Some apparent tendencies and possibilities in political thinking have already emerged in the pandemic situation –as seen by current commentators in blogs, opinion columns etc – can they be viewed in a broader political and historical context yet?
There has been a deal of speculation lately (how else can we confirm the existence of the world beyond while stuck in our houses, except by speculation!) regarding the collapse of the economy and social relations brought about by lockdown. How might that prompt a rethink of the way we organise and govern ourselves and could it precipitate change to budge the world from the political doldrums in which it has languished and suffered for some decades now? How realistic is it to expect great political upheaval in the wake of the pandemic? And if things have been so bad for so long, then why has it been so difficult up until the break of this new crisis to recognise that change is needed?
The notion that there is no alternative to the heretofore globally dominant mode of political, economic and social organisation appears to have had an astonishing ubiquity for several decades. Evidently it draws its validity from across a broad section of society and for a variety of different reasons. We can track that notion as it takes grip and consolidates its almost axiomatic value by its iterations coming through various time periods, in several different fields and disciplines, from commentators with broadly differing political standpoints, and in various different sets of particular circumstances. One of the first articulations came of course from Margaret Thatcher, who already in 1980 after only a year in power, was saying there was no alternative (‘The Lady is not for turning’) to the neo-liberal (economist Milton Friedman) inspired monetarist policies which entailed a draconian type of austerity imposed via restricting the money supply, supposedly to control inflation. A decade later (1991) the American academic Francis Fukuyama, at that time an expert on Soviet Foreign Policy, commented that the fall of Eastern European and Soviet Communism was, in effect, the end of history, meaning there was no longer any ideological alternative to liberalism and the governance of the states of the world by liberal institutions. This notion of the final evolution of the world to its optimum mode of social and political organisation is an idea common throughout the history of philosophy –from Plato, through St Augustine, Thomas More, Hegel and Marx and many others – but until Fukuyama it had always a predictive, arguably utopian value to it, and had never before been asserted as an actual current status already achieved in the world. In 2009 Mark Fisher, who was a post-punk, art school philosopher of radical and popular culture wrote in his assessment of the ‘post-modern’ world in Capitalist Realism, a world void of the possibility of authenticity or originality, that it’s easier now to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Even in some types of leftist imaginary then, capitalism now lasts forever. Fisher’s pessimistic, neo-existentialist critique is said to have an echo of some previous comments by other more mainstream radical philosophers -namely Jameson and Zizek – but again what we see, thirty years later than Thatcher, and albeit with some very different moral and value judgements placed on it, is the notion that there is no alternative.
We are, of course, still at a very early stage in the trajectory of effects of the pandemic. A couple of months into what might turn out to be enduring, thoroughgoing and global changes to our way of life. Might we even be provoked to try some alternatives denied us these forty years by seemingly universal prescription as per the opening paragraph above? Any prognostications from here can only remain at the level of speculation, for as the liberal-minded twentieth century Italian poet Eugenio Montale noted in his writings, the history of an era can’t be written until all the chronicles have been compiled. The chronicle of our days is the internet: blogs, websites, podcasts, social media: we look to it for our daily testimonies and all the more so since any human contact a quattro occhi is blocked in lockdown. As such we still have no mature, fully developed critique or thesis on the broad effects of pandemic and we gather our evidence, opinions and prejudices where we may.
Certain themes, however, are emerging in the commentaries that come to us. One of the most prominent, and one which confronts TINA doldrums head-on, is the ‘things can never be the same again’ trope. We must, naturally, accept the absolute truism in this crit if only at its most fundamental (and awesome) level, namely that we see now before our very eyes the precariety of this world. We see it furthermore, as a condition suffered not only as so finely described by Judith Butler and Mark Fisher as for those participants in and victims of the ‘no alternative’ system at the level of individuals and communities, but as a precariousness of the whole system itself. The neo-liberal, capitalist world is wobbling, and we are frozen in our domestic habitat, unable to take care of ‘business’ as it spins out of control. Yet does this ‘never the same again’ trope really represent a fresh start in terms of critical thinking? Or is it part of an accumulative range of thought and criticism which has long been burrowing away at the foundations of this ‘no alternative’ order and will finally take advantage of a fillip from the exposé via pandemic, from the shaking of the system to reveal clearly both the fatal fault lines and the possible ways forward? What is the relationship between the critical discourse ante- and post-pandemic? Is it a cumulative discourse now gathering strength, or a new beginning? What stage had the latest thinking on the neo-liberal order pre-pandemic reached, and is that all now rendered obsolete, defunct, and superseded by ‘events, dear boy, events’?
