Afflictions and hopes

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By Jose Costa Junior*

Tony Judt and Tzvetan Todorov, experienced the XNUMXth century with its tragedies and hopes and coincidentally wrote books with reflections that related the past and the future at the beginning of the XNUMXst century

Amidst the grandeur of the pandemic that leaves us reclusive and thoughtful, we review our plans and expectations. From the minister of the economy who had to revise his promises of growth, to the citizen who had to revise his more everyday plans, we all had to revise our expectations, surrendering ourselves to a future of uncertainty and uncertainty. We live in a curious situation where we don't even know when everything will return to what we called normal, much less if this so-called normality will be viable. As if the doubts about what will come were not enough, the health crisis of the pandemic has added to the social, political and economic crises that involve our time, in a set that contributes to our being even more bewildered. We remain attentive to all of this in an intense connection through the internet and social networks, which at all times bring us information and tensions. Even so, we still try to evaluate possibilities, with a mixture of skepticism and hope.

In the midst of the strange now that we live, revisiting two intellectuals who thought about the afflictions and hopes of the last century can be a stimulating exercise for us to reflect on what happened, what we lived and the possibilities for the future. Both linked to the study of history, but not only, they help us to review pasts and futures and think within the limits of what is possible. Tony Judt (1948-2010) and Tzvetan Todorov (1939-2017), experienced the XNUMXth century with its tragedies and hopes and coincidentally wrote books with reflections that related the past and the future at the beginning of the XNUMXst century. More than reviews or pamphlets by intellectuals who perceive the arrival of their own end, these are two well-formulated and organized constructions, which contribute a lot to reflect on this moment when thinking is inevitable.

British historian Tony Judt published Evil roams the earth: A treatise on the dissatisfactions of the present in 2009, after learning about the causes and effects of the great economic crisis that has plagued the world until today. In general, its objective is to analyze how the devaluation of the State and politics, including attacks on the achievements of the welfare state, were built over the last three decades of the twentieth century. In a very direct approach, Judt builds this analysis from the facts that occurred in the period, in a reflective and informative analysis. It is interesting how Judt anticipates many of the debates we are experiencing amid the pandemic, especially regarding the role of the state and citizens in democracies. Right at the beginning of the book, Judt offers a diagnosis of our times:

“There is something profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years, the search for material goods with a view to personal interest was considered a virtue: in fact, this search itself today constitutes the little that remains of our group feeling. We know the price of the thing of things, but we have no idea of ​​its value. We don't ask any more questions Will it help improve the world or society? These used to be the political questions, even if their answers weren't easy. We must once again learn to make them.” (p. 15)

It is interesting how the same questions posed by Judt in that paragraph resurface during the pandemic. The belief in a type of “entrepreneurial individualism” that was common until recently opened space for broader social reflections, where many of us begin to think of ourselves as a group of people who share space and life. Any analysis must consider the structural and social differences that will define the effect of the pandemic on people's lives, however, it is undeniable that the tensions of the moment impact everyone in some way. And the question arises: What can we do as a society to face these challenges? Even if some still maintain a denialist and extremist attitude, the question remains and requires an answer.

Judt also promotes a defense of the welfare state that greatly contributed to development in the post-war periods in the West, highlighting the role of building and attributing citizenship to this type of political organization. However, the devaluation of the state and politics by later generations, along with structural changes in Western societies (including greater individualism and shifts in social priorities and concerns), ended up questioning and limiting the effectiveness of the welfare state. The result is a world where trust and social ties are corrupted, where “those who can more, cry less”, and resentment boils over. So-called liberal economic conceptions, guided by questionable ideas about social construction and human fulfillment also contributed to this state of affairs. Among the consequences, Judt highlights:

“The materialistic and selfish character of contemporary life is not inherent to the human condition. Much of what seems “natural” today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with accumulating wealth, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing inequality between rich and poor. And, above all, the rhetoric that goes with these concepts: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the illusion of endless growth.” (p. 16)

In his defense of the revitalization of the state and social democracy, Judt recognizes the difficulties of a world different from the one in which his ideals flourished. However, he affirms the need to build social ties, beyond individualism and the resentments typical of a world in which many people feel increasingly abandoned. At this time, when we all feel somewhat insecure and concerned about the reality we will encounter when we return to common living, such concerns are also central. In addition to health and economic insecurities, political tensions and the polarization of contemporary societies amplify our fears a little more: as a fractured society, how are we going to think and build together?

