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The new coronavirus pandemic has called into question many of the political certitudes that seemed to have been consolidated over the past forty years, especially in what is known as the global North. The main certitudes were the following: capitalism’s final victory over its great historical competitor Soviet socialism; the primacy of markets in regulating not only the economy but social life as well, with the consequent privatization and deregulation of both the economy and social policies and the reduction of the State’s role in regulating collective life; the globalization of the economy based on comparative advantages in production and distribution; the brutal flexibilization (read precarity) of labor relations as a precondition for an increase in employment and economic growth. Taken together, these certitudes made up the neoliberal order. It was an order that fed on the disorder in people’s lives, especially in the lives of those who reached adulthood during those decades. Let us just remember that the generation of young people who entered the job market in the 2000s has already gone through two economic crises, that of 2008 and the current pandemic crisis. But the pandemic has meant a lot more than that. More specifically, it has shown that it is the State, not the markets, that has the capacity to protect citizens’ lives; that globalization may put the survival of citizens at risk if each country fails to produce the essential goods it needs; that casual workers are the ones most severely hit because they find themselves without any source of income or social protection as soon as they lose their job – an experience the global South has long been familiar with; that many people have again started to playing with the idea of social democratic and socialist alternatives, not just because the ecological destruction brought about by capitalism’s infinite expansion has reached the limit, but also because it turned out that the countries that did not privatize or decapitalize their labs (Russia and China) seem to have been the most effective of all in terms of producing vaccines and the most fair in distributing them.
It is no surprise that financial analysts at the service of those who created the neoliberal order now predict that we are entering a new era – the era of disorder. This is only understandable, given that they are incapable of imagining anything outside the neoliberal playbook. Their diagnosis is very lucid and their concerns are real. Let us look at some of the main outlines. Over the past thirty years, the wages of workers in the global North have stagnated while social inequalities continued to increase. The pandemic has only worsened this scenario, which is very likely to result in much social unrest. During this period a class struggle has, indeed, been waged by the rich against the poor, and the resistance of those who so far have been defeated could erupt at any moment. Empires in their final stages of decline tend to choose cartoonish characters, such as Boris Johnson in England or Donald Trump in the U.S., and all they do is precipitate the end. In the wake of the pandemic, the foreign debt of many countries will be unpayable and unsustainable, a fact the financial markets do not seem to be aware of. The same will happen with household debt, especially among the middle class, given that this was the last resort of many families in the attempt to maintain their standard of living. Some countries have opted for the easy path of international tourism (the hospitality and catering industry), a typically face-to-face activity that will certainly suffer from permanent uncertainty in the future. China has made progress toward again becoming the world’s leading economy, a position it held for centuries until the beginning of the 19th century. The second wave of capitalist globalization (1980-2020) is over and nobody knows what will come next. The era of social policy privatization with an eye to profiteering (namely in the area of medicine) seems to have reached an end.
Such (sometimes bold) diagnoses suggest that we are about to enter a period marked by options that will be more decisive and less comfortable than those we’ve been faced with in recent decades. I can foresee three main paths.
The first I call negationism. It does not partake of the dramatic nature of the assessment offered above, nor does it see the current crisis as a threat to capitalism. On the contrary, it believes that capitalism has only grown stronger because of the crisis. After all, the number of billionaires kept rising during the pandemic, with some sectors even increasing their profits as a result of it (as was the case with Amazon or communication technologies like Zoom). There is the recognition that the social crisis is going to get worse; in order to contain it, all the State needs to do is reinforce its “law and order” system and increase its capacity to suppress social protests – which have already started to be felt and will certainly keep erupting – by expanding its police forces, retraining the army to target “domestic enemies”, strengthening digital surveillance and expanding the prison system. In this scenario, neoliberalism will continue to dominate the economy and society. Admittedly, we will be dealing with a genetically modified neoliberalism, if it is to defend itself against the Chinese virus. A neoliberalism in times of exacerbated cold war with China, mind you, and therefore mingled with a measure of nationalistic populism.
The second option, gattopardism, is the one that most directly serves the interests of those sectors who recognize that some reforms will be necessary if the system is to continue to function, in other words, if the return on capital is to continue to be guaranteed. I call this option gattopardism, an allusion to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel Il Gattopardo: change is necessary if everything is to stay the same, i.e., if that which is essential is to be preserved. Thus, for instance, the public health sector has to be expanded and social inequalities have to be reduced, but no thought is given to changes in the production system or the financial system, the exploitation of natural resources, the destruction of nature, or consumption patterns. This position implicitly sees that negationism may gain the upper hand and fears that this may end up making gattopardism unfeasible. The legitimacy of gattopardism rests on the forty-year coexistence between capitalism and democracy – a low-intensity, well-tamed kind of democracy, wary of jeopardizing the economic and social model while still ensuring a number of human rights that make radical rejection of the system and anti-systemic insurgency more difficult. Without the safety valve of reforms, whatever social peace there is will cease to exist, thereby making repression inevitable.
