Arturo Romero Contreras
Professor and researcher, BUAP, Mexico.
What if there was no lesson at all to learn from the coronavirus pandemic? It has been said that we are witnessing the retaliation of nature for our mishandling of it. But natural beings constitute no ensemble capable of directed action. Behind the so-called revenge of nature against humankind there is nothing, but a multiplicity of beings governed by the blind mechanism of self-reproduction.
In a humanist spirit, some claim that the current catastrophe could have been avoided. They claim there is a social lesson to be learnt, namely that we should pay attention to the really important things, like social equality, good healthcare systems, fair wages and so on. But catastrophes of inequality, bad healthcare systems -its infamous privatization included- as well as miserable wages and the world-wide precarization of labor existed before the coronavirus and they will surely survive it. Such an argument stems undoubtedly from human narcissism, claiming that we could have been prepared, had we attended our social dues. But let’s imagine a fair and effective system. Another virus more lethal and contagious could have erased humanity from Earth. The human species exists only within certain values of certain parameters which, if exceeded, make it impossible for us to persevere in our being, despite all our technical, scientific and material resources.
The idea that from the sole pandemics the defeat of capitalism could follow has no ground whatsoever. The State’s expenditures on population come by no means from a spirit of solidarity among human beings, but from the straightforward need of protecting itself from disproportionate costs in healthcare systems and of keeping the working force alive. All of this will be but a short break from regular exploitation, from which we will recover. Sooner than we think, we will be doing business as usual such that the production machine will be at full throttle again. All expenditures on population (unemployment benefits, loans, deferral of debts), companies (credits and fiscal measures) and the healthcare system are measures oriented to avoid the only real catastrophe in our world: an economic crisis.
So far, no moral has been learned. All of the evidence seems to support the pessimists. There is, however, a small group among them who try to maintain high spirits with a dose of social criticism. It’s true what they assert, that there is nothing new under the sun, that everything will remain the same. But they use the chance to gather more “evidence” supporting their claims, as a mere escalation of what started a long time ago. First, we should consider the paranoid who are convinced that the virus was created with some social, political or economic aims. More reasonable people believe in the contingencies of the pandemic but confirm their hypothesis that governments and companies are freely handling the situation for their own benefit: assuring profits, controlling the population, introducing authoritarian measures, etc. Again, there was no reason to wait for the coronavirus to do it. This group also includes those who see now, more than ever, the old fascist and totalitarian State at its purest, as well as new forms of biopower and social control through the colonization bodies. But as Lacan would have it: a paranoiac really persecuted does not stop being paranoid. It is expected that the State will pursue its aims in spying, information gathering and observation. But this is true with or without coronavirus. None of these positions represent a true explanation of the singularity of the situation. For them, again, there is nothing new here.
Let us recall finally those who have unleashed a wave of moral thoughts under the disguise of social criticism. We should include here those who highlight the destructive traits of humankind, “sharply” pointing out that the real virus is us. Evil human beings have destroyed forests and woods, which has massively led species to extinction, has polluted the planet and has left its imprint on the very crust of the Earth. We identify this phenomenon by the name “Anthropocene.” The virus, so it is said, allows us to see the human plague. But this mixture of guilt (environmentalism is, to a great extent, a loud mea culpa) and arrogance (for we grant humanity the power of impacting natural history, side by side with meteorites) aims to read the transit of our species on the planet as a cosmic catastrophe. It is not. Extinctions belong to the “life of life”, to the earth cycles. Species will leave an imprint depending on many factors, such as geographic extension and duration on the planet, for example. But in the long run nothing in the hands of humanity will endure. As soon as we read the geological of even the cosmic clock in millions of years, we see how the catastrophe exists really only for us.
At best, the coronavirus pandemic will show what we already knew, namely that our species has feet of clay and that such feet are our body. We will confirm that it is not a glorious temple, but only a temporarily stable structure of molecules, whose fragile integrity can be destroyed by a still more fragile and elementary molecule. The complexity of our neurons, the specialization of our cells in all types of tissues, our genetic code, our corporal differentiation, in short, all that complexity attained through millions of years of evolution is absolutely impotent against the relatively simplicity of the virus. Such a shocking disproportion makes us so small, which leads to doubt about any transcendent right to salvation. It is true, we now clearly appreciate our interdependence with other species, but we only care about the species in which we exist. This does not contradict our will to control our environment and other species, we will just learn (in the best scenario) not to exceed a certain threshold. That’s what we call sustainability. And it is also true we can see now how interconnected human beings are: bodies, knowledge, politics. But as in the former case, we can perfectly represent forced cooperation, always in asymmetric benefit of some minority. This is what we understand under the concept of social responsibility.
Objectively seen, there is no lesson at all to learn from the pandemic. And yet… we desire it, even at the cost of fooling ourselves. We rebel against the nihilism of naturalism and the irrelevance to which it condemns us, even if we cannot refute it. But there is something. Small and terribly humble, even stupid and stubborn. But therein lies an unlimited dignity of human existence, where all sorts of unlikely, but worthy objects live. But against all proportion, against all common sense and the most evident of experience, to insist here and how on every “unlikely” redeems our existence. This is the only and forced moral of the pandemics, so odd that it is not even something to learn, but to desire: that this will be the beginning of the end of systematic exploitation of nature and humans. Ecce homo. This is the real frailty of humankind, this “and yet…”, that justifies and even calls for a fight against domination and the systematic infliction of suffering to others. The frailty we are concerned with is not that of the body, not even of life, for they can be destroyed in a second. We care only for what makes life more than bare life. For that there are no reasons, but only our practical engagement. We know too well that there are no guarantees. In moments of crisis people split in two groups: resignation and hope. The former demands no effort. The latter is self-deceit, a will of making the problem dissolve into thin air. The real task consists of stubbornly maintaining oneself in the fragile conviction of the unlikely, precisely in the moment in which everything will begin to return to its wicked normality.