Coronavirus: A Civilisation at the crossroads of capitalist chaos or the return to Nature

Elizabeth Peredo Beltrán

Collaborative Translation: Charlotte Nordgreen Swell [1]

The planet is struggling between chaos and balance, between dystopia and possible horizons.

As coronavirus gains notoriety as a vector of chaos through its exponential advance in a globalized, unjust world, the more it seems to obscure the gravity of other crises that are symptoms of a deadly disease: the erosion of commons, the climate crisis, the loss of biodiversity, the displacement of large social groups towards precariousness, the exacerbation of violences and patriarchal violence. In short… the sacrifice of humans and nature for the concentration of wealth in very few hands.

However, the disruption caused by COVID19 is not an isolated event and must be seen in the context of global capitalism. It is a continuation and consequence of the on-going break with nature. The crisis of the coronavirus both adds to and mimics other crises in the systemic global capitalist order. It unveils and deepens the injustices and social gaps that a capitalist civilisation has created in our territories and in our bodies. It does so with an effect accumulated over at least five centuries of unsustainable production, trade, consumption and territorial occupation. This crisis is part of the reality of the Capitalocene[2], a new stage of the planet dominated by the human species that now evolves under the yoke of globalised capitalism, colonisation and patriarchy. All of this is moving towards the reification, commodification and dispossession of everything that exists.

The route from disaster capitalism to chaos capitalism leaves its footprint on the body of the world and on our bodies, breaking the primordial bonds of interdependence, solidarity and collaboration. The earth, its deep layers, its forests, the water, the air, the atmosphere, the space around it and even the moon are flooded with these marks, which resemble wounds and scars. This is the material reality giving rise to the coronavirus pandemic today, which amplifies the impacts of modern, large-scale capitalism, like a knife-edge exposing its great brutality

This is a critical scenario, in particular, for the poorest, for the most vulnerable, for human beings located at the peripheries, for the impoverished sectors of the North and the South, and for the Global South. Whilst, on the one hand, this is one of the first times the higher echelons of society are threatened, on the other hand, inequalities been the haves and have-nots have been dramatically amplified.

The End of Capitalism?

Much has been said about how this crisis could mean the end of capitalism: The collapse of production and consumption chains generated by the ‘comparative advantages’ of globalisation had stopped the machine momentarily. In just a few weeks under quarantine, China had reduced 25%of its domestic emissions, equivalent to 9% of global emissions according to expert reports[3]. Similar reports of economic downtrend and decreases in fossil energy consumption have occurred in hundreds of other cities, countries and regions, where reduced activity is leading to a reduction in air pollution and has even seen the return of animal species to the empty cities of a world in lockdown.

All of this gives rise to the idea that we could quickly recover the lost path and that capitalism will meet its end, giving way to a society reconciled by nature, as some philosophers and analysts have enthusiastically anticipated[4].

But in expectation of capitalism’s end, we cannot avoid putting ourselves in the shoes of those who are suffering and fighting the pandemic at the front line: the most vulnerable, the poorest, the elderly, women, and indigenous peoples. Our expectations cannot be abstracted from the daily reality of the health workers across the world, or from the people responsible for collecting the bodies of those killed by the pandemic. It cannot prevent us from thinking about those whose efforts are sustaining the chains of work and production on which our lives depend. Food, sanitation, cleaning, and energy workers, many of who are subjected to despotic state employers and management hierarchies. We cannot stop thinking about those displaced from their lands by climate catastrophe, by war, by the lack of water and cultivable land. This is to say, the groups of humans who the financial and political elites have placed in precariousness with a message, which is repeated in their actions and political decisions: “there are lives that we can do without”.

The hope for transformation cannot be done without losing sight of the power relations and the capacity of the elite to protect itself and deepen deprivation and dispossession in order to save their own skin. Nor can it be defined without the framework for understanding this new paradigm, that of the Capitalocene, a new planetary era in which the dominant classes can “live together with” with destruction, injustice and chaos, deepening it to the point of aberration.