The various published short responses to the pandemic situation by philosopher and activist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, are very much a case in point here. The future and its relationship to the current moment has, indeed, been a prominent feature in Berardi’s work. In his recent work Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility (Verso 2017) he outlines how the erstwhile relationship of the future to present reality, as an immanent non-linear and non-determined range of possibilities constituting a certain type of freedom, is being replaced –or has already been replaced – by the technical automatism of digital capitalism which seeks, through algorithms and so on, to isolate, codify and control the future by prediction and probability. This (in the context of the failure of Obama’s presidency as a rational compassionate neo-liberal) led Berardi to an overwhelming pessimism and to declarations such as ‘Democracy is over’ and ‘it is futile to fight for it’. Ironically the pandemic has enabled him to return to a slightly more positive of view of the future as a multidimensional range of possibilities beyond corporate control. His coronavirus legacy pieces have been published in the Verso blog and in e-flux ( Berardi in e-flux ) and he predicts that the collapse of production and flows of people and goods during the extended lockdown is going to break capitalist economics. The capitalist system, he says, is going to attempt to pump billions of dollars into the system as it did after the 2008 crisis, but to little or no effect. That is because unlike in the 2008 case, the epidemic crisis is about the collapse of bodies: money means little or nothing in the attempt to stimulate the situation now. Unfortunately, it’s about human needs, he says, and only social solidarity and scientific intelligence can bring the necessary stimulus in a fight against the alternative outcome which is the tightening of the stranglehold of ‘techno-totalitarian capitalism’. Perhaps the most immediately striking thing about his thoughts are the unusual conception – for a leftist – of the relationship between money and labour and production, but then Berardi has always been an unorthodox Marxist, and one famous, of course, for believing that ‘the solution is not economic’. This recourse to Berardi’s track record here is something one finds oneself taking again and again on reading his responses to the pandemic. In fact, the reference to bodies, human needs and social solidarity alongside the simultaneous rejection of economics and financial capital is somewhat typical of the emphasis we see in Berardi’s mature works on sensuality, friendship, love and human creativity as a way beyond the regulated, limited and oppressive future offered by digital capitalism. It seems then that there is little particularly new in Berardi’s reaction to and analysis of the pandemic. But the reality of the situation appears to have heightened its immediate relevance and the necessity of its clear sightedness, indeed how realistic would it be to expect the thinker to suddenly change his long developed theses at the drop of a pandemical hat?
The centrality of the body in understanding the effects of the measures to fight the pandemic is also a concern of philosopher, activist and author Paul B. Preciado, whose reactions to the situation can be found published in ArtForum and in the Spanish daily El Pais ( Paul Preciado in El Pais ). Preciado’s heroic determination to drag the body and all its possibilities out of the western closet has entailed a performative experimentation in his work that has pushed his own body to the limits – see his book Testo Junkie (The Feminist Press, 2013) – to expose its saturation in the manipulations of what he calls the pharmacopornographic complex. He sees the virus as creating the conditions for an intensification of biopolitics whereby the new direction and control of the body via lockdown, isolation etc. is a ramping up of forms of control which have long been manoeuvring into place. One of the most interesting ideas he develops in his recent El Pais article is of the cognate relationship between community and immunity. Without going into the Greek etymology of it here (which he does in his article), Preciado proposes that immunity is seen not just as a biological factor independent of political and cultural factors. This has consequences for social and political organisation, and he uses the cases of the Black Plague in the 14th century and the epidemics of syphilis in the 16th century and AIDS in the 20th century to show that epidemics exposed unsustainable prejudices and practices in the social order. In effect this means we get the plagues we wish for and the only way towards cure and survival for the community is by political transformation which goes beyond the sovereignty we attempt to produce via the politics of identity and blocked borders, and puts in place new structural forms of planetary co-operation.
