Fios do tempo. Coronavirus: From the crisis of neoliberal capitalism to a convivialist democracy – by Paulo Henrique Martins

Today we will publish in English the first article in a series of debates on the coronavirus pandemic, conducted in Fios do Tempo [Threads of Time] at Ateliê de Humanidades. In this article, Paulo Henrique analyzes the current global systemic crisis, its reasons and its possible consequences. In a purposeful way, he also brings the debate of convivialism, proposing that we are facing the opportunity to reconfigure the relationship between human beings, nature and techniques. Is it possible to avoid the potential authoritarian drifts that are underway and to bring about a convivialist democracy from this crisis?

A. M.
Fios do tempo, April 3, 2020




Coronavirus:
From the crisis of neoliberal capitalism to a convivialist democracy

Recife, March 16, 2020

This article aims to contribute to the debate taking place at Ateliê das Humanidades on the systemic crisis that neoliberal capitalism is experiencing at the moment due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Known since the 1960s, this disease  is the expression of a virus family which affects the respiratory system, but which now reaches unprecedented global proportions. Such a novelty raises a discussion: the power and speed of a narrative of the neoliberalism crisis that has historically risen not out of economic and financial institutions, but, instead, out of a pathological phenomenon present in the human being’s apparatus. This novelty is triggering off economic and political events that affect all countries and individuals, given the burden it represents for human life and for the consumer society.

The Coronavirus strongly reveals the panic among individuals who are not prepared to cope with the prospect of physical death as an irrevocable event, thus disclosing the fragility of life management prevailing so far. A growth model based upon the accumulation of material wealth and financial speculation lingered while it was possible to hold the concept of the future as a mathematical event meant to guarantee all the speculations and depredations of the present. With the global crisis caused by the Coronavirus, the expectations of the future market have vanished, and reality imposes itself on individuals, summoning everyone to change their frustrations and despairs into elements in order to build a freer and more equal world society. 

This article falls within the scope of the debates promoted by The Convivialists International, an intellectual movement joining hundreds of researchers in favor a post-neoliberal world. Two important manifestos, which will be discussed in this work, have already been published in several countries. The crisis of the neoliberal model was foreseen a long time ago by thinkers who have been criticizing the limitations of the model. This crisis may reinforce both totalitarian exits and democratic exits. It will depend on how social and intellectual movements will deal with the systemic crisis, taking advantage of power gaps to advance emancipatory actions. Until now, counter-hegemonic thinking has been struggling with the limits given by neoliberal forces in controlling finance and economic activities worldwide with repercussions on national policies. Now, perspectives for effective change have arisen and ought to be utilized. In my viewpoint, the work of the Convivialists will surely help to shed light on the situation.

Images of an event foretold

Literature always anticipates historical events. Through fantasies, stories and even silences, It suggests the arrival of events that had not been yet inscribed in individuals’ timeline or reasoning. Thus, inspired by the memories of my readings, the first impression that comes to mind when trying to approach this theme is the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1981) entitled Chronicle of a death foretold. In this book, he describes the situation of Santiago Nasar whose revenge murder was foretold; however, no one could save him from his tragic end. A number of coincidences pointed to an unintelligible fatality. The climate of tragedy was noticeable in the flows of intense and scattered emotions among the inhabitants of the village. In his book, the author draws attention to the fact that the stench of the deceased led to guilt and remorse not only among the murderers but also among people who, for some convenience, had refrained from taking initiatives to interrupt the circuit of fatality.

At this very moment, we are living a climate on the planet that resembles Marquez’s fantastic novel. This chronicle proves interesting to think about the current situation of the planet with the Coronavirus event. At this moment we sense odors, fears and existential doubts that seemed far away until recently. Clearly, there was a suspicion in the air that the capitalist system was out of control announcing the emergence of an attractor, of a dynamic system that would be heading towards a direction not initially expected. In fact, if at its dawn capitalism appeared as a sunray that would point to new times of rational clarity and social well-being, in recent years we have seen another image: that of a cloudy horizon in which the human system reproduces in plain moral and economic decay. Many were the evidences that predicted the systemic crisis: extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of few families, increased social inequality, environmental crimes, the extinction of species, disunity and hatred increasing violence and blurring the rules, values and customs that have ensured the civilization process until now.

