All over the world, people are running to grocery stores to hoard toilet paper and sanitizer gel — subject to availability. These people have been endlessly shamed on social media for their selfishness and egoism. The meme world has been on point for taking up this image to make an analogy with the global system: some people have been hoarding billions away for no apparent reason. The toilet paper fiasco is an apt reflection of what economic rationality entirely based on accumulation leads to: disruption, chaos, inequality, anxiety and despair. This scene is key to making a point about the idea of survival. Hollywood doomsday scenarios usually have an insidious moral to them: you can only trust very few people, that’s why you must fend for yourself and your immediate kin — otherwise, you’re doomed. No one can help you. Without moralizing, I actually think that shaming those who hoard is a missed opportunity for thought and analysis.
Of course, once doomsday hits, my priority will be saving my immediate kin. That is to say, toilet paper will not be the most urgent concern on my mind. The distaste for this style of doomsday behavior arises from elsewhere. This farcical, non-epic performance of disaster speaks to a more general disillusionment at the heart of the way we think about survival and death. It saps away all that could be ethically and politically valuable to our drive towards self-preservation. In contrast to the modern total ejection of the meaning of death beyond self-preservation, there is a whole medieval tradition concerned with just that: Ars Moriendi, which literally means “The Art of Dying.” Those texts were written in the 15th century, following the horrors of the Black Death, to train people on how to maintain their integrity, dignity and courage in the face of death. The 21st century may have a lot of ideas about what it means to live well, but toilet paper jungle surely indicates we have no idea how to also die well.
Must survival be a sad, lonely affair?
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Italian newspaper Quodlibet ran a piece by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben titled ‘Reflections on the Crisis,’ which has created a furor across academic Twitter and the leftist commentariat (e.g. here and here). The essay puts to use the philosopher’s key ideas — of state of exception, biopolitics and sovereignty — to attack the global intensification of emergency measures to suppress the pandemic. Agamben’s argument bids us to pause. He is struck by the way the so-called orthodox scientific view espoused by some experts has led the public to renounce and abandon what could be called ethical life — a philosophical expression that refers to common, everyday social life, conventions and habits, and includes kinship, friendship, work, religion, etc. — the sacred social bonds that tie us together and give our life meaning. In particular, the first measure of the crisis, “social distancing,” pissed Agamben off. To him, this first response to the new coronavirus crisis, which involved emergency measures forcing people to self-isolate, is only a continuation of the problematic, systematic sacrifice of ethical life in pursuit of basic biological survival. His fears center on how politics prioritizes the survival of biological life, over and above the ‘qualified’ fulfilled life of community. A life of bare survival is a life not worth living. As soon as Agamben’s intervention appeared in the newspaper, the realm of social media and leftist commentariat was angry and perplexed. The prevalent opinion — with which I agree —is that such an argument evinces a deep political paranoia that has long taken hold of philosophy, and/or that philosophy is losing touch with actual reality. Agamben bases his argument at an earlier stage of the virus outbreak on a false binary between biological survival on the one hand, and social life on the other. Now it can’t be refuted that social distancing saves lives — Without social distancing, we will cause deaths.
The return of the welfare state?
The state, notoriously, also has a claim on the values of life, and death. The fiction called “the economy” forces the state to continuously measure and enhance the health and productivity of its population, sometimes in complete disregard to other important values, like political freedom. Therefore, it matters to ask ourselves why we need to survive, and what is politically at stake in survival.
Funnily enough, many have noticed that “everyone’s a socialist in a crisis.” This does not mean a total transformation of government, but rather the return of the question of what the “social good” must be. The Tory government in the UK has suddenly loosened its zeal for austerity in the new budget. In the US, a stimulus package has been signed by Trump in support of those affected by the lockdown. Nevertheless the efficacy of such a stimulus package, especially in terms of protecting the most vulnerable groups, is still a point of contention. Meanwhile, Ireland has nationalized its hospitals, and there have been calls in the US for a similar policy. The taboo around nationalization as a term seems to have disappeared overnight, and now even a right-wing French minister is not embarrassed to propose it. Calls for rent controls, student loan cancellations, and a universal basic income are now more commonplace. It is still premature to predict what the effects of this shift in the public conversation around policy could produce. But if there is, in fact, a return of so-called Keynesianism, what might that mean?
