PHILOSOPHY IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC

MIGUEL BEISTEGUI
 

Berlin, Germany. 22nd of March. (Photograph-Adam Berry/Getty Images)

In the midst of this pandemic, some might wish to turn to philosophy to cope with what, for the vast majority, amounts to a radical change of life, great uncertainty, fear, and anxiety.  One, could, for example, remind oneself of a few Stoic or Epicurean  principles: distinguish between those things that are in your power and those that aren’t; act on those that are in your power, and remain indifferent to those that aren’t; derive your own happiness from the satisfaction of needs that are useful and necessary.  But one could just as well, and successfully, turn to other schools of thought, depending one one’s inclinations.

Yet one might also wish to turn to philosophy to try and understand what is currently happening, and adopt towards this unique situation a thoughtful, critical approach.  This is what I offer to do here by, first, reflecting on the notion and vocabulary of crisis; second, providing a brief history and working definition of that notion; third, asking about the sort of crisis we are currently facing.        

No one is disputing the fact that we are facing a crisis.  Yet this crisis comes on top of a pile of pre-existing crises.  Even before Covid-19, not a day went by that we did not hear of a crisis, declared or looming: the environmental crisis, the national health service crisis, the mental health crisis, the housing crisis, the prison crisis, the refugee crisis, the education crisis, the constitutional crisis.  Crisis is ubiquitous, and has become global. It has also become ordinary, almost normal.  But how could crisis become normal without contradicting itself?  If everything is declared a crisis, how can we distinguish between orders of gravity and priority?

At a political level, the talk of crisis, especially if it is constant, can lead to two opposed traps, that of inaction, and that of extreme action.  If everything is a crisis, or in crisis, it becomes difficult to distinguish between what is urgent and what isn’t, what to act now, and what to act on later.  In other words, crisis can easily lead to paralysis.  Many choose that option in order not to make the wrong, or unpopular decision.  On the other hand, the diagnosis of crisis can lead to the declaration of the state of exception and the suspension of the rule of law, and, in theory at least, be prolonged indefinitely.  In Constitutional Dictatorship: Crisis Government in the Modern Democracies (1948), the American historian and political theorist of the state of exception, Clinton L. Rossiter, predicted that, in an increasingly dangerous world – the Atomic Age at the time, the Age of Terrorism, bio-threats and mass migration today – the state of exception might very well become the norm and open the way to a permanent state of exception: “The instruments of government depicted here as temporary ‘crises’ arrangements have in some countries, and may eventually in all countries, become lasting peacetime institutions.”

 

Milan, Italy.  25th March, 2020. (Photograph-Andrea Fasani/EPA)

Crisis is ubiquitous, and has become global. It has also  become ordinary, almost normal. But how could crisis become normal without contradicting itself? If everything is declared a crisis, how can we distinguish between orders of gravity and priority?

Can the ways, contexts and disciplines in which the notion of crisis has been used help us construct a philosophical concept of crisis?  Historically speaking, the notion of crisis plays an important role in Marxist and post-Marxist thought, where crisis is synonymous with contradiction, and commits philosophy to two theses: one, methodological, is to a dialectical, and specifically dialectical materialist view of history; the other, more substantial, is to the capitalist relations of production as the origin of all crises.  Because capitalism is intrinsically contradictory, it will sooner or later crumble under the weight of its own contradictions. Another important meaning of the concept of crisis, already mentioned, comes from legal and political theory, and defines the state of exception, that is, the sovereign’s right, under specific circumstances, to suspend the rule of law.  

Should we then hold on to what looks like a confused notion?  Is crisis at all useful as a concept?  I want to argue that it is, so long as we’re clear about what we mean by it.  And this is why I offer a precise and rather narrow definition of it.  When we speak of crisis, it seems that we draw on two different registers: a descriptive (or diagnostic) register, and a normative register.  On the one hand, by calling something a crisis, we’re saying that the status quo is somehow called in to question, that instability and unpredictability have replaced stability and predictability, that a given situation has been taken over by forces we don’t quite dominate, or even understand.  At the same time, and without knowing how – and this, I believe, is the source of much anxiety – we feel that something must be done.  In other words, whilst overwhelming and disruptive of our habits our ways of life and thinking, a crisis is also a call for action, and specifically for radical action.  Why radical?  Because crisis in the precise and narrow sense I have in mind does not consist of a mere deviation from a norm, or a set of norms, however statistically significant, but of a disruption of the norms themselves.  What we experience, in a time of crises, is a trembling or shaking of the norms that hitherto governed a given system or body, and this in such a way that we realise – and this, again, is a source of anxiety – that things cannot go back to ‘normal,’ that there will be a ‘before’ and ‘after’ the crisis, that new norms and a new normativity will need to be invented.  

My take-home message is that crisis is a useful notion in that it operates like a red flag.  It is a call for thought and action.  It is at once analytic and normative.

 

Warsaw, Poland. 27th March, 2020 (Photograph-Agencja Gazeta/Reuters).

What we experience, in a time of crises, is a trembling or shaking of the norms that hitherto governed a given system or body, and this in such a way that we realise – and this, again, is a source of anxiety – that things cannot go back to ‘normal,’ that there will be a ‘before’ and ‘after’ the crisis, that new norms and a new normativity will need to be invented.  

Naturally, the following question is that of its relevance for the current pandemic.  It is perhaps too early to draw conclusions.  But we can already make the following observations.  On the political front, we have seen two extreme responses, which echo what I said earlier: paralysis and/or inaction in the face of the magnitude of the problem; extreme and radical action, which uses the current crisis as a pretext to introduce, extend or deepen the state of exception, and thus the control of governments over peoples’ lives and liberties.  The truly philosophical and democratic attitude, in my view, consists in addressing the problems behind or beneath the pandemic, and asking difficult questions.  Those range from the nature of our health care system and hospitals to the deeper, broader environmental crisis, and the phenomenon known as globalisation.  This crisis is an opportunity to address the fundamental questions of our relation to, and our place on, the earth; our modes of production, consumption, and distribution, based on accumulation; and the manner in which they destabilize ecosystems, displace populations, and generate political turmoil.  
 

 Dublin, Ireland. 30th of March, 2020 (Photograph-Aidan Crawley/EPA)

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