The Convivialists and the announcement of the systemic crisis

The crisis of neoliberal capitalism is a subject that has been discussed for some years now by the Convivialists, who launched two manifestos in favor of a new humanity. The first one came out in 2013 and the second one came out in 2020, and both of which have already been published in several countries. In these manifestos, signed by renowned researchers, the Convivialists International presents the causes of the crisis and provides the necessary elements for initiatives aimed at overcoming it (Manifeste Convivialiste: Déclaration d’interdépendance , Paris: Le Bord de L’Eau, 2013; Second Manifest convivialiste. Pour un monde postneoliberal, Paris: Actes Sud, 2020).

The First Manifesto reminds us of the fact that humanity has never had so many material resources as well as technical and scientific skills at its disposal to ensure its well-being. However, it warns that “no one is more capable of believing that this accumulation of power can continue indefinitely… without turning against itself and without threatening the physical and moral survival of humanity” (p. 11-12). The threats pointed out in the Manifesto are diverse but, it is not by chance that it emphasizes ecological threats represented by global warming, the weakening of ecosystems and air pollution, the risks of nuclear disasters and the scarcity of energy resources reflecting and impacting on other economic, social and political variables.

The Second Convivialist Manifesto, released in 2020, deepens and expands the First Manifesto, stressing, from the very beginning, the youth mobilizations demanding that the State and large companies decide to fight global warming and the degradation of natural environment. The document also warns that “we only have a few years left to reverse the dynamics that currently govern the world before worse comes to worst. Virtuous words and proclamations never translated into action are definitely no longer enough. Procrastination is becoming unbearable.” The two Manifestos  elaborated in a short chronological time gap claim for the urgency of broad reactions against the imminent threat of catastrophic events as they foresee the arrival of the attractor, the general crisis of neoliberalism and its mercantilist illusion.

But, the crisis was expected to break out in the field of politics as a reaction from those treated unfairly towards the negative impacts of neoliberal capitalism on social and economic life and on the environment. In this direction, it was believed that the international players to be immediately called upon would be the anticapitalist, social, trade union, identity movements, and right in the heart of these movements, these would be followed by the feminist, youth and ecological movements. In parallel, Liberal Democrats believed in the redemption of “good capitalists”, who should be interested in reordering industrial capitalism and setting limits to financial and rental speculation. But, the prospect of a rupture of the capitalist system was not clearly envisioned as having political, moral, economic, and, above all, ecosystem repercussions, as witnessed now.

The narrative of the crisis and the death of the consumer society foretold

Convivialists assume that economic and moral utilitarianism and the cult of consumerism are elements of a social pathology weakening human beings and preventing the liberation of a more convivial society. Nevertheless, no one could see the rupture of this utilitarian and consumerist chain striking so fast and at such astonishing levels. The biggest impact of the Coronavirus narrative is that it not only affects the social layers of peripheral societies, who have been struggling with the dengue, zika and chikungunya, but also spreads mainly among the wealthiest layers, who have the resources to ride waves of businesses, consumption and spending spree. The Coronavirus reaches especially those spaces of desire that the rich neoliberals love the most: those spaces of free individual circulation among metropolises geared for tourism, leisure and business purposes. Suddenly, the dreams of sea cruises, oversea travels, shopping malls and home purchasing in several countries have turned into nightmares.

What we see is a systemic crisis that has its roots in economics, politics, culture but, above all, in the ecological, social and emotional imbalance of the human being. The Coronavirus spreads at a fast pace not only because the tourist industry, international trade and speculative finances have accelerated, but also because the human body has been intoxicated by organic and emotional poisons, waning immunological defenses. The excesses of the utilitarian society driven by the eagerness for power and unlimited material consumption led to it. The new event necessarily urges for a deep discussion about the crisis and summons us to review some fundamental contributions needed to rethink the paradigm of unlimited growth.

