Note: The following text is a transcription from an online keynote lecture on 22 June 2020 in Madrid.
Imagining everyday utopias in pandemic times
COVID-19 arrived riding on a crisis of multiple and interconnected dimensions that places humanity at an emergency of civilisation. At the heart of the issue is a way of conceiving the economy, politics and culture that is at war with life. The magnitude of the problem is such that we are at a crossroads where the → choices made now will determine the dignified survival of most humans and many other living beings.
Imagining horizons of desire that may be compatible with the material conditions that make them possible is a task that cannot be postponed. → Ecofeminisms, decolonial perspectives and those that have been historically subjugated make this → imagination possible.
This intervention collects some reflections that have been made in the spaces of activism that I develop and in which I participate. These are unfinished reflections that emerged during the period when fragility became most visible. The COVID-19 crisis anchors us to our bodies and territories, permitting in this respect our elaboration of → situated analyses.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences probably amount to what sociology calls a “total social fact”. In other words, a fact that affects all spheres of life, influences and changes everything.
However, it is important to bear in mind – and from here I am going to intervene – that this pandemic arrives, so to speak, inserting itself into what was already a deep crisis of civilisation that has been pushing us towards a situation of global emergency. In many places, a climate emergency had already been declared, and we were also talking about a broader emergency of civilisation.
The pandemic is related to other interconnected global crises and crudely reveals how people are living on the edge and how societies created in the context of globalised capitalism are extremely fragile and → vulnerable. It is shocking, even for those of us who have spent years denouncing it, to see how when the economic process stops for only fifteen or twenty days everything falls apart like a house of cards, hitting very unevenly depending on class, ethnicity, age, place of birth or gender.
Even now it is still extremely hard to accept that the pandemic was not a surprise, that it had already been predicted and described within different fields of knowledge: economics, → ecology or public health, among others.
Indeed, this crisis is by no means abrupt or unexpected. In one of President Trump’s first comments about COVID-19 – aside from downplaying it and mocking people’s concerns – he said that this situation was a black swan, a sudden and unexpected event impossible to foresee, and which one could have done nothing to prevent. Yet in reality there is nothing to this idea of a supposedly sudden and unexpected crisis.
The scientific community had been warning for some time about the possible proliferation of pandemics or the spread of pathogenic and infectious vectors due, above all, to the loss of biodiversity, the irrationality of the industrial agriculture model, the trade in exotic species and climate change.
It is said that the crisis has shaken us top to bottom. Yet while the dominant discourse claims that the virus makes all people equal, in reality, it has consequences that exacerbate previous inequalities. It is not the same to live through lockdown being poor or having an informal job, one where if you do not work, you do not get paid. It is not the same to live through lockdown in a small house with poor lighting and ventilation as it is to experience the same in a large house, with plenty of space and perhaps a garden. It is not the same to confine yourself with your abuser or to take → care (→ care) of children alone, or to be a migrant, or to be elderly, or to be very young, or to be functionally diverse... Inequalities of class, race, gender, age, etc. make it so that these circumstances are lived out in completely different ways.
In any case, these exceptional times allow us to reflect on some very significant phenomena. It is really shocking how most people have assumed and accepted very harsh measures: lockdown, loss of jobs, the closure of businesses... Extreme measures that affect personal life, consumption, relationships, and which would have been unthinkable if not for an understanding that what was at risk was life itself. The brutal measures of social distancing and lockdown were accepted because people were aware of the importance of what was at stake.
I take advantage of this statement to consider, very briefly, what sustains human life.
Life depends on two things that are undeniable. In the first place, human life unfolds within a natural environment – the nature of which we are a part. Those who defend, for example, the Gaia hypothesis or the Gaia organic theory, consider that life as a whole is a great organism of which our species is one part, which self-organises and is self-poietic, that is, that has the ability to self-generate. Life as a whole is kept in dynamic equilibrium thanks to a series of negative feedback mechanisms that stabilise it before disturbances can take over. Life as a whole progresses through change. It unfolds between structure and chance.
We are radically eco-dependent beings, and thus our lives are inescapably conditioned by the fact that → Earth and the biosphere have limits. Limits in the renewable, the non-renewable and the basins that break down and re-introduce waste generated back into the natural cycle.
