The alarm sounded: the crisis of capitalism beyond the pandemic

Arshile Gorky, “The Artist and His Mother,” Oil on canvas, 60×50, 1926-36.


Commentary on the recently released book, organized by Soleni Biscouto and Jorge Nóvoa.

A manifesto-book: this is how the collective work can be summarized The alarm sounded: the crisis of capitalism beyond the pandemic. Published by Perspectiva, it is another volume of the “Debates” collection, which has contributed for decades to Brazilian social thought, the training of young researchers and the public interested in burning issues in Brazil and the world. It should be noted that the collection was instituted by the founding editor of Perspectiva, USP professor Jacob Guinsburg, who gave this publisher a special personality forged in contesting the truths received, hegemonic or established by most of the country's book houses. .

Consisting of three parts in addition to four preface and introductory texts. These immediately immerse readers in the themes and problems they will find developed more concentratedly in the cited parts. Animated by a constellation of multinational thinkers, it concatenates with frighteningly apocalyptic harmony different perspectives on the global problem that has become the covid-19 pandemic. The treatment given to each specific object mobilizes and raises awareness due to its connection with its universalities: it is synesthetic to see how problems and feelings of local daily life in different countries are repeated everywhere, in a fractal of globalized neoliberalism.

da caput al fine the book guarantees its place in the annals of post-democratic Brazil as a monument of its authors' engagement with the craft of social sciences, among the few important books in the Brazilian publishing market that associated the approach to the crisis with the dimension brought by the new coronavirus. Readers are captured from its preface, signed by Gita Guinsburg, followed by the “Letter” of the organizers, a dual-purpose message finalized by the duty of the trade to seek the causes of the phenomenon of the crisis: compassion and solidarity for contemporaries who live , suffer and suffer in pandemic times; memory, testimony and alert for those who will hear about, in the future, a time when exploitation of human beings, enslavement of animals, amputation of forests, belief in myths and celebration of death were normalized practices.

Emphasizing the singular character of this work, the opening text – probably the last one produced while alive by Marc Ferro, the great historian of the countless relationships between cinema and history who died in May 2021 – brings an excellent diagnosis about a dogmatic illusion that seems to have taken over the current conjuncture analysis: the ideal of pandemic metanoia. Such an ideal consists of an irresolute – almost Augustinian – belief in the redemptive character of human tragedy. A tragedy that, in the era of capitalism, is categorically denounced by Ferro: “societies would already run out without covid-19”.

The first three articles in the book have this common thread: contradicting a common discourse for which the pandemic would be a natural catastrophe that would bring capitalism to a cathartic end, they make us think whether the virus is a natural factor, an externality, a historical contingency in the modernity, or even if the pandemic and its crisis are as artificial as the world they paralyze. And by artificial I mean to invoke the bare meaning of this word – artifice, here that which is produced by human art. Like the modern world that surrounds us, the covid-19 pandemic is one of many devices for exploring life and death.

Seeking to set aside conspiracy theories, Jorge Nóvoa in the text “On the edge of the abyss: planetary ecological exhaustion beyond capitalism” reinforces the perception and seeks to demonstrate how the covid-19 pandemic is not the cause of the crisis, but a accelerating element of chaos and barbarism that found a fertilized soil to germinate by a decade of fiscal austerity and environmental degradation.

Historian Ricardo Garrido takes a different route from previous texts: he recovers the history of pandemics from the oldest, the Antonina, which devastated the Roman Empire, through the Black Death and the Spanish Flu, recovering the transvaluative aspect of past pandemics. Here is a personal impression: his argument reinforced my understanding that the uniqueness of the covid-19 pandemic consists in its truly globalized character. While other diseases have already acquired pandemic status under capitalism, perhaps we are facing the first essentially capitalist pandemic. Let me explain: I would venture to say that the covid-19 pandemic, from its origin, through the way it spread to its systemic effects on economies, societies, national policies, on the relationship established between governments and pharmaceutical industries, in the entertainment industry and in families it is, in its entirety, a product of the capitalist machine and this would be its artificiality. In the paralysis of production processes, the covid-19 pandemic has itself become a reproductive structure of capital.

This is not the position of the authors of the book who, already in the general title, inscribe the assumption that the crisis pre-exists and will go beyond the pandemic. Thus, I call the readers' attention to what will be explored of the different dimensions of the crisis of capitalism, in the articles that follow. By the way, renouncing any teleological perspective of history in on the edge of the abyss, Nóvoa arrives at the ecological crisis, not without demonstrating the concomitance between the processes of financialization of the world economy resulting from the very contradictions of capitalist growth after the so-called 30 Glorious Years after the Second World War.