The Limitlessness of capitalism and the convivial utopia

In his book Tools for conviviality(1973), Ivan Illich pointed out the importance of a complete revision of the ways to organize societies. As he put it, the challenge to be faced consisted of knowing how to rearticulate the millennial triad among human being, tool and society in a different way. He noted that overinvestment in techniques to ensure mass production of goods and services was contributing to the destruction of modern society. Illich reminded us of the dangers of a society founded on the limitlessness (hubris) of capitalism, that is, of a system that reproduces with no limits, thus generating deep systemic imbalance.

In Illich’s perspective, the term conviviality would represent the basis for rethinking a society in which man controls the tool. This way, convivial utopia is born and inspires Convivialists International. It is worthwhile to remember that the First Manifesto was not thought of and devised in 2013 out of the blue. It was preceded by a debate bringing together a group of Convivialists, who were deeply connected with the contributions of authors such as Illich, Mauss among others. In 2010, while Marc Humbert, a professor at the University of Rennes, was in Japan, he had the idea of organizing a debate gathering colleagues from MAUSS (AntiUtilitarian Movement in social sciences) so as to deepen the perspectives of a convivial society and anti-utilitarianism, following the guidelines of authors such as Mauss and Illich. From this initiative sprung up the book De la convivialité: dialogues sur la société conviviale à venir (A. Caillé, M. Humbert, S. Latouche and P. Viveret, Paris, La Découverte, 2011), whose goal was to include the elements of a critical language meant not only to be anti -capitalist but also to deepen the search for new meanings concerning the neoliberalism crisis.

In the introductory part of the book, Humbert stresses the importance of getting rid of three splinters “that sink deep into the flesh of our societies”: an overly focused operation on utilitarian effectiveness and a focus on growth that jeopardizes nature and a widespread objectivation-mercantilization that makes our societies inhuman. In an article “En guise de prologue. Vers le convivialisme”, published in the book aforementioned, Alain Caillé moved on to depict some fundamental points to look for the exit out of a crisis that was lying ahead. Seeking support in the political reading of the gift that he claims to be present in Marcel Mauss, Alain Caillé suggests that the most important issue of the 21st century to successfully face the logic of excess, of hubris, would center upon understanding the following question: “how is it possible to prevent a part of humanity, who became poorer while another part became richer, from choosing the state of nature, that is, of the war of all against all, instead of choosing society”? (Caillé, p.16, 21).

To overcome these impasses, the Manifestos seek to deepen the new senses given to the human being. In the First Manifesto the principle to be followed involves those of a common humanity, a common sociality, a principle of individuation and a principle of regulated opposition (2013, p.26-27). In the second Manifesto another fundamental principle is added; namely, that of common naturalness. This concerns the fact that humans do not live outside nature. Quite the contrary, they are a part of it and have responsibility for it (2019, p. 43). Nothing could be more emblematic for the critique of the narrative of the Coronavirus crisis at this moment than the understanding of the human being as belonging to nature broadly.

The Coronavirus and the prospects for advancing a convivialist democracy

The Coronavirus allows us to better understand how the systemic crisis is formed as an expected and unpredictable event resulting from a series of cultural, ecological, moral and affective factors. The prospect of mass physical death that understandably frightens crowds during times of war and natural disasters emerges here as a global and unprecedented fact. Its speed scares calculators and opportunists of the market, who are more concerned with profits than with human life. The Coronavirus is an event that demystifies, above all, the mythical narrative of the immortalization of the human being – through enrichment, power, consumption and medicalization – comprising the reasoning pertaining of the wealthy in the realm of neoliberalism.

