Philosophers of Contagion: How intellectuals perceive Covid-19
The outbreak of a new disease leads to uncertainty and fear, especially if we are among those most vulnerable. Depending on our ability to protect ourselves and our access to medical devices, the threat affects the way we understand it and respond. Here we want to explore a specific characteristic of the viral threat that affects us: its ability to reveal.
Covid-19, silent revealer of hidden realities
To unveil is to discover something hidden, to bring it to light, to remove the veil and reveal. Covid-19, among its many connotations, is a silent revealer of many realities that often remain hidden in the everyday life of economic, political, social and cultural systems in which we are immersed in one way or another. Crossing rigid and guarded borders, it has denounced xenophobic, nationalist and racist policies whose discourses it has made unconvincing.
It is constantly accusing the health systems of those countries which, having neglected to invest sufficiently in public health or having handed over its administration to the private sector, today have no alternative but to recognize the value of a quality health system accessible to all. The virus highlights the true concerns of scientific researchers and the large pharmaceutical companies that finance them. It highlights the voracity of a global market that rubs its hands with the ointment of speculation.
This infectious agent brings to light the search for complicit silence by an economic system that puts capital above human beings. At the same time, it bitterly exposes the neglect of education systems, of the protection of the elderly, national production, workers’ rights, the housing sector, the fight against extreme poverty and malnutrition. It rejects the shortcomings of political authorities and lays its eternal allies bare. It unmasks individualists, hoarders, those who seek to engage in corruption. It makes manifest the inequality of peoples, even spreading into countries – unlike other epidemics – by transmission through the wealthier classes, those who can travel. With appropriate distinctions, Covid-19 could be considered the most effective and prophetic Accuser of our times. To carry out its task, however, it uses a cruel method: the death of hundreds of thousands of people. Perhaps this is what Albert Camus was referring to when he wrote that “the plague loves the secret of the nest.”
It seems apposite to us to consider this effective “revealer” through the reflections it has provoked as it spreads. The Spanish philosopher Patricia Manrique has warned, however, of the need to be careful so that the novelty of the events we analyze does not distract us from the actual reality. And she recalls with Emmanuel Lévinas that rushing to say something ends up reducing “otherness” to “sameness.”
The warning is not out of place. The enormous flow of reflections about the pandemic that come in these times from the intellectual world and the way they flatten out prior thought betrays a reflective haste. For this reason, Manrique relies on the necessary “hospitality of otherness,” which allows ideology and “selfishness” to give way to the novelty born of the reality we are trying to understand. Her invitation suggests letting the new reality evoke questions and generate a calm search for answers. She proposes a countercultural way of analyzing reality. Haste in the process of reflection, in fact, appears curiously akin to the capitalist productivism that many intellectuals wish to counteract. There is an anxiety to fill the open spaces with the criticism of postmodern culture that emerges from contemporary philosophy, anthropology and sociology.
Reflections on the pandemic from the world of intellectuals
Let us now observe some reactions to the pandemic from the intellectual world. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben did not hesitate to denounce something that has always been one of his research themes: the state of exception chosen as the normal methodology of government. Starting from this he defined the measures to ensure isolation as disproportionate and referred to the epidemic as a pretentious invention, aimed at limiting one of the most important values of the West: freedom. He branded the confinement measures as an exaggerated reaction to what he claimed was “a normal flu.” He has reduced the virus to a mere ideological substitute for terrorism, insofar as it justifies exceptionality and causes collective panic, a panic that a few days later he denounced as the cause of the abolition of the category of “neighbors” by virtue of the paradigm of the asymptomatic carrier. This, according to him, generates fear of encounter and therefore the annulment of political action, the ultimate objective of those rulers, whose adopted measures he has denounced as harsher than those of Fascism and Nazism. Camus, in the text we have quoted, states: “It is up to you to think often of your ignorance, to make sure you observe the measure, the only master of the plague.” It did not take that many deaths to recognize the threat as genuine, and the measures of distancing as a way of caring for others.
The Catalan chemist and philosopher Santiago López Petit immediately echoed Agamben, claiming that the virus was produced by capitalism – which he considers in itself murderous – to normalize the state of exception. According to him, unbridled capitalism articulates its agro-industry and shapes the aetiology of recent pandemics in such a way as to produce the virus, which it will then use to control the population. To be precise, he warns that this is not so much a conspiracy, but rather the logical consequence of being victims of the “algorithm of life,” which programs everything and puts political decision and national interests in the foreground – using the neoliberal consensus.
