The reality of a threatening pandemic that has spread like a shadow over our cities has created a weird, unpleasant condition, a numbness and a suffocating feeling. The virus was born in the furnace of Wuhan, one of the engines of the Chinese capitalist miracle, an area where hot and humid climate meets the frenzied industrial production of raw materials and the over-concentration of a proletariat without future. The virus has no political color, but the environmental and political conditions that allowed its birth and rapid spread in the Chinese province and let it reach every corner of the globe most surely have. The thought that almighty capitalism, this totalising social phenomenon, is non-centralized, offers no consolation. A conspiracy theory suggesting that this virus fights on behalf of one side of the planetary war or that its purpose is to solve the constant demographic problem of overpopulation would offer a solution, that would somehow explain the situation. Fortunately, however, not all causal relations are based on how the state and capitalism operate, or at least they do not directly intersect with their core dimensions and strategic action.
The pandemic situation feels like an experience of a world-shaking event, whether or not that proves to be the case. Our eyes have been stretched by the uninterrupted reproduction of unprecedented images. And if China’s dystopian sci-fi was banned from our perception of reality as something exotic -as Ebola once was- the stacked coffins of neighbouring Italy, the empty streets of Western Europe and the drones looking down at us in downtown Athens, leave no room for misinterpretation. We have to go way back, in the heart of the era of extremes, of the short 20th century, to find an event that has so deeply entrenched the planet that it has anchored the present and future of humans. The absolute nature of these lines can be crushed in the wall of reality and of business-as-usual. Ηowever, at the moment, when they are written, the general feeling is this: we live something important that will change us and the world around us.
The virus was born in a world of systemic inequality and exclusion. Those who see the stars from the bottom of the barrel are incomparably most affected. Unemployed people, precarious workers, drug addicts, people incarcerated in prisons, psychiatric clinics and detention centres, face and will face the pandemic literally in terms of survival without having anything to expect from the state and the bosses. Prisons have already declared a high security state and refugees and migrants, who are being suffocated in detention centres such as Moria in Greece, are searching and finding ways to cope using their own forces. Τhe pre-existing or on-going financial hardship has a different effect on different people – some will receive wages without working, while others will not be paid at all. As the pandemic affects conditions of life at global level, openness and closedness, inclusion and exclusion, exception and norm, core elements of the state’s self-interested nature, determine who lives and how, today and tomorrow – they also indicate our political tasks.
Governance in the time of the coronavirus is pivoting on shifting the responsibility to the citizens, on prohibition and repression – it is no coincidence that, behind closed doors, the rulers compare the current condition with that of the Twin Towers attack – but also discuss how to control a situation that seems to escalate very rapidly and, as a result, seriously endangers the health of our fellow citizens.
Starting from the last point, I think we ought to focus on the particularity of the Coronavirus and the resulting crisis which leads states to take onerous, undemocratic, extraordinary measures, culminating in a curfew. This task requires maintaining a delicate balance and reflecting upon the state’s nature. Biopolitics and necropolitics, statisticalization and algorithmization, instrumentalization and constant expansion are elements of the state’s modus operandi and we all know that (?). The state’s point of view is that of public health, which emphasises health policy, by connecting politics and medicine, through quantification and measurability. Many of the measures taken today to control the pandemic could remain active, expand or return slightly modified after the end of it. However it is not wise at the moment to only identify sinister motives behind the adoption of these measures. With numerous examples around us, it seems more appropriate to fully realize that the way in which the state manages this situation is narrow, rigidly set up and does not include any planning about what happens next. In any case, the state doesn’t need much incentive to manage our lives on our behalf, or expand its authority as much as possible; it is simply its role.
Returning to the current perspectives adopted by various governments around the word, we cannot let the deliberate and strategic choice of over-emphasizing on individual responsibility go unnoticed. “Individual responsibility”, “citizens who need to be disciplined”, “the unscrupulous, on account of whom we all have to pay the price” have become a well-written and contagious mantra that comes from above to penetrate our minds, here in the bottom – not accidentally reminiscent of the quite memorable “we ate them together” [a phrase that Theodorοs Pagalos, Pasok’s Member of Parliament said back in the days of memorandums to justify the austerity measures]. The government’s attempt to refuse any responsibility is mediated by blaming the rogue Greeks, who do not protect themselves and the community as a whole. Media help create an atmosphere and pave the way for new, stricter bans. Individual responsibility for public health issues is presented as obvious and as something we must take seriously – and as far as the lived experience of these days shows, the solution of “We Stay Home” has become an act. However, it becomes outrageous that this solution has been raised into an emblematic motto of a government that, beyond bans, has taken no other measures to curb the pandemic: this government hasn’t proceeded with the thousands of hirings it announced, it doesn’t provide the necessary protective working conditions to health care workers, it doesn’t proceed with the requisition of private clinics, it doesn’t protect workers in the workplace.
