Commentary. Pandemics make short work of many ideological and affective superstructures, recalling the essentiality of social relations, that is, the preservation of the conditions in which these can reproduce, possibly in a situation that is different from the emergency situation in force.

Beyond the state of emergency

We can argue at length about states of exception, as well as emergencies, but the state is not established to guarantee individual life as such, but rather the common conditions of continuity of the existent. The difference between the two is no small one, as it changes the focus from individual lives, whose trajectory is entirely inessential outside their own context, to the framework within which the existence of most people, otherwise completely anonymous, continues to subsist. There has never been a social form of organization that focuses on individual existence as such. In this particular regard, the social and the individual do not intersect in any way. Whether one particular person instead of another lives or dies is a variable that does not affect the large numbers. While it does matter, it does not carry much weight.

China’s organization of the response to the pandemic, to which even many Europeans (including some of our bloodless and feeble liberals) are now looking as an interesting model of reference, is fully aware of this and has demonstrated it: since 1949, they have not focused on individuals but on the protection of the context in which they work, or will have to return to working. The bare life of human beings is, by definition, the object of care for individuals, and, in an immediate reflection, of those who are concerned about it because they know it and recognize themselves in it. On the other hand, it is an essential part of collective organization to strive to preserve the framework within which the generality (or biological generality) of the species can continue to exist. Fascisms have not only theorized this, but put it into practice, rising from the trenches of World War I and declaring that the core of existence is the survival of the group, not of the individual.

Pandemics make short work of many ideological and affective superstructures, recalling the essentiality of social relations, that is, the preservation of the conditions in which these can reproduce, possibly in a situation that is different from the emergency situation in force. The moral acceptability of this finding, especially in a retrospective view—that is, from a safe distance, when the harsh objective conditions no longer directly affect us—is a variable that changes over time. The paradigm of the current emergency, therefore, fits fully within this context.

We might not like what that tells us: namely, that keeping a safety distance, something we are advocating and sometimes even pontificating about, inasmuch as we don’t feel that we ourselves are—personally—called to account, is a purely illusory fact. The emergency is only an emergency when it leads politics, the field of mediation, back to its existential dimension. Entire libraries have been written on the subject, often with a refined analytical perspective. Now, we, the post-war generations, are reckoning for the first time with our own crisis, and not with the crises—dressed up in positive or negative idealizations—of people, times and stories that remain at a safe distance from ourselves.


Therefore, let us acknowledge once again that the tangibility of our particular existence, as a social fact and not merely a biological one, is not a higher order in itself, separated from a political and administrative framework; instead, whenever it feels at risk, it clings to the latter, asking for any protection available—even if this is from an inclement and unjust state, but one that is nonetheless present.

The experience we have of our existence, whenever its daily predictability is called into question, is above all that of its visible, manifest, openly admitted frailty. It is not enough to be on one’s own. Perhaps this is the first traumatic realization: we lose our false garb of untouchability, of thinking of ourselves as capable of managing our own affairs independently. We no longer know what to do with the freedom of the laissez-faire liberal, which tells us that, potentially, we could indeed do everything by ourselves—because in concrete terms, no one will help us to free ourselves from the chains of immediate, daily need. That illusory principle of “doing anything you want with yourself” proclaimed by that type of liberalism has its counterpart in the discovery that one is incapable of asserting oneself alone, that is, without a support network, starting from the public one.

On the other hand, our life is tied, in most of its aspects, to ordinary circumstances, and if the latter are distorted, it is our very existence that is left to measure the effects. This also applies to that type of radical thought which—without the political realm, its natural outlet—is reduced to an end in itself, immediately declaring its impotence, crumpling up under the vacuous words with which it defends its self-referential prerogatives. In other words, it becomes pure “academicism,” not because it emanates from a place of study, but because in its very manifestation, it stresses the impossibility of making any connection to the needs of daily existence, arising from its irrepressible urgency, from the cry of the wounded creature who cannot find words to describe its condition.