For his part, Slavoj Žižek, one of the most provocative sociologists of the moment, hastened to proclaim as deadly the blows inflicted on capitalism and the reinvention of communism as consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. His position is based on a peculiar optimism. He notes that the virus has highlighted pandemics already existing in our societies: the fake news and paranoid conspiracy theories, as well as manifestations of racism and xenophobia. On the other hand, it offers the contagious and virtuous possibility of dreaming of an alternative society. On this basis Žižek goes so far as to imagine a radical transformation of the world economic system based on the abrupt rediscovery of a shared biological and ecological vulnerability. His proposal is to adopt communism as a political and economic system, but not in the old way, rather as a communism of solidarity, trust, science and commitment, all governed, according to his proposal, by a global economic regulatory body. The enthusiasm of his presentation projects a view of the future that borders on naivety and contrasts with the total absence, in his reflection, of the human consequences of the pandemic. Certainly, ideological enthusiasm can preclude an objective look at the pain that surrounds us.
The debate was not long in coming. Byung-Chul Han, a Korean philosopher living in Berlin, is less optimistic than Žižek. He believes that capitalism will not only follow its usual course but that we will see China as a watchdog and hoarder of world production. Capitalism will continue, according to him, because its disappearance would mean a radical change in well-established lifestyles, and also because, for this to happen, the will to transform the world’s economic powers, which in these circumstances continue to accumulate profits, would be necessary. He is emphatic: “the virus cannot replace reason,” let alone “generate any strong collective feeling.” Therefore, it does not have the revolutionary capacity that Žižek attributes to it.
However, Han would like to see a world in which individualism would lose its centrality, to be replaced by an encounter with the “negativity of the other,” as he has continually stressed in his work. He proposes this from a more collectivist perspective, denouncing absurd measures, such as the closing of borders, or even closing an eye to the attenuation of privacy, in the oriental way, for the control of future pandemics. His great fear, as for Agamben, is that the virus will turn into a justification for exceptional opportunities for totalitarianism. Unfortunately, without going into them and relegating them to the sidelines, Han overlooks data such as the number of deaths caused by the virus or the supposedly preventive triage suffered by the elderly in the distribution of care and clinical attention.
The Italian philosopher Franco Berardi also added his share of skepticism as to the imminent fall of capitalism. However, he believes that neoliberalism will take advantage of this pandemic to further extend its tentacles. It will do so, he says, relying on new forms of control and the segregation of populations: in other words, exploiting biopolitics and totalitarianism. Berardi is convinced that both these dynamics will become established, given that culturally we are not prepared for the deprivation of mobility and for separating pleasure from consumption, let alone giving value to frugality and sharing. This look at humanity leads him to an ambiguous diagnosis: from this crisis we will come out either more individualistic, aggressive, selfish and competitive, or more supportive and eager for equality.
I believe that it is too early to draw conclusions, but at the same time I think that there is still time to try, at least, to influence the final outcome of the pandemic. There will be work to be done. Berardi’s assessment of human possibilities and contemporary culture does not inspire hope. However, this is not the only truth concerning human beings: in the world there are also desires, will and opportunities for a greater commitment in the direction of justice, empathy and solidarity.
For her part, the philosopher Judith Butler, in the socio-political context of the United States, insists that the virus does not discriminate, whereas the same cannot be said of us human beings. The result, in her view, is the link between nationalism, racism, xenophobia and capitalism in shaping the discriminatory relationships that the pandemic can provoke, with the harmful result that some lives are valued as more valuable than others. Butler argues that the social and economic inequality that prevails in the world allows the virus to discriminate against access to medical care and, in the future, to the long-awaited vaccine.
But, once again, the discrimination is not to be attributed to the virus. The complaint must be channeled to those responsible for political, social and economic systems, which classify people into categories according to purchasing power, ethnic origin and migratory documents, ensuring that they are perceived and treated as second-class human beings. Discrimination, economic pressure and the dynamics that create social exclusion today show their true face. Indifference and apathy in the face of the situation of those who suffer some of these dynamics should not be among the options for shaping our future.
