The lockdown paradox

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By DANIEL PAVAN*

The more the restrictive measures are efficient, the less they seem necessary and the more they resemble a disproportionate offense to freedom.

On February 26th of Year Zero of the Covid era (14 days before its official declaration by the WHO), Giorgio Agamben raised controversy with his article The Invention of an Epidemic. The virus had just landed in Italy after doing what seemed, at the time, a huge amount of damage in China. To try to contain the imminent catastrophe, the Italian government began to adopt progressively tougher measures of social isolation.[I].

Agamben, supported by still premature assertions that denied the existence of a SARS-CoV2 epidemic in Italy, assuming that 80% to 90% of the cases would be mild or moderate and that only around 4% would require intensive hospital care, raises the following question: “If this is the real situation, why do the media and the authorities do their utmost to spread a state of panic, provoking an authentic state of exception with serious limits to movement and the suspension of daily life in entire regions ?”

Agamben's answer is twofold: it is a manifestation of the new paradigm of exception – whose theorization is one of his most relevant contributions – and the resurgence of a “state of fear that, in recent years, has evidently spread by individual consciences, translating into an authentic need for situations of collective panic”. This last element, for the Italian philosopher, means that measures limiting freedoms are “accepted in the name of a desire for security that was created by the same governments that now intervene to satisfy it”.

Shortly after this first publication, 6 days after the pandemic was officially declared, Agamben published another article: Clarifications[ii]. In this, the philosopher criticizes the questions directed to the previous article, judging them impartial and distorted, although he does not expose what they are nor answer them. In the end, in a slightly more elaborate way, he insists on the same points presented previously, only inverting the order of the elements.

Agamben now says that, in response to the fear of the disease, Italians sacrificed their normal living conditions, their relationships and even their beliefs – evidence that society was reduced to the mere belief in “bare life”, having the survival as the only value. As for the state of exception, the philosopher reminds us that “a society that lives in a permanent state of emergency cannot be free”. Lives, “reduced to a purely biological condition, lost not only all social and political dimension, but also any trace of compassion and emotion”.

My objective here is not to deal with Agamben's position, but to elaborate questions derived from the reading, in the current context of the pandemic in Brazil, of more recent articles signed by two relevant authors: Wolfgang Streeck and Frank Furedi. In general, they returned, a year later, to Giorgio Agamben's colon to criticize the social distancing measures that are so defended (and adopted) throughout our country.

Let's start with the last one. Frank Furedi is Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Sociology at the University of Kent in Cantembury. Author of two dozen books, of which one receives the title of How fear works – culture of fear in the 21st century. Furedi is an eminent researcher and commentator on themes related to fear, risk and trust.

On March 12 of this year, a article of your own was published in the first edition of magazine byPICTions, from the Parisian Institute of Critical Thought (Paris Institute of Critical Thinking). Its aim is to “explore the impact of contemporary security consciousness in responding to threats such as COVID-19”. According to the sociologist, “in recent years, security has been sacralized to the point of becoming a fundamental value for society”.

Furedi announces that along with the new coronavirus pandemic we are experiencing a pandemic of fear. The author cites as an example of this the events in the city of Perth in Australia, which he ironically calls “one of the safest places in the world”, since “the discovery of a single case in Perth led to an outbreak of hysteria and panic buying”. The author points to the surprise of Western governments when noting their readiness to abandon “fundamental rights such as freedom of movement and assembly”.

For Furedi, hovers over us a zeitgeist of survivalism. In it, a “fatalistic sensitivity” prevails and society is absolutely at the mercy of the virus’s orders. There is an air of unhappiness in the author's words when he points out that something relevant has emerged from the pandemic: “a significant erosion of the line that divides health from politics. Consequently, health has become politicized and politics has been medicalized.” (author's emphasis).

To support the argument that there is a “sacralization of security”, Furedi takes up some ideas from his book How Fear Works. Next, the author recalls other historical disasters, such as the September 11, 2001 attack and the ancient Athens of the plague, classically reported by Thucydides. His final argument is that, despite pessimistic perspectives, the result of such experiences is usually the emergence of solidarity and a spirit of altruism.

Another high caliber sociologist, Wolfgang Streeck, author of Purchased Time – fundamental work for any study of current crises – published on the blog Sidecar, associated with Monthly Review, on March 18 of this year, an article with the title of Accelerating Decay. In it, he takes stock of the current political situation in the European Union, discussing the intricacies of drawing up an economic recovery plan, its relationship with the world of finance and with political disputes in the EU. The sociologist's analysis of this 'accelerated collapse' is exquisite. Its ironic tone, combined with the criticism of a complex situation, reinforces the pessimistic air raised by the title until, suddenly, “good news” is announced!

“Democracy returns to where it belongs, as national politicians are learning that the virus is too important to be left to virologists.” The italics are mine, in an attempt to accentuate the shock of the first reading. These politicians, says Streeck, not only took that lesson, they understood that "they can't just lock up their voters for as long as the virologists recommend." These statements are followed by a brief and discreet praise of Merkel's 'about-face'. That famous about-turn in isolation measures that was – with due distortions – praised by our president.

This is where my concerns arise.

Treating them with due generality, the points that Agamben raised – freedom and the culture of fear – were taken up again by the two “critical” sociologists. Now, aren't these also two of the arguments that Bolsonaro – with his due distortions – repeats? Wouldn't quitting being 'sissy' be a bizarre way to attack the culture of fear? Defending the freedom not to stay at home, not to wear a mask, to come and go would it not be... a defense of freedom to come and go? Of these aforementioned 'fundamental rights'? Of 'democracy'?