A collective quarantine is the occasion for an unprecedented form of sociality, one which derives from sharing the same condition—founded, however, on “social distancing.” We are united by being divided. We are counterparts in representing a risk to one another. Therefore, this does not lie within the realm of possibility or potentiality. It is a paradox, since the pandemic, in being our common condition, shows us that a part of our contemporary life is playing out precisely based on the need to be separated as “equals.” We were not prepared for this test. Not in this way, at least. Certainly not in terms of political and social cultures, relationships and affections, proximity and reciprocity. This is also an aspect that renders us more helpless, or even outright wounded.

Our ability to heal such a wound will depend on our ability to regain possession of political decisions, of which, step by step, we have long allowed ourselves to be expropriated. Many consequences will come from what is not itself an emergency, but rather its poisonous legacy: those spaces of indeterminacy— i.e. generalized insecurity—where real securitarian power can take root, the kind that mocks every residual form of democracy because it imposes itself as the reassuring guarantor of some order, whatever that may be. The real phase that is starting now is a long “post-war” period, which will accompany a generation that will be marked by profound social restructuring. It is pointless to make predictions right away. It is all too easy, however, to understand that in an international regime that exalts inequality, the less powerful will pay the heaviest price. But that is not the end of it.

In the short term, we will have to face a real anthropological change: the ideas and images that individuals harbor about themselves are transforming. It is impossible for us to say in which direction. Our only reference framework is that of 20th century industrialism, which is not helpful at the moment. Something is being born that is not only “other,” but represents “a beyond”—something that at the moment, most crucially, signals our obsolescence. Those who are governing the emergency won’t win. If anything, they will come out of it worn out. We are talking about our senescent liberal democracies, which will have to deal with their intrinsic fragility. It is not in terms of the “state of exception” that the new type of sovereignty will be measured. The true sovereign is the one who will succeed in giving even a semblance of acceptable normality to the times to come, when the great cataclysm will be partially brought under control and we will come out of our domestic shelters—poorer and more fragile than we already know we are.

One more observation, in the margin of these thoughts. There are those who are demanding “clarity.” The first revelation in this regard is that clarity—all the more so if taken as a political attribute—is none other than the acceptance of the fact that the pandemic is taking us permanently into the age of complexity. That does not mean incomprehensibility, but an acute effort of analysis. Antonio Gramsci was not a “simple” thinker, let alone an easy one, because he analyzed his own times from prison, describing them as changeable, multi-layered, difficult par excellence. He never reduced political judgment to mere moral exercise, knowing that the second, considered by itself, becomes a mere shortcut. The socialism of his time had collapsed due to this misunderstanding. Clarity is a rare commodity, a difficult “good” to produce. It encounters, and must reckon with, new information, i.e. the diffusion of various types of knowledge. Clarity is not born of a consciousness in itself, of an illumination, a “revelation”—which, throughout history, generally speaking, tends to produce instead that false consciousness which is messianism, inexorably proceeding towards catastrophe. Just like research in medicine and the so-called “exact” sciences, it too requires investment, resources, time, intellectual encounters, sometimes even conflict whenever this is productive.

Nothing arises from itself; instead, it requires a work of analysis, verification, feedback, sometimes rebuilding from scratch. Intellectual (and political) work has a cost in terms of energy, time, relationships, investment costs. The choice, made in the past decades, to cut research—not only the strictly scientific one—leads the decline of reason, and then also of biological life. The first is replaced by superstition, nourished by various self-proclaimed gurus; in the case of the second, it is reduced to the enslaved—and then dying—existence of those who become corpses even before the others have to bury them. So far, politics has been following this downwards slope. But now, with great efforts, a “beyond” will open up. It will be up to each of us to reckon with the age of fairy tales, of pleasant lies, of our obsessive disorientation. Once again, this condition will be one we can count on. As it was for those who came before us, in times even more painful than the ones we are living.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!