But there is a third position, which I term transitionism. For the time being, it only inhabits the anguished non-conformity now mushrooming in multiple places: in the ecological activism of urban young people worldwide; in the sense of outrage and the resistance of peasants and of the indigenous, Afro-descendant, forest and riverine populations faced with the illegal invasion of their land and with being abandoned by the State when the pandemic hit; in the calls for the relevance of all the care-related tasks carried out by women, be it in the anonymity of households, in the context of the struggles of popular movements, or at the head of governments and health policies in various countries; in the new rebellious activism of a host of artists, poets, theater groups and rappers, mainly from the periphery of large cities, which has been aptly called artivism. This is the position that views the pandemic as a sign that the civilizational model that has been dominant in the world since the 16th century has come to an end and that a transition to a different civilizational model or models needs to begin. The current model is based on the unfettered exploitation of nature and human beings, on the notion of infinite economic growth, on the primacy of individualism and private property, and on secularism. The model has produced impressive technological advances. But it channeled the resulting benefits to a few social groups while causing and legitimizing the exclusion of other, actually more numerous social groups, by way of three principal modes of domination: worker exploitation (capitalism); racism with its legitimizing of massacres and of the plundering of races viewed as inferior, as well as the appropriating of their resources and knowledge (colonialism); and sexism with its legitimizing of the devaluation of care work performed by women and of the systemic violence against them, both in the domestic and public sphere (patriarchy).
At the same time that it exacerbated inequalities and discrimination, the pandemic clearly showed that unless we change our civilizational model, new pandemics will continue to plague humankind, causing unforeseeable harm both to human and non-human life. Given that the civilization model cannot be changed overnight, it is imperative that we start designing transition policies. Hence the term transitionism.
Although transitionism is still a minority position, I think it holds a more promising future for human and non-human life on the planet, and therefore deserves greater attention. Based on it, it is possible to foresee that we are about to enter an era of paradigmatic transition which in turn will comprise several transitions. Transitions occur when a dominant individual and collective way of life that is the product of a given economic, social, political and cultural system begins to find it more and more difficult to reproduce itself, at the same time that more and more unequivocal signs and practices indicative of new, qualitatively different ways of life start to sprout in its midst. The idea of transition is a profoundly political one, in that it presupposes the co-presence of two alternative, possible horizons, one dystopian and the other utopian. From the point of view of transitionism, doing nothing – a characteristic of negationism – does entail a transition, but a regressive one. In fact, it amounts to a transition to a hopelessly dystopian future, one in which all of today’s evils and dysfunctions will increase in number and intensity, truly a future without a future, because human life will become unlivable, as is already the case for so many in our present world. On the contrary, transitionism points toward a utopian horizon. And since utopia is unattainable by definition, transition is potentially infinite, but no less urgent. If we do not start right away, tomorrow may be too late, according to the warnings coming not only from climate change and global warming scientists but also from peasants, who are the ones bearing the brunt of the dramatic effects of extreme weather events. The most salient feature of transitions is that you never know for certain when they begin and when they end. Viewed from the future, our present times may very well be assessed very differently from the way we see them today. It may even be that the transition will be seen as having already started, but is constantly being blocked. The other main feature is that a transition is barely visible to those who live it. Such relative invisibility is the flip side of the semi-blindness with which we have to live during transition times. These are times of trial and error, of progress and setbacks, of persistent and ephemeral change, of fads and obsolescences, of departures in the guise of arrivals and vice versa. Transition is not fully identifiable until it happens.
Negationism, gattopardism and transitionism are soon going to clash with one another, and most likely the clash is going to be less peaceful and democratic than one might wish. One thing is certain: The time for major transitions has been inscribed on the skin of our time and may even disprove Dante’s line. Dante wrote that “foreseen, an arrow comes more slowly” (che saetta previsa viene più lenta). We are seeing the arrow of ecological catastrophe coming toward us. It is coming so fast that at times it feels like it has already pierced us. Even if we succeed in removing it, it will not be without pain.
*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Portuguese professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), distinguished legal scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, and global legal scholar at the University of Warwick. Co-founder and one of the main leaders of the World Social Forum. Article provided to Other News by the author.