The option for financialization that the protagonists of neoliberalism adopted is what explains the process of deindustrialization in the world, the destruction of jobs, the generalization of robotic and computer automation, in addition to several other aspects that have been codified by economists, sociologists, philosophers and diverse historians such as progress and economic growth. The idea of ​​the “end of history”, the work reveals, cannot be confused with the limits of the horizon of world capitalism.

Part I is guided by the theme “Acceleration of history: worsening of the crisis due to the pandemic” and has four texts. The first, signed by the distinguished economist and emeritus professor at the University of Paris, François Chesnais, points to parallels between the current situation, which he calls the “Crisis of confinement”, and the period that followed the 1929 Crisis. parallel would be the rise of protectionism and the nationalist treatment of the pandemic and post-pandemic. His comparative analysis emphasizes that the worsening of the impasses of the world capitalist system was even expressed in the speed of the spread of the virus made possible by the “globalization of capital”, a formula that gives title to his work. Opus magnum, also published in Brazil. As Nóvoa had already pointed out, Chesnais accentuates the difficulties of recomposing the system, including the wear and tear and limits posed by the planetary natural environment. His attention does not forget the Pantanal of Mato Grosso and the Amazon.

In “The pandemic aggravates the crisis in the world and in Latin America”, Cláudio Katz analyzes the effects of the first months of the pandemic for Latin America, how the different regional governments dealt with the fight against the virus and, in the end, reinforcing the already known and desired formulas of the need to strengthen social rights and public policies responsible for their effectiveness, auditing of the debts of Latin American countries and implementation of new (old demands, in fact) forms of public financing, such as the taxation of large fortunes .

In the third analysis of the section, Paulo Balanco and Humberto Miranda do Nascimento seek to demonstrate the explosive combination between the process of financialization of capital, the emptying of democratic forms and the advent of the pandemic, which reveals the “problematic relationship between democracy and the market” ( p.184). Also for these authors, the importance assumed by financialization is not something external to the process of reproduction of capital. It is one of the characteristics assumed by it that coincides with the drop in profitability in most of the productive sectors. Public debt has become a mechanism for appropriating surplus value in the form of public money. Far from being the phenomenon of banks saving the State, it is the opposite: the State goes into debt to save the private sector.

Rosa Maria Marques closes the first part with “The Brazilian economy and the covid-19 crisis”, demonstrating the harmful effects of the pandemic in Brazil. Its greatest merit is to show how, contrary to what the Brazilian government has been advertising, Brazilian economic indicators already indicated a state of stagnation that was only catalyzed by the pandemic. Your stats show this.

Part II of the book focuses on the effects of the pandemic on the state, law and politics. The section is opened by Pierre Dardot with “The sovereignty of the State in light of the pandemic”. One of the most interesting articles in the book, Pierre Dardot points out how the theme of state sovereignty is reinvigorated by the pandemic, contrasting with an increasingly globalized world. The author highlights three aspects of the pandemic crisis that point to the paradox that represents such reinvigoration: “first, the unprecedented nature of a pandemic directly linked to globalization; second, acute awareness of the limits of our knowledge; third, the limited and sudden awareness of our vulnerability” (p. 207). Dardot then uses the Western doctrine of sovereignty to demonstrate how its postulates are difficult to reconcile with such characteristics. In the end, he concludes with the defense of popular sovereignty in which the people figure as an active political actor, as the only way to guarantee the rule of law.

Three studies in this same section are also important and focus on analyzes of political relations between national states and their citizens in the context of the pandemic. There is, therefore, an almost “repetition” of neoliberal political methods to face the crisis in spaces such as France (Patrick Vassort points out an authoritarian tendency towards the totalitarian forms initiated by Macron and democratically elected governments), Spain (for which Domingos Urbin points out the persistence of the pendular ghost of a totalitarian regime that never disappeared from Spanish life), Mexico (Carlos Ríos Gordillo shows how the covid, associated with neoliberalism, produced the denialist and intolerant revulsion of social sectors towards health workers). Regarding the Brazilian experience, Valdemar de Araújo and Mateus de Azevedo deconstruct the Jair Bolsonaro government’s pandemic management policy, analyzing its inconsistencies with data.

The last three texts stand out for dealing with the conjunctural political effects in specific spheres of life: in the relationship between politics and the media, Soleni Fressato studies in detail the specific case of the Brazilian National Journal, one of the most watched newscasts in the world. The author accompanies, over the first seven months, the assumption of the protagonism of the National Journal da Globo in information about the development of contamination and deaths, in addition to the pedagogical role of instructing the population on preventive measures, in addition to the inspection and denouncement work that JN assumes.

Antônio Sá, Murilo Sampaio and Pedro Lino de Carvalho will analyze the consequences of the Labor Reform and its expression in law. Bruno Souto will discuss the relationship between politics and health, highlighting the importance of SUS – the Brazilian universal public health system, also one of the largest and most solid in the world – in facing the pandemic.