This type of discriminatory “virus,” which could now explode, taking advantage of the biological threat that confines us in our homes, is also denounced by the anthropologist David Harvey, who investigates the current possibilities of global capitalism. He does not consider it accidental that the emergency caused by the virus has brought about a global economic imbalance. According to him, this is due to a neoliberal policy focused on business rather than on people and their well-being. Today it is necessary to put people at the center of public policy and the economy., Creative and committed forms must therefore be sought, to influence individuals and communities to shape a more supportive, human and ecologically sustainable future.
Philosophers like Alain Badiou have a more pessimistic view of the revolutionary capacity of the virus, given the discouraging naivety of the analyses and proposals that have arisen in relation to the pandemic. Badiou goes so far as to affirm that one of the effects of the pandemic is to dissolve part of the intrinsic activity of reason, giving rise to mysticisms, prophecies, fairytales and completely unfounded curses. He also observes that the complexity of the current situation mixes together natural and social causes, economic and political, local and transnational dimensions, and therefore does not allow for unique or really innovative solutions. In fact, in the face of fear, to protect ourselves, we cling to what we already know.
Borders and solutions
As a result of this dynamic, politicians are proposing solutions to the pandemic that seek to keep the economic system as intact as possible. In fact, this has triggered a most extensive debate – no less questionable from a moral point of view – which aims to distinguish between the health of people and the saving of the economy. However, saving the latter could mean leaving intact the capital-focused economy that generates a spiral of inequality, lack of opportunities, job insecurity and world hunger, which is exactly what disregards half of humanity and prevents it from living in dignity. Choosing the saving of the economy, the kind of economy in which we are immersed, as the focus of public policy, would be tantamount to segregating the poorest behind the wall of indifference. There is an urgent need for solidarity-based and socially responsible economic proposals to improve the lives of those who suffer the most.
The German philosopher Markus Gabriel believes that Covid-19 emphasizes the idea of global unity and the equality of all humanity. Facing the virus, he says, we are nothing more than this: humans, hosts for its reproduction; there are no differences. This is why Markus questions the usefulness of closing borders between countries, if only to prevent the collapse of national health systems. In the same way, he criticizes the pre-pandemic world order, calling it lethal. He proposes a new enlightenment that can educate coming generations in ethics so that they do not fall into blind faith in science and technology, now in disgrace for not having been able to contain this viral threat. He therefore calls for a “metaphysical pandemic.” The return to normality should not lead to rapidly forgetting what has happened, but to a commitment of solidarity generated by a shared humanity.
The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari joins Markus and Han in denouncing the absurd closure of the borders. He makes a twofold appeal: to look beyond the urgency of the pandemic and to think about the world in which we want to live after the pandemic is over. Along this line, Harari puts forward the following alternatives: either totalitarian surveillance or legitimization of citizens; either nationalist isolation or global solidarity. What he fears is cyber surveillance that limits freedom. When people are asked to choose between their privacy and their health, they are reduced to considering a misleading option. Harari makes it clear that without trust and global solidarity, the pandemic cannot be successfully countered. He concludes that the solution to the pandemic will not come from segregation, but from cooperation. In this respect, we believe that cooperation must be inspired by a high degree of social justice, fairness and the pursuit of the common good.
The English philosopher and politician John Gray believes that we are witnessing a farewell to hyperglobalization. According to him, bio-vigilance by the state, to which individuals will be willing to agree for their own safety, will be the post-liberal way of governing. He states that the political system will remain intact and at the same time will be the engine of a change of perspective in the management of the world market, which would become more balanced by local production and based less on efficiency. This seems a singular statement. His proposal foresees the same actors who will take a very short time to achieve such a radical transformation. Curiously, Gray considers as “magic thinking” the belief that increased international cooperation will be the key to solving the viral and economic emergency. To this should be added the fact that the population, faced with the loss of mobility, will give way to virtualization. In the English philosopher’s proposal, one perceives haste. Such a drastic and accelerated change in the economy and culture cannot take place from isolation and passivity:. There must be at least empathy, encounter, dialogue, and commitment to solidarity.
As we can see, among contemporary thinkers there is a concern about the political, economic and social dimensions that could threaten the freedom of citizens. Some draw proposals from the left, others from the intellectual right. What is certain is that it is still too early to know what political, economic or psychological consequences we will have to deal with. We do not know whether our culture will change radically or whether it will soon resume the rhythms of before. We are left with the imagination as an intellectual vaccine, according to David Grossman to.
