We are experiencing the Covid-19 crisis as a long season of indeterminacy. When will it end? How will it end? Despite an outpouring of commentary from any number of public intellectuals, there are few answers being offered about what the future might hold. There are even fewer about how to get there. In that way, the pandemic has exposed yet another of the fault-lines of our moment: the difficulty of imagining ourselves beyond the current worlds in which we live.
As with those other fault-lines, the problem is not new, as François Hartog reminds us when he writes of “presentism.” Sometime in the twentieth century, we lost our belief in the redemptive power of history and so in the guarantee of a better future. Wendy Brown puts it succinctly: “We know ourselves to be saturated by history, we feel the extraordinary force of its determinations; we are also steeped in a discourse of its insignificance, and, above all, we know that history will no longer (always already did not) act as our redeemer.” The loss of history’s guarantee does not mean we have no future; it just means we alone are responsible for what it might be.
Of course, as the virus reveals one social disaster after another, there are pious hopes being uttered that this moment could usher in a better, more just world. The NY Times devoted a whole Sunday section to pointing out the need for more, and better, forms of equality and justice.
But something we might call a critical analysis of how we got here was entirely absent.
Like the commentators summoned by the Times, pundits have only underscored what the crisis of a pandemic has starkly revealed and what has been evident all along. They note the flagrant inequalities of class and race; the precarity of millions of working families; the violence wrought by the privatization of health-care and other social services; the connection between climate change and susceptibility to chronic disease (asthma being a case in point); the ravages of profiteering pharmaceutical companies; the insatiable greed of banks and hedge-fund managers; the dire effects on public welfare of years of tax cuts and austerity measures; the unpreparedness of governments to address the situation; and the undermining of collective consciousness by neo-liberal ideologies.
But this isn’t critical analysis: it is description. After a while, the reading of these accounts of socio-economic pathology and human suffering only serves to compound the depression and sense of impotence that comes with quarantine and confinement. We are being told what we already know—the symptoms and toll of the disease are being endlessly well-documented. This is not critique or critical analysis because we are not being offered the means by which to think about these social ills, and so, about what might constitute a cure for them that the pandemic has so glaringly exposed.
Most of the talk about the future is, ironically, about a return to the past: what is sometimes called “normal life.” The wish most fervently expressed is for a return to the taken-for-granted, everyday existence we led before this virus arrived. In medical terminology, crisis represents the decisive turning point which leads either to recovery or death. The social analogy trades on the synonymity of recovery and normalcy.
Of course, the normal must be adjusted, we are told. A new normal might require more regulation (of big Pharma, banks, hedge funds), the restoration of some safety nets for the poor, and even universal health care. Bernie Sanders was most vocal and explicit about what needed to be done, but his call for “revolution” has been muted, bits of it harnessed by Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, other parts of it tucked away. In fact, if the past is any indication of our future, Covid-19 will have provided the opportunity for capitalism’s further consolidation under the aegis of the state. This is what happened in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, to say nothing of what followed the plagues of previous centuries.
Where are the critical analyses that point to fissures in the structures of power that might be pressed on to bring about forms of serious change? Some of them seem to be coming from on the ground protests by medical professionals—nurses especially—who, even as they are on the front lines of emergency care, have been outspoken in their fury at shortages of supplies, failures to ensure their safety, and the mercenary calculations of for-profit hospitals.
In the name of the common good, nurses have denounced the right-wing assemblies demanding “freedom” and the exercise of individual rights. One nurse in scrubs stood alone facing a mob of unmasked, closely packed Trump supporters, whose actions, she said, were threatening the right to life of the rest of us. At the heart of her protest was an insistence on the interconnectedness of our lives, a refusal of the individualist libertarianism that has come to characterize neo-liberalism.
All over the country, there are African American groups organizing to address specific instances of racist discrimination, echoing the Black Lives Matter campaigns a few years ago. Workers in Amazon “fulfillment centers” have been protesting conditions of labor which defy social distancing rules, deny sick leave, and punish those who dare to complain. Members of the Communication Workers of America at General Motors plants have condemned that company for failing to use its workforce to manufacture the ventilators that hospitals desperately need. Instead, GM has laid-off workers and factory space is sitting empty. These workers are calling on citizens to demand that the President use his authority to require the production of ventilators at unused facilities. They are not the only workers demanding that corporations take the public interest into account.
Yet there is little media coverage of these events, making it hard to see what is likely an emerging pattern of refusing what we could know about the “normal” these workers still live in. Instead, the front pages of the NY Times and the Washington Post regale us with stories of the Trump supporters and their protests—organized and paid for by the President’s deep-pocketed enablers. If there is a “deep state” to be found, it is not in the paranoid fantasies of the American right, but in the Trump administration itself, supported by financial donors whose anonymity is protected by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010.
There seems to be a willful desire—at least on the part of the mainstream media—to minimize the significance of protest that offers sustained and serious criticism–and that might look to, and help all of us imagine, an alternative future. In the absence of media attention, critical intellectuals ought to be calling attention to these protests, magnifying their visibility, attending to their programs, heeding their calls. For it is these protests that are identifying the fissures—the pressure points—which may provide openings to the future.
Theorist Michel Foucault characterized these kinds of protest as forms of insubordination, a refusal not of law or government per se, but rather expressing the wish “not to be governed like that.” As Foucault explained: “I mean that, in this great preoccupation about the way to govern…we identify a perpetual question which would be: how not to be governed like that, by that, in the name of those principles….not like that, not for that, not by them.”
Protest, in other words, is also a form of critical analysis that the rest of us can learn from. “Not to want to be governed like that also means not wanting to accept these laws because they are unjust, because…they hide a fundamental illegitimacy.” The test for legitimacy may come from previous communally based systems of social organization, or from contemporary collective modes of being in neighborhoods or at work—in places where interdependence already provides the ground for distinguishing right from wrong.
In other words, forms of resistance do not need to be invented by theorists. They are an integral aspect of the complex relations of power in any society.
In an article in 1994, Hortense Spillers, writing of the responsibility of “black creative intellectuals” rejected the idea that it was their role to “save our people.” Rather, she said, “it seems to me that the only question that the intellectual can actually use is: To what extent do the ‘conditions of theoretical practice’ pass through him or her, as the living site of significant intervention?”
The cultural theorist Fred Moten reads this as a call for intellectuals to accompany activists, to riff on the analyses their protests offer. It seems to me that that ought to be our job now—not endlessly detailing the injustices this crisis has only made more evident, but, instead, looking for the refusals that might become the levers for openings to an alternative future.
Joan W. Scott is Professor Emerita in the School of Social Science in the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Columbia University Press will publish her latest book On the Judgment of History, this fall.