As I write this review, I am in confinement in my flat in Barcelona by order of the Spanish central government, effective since March 16. Spain, like most countries in the world, was unprepared for the historic health crisis of Covid-19, and the state’s response was both late and inadequate, with tragic results that are now well known. What is worse, this health crisis immediately morphed into an economic crisis that now appears set to dwarf the “Great Recession” that began in 2007. The Covid-19 crisis has brought a sudden halt to most economic activity worldwide, shutting down the economy much more swiftly, suddenly, and totally than the gradual—albeit fairly rapid—unraveling that occurred over a decade ago.
We are now hearing from a range of media pundits, social media figures, academics, and others, restating what has been painfully obvious: the crisis reveals (sigh, once again) the contradictions of global capitalism. There will no doubt be a great deal of reckoning in the wake of this crisis, which could generate profound transformations in the way we live. However, I fear that that it will all come to naught, just as it did a decade ago—or, at least, will mostly come to naught. The global elites calling the shots still have a firm grip on the world—they control not only the means of production (physical and immaterial) but also, perhaps more importantly, the production of mindsets and behaviors. We are, therefore, in the realm of Antonio Gramsci’s “crisis,” which “consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.”
It is in this admittedly pessimistic frame of mind that I take on the task of reviewing Being at Large: Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts, which, while echoing some of my gloom, is nonetheless more positive with regard to the prospect for change in the future. Timely and engagingly written, Being at Large advances a thesis developed in Zabala’s previous work, namely, that we live in times of a dominant “absence of emergency,” despite being surrounded by and immersed in emergency. This means that a long list of ongoing emergencies—including climate change, military conflicts, refugee movements, homelessness, rising inequality, the manipulation of personal information and, of course, pandemics such as the spread of Covid-19—are framed by those in power as somehow normal, leading Zabala to the Heideggerian notion that “the only emergency is the lack of a sense of emergency.”
Zabala rejects the common lament that “postmodernists” are somehow to blame for the rise of fake news and the general spread of ignorance and mendacity today. Rather, he takes aim at what he calls the “new realist philosophers” of the “intellectual dark web” community, who have achieved some prominence in public debate in many parts of the world. In North America, this intellectual realism is associated with figures such as Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, and Christina Hoff. Realism underwrites scientism and the positivist view that the universe, the real world, is composed of ordered structures and systems of cause-and-effect relations, which through rational inquiry can be accessed, known and predicted. In such a world, philosophers like John Searle advocate putting philosophy at the service of the scientific establishment, making it complicit with structures of power and ultimately the current ongoing erosion of freedoms in contemporary democracies.
In opposition to this intellectual realism, and in order to “preserve freedom from external impositions,” Zabala proposes an “anarchic hermeneutics,” which is sensitive to the fact that Being is socio-historically situated and socially constructed. This new hermeneutics emerges from a longstanding tradition of radical thought in conflict with hegemonic institutions. An early example is Martin Luther’s fifteenth century challenge to the Catholic Church’s exclusive version of Christianity. More recent cases include Sigmund Freud’s challenge to orthodox positivist psychology, Thomas Kuhn’s challenge to portrayals of scientific activity as rational, and Richard Rorty’s challenge to orthodoxies in analytic philosophy.
Perhaps most significantly, there is Martin Heidegger, the central figure in Being at Large, positioned as the originator of hermeneutics. Heidegger established foundational notions such as the inherent instability and temporal situatedness of Being, and the impossibility of scientifically objectifying Being. Of course, Heidegger did not self-identify as a hermeneutic philosopher—indeed, for Zabala that would be impossible, since “hermeneutics is not a philosophy at all but rather the interpretation of Being.”
Being at Large is divided into three parts, bookended by an introduction and a short afterword. In the first part, entitled “Being,” Zabala takes us through basic concepts as he aims to “understand the meaning of Being after the deconstruction of metaphysics.” The key here is Heidegger’s rejection of metaphysics as the “age of the world picture,” in which the world is objectified as a reality waiting to be acted on by scientists and thought about by philosophers. Following Heidegger, the problem with the metaphysical approach is that it aims to capture truths that are dependent on the stable and unerring existence of objective reality of “eternal entities.” It is in this part that the meaning of the book’s title is made explicit: Being is always at large, free from the metaphysical “frames that limit its possibilities.”
In the second part of the book, entitled “Interpretation,” we see the development of an “anarchic hermeneutics.” More foundational ideas are introduced, many in intellectual pairings: Vattimo and Rorty, Freud and Nietzsche, and Martin Luther and St. Augustine. Zabala argues that in order to preserve and expand freedom during the transformation of contemporary society, we need to open up conversation. This is understood by Rorty and Vattimo as a space in which interpretation is the goal, rather than truth-finding. Most importantly, we need conversation as a way of confronting, resisting, and transgressing the kind of thinking that frames the emergencies facing us at present, even if these emergencies are framed as non-emergencies by those in power.
In the final part, entitled “Emergency,” Zabala moves much more explicitly into the realm of current events, considering three key emergencies that are not recognized as such due to “an ongoing global call to order and return to ‘realism.’” The first concerns right-wing populism in politics—Trump, Bolsonaro, and others—which is gaining ground in many contexts due to the failings of left-wing populism to make inroads in institutionalized politics. The second emergency includes both the ecological destruction of the planet and “the political refusal to engage the existential nature of climate change.” And the third emergency is the extraordinary power of global panoptic security networks exposed by whistleblowers such as of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden—including their power to criminalize and imprison whistleblowers to contain the crisis. As Zabala explains, “the greatest emergency is not what the whistleblowers reveal but rather the forces at the national and international levels that are brought to bear to prevent these revelations from thrusting us into emergency.”