A global transformation
Now, allow me to take the liberty of going through that process whose criticism I praised along with Patricia Manrique: I will give my own opinion. I believe – and I say this making a conscious and reckless generalization – that the concerns of the intellectual class are more related to a comfortable imagination than to a deep look at the reality that people live. Those who look carefully at the many articles appearing, looking for words like “poverty,” “destitute,” “marginalization” or “social exclusion,” will notice how they are, in great measure, absent from reflection today. It is surprising that the word “vulnerable” is only employed in relation to those who might be most affected by the virus, i.e. in the sense of: “biological vulnerability.”
In the Latin American context, some sporadic reflections have also emerged more closely linked to traditional North-South themes or postcolonial imperialism, at least in the philosophical but not in the theological sphere. Is it not true that in our haste to express opinions, we have forgotten the poor? Is it not mounting a veiled defense of liberalism, to highlight to such an extent the limits of individual and collective freedoms? We do not know, and we do not want to blame anyone either. I find myself writing these lines from a teachers’ residence in Madrid, where we have a large garden in which we can walk and, although we have a person at home infected with the virus, the size of the environment allows us to keep her isolated and protect ourselves from the danger of infection.
If we look at reality only from where we live, the biggest drawback for many of us might be that we cannot move freely outside. But we also see that right here, around us, there are homeless people who are having a very bad time, that many people are losing their jobs, or that there is a risk that, when all this is over, they will have no place to live. Quarantine for a large family living in a small house is a form of torment. Young people run the risk that their already usual job insecurity will be amplified. In many corners of the world, migrant workers and populations suffering racial discrimination are the most affected by the virus, which catches them without resources, without health insurance, stigmatized by exclusion and inequality. This reality is largely absent from many of the considerations being written.
For this reason, if we are allowed to imagine a global transformation, it must arise “from below,” from the integration of the excluded of this world. For this to happen, the intellectual class will have to associate itself with the revealing and accusatory function of Covid-19, or everything will be limited to merely support the re-establishment of the previous order, in which the outcasts will return still invisible to the real powers of this world.
If the virus is showing the vulnerability of rich countries and their susceptibility to death – as it is for all human beings – we must not ignore or forget that this situation is by no means new for those in this world who find themselves in extreme poverty, even before and without the coronavirus. They habitually live with death, both because of the absence of essential services (water, medical care, etc.) and because of their vulnerability to systematic violence. There is no doubt that reflections on biopolitics, computer surveillance, pharmacopornography or psychopolitics are interesting, nor will we question the relevance of the philosopher Michel Foucault; but we must be aware that these issues are important for a minority of human beings. Hunger, malnutrition, lack of access to drinking water, violence of all kinds, social and health insecurity, corruption, poor quality education systems, job insecurity, and so on constitute the everyday life of more than half of humanity. Covid-19 highlights all of this.
Given that the pandemic has hit the richest countries hard, will the concerns of the intellectual world change now that it is very clear that we are all the same? Hoping that the imagination will not mock us, I believe that any possible cultural transformation of the world as a result of shared biological vulnerability will only be effective if we acknowledge that the improvement of living conditions for all will benefit the whole of humanity. I hope that in these philosophical wanderings we will not forget those who, marginalized by social, economic, political and cultural systems, should in fact occupy the center of our prophetic denunciations and be the focus of our concerns and actions. I am convinced that this would make us more human.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 07 art. 1, 0620: 10.32009/22072446.0720.1
. A. Camus, “Exhortation to Doctors of the Plague”
. Cf. P. Manrique, “Hospitalidad e inmunidad virtuosa”, in La Vorágine (lavoragine.net/hospitalidad-inmunidad-virtuosa), March 27, 2020.
. See E. Lévinas, Totalità e infinito, Milan, Jaca Book, 2006.
. See G. Agamben, “L’invenzione di un’epidemia”, in Quodlibet (www.quodlibet.it/giorgio-agamben-l-invenzione-di-un-epidemia), February 26, 2020.
. See Id., “Contagio”, ibid. (www.quodlibet.it/giorgio-agamben-contagio), March 11, 2020.
. See Id., “Nuove riflessioni”, ibid. (www.quodlibet.it/giorgio-agamben-nuove-riflessioni), April 22, 2020.
. A. Camus, “Exhortation to Doctors of the Plague” op. cit.
