The Civilizing Enigma

Image_Elyeser Szturm

Poe André Márcio Neves Soares*

We set off a kind of time bomb when we go from being a mere “extra being” in nature to the top of the food chain, among all living beings, without a “deactivation” button for this time bomb

The scientific popularizer and author of the book “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (“Floodflow: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic”), David Quammen, an avowed Darwinian materialist, is quite clear about what this pandemic represents:

“Humans are more numerous than any other large animal in Earth's history. And that represents a form of ecological imbalance that cannot go on forever. At some point there will be a natural correction. It happens with many species: when they are too numerous for ecosystems, something happens to them. They run out of food, or new predators evolve to devour them, or viral pandemics bring them down. Viral pandemics interrupt, for example, population explosions of insects that parasitize trees. There is an analogy there with humans.”

Indeed, if we are more than 7 billion people, no animal compares to our degree of evolution on earth. But this is a huge problem at this time of a pandemic. The extraordinary reproduction capacity of our species, whether due to the biological advantages acquired or the scientific progress made throughout our existence, offers this new pandemic wave greater and better opportunities for self-reproduction. In fact, we set off a kind of ticking time bomb when we go from being a mere “extra being” in nature to the top of the food chain, among all living beings, without a “deactivation” button for this ticking time bomb. Science has its share of blame in this process. It is well known that globalization has accelerated the pace of the planet at all levels, including bad times like this one.

In this sense, it is unintelligent to imagine that the great scientists, the great research institutes, the main developed countries and the elite that command the belts of the global system of capitalist production were not aware of the imminence of a pandemic like this. It doesn't take a fortune teller to know that yes, they did. Several publications (books, articles, reports from ecological and health organizations, etc.) are available for those who want to at least understand a little of the dynamics of this event of still little known proportions.

Therefore, the inability, or rather the ineffectiveness, of all those mentioned above in the search for the best possible form of prevention is obvious. It is not a question now of talking about the mitigation means available to prevent this pandemic, something we will talk about below, but of the little regard with which this topic has been treated. Really, to expect an economic system like capitalism – in which greed is synonymous with fortune, and fortune is synonymous with success – to pay attention to the serious health crisis that was approaching, is to ignore that fable of the scorpion, which needed to cross the river , persuaded the middleman (be it fish, frog or whoever) to help him and, in the middle of the river, stung him, even though he knew he was going to die with him. Instinct took over. So it is also in capitalism: despite knowing that it will be dead in the long run, every day it renews itself to last a little longer.

The French thinker Bruno Latour (anthropologist, sociologist and philosopher) is one of the greatest critics of this parasitic system. In a brief text entitled “Imagine gestures that bar the return of pre-crisis production”, he declares, amazed, the capacity of the new coronavirus to do what no ideology or class struggle has ever managed, namely, to slow down, suspend, redirect the capitalist economic system. Effectively, no criticism or even ecological action was able to overthrow the neoliberal dogma of the locomotive of progress. He goes on to say, still fascinated by the discovery, that this coronavirus indicated to everyone a brake lever system that every head of state has to brake this locomotive of progress, but that was unnoticed (hidden?) by us, ordinary human beings.

Indeed, globalization has as its final script the total escape from planetary restrictions. The new coronavirus, despite the widespread official discourse, may be providing a unique opportunity for the owners of capital to sterilize any obstacles towards the final act of deregulation of what is left of the welfare state, as well as the crumbs offered by the network of protection in favor of the least favored, in countries that never got to know this post-war social-democratic model. In other words, excess people are harmful to the capitalist system. As Latour (2020) says:

“We must not forget that what makes the supporters of globalization so dangerous is that they know they have lost, they know that climate change denial cannot go on indefinitely, that there is no longer any chance of reconciling their 'development' with the various 'envelopes ' of the planet that the economy will have to deal with sooner or later. This is what makes them willing to try everything to take advantage of the exceptional conditions one more (last?) time, in order to last a little longer and protect themselves and their children. The 'suspension' of the world, this braking, this unforeseen pause, gives them the opportunity to escape faster and further than they ever imagined. The revolutionaries of the moment are them.”

