Can Europe Make It?

Covid-19 and the art of life

Is it reasonable to place our faith in reason to deliver us from future calamities of our own making? If not, what would a counter-reason entail?

James Chamberlain
20 April 2020, 7.33pm
Citizens in lockdown show gratitude to Covid-19 fighters in Vendrell, Spain, 19 Apr 2020.
SOPA Images/PA. All rights reserved.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has given birth to numerous noxious strains of irrationality: the claim that drinking water, by sending the virus into a person’s stomach, would neutralize the threat of infection; claims that the virus was created in a lab and released accidentally or otherwise; and the downright paranoid fear that the 5G network is either suppressing immune systems, or even spreading the virus itself.

We might speak of a pandemic of delirium. Citing Gilles Deleuze, Achille Mbembe writes that “‘there is always a Black person, a Jew, a Chinese, a Grand Mogol, an Aryan in the middle of delirium,’ since what drives delirium is, among other things, race.” It is an open question whether the pandemic would have provoked so much delirium had it originated in Europe or the United States, rather than in China. To what extent did the sense that the disease was something happening in an Orientalized imaginary that couldn’t possibly threaten the West, delay and confuse responses to it? In any case, this attempt to label COVID-19 the ‘Chinese virus’ and the rise of hate crimes against persons of Asian descent attest to the swirling forces of the irrational in the conflagration of this social and public health emergency.

Clearly at such times we need a powerful dose of reason to counteract these forces of the irrational. In addition to debunking myths and stopping the spread of false information, we need to understand the broader causes and effects of this particular public health crisis: the connections between the spread of infectious diseases on one hand, and climate change, agribusiness, and human encroachment on wildernesses on the other; the tattered welfare and public health systems left reeling to respond to the sudden spike in demand for their services; the disproportionate burden shouldered by people of color and the poor, and so on.

Yet as much as studies that highlight these and other factors are crucial to help inform a ‘rational’ discourse capable of reducing the impact of the current crisis and steering us away from such disasters in the future, there remains a deeper question that goes to the heart of the value of reason and rational discourse.

While reason may not be to blame for the virus, global capitalism has deployed its more technical and specialized forms with profoundly negative effects on the planet, in this particular case laying the groundwork for the pandemic. Given this, is it reasonable to place our faith in reason to deliver us from future calamities of our own making? More pointedly, when the very processes, structures, and institutions that have contributed to and exacerbated the pandemic themselves draw strength from a certain deployment of reason and technology, what would a suitable counter-reason entail?

Technological rationality

This question recalls the insights of Frankfurt School critical theorists, including Herbert Marcuse. What Marcuse called technological rationality centers on the mastery and transformation of nature, thus enabling highly efficient systems of production and the creation of material abundance.

Yet technological rationality remains divorced from questions of the good life, the good society, and peace. Despite being considered to be apolitical, moreover, Marcuse pointed out that technological rationality had become a political rationality unto itself, one that contains social change and undergirds an entire system of domination.

If reason has thus far functioned in a repressive manner, that did not mean, however, Marcuse argued, that we should give up on it entirely. Rather, we need to transform it – and indeed, technological rationality creates the very conditions for this transformation – so that it promotes ‘the art of life,’ thus allowing us to live well, and to live better. For Marcuse, this transformation would involve reconnecting science with questions of the good life, and making the ‘art of life’ a guiding principle in technical tasks.

A single unit of wellbeing?

Taking inspiration from the work of Jacques Derrida, we might reframe Marcuse’s critique in terms of the reduction of reason to matters that are purely measurable and calculable, overlooking questions of the good life. The appeal of a measuring and calculating reason is understandable, especially in such extraordinary times as the present. In a recent essay, for example, Peter Singer and Michael Plant worry that our response to the pandemic could become worse than the disease itself, specifically due to the harmful effects of “social isolation, unemployment and widespread bankruptcies.” As they frame the problem, we need to make a “tradeoff between saving lives and livelihoods,” and to do so we need to be able to convert “different outcomes into a single unit of value.”

The unit of value that Singer and Plant propose is wellbeing, which can be measured by listening to people’s own assessment of their happiness and satisfaction. Using this measure, the authors suggest that we can figure out how to “trade unemployment [caused by the lockdown of the economy] against years of healthy life.”

To give credit to Singer and Plant, they do not claim to be able to answer the question of how long lockdowns should last by themselves, pointing to the role of empirical researchers in measuring the effects in terms of wellbeing. Nor are the authors proposing that certain members of society should sacrifice themselves for the economy. However, the search for a single unit of value ignores the fact that different activities are simply incommensurable and that questions pertaining to the good life fall outside such calculation.

Asking people how they feel is surely better than telling them what is good for them. But how can I really quantify and measure the contribution to my well being from activities as diverse as engaging in paid work, cooking dinner, playing with my kids, cleaning up the neighbourhood, or watching a good TV show?

The incalculable

Instead of a reason that rests solely on calculation, we need to recover the element of reason that involves the incalculable. One example, as Derrida reminds us, is the concept of dignity, which attributes a value beyond measure or price to individuals. Similarly, Jean-Luc Nancy proposes the affirmation of singular beings and activities according to their own standards and for their own sake, an approach that refuses the idea of trade-offs, because the latter rests on the notion that fundamentally different entities can be weighed against one another.

Elevating the incalculable within reason also fundamentally challenges capitalism’s reduction of value to general equivalence. Indeed, this reduction to general equivalence parallels the thought that we must accept the need to make a trade-off between the health benefits of lockdowns (which are, in any case, not evenly distributed) and their social and economic costs.

True, unemployment has negative effects on wellbeing, since the contemporary work society makes gainful employment not only the main source of legitimate income for most people, but also a key arena for social interaction and respect. While we cannot transform the work society overnight, governments have been willing to adopt measures like the payment of lump sums to individuals regardless of need, thus addressing economic insecurity. Unfortunately, the amount being paid in the US, for example, falls well short of what is needed, but the principle shows that we don’t necessarily need to make Singer and Plant’s tradeoff. In other countries, subsidizing employers to furlough workers may not challenge the work society, but again, it at least provides a stopgap to employers during the lockdown. Of course, the amounts offered also represent a tradeoff – between the lives of the vast majority of ordinary people and the “health of the economy,” by which we should understand, ultimately, the interests of capital.

If governments can afford trillion dollar bailouts for major industries, why are sufficient funds not available for individuals to help them weather the storm?

But if governments can afford trillion dollar bailouts for major industries, why are sufficient funds not available for individuals to help them weather the storm? At stake is the very question of value, and only an understanding of reason that refuses to monetize and measure all well-being can lead us out of the current crisis and avert the future tragedies that capitalism will inevitably inflict.


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