The Pandemic Calls Neoliberal Rationality into Question

https://elotrosaberypoder.files.wordpress.com/2020/03/img_4196-1.jpg?w=1024Photo: Nica Guerrero. Cacri Photos Collective

This Friday, March 27th, Últimas Noticias published a good work by Ángel González, entitled, “The World in Shock“. It is a look at what is behind the pandemic, with the analysis of several colleagues: Pablo Giménez, Luis Salas and José Negrón Valera. Also some of my opinions about it. What follows is the full version of the interview that Ángel gave me the day before the publication of the report.

Reinaldo Iturriza López


Interview with Últimas Noticias, March 27, 2020

Some say the crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic will “change the world”. There is much talk of the economic consequences. But can we talk about political consequences? We are practically in a “global state of emergency”. What can we expect?

The economic consequences of the pandemic have, of course, a political correlation. In fact, as you know, it is simply impossible to separate one thing from the other, however much the often overly technical and even euphemistic language of the “experts” in economics may lead us to think that they are separate fields. First of all, many analysts have insisted that the pandemic functions as a pretext for countries like the United States to adopt measures that allow them to conceal, to some extent, a global crisis of capitalism very similar to, and even greater than, that of 2007-2008. Appealing to the pretext of the pandemic, the Trump Administration has resorted to the multimillion-dollar aid provided to big capital, while postponing the adoption of health measures of containment recommended by the WHO in a manner that seems deliberate, expressly disregarding the seriousness of the problem, all of this on account of the “health” of the economy, namely big capital. Something very similar, as we know, has happened in Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom, but also, at the outset, in countries such as Italy and Spain, which have now been severely hit by the pandemic. The same attitude has been adopted by governments such as those of Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Mexico.

Now, speaking more specifically of the political implications, perhaps the most relevant is the fact that the pandemic places neoliberal rationality, which determines the modes of government of a good part of the countries of the global North, but also of the South, in jeopardy. The pandemic has eloquently exposed the political ineffectiveness of massive cuts to public health, or more specific problems, such as the fact that the mass production of medical implements to address the crisis has been relocated to countries such as China, where they can be produced at lower cost. Can the “global state of emergency” foreshadow a post-neoliberal world? It is too early to say. With the addition that something like post-neoliberalism does not necessarily mean a more just world. This is the point of the analyses being made of the enormous and very effective system of control that has allowed countries like China and South Korea to contain the spread of the virus. The result could well be a more “secure” world, but one that is less free. In any case, it has also become very clear that the latter countries have managed the crisis much more effectively (in terms of strictly containing the virus) than their northern counterparts. The European Union, with the various countries closing their borders, and taking positions that display very little solidarity, seems to be a fiction. Everything indicates that, in a matter of days, the United States will become the epicentre of the global health crisis. At the same time, I think there are enough signs that China will soon reactivate its economy, which will allow it to recover the lost ground in a relatively short period of time, to consolidate its place as the main economy of the world, eventually displacing the United States.

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek said this crisis could open up an opportunity to move towards more collaborative forms of international political relations. A kind of “globalized communism”. How do you see that perspective?

It seems to me that Zizek is actually less optimistic than it may seem at first glance. It’s fair to say that at no time has he raised anything like the Kill Bill of capitalism. What he has written is that the pandemic is an opportunity to convince us that change is necessary, because we cannot continue on the path global capitalism is leading us to. He said, “The Coronavirus also forces us to re-invent communism based on trust in people and science”. Such would be, say, the political dilemma posed by the pandemic. One would have to be very foolish to disagree.

On the other hand, South Korean philosopher Byung Chul Han differs sharply from Zizek and says the latter is wrong. He claims that “the crisis will not defeat capitalism” and agrees with the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in his thesis that a “permanent state of exception” will be imposed as the “normal” situation. And he speaks of an accentuation and development of the mechanisms of social control. What can we really expect?

If the contribution of these intellectuals is to be completely disregarded, I believe it is necessary to be cautious about such “polemics”. Anyone who reads carefully what has been written by both Zizek and Byung Chul Han can conclude that, in the end, their positions are very similar. Their diagnoses too. Byung Chul Han says that Zizek evokes an “obscure communism”, and states: “The virus will not defeat capitalism. The viral revolution will not happen. No virus is capable of making revolution… We cannot leave the revolution in the hands of the virus. Let’s hope that behind the virus comes a human revolution.” Well, it is clear that Zizek does not propose at any time that the virus will defeat capitalism. Likewise, the communism he talks about is, shall we say, quite “transparent”. They both agree that this will have to be the task of people of flesh and blood. In any case, the most remarkable thing, it seems to me, is that neither of them offers any major clues in this respect.