There is a confusion around individual responsibility and self-restraint, a confusion that has endured in our groups for decades, it has a political and anthropological context and creates complications. Regardless of whether the state policy surrounding the coronavirus crisis consists of bans and repression, self-restraint and a sense of responsibility for us and those around us must be non-negotiable. Our political proposal and outlook is not a general anti-authoritarianism and anti-conformism, but the building of communities based on freedom and solidarity, communities with deep roots and understanding of boundaries.
At the moment, the general consensus is one of a population that expects to be “managed” even more, more effectively, with a firm hand and determination. This feeling is grounded, but we must evaluate it, without paralyzing in the face of new facts, and given that for many the main characteristic of the last decade is a state of fear, a feeling of constant struggle to keep our heads out of the water and whenever we find something to catch, it disappears magically, alas, and we sink deeper.
For many, the state seems to be today the buoy that will finally endure, so they hastily grab it.
It goes without saying that the media blitzkrieg that paints images of strategists of the future for our – in reality – helpless leaders assists to that, but what also helps is our anthropological aversion to boundaries, which creates insecurity and psychologicaldistance between us. Let’s not despair though! The alignment behind the state authority is not universal, and is also characterized by qualities and tensions that we are interested in analyzing and interfering with, such as questioning the capitalist approaches to the management of public goods, re-evaluating entire areas of social activity, the image of the subject in relation to themselves and the community.
On the other hand, the conditions of the pandemic encourage a sense of humanity. It reminds us of our vulnerability and mortality but also of the futility of striving for total sovereignty over the natural environment. It shows us how much we need each other, how difficult it is to survive on our own – let alone live a life that is worth living. So let’s not rush to judge the applause from the balconies, let’s not underestimate the need for symbolic practices that offer relief to the subjects and allow for some emotional connection [in the UK many people went in balconies to applaud health workers, a symbolic trend that was started by the wife of the prime minister and which many saw as hypocritical]. Rather, let’s approach this moment of realising our vulnaribility and mortality as an opportunity to devise a generous repertoire of solidarity movements, with overwhelmingly different ethics, character and form than those underpinning public and private sectors policies. It is always a bet for us to create and maintain an area between the state and the market, an area that cannot be fully controlled by them. Under these conditions, the bet is harder but also more critical.
At the risk of bitterly regretting this prediction, we reiterate that the coronavirus condition is a pivotal event that shakes the pillars of today’s world, today’s status quo, and possibly determines part of tomorrow’s agenda. To begin with, the spread of the virus around the world is following the frenzied course of neoliberal globalization. The way our world is interconnected, coupled with the ecologically destructive prevalence of tourism, extreme consumerism and the neoliberal ruthless movement of goods, does not allow such phenomena to be mitigated locally or – even regionally -. At the same time, it turns out that the major issue of the pandemic can only be addressed at the nation-state level. If in dealing with the financial or refugee crisis the European Union once appeared as completely lacking the ability to make and enforce decisions as an entity, today it seems to accept that the pandemic cannot and should not be tackled collectively and co-ordinated by European primary and secondary legislation – it goes without saying that other international organizations such as the World Health Organization or the International Monetary Fund appear to be equally weak and irrelevant. Therefore, each state is taking its own path right now, for good or for bad, and we look forward to seeing how the EU decides to process all of this, especially on the fiscal level. However, the issues of localization, the decolonization of our imaginary from the unidirectional route of development, the radical critique of tourism and consumption, ideas that already concern us, may gain more room for public debate and may even be proposed by unexpected sides.
Following the above, the threatening tragedy forces Western people to rethink the relationship between the state, or at least its core, and the private sector. The blunders of Mitsotakis [PM which is very fond of privatization of public health] , Georgiades[ex-minister of health also very fond of privatization of public health] and others on the privatisation of part of the public health system today would be heard as if coming from another planet. They have not ceased to be neoliberal – and as elaborated elsewhere, neoliberalism is not primarily about the primacy of the free market economy over the state; however, the conviction that certain parts of state management must be upgraded and remain unaffected by free-market logics, may force them to modify their political strategies. And of course the same is true of Western countries such as France and Italy – quite exemplary here both the statements of the neoliberal icon, Macron, and his finance minister. Given the ideological investment in balanced budgets and general austerity, we look forward to seeing how potential bailouts of the European economy will be ideologically coloured, whether the neoliberal bureaucracy of Brussels will turn to Keynesianism for the benefit of the few, and what the reaction of the citizens who have been manipulated for so many years with technocratic and economist arguments will be.