The expectation that society will be transformed cannot rest on the illusion that emissions are being reduced and the atmosphere is recovering when -according to analysis- they could barely be reduced by 5% in 2020[5] due to the crisis of COVID19. These figures are insufficient compensation for the scale of destruction generated by the capitalist metabolism. According to the Paris agreement we should reduce at least 7.5% of annual emissions for 10 continuous years, alongside extraordinary measures of transition and change in energy consumption patterns, which is not being done. The coronavirus poses a challenge, but it will not stop the ecocide that persists with the same models of hyper production, over-consumption and acceleration that are occurring simultaneously now. Unless societies decide and act to do so.

This crisis has illuminated the perspective of nature and reminded us of our place in the earth system which we have gravely abused. But it also demonstrates the complexity of the challenge we face in confronting the political dimension of restoring justice and solidarity in human relations in order to heal nature. Above all, it has reminded us of the need to decolonize our own minds in order to end the captivities imposed on us by capital itself.

To develop a political solution to our civilisational crisis from both a feminist and ecologist approach cannot be conceived in abstraction. It has to start from processing a collective “mourning” (Butler, 2002)[6] as one of the places from which to “situate” the comprehension of this new planetary reality. That is, to “adopt vulnerability” and – in this case – interdependency as a point of departure from biological and social bodies to the suffering and wounded earth. Because it will be from there that we will discover strengths, hope… possible horizons.

Dimensions of the capital-life conflict

The coronavirus crisis has made tangible in flesh the capital-life conflict. Today the tension between the dynamic threads of reproduction of life in opposition to the essence of neoliberal capitalism (which can no longer offer humanity and the planet prosperity and well-being) is being played out and unveiled with all its consequences. This emblematic crisis reveals other disruptions submerged by the corporate and political lobby – negationism – which agitates its arguments and obstructs global dialogues while shielding itself with financial, technological, political and military assurances[7], systematically eroding human and natural rights.

The delayed and controversial reactions of many government political leaders in shamelessly making explicit the “dilemma” between “either saving the economy or saving human lives” points to the substance of the dispute.

Whilst it is true that some governments are investing significantly to protect (money which they did not previously invest in the poor), the consequences of deregulation driven by neoliberalism in many countries in the recent decades has meant that health systems and other fundamental public goods have been dismantled, making us more vulnerable. Alongside this – and in the midst of the crisis – corporate rescue plans and new forms of circulation of goods in the pandemic have not been left on hold. Instead they have created new routes and reconversions sealed by capitalist DNA In many cases it has been precisely the employers’ demands to “continue producing” in non-priority sectors that have led to an increase in infections and a health crisis.

This pandemic has stopped some aspects of capital accumulation and tangibly threatens the highest spheres of society. But it has activated what the Argentinian analyst Maristella Svampa characterizes as a Sanitary Leviathan[8], which recovers Hobbes’ concept with reference to the scenarios of state control that had been analysed to confront climate change[9] Today this Leviathan takes the public health emergency to propose a reinstitution of the capitalist order which, in my opinion, is rooted in a politics of ‘confinement’ – ‘disconfinement’. This is a politics which fragments the social and political body, dispersing collective masses whilst at the same time ensuring the full freedom of the corporate “lobbies” to redesign the economies of the “post-Coronavirus” world.

Within a critical panorama of the curtailment of civil liberties, accompanied by a dichotomous health narrative that presents “health-disease” under a paradigm that focuses on the hospital, the patient, the virus, the power of technological and scientific knowledge is drawing a situation where people’s power is weakened. The salvation brought by the vaccine is presented today as the cornerstone of modern scientific reason. The response of public services, often in adverse conditions, with lack of material and precariousness is absolutely valuable. However, a socio-political approach allows us to see that this model “focused on the virus” can exclude a holistic perspective of the interconnections with the health of the planet. The dominant “biomedical” health model emerging from Cartesian dualism excludes from the cognitive map the ecological, social and economic causes of the crisis, its systemic order, the interconnection of human health with the health of the planet. At the same time, it restricts the possibility of greater participation/collaboration of society, as well as the recognition of social, feminine, community and popular solidarity knowledges, and crisis management knowledge which are in fact what have saved humanity countless times in history.