Agamben, for his part, even thought it necessary to write a “clarification”. He claims that his initial words were distorted. In any case, the picture he paints is rather bleak: “The first thing that clearly shows the wave of panic that has paralyzed the country is that our society no longer believes in anything but survival. It is clear that Italians are ready to sacrifice practically everything, normal living conditions, social relations, work, even friendships, affections and religious and political convictions in the face of the danger of falling ill. The naked life – and the fear of losing it – is not something that unites men, but blinds them and separates them”. I suspect that this position is debatable: if I am well informed, it seems to me that the seriousness of the situation in Italy is related, at least in part, to the fact that part of Italian society (including, of course, its political and economic leadership), at first, underestimated the seriousness of the situation. And that led to a multiplication of people’s exposure to the virus, causing the situation we now know. Then, I’m not sure it’s correct to conclude that people choose to stay in their homes because they are in a panic. Respecting the quarantine, avoiding exposure and exposing others, can also be interpreted as a form of solidarity, and not as an unequivocal sign of panic. In any case, Agamben’s longstanding analysis of the “permanent state of emergency” is extraordinarily lucid. It is true, as he states in his most recent article, that “a society living in a perpetual state of emergency cannot be a free society”. But a distinction should be made between this phenomenon, on which he has worked so hard, of permanent state of emergency, which would characterize the world in which we live, and the state of alarm decreed on the occasion of the pandemic. They overlap, and certainly the latter can pay tribute to the former, but they are not exactly the same.

What is the perspective of this crisis for Venezuela? In political terms…

With respect to Venezuela, it should be said that the state of exception in its state of emergency mode has had the majority support of the population. To say otherwise would be a lie. It is as simple as that. Now, this circumstance may seem curious and inexplicable, being the case that the authority that decrees it is considered illegitimate by a part of society. What has actually happened? The President has undoubtedly acted with a great sense of timing, intervening firmly and in a timely manner, before the virus spreads, as has happened in other latitudes. It seems to me that the perception prevails that, in this case, the President is not acting as the representative of a bias that seeks to take advantage of the situation, but as the authority of all Venezuelans. What was the widespread perception before the pandemic? That the authority of the State had practically disappeared, that chaos prevailed. Well, the State has “reappeared” and the sovereign, who determines the state of emergency, has been relegitimized. And it has done so by ensuring no less than the health and safety of the entire population.

In addition to this perception of a minimum of security and order in the midst of chaos, we should take into account that we are facing global chaos. The impact on Venezuelan society of being exposed to a truly staggering amount of information about mass deaths, panic, shortages, hoarding, speculative prices, etc., in “first world” countries should be evaluated. On the one hand, we are seeing how in many places in the world, maintaining the appropriate distance, we are now seeing what is happening in our country for at least five years, while right now that global chaos is prevailing, we have been able to control the situation in our country. That does not mean, of course, that our very grave problems have suddenly disappeared. But it does suggest that strong action by the authorities, coupled with the will of the popular majority, can make a difference.

This leaves the political actors who have lent themselves to the “dual power” strategy, which is part of the United States’ efforts to accelerate “regime change”, in a very bad light, since it has once again become clear, now particularly eloquently, that such “dual power” is a complete farce. But it also leaves those elements within the government who have been defending positions aimed at a state withdrawal from the economy, and the idea of market “self-regulation”, which is precisely what is causing havoc on a global scale, much more than the pandemic itself, in a very bad light.

It is, therefore, an opportunity like very few others, which has also been presented to us in an unexpected way, to resume the initiative at all levels, always in the interest of society as a whole (and not of political biases), and with the greater participation of the popular majorities. It is an opportunity for the authorities to take the lead, in the same way as they have done in confronting the pandemic, by providing detailed information on economic measures and on all kinds of measures that must be taken not only to contain the virus, but also to eradicate privileges and combat injustice, poverty and inequality. Thus, for example, it would be really absurd that, at a time when, for reasons of force majeure, capitalist governments of the global North undergo an excess’ of questioning the neo-liberal zeal for privatization, within our country we insist on such practices. In the same way, it would be truly absurd for the government to give in to the pretension of the economic elites that it is the popular majorities that carry the weight of the crisis. Ultimately, the relegitimization of our authorities cannot depend exclusively on guaranteeing a minimum of security for the population, but must rest, fundamentally, on the effort to build a genuinely democratic, more just, supportive and egalitarian society.

To the above, we should add several significant data: The United Nations General Secretariat, requesting the cessation of unilateral coercive measures, so that the nations attacked may be able to better face the effects of the pandemic; the European Union, declaring that it supports the requests made by countries such as Venezuela and Iran, for access to resources available to multilateral organizations; political actors of anti-chavism that had been relegated to the background in recent years (as the ultra-right wing, as embodied in the Popular Will, assumed leadership), expressing their support for a political agreement, so that Venezuela can access external financing, among other contextual data. Under such circumstances, the Trump Administration could not think of a better idea than to offer a reward for the head of the President of the Republic, Nicolás Maduro, and other national authorities, as if it were the 19th century and our country was the Wild West. This move by the U.S. government is a sign that they are looking at these facts and are positioning themselves in the most brutal and grotesque way possible, kicking the table over once again, in order to prevent any possibility of political agreement. Once again, they are acting unilaterally and criminally, since it is clear that it is not President Nicolás Maduro who is being harmed, but the entire Venezuelan population. Moreover, it is a clear sign of how the United States has been progressively losing its global political leadership, contrary to what might be thought about such an act of “force”. It is like a lurch that the world’s leading power is making as its decline takes place. In the coming days, the epicentre of the global health crisis will be the United States. And the Trump Administration has clearly demonstrated its complete inefficiency in managing a crisis that will blow up in its face, if it has not already done so. Well, with respect to Venezuela, it acts with the same clumsiness: being able to lead the effort to reach a political agreement that has increasing national and international consensus, it permanently sabotages it. It is as if they want to drag us over the precipice to which the United States is unfortunately heading. Our challenge is to avoid it at all costs, and I believe that we are in a position to do so.

Translation by Internationalist 360°