The Tragic Heart of Realism
The past two weeks, I’ve been re-reading Geoff Mann’s book In the Long Run, We are all Dead (2017), which covers the conceptual history of Keynesianism. Mann’s book starts with the following two quotes that link the disaster with our complicated experience of time:
‘The plague ends too; it rights itself. But hundreds of thousands have perished of it; they’re all dead. Everything has thereby been straightened out again.” – G.W.F. Hegel
“But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.” – J. M. Keynes
The two quotes share an almost resolute confrontation of the reality of the “tempestuous season” and “the plague.” But they also challenge the view that the long, deadly calm after the storm is reason to give up thinking and action. Everything of significance happens between the tempestuous season and the long calm. This is the time we should be concerned with.
Keynesianism is the political-economic doctrine, named after John Maynard Keynes (1883-1947), that evolved in light of the Great Depression, and on the eve of the Second World War. Keynes believed that the (then) classical liberal economic belief that markets should take care of themselves in the long-run is dangerous and untenable, because markets depend on a great level of uncertainty and fear among capitalists. This creates a gap between the ideal use of resources (say, full employment) and the actual capital invested. This gap is what gives us the systematic tensions in capitalism that drive unemployment. In turn, he proposed a more active role for governments in correcting the failures of markets and expanding effective consumer demand for goods to lower interest rates and achieve full employment. His theories were realized, albeit indirectly, years later and during the postwar era, helping strengthen social-democratic policy and shaping the modern welfare state.
Since the French Revolution of 1789, Mann argues that the liberal-leftist imaginary in the West has been captivated by both a deep fascination with the mythos of the revolutionary eruption, along with a deep fear of its bloody consequences and potential for getting out of control. Revolutions are breaths of freedom, but they are also apocalypses, days of reckoning, when the whole social order stands on the brink of collapse. In the face of this fear and fascination, there are three usual responses: a nostalgia for tradition (conservatism), a celebration and anticipation for another revolution (radicalism), and a disavowal of revolution in support of the status quo (liberalism). But in all three cases, the terror and glory of the apocalypse must remain alive. It seems like this is one thing that the secular mind has inherited from religion — a belief in eschatology.
Mann shows that there is, in fact, a fourth option that is far more difficult to articulate and even harder to live by, although it sounds intuitive. Mann calls this option “Keynes.” Keynes knew that collapse, trouble and danger were always immanent and latent in capitalism. And he also knew that those troubles were not external to the way capitalism works, they are the logical byproduct of its inner workings. He relentlessly attacked the liberal mind that lived in denial of those troubles or blamed them on external forces. The liberal creed lets the majority suffer, because things will take care of themselves in the long run. “In the long run, we are all dead” was Keynes’s witty answer.
But Keynes was no radical either. He did not have enough hope or optimism in the prospects of radical transformation or a radically more equal society. His was a tragic, resigned but resolute, view on history: Social life (or what he called ‘modern community’) is a fragile, difficult achievement that must always be guided by careful, pragmatic and wise choices, made by individuals in power who know when to act for the sake of the social good, and also know when not to act. They are not called on to create grand utopias or moral dogmas — in fact they must disavow utopia altogether, and instead remain committed to the responsibility of maintaining the ordinary conventions of life: life as it is actually lived by people, not as imagined by intellectuals. They must always make sure that the realm of poverty, need and necessity (survival?) is given its due attention and place in public life, lest it gets out of control and becomes a force of fate, in revolution, reaction or both. Keynes accepted that modern social life produces trouble in its wake – the dangers of unrest, chaos, poverty, hunger, disease and death – but this was no occasion for summoning divine or natural justice against the world — either ululation at the arrival of the gods, nor paralyzing fear and trembling before their terrors – only responsibility, resilience, and resolution.
