by Wu Ming
By now more than two months ago, in the third episode of our viral Diary , we tried to clarify what we meant by “emergency”. We spoke of “a basic misunderstanding, a conceptual misunderstanding that saw us mutually lost in translation “, and explained:
“There were those who, by” emergency “, meant the danger from which the emergency started, that is, the epidemic.
Instead, we and a few others – in a very clear minority but in continuity with a debate of at least forty years – called “emergency” what was built on the danger : the climate that was established, the special legislation, the derogations from rights otherwise considered untouchable, the reconfiguration of powers …
Who, whenever we talked about all this, immediately wanted to go back to talking always and only about the virus itself, its etiology, its lethality, its differences with the flu, etc., in our opinion underestimated the situation . “
Every emergency is here to stay
That of the “emergency” – time after time the emergency-terrorism, the emergency-public finances and all the emergency frames that we have known – is never an ordinary narrative. It is a long-range Great Storytelling, which once imposed in the imagination has a very strong inertial thrust, and cannot be stopped at will.
When the “emergency” begins to have dysfunctional effects, we work to mitigate its grip, smoothing the edges, slowing down and letting itself settle, but it takes time. And in any case the effects will be permanent: all the emergencies we have known have accumulated, we could almost make it a “stratigraphy”.
Almost twenty years later, we are still living – albeit no longer in an acute phase – in the post-9/11 emergency. We notice it, for example, every time we check baggage at the airport. The current procedures, whose logic is not very clear and seem more “theatrical” than anything else, were introduced then.
We are still experiencing the emergencies-public accounts of the early 90s and 2011, because the cuts, the counter-reforms and the austerity that thanks to those emergencies have led us up to now, to the current situation.
Much of the special anti-terrorism legislation of the late 70s – early 80s is still with us.
No emergency is behind us, all of them are on our shoulders.
Capitalism has taken the leap
Imagine, therefore, if you can easily get out of the emergency narrative imposed to face this pandemic. We are talking about the most impactful and pervasive emergency in our memory, and on a planetary level. Much of what has been experienced in these three months – we think only of DAD – is here to stay, albeit in less conspicuous forms (but precisely for this reason more pervasive). We also think of the derogations on labor law, or the environmental derogations, which will be requested and obtained thanks to the emergency, in the name of the “recovery”.
All this in the difficulty of putting into practice a concrete opposition, because for a long time conditions of “social distancing” will persist which, if they do not make struggles impossible, still give even more pretexts and tools than there were before to repress them. Wolf Bukowski has also written a fundamental article on how the idea of ”social distancing” could become encrusted in our daily lives.
Being able to blame the pandemic for a crisis and recession that was still coming is very convenient for capital: for its sectors that are drawing or trying to take advantage of this phase, and for those who want to recover lost ground.
Thanks to the Sars-Cov-2 virus, capital has had the opportunity to accelerate certain dynamics in order to manage them better. Given the inevitability of a recession, it is far better to manage it by being able to unload the blame on an event presented as “natural”, on bad luck, on a disaster, on conditions “external” to the system (we know that this is not the case, that the the fault of the pandemic is the system, but every time we have to explain it).
All this, we always reiterate, is not the result of a Plan, of a conspiracy of capital. Capital responds to what happens, of course, in a capitalist way. Political power manages what happens within the framework of capitalist compatibilities . A single emergency is never planned well in advance: it consists of taking the ball.
We cannot speak of “phase 2”, “phase 3” and anything else only by looking at danger in the strict sense, that is, only in virological and epidemiological terms. We need to talk about what this emergency will leave us, and how to act, how to regain spaces of dissent and conflict in that multi-layered reality .
Intermezzo: «Lance / shield»
This whole story started in China, right?
In Chinese, the term “contradiction” is rendered with the two ideograms 矛盾 , respectively “spear” and “shield”. If you look closely at the two characters, you will recognize the stylization of the two objects.
It is said that the combination, and the related concept, derive from a history dating back to the third century AD (Jìn dynasty).
An histrionic merchant roamed villages in the state of Chu and, among other items, also sold spears and shields. In a square, a guy asked him what his spears were like, and he, mocking, said they were the best in the world and that they could pierce any shield.
Shortly thereafter, another guy asked him what his shields were like, and he, always over the top, said they were the best in the world, and that no spear could pierce them.
At which a third bystander, who had heard both the réclames, asked him: “So what would happen on one of your spears striking one of your shields?”
Unable to respond, the merchant left the village.
«Either underestimate the virus or underestimate the emergency»
There is a fundamental contradiction in all the discussions on the coronavirus emergency, a contradiction that presents itself in the form of a false dilemma and is a consequence of having incurred – all and all of us, some more or less – in fallacious dichotomies, of the to have fallen into rhetorical traps like the one in which the ancient Chinese merchant stuck. This contradiction must be thematized and overcome, in order to adopt what in another post we have called “holistic approach” – or synthetic , if you prefer a more dialectical terminology, in the sense of finding a synthesis that surpasses opposites forward.
Negante has found a beautiful and effective way of representing this contradiction. He did it in a comment on the previous post , of which we report an extract:
“At first I expressed it almost like a joke, but then it seemed serious to me: it is a sort of uncertainty principle in the Heisenbergian sense, between the virus and the emergency. You cannot look and keep your gaze fixed on both, but you underestimate one or the other. You underestimate the other’s eyes. That is: for those who see the virus well (or believe they see it well) the emergency is only a contingency that will pass if the virus passes; for those who see the emergency well (or believe they see it well), the virus, however serious and dangerous, will be less and less lethal than the consequences that emergency policies are causing. Every discussion has this instability within it and it can only be good to bring it up. “
This is also an excellent caveat with which to screen one’s reactions in the face of any statement about the virus and / or the emergency. How many tags on the danger of the virus do we expect to stamp who wants to talk about the dangers of the emergency? And how many badges on the senselessness of the emergency do we want those who want to discuss the sensibility of the virus to stamp?
And it goes for more specific examples: if I think they have to reopen the bookstores, how many times do I have to specify that I was to close the factories ? And if I was about to close the factories, how many times do I have to explain that this didn’t involve closing everyone in the house?
There is too much binary thinking, too much Manichaeism, too easy and shearing tertium non datur . Instead, not only does tertia exist : the multiple exists, with its complexity. Denying it takes us straight into the arms of the “double bond”, the one on which most of the management of the emergency hinged and whose logic was taken for granted by those who concentrated only on the virus.
Double bond: «What would you like to do? Do you want to leave the house? ” If you answer yes, then it means that it is ok for you to reopen the factories too (and I make you sick at work). If you answer no, then I take away your freedom of movement (and make you sick with depression and various pathologies). How do you do it, you are wrong.
From here on out
We will not get rid of pandemics or emergencies, both will continue to hit us. Only by reasoning in these terms will the misunderstandings and problems of recent months be overcome. At least, those carried on in good faith. For others, there is little to do.
The emergency also leaves us the rubble of personal and political relationships. After all, it happened during and after all the previous emergencies. Emergencies, by imposing new dichotomies, mess up sides, alliances, friendships. This she did it with an immense firepower and with almost irresistible impetus. Unfortunately, we will not find all the collaborations nor all the affections of before.
We will have to make up for it.