However, the real perspective that we are all equal and that we can die together raises important reflections on the issue of living together. It also serves to question the criteria used to distinguish, separate, discriminate and exclude. Likewise, it will put into perspective the criteria to reconcile, help, love and sympathize.

Finally, the systemic crisis provoked by the Coronavirus brings up an important reflection made by Edgar Morin decades ago in his book entitled Le paradigme perdu: la nature humaine (Paris: Seuil, 1973). In this preparatory book for his proposal of a method that incorporates the advances of anthropology, sociology, cybernetics and biology (which was the subject of his research later in the eighties), he summons all of us to think about the organization of a new paradigm capable of overcoming the dichotomy between nature and culture portrayed in studies about society. In the author’s view, overcoming this dichotomy would enable the understanding of the demise of an insular vision of the self-idolizing man, who venerates the image of his rationality. This would be the condition, he adds, to construct a polycentric science of man centered not only on the global bio-anthropological level but also on the psycho-social-cultural level (op. cit, p. 211 and 218). By highlighting the importance to overcome the dichotomy between man and culture and also between life and nature, Morin includes a proposal for an epistemological revision that resonates with that proposed by convivialist democrats.

In practical terms, the construction of a new scientific paradigm should directly entail the organization of public, economic, social and cultural policies so as to adopt a more integrated planning devised by the State in the short, medium and long term. The neoliberal thesis aimed at diminishing state action and maximizing the market as a regulator of society was grounded on the premise that economic progress was an unquestionable reality. With the current crisis, it is noticeable that the market is totally incapable of remaining as an institutional and political regulator. Thus, the countries managing the Coronavirus more efficiently are precisely those that have better articulated public health policies. We have witnessed China’s reaction in controlling the endemic disease, and it is also worth mentioning the case of Cuba, which had not registered any cases of the virus (until this publication on March 16th). In contrast, those experiencing more difficulties had opted to place more value on private health to the detriment of public health.

The possibilities of peripheral societies to face the crisis of neoliberalism in a context of plummeting stock exchanges and capital flight to central financial systems depend on the capacities of these States to resume their functions of regulation and promotion of public policies for health, education, employment and infrastructure. Brazil is a country that has a complex health system, SUS (Unified Health System), which has been strongly depreciated by the privatization policies of health care in recent years. Under Bolsonaro administration, in particular, ultra-liberal economic policies aim to undermine both state assets and companies such as BNDES (Brazil’s national development bank), responsible for financing economic activities. In turn, this attitude will make the country very vulnerable to the systemic crisis. Paulo Guedes’s economy manual, closely subordinated to the interests of the large banks, contemplates only the organization of actions that facilitate financial accumulation and concentration of income. However, this manual is totally ineffective at a time when the concrete foundations of “business environments” are likely to crumble down.

We are then faced with an interesting agenda of debates, which Ateliê de Humanidades should take on. An agenda that contemplates the in-depth analysis of the systemic crisis faced by neoliberalism, the challenges for the State to take over its rightful place in promoting public actions as well as in forming a national society and the perspectives of democratic struggles at a time when neoliberal hegemonic thinking goes belly up.


Paulo Henrique Martins is a professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE), former president of the Latin American Association in Sociology (ALAS) and partner independent researcher of the Ateliê de Humanidades. He published Itinerários do dom: teoria e sentimento and Teoria crítica da colonialidade, both by Ateliê de Humanidades Editorial.


Translated by Marco Aurélio de Carvalho Silva: psychoanalyst, master of Psychoanalytic Theory at UERJ and independent researcher at Ateliê de Humanidades.


How to quote:
MARTINS, Paulo Henrique (2020), Coronavirus: From the crisis of neoliberal capitalism to a convivialist democracy, Fios do Tempo (Ateliê de Humanidades), 03 de abril. Disponível em: https://ateliedehumanidades.com/2020/04/03/fios-do-tempo-coronavirus-from-the-crisis-of-neoliberal-capitalism-to-a-convivialist-democracy-by-paulo-henrique-martins/


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