It is obvious: we are dealing with radically different figures. On the one hand, we have a philosopher and two sociologists with solid careers, well-founded ideas and, without a doubt, extremely important for the current critical debate. On the other hand, Jair Bolsonaro. The very use of language is distinct. Comparing them would be a virtually impossible task.

But the similarity in the arguments is so striking that at least some questions insist on being asked. I couldn't put aside the astonishment I felt when I read such great masters attacking what many of us Brazilians have fought (literally) to the death for to be applied. How is our position? Are we acting against freedom? Are we giving in to the culture of fear propagated by the media?

Let's start with the fear argument, represented here by Furedi.

It is ironically unfortunate for his position that the country used as an example of the serious excess of fear and its disproportionate reactions in the context of the pandemic, Australia, has not recorded deaths since December 2020 and, as the G1 portal, “already holds large-scale events for thousands of people”. Well, wasn't it precisely the great fear and the horrible readiness to adopt the most serious deprivations of the holy freedoms that allowed this country to be able to fully enjoy those freedoms again? Only now without killing anyone along the way? Wouldn't this readiness to quickly and temporarily relinquish certain freedoms be the great act of solidarity and altruism that Furedi was looking for in the Greeks long before Christ?

As for the 'democracy' argument, the state of exception, it seems to be essentially the other side of the coin. Was it not precisely the countries that promptly and most incisively censured the liberties of their citizens who, with equal speed, were able to liberate them? In Brazil, we already have more than 400 thousand free citizens buried and almost no democracy. How many fewer were those who died temporarily without freedom compared to their countrymen who were saved and are now free in, say, New Zealand?

The problem that I am trying so hard to determine does not concern the quality or relevance of the philosophical and scientific work of such authors. Giorgio Agamben's book on the state of exception is certainly a contemporary classic; Frank Furedi's extensive work shows quality and seems to touch on very relevant themes. The same goes, of course, for Wolfgang Streeck. The question seems to me to lie in using all this knowledge to take sides in practical social and political dilemmas – a stage that every critical intellectual needs to go through – such as the application of restriction measures in the context of a pandemic. I take the risk (and a good dose of arrogance) by raising the hypothesis that there would be, here, a kind of critical deficit.

The authors, in addition to not seeming to pay attention to the issues raised here, do not mention in this debate what I believe to be the most relevant argument against restrictive measures: the fact that, trapped in their homes – when they have them, of course, or when they are minimally adequate – people cannot work and, therefore, cannot guarantee the most fundamental goods for their existence: foods. Eating, I believe, takes enormous precedence over freedom of assembly, even though both are fundamental rights.

Marx and Engels, in the drafts of the texts that would compose the German Ideology, a work in which important elements of his materialist critique of society are elaborated, point to “the first assumption of all human existence, (…) the assumption that men must be able to live in order to be able to 'make history'. But in order to live, you need food, drink, housing, clothing and a few other things.” I believe I can, without major objections, include a minimum health condition in these “plus things”. For this reason, “the first thing to do in any historical conception” – and, consequently, in any materialist critique of society – “is, therefore, to observe this fundamental fact in all its significance and in all its scope and to him make justice"[iii].

Leaving something of such importance aside, it seems to me, is possible when one assumes as given all emergency aid packages and other benefits and guarantees of minimum conditions for the reproduction of life - which are, in themselves, an inseparable moment of application effective measures of social isolation.

Such criticisms not only operate in a universe of infinite food and housing, but also tireless and equally infinite ICU beds and doctors, because, again, there is not a single moment dedicated to those who have died waiting for a bed with a respirator or to those who are in absolute exhaustion – the restriction measures adopted in a large part of Europe, the United Kingdom and, especially, Australia and New Zealand prevented this state of affairs. Assuming such a world, these criticisms can actually raise the defense of freedoms to come and go against the state of exception or the 'culture of fear' as the main dilemma and as arguments to sustain a criticism of social distancing measures. And, it seems to me, it was the (minimally) adequate application of such measures in the societies to which the authors belong that allowed them to assume that the debate would take place on such bases. They, of course, prudently advocate for local concessions in cases where the epidemic escalates. This concession, however, does not have the power to reconfigure the premises of the discussion.

Agamben sings, in his anti-lockdown poem If love is abolished: “If freedom is abolished / in the name of medicine / then medicine will be abolished”. Well, it seems obvious to me that the current situation of hospitals in Brazil proved that it was precisely because of the defense of 'freedom' that medicine ended up being abolished – abolished due to the lack of medicines, beds and rested doctors. And when medicine is abolished, civilization – taking with it much more than a few freedoms.

If there is something that the Brazilian catastrophe seems to leave as a lesson to those who intend to act critically in society, it is the insufficiency of reflection based solely and exclusively on theoretical models and on broader ones – and scientific – social surveys. Consideration of the material, social, political – and, now, health – conditions in which criticism is carried out is one of its inevitable stages. Otherwise, there is a risk of falling into something like the paradox of lockdown: the more the restrictive measures are efficient, the less they seem necessary and the more they resemble a disproportionate offense to freedom and an exaggerated ritual of collective fear fueled by the media.

Daniel Pavan is a graduate student in Social Sciences at USP.

Notes


[I] See https://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quarentena_na_It%C3%A1lia_em_2020

[ii] English translation available at: https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers/

[iii] MARX, Karl, ENGELS, Friedrich. The German Ideology – São Paulo: Boitempo, 2007. p. 33.

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