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‘Only democracy can allow us to accept the lack of control over our history’


The Covid-19 pandemic reminds us of how elusive the future is. But in this way it opens up the possibility of a real mental revolution.

In recent years, the repeated warnings of scientists about the ecological crisis caused by the technical and economic excesses of industrialized societies have raised the possibility of collapse. The multiple crises undermining democracy have had a similar effect. So a mental revolution already appeared indispensable. Without this, there seemed no way of breaking with the logics of calculation and production – a calculation that abandons what Aristotle saw as the search for the good life, the thoughtful improvement of what exists, in favour of seeking increase and growth without end.

This headlong rush in all areas of the economy, which has characterized capitalism since its rise and is accompanied by growing inequalities, already endangered the survival of humanity and biodiversity. Nothing is determined in advance, but it was not unreasonable to think that, if we were not careful, death could have the last word. Yet awareness of this danger was not enough to allow us to start changing course. It seemed impossible to imagine an economic and social revolution except in a utopian register. However, as we saw with the ‘gilets jaunes’, the worsening of the situation in some of the richest countries carried with it a potential for revolt and uprising that was increasingly difficult to contain.

The threat of death

Stopping the machine in the short term, even the medium term, seemed impossible even to represent. No one could seriously think of it, unless they disregarded the complex feedback effects of such a decision. To most people, the present, however imperfect and potentially catastrophic, seemed preferable to a venture into the unknown, all the more so since, for some years now, the outline solutions that were sometimes put forward proved problematic, even impracticable, in the long term (for example biofuels and wind turbines, let alone biomimetics).

The horizon of change seemed to be steadily receding, even as we approached the threshold of catastrophe. In this sense, beyond a real but muted ‘class struggle’, and despite vague desires to overthrow the ‘system’, a general lack of willingness to embark on the unknown of ecological ‘transition’ left capitalism free to continue on its path. A postmodern translation of the ‘heart of a heartless world’ that Marx indicated.

The pandemic, for which almost no one was prepared, has taken us all by surprise. From one day to the next, what seemed unimaginable, a virus, made it happen: the ‘machine’, the ‘system’ so often blamed but never dismantled, is almost at a standstill. The threat of death, by suddenly coming so close, has made us prefer survival to the continuance of our ‘capitalist’ trajectory, because the price to be paid right away in death suddenly seems so exorbitant that it veils from us the future consequences of the planetary suspension of a large part of economic life. Consequences that we can already sense today will be gigantic, in social, economic, political and geopolitical terms, and that could do more than shake the system: they could begin its collapse.

In the early days of the pandemic, contemporary democracies might have seemed particularly fragile and ineffective in the fight against the virus, whereas authoritarian regimes and less individualistic societies achieved better results. But five months after the ‘official’ start of Covid-19, regimes of every kind are threatened by the collapse of the global machine. Interdependence is such that no country, however large and powerful, can save itself by its own efforts alone. This obvious fact, however, still yields to the blindness of national egoism. International cooperation and solidarity are lacking, as if each country could remain unscathed by the tragedy of the others. Yet everyone knows this is not the case.

Indeed, one thing remains unchanged after the outbreak of the virus: as always, humans choose the near against the distant, just as they choose the present against the future. A desperate choice, in the sense that it exhibits an inability to hope, to believe in a future other than the renewal of the present and its modalities. What is not in the field of vision seems not to exist, except as a fantastical spectre conjured up to point out supposed culprits and scapegoats.

The inability to hope and the temptation to point the finger of blame are largely the result of the terrible provocation that the virus is for us. Although ignorance has receded at express pace since the mid-nineteenth century, due to the acceleration of scientific knowledge in all fields, the virus, the pandemic and their consequences are a glaring and frightening illustration of the limits to the power that this knowledge confers, when advances in technology had led us to believe that mastery of our personal and collective destiny was within our grasp.

This illusion of infinite power still resists certain several very disturbing realities. The first is the environmental damage caused by this power incapable of self-limitation: plundering and pollution of natural resources, destruction of biodiversity, climate chaos. The second is the various feedback effects of technical progress, such as an ageing population, the rising cost of health care, the threats to freedom posed by artificial intelligence, and the growing consumption of energy by the latest technological tools with their ever more intense energy requirements. Less familiar, perhaps, are the disturbing questions science asks itself when it turns out that its greatest advances place it on the verge of abyssal non-knowledge: we can no longer see science as the mastery of a unique reality.

Extreme uncertainty

The virus, by its novelty, its speed of transmission, the surprises it holds in store for us in terms of its modes of action on the organism, and above all, because many of the people it infects are asymptomatic carriers – places us in a situation of extreme uncertainty. It has, in a way, put the possibility of death before our eyes, confronting us with the unthinkable and unknown par excellence. It is not simply the finiteness of existence that is difficult to bear, it is the non-knowledge that we find ourselves facing. The suspense we have imposed on ourselves by confinement, in an attempt to spirit away death, has removed us from any of the trajectories we could map out by calculation.

The future, in the sense of what we had projected from present data, is now slipping away, leaving us to face the radical uncertainty of a future that we do not control. What the jurist Alain Supiot calls ‘government by numbers’ finds itself defeated, almost dismissed, by the ‘return’ of death as an indelible horizon.

The return of religion in recent years, in fundamentalist, millenarian, hysterical or pietistic forms, has undoubtedly expressed a widespread anxiety about a world whose increasing complexity has made the future elusive for many. Belief grew in opposition to a looming non-knowledge. In this way, what will happen is entrusted to a transcendent will.

Nevertheless, it is happening. The catastrophe of the pandemic is here. The unknown, in all the disturbances that the virus produces, not only in individual bodies but also in social, economic, political and international ones, radically challenges us not to believe in this or that, but to take the risk of living in a situation of non-knowledge – which does not mean giving up thinking and knowing, but means doing so in the awareness that if we can take charge of our destiny, we cannot be totally in control of it, either individually or collectively. To take risks is to be ready for a coming unknown.

Production of meaning

When the future comes unstuck, when projection from the present no longer holds, life can only turn to the future and risk its uncertainties. It is no longer a question of belief but of faith, defined as a consent to uncertainty, in which living always involves risk. For oneself, for subsequent generations who will themselves be challenged by the radical non-knowledge of death, which can only be overcome by the transmission of life, not by a race to prolong individual existence.

By putting us in this situation, the virus opens up the possibility of a true mental revolution, at the heart of which lies the question of our capacity to collectively come to terms with the absolute non-mastery of our history. Democracy, with all its limitations and imperfections, is in fact the only regime that can give a political body to this radically secular act of faith.

Democracy was born out of the collapse of regimes of theocratic ‘certainty’ and the impasse in which despotic or tyrannical regimes found themselves. It is an attempt to find ways for a people to enter the future together. It is not able to produce calculations and projections that would reabsorb the unknown, non-knowledge. But what it can offer, and what only it can offer, is an equal sharing of the burden of finitude and non-knowledge.

When put in this way, it sounds overwhelming. But it is not so if this democratic sharing is accompanied, as Athens understood, by the only production whose infinity is bearable, that of meaning – through the arts, through thought, through the mind, through love. Awareness of the tragic nature of existence will then lead us to view each other with empathy, since we face the same collapse, the same uncertainty. Ultimately it is this very collapse that provides a foundation.

Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy and essayist Jean-François Bouthors are the authors of Démocratie! Hic et nunc (Éditions François Bourin, 2019).

First published here.

Translated by David Fernbach