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Santiago López Petit: #Coronavirus as theatre of truth

A reflection on the Covid-19 pandemic by Santiago López Petit.

Originally published by Lobo suelto!. Written by Santiago López Petit. Translated by Autonomies.

Humanity is entering a phase of its history in which truth is reduced to a moment in the movement of the false. True is that false speech that must be kept true even when its untruth is proven. But in this way it is language itself as the place of the manifestation of truth that is confiscated from human beings. They can now only mute the movement – true because real – of the lie. To bring this movement to a stop, everyone must have the courage to seek without compromise the most precious asset: a true word.

Giorgio Agamben, Sul vero e sul falso (Quodlibet 28/04/2020)

What if putting the state on the defensive had to be paid for with the dead? During these days of confinement, at night, when taking out the garbage, I would take the opportunity to listen to the silence of the sleeping city. I thought that sinking into almost absolute solitude would allow me to understand what was happening. However, I could not get rid myself of an obsessive question: What if (relatively) stopping the world, if ridiculing power, could only be done when death becomes a challenge?

I know that this question is out of place. In the framework of current debates: the economy or life, the adoption or not of control and surveillance as normal practices, etc. It even seems absurd. But the effort to conceptualise is to be measured with the delirious, and if necessary, to invent also delirious concepts. Never has the State, rather, never have so many States, been in a defensive situation like the current one. Who could deny it?

It is sufficient to analyse the almost daily press conferences of the the leaders the governments. In the Spanish case, the appearance of the military, doctors and politicians together, exemplifies the therapeutic and militarised face of power. “We are here to save you from yourselves. There is no other way out,” they repeat insistently, while they use statistics – let us not forget that “statistics” derives from the word State – to objectify their decisions. The performance could not be more pathetic since it is the confirmation of an agonizing power incapable of preventing or anticipating. Remembering that Boris Johnson has been admitted to an intensive care unit, and that so many politicians have been infected, is a sinister but very real metaphor for this agony. A power, I repeat, so entangled in its contradictions and falsehoods, which does not yet know how many deaths have occurred, nor when a normality will return, that it cannot describe either. In short, a State which is incapable of fulfilling the contract that Hobbes says supports and legitimates it.

In this sense, there is a certain parallel between the terrorist act and the action of the coronavirus. In both cases, and despite the evident difference in scale, it is a “test” for the State, a failed test that directly implies its questioning. It is not surprising, then, that the reaction is the same: to declare war on the internal enemy, be it the terrorist or the coronavirus. This declaration of war is totally fallacious. It is ridiculous for a State to proclaim war against a terrorist group or against a virus. And yet, there is a war in progress, but it is not the war decreed by the State. It is the undeclared social war that the coronavirus has brought to light. That is why the statements of so many public figures who suddenly discover our vulnerability and interdependence are lamentable, because they are misleading. Did they not know how much suffering there is? In Spain, ten people commit suicide every day; the flu causes between 6,000 and 15,000 deaths each year; in Catalonia, 300,000 people (mostly women) are locked up at home with chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, or multiple chemical sensitivity, and the last time they asked for help, the response of the health authorities was that, since this was not a cause for social alarm, that they bear it. Incidentally: how many deaths are required to declare the state of emergency? Are not the five million children who, according to the UN’s FAO, starved to death last year?

The emergence of the coronavirus has made us forget that, despite the brutal repression of the State, a cycle of struggle against neoliberalism was unfolding in many countries of the world. The climate emergency has also passed into the background. The coronavirus thus drives a depoliticisation by canceling the memories of struggle and constructing a simulation of ourselves based on the same fear of death. But the coronavirus, as the dark power of life, is capable of a politicising action whose radicality escapes us. To say, as I have already suggested, that it shows the weakness of the State is very insufficient. The onslaught of the coronavirus is nothing more than the effect of a nature abused by runaway capitalism. It does not take long to demonstrate this claim. The coronavirus constitutes an act of sabotage of life against a reality that is already fully capitalist and without any outside. We live inside the belly of the beast and we ourselves who feed it. Is it any wonder that we need ventilators, apparatuses to help us breath? The coronavirus has cut open this cursed beast and when the space of what is possible has collapsed, then the theater of truth has appeared.