Along with this, we are faced with the emergence of a far-right social base of groups scattered around the world, such as the supremacist “anti-confinement” street actions that have had the explicit support of Trump in the US and Bolsonaro in Brazil, and which echo the aspirations of businessmen like Elon Musk and others, who call for deconfinement by appealing to the “freedom of the market”. A financial capitalism that has learned to ride on its own crises and to restore itself with its “Shock Doctrine” (N. Klein) is rising again. As Emiliano Terán of the Observatory of Political Ecology of Venezuela rightly says: the crisis of the coronavirus “lays bare the simulacra of power”[10].

Thus, the “post-Coronavirus” world is already the world in which we are living. The “reconfiguration” – which has already begun – is making the interior struggles of the dominant groups visible. It can be brutally capitalist instead of making the longed-for transition to the “reduction of inequalities” and “sustainability of ecosystems” viable. Even more so, it makes the transition towards a change in the civilisational paradigm (which has returned to the to the discussion table) an unprecedented urgency and necessity.

The horizons of a social transition, or of a civilisational “leap” as a virus has metaphorically shown us, is only possible if we are able to generate a social fabric and a subjectivity that can respond to injustice and the logics of power in this new context. It is necessary to question power as soon as possible, to demand justice and care for life, to demand reconnection with nature by assuming the holistic, interdependent character of our human condition. Because the true causes of this pandemic lie in the ecocentric dispossession that capitalism has brought about from chaos.

Some emerging alternatives

Viruses – which exist in billions worldwide – “jump” to the human species under particular circumstances to take up residence in a host where they become pathogenic. As biodiversity is lost, appropriate circumstances are being created for new ones to emerge that reach the human species and other species, as the barriers to ecological biodiversity are degraded. These “conditions” are instrumental to the emergence of these and other vectors of pests and diseases which are constructed; the loss of forests and ecosystems produce changes that open the possibility of these so-called pathogenic “imbalances” as an extensive WWF report has recently pointed out [11]. Climate change and biodiversity loss are two crises that are rapidly leading to these scenarios.

This novel virus strains, which is increasingly frequent, has given rise to diseases of enormous social impact in recent decades: SARS “avian flu” H5N1 (2002-3), “swine flu” H1N1 (2009), MERS-CoV (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (2012), Ebola (2013), some of which have occurred in circumstances linked to industrial food production as Silvia Ribeiro of ETC has pertinently pointed out[12].

The leap of a virus… has made civilisation “jump” to a time and political space that forces us to think about the dispossession of nature and its relationship with human injustice as two articulated phenomena. It is opening in the field of knowledge a possibility of understanding the contradiction, the paradox, the interdependence and the holistic quality of the earth system.

In the face of the enormous complexity and injustice that has been revealed, we have to weave complex, self-reflective forms of interpellation, in accordance with the moment we are living in. This is flooded with oxymoronic paradoxes (a term used by Boris Cyrulnik[13]) that bring together opposing meanings to give rise to a new one, as a sign of a historical moment that makes us pass through uncertainty, the dialectic of complexity to create something new. Today, the perspective of Nature and our relationship with it has been put into effect – as never before – in order to act in the knowledge that our action can be substantive. It is from there that we want to develop a praxis and a narrative that overcomes the crisis of meaning that besets us. To resist the individualistic values of capitalism, departing from the relational paradigm, from vulnerability and human interdependence.

A different epistemology to exit from the market logic and instead look/feel “feel/think” [14] the world from the perspective of the pangolin, of the bat, of the forest, of the water, of the humid earth from which a sliver of life sprouts. From the day to day of confinement, from the day to day of town life where death, pain and suffering in solitude becomes common, is moved and moves others to break with the individualism to which the dominant/aggressive paradigm of capital wants to lead us. From the complexity of a virus that “jumps” to a human host because the “border” it inhabits is the border of dispossession and provides no alternative.

