Pandemic and dystopia


 by Joana Aguiar e Silva, Professor at the School of Law, UMinho

We have been following the reflections that Giorgio Agamben has been sharing on the page of the Italian publisher Quodlibet, regarding the pandemic we are experiencing. Without really contesting the political decision that determined the quarantine regime in Italy, the philosopher of Homo Sacer is shocked by the numbness of a society that so passively accepts successive institutional measures seriously constraining its fundamental rights. Measures that openly contend with the most legitimate cultural and political traditions of the West, based on values of freedom, tolerance and the promotion of human dignity.

The statements he has made regarding the present moment of exception have sparked the most intense debate both on the part of public opinion and on several academic circles. Referring to the invention of a pandemic, he points the finger at the media, which, without due scientific basis, and with populist and demagogic interests, spreads panic in communities far too used to living in a permanent state of fear. Tracing parallels between the pandemic and terrorism, he claims we have been living with the constant fear of the other for far too long: the eternal foreigner, metaphor of an eternal threat, as a potential terrorist or, today, as a potential “infector”. (An)other, the enemy, which is now within us, invisible and silent.

When he asks himself (and us) how it was possible to suspend all conditions of normal life and human relationships within entire communities, in the face of an evil about which the scientific community itself has few certainties,  he notes that the plague was already amongst us, before the arrival of the virus. The disease is prior, and the virus just provides the pretext for imposing the current constraints. The disease, the same that Saramago diagnosed in his masterpiece, Blindness, is one that attacks our contemporary societies, contaminated by unbridled capitalism, in which, as recently stated by Moisés de Lemos Martins, the market metaphor has invaded the multiple dimensions of our existence.

Time itself, which Byung Chul Han would say without aroma, has become a consumer good, slipping through our fingers as we get lost in the midst of the thousand tasks in which modern life has (for a long time) confined us and with which it consumes us. On the other hand, we live times of technological hypertrophy that, although leading the way to the most genius deeds and prodigious achievements, nevertheless generate an ever expanding distance between human beings, due to the very degradation of the genuine capacity for communication / relationship. Strange paradox of our times, in which we never as before have access to countless vehicles that enhance proximity, and yet never have been so disintegrated from the physical and human world that surrounds us.

Fearing that the state of exception will become a normal paradigm of governance, Agamben criticizes the silence of jurists before executives who, making successive use of more or less hasty emergency decrees, ostensibly replace the legislative, in a clear threat to the most fundamental principles of our democratic rule of law. Emulating Arendt, he highlights the potential of law’s instrumentalization by totalitarian regimes in the urge of implementing their ideological strategies. In this same sense, Agamben responds to those who could argue that the sacrifice is being made in the name of moral principles, recalling that Eichmann also never got tired of repeating that he had always obeyed, in conscience, to what he believed were the principles of Kantian morality.

At stake, in the first place, are the never before seen constraints on individual freedom. Not even during the two world wars that Europe endured throughout the twentieth century have such restrictions been observed, much less in the face of the passivity of entire communities, ready to immolate such freedom on the sacrosanct altar of the so-called “reasons of security and public health”. Faced with such a balance of forces, and having the most sophisticated technological resources available today, enabling the most Orwellian control of movements and behaviours, we could be paving the way for the most insidious forms of despotism.

Also criticizing the Church, which he accuses of repudiating its most essential principles by promoting social isolation, by failing to provide consolation and comfort to the sick, and noting that science has become the true religion of our times, Agamben does not fail to recall eugenicist politics conducted by respected scientists under the Nazi regime, warning against the dangers of entrusting doctors and scientists decisions that are ultimately ethical and political.

Going further, Agamben regrets, even more than the limitations on freedom implied by all measures taken in the face of the pandemic, the degradation of human relations engendered by those. “We accepted, (…) only in the name of a risk that it was not possible to specify, de facto suspending our relationships of love and friendship, because our proximity became a possible source of contagion”. The ease with which the whole society, when feeling threatened by a plague, isolated itself in their homes and suspended all normal living conditions; the way in which, in the face of the disease, it collapsed ethically and politically, leads him to conclude that the plague was already present.

In the opinion of the Italian philosopher, what the wave of panic that paralyzed Italy (and the world) clearly showed, was that our societies no longer believe in anything but bare life. Life has been reduced to a mere biological condition, which must be preserved at all costs, leaving no room for social, political or even emotional dimensions. Consciously or unconsciously, “the threshold that separates humanity from barbarism has been crossed”, the only value to preserve is that of survival, and the watchword is that of bio-security policies.