The point is that where limits exist nothing can be raised to grow indefinitely. We find ourselves, then, with the first problem, which we will return to later: the one that emerges where a species, the human, lives on a planet that has physical limits but that nevertheless has configured – in Western societies, at least – an order of material organisation that is structurally expansive. An economy imposed on almost the entire world through a violent coloniality, and that needs to grow permanently by → extracting materials, generating waste and systematically altering the natural cycles that sustain life as a whole. These alterations and degradations are behind the proliferation of diseases and health risks that we now live with.
And we are not only eco-dependent. When reflecting on how life is sustained materially we also find a second dependency, provided by the fact that human life unfolds within a second → territory, much closer to us – the body itself.
We are → interdependent. Human beings live embodied in bodies that are → vulnerable and finite. Our bodies have to be taken care of because they present permanent needs that are not satisfied until we die. Embodied people need care throughout their lives, and more intensely at certain moments of the life cycle – in childhood, old age, a lifetime in the case of some functional diversities, in times of illness...
By this we mean that dependence on others is not an anomaly or something pathological, but rather is an inherent trait of human life and in general of all living beings as a whole.
We are interdependent.
We must remember that historically, in almost all places, it has been mostly women who have taken care of – and provide care for – vulnerable bodies. They do it – we do it – not because we are genetically better equipped to do it, but because we live in societies that assign different roles based on sex, which is also assigned to you at birth. These jobs – because they are jobs – fall mostly to women in patriarchal societies.
We are eco-dependent and interdependent.
Human life cannot be maintained if it cannot unfold within a society that guarantees interaction with the underlying assets of nature to obtain goods and services that satisfy needs, if it does not take place in a community environment that ensures the appropriate and necessary care work is done, especially at the most vulnerable moments of the life cycle.
Therefore, each concrete human life does not constitute in any way a certainty based on the fact of having been born. A life is a possibility, and what makes a possible life become a certain life is that it takes place in an environment that guarantees the relationships of eco-dependence and interdependence.
However, especially in Western societies, we have built a way of understanding society, a way of understanding the economy, a way of understanding culture and politics that not only turns its back on but develops against the relationships of ecodependence and interdependence that sustain life.
This opposition is a declaration of war against life, which I will describe very briefly later, and which has ended up provoking a crisis of civilisation that affects all orders and spaces where life manifests.
I refer fundamentally to Western culture because I believe that it is the one that erected an ontological wall – an abyss – between human beings and the rest of the world. In reality, not “all” of what makes us human is separated from nature, only the rational dimension, which is emancipated, in a delusional fashion, from nature and even from the body itself.
From this supposed separation, a series of dichotomies are created that characterise the Western way of thinking: nature versus culture, reason versus emotion, reason versus body, etc. In this dual and dichotomous framework, the idea of the subject emerged in the West. This is a subject who perceives himself as the protagonist of a triple emancipation. He conceives himself and feels emancipated from nature, emancipated from his own body, and without obligations or responsibility to care for other bodies.
Later in history, this subject stands as a universal subject. Nobody can really be emancipated from nature, from which we obtain everything we need to live. No one can live completely emancipated from the people around us, since care and interrelation are needed throughout our lives. Furthermore, of course, no one can live emancipated from their own body.
What happens is there are some subjects who have privileges which have allowed them to conceive of this abstract idea of what being human, an individual or a person, is. From my point of view, that is where the essence of the patriarchy is and what characterises the patriarchal subject.
The patriarchal subject is one that embodies and lives according to that false triple emancipation. This illusion of individuality can only be sustained if a system of domination is built in which some lives subjugate others. The territories, the enslaved or colonised other, the racialised other, women or individuals of other species, whether animals or plants, find themselves in a subordinate position, in a subject situation that is maintained through a structurally violent relationship.
In this cultural and relational context, we have → learned to look at nature and bodies from the outside – from positions of superiority and instrumentality. We have learned it in everyday life and in the different disciplines that we study at → school, in secondary education centres, in universities and, in general, through the different devices and institutions that reproduce culture.
This universal subject is, I insist, abstract. A disembodied and de-territorialised subject that posits itself as a universal subject and has the power to define a hegemonic economy, politics, or culture.
