in this case. So, what is needed now is a period of active imagination to re-program that which may follow the halt, the big reset of the global machine.
Rebelling against extinction
AP: On this halt, perhaps we should listen to the virus itself. In Lundi Matin, a communique titled “What the Virus Said” speaks on behalf of Covid-19. It declares: “But above all, quit saying that it is I who am killing you. You will not die from my action upon your tissues, but from the lack of care of your fellow humans … The most honest among you know this very well: I have no other accomplice than your social organization, your folly of the ‘grand scale’ and its economy, your fanatical belief in systems.” You’ve written quite a lot on the importance of coming to terms with our extinction, of refusing the illusions of “rebelling” against extinction. A key question now will be how to upend, or replace the call and response of temporary disaster socialism with its subsequent debt production and forced returns for a disaster communism? On a Salvage podcast I listened to recently, I remember one of the panelists pointing out the need to reconsider and create new rituals after capitalism’s hollowing of rituals (like weddings, funerals, the gift). Death, and our reaction to it, is of course part of this matrix of hollowed rituals. I imagine much of the reprogramming that you refer to should happen in the creation of new collective and shared rituals.
FB: Rebelling against extinction is obviously a paradoxical idea. Typically, I like paradoxes of this kind because they can help us understand difficult ideas. But, no, extinction is not to be—and cannot be—rejected. Rather, the fear of our impending extinction must be transformed into a condition for changing life. I think that Western culture became sick when it became unable to face death as the inevitable horizon of life. With this mindset, death turned into a condition to deny, to geo-engineer against, to techno-engineer ourselves out of. It also became the punishment for our sins. Well, the pandemic is also an opportunity for a new collective reflection about mortality, about the relation of organic life with time.
AP: In your Verso Blog diary, you write: “A semiotic virus in the psychosphere has blocked the abstract functioning of the system, by removing bodies.” What is left now that these bodies are shuttered away from what’s left of public space? What do we do with our bodies at home?
FB: An Italian psychiatrist has written that the mandatory self-reclusion may be likened to psychiatric mandatory internment. I would say that all stuck at home should try to transform this period into a voluntary period of psychoanalytic therapy. I think that this is already happening, at least for some part of the secluded population. Many more people are questioning the social rule that has destroyed the public system, and are imagining a totally different organization of social activity. Some of my friends say that these days they feel sort of relieved. They enjoy a long vacation for the first time in ten years. This is clearly the end, even if temporary, of capitalist acceleration, and people can finally spend their time caring about themselves and imagining their own future.
But, there is another side to the present condition that is enormously interesting to me: what has this done to our view of the shift toward the condition of connectivity through communications systems. Throughout the last decades, we have undergone a mutation from a conjunctive form of bodily communication (physical contact in public space) to the connective form of purely operational communication facilitated by the internet. As you know, the pandemic has created a social environment in which all conjunction is forbidden: social distancing is the new law. What will be the effect of this obligation? One may think that the conjunctive mode will be practically abolished, forgotten, and social activities (teaching, learning, working, and so on) will shift to the digital, connective modes. But, this is not certain. On the contrary, I think that in the end, people (or some part of them) will identify online connectivity with sickness. Maybe people will associate sickness with the illusions of digital connectivity, and instead crave experiences that are haptic, shared, void of digital mediation. We must consciously act on this: the obligation, the alternative, the probability, and the possibility. All is there for us.
Andreas Petrossiants is a writer and editor living in New York. His work has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, View. Theories and Practices of Visual Culture, nuart journal, Exhibition Reviews Annual, and elsewhere. He is the editorial assistant of e-flux journal.