This critical, social and human framework, which Agamben configures for the current pandemic context, already seems to underlie the white blindness that spreads throughout the dystopian community that quite visionarily Saramago creates in Blindness. A milky, physical blindness, which, by making an entire fictitious community, one without a name and without space (and, therefore, universal), collapse, exposes the fragilities accumulated throughout its becoming: once shattered the varnish of civility and culture that kept it structured and institutionalized, there ascend the natural tendencies of the human being. His profound selfishness, his detachment from his neighbour, from his needs and his suffering; his lack of humility and compassion, his contempt for everything other than self-preservation. Bare survival.

When, by the end of the book, people begin to regain their sight, the doctor’s wife, one of the most extraordinary characters within the Saramaguian universe, observes that they didn’t go blind. They had always been blind. At this point, the nature of the evil that affects today’s mankind is revealed: a blindness of the soul, spirit and reason, which prevents them from noticing, feeling, committing oneself to the pain of others. In Saramago’s words, the book is nothing more than an imago mundi. The message he intends to leave, as a person and as a writer, is that man is about to fall into an abyss, caused by his indifference and alienation. Caused by the lack of respect and responsibility towards his fellow man.

Saramago (like Agamben) does not hide the pessimism and distrust with which he regards the human species. Even so, in a book that he himself recognizes as harsh, the most striking character stands out precisely for its exceptional human qualities. For her resilience, courage, kindness, spirit of sacrifice and compassion. In the midst of the social and human chaos triggered by the spread of the white epidemic, the doctor’s wife – but not only her – shows an extraordinary ethical resistance to the abyss, and an unprecedented courage in the face of adversity. It is as if, in the middle of the descent into hell triggered by contagious evil, Saramago did not abandon hope in humanity’s potential for redemption. Because if the human being is capable of the most vile instincts and behaviours, he also shows himself capable of the deepest and most selfless love for his neighbour.

One would say about the author’s pessimism, as well as about the characteristic pessimism of anti-moderns (those of all times, but especially those of their own time, such as Joseph de Maistre or Edmund Burke), that, by no means cultivating inertia (like the optimist of modernity, a believer in the illusion of progress), it rather appears as the true driving principle of action. When, inexplicably, as it started, the blindness disappears, after a quarantine which may “easily mean forty days or forty weeks, or forty months, or forty years”, it is as if the human species is being given a new opportunity. Because there is still hope (and “there is hope”, in the words of the Portuguese Nobel, “which is crazy to have”) in the regeneration of humanity and in the role to be played by human beings in that same regeneration.

The times we live in are also times when fear and survival instincts threaten to collapse both reason and emotions. They threaten to feed solipsisms and ignite fundamentalisms, at macroscopic spheres as well as at the level of the most daily behaviours. Times that configure, perhaps, the materialization of the allegorical construction of the dystopian Blindness. But Agamben is wrong. The pandemic of this 2020 may have unveiled many people’s natural selfishness and contempt for the other; it may have highlighted the ethical and human bankruptcy of a considerable part of our communities; it may have aroused the despotic and autocratic tics of some. But it also revealed many “doctor’s wives”. It also showed the need and willingness for so many of us, to be there for the other. And to be with the other.

It is not bare life or barbarism devoid of ethical and humanistic values that drives us to what Agamben calls the euphemism of social detachment. On the contrary. It is the love of our neighbour(s). It is the need to protect them. A society that seeks to work together in order to avoid the uncontrolled contagion is not a society that has as its sole value that of survival. The effort of reinvention that has been developed by so many of us, be it health professionals, education professionals, lawyers, government officials, or whether we are parents, children, grandchildren, neighbours, friends, cannot be consistent with the mere preservation of the biological dimension of the human being.

When he accuses the degradation of human relations implied by the measures taken by the world governments, referring to the imposed social withdrawal, or to the limitations to freedom of movement and assembly, as Sergio Benvenuto observes, Agamben fails to understand what is happening in the “molecularity of human relations”. Today, Benvenuto tells us, the more the others respect the distance towards me, the closer I feel to them. Today, anti-socials, cynics, selfish and tendentious narcissists are those who ostensibly reject safety distances and are refractory to the use of the already proverbial gloves or masks.

Freedom, yes. Freedom of action, freedom of thought and of criticism. But freedom with responsibility, civility and common sense. And although these criteria may also be instrumentalized by fundamentalists – because the responsibility, the civility and the common sense that each one of us seeks to find in others does not necessarily have a universal measure – they do not lose their ethical dimension nor its vocation for universality, as individual and community modes of action.

Pictures credits: Dystopia? by Ryan.

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