From my point of view, there have been three levers that have allowed us to accelerate and extend this model of domination towards the crisis of civilisation and war against life that we are currently traversing.
The first of them is a certain conception of technoscience, which during modernity is presented as universal, based on a principle of objectification that declares that what is studied is universal and objective if it is the result of the application of the scientific method.
This is a reductionist science that knows no limits, that studies in a specialised manner but that has significant problems when it comes to theorising wholes and studying what is integral. This science is also based on mechanism, which, being consistent with the previous historical trajectory of the separation between nature and people, conceives of nature as a great machine, a predictable automaton that it is possible to control, and that we can conceive of and study in terms of cause-effect relationships.
This techno-scientific, mechanistic and reductionist gaze, allegedly universal and neutral, has suppressed or expelled many other knowledges of other subjects belonging to subjugated or subordinated groups. This knowledge was surpassed by science at the beginning of the 20th century. Ecology, physics and thermodynamics revealed that the world is extremely complex, that it has dynamic balances and that it changes and shapes itself. These fields revealed a complexity of life permanently affected by disturbances that can force innovation and create total change. However, the mechanistic and linear approach continues to be systematically applied in industry, modern agriculture and engineering. The error of these applications is to try to manage the complexity of life by applying the logic of the machine.
The second lever is capitalism itself, both as a way of producing goods and services on a large scale, and as a form of anthropology, a way of understanding and being in the world.
Capitalism is heir to the abstract vision of human life. It is based on a tremendous abstraction, that of money, that of considering that only what can be assigned a price has value.
The valuation of the capitalist economy in exclusively monetary terms expels from the categories people use to look at and understand the world an important part of the related processes – those tasks or goods that are essential for life. Photosynthesis, the water cycle, the ozone layer, climate regulation or the work carried out by communities – and mostly women – to sustain daily and generational life within households, remains systematically invisible within the field of economic study.
This reduction of the concept of value to the concept of price also generates a significant distortion in what we have called production. I think production is a notion that should also be reviewed or debated. What is “production” within our economic model? Production is basically what makes the monetary aggregates grow, activity that makes the GDP grow. It is what generates value in the mercantile sphere, radically and fictitiously separated from the private sphere or from other areas of life. It is what makes the economy grow. But this notion of production is completely unrelated to the materiality of the Earth and the needs of people.
When we speak, for example, of weapons production or food production, both productions are measured and valued as exactly the same in economic accounting terms: euros, dollars or yuan. By measuring in the same way, in money, contemplating only the dimension that creates value in the markets, we no longer have the social tools to be able to distinguish between those forms of production that support life and those that make it impossible.
If we analyse the production of weapons or the production of food from the point of view of human needs, the conclusions might be radically different. Practically no one would say that a cluster bomb as an object used with the function for which it was manufactured serves to satisfy a human need. However, wheat, in itself, serves to satisfy the need for food. Both forms of production are qualitatively different in terms of the satisfaction of needs, but when we look at them from a strictly monetary perspective both can be counted as wealth.
This conceptualisation of production linked only to the increase in the social surplus in monetary terms is what has ended up turning the myth of growth into a dogma. Similarly, the conviction that economic growth, measured exclusively in monetary terms, is always good in any situation and any place must be questioned. In the departments of economic science, nature is studied as if it were a controllable subset of the economy, ignoring that, on the contrary, the economy is a subset within nature.
Following this, capitalism becomes a kind of civil religion.
Currently, the sacred, in the anthropological sense of the sacred, is not the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the house we live in, the relationships we have or the care we receive. What is sacred is money, and if what is sacred is money, it is untouchable, and must be protected at any cost.
From the situated and concrete sites of Western culture, we have internalised a kind of logic of sacrifice: everything is worth sacrificing as long as the economy grows. And when I say everything, I mean everything: relationships, living soil, clean air, the water we drink, and the land of a city that will only have value to the extent that it generates a profit for someone.
That sacrificial logic, from my point of view, is seated in the heart of our imaginaries, in the heart of our gazes and serves as a tremendously numbing element of domestication that prevents us from seeing, and that silences and thus helps us ignore many of the things that are happening.