Here I make an important criticism of Latour's text, namely his explicit non-thinking about the inherent contradiction in the conception of protection of capitalists and their children and the explicit inability of the economy to continue as it is. I'm sure he thought about it. After all, when saying that the followers of globalization are “building fortresses that can guarantee their privileges, bastions inaccessible to those who will have to be left behind”, Latour recognizes that the capitalists “are not naive to the point of believing in the great modernist dream of universal sharing of the 'fruits of progress'”. However, when he refers to action, this thinker falls into the mass grave of responses that have already been given by others in the fight against the dictates of the capitalist order. Better explained, the rhetoric of human emancipation in the face of the horrors of the prevailing economic system has already expired.

In this regard, it is no longer enough to say that we must have common sense, or that we must start thinking, or even that we must transform the production system, etc. It is evident that we must do all this, but how? How to change, ipso facto, our historical fate that “we never learn to die” (Mbembe, 2020)? In fact, this Cameroonian thinker, philosopher, political theorist, historian, intellectual and university professor, perhaps one of the great architects of what I could call “neohumanism” today, makes this striking statement in his last article entitled “The universal right to breath”. Mbembe knows that this pandemic will not end human beings. His concern is in the general damage that the new coronavirus will cause to our species, and to the biosphere by table, in a moment of exponential spread of another virus together, that is, brutal neoliberalism, or “Brutalisme” (Brutality), not by perhaps the title of his most recent book (not yet translated into Portuguese).

Indeed, if the worst is yet to come, it is very interesting that he comments that many will not pass through the eye of the needle. As Mino Carta says, I wonder to myself whether Mbembe would have read Robert Kurz, the German philosopher from the Frankfurt School. If not, it is a great coincidence when he says, in his article entitled “The commercialization of the soul" what:

“Gone are the days when people still dared from time to time to think, with shame, of anything other than their own venality and that of their product. Individuals increasingly become, in fact, that “homo economicus” that was once a simple image of classical political economy. With the economizing of all spheres of life, the economizing of consciousness has advanced to a degree until recently inconceivable - and that, thanks to globalization, in the four corners of the world, not just in the capitalist centers. When even love and sexuality, both in science and in everyday life, are increasingly thought of as economic categories and valued according to economic criteria, the “commercialization of the soul” seems irresistible.”

Well, Mbembe says the same thing when he describes our time as “Times without guarantee of promise, in a world increasingly dominated by the fear of its own end”. In other words, the vulnerability of all of us is exposed by the increasing unequal redistribution, which can only lead to new forms of brutal violence in this contemporary process of physical and psychological exhaustion. He goes on to claim that, “At the supreme stage of our brief history on earth, the human could finally be turned into a plastic device. The way had been traced for the realization of the old project of infinite extension of the market”.

However, this Cameroonian thinker also does not send us a concrete answer on how to avoid this new global order of irrationality and health crisis. The most it manages to show is the danger of these two vectors of the new order making the continuity of any and all forms of life impossible. Thus, he laments that our salvation lies between the transfer of consciousness to machines or the biological gang in our next mutation as a species. And he ends by saying:

“If, in fact, Covid-19 is the spectacular expression of the planetary impasse in which humanity finds itself, then it is only a question, neither more nor less, of restoring a habitable Earth, because it will offer everyone the possibility of a breathable life.”

Well, space here is getting scarce and we haven't even talked about the mitigation forms available to avoid this pandemic, or at least to prevent it from becoming so widespread. Let's do it then! Perhaps it is important to try to understand a little the logic of capital from a bias, let's say, more technologically advanced. To do so, we will turn to the Belarusian thinker Evgeny Morozov. In his last article, entitled “Solutionism, new bet of the global elites”, he points to something extremely disturbing, namely that this side road, “solutionism”, created in Silicon Valley, by the same people who accelerated classical capitalism, to transform it into neoliberalism, are now deploying technology to avoid the policy. They are, without taking a dime, the so-called post-ideological measures to keep the Ferris wheel of borderless capitalism running.

Indeed, if “solutionism” is intrinsically linked to neoliberalism, to the point of seeing a common point along the road, there would be nothing left to do but wait for the antibodies within the capitalist system itself to produce some kind of immunity against this enslaving system, in all its existence and performance. Like this pandemic that came to plague all of humanity and especially the less favored.

For such purpose, Morozov questions something surprising: if these two ideologies, neoliberalism and solutionism, are so intertwined, how can technology become an obstacle? The short but not simple answer is that a world in vast abundance can only become shared but not appropriated. In other words, the world of 24/7 capitalism, the end of sleep, which never disconnects, can be dangerous for the physical market, the effective appropriation of material wealth, if this virtual world becomes disconnected from what really matters to the market: the consumption. The solution found by those who were powerful in power was also simple: to shrink the collective imagination, according to this thinker. That is, to veto any technological experience that has political substance.