Here I want to evoke the notion of body-territory that is reflected from the ecofeminisms of Latin America; bodies as our first territory (Ivone Guebara). As a place from which one can resist, build autonomies and weave community, and from which one can articulate connections with a larger territory. The political practices of feminisms have woven these ties in the face of feminicide and have politicised pain in order to turn it into an autonomous agenda of their own. It is possible to build an extended body with Nature in order to dismantle the market fallacy made of extractive and patriarchal priorities.

A focus on territory enables us to start from the fabrics that sustain life, from the capability of human beings to collaborate and establish democratic means of conviviality of environmental and human justice logics. These perspectives will have to inundate our arguments because they provide a tipping point to re-signify this historical moment beyond the molds that capitalist modernity tries to impose on social imaginations in the midst of fear and state authoritarianism. In turn, they enable us to re-edit “business as usual”.

It is now, at this critical threshold, this “frontier space” of dispossession from nature, that these new views for recovering begin to mature and find in millions of people the possibility of telling this story differently. The construction of a new common sense in the face of the capitalocene takes place in extraordinary conditions: when – despite the violence – an unprecedented collective interest has been awakened in looking beyond and seeing these interconnections.

Innumerable contributions have been made in the last century, from critical thinking and political ecology, to characterize this collective stage and to seek alternatives to transform society and its relationship with nature [15]. Today we are facing a reality that forces us to actualize these proposals, which are the result of political reflections and experiences with a concrete historicity. As never before, the concepts and opportunities -transition, degrowth, deglobalization, common goods, ecofeminism- can become possible.

The coronavirus crisis has repositioned the debates on transition and social ecological transformation and the need for a subjectivity and a creative political action for this transformation. It has updated the global debates on the limits of growth and put into effect the debates of critical thinking such as Ecofeminism, el Buen Vivir (good living), the rights of Nature, degrowth societies, common goods and their relationship to public goods[16]. These are indispensable keys to articulate paths towards transformation.

The centrality of care, which has manifested in the full sense of the word, must be approached from its complexity and with a critical stance on the conditions of patriarchal domination in which it currently exists, in order to remove it from the “enclosure” to which it is subjected. Its visible contribution – which could represent between 24% and 66% of the economy- can provide the basis for a reformulation of the priorities in the organisation of the economy and society. As long as it is approached with justice and connected to the care of Nature, to the management of the common good, to the dynamics of degrowth and socio-economic transformation, it can provide us with valuable clues for reproducing the social fabric, enriching and evolving “the community of life” on which the ecofeminist proposal insists.

The holistic paradigm of interdependence today provides us with the basis to face this challenge of transformation from and towards everyday life; an ethos of collaboration in the time of small things, the time of re-weaving territory and human community. It is time to “ecologize” a world that has crossed the limits of nature and needs to be healed by integrating many worlds… like the “Pluriverse”[17] for post-development that Alberto Acosta proposes, a direction in which thousands of activists, thinkers have positioned themselves to imagine a possible future.

Questions in the “ink pot”

Some analyses warn that it may be possible to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus in two years if radical “social isolation” measures are taken, with unprecedented periods of quarantine to achieve not only containment of the pandemic but also its mitigation and elimination (Gideon Lichfield, 2020/Pueyo, Tomas 22 March, 2020)[18]. Others claim that we are only at the tip of an iceberg and that we could face other similar episodes due to global changes including biodiversity loss and climate change as critical vectors of large-scale disruption.

How will these prolonged confinement measures be sustained while ensuring life, democracy and freedom of political action? How will populations be provided with food, services, health, water, sanitation while respecting the rights of the people working in these areas? How will decisions be made to manage cities, towns, communities?

How is this reality posed in contexts such as Latin America, India, Asia or Africa where confinements are not possible as imagined by the modern West? How will decisions be made for the necessary transformation of the economy, the energy and productive matrixes?

Critical reflection on democracy is central. We are in a time where spaces for interaction and social fabrics are being dramatically restricted, beyond excluding the participation of the people. Street public space is being reconfigured into a virtual public space; a reformulated everyday life that gives way to the restructuring of social actors and the collective consciousness. The isolated virtual space – although it has the potential for articulation – can create fragmented political subjectivities and trap us in a dynamic in which the abyss seduces more than the possibility of changing the world.