It is enough to promise that the economy will grow and with it jobs will be created, or alternatively threaten recession and increased unemployment, for us to accept the destruction, deterioration or modification of the basic conditions that sustain life.
The first moments of the COVID-19 pandemic provided a ray of light that allowed us to see some things with a certain flash of clarity.
Suddenly, it became evident that the really essential jobs are those related to care, food and transportation. Attention was drawn to the tremendous fragility of the urban environment and its dependence on the availability of fossil energy, which allows food and the other consumer goods needed to sustain life to circulate as well as the waste generated to be removed. We have now seen how what is considered essential is what is usually invisible, has no name, usually despised and low paid.
I recall the words of a candidate for a right-wing party in a meeting during the last electoral campaign. She answered a question from a domestic worker regarding precarious working conditions by saying that by taking care of elderly people or scrubbing floors in residences one could not aspire to have a salary like the one she was claiming, because these were less valuable jobs.
Recently we have seen what care work is, and we have seen what activities can be stopped, at least temporarily, and what cannot.
What we are experiencing at the moment is the monstrous consequences of a model that has disregarded everyday life and thus what happens in real life and in the daily lives of people.
It is worth rereading Frankenstein, first published in 1818. It has often been suggested that Frankenstein is an allegory about the risks of science overstepping moral limits. But I think Mary Shelley did not write a moral tale about the risks of transgression in the pursuit of knowledge. Instead, she wrote a story about the consequences of not taking responsibility for the repercussions of one’s actions. What turns Frankenstein’s creature into a monster is not taking responsibility for the consequences of creating it. Frankenstein’s creature is left alone, abandoned, denied care, love, and the chance to learn, and the result is violence and death.
I believe that we are experiencing the monstrous consequences of an economic, scientific and political rationality completely disconnected from what we are as living beings, cut off from the nature on which we depend and of which we are a part, and oblivious to the radical vulnerability of each singular life.
(To clarify, I am not assigning any intentionality to nature. Nature does not work with intelligence or with intentionality. It works from thermal, chemical, and extremely complex exchanges. It has intelligence but without will, consciousness or brain).
This disconnection with the Earth and bodies – with others – generates monsters. Goya warned that the dreams of reason produce monsters. Instrumental and countable rationality has generated a problem of an absolutely brutal magnitude, which we can justifiably call the crisis of civilisation.
Firstly, there is a decline in the basic goods and resources needed for the current economic metabolism, such as fossil fuels – oil, coal and natural gas – within a globalised economic model, which we could say metaphorically “eats” oil. There is a decline not only in fossil minerals but many other materials too, such as copper, cobalt, lithium, platinum, neodymium and dysprosium. These are the very minerals with which the intended transition from fossil fuels to a model called “renewable” will supposedly be made.
It is not only the transition to renewables that depends on these materials, but the transformation from combustion to electric cars, the deepening of the digital economy through the deployment of 5G technologies, and establishing the so-called fourth industrial revolution based on robotisation and mechanisation. When we look at everything that industry wants to do and contrast it with the reserves that the scientific community says are left, the numbers simply don’t add up. Or if they do, they do so only for a privileged few who are able to monopolise material goods and not for the entire population.
Innovation and change have been forced on the dynamic balances of the planet: climate change, the alteration of the phosphorus cycle and of the water cycle. The cycles that are changing were not designed or controlled at will by human beings but are essential to human life. These changes are causing a catastrophe of biodiversity that is related to the proliferation of zoonosis, such as the one that triggered the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, the scientific community predicts that such events are going to become more frequent due to the loss of natural vaccines that biodiversity provided.
The ecological crisis has entirely different consequences for different people. I don’t want to spend much time on data, but I do want to highlight that Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ statement seems to me to be correct: neoliberal globalised capitalism in the situation of surpassing planetary limits is pure territorial fascism. If the fence that surrounds rich Europe in addition to keeping out migrants would not let in energy, materials, food, fish, manufactured goods, etc., then rich Europe would not be able to sustain itself for even a few months.
What we call today a developed and rich country corresponds to a political territory with a material organisation that is absolutely dependent on raw materials and processed and manufactured goods that come from other, usually impoverished, territories. These are plundered territories, which have historically been used as large mining and dumping grounds by colonising powers; territories where dispossession, extraction and alienation of resources and lives are produced at the service of a privileged global North.