In the theater of truth, there are no press conferences. Representations and their representatives no longer have a place. There are the health personnel in their selfless and solitary struggle; there are the elderly whose death in the solitude of the residences and nursing homes constitutes their particular way of spitting on this society (please: calling them “grandparents” at this moment is even worse than the insult that it already was); there are the cashiers of the supermarkets; and the delivery drivers racing about on the empty streets to please us; and teachers trying to get close to caged boys and girls. We are the confined who every day at 8 pm go out to applaud and also the neighbour who has hung a paper in the entrance, asking that the nurse who lives in the building leave because she can infect us. There are those who live in places without windows onto the street and share a tiny apartment with another family; there are those who have a good internet connection and those who only have a telephone with a payment card. Mutual aid groups are fined by the police. And there are also many, many people who do not know what will become of their life.

The current health crisis has accelerated the fascist drift immanent to capitalism in a double sense. In the first place, and this is already obvious, there is the unstoppable increase in forms of control and surveillance through the use of new technologies: geolocation, facial recognition, health code, etc. Secondly, there is the transformation that is taking place in the way of working. Capital, much to its regret, had to admit the existence of the community of workers within the factory. In order to control it, it used disciplines, panoptic surveillance, and in particular, the appropriation of the time of life. Now capital has the possibility of undoing what still remained of said community. The control device is no longer abduction, it is teleworking. The Internet and the mobile phone are the devices that make work a form of political domination. It certainly has always been so. The novelty resides in a progressive indistinction: knowing if we work, if we live, or if we simply obey, is increasingly complicated. A teleworker expressed this new situation very well: “Now I sleep less than ever and I lack time for everything.”

The health crisis is part of a political operation of internal readjustment of neoliberalism. Beyond the coming geopolitical changes and a globalisation much more determined by the nation State, what is certain is that a society of increasingly atomised individuals is approaching, a society whose only coherence, unity, depends on conforming, in the most proper sense of the word, to be terminals of the algorithm of life, that is, of that market that is mistaken with life. We know that every crisis consists of an unfavorable situation for the majority that has been politically constructed and that, nevertheless, sees itself as naturalised. But if this global health-economic crisis is important, it is because in it – and thanks to it – a new social contract based on control and mistrust is also launched. That is why confinement must be understood as a stage in the construction of an impotent and suspicious subjectivity; a subjectivity that begs to be able to live and that thinks of itself as a victim, even though the victims are obviously not all the same, as they are marked by the division of labor. The intellectual worker is much less exposed than the manual worker, as the pandemic itself has shown.

#Todoirábien [#Everything will go well] is a lie. #Yomequedoencasa [#I will stay home] is a condemnation. Confinement equalises because it places everyone in the time of waiting, and at the same time, it makes visible the existing brutal inequalities. 62% of those killed by coronavirus in New York are black and Latino. In Barcelona, 0.5% (500/100,000, the highest rate in the city) of the population in Roquetes (Nou Barris) is infected with Covid-19, in contrast to 0.07% (76 / 100,000) in Sarrià-Sant Gervasi. The truth is suffered and spread by contagion. That is why the State wants to close the theater of truth as soon as possible, but the accumulation of the dead prevents it from closing the door. Its will would be to deploy as soon as possible the space of what is possible, of some totally newly dimensioned possibility and within the reach of only a few. To live life (permanently) in travel, an apparently free and deterritorialised life, from now on, can only be done by those who have money. The rest will be fixed pieces tied to infinite debt. Despite how terrible it is not to have a window from which to see the sky, or to be completely alone, confinement supposes a certain disengagement of order. The balconies speak to each other. Faces that have never been seen, are recognized. For a few moments, we are together outside the capitalist machine, and then, the force of the pain gathered within becomes itself indestructible. It would be too senseless to affirm that, inhabiting confinement, we have torn away a space of freedom from this oppressive and unjust reality. But when the will to live is separated from the life mobilized by capital, we stop being victims. These are moments of strange freedom that terrify power. To us, they put us before an abyss, and then, we get a knot in the stomach. It is not the abyss of uncertainty but that of the truth of a bifurcation that the theater of truth reminds us of at every moment. We have to choose whether we want to continue being a terminal or node of the algorithm of life that organises the world or an electric switch for turning off the nightmare that surrounds us.

Santiago López Petit, April 26, 2020

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