The future starts now – from pandemic to utopia

Willem de Kooning, A Tree in Naples, 1960


Presentation of the recently released book by Boaventura de Sousa Santos.

Wuhan, South Central China, December 31, 2019. Chinese health authorities have announced the first case of a new acute viral respiratory syndrome. New cases emerged, some very serious, followed by deaths, especially among the elderly and people with comorbidities. The epidemic outbreak quickly spread in Hubei Province. A new coronavirus, named Sars-CoV-2, has been detected; the syndrome was then recognized as a new disease and was named Covid-19. This epidemic quickly spread around the world, until, in March 2020, the WHO officially recognized it as a pandemic.

In a few months, across the planet, tens of millions of cases were confirmed, hundreds of thousands of people died. The economic and social impact of the pandemic was (and has been) catastrophic: companies and jobs disappeared as a result of measures to control this serious disease, for which there is still no vaccine or specific treatment.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when the European continent was suffering intensely from an avalanche of cases and deaths, chaos installed in health systems and economic and political crises, many intellectuals lined up to address different aspects of the recently announced catastrophe. With pertinent reports, but sometimes partial and rushed, big names in contemporary thought revisited their respective systems and conceptual models in the light (or against the light) of the pandemic.

There was everything – from initial confusion to inertial pessimism, from media optimism to theoretical skepticism, from denouncing dystopias to prescriptive voluntarism, from political analysis to metaphysical speculation.

Nevertheless, however politically progressive some of these analyzes may be, we must maintain epistemological vigilance, which for us comprises the radical decolonizing attitude towards such discourses. To understand the pandemic and its impacts, real and imaginary, in a realistic perspective and located in our own context, we must more than ever seek conceptual, methodological and political references in the matrices of thought of the global South. This is the insistent invitation that brings us Boaventura de Sousa Santos.

Initially summoned by the pandemic and its sorrows, Boaventura wrote several combat articles, agile and cutting, gathered in a booklet entitled The cruel pedagogy of the virus. Dilemmas of this time, this world and this conjuncture were presented to us through this intriguing allegory, that we can learn from this disease about fundamental themes of our past and about urgent questions of our future. In those essays, Boaventura outlines a new political and social articulation in order to resume possible and viable civilizing processes, with the hope that humanity will be able to become less arrogant in its relationship with this planet, our home. In the final chapter of that small book, entitled “The future can start today”, Boaventura generously promises another volume, in order to deepen these themes, thinking new and many paths.

Now, the master fulfills his promise and introduces us The future starts now: from pandemic to utopia, a monumental essay on post-pandemic society, its complexity, its antecedents and its possible futures. In this book, he invites us to reflect on spoken or inadvertent questions, in any case crucial for thinking about the present moment and futures to be built. Could it be that our most crucial problem is the current Covid-19 pandemic? Or have we been, for some time now, in a planetary-scale emergency that now highlights risks and potentializes dangers, the pandemic being just one more of these threats? At this time, are we also going through a crisis of thought, that Enlightenment intellectual matrix, now almost ineffective to face the unreason that breaks historical political pacts? Will the economic and political crises resulting from the impact of pandemic control strategies have some horizon of overcoming in this mode of production, in this world economic order and in this current situation? Do these crises, such and so many, really accelerate the transformation of a dated way of life, foreshadowing a paradigmatic transition?

How to mobilize wills, generate energies, develop projects, conduct actions and organize institutions, through acts, declarations and articulating commitments of human subjects and non-human beings, aiming at building a fairer, more solidary, more sustainable, more shared, more alive?

This book is a dense and thoughtful text, lovingly conceived and very well executed, achieving analytical rigor, political responsibility and personal sensitivity, with a deep ethical concern. I will now summarize its structure and some topics, with emphasis on the analysis of the multiple elements and facets of the pandemic, on the prospect of scenarios and on the mobilizing, opportune and necessary declarations to activate practices of resistance, organization and action capable of demonstrating that it is another future possible, when the pandemic has passed.

At the beginning, we are graced with a historical overview of pandemics, a great effort to contextualize the different structural changes in the mode of production and respective paradigmatic transitions in the way of thinking about life, the human world and health. Then we are faced with a tough diagnosis, based on detailed and objective accounts of injustices, iniquities and absurdities caused by the impact of the pandemic on the lives of people, groups, nations and places. This is followed by systematic and careful analyses, in which Boaventura competently and consistently applies his theory of the capitalist, colonialist and patriarchal State, in a investigation report of public policies to face the pandemic in different countries.

In an extraordinary chapter, which I believe is central to this work, Boaventura presents three plausible scenarios for a post-pandemic world. In his words, the scenarios are: (1) everything as before and worse: abyssal capitalism and the security state of exception; (2) capitalist skin, socialist mask: the new neo-Keynesianism; (3) barbarism or civilization: alternatives to capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy.

Without further explanation, inviting the reader to check it out in the text, I consider scenario 1 as undesirable, scenario 2 as unfeasible and scenario 3 in the list of possible dreams. Boaventura himself identifies this last hypothesis with the kairos of Greek Antiquity, “a time that unfolds in two temporalities, the utopian time of imagination of new paradigms and the historical time of the paradigmatic transition”. This scenario implies a dialectical overcoming of the contradiction between civilization and barbarism, necessary to build and dialogue about a way out for the future of the world, in the hands (and minds) of those men and women who, in colonial history, were always excluded, segregated, oppressed, silenced and denied as barbarians. To face the challenges of this overcoming, Boaventura proposes us to denounce and fight against omissions, repressions and interventions of States and governments, in the register of social fascism, implicated in genocides and epistemicides in the whole world that was supposed to be civilized. The unfolding and possibility of this scenario constitute subsidies for a hopeful manifesto on which a better humanity can emerge from the nightmare of the pandemic.

In this book, a work of maturity that does not hide a youthful militant vigor, always restless, but already impatient, Boaventura de Sousa Santos shows how the Covid-19 pandemic, a critical event, crucial episode, historical milestone that begins a new century, provides a convergence of the multiple focuses of his work, in a panoramic, totalizing, rigorous, consistent and ethical perspective. In many ways, therefore, this book puts to the test, point by point, the pertinence, consistency and validity of Boaventura's thought-action, which emerges strengthened and justified, enriching an entire theoretical edifice that continues under construction. Finally, I must conclude by highlighting that the reflections and analyzes brought about by this exercise of resuming the ecology of knowledges return with new elements to the conceptual matrix that originated it and contribute to make viable the realistic utopia that unites, reunites and revives us all.

*Naomar de Almeida-Filho is professor of epidemiology at the Institute of Collective Health at UFBA; Holder of the Chair of Basic Education at the Institute of Advanced Studies at USP.


Boaventura de Souza Santos. The future starts now: from pandemic to utopia. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2021, 426 pages.


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