Within the countries of privilege, there are also absolutely unequal relations. Precariousness has become structural. People have jobs and remain poor because employment no longer guarantees protection from precariousness and poverty, because the working conditions themselves are already generating poverty. Labour law has also been profoundly weakened and the reality is that almost everywhere we find growing numbers of people who, I insist, even with jobs have difficulties accessing or maintaining housing, guaranteeing the minimum energy consumption they require, paying for water, or receiving the care they need, who basically have difficulties sustaining all that a person requires in order to live a decent life.
This is an → extractivism, I insist, not only of raw materials but also of people’s time and energy. Let’s not forget that the majority of the women, for they are mostly women, who provide care in residences and day centres and work in spaces where poorly paid care work is carried out, come from the same places as the raw materials that sustain the wider economic metabolisms.
Saskia Sassen says that we have gone from a capitalism of production and exploitation to a capitalism of extractivism and expulsion, where many elements of life are being directly expelled from life itself. Species, biodiversity, territories and, of course, also people, migrants or indigenous peoples are systematically expelled to the margins. In a translimited planet, where the spaces of privilege are materially shrinking and where the order of things in terms of distribution and redistribution has not changed, what happens is that people are basically being evicted.
The many ways of narrating COVID-19 also offer curious paradoxes. The normal, the new normal, the exceptional... Before the pandemic, normality was already ecocidal and precarious for many people. The novel coronavirus and economic crisis that it generated fell atop the aftermath of the 2008 crisis and the austerity policies that ensued.
Yet we have continued to behave as if the government’s social services had to resolve “an anomaly”, as if the existence of people who do not have access to basic subsistence is some kind of exception. But today precariousness is no longer an exception, it is an absolutely structural issue and I believe that any future departs from this starting point.
It seems that in normal times there are things that are impossible, but in exceptional circumstances can occur. During the first lockdown and post-lockdown moment certain measures were approved, such as paying unemployment benefits to domestic workers, prohibiting layoffs, prohibiting evictions, prohibiting electricity or water cuts and providing minimum vital income support. During times of exceptionality, and only as a result of a struggle, the measures needed to protect life – to protect people – were approved, but these are not factored in during times of normality.
Offred, the maid that Margaret Atwood created in her novel The Handmaiden’s Tale, remembers how they arrived in the dystopian republic of Gilead when she says: “We lived, as usual, by ignoring.” She adds, and I find this extremely interesting: “Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.” You have to make an effort to ignore everything. Atwood brings me back to the idea of responsibility in Shelley’s Frankenstein.
This is an idea of responsibility that in no way appeals to the notion of guilt. Guilt is a painful idea that from my point of view does not lead anywhere desirable. The idea of responsibility, however, is for me connected to freedom and agency. It is the idea of capacity, power, awareness of potentiality and the need – obligation – to take care of one another.
In the relationships among ecodependence, interdependence, co-responsibility and justice there are, in my opinion, the foundations for reorganising common life.
I now want to point out some issues that I think we need to consider when thinking about how to reverse the logic of war against life.
One of them is the question of the relationships among knowledge, science and denial.
We live in a society that calls itself a knowledge society, and what is happening was predicted by scientific institutions decades ago. We could go to the Meadows Report on The Limits to Growth (1972), which was so reviled in the years following its publication, but which, however, quite correctly anticipated the current situation, especially its consideration of the limitations of the modelling tools that existed at that time.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2004, arrived at the same conclusions more than thirty years later. The recurring reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) or IPBES or its counterpart on issues of biodiversity loss (IPBES) have continued to issue warnings year after year. Science predicted with a fairly significant level of success everything that was to come if measures were not taken. There is thus the paradox that in this society of knowledge, in a society where until very recently science was erected as the only issuer of “truth”, denial – by action or omission – is ubiquitous. The weight of science and research is offset by pure opinion and induced doubt.