All of the above is good, good to dig deep, good to analyze and interpret. But in all our conversations, in our technology-mediated assemblies and conferences, what we are constantly coming back to is “what to do”, “how to operate politically in the midst of a storm”. And maybe at these times it is both politically and socially critical to stop over-analyzing and work like never before.
Before attempting to outline some ways of thinking and acting, on the practices we can adopt these days, I must make two points. The first is that people that say that we must “make peace with the fact that there are things we can do nothing about” and that “we must realize our lack of total omnipotence’’, are absolutely right. This statement concerns both a more anthropological, reflective level of our position on planet Earth and an awareness of the political boundaries within which we operate. The second note concerns the need for a good understanding of our strengths and weaknesses as individual and collective subjects, as collectives and organizations that place themselves in the anti-authoritarian spectrum. Even if we have surpassed ourselves as many times as we have even experienced the collective joy of surpassing the limits, it is nevertheless necessary to know in which fields we will be most effective, where we can direct our energy, what the scale at which we will be able to make tangible changes to the gloomy current reality is – and along the way let’s be pleasantly surprised once again.
If, as mentioned above, the condition of the pandemic does not bring the same blows to everyone, and if state management once again excludes the most vulnerable, then we have a thread ahead of us to follow. To create and frame solidarity groups and movements that will keep the most vulnerable parts of society on their feet. Whether at the elemental level of the apartment block and neighborhood in which we live, or focusing on the social centers and squats in which we participate, to invest and politicize a sense of humanity, to walk side by side in all this. Collection and distribution of essentials, sanitary material and money, help at home for those who have difficulty moving, provision of reliable information on protection issues, legal assistance and technology and communication advice are just some of the things we can do. Furthermore, these days we have our ears stretched out for voices from the adjacent apartments, for cries from the cells of Greek penitentiary, for the incarcerated in the psychiatric clinics but also for the people who are mentally struggling around us, for the refugees and the immigrants in the islands who may be confronted with the necropolitical dimension of the state but also for the refugees and immigrants of our neighborhoods who, we must be honest, do not have the same access to information, health or anything else!
Second task is to not stop speaking about the aspects of state administration that endanger human lives, instituting an emergency labour law, policing our health with helicopters and announcements – here let us take full advantage of our technological capabilities and collective knowledge of them. Firmly in touch with reality and with a balanced criticism, to think about what it means for a society to send a sms message to go for a walk, how and why the police are entrusted with safeguarding public health, to what extent politics is medicalized and medicine is politicized, what should be done to make it out of all this as a society and not turn into a terrifying episode of Black Mirror. Let’s not succumb to the temptation of conspiracy and disaster and let’s accept – in good faith and for saving time – that this set of measures is temporary. Even so, even if we step out of the test tube in time, the fact remains that we are experiencing situations that will leave a mark on our psyche, will register in our relationship with the state, will reshape our relationship with digital communication.
Let’s, on the other hand, be sharp and ready to deal with the devaluation of our lives, the deterioration of labour relations, the management of the economy in terms of a crisis. Let’s speak here and now and make it clear that we will not tolerate another “rescue [program]”! Let’s attack statistics, administrative procedures, bureaucracy. Society should not be crushed under the weight of numbers, indices and graphs. But let’s understand that this time we need to work, prepare, build structures and infrastructures upon which we can rely massively, openly and inclusively, politically, socially, symbolically.
Even if it sounds completely alien amid a ban on traffic, policing of cities and the necessity for self-restraint and protection, let’s not completely exclude the possibility of physical political action. In today’s conditions, what used to be for us a piece of cake, must become a weapon that we will use when there is no other choice, and always with caution and care, in order to not be alienated from society and reality. Therefore, let it not be completely excluded from our thinking, let it remain a capability to either enact practical solidarity movements, or to defend those who do not have a present or future, or – if needed – as an answer to smash the state’s arrogance.
From our friends in Europe we get the message that “we are staying home now, but afterwards we will launch our counterattack”, that “then we will settle our accounts” and we can only smile and be satisfied with the high morale for fight from our comrades. But in my opinion, in order to have the slightest chance of something like that happening in the near – and so distant – future, we have to rise to the occasion today. So that “we will fight afterwards” does not turn to another “from September incredible things will happen” [a common slogan that people from the Greek movement tend to say during the summer holidays], we must act today socially and politically, cohesively and purposefully. Say what we have to say and do what we have to do. This was always the case and it is also the case today. However weird everything seems.