If part I of the book deals with the situation that the virus found in the world of 2020 – a world that no longer exists, by the way – and part II takes us through the contemporary effects of the pandemic, part III gives us a brief glimpse of possible futures.

Philosopher of politics and law Denis Collin, in “The health crisis to the global crisis of capitalism”, assesses how the health measures adopted by national executives represented, in his opinion, dangerous advances on the powers of the legislature, as part of a strategy always latent for training the masses. In an effort to accentuate the structural character of the crisis, he subordinates the importance of conjuncture aspects taken advantage of by the Macron government to expand restrictive measures to democratic freedoms.

Eleutério Prado, in “Fastfall of capitalism: end of human civilization”, takes advantage of the context of the pandemic to analyze the trajectories of Brazil and China, in order to diagnose the end of capitalism as we know it. If this author seeks to emphasize the contradictory and insurmountable limits of capitalism, almost in a complementary way Daniel Jeziorny, in “Social metabolism and pandemics: alternatives to the 'virus' of growth”, develops the concept of social metabolism to address the fundamental question: “the deceleration of capitalism can be verified ad infinitum?”. For Jeziorny, a rupture between societies and nature has been established, provided by the overgrowth of capitalism in the world without respecting mother nature.

In “Pandemic and Permanent State of Emergency”, Nakamura explores the “creative power” of dystopias as a vanishing point that allows us to visualize the urgent problems of our time. The issue of rebuilding social protection networks, which characterized the post-war State, but which was gradually deconstructed by neoliberal institutions, resonates in the work of Liliane Oliveira, “Threads of solidarity among the common people: emergence of actions from the pandemic". From the report of local experiences in the city of Salvador, the author demonstrates how spontaneous solidarity is, many times, the only antidote that the peripheral population has against the projects of promoting the death of neoliberal governments.

Closing the work, Christian Laval synthesizes the main problems for the construction of a new utopia in “Inhabit or dominate: the lessons of a tragedy”. Laval translates the dialectic that tragically imposes itself on human beings through the dilemma between insisting on the European rationality of submission of nature by human beings, which has guided the world in the last five hundred years. As an alternative, he points to the need for a new existential paradigm that prioritizes housing, or cohabitation on the planet. It is the way of life that involves the care of cultivation and inspires the emergence of a new global society animated by a new type of cosmopolitanism, all centered on the principle of the common, which reveals itself to be an ecological principle by nature.

Something has changed since the writing of the book, it is true. Trump is already late and the Joe Biden government, forced to make an inflection towards the center-left, restores the United States to the place of leadership that it traditionally occupies in global affairs. Movement that could also happen in Brazil, after the reestablishment of Luís Inácio Lula da Silva's political rights and his growing chances of victory in the elections that unfold in 2022. In Brazil with Lula's political rights reestablished and with a clear chance of returning to the presidency from Brazil with a certain power of international influence, we are tempted to imagine that the world is no longer the one of 2020.

As Marc Ferro warns us: history never tires of surprising us. This in no way detracts from the monumental value of The alarm sounded, being an essential reading work for understanding the so-called “pandemic times” which, by all indications, came without warning, but will be one of those historical events that will last for years.

Generally, The alarm sounded invites us to reflection, just like a manifesto for a new form of life in common on planet earth and with it. Some messages are strong and transcend the historical time of the book: the capacity of history to always surprise us, the insurmountable contradictions of the system, law as an expression of the dominant interests of neoliberal societies, the foundation of rationality and the validity of politics and law , and the quest to try to rescue from its most ancient Greco-Roman democratic roots inspired by the need to overcome the “humiliation of fate”, the need to rebuild harmony between human life and nature and the search for a new utopia, which includes the aspiration of the institution of the common as a political principle.

It is, therefore, a call for us to stop dominating the world, and start to inhabit it. A message that reminds Benjamin: “The day lies each morning like a fresh shirt on our bed; that incomparably thin, incomparably dense fabric, of clean prophecy, fits us like a glove. The happiness of the next twenty-four hours depends on our waking up knowing how to catch it.”1 Part of this knowledge is the awareness that Planet Earth is perennial, but human life is ephemeral – and increasingly threatened with extinction under neoliberal governmentality.

* Homero Chiaraba is a postdoctoral fellow in History of Sciences at LAHCIC – Laboratory of History of Sciences at UFBA.

Originally published on the website Other words.


Soleni Biscouto & Jorge Nóvoa (eds.). The alarm sounded: the crisis of capitalism beyond the pandemic. São Paulo, Perspective, 2020, 480 pages.


1 BENJAMIN, Walter. Selected Works II. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1995, p. 64.


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