A large part of the population has significant difficulties in understanding climate science, and significant difficulties in understanding, for example, what biodiversity is, because we have been brought up in a culture that has difficulty understanding the importance of links and relationships. A Mapuche person is culturally much more capable of understanding these complex ideas. Their own language is a register, with words that are capable of expressing what the concept of biodiversity is or what the complex concept of climate entails. In our languages, you have to dedicate a little time to explain them.
In order to generate alternative imaginaries, more compatible with the processes that sustain life, an important part, although not the only one, is knowledge. I am not saying in any way that the problems we have are going to be solved through rational knowledge, but I do believe knowledge helps us understand what we are. It seems important to me to overcome certain ecological illiteracy that is typical of our societies. Sometimes, the higher you go in the chain of specialisation, towards what we consider valuable knowledge, the more that illiteracy spreads.
To acquire that knowledge we need structures of mediation. Over the last couple of days, I have been reviewing the proposals for popular pedagogy and popular education projects in Latin America. I think they are very necessary, and as structures of mediation, I believe they work with art and creativity.
I also believe in the need to challenge the idea of a completely crystallised, individualised and abstract, rigid self. This does not exist. We need to work out how to move beyond that fantasy of individuality – as highlighted by Almudena Hernando – towards an idea of relational individuality and a conception of interdependent autonomies in which freedom, → solidarity and cooperation stem from an awareness of being materially interdependent and, therefore, of the need to take responsibility for each other. It is about finding a balance between the self and – excuse the metaphor – the living organism of which we are a part, which is composed of society and nature itself.
We need to disrupt the false discontinuity between the self and the natural, and the social community in which each life unfolds. This does not mean eliminating the exercise of freedom and personal autonomy. The rupture between the self and the rest of life – even the body itself – makes our societies function like an autoimmune disease with respect to individuals. It detects certain people as if they were the enemy and reacts by eliminating them.
When we talk about “putting life at the centre”, this means the need to understand ourselves as both a species and a living being, which is both natural and social, because these things are not separate.
There are three basic aspects that for me are at the core of what we should be working on. The first is to accept that the reduction of the material sphere of the economy is a fact, not an option: a fact. The economy is going to decrease in material terms without a doubt. I am talking about a reduction in the material sphere and not about a decrease in GDP. There will be things that can grow back but in terms of energy use – and the use of materials, ecological footprint, greenhouse gas emissions – now and in the immediate future the size of the economic sphere is going to shrink significantly because of the simple surpassing of planetary limits. At least this is what the scientific community is telling us.
This process of inevitable material contraction can be approached in different ways. The first is the one I think we’re heading towards. If those who make the big decisions, for example, the European Union, our government, the United States or China, continue according to the current trends, then forced de-growth will be resolved in a fascist way. Those sectors that are protected by economic, political and military power will continue to sustain material lifestyles, and hoarding resources, while more and more people will be excluded.
We can even predict eco-fascist dystopias. Even if the best-intentioned proposals end up relying on growing economies, albeit now dressed up as green, or do not take responsibility for the living conditions of all people, the result will be an extremely unequal world and the solutions to the ecological crisis will be by no means guaranteed.
The second way is difficult but feasible. It would involve assuming the inevitable reduction of the economy from an equity perspective. This would require committing to two principles.
On one hand, there is the principle of sufficiency – that is, learning to live with enough. When I am talking about learning to live with enough I am fully aware that there are people who can live with far less materials and energy, and others who are going to need more because they do not currently reach the minimum of what they need. The principle of sufficiency opens up a social discussion on needs, which is by no means resolved. Debating needs in the concrete context of an ecological crisis forces us to consider the reality of the existing material framework, and not only the one we imagine or would like to have.
Linked with the principle of sufficiency is the second principle, which is the distribution of wealth. This is a key issue more than ever. Fighting poverty is the same as fighting excessive wealth. Sharing wealth and also the obligations that come with having a body and being a species is the expression of co-responsibility: co-responsibility between people and co-responsibility between institutions and people.
During the days of COVID-19 there has been a huge explosion of community. A regrouping around the commons across neighbourhoods, municipalities and in many cities. There have been alliances between people and, in some cases, also between institutions and citizens: public-community alliances that were organised in order to attend to the needs of the people around them. Many people and collectives have thus stepped forward and taken care of each other.