In this vein, groups considered more “subversive” are prevented from being able to launch some form of solidary economy, or new alternatives of social organization. Techno-authoritarian democracies so dependent on this new digital universe, if they can no longer hide the new coronavirus, much less the next pandemic, they subvert the order and enclose it in apologetic evidence of total surveillance.

However, despite considering the aforementioned text an important source of exposure of the threads connected between what was already in place, neoliberalism, and what is being implemented, solutionism, I understand that the thinker in question also does not present a practical solution for the problem now in evidence. At most, it warns of the urgent need for a new post-solutionist thinking, which aims to rescue public sovereignty in the face of digital platforms.

In this sense, the emancipatory enigma remains and, despite the frustrated attempts to unveil it here, we failed. However, as promised, at least some forms of mitigation are still possible. In this way, we could start with a thinker from our country, Paulo Freire (educator and philosopher), for whom "Theory without practice becomes “verbalism”, just as practice without theory becomes activism. However, when you unite practice with theory, you have praxis, the action that creates and modifies reality.” (FREIRE, 2019). In fact, in his work “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, Freire seeks to free men (genre context specific to the time) using praxis as a condition and foundation of action. Thus, for him, praxis assumes a function beyond liberation, as it is necessary to understand the masses regarding their real needs. When this is achieved, praxis becomes authentic, true, revolutionary, as it enables the masses to join and oppose the ruling elites. Reality can ultimately be transformed through reflection and action. Another fruitful thinker, in whom we could seek another form of mitigation so that we are not in a predictable pandemic, could be Zygmunt Bauman (Polish sociologist and philosopher), for whom every human being has two sides: he is a blessing and a curse. Obviously, if one day he lets his side prevail again, in which he is a blessing, maybe there is still time to rescue the ties of true friendship that are in disuse, by exchanging this living, real, empirical world for the virtual, instantaneous, shapeless world ie fluid. The problem with Bauman is that his “golden formula”, that is, Freedom e Security, set aside the Equality, one of the parts of the essential tripod for the recognition of social totality.

Finally, due to the advance of the text, we must mention the thinker Nancy Fraser, an American philosopher, and her Critical Theory with a strong emphasis on Justice. Indeed, for Fraser (2007), Justice requires both redistribution and recognition. And none of them alone is enough. Thus, the arduous task today is to elaborate a “broad concept of justice that can accommodate both defensible claims of social equality and defensible claims of recognition of difference”.. In fact, what she means is that she will try to think of claims for recognition as claims for justice, as a way of thinking broadly about justice. In other words, for this thinker, it is possible to improve a comprehensive model that does not need to choose between the politics of redistribution and the politics of recognition, establishing recognition itself as a matter of justice.

Civilizing is leaving the primitive state, developing. Enigma is something difficult to understand, an ambiguity. Therefore, the title of this text portrays how arid the understanding of the history of our civilization is. More than 10.000 years after the first great human revolution, namely the passage from “homo” hunter-gatherer to “man” agriculturist (some specialists extend this period to 30.000 or even 70.000 years ago), the society of the human being that knows that he knows (homo sapiens sapiens) is still far from some kind of collective social emancipation. In this sense, the isolated formulas of mitigation of this civilizing pandemic of the cited authors, namely, Freire's praxis; Bauman's golden formula, incremented by the status of Equality, making up a triumvirate Equality-Liberty-Security; and Fraser's Justice can, perhaps in a new way of thinking, gather the necessary conditions to unveil this enigma of civility among citizens.

*Andre Marcio Neves Soares is a doctoral student in Social Policies and Citizenship at the Catholic University of Salvador.





BAUMAN, Zygmunt. The blessing and curse of human bonds.;

CRARY, Jonathan. 24/7 LATE CAPITALISM AND THE END OF SLEEP. São Paulo. Cosac Naify. 2014;

FRASER, Nancy. Recognition without ethics?;

FREIRE, Paulo Reglus Neves. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. São Paulo. Publisher Peace and Earth. 2013;

KURZ, Robert. The commercialization of the soul.;

LATOUR, Bruno. Imagine gestures that bar the return of pre-crisis production.

MBEMBE, Achilles. The universal right to breath.;

MOROZOV, Evgeny. Solutionism, the new bet of the global elites.;


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