Petro: The Role of Progressivism in a Time of Pandemic and Extinction


PI Council Member Gustavo Petro on the “demolition of a global civilizational paradigm,” and the love and solidarity that must replace it.

It is highly likely that COVID-19, as most recent viruses, originated from contact between the market economy — that ever more widespread, far-reaching and human institution — and a specimen that introduced it into the human body.

The market has enabled the spread of the disease while also making acquiring profit through accumulation in a specific production model a reality. The increasingly expanding circulation of goods and extreme exploitation of nature has transformed the latter into a commodity at the same as destroying it.

We live in a society that only understands wealth as exchange value, only gains profit through exchange value, and only sees humans as beings when it is for their exchange value. This is what puts human beings in contact with the virus and the pandemic, and unleashes the mother of all viruses: the chaotic transformation of the environment. A specific social relationship between human beings that always needs to go further to be able to create profit, until it covers every inch of the planet's territory to appropriate it for its exchange value. Such a relationship, as it overtakes nature, intermittently brings humans into contact with viruses and diseases.

Although we cannot link COVID-19 directly to climate change, we can clearly see its connection with the unlimited expansion of the market economy. Scientific research has shown how abrupt and substantial changes in water cycles, as well as glaciers melting after millions of years, uncovers and releases ancient viruses that then come into contact with humanity.

We are facing a reality described two centuries ago: a particular historic production model and its market economy grow without limit because of surplus value, and therefore surplus work. In the process, it destroys the sustainability of life itself by blindly consuming enormous amounts of human labor, steering us ever closer to the impossibility of sustaining ourselves as a species and the planet.

Humanity’s experience with COVID-19 is like going through a temporary but intensive laboratory experiment. An experiment in the present showing us what is to come: the degradation of the quality of life for all of earth’s inhabitants.

Today we know with certainty that the promise of a world of abundance, of endless consumption, of linear technological progress and the fulfillment of all needs will not be kept. The progress made under the current conditions of production and exchange is a dystopia. A world of perpetual and unlimited happiness growing at par with consumption – like the “false infinite” that Hegel spoke of – does not exist and will not come into existence. The profit motive has been the “deus ex machina” of the last three centuries of human society in this world – and it does not lead to paradise, but to hell.

The backbone of the political establishment’s economic theory, which evolved into neoliberalism, has failed miserably: the free market does not maximize the well-being of individuals nor does it efficiently assign productive resources.

The failure of this unscientific ideological paradigm is even starker than the collapse of Soviet societies and its Berlin wall. Today every human being feels it in every corner of the planet.

We are now facing the demolition of a global civilizational paradigm.

What can arise from its ashes? As always in human history, new contradictions and conflicts.

The social conflict that comes in tow of the climate crisis, and is proportionate to its severity, divides the world’s society into two main sections. On one side are those who seek to survive the ravages caused by the crisis in their region, those who move to stop an expansive market economy based on the production and consumption of commodities based on fossil fuels producing greenhouse gas emissions, those who walk and act to defend life, their own and that of others. On the other side are those who want to maintain the current system of surplus, self-destructive and wasteful work and profits in detriment to the lives of people and the planet – the defenders of the fossil fuel economy.

This crucial conflict is revealed in many different ways throughout the world. It expresses itself in mass exoduses, in massive migration movements, in oil wars and their millions of deaths, in the impoverishment of millions of farmers, in increased hunger, in so-called natural disasters and its victims. It expresses itself in the desperate growth of artificially created needs by the market to force consumption, in the subsequent increase in productivity and automation leading to an increase of unemployment, in the rise of wasted human labor in processes that imply the extinction of life; in the destruction of democracy in places where democracy was born.

It's the destruction of the utopian order that Fukuyama prescribed, in ever-widening spheres of barbarism.

The exodus, as Antonio Negri would say, is followed by barbarism.

I would say, the times we are currently living through are a widened reflection of 1933 – on a global scale.

Humanity is in crisis and it is trying to be controlled by the most repressive technological means in human history. The exodus is addressed by walls protected by machine guns and satellites. This time around the ghetto is not for the excluded but for the most powerful and wealthiest on the planet that want to live enclosed and segregated. A walled fortress, just like in the Middle Ages, which allows the fictitious happiness of the market on the inside, but discards the majority of humanity on the outside.

The climate crisis, as the development of the virus demonstrates, will also bring destruction to democracy. This destruction will be supported by a social base of millions of people afraid of losing their comfortable way of living. Their warm and fancy culture of consumerism that they confuse with freedom. New ideologies, symbols and representations are appearing that will lead these millions, perhaps even hundreds of millions of people all over the world, to defend their acquired lifestyle by any means possible. A lifestyle based on a society organized to fulfill their privileges as claimants with payment capacity, as pseudo-free citizens of the world. White supremacists, neo-fascists, and autocrats will attempt to trample on powerful states in order to protect the fossil fuel way of living at any cost while they themselves come under attack for their willingness to destroy life on the entire planet.

We will see a desperate, and therefore even more criminal and barbaric attempt to preserve a society whose foundations are collapsing.

These events will manifest themselves politically in all countries. Enormous amounts of money will be spent so as to succeed in manipulating all of humanity into supporting increasingly elusive goals, perhaps, from virus to virus and millions upon millions of deaths.

When manipulation fails, weapons and extermination will shine: the global genocide.

We will see the emergence of large pathways for computer manipulation that will make the current ones seem like child’s play. It will be all about getting humanity to support the path to its own destruction.

Interethnic and tribal wars, these genocides within nations, or new wars of mass murderers as Badiou calls them, will serve to divert attention from the fortress, the idyllic world of consumption which is supposed to be untouchable but is the source of all problems.

