Blog post

Home Thoughts for New Times

Enzo Traverso on 'the Revolt of Nature' and how COVID-19 forces us to reconsider the blurred relationship between politics, economics, society and biology.

8 May 2020

Home Thoughts for New Times

The outbreak of the Covid-19 disease is changing everything, but it is also confirming some tendencies that many scholars had already described and analyzed in recent years: we live in a global world in which the boundaries between economy, society, politics and even biology are increasingly blurred, and where a pandemic immediately affects all dimensions of life.

The consequences of this blurring, however, do not change the framework of our social relations. Instead, they simply expand the enormous inequalities of our societies, since the virus hits primarily their most vulnerable sections: old people and the poor, those who cannot protect themselves. The economic outcomes of the pandemic are increasing mass poverty and mass unemployment. Of course, this proves the vital necessity of an effective system of public healthcare conceived of not as a profitable business but rather as a basic human right. This claim, which was one of the pillars of Bernie Sanders’s campaign, will undoubtedly become central in the struggles of the years to come.

At the same time, this pandemic crisis considerably reinforces the biopolitical dimension of our states. Of course, we ask them to protect the health of their citizens and residents (including immigrants and refugees) and we protest against the neoliberal policies that, in the last decades, have significantly weakened our hospitals. It is because they were considered unprofitable that much essential equipment has been so guiltily neglected: the result is that today, cities with the most advanced centers of medical and scientific research desperately require masks and ventilators.

But we should not ignore another aspect of the question: this entanglement between biology, economy and politics turns our governments into bio-powers that literally manage our physical lives. Today, we willingly accept a necessary confinement but we have to be aware that, to paraphrase Foucault, the “good shepherd”—at least when it is good, and this is certainly not the case of Donald Trump in this moment—not only protects us but also rules us. We are experiencing a new kind of “state of exception”—cities in a virtual condition of curfew, with inevitable restrictions of some fundamental rights—which tomorrow could become a substantial precedent to limit our freedom, impede collective action or impose austerity policies in the name of national recovery, collective security, public health, etc. Giorgio Agamben certainly underestimated the gravity of this pandemic but his warning is pertinent nevertheless.

The anthropological model established by pandemic policies—work from home, isolation, self-confinement—significantly corresponds with the concept of freedom defined by classical liberalism: the triumph of “negative” liberty (circumscribed into a purely individual realm) against “positive” liberty (collective action in a public sphere). This anthropological model is antipodal to both “commonality” and the culture of the left, which historically has been forged and transmitted through collective action. This means that we have to invent new practices able to replace, at least transitionally, the traditional forms of mass mobilization.

This crisis is testing the capacity of our societies to live by expanding the work of isolated individuals. For instance, there are risks that work from home will be enormously increased, thus canceling the notion itself of worktime. And since some services and productions require physical interaction, this might combine social inequalities and health inequalities (our unequal exposure to the disease). In other words, social inequalities can become “biological” inequalities and the good shepherd turn into an authoritarian and eugenic shepherd. Therefore, this crisis should become an opportunity to rehabilitate many essential works—far beyond those of nurses and hospital employees—which allow us to survive and today are amongst the worst paid jobs. This is the meaning of the spontaneous manifestations of people who clap from their windows at ambulance and bus drivers.

It seems that, in these extraordinary times, one of the most popular readings is Albert Camus’s novel The Plague, which depicts the city of Oran devastated by a pandemic and sketches the portrait of a priest, father Paneloux, who accepted it as a punishment sent by God against a sinful humanity. This philosophical and moral posture so typical of obscurantist and anti-humanistic conservatism certainly cannot be endorsed by the left, but it deserves to be meditated upon nevertheless.

It is true that the Covid-19 is neither the first nor the worst pandemic experienced by human beings. Everybody knows that the “Black Plague” of the fourteenth century decimated the European population and, in the 1920s, the so-called “Spanish flu” killed more people than the Great War. An AIDS historian like Mirko Grmek retraced world history as a succession of great pandemic ages, by emphasizing how much these diseases had profound demographic and economic consequences. But it is also true that, considering its economic, social and environmental impact far transcending its biological dimension, the Coronavirus appears as a sort of “revenge of nature.”

Of course, this does not mean stigmatizing its carriers and even less its victims—as I said above, they belong to the most vulnerable sections of our societies—whom we try to protect, save, and eventually mourn. This means meditating on a powerful metaphor: we are facing a new “revolt of nature”—I borrow this expression from Max Horkheimer—against the threat of a civilization that created titanic forces of production and transformed them into means of destruction (first of all destruction of the environment and destruction of the capacity of self-regulation and self-reproduction of our ecological systems).

The streets of our cities are deserted and production has dramatically dropped, nature is reconquering its rights. What a reactionary political theology viewed as God’s scourge could be also interpreted, in secular terms, as a punishment ordered by nature.

Until now, we have experienced an amazing and heartening wave of solidarity and collective mutual aid. A country like Italy, whose political stage was dominated by a racist and xenophobic leader like Matteo Salvini until just a few months ago, is currently welcoming Chinese, Cuban and Albanian doctors and nurses like heroes. People seem to have understood that we need a global and solidary answer, and that the search for a scapegoat is a lethal issue. But I am not sure that this feeling will still prevail after one year of economic depression.

Despite the risk of appearing irremediably archaic, I would say that we have to be prepared for a durable change and this might update the old alternative: socialism or barbarism. I am aware that, one century later, this slogan cannot be endorsed naïvely. We know that socialism itself can become a face of barbarism, but this does not change the feeling that we are confronted by a historical dilemma: either a New Deal for the twenty-first century, which will definitely close the neoliberal cycle opened in the 1980s, or we will face horrible times, with a neoliberal governance that will take even more inegalitarian and authoritarian features.

The reproduction of fascism or totalitarianism; something different, but no less nightmarish nevertheless. A politics for the future should find a convergence between the struggle for saving the planet and the struggle for a “universal right to respiration”, as Achille Mbembe pertinently calls it, a right to exist for every living beings, regardless of race, economic status or state sovereignty.

Enzo Traverso is the Susan and Barton Winokur Professor in the Humanities at Cornell University. His books include Fire and Blood: The European Civil War 1914-1945 and The New Faces of Fascism: Populism and the Far Right, both published by Verso, as well as The Jewish Question: History of a Marxist Debate, and Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory.

Filed under: anthropocene, covid-19, marxism