How have philosophers responded to the pandemic?
Philosophical proposals on a reorganisation of global economy and political ecology could help us find the way forward.
In her message to mark World Philosophy Day 2020, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay underlined the exceptional nature of this year’s celebration.
“This day is particularly meaningful this year,” she said. “It gives us the opportunity to celebrate much more than an academic discipline or a human science, but a certain way of being in the world made all the more necessary by the context in which we live today.”
The context Azoulay was referring to, of course, is the coronavirus pandemic that has touched every aspect of our lives. Indeed, from Barcelona to Baghdad, COVID-19 has radically altered the daily routines of everyone, that is, their “being in the world”.
Unlike the September 11 attacks and the 2008 financial crisis – the first two supposedly global events of the 21st century – this pandemic has not spared anyone anywhere, and its consequences will continue to be felt for decades in every corner of the world.
The global nature of this emergency has compelled everyone to contribute to the efforts to end it either professionally or in a personal capacity. While immunologists, doctors, and nurses became indispensable in the quest to develop vaccines and assist patients, others contributed simply by wearing masks and offering to help their vulnerable neighbours during lockdowns.
But how have philosophers contributed? Can “the love for wisdom”, as it is classically defined, make any difference in a pandemic?
As Karl Marx once pointed out, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Something we learned this year, however, is that this truism must be reversed.
The pandemic is a direct consequence of the imperative for growth at all costs, especially through extractive wealth-concentrating capitalism, and at the expanse of the environment. This should make us all think whether any of us have spent enough time interpreting the world around us, and whether our actions have been preceded by thoughtful consideration and debate.
The recent US presidential election, in which the isolationist “America first” candidate experienced a crushing defeat, signalled a growing consensus that this unprecedented global emergency requires a global solution. If this is indeed the case, then philosophy can contribute in a great way to the resolution of this crisis. After all, unlike “experts” who often have a narrow focus and offer localised solutions, philosophy always aspires to address problems from a global perspective.
Many renowned philosophers, such as Judith Butler, Achille Mbembe, and Giorgio Agamben, have written about the pandemic and the lessons all peoples of the world could learn from it, but there are two thinkers whose global perspective can especially help stem our obsession to change the world without taking the time to interpret it first – Slavoj Zizek and Bruno Latour.
Zizek and Latour do not necessarily agree on how we can overcome this pandemic, but they both offer new ideas and questions that might at least prepare us for the next global emergency.
Zizek asserts that the way we deal with this pandemic “ultimately depends on our basic stance toward human life”. This is why he believes this emergency, more than it has changed the world, has brought to the fore those issues – such as extreme inequality, the commodified digitisation of our lives, and institutional disregard for the environment – that were raging beneath the surface all along.
The fact that there are billions of people, from refugees to those trapped in extreme poverty or in war zones, for whom COVID-19 is a comparatively minor issue is an indication that we are not “all in the same boat” as many suggest.
This is also evident for those who cannot work from home, in safe isolation, and must instead spend their day working in supermarkets, distribution depots, factories and on the streets, protected only by whatever safety measures their employers care to offer them. In order for some to survive in their private quarantine, Zizek explains, many have to risk their lives for nothing more than the smooth functioning of the world capitalist market.
According to the Slovenian thinker, the pandemic not only reveals these devastating consequences of capitalism, but also presents an opportunity for the reinvention of communism. He is not talking about a possible rebirth of the old-style communism of the Soviet Union, but rather a “reorganisation of global economy which will no longer be at the mercy of market mechanisms”. Alongside the viral pandemic, Zizek calls also for a confrontation with the pandemic of inequality and ecological degradation – a reconsideration of our entire stance towards life and nature.
This reconsideration is also at the centre of Bruno Latour’s response to the pandemic. The renowned French philosopher of science suggests that the coronavirus emergency should be understood as a “dress rehearsal” for the ongoing ecological crisis.
The coronavirus epidemic, he explains, is not simply a stand-alone health crisis but part of a much bigger problem, a moment within the ongoing global ecological annihilation.
While it might be true that we have now acknowledged the need to fight this virus collectively, this acknowledgement did not expand to the ongoing ecological crisis, as not many have drawn the connection between the continued degradation of the environment and the outbreak of this sickness.
According to the French thinker, the pandemic calls for a new definition of society that is not limited to “humans among themselves” but also includes other actors who do not have human forms such as “microbes, [the] internet, the law, the organisation of hospitals, the logistics of the state, as well as the climate.”
When this pandemic is over, Latour believes, it will be our obligation to demand from politicians that economic recovery does not bring back the climate policies that created this condition in the first place. The fact that we managed in a few weeks to put our economic system on hold everywhere is a demonstration that it is possible to instantly stop the so-called capitalist train of progress and create an alternative. “If I could change one thing,” as he recently said, “it would be to get out of the system of production and instead build a political ecology.”
Both Zizek and Latour, as well as other philosophers who have publicly reflected on this pandemic, concur that this is the time to reconsider our “way of being in the world”. For too long we have changed the world too rapidly without thinking carefully about the consequences. This is why both Zizek and Latour welcome the lockdowns that forced many into a kind of retreat to think, question, and imagine new ways to create a better future.
While Zizek’s call for “a reorganisation of global economy” and Latour’s desire for “political ecology” might sound unrealistic even during this pandemic, even merely thinking about these ideas could exert enough pressure on us to reconsider our “way of being in” and interpreting the world.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.