Zabala’s discussion of emergencies draws upon the ideas of Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin, which have similarly informed Giorgio Agamben’s recent work on the “state of exception.” For Agamben, declaring a state of emergency has become the new norm as a political tool for governing politicians, to the extent that declarations now constitute an “absence of emergencies.” Zabala concludes that “the foreclosure of any possibility of meaningful democratic politics is not the result of the sovereign’s declaration of a state of emergency but rather of our global framed order, which is meant to maintain the absence of emergency.” There is no space for Rorty/Vattimo type conversation about the emergencies that we face, because these emergencies simply do not exist as such.
During the present pandemic, we see how government officials in country after country have followed the same two-step pattern: first, they minimized the threat, and when this strategy failed, they emphasized the unprecedented nature of a crisis that could not have been anticipated, let alone prepared for. In many places, there are already calls to hold these officials legally and ethically responsible for negligence and malfeasance. This should happen, in my view, but it should not divert conversation and interpretation away from the deeper causes of what happened. National health provisions worldwide have been unable to cope with the pandemic due largely to the hyper-mobility of populations and the subjection of societies to competition, private-sector worship, and market “rationalities”—all key elements in global capitalism.
My reference to the “deeper causes of what went wrong” is certainly not consistent with the postmodernist philosophy that runs through Being at Large. Rather this perspective is affiliated with the theses of Critical Realism, a Marxist philosophy of inquiry in the social sciences developed by Roy Bhaskar in the 1970s. Critical Realism charts a course between two polar opposites when it comes to social scientific inquiry: positivism and hermeneutics. Like Zabala, Bhaskar eschews the excessive epistemological claims of positivism, rejecting the notion that the laws governing social phenomena can be accessed through objective, empirically based inquiry. However, unlike Zabala, he does not subscribe to the weak ontology of hermeneutics: the reduction of ontology to the epistemological realm. In this sense, Bhaskar sees “no inconsistency” in taking a middle position between ontological realism, which posits “a real world which consists in structures, generative mechanisms, all sorts of complex things and totalities which exist and act independently of the scientist,” and epistemological relativism, which considers how “knowledge is itself socially produced [in] geo-historically specific social process[es and is] continually in transformation.” Importantly, for Bhaskar, science “as social phenomenon is characterised by relativism, pluralism, diversity, difference and change—all features which postmodernists quite correctly stress.” Bhaskar and other critical realists in a Marxist mode—sociologists such as Michael Burowoy and Bob Jessop, economists such as Ellen Meiksins Wood and Costas Lapavitsas—are hardly associable with the “intellectual dark web community” that Zabala opposes. Thus, the tendency in Being at Large to put all realists in the same sack seems a little unfair. A more nuanced approach to the notion of realism, contemplating alternatives such as Critical Realism, would have been welcome.
An additional issue relates to the post-truth era in which we live. Zabala sees the Trump administration’s use of terms such as “fake news” and “alternative facts” not just as an attempt to obfuscate, mislead, and lie but also as the imposition of a new understanding of what is “real,” “factual,” and “true.” Thus, we have the spectacle of Trump’s Covid-19 press conferences aimed at his unmitigated exaltation, which requires the creation of more and more alternative facts. Trump, the personification of America, is positioned as the passive and innocent victim of “foreign” forces—first China, then Europe, then the World Health Organization—or simply internal enemies, such as the fake-news media, Democratic state governors, and immigrants. It’s not anti-reality, but new reality. Not disorder, but order.
I return at last to the Heideggerian question posed by Zabala, “How is it going with Being?” As the book’s title suggests, Being is at large: it cannot be confined or even tamed, and it is always in the making and open to negotiation. For this reason, we need conversation as a way forward in a world dominated by authoritarian right-wing populism that aims to shut down alternative discourses. As Zabala explains in the afterword, “Being at large does not consist in becoming another being among others but rather in projects of interpretation, in overcoming impositions that reduce our possibilities of freedom.”
I like this notion of conversation as the way to freedom. In effect, it is also a way to counteract social conservatism and neoliberal political economy, while neutralizing fake news and mendacity. However, I am not convinced that the postmodern versions of Being and conversation presented by Zabala point the way forward, and I would prefer to consider connections to critical realism rather than eschew all forms of realism.
I align with Nancy Fraser, who argues against what she calls “progressive neoliberalism,” which has emerged from the institutional Left’s embrace of recognition politics as it has moved away from redistribution politics. Fraser sees this form of neoliberalism as perhaps the biggest obstacle at present to a genuinely left politics in the United States and elsewhere. Zabala adopts Fraser’s thesis, despite the fact that she distinguishes objective (i.e. real) structures that must be addressed and transformed if we are to liberate ourselves from global capitalism. There is an objective “crisis complex,” comprising “ecological, economic, and social” elements, and a “subjective counterpart” that is the response to this crisis complex. Crucially, without a viable solution to the “underlying objective problems,” no subjective response, “however apparently compelling,” can possibly sustain itself to “secure a durable counterhegemony.”
The question that remains in my mind is if conversation—for Fraser, a subjective response—can ever lead to profound political economic and social transformation if it never rubs shoulders with the “larger crisis complex,” i.e. the real. Zabala declines to seek strategic theoretical solutions to objective problems because, among other things, in anarchic hermeneutics, the objective (real) does not exist.
David Block is the ICREA Research Professor in Sociolinguistics in the Departament d’Humanitats at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra.