Can Europe Make It?

Clapping for anti-modernism and nationalist submission

Dissident remarks on the current period.

Geoffroy de Lagasnerie
2 April 2020, 3.01pm
National police applaud health care workers in Madrid, March 30, 2020.
Juan Carlos Lucas/PA. All rights reserved.

I would like to express my slightly dissonant responses to the current period.

Everybody understands the need to take certain measures in order to slow the spread of Covid-19. The point here, of course, is not to call into question that principle. But passions and collective fantasies are always invested in such social mechanisms. The battle against the epidemic and the politics of confinement are bringing about a resurgence of particularly problematic impulses. Affects take hold of almost all of us without us knowing it: they structure our way of understanding the present and impose on us a stifling atmosphere. Today, we have to be watchful of ourselves, if we don't want the values that structure our connection to the pandemic to give birth to a lastingly suffocated world.

We must first distrust ourselves about a certain kind of adherence to “suffering.”

Many are indignant when they look out of their windows and see people walking, cycling, or jogging for hours on end. Numerous voices are calling out to demand a total confinement, or even a curfew. The mandate to stay at home [“rester chez soi”] and the necessity of social distancing provide the pretext to reinforce the urge in us to exert control over one another. But above all, holding these positions illustrates a tendency not to understand the battle against the disease in rational terms (we must ask ourselves why the fact that certain people walk for some kilometers, or even all night if they wish, should pose any problem at all). We descend into a kind of ritual of atonement, a ceremony of suffering, in which each must play their obligatory role, according to some sacrificial logic. It is almost as if we stoke magical and primitive patterns of thought: collective suffering, like a ceremony of redemption, would assure us a quick recovery. Such calls are often formulated by invoking the suffering of doctors: “people are dying, the doctors are overwhelmed, stay in your home [“restez chez vous”].” As if, because doctors and nurses are suffering, it means that everybody should suffer, and suffer as much as possible, even if it’s useless. The critique addressed at those who retreat to their second home, or are living out their social distancing confinement more in the spirit of a vacation, reveals the same tendency.

Numerous voices are calling out to demand a total confinement, or even a curfew.

We must beware of our tendency to act as if the disease were a curse endowed with meaning.

No one formulates this explicitly, but there are numerous clues showing us the importance of tribalistic thought patterns and the internal reflex which thinks “this is happening for a reason.” We already see essay writers rushing to designate the pandemic an occasion for humanity to reinvent itself, to transform its relationship to all beings and things, to call globalization, transportation modes and capitalism into question, all the while working towards signifying the situation as a purifying, perhaps even happy, occurrence despite everything, even a stroke of good fortune – which probably would not have happened had we not arrived at such misguided excesses. Their writing feels as if they’re rejoicing.

Many discourses are attached to the loathsome idea that the disease is a source of regeneration. This perception shows through the development of a naive naturalism which would like the animal and plant kingdoms to find their lost harmony now that man, impure and dangerous, is disappearing. Multiplying videos show nature taking back its rights now that man has disappeared from the public space (dolphins, foxes, wolves, rats, pigeons, all kinds of fish). It’s only a short step to saying that the disease is a virtuous process.

A progressive discourse must always affirm the axiom: a disease has no meaning, no virtue, it is never beneficial.

A progressive discourse must always affirm the axiom: a disease has no meaning, no virtue, it is never beneficial. And It is strange to accuse modernity of being responsible for the pandemic when the cause seems to be more likely to be found in local and ancestral Chinese traditions and wildlife markets.

We must distrust the familialism that characterises our way of imposing the obligation of social distancing.

The confinement has produced a rupture and a delegitimization of all the forms of life that are not institutional and familial. The authorization of certain contacts and the prohibition of others has produced a psychic reconfiguration of the links that each of us maintains with others – certain intimate relations have been defined as strange relationships that we cannot maintain any more: it is possible to live 8 to a house if it is a husband and wife with children and grandparents; but two single friends or lovers who don’t live together, but who nevertheless can be seen as forming a little domestic unit, are prohibited. A police officer is placed between them.

Confinement redistributes the inside and the outside of the social circle in a brutally institutional and irrational manner, and designates as strangers those who are no longer supposed to see each other, all those who don’t live according to the schema of the nuclear family under the same roof. It is a brutal and homogenous way of thought, which doesn’t take into account ways of life and social conditions.

Confinement, as thought about in its current form, accomplishes the reactionary destiny of eradicating all non-familial relations.

Confinement, as thought about in its current form, accomplishes the reactionary destiny of eradicating all non-familial relations. It supports the psychological economy that, de facto, symbolically devalues these forms of living and qualifies them as superfluous, causing psychological suffering which no one takes seriously when evaluating the benefits of confinement. For example, only a very few articles have worried about the total absence of reflection on how sex work has been rendered brutally precarious.

Since misfortune never comes singly, the epidemic is giving rise to a multiplication of confinement journals published by writers.

Many mock them because they accumulate, which is true, all of culture’s racisms: the staging of oneself at home, listening to music, reading, writing, working, playing with one’s cat or children… But beyond naive expressions of the bourgeois satisfaction of being oneself (which have for a long time now defined what we call French literature), these texts reveal a tendency at play in all social classes: the presentation of this moment as one of re-centering on the essential, on life and family’s simple pleasures, against the artificial and corrupting pleasures of our previous lives ‘beforehand’: going out, drinking, etc. We must beware of the values of anti-modernity which we resort to in order to give meaning to our way of experiencing confinement.

Finally, we must beware of the resurgence of a national affect: the diffusion of the epidemic risk produces a frightening intensification of one’s need to belong to a national body to which it obligations are owed, with all the authoritarian consequences that always follow such perceptions.

We already observe the pleasure which some derive from exerting power over others in the name of this “collective spirit:” a generalized surveillance of behaviours has been put in place: we’ve seen many instances of the reporting of individuals who were not respecting a strict confinement. I myself saw someone being yelled at because they were walking down the street without a mask. This intolerance of small differences and this overreaction to deviance are typical of traditional societies which see a rise of collective consciousness over individual ones. Understanding the situation as requiring a “national mobilization” explains why governments feel authorized to put the most regressive measures into place without limits: sending people to work in the fields, undoing labour rights for the most exploited, derogating from the constitution, dismantling penal procedures and the rights of defence, reinforcing powers for the police.

In that sense, it is possible that all the scenes of clapping for our health staff, which we witness in France and other countries every night at 8pm, no matter how well meaning they are — although they are highly exasperating, because many people who take part are the same ones who voted in the parties whose programmes worked to dismantle the public health service, and who are also responsible for our current situation — constitute one of the modalities of reinforcement of this purely fictional aspiration to fuse into a tight-knit community.

Thus, they intensify affects which go less in the direction of the formulation of oppositional, rational politics and more in the direction of the implementation of authoritarian measures, depriving us of individual liberties and sacrificing dominated classes in the name of the national interest. This is the reason why so many right-wingers applaud: they know that the affects ensuing from such scenes generally result in policies which are in their own interests.

There are always multiple ways of traversing a crisis and experiencing what is taking place. The rightward shift of societies, which accelerated before the epidemic, did not come to a magical halt a few weeks ago: this process is still taking place. It’s even growing: our way of relating to what is happening to us marks a triumph of the values which define it: “suffering,” familialism, naturalism, intolerance of small deviations, nationalism… This epidemic is scary today because on top of the physical damage it wreaks, everything indicates that it moves us towards the emergence of a governmentalism which destroys life through the triple means of moral cannibalism, anti-modernism and nationalist submission.

Collective English translation by Mona Varichon and Jacob Eisenmann

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData