Caring for the pandemic world

rome, june 2020
pantxo ramas

pantxo ramas is a researcher and activist. pantxo’s work focuses on the relation between society and institutions in health, care and culture. pantxo is a member of the militant research collective www.entrarafuera.net and of Conferenza Permanente per la Salute Mentale nel Mondo. His recent research work on the radical artistic practices of emancipation in the Basaglia’s mental health revolution in Trieste is published on www.palinsestobasagliano.info and it has been founded by the Royal Academy of Spain in Rome.

(Images from Zitti e Buoni, Ugo Guarino, Feltrinelli, 1979)

At the beginning of May, we understood one thing: even if the extraordinary measures of social isolation are no longer there, the pandemic is not over.

It is not over at global level, because there have never been so many deaths in the world as there are today, even if the first wave seems to have slowed down in Europe. It’s not over because there is no way back to “normality” and our everyday relationships have changed (who knows for how long?): not only physically but also socially, alas, distancing, the distrust of the other, the desire to stay at home, the fear of the skin and, at least for me, of eros.

But, above all, the pandemic is not over because there was no “event” to end it. In the pandemic world, that is what we have and will have in our hands from now on, the present is constantly uncertain and there is no program. We are caught up in a continuous present and this is the problem “we have to stay with” to paraphrase Donna Haraway. So maybe we need to reflect on the characteristics of this sudden, indeterminate, never-ending, never-still time in order to care for the world.

In the last twenty/thirty years, once the Leninist time of the future to chase was over, my generation was squeezed between two imminent and profoundly different futures: an anterior future to imitate and an upcoming future always ready to collapse on us. On the one hand, the anterior future of the struggles that in the 1970s in Europe had managed to put into crisis the Modern and Fordist total institutions:1 (from asylums to factories, school and university, and so on), but also those struggles that in (Latin and Anglo-Saxon) America during the 1980s and 1990s had opened a radically biopolitical conflict against neoliberalism (from Actup’s struggles on AIDS to the 1992 uprisings, both the indigenous struggles of the Five Hundred Years after the Conquest and the African-American struggles of Los Angeles against police violence and racial discrimination, and eventually the Zapatista global awakening of the desire for another world).

On the other hand, the upcoming future of my generation was determined by the dizziness of precariousness and the inexorable and daily affirmation of “capitalist realism” in the interstices of our personal and political life. It is enough to think about our experience of “cognitive” labour”, where the valorisation of desire affects all the underlying and accumulated differences of class, gender and race: between those who can or cannot afford to refuse “that” shitty job. Or let’s think about the home (no, unfortunately not “housing rights”): in other words, the intergenerational model of indebtedness that has allowed capital to take back from the children the money that the Fordist generation had snatched from the bosses. Mortgages are the way in which ‘family’ affects have been transformed into an object of financial interaction. Other similar dynamics could be traced regarding education and even the crisis of political representation, and so on. During three decades, we have been living along the threshold of the catastrophe.

Now we are immersed in a continuous present in which catastrophe can be part of our daily life at any time. We are beyond the threshold, as Nic Beuret told us in an interview conducted by Pandemie Locali, a small investigation project by the Chopin collective about the situated knowledges and critiques during the lockdown times. And beyond certain thresholds there are no more events capable of changing the world: to stop climate change or avoid the pandemic. The world is damaged and it is necessary to think about new forms of politics, outside the logic of events that can “change the world”. We can only think within a radical strategy of inventing new ways of life in common.

Perhaps, this is also something that we are told by the streets that have exploded in recent weeks in the United States, and that we have seen in the multiplication of mechanical eyes that reproduce the world, have read in the articles that narrate the events and outline analyses, and we have translated and experienced in an attempt to return to the streets also in Europe. Because it is not a new event that produces the revolt, but the continuous repetition of what always happens: the violence against George Floyd is not anything new, but rather the repetition of the inexorable sense of a time without transformations.

Perhaps then, in order to radically care for the world, we need to start from the world that exists: it is not enough to destroy the old one to imagine a new one. “De-fund the police!” because only through the physical and social isolation of racist, both institutional and micropolitical, practices and through other radically democratic public policies will it be possible to create new ways of life in common. Defund the police immediately calls for a counter power: to move those resources elsewhere and to activate energies that can support other ways of living in community⎯another sense of a life in common.

The imagination of another world thus becomes a different problem from what our sentimental and political education has taught us so far. No longer the production of the future as a forthcoming imagination, other than what we have, but the reproduction of the present as a divergent becoming, that permanently flees from what we have. During the lockdown, Raul Sanchez Cedillo reflected with irony and hope: we are like Schrödinger’s cat, locked in our houses, and it is up to us not to be dead when the box opens.

We must strike, Raul said, because this pandemic has revealed not only that the dynamics of profit and capital accumulation can only happen if “life survives,” but also that the processes of exploitation organized in contemporary production are materially antagonistic to life. Beyond biopolitics, the necropolitical dimension at the center of the pandemic conflict between capital and health is nothing more than the generalization of a model that has always been the norm outside white, bourgeois, heteronormative and patriarchal society, that is, outside that little piece of Europe that reproduces its own privilege through the death of others. And yet it is us who reproduce the world (and some of us, like me, often within that privilege) and therefore to act this reproduction in a divergent direction means “to strike”: not only as a refusal of the world that exists, but above all as a re-appropriation of our time and our nature in the world that we have. Again, outside the logic of events and within a radical strategy of inventing of new ways of life.