It could be enlightening and instructive in pursuance of this question to compare this small, though prominent and influential, sample of immediate and reactive thoughts with some of the latest theoretical meditations on the topic right up to the moment before Covid-19 appeared on the horizon. Political philosopher Chantal Mouffe had published her short book For a Left Populism some eighteen months before the pandemic. The title may be misleading for some people in the context of the question examined here. To a certain extent however, Mouffe’s analysis and prescription confounds the choice no-alternative/never-the-same, and might – depending on one’s political standpoint – even expose it as a false dichotomy. This can only open up and enrichen the discussion of what the future holds for us. Basically Mouffe doesn’t believe that political revolution, or the ‘total rupture’ of the liberal democratic model of political organisation is a valid way forward. That might not sound compatible with a ‘leftist’ stance at all. Mouffe points to the balance and stability for society when there is a full and proper institution of both parts of that system: the liberal, as freedom of the individual, human rights, separation of powers, habeus corpus etc; and the democratic, as collective and egalitarian aspects, popular will, free and fair elections with universal suffrage, distribution of wealth and power. The problem for the left and social justice, according to Mouffe, is that the age of neo-liberalism did exactly what it says on the tin: there is a concentration on the liberal freedoms to the detriment (and indeed the doing away of) the collective and participatory democratic aspects of the system. Her critique of the no-alternative is that this reductive neo-liberal hegemony was ‘presented as a fate we had to accept and political questions were reduced to a mere technical issues to be dealt with by experts.’ (e.g. Tony Blair) Consequently the job for the left, as Mouffe, unike Berardi, sees it, is to reinvigorate and radicalise democracy. It is at this point nonetheless that we start to see some commonality between Mouffe and the more revolutionary standpoints of Berardi and Preciado that might allow us to conceive of them all as belonging to some shade of ‘left’. For like those other two writers, Mouffe proposes new forms of social interaction and co-operation which have not been possible under neo-liberal regimes. In Mouffe’s vision, the left popular front posed against the establishment would no longer consist in an essentialist, a priori working class block –although the working class interests and groupings would remain an important part of it. Instead there would be a multiform and heterogeneous range of the people, differentiated in groups and communities, addressing ‘diverse forms of subordination around issues concerning exploitation, domination or discrimination’. These issues might include workers’ rights, gender issues, the ecological question, racial and ethnic issues and the democratic demands would be articulated in a discursive and performative engagement, articulated through what Mouffe calls a ‘chain of equivalence’ to create a collective will.
For the authors of another book The Light that Failed (October 2019) published only months before the virus struck, much of the above discussion about the possibilities for future political development may seem at best academic, and at any rate irrelevant to and ignorant of the real decades-long drift of geopolitics. The subtitle of Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes’s work sets out the billboard ‘Why the West is losing the fight for Democracy’. Indeed, not to put too fine a point on it, the theme -running precisely counter to that of Fukuyama – is of the long slow death of the liberal international order since 1989. Krastev and Holmes structure their whole analysis around a dialectic of imitation, and the relationship between the imitator and the imitated. It bears a somewhat ironic resemblance to Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic and it is just as convoluted in its development. The imitation model here is configured as the attempt, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, by former communist Central and Eastern European states and the Soviet Union to copy for their own political organisation the liberal political systems of their victorious former enemies – principally the USA but also Western Europe and the EU.