The social democracy recalled and defended by Judt implies the acceptance of capitalism, along with representative democracy, in an environment in which interests hitherto neglected by large portions of the population would be addressed. In this way, established social security promoted expectations and bonds of trust that formed great societies. However, we seem to have forgotten this: “Why are we in such a hurry to demolish the dykes erected with so much effort by our predecessors? Are we absolutely sure there will never be floods again?” (p. 203). Well then: the “flood” has arrived, in the form of a pandemic with global social, political and economic implications. She found fractured societies, increasingly individualized citizens and questionable economic conceptions of global leaders who were unprepared for a challenge of this magnitude. More than ever, “evil roams the earth” and knowing this can be a differential for our actions in the short and medium term.

One might think that the Bulgarian-French Tzvetan Todorov is still in The Intimate Enemies of Democracy (2012) where Judt ended up: analyzing the threats to democracy that haunt the contemporary world. Also anticipating many of the political tensions of our time, Todorov promotes a humanist defense of democracy and the need to reflect on the world we live in, very welcome in a time where brutality and fear involve a good part of political discourse. Having lived under the totalitarianism of the XNUMXth century in his native Bulgaria, invaded by German Nazis and Soviet communists, Todorov helps us to think about the risks of messianic and savior discourses, which many can approach in times of fear and uncertainty.

Overall, Todorov's rich and sophisticated diagnosis also recognizes the tensions and difficulties of our time. And they also deal with aspects that challenge us in this moment of present and future insecurity. Based on what he calls “democracy malaise”, the author problematizes philosophical and anthropological conceptions such as freedom and will, highlighting the limits of the individualization processes that were increasingly constant in the West throughout the XNUMXth century. Also recognizing the difficulties of political construction and the totalitarian risks, Todorov promotes a familiar contemporary analysis of democratic challenges:

“The dangers inherent in the democratic idea itself arise when one of its ingredients is isolated and absolutized. What unites these various dangers is the presence of a form of excess. The people, freedom, progress are constitutive elements of democracy; but if one of them emancipates itself from its relations with the others, thus escaping any attempt at limitation and establishing itself as unique and absolute, they become threats: populism, ultraliberalism, messianism, in short, these intimate enemies of democracy. ” (p. 18)

In the case of the ultraliberalism that guides contemporary societies, a “tyranny of individuals” in Todorov's analysis, the risk is to forget the responsibilities and the collective coexistence that guide our existences. The absence of recognition of “common interests” ends up reducing society to the “sum of the people that compose it”. In a pandemic like the one we are experiencing, this type of society is at serious risk, since many individuals may prove resistant to collaborative and collective care practices to face the virus. The tensions of the false dilemma between “life and the economy” that guide our current debates provide a good example of what Todorov identifies as the first contemporary challenge to the construction of democratic societies.

In the case of messianism, Todorov highlights the risks of redemptive visions based on conceptions of “good” and “progress” that may come to devastate societies. In the name of ideals and assuming extreme views, many democracies can indulge in political daydreams and questionable social projects. A political figure with messianic discourses, who exploits people's feelings and resentments in moments of tension, can easily rise to power through democratic means, with the support of the masses, the "patriots" and the "good citizen" against the "enemies of the people". Coincidentally, this was the scenario in which the pandemic arrived: polarized societies, in which debate is made impossible by fanaticism fueled by social media and fascist political tendencies on the part of some in different parts of the world.

Finally, in the case of populism, its rise in so-called democratic societies has several examples in the XNUMXth century. However, with the expansion of information and communication technologies, the possibilities are greater at the beginning of the XNUMXth century. In a context of constant crises at all levels, the emergence of proposals “contrary to the system”, which promise “heaven on earth” and which find an echo in individualistic and poorly integrating dynamics, populism is perhaps the great contemporary risk to democracy . Inserted in a crisis that threatens our health, impacts our daily lives and our income, we can become easy prey for speeches that despise democracy and political rules.

Reading Judt and Todorov again while we are reclusive and socially distant, with their diagnoses and analyzes of the ways of life in contemporary societies, stimulates many reflections, of which we highlight a few here. Their voices underscore the importance of politics and people's responsibility, highlighting that excessive individualism can lead to even greater crises. They also encourage us to review our pasts and futures, trying to imagine scenarios where we limit the action of “democracy's intimate enemies” and their totalizing visions. These are circumstances that are very close to each other and that unfortunately can greatly amplify the terrible consequences of the coronavirus among us.

*Jose Costa Junior is professor of philosophy and social sciences – IFMG Campus Keep

References

JUDT, Tony. Evil roams the earth: A treatise on the dissatisfactions of the present. Translation by Celso Nogueira. Rio de Janeiro: Objective, 2011. (2010) (https://amzn.to/3OZSYuX)

TODOROV, Tzvetan. The Intimate Enemies of Democracy. Translation by Joana Angélica D'Ávila Melo. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2012 (https://amzn.to/3DZf6zk)

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