How will we guarantee democracy? What is the “rule of law” that we want to restore? But furthermore, isn’t this democracy already obsolete? Hasn’t it proved incapable of taking up the deliberative tradition of communities, of women? And… how are the beings of nature, the non-human world, and Nature itself be included as “subjects of rights”?

The reinvention of collective action to challenge the system and demand rights has to find its way by picking up the thread of the social rebellions of recent decades that have challenged ecological dispossession, patriarchy and social injustice. Furthermore it must do this in the knowledge that we are facing these complex challenges in the face of renewed power structures.

If we want human societies not only to survive, but also to prosper in their communitarian quality and their belonging to nature, we must face these and other obstacles in the way of recovering the ethical bases of otherness and eco-dependence in the face of modern capitalist rationality. To weave a community that knows how to cultivate hope from uncertainty and certainty, just as one cares for the seed of a new fruit.

April – May, 2020

* Charlotte Nordgren Sewell (translator) is an Artist-Researcher and Educator currently based in Barcelona. She holds a BA in English Literature and Art History and an MA in Art and Politics from Goldsmiths University, London

Original version in Spanish:

[1] Many thanks to Dr. Geordan Shannon from the Centre for Gender and Global Health (UK) for warmly encouraged the English edition of this article.

[2] Moore, J. W. (2015): Capitalism in the web of life: Ecology and the accumulation of capital. London Verso ;

El antropoceno como diagnóstico y paradigma, Lecturas Latinoamericanas. Utopía y Praxis Latinoamericana Nº84, Univ. de Zulia, 2019, Venezuela.

[3] Analysis: coronavirus temporarily reduced China’s emissions by a quarter

[4] Zizek considered that Covid-19 is the final kick out to Capitalism, a “Kill Bill” style.; Enrique Dussel, says this will mean the end of the capitalist era

[5] Carbon emissions from fossil fuells can fall by 2.5bn Tones by 2020 – The Guardian ; The corona virus and the limits of the individual climate action – The Republic

[6] Butler, J. (2004) Precarious life: the power of mourning and violence, Verso, New York – London.

[7] The book compiled by Nick Buxton and Ben Hayes (2015) on corporative and military powers over climate change is highly recommended: “The secured and the dispossessed: how the military and corporations are shaping a climate-changed world”

[8] Svampa, M., Reflexiones para un mundo post coronavirus. Nueva Sociedad. Abril 2020. BsAs.

[9] López, X. Leviathan in interiore Green New Deal. Nov. 2019. La U (Revista de cultura y pensamiento)

[10] Terán M. Emiliano. El coronavirus mas allá del coronavirus: umbrales biopolítica y emergencias. Marzo 31 2020. Caracas, Venezuela.

[11] The loss of Nature and rise of pandemics. WWF (World Wide Forum) 2020

[12] Ribeiro, S. 2020. Los hacendados de la pandemia. Grupo ETC

[13] Boris Cyrulnik, french philosopher, psychologist and psychoanalyst, creator of the psychosocial concept of resilience conceives of the oxymoron, a rhetorical figure that joins two antagonistic concepts to create a new one, as the base figure of the creative possibilities of human beings in the face of suffering.

[14] Escobar A. (2016) Sentirpensar la tierra: Las luchas territoriales y su dimensión ontológica en las Epistemologías del Sur. AIBR, Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana. Vol 11 Nº1. Madrid.

[15] The compiled book “Systemic Alternatives”, published by Fundación Solón both in English and Spanish in Bolivia, and in French under the tittle of “Le monde qui emerge” (2016) published by ATTAC in France, are examples of this global reflection.

[16] Dardot, P. y Lavalle, Ch. Lo común, ¿un principio revolucionario para el S. XXI?, entrevista realizada por P.Cingolani y A.Fjeld, en Reinvenciones de lo común/Revista de Estudios Sociales Nº70, Octubre de 2019.

[17] Kothari, A., Escobar, A., Salleh,A., Acosta, A. Pluriverso