Today, in the midst of the current pandemic, we can see barbarism and anti-democratic movements growing. Trump and Bolsonaro succeeded in forcing the World Health Organization (WHO) to back down, and lifted lockdowns to push masses of people to produce and consume. Confinement measures hurt the central axis of capitalism: production, which is where profit arises and is implemented in the market.

Today, hundreds of millions of people in the world are called upon to produce, to become infected and, many of them, to die.

Xenophobia is increasing, as is brutality against women, against children, autocrats are becoming more empowered and democratic structures and the defence of human rights are disappearing.

Strict confinement, as a consequence of the virus, could only lead to an economic policy that would have had to follow the path of redistributing wealth from top to bottom to ensure that confined families would not starve to death.

Claims to such an economic policy, which the WHO managed to show as the coherent one by calling for quarantine and the defence of life, unleashed the fury of money and power. It was not the people that needed saving, but those who own the money.

That is why the owners of money, who have over-indebted humanity, managed to get their hands on billions of issued dollars and euros. But they have ignored the economic lesson repeated over the last two centuries: wealth does not comefrom money, but from work.

The favoured recipe of those in power has been issuing money and creating debt, as David Harvey would say. The world after the pandemic will be more indebted than before, but there will be less work. The whole world’s future will be mortgaged in the name of debt guarantee and to benefit those who own the money.

Since confinement, in their homes, in the midst of fear, humanity has received a magnificent lesson in economics which destroyed all the textbooks of economic theory and its Nobel prizes of the last decades. They learnt that wealth only comes from work.

It was just by stopping to work to protect themselves from the disease. The mere fact that hundreds of millions of wage-earners did this completely paralyzed capital, devalued it and almost brought it down. An extinction that only capitalism could overcome, first by issuing and then appropriating ghastly amounts of money. But in reality, it will only be saved if it gets people out of their houses and puts hundreds of millions back into factories and supermarkets, no matter the risk of disease and death.

However, the lesson has remained in people's experiences. It is only humankind, as the great working force in the world, which can guarantee that a thin layer of society can call itself wealthy, consuming and destroying the planet at its whim, exposing everyone to death. Power and profit can only be built with modest working people. Without them, the whole Faustian world breaks down.

This is why we also see the emergence of the new in the experience of the pandemic. Or rather of the old which they have made us forget: solidarity, love for others and a shared destiny. The overcoming of the lonesome and atomized individual can only materialize in the well-being of others.

The death of the other makes us bitter.

The life of the other lets us be reborn.

From this new subjectivity, emerging within hundreds of millions of people, will come new social movements that defend life.

On the other side of the fortress of the status quo, the fossil fuel and trade economy, a renewed society will arise, eager to transform those things that only lead to death and destructive wastefulness of work.

This renewed society will also express itself in a diverse, local and global way. It will propose the task of creating a global decommodified public health system. A global common good, just like water and nature, and also the oxygen that we try to encapsulate in the machines replacing the lungs of those infected by COVID-19.

This renewed society will take up the task of stopping the market economy in its most harmful aspect, the use of fossil fuels. It will set itself the task of changing the structure of its own consumption, and its relationship with nature. It will also take up the task of creating a new spiritual and productive culture. Millions of people will take to the streets that are today dominated by the armed forces of the State. It will shift the possibilities of future life.

What will be our role in humanity's insurgency to protect life and to defeat the market economy without limits and its greenhouse gases effect? What will the role be of those who claim to be progressive?

As an old religious discourse or an old way of reasoning would say: to enlighten humanity.

In reality, we cannot bring light to a place where humanity has already lit the torches. Instead, we can coordinate its efforts, become local and global, communicate and interweave human efforts to make them more effective.

The deadly and anti-democratic effects of the fortresses that are built will not be neutralized if humanity fails to identify its common objectives, turn them into effective action, and to transform power.

Today, humanity is frightened but wiser than before, and it is waiting for leaders, flags and new symbols. People who abandon the rigid and correct politics and show the audacity needed to rebuild life.

It is no longer a question of adapting an old democracy that trembled and knelt before the neoliberal prescription long considered an immutable fact. It is no longer about adapting the old socialism without freedom and individuals. Today, the demands are for new social relations of production and consumption, for new cultures, for new symbolism – but all of them tied to life, knowledge and liberty.

The new progressivism has a task of construction and coordination. Technologically, its flags can be called decarbonised economy, re-balancing with nature, responsible consumption, clean energies, electric transportation systems, or cycling. But technology only covers relationships between human beings.

Each new position in the economic or technological field implies a change in the relationships among human beings, a change in power, as Foucault would define it. Not only in the visible power of the state, but also the invisible, the one which penetrates every inch of human existence: true power. Power that will be more feminine, more childlike, definitely more black and indigenous, more of the pariahs of the earth, more of the excluded. Power that will transform into more power for those who have never had it, perhaps to make the power of humanity’s history disappear.

We need more democracy, not only that of rigid authoritarian parties, but a more vibrant and multi-colored democracy, with more decision-making capacity for the simple modest people in their territory, in their nation, in their landscape.

We need more humanity in what Aristotle called specifically human, that which defines us: culture, knowledge, politics. Societies of knowledge can show us a new progressivism – not only in how to get there, but in how these societies begin a new type of accumulation, no longer of unnecessary commodities. No longer one fixed values ​​based on the work of others but, instead, based on the accumulation of common knowledge and culture.

The societies that await us if humanity triumphs in its quest to stay alive on this planet, for which it needs the life of everything else, especially from nature, will be more sparing, perhaps older, and they will be wiser.

An old German thinker said revolutions are only brought about when a way of producing no longer guarantees the development of a society. Today, it is clear that the current way of producing and consuming no longer guarantees the development of humankind. It unfailingly leads to death, to our disappearance as a species on this planet we call Earth.

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Gustavo Petro
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