The authors demonstrate how the parties to the imitation model -imitators in Russia and Eastern Europe and imitated in USA and EU (with special case recent addition of Brexit UK), have ultimately rejected and gradually been abandoning their place in the liberal international order. There is an examination, first of all, of the closed-off, authoritarian states of Hungary and Poland and a demonstration of how, after a decade or so of more or less sincere and enthusiastic imitation of Western liberalism, new right wing leaders came to power in these countries riding on a populist wave of anti-liberal resentments amongst the people. These resentments have arisen because the people appear to have realised that their countries will never get to join the top-flight of the liberal club, and, just like the slave in Hegel’s dialectic, they can never get the respect they crave from the master. As imitators, they will always be deemed as ‘second rate replicas’, as faulty, johnny-come-lately liberal democracies by the Northern and Western hegemony for whose benefit the liberal world truly exists. As such these populist authoritarian governments and their movements assert that they are always being lectured to, and never allowed to truly develop their own ‘authentic’ societies using the liberal model (the EU imposition of refugee quotas being a case in point).
The rejection of the liberal model by Russia starts in a similar fashion, but takes its own distinctive turn under Vladimir Putin. Krastev and Homes refer to Putin’s operation as ‘mirror imitation’. In this case, after the initial disillusionment as, more or less, per the Eastern European countries, the defeated, humiliated and weakened (no longer a world power) Russian authorities realised that the model of liberalism they were copying (and encouraged to copy by their ‘conquerors’) was not, in fact, the real mode of operation of liberalism in the West. Accordingly, Putin adopted a second series of strategies, which was to replicate the way America and the West actually operate –to hold up a mirror to the operations in Iraq, with the Guantanamo prisoners, in the torturing of enemies, and in the interference in foreign elections and democracies (eg Central America). This ‘aggressive mimicry’ is what Krastev and Homes define in their critical model as ‘mirror imitation’, and we see Putin carry it out (including the invasion of Crimea, the war in Eastern Ukraine, the fixing of their own elections and the interfering in US elections and the Brexit referendum) as a sort of revenge, to force the West, in their sermons on freedom and democracy, to face their own hypocrisy. As Krastev and Holmes point out, this strategy of the ‘mirror’, the mimicry of the West’s actual behaviour rather than their propaganda, is not carried out as an ideological attack. It has no sustainable political outcome in mind, it is simply revenge on and punishment of the West, and the implication is to show that if all countries started behave like the real West then what international order there is would collapse in chaos.
Yet perhaps the most interesting role in this Imitation Dialectic is currently being played out by the imitated. For if Putin’s aim (compared to ISIS by Krastev and Holmes) is to ‘dishearten morally’ his enemy, then the strategy appears to be working. The exposé of corruption in the electoral politics of the USA by Russian involvement has revealed to many Americans that their system is no better, or not so different from the rigged elections in Russia, and in their hypocritical behaviour on the world stage, they start to conceive of themselves no longer as the great and honest world leaders to be imitated but as the imitator in turn of Russia in its corruption. It appears, at any rate, that America no longer wants to be the imitated, gifting free to all imitators its political example, its wealth in subsidy and its technology (the internet for example). Trump shows himself as a willing accomplice in Putin’s great game. In Trump’s instinctive and intuitive (as opposed to theoretical and intellectual) anti-liberalism he rejects American Exceptionalism, embraces the criticism of the USA as having been hypocritical in its role as a leader and example to the world, and demands that America plays the international game like any other country. That entails not leading a liberal free world by example (where as imitated they will gift the opportunity to imitators to catch up and overtake them –as have done Japan and Germany) but to ‘win’ on a level playing field against the rest, no matter what corruptions and ruthlessness it takes. As Krastev and Homes put it,
When Trump drops the liberal pretences that offend liberals, far from settling down into cool-headed raison d’état, he sinks ever deeper into an abyss of capricious volatility, unprincipled incoherence and predatory malevolence.
The consequences for the post WWII liberal order are evident –and indeed that order appears to be all but exhausted.
To follow the scheme Krastev and Holmes lay out is to understand that the ‘Age of Liberal Imitation’ is over: accordingly, it is not a question of whether there is any alternative, things simply cannot be the same in the future as they were in the past. We look around the world today, and we see some pretty frightening alternatives on offer: the retreat into xenophobia, parochialism, communitarianism and protectionism; and if the regimes of Trump, Bolsonaro, Salvini, Modi and so on, continue to get their way, there are already some frighteningly illiberal alternatives available.