In recent years, indeed in recent decades, these strategies have repeatedly asserted themselves materially, outside the major dynamics of power: experiments, narratives and imaginations that on a daily basis have built up elsewheres. Today the most articulated plans of this strategy are revealed on at least three levels. We can start from global feminisms against sexist and masculine violence and for autonomy and emancipation. Second, the practices of violation of the color line that continually emerge in the exercise of the right to move and in the occupations of public space, in recent weeks obviously Black Lives Matter. And, third, the campaigns of ecological movements but also the political action of nature itself as a radical and “more than human” refusal of the destruction of Gaia: a refusal that implies in itself other logics and other logistics of life.

Outside the politics of events, the possibility is to produce a strategy as an intersection of plans, many plans. The present continuity of a damaged world implies the impossibility of programming for the future, as something yet to come and separate from our everyday life. Rather, we can make worlds, we can draw material plans, and we can assemble many of them in a common strategy. Each of us can draw a consistent plan from her personal situation and knowledge, in a world that we share with everybody else. Therefore, each of us can draw starting from her singular responsibility, but we can strategize only if we share and compose our plans with many others: only if we, as an open and collective we, assemble an “ability to respond” together, as Donna Haraway has beautifully reversed the sense of the word “response-ability”.

Myself, I try to act from the world of mental health, in the refusal of the social production of diagnosed and psychiatricised people as the stigmatization of those of us that escape hegemonic patterns of normality; also, I try to act in the offensive denunciation against every total institution, those that act everyday and still we do not see: prisons, migrant and refugees detentions centers, psychiatric hospitals, caring homes. But, above all, I try to act in the collective affirmation of a practice of emancipation of difference, that affirms today more than ever that this divergent possibility, this divergent becoming, can only be acted by the deviant majority. The deviant majority in the words of Franco Basaglia and in the drawings of Ugo Guarino. A majority outside of normality, a majority constituted in its own manifold difference, a majority capable of acting together to “care for the world”.

I follow Starhawk on her reflections on social permaculture to say that, to care for the world, one must try to inhabit the thresholds between the past, the present and the future. First of all, we need to care for the past, that is, to analyze and intervene on the structural problems of our social organization. Lucia Delgado of the Platform de Afectados por la Hipoteca in Barcelona proposed a very effective example: if we have been able to curb the contagion curve of Covid 19, through a practice of collective care in the face of danger, we must take responsibility for curbing another curve that has long been violent in our society. This is the curve of evictions, dispossessions and the violation of housing rights in the name of global finance profits. In that sense, caring for the past means understanding the structural dynamics of the neoliberal world in order to transform it: we need to organize transversal campaigns capable of intervening and transforming the world that we have, because caring for the past means above all not leaving anyone behind.

Caring for the present, on the other hand, means transforming this practice of critique into an instituting intervention. In this direction, Sandro Mezzadra offers another very useful example to face the present as a not determined time, but one to be determined. Looking at the role of digital platforms and their logistics in the period of the lockdown, Mezzadra pointed out how critique allows us to read the emergence of new modes of governance, for example looking at the crucial role that digital platforms had in organizing our life during the lockdown, permitting us access to care, food or education; but also to envisage the role they will have in sustaining a certain continuity of “immunity” in the permanent pandemic. At the same time, however, this new plan of social organization is absolutely determined by the common production of that “value” that the platforms “organize”. We can draw a clear field of conflict in this becoming common of social production: will we be able to “organize” and create the public and common institutions that will allow us to enjoy together what is common? Or will we be powerless, alone and disorganized and will we be once more dispossessed? Caring, then, is a radical practice of organization and transformation of the present.

Finally, in order to care for the world, we must care for the social ways of organizing our life in common. Andrea Ghelfi and Martina Martignoni compose their project of militant agriculture within the critique of global agribusiness. If the global food economy is based on the conditions of precarious mobility and racial blackmailing of labor, on the global logistical chains of commodities and finally on the oligopoly of a few corporations, then the pandemic puts this scheme into crisis. The crucial role of those who work in the food production system today, and their struggles, together with the logistical effects of global public health rules are producing a great financial instability, an instability that affects the debt and profit cycles of corporations. Outside the politics of events, the possibility of affirming another life in common certainly passes through the struggles against these modes of exploitation, but this is not enough. We can pursue our imminent future only by inventing ways of transition that structure the social reproduction (of food, in this case) in another way: in the organization of common labor as the care of the earth; in the globalization of social solidarity with all those who participate in production, but are excluded from distribution; in the recognition of nature, as life, as a political agent and as a bearer of rights.

In the quest for this imminent future, we are increasingly immersed in a present in which caring for the world means caring for life, as a common and collective project. And in which caring for the world means caring for this world here: a pandemic world. The best of all possible worlds since it is the only one we have.