The last of these issues is the question of adopting the commons and care as organising principles of politics. I believe that the logic of care can promote or serve as a lever in arbitrating the commons as a constituent element, and I find this absolutely key in this context.
We have, therefore, the challenge of disputing the current economic and political hegemony, but above all of disputing cultural hegemony.
Our culture has learned to look from outside of nature, although we are an inseparable part of it. Yet it appears totally impossible for us to look from outside of capitalism, which is a social construction turned religious fundamentalism.
The fantasy of individuality sits comfortably within a capitalist anthropology. The transition from fantasy to a feminist, environmentalist, fair and decolonial → imagination is our great challenge.
We need to learn to look as if we were outside of capitalism in order to imagine different dynamics, and I say “as if we were outside” because we are of course inside. It is an exercise in rebellion and disobedience simply for survival.
Antigone disobeys but her desire is not for disobedience in itself. Antigone does not intend to break the law, what she wants is to change it. Antigone acts and disobeys because there is something that forces her to take charge of what she considers to be sacred and legitimate: to bury and honour her brother.
Antigone is Carola Rackete docking at the Italian port despite Salvini forbidding her from doing so. She docks because she knows that the lives she is carrying on the ship are in danger.
Antigone is every act of disobedience committed out of obligation, out of political and moral imperative. What is being attempted with this disobedience is to change normality – and to change it radically. We have to do this collectively. We want to be Antigones.
It is possible that we have an excess of dystopias right now. But for me dystopias play a fundamental role. They help us to consider, look and to “be afraid”. Here I do not mean fear as a negative emotion that suffocates or forces us to retreat, but rather fear as an uncertainty, a warning and an awareness that there is something that requires the application of precaution, being alert and being careful.
In that sense, I believe that dystopias are and have been necessary. The problem is that an excess of dystopias can become conservative. We begin to feel comfortable as spectators of various crises. We begin to accept them and to do nothing. That is why we also need utopias. Not chimeras, nor false hopes, but projects, images, and dreams in which all living beings are accounted for.
It thus seems imperative to me to create exercises in projecting horizons of desire, thinking about possible good, desirable lives, within the framework of de-growth, sufficiency and the distribution of wealth. A revitalisation and reinvention of the commons that makes these horizons of desire compatible with the material groundings that makes them possible.
I believe that creativity and art are absolutely necessary in this task. Reformulating the economy, politics and institutional life according to these logics requires creative exercises, and here the views and experiences of indigenous peoples and decolonial critics can be a beacon. We will not achieve this only with the languages of rationality and science – the languages of art are also needed.
Preparing this intervention, I was rereading fragments of a book that Pablo Martínez from MACBA gave me. It’s called SIDA (2020), or AIDS, in English, and in it there are extremely inspiring contributions from Élisabeth Lebovici.
Memory, paradoxically, is also central to building these utopias of the future. In this case, it was the memory of how the drama of HIV/AIDS was met and what changes were produced in the ways of representing these realities in art.
The motto “silence is death” used by cultural activists in the context of the HIV/AIDS crisis seems to me to be absolutely recoverable, as is the tactic of calling out those who are responsible for the deaths of today and tomorrow, which the Act Up movement performed at their political funerals. This resonated with me a lot, and I find that it makes a lot of sense in the context of the present times.
SIDA also speaks of the need to transfer concern and distribute it everywhere. It says that we must create a system of recognisable signs aimed at everyone, capable of persuading everyone, and then make it viral: find a way to repeat it and disseminate it to the point of cloning.
We have an important task before us. It is true that in many places there are initiatives and self-organised collectives who have been working for a long time, launching well-focused proposals and leading the transformation without the need for permission. However, I am concerned about the lives of many who are not activists and who do not even have time to participate; who have been deprived, dispossessed and alienated from so many things that they have difficulty organising their own survival with others.
If decent living conditions are not generalised, we might even find ourselves in a situation whereby food, housing or relationships are resolved collectively but also privately in small groups, generating a kind of activist elitism that is also unattainable for the most impoverished people in the world.
Of course, in many museums and other cultural spaces, I know that this road has been opened, but I would like to draw attention to the need to intensify these alliances between museums and the world of art and activism.
I believe there is an important path that we must walk.