Yet things are even more complicated than that because of the rise to global prominence of China as a power. China was able to rise to power and influence through its policy of imitating and adopting US and Western technology, architecture and so on, but by simultaneously ignoring the liberal political model (having learned from its political troubles in an imitation dialectic with Soviet Russia post WWII). Despite the optimism of the 90s for liberal ubiquity, China has never changed its model of centralised authoritarian control from the Party. As it rises to global prominence in its widespread dealings around the planet – building and investing in infrastructure and technology, giving loans etc. – it is not interested, unlike America, in proselytising for its political model, in lecturing and securing promises on free elections and human rights guarantees or any other type of ideological compliance.
While the spectre of illiberal authoritarianism thus stalks the planet, where are we left with the idea that the pandemic lockdown will give us the opportunity to rethink and ultimately reboot for the better how we organise society? Writers, artists, bloggers, commentators and thinkers –like those cited here, Berardi, Mouffe, Preciado – have ideas and propositions to make, but the question for the moment must be –are they really saying anything new? And what strategies and tactics do they outline to oppose the might of illiberal authoritarians like Bolsonaro, Modi, Putin, Trump and the Chinese state as they consolidate their power? The social restrictions typically imposed to contain the spread of the virus have something of the flavour of the dystopian future about them –the ease with which they were imposed could well be congenial to some of those regimes in their hunger for power in the days beyond the pandemic. In that light the ‘never the same again’ trope takes on a much more sinister outline.
Paul Preciado has, for sure, engaged in exemplary transformation of the self –of his physical self – to expose and confront the networks of power that transect and control our very bodies. Yet were not given liberal freedoms the very condition under which that work could take place, could find a vast public and be meaningful? There is a much wider discussion to be had there: Krastev and Holmes point out that the optimistic way of looking at the end of the Age of Liberal Imitation is that pluralism will flourish in the politics and culture of the globe, there will be many alternatives, and liberalism, relieved of its dutiful hegemony can flourish in competition with other systems again and can be refined and adapted to support new types of democracy as for example in the model described by Chantal Mouffe.
It may already have the value of cliché to make comparisons with the home experience of WWII. Nonetheless there is still inspiration to be had in it, as the history of how the British people battled through malign threat, social deprivations and severe austerity together, and in the aftermath of the war, and in realisation of the achievements made through coalitions, co-operations and cohesiveness , rejected the triumphant right-wing liberal aristocrat Churchill and voted in a Government that brought the Welfare State, public ownership of the most important industries, and a massive and much needed public housing programme. Of course, that centralised command economy model was discovered sooner or later to have its own authoritarian problems, but nonetheless the desire for some forms of social responsibility and collectivism was strongly manifest in the impulse for change. The lockdown and restrictions have already provoked such collective popular actions as the public applause for health workers, extra efforts made for neighbours in need, and formation of volunteer groups to help fight the disease. These efforts have also brought home questions of distribution and poverty and equal access to services across the globe, and have shown us how collective action can have a sudden and massive ecological effect in reducing traffic and hence improving prospects for the survival of the planet. As examples these could feasibly help point us towards a similar social cohesion and learning of new ways that depend on and give collective endeavours a worth beyond the exclusive rights and freedoms of the liberal individual. Yet at the same time the imposed conditions and restrictions have also surely led to heightened sensuous understandings and sensitivities to our immediate and personal environments, and to questions of scale and proportion, and for consciousness of and respect for individual others near to and far from us. Notwithstanding the politicised scope of Paul Preciado’s very particular and powerful work, it’s not clear what might be the effects of such a general heightening of personal and bodily consciousness on consequent wider social and political interaction: there are, however, many reasons to be positive about change, and plenty motivation to get organised, but also sufficient evidence that things could, in fact, get worse unless we find ways to plan and to act now for the future.