Counterpoint: Thinking beyond the state
There is a dark side to the possible return of the welfare state. The welfare state is the best illustration of the state’s relationship to life and death-obsessed with metrics and measures and wellbeing, only in the service of increasing productivity and so-called social stability. It also grants the state tremendous surveillance power. Therefore, despite all the virtues that we may learn from Keynes and his legacy, or the historic successes of national healthcare and social benefits, the original problem as stated in the beginning, has not been resolved. For even if policy occasionally tames the excesses of inequality and capitalist chaos, it does not address the deeper moral problem we’re facing — the value of life and death, beyond economic metrics.
That said, there are clear indicators there are some takeaways from the notion of a welfare state, which leaves us suspended in a conundrum. In other words, while we should maintain a critical cautiousness of the welfare state, the current crisis presents an opportune moment for us to interrogate this model toward integrating some of its aspirations toward the future. The left now has a historic opportunity to make an argument and mobilize for better, more just, and more reasonable policy. Now is a great time to legitimize reform. Simultaneously, we must be cautious of the limits of reform, limits placed upon us by the logic of government itself, even if wielded for the benefit of a greater good. Once we let the value of life be decided by metrics, numbers, budgets and experts, we’ll still fail to address another problem. What is the value of living in a political community to begin with? How can we remain, as both individuals and citizens, responsible for the life we share with others?
In her book Emergency Politics, the political theorist Bonnie Honig argues against the two dominant ways of thinking about emergency and survival. The first is the one that identifies all emergencies with a justification for authoritarian terror and control. The other response wishes to translate emergency as a risk to be tamed, controlled and governed merely via procedure, policy and institutions, in disregard for the significance of emergency and survival in the daily political experience of active citizens.
Honig demonstrates a very different democratic potential in emergency, one of tragedy, mourning, maintenance, care and ordinary life. The emergency is only a reminder to the paradox at the heart of every social order; we usually do not know what to do and how to remain good, when we are the authors of our own laws. This is the tragedy of having to face such a tragic choice between letting the elderly die or bringing economic ruin to others. We do not know what to do because there is no rulebook to tell us what we must do, and it is this very indecision that shapes us as citizens. But while for many, this only spells doom to the possibility of democracy, because it tempts us to delegate all responsibility to the hands of an absolute lawmaker in order to evade all responsibility for our choices, but not out of necessity, however. This emergency, this stark tragic choice, can be an education in political virtue and responsibility, in having the wisdom to judge and act in a context where you control so little. This is what tragedy actually means and teaches, and this is why it was always central to political imagination — from Greek classics to the Torah to Shakespeare. It is not a coincidence that in all three cases, plagues are all-too-common.
The choices we face
The religious traditions that evoked a notion of the “end of times,” or a “day of judgment” were also socio-political revolutions. The origins of this way of thinking about time was originally linked to the mission of enacting a moral and political transformation of society. This trope may have survived in the mythic imagination of modernity, but without the political fervor and power it used to carry. Therefore, it is increasingly ambiguous. Does it call upon us to act — in the here and now — to orient ourselves back to the world and maintain it? Or does it drive us toward paralysis of the mind and the body, toward confusion and despair?
There are several ways of thinking about survival, emergency and states of exception, and the political implications that stem from each. One identifies the exception with authoritarian control and egoistic, desperate and anxious competition (think of the toilet paper example). The second response wishes to control emergency, via technocratic control, good policy and expertise (the welfare state). The third response attends to the value of crisis in shaping the moral character and integrity of active citizens, in judging and deciding how to act. Those scenarios are not opposed to each other. In fact, I predict that the result will be a mix of all three. That’s why a higher tolerance for ambivalent and ambiguous outcomes is much better than making neat predictions and announcing historic, epochal changes.
To survive this moment, we must reckon with basic, albeit difficult questions: Can a different relationship to survival and emergency be summoned? Can survival become a calling towards re-orienting ourselves towards the commonplace — our everyday life, our ordinary relationships, norms, habits, systems and loyalties? Can it become an occasion to pause, reflect and therefore return back to the every day with a renewed sensibility — one more aware of the importance of maintenance, care and courage?