. See S. López Petit, “El coronavirus com a declaració de guerra”, in Critic (www.elcritic.cat/opinio/santiago-lopez-petit/el-coronavirus-com-a-declaracio-de-guerra-52417), March 18, 2020.
 . See S. Žižek, “Il coronavirus è un colpo al capitalismo à la Kill Bill che potrebbe reinventare il comunismo”, in Overlays (www.sovrapposizioni.com/blog/il-coronavirus-un-colpo-al-capitalismo-la-kill-bill-che-potrebbe-reinventare-il-comunismo), March 6, 2020.
. See B.C. Han, “L’emergenza virale e il mondo di domani”, in Global Project
(www.globalproject.info/it/mondi/lemergenza-virale-e-il-mondo-di-domani/22678), April 1, 2020.
. See B.C. Han, La società della stanchezza, Milan, nottetempo, 2012; Id., L’espulsione dell’altro, ibid., 2017. See also M. Rastoin, “Ritrovare il senso del tempo. Riflessioni sul pensiero di Byung-Chul Han”, in Civ. Catt. 2019 I 32-41.
. See F. Berardi, “Cronaca della psicodeflazione”, in Nero Editions (not.neroeditions.com/cronaca-della-psicodeflazione), March 16, 2020.
. See J. Butler, “Il capitalismo è giunto al suo limite”, in Dinamo Press (www.dinamopress.it/news/capitalismo-giunto-al-suo-limite), March 20, 2020.
. Cf. D. Harvey, “Anti-Capitalist Politics in the Time of Covid-19”, in Jacobin Magazine (jacobinmag.com/2020/03/david-harvey-coronavirus-political-economy-disruptions), March 20, 2020.
. See A. Badiou, “Sulla situazione epidemica”, in Filosofia in movimento
(filosofiainmovimento.it/sulla-situazione-epidemica), March 23, 2020.
. See A. V. Banerjee – E. Duflo, Repensar la pobreza. Un giro radical en la lucha contra la desigualdad global, Barcelona, Taurus, 2014; T. Piketty, Il capitale nel XXI secolo, Milan, Bompiani, 2016.
. Cf. G. Markus, “El orden mundial previo al virus era letal”, in El País (elpais.
com/cultura/2020/03/21/babelia/1584809233_534841.html), March 25, 2020.
. Here we can quote Camus again: “You, then, plague doctors, you must strengthen yourselves against the idea of death and reconcile yourselves with it, before entering the kingdom that the plague is preparing for you. If you are victorious on this point, you will always be victorious and you will be seen to smile in the midst of terror. Conclude that you need to be philosophers”, in “L’irruzione dell’assurdo”, op. cit.
. See Y. N. Harari, “Il mondo dopo il virus”, in International (www. internazionale
.it/news/yuval-noah-harari/2020/04/06/mondo-dopo-virus), April 6, 2020.
. Cfr Id., “In the Battle Against Coronavirus, Humanity Lacks Leadership”, in Time (time.com/5803225/yuval-noah-harari-coronavirus-humanity-leadership), March 15, 2020.
. Cf. J. Gray, “Adiós globalización, empieza un mundo nuevo. O por qué esta crisis es un punto de inflexión en la historia”, in El País (elpais.com/ideas/2020-04-11/adios-globalizacion-empieza-un-mundo-nuevo
.html?ssm=FB_CC), April 12, 2020.
. See D. Grossman, “Un mismo tejido humano infeccioso”, ibid. (elpais.com/elpais/2020/03/26/opinion/1585218634_070526.html), April 12, 2020.
. See H.T. Have, Vulnerability: challenging bioethics, New York, Routledge, 2016. On the subject, see also D. Fares, “Paradoxes of Vulnerability”, in laciviltacattolica.com/paradoxes-of-vulnerability/
. Cf. R. Zibechi, “A las puertas de un nuevo orden mundial”, in El Salto (www.elsaltodiario.com/coronavirus/geopolitica-china-estados-unidos-union-europea-a-toda-velocidad-hacia-el-caos-sistemico), March 25, 2020; M. Galindo, “Desobediencia, por tu culpa voy a sobrevivir”, in Radio Deseo (radioeseo.com/desobediencia-por-tu-culpa-voy-a-sobrevivir-maria-galindo), March 2020.
. Cf. P. B. Preciado, “Aprendiendo del virus”, in El País (elpais.com/elpais/2020/03/27/opinion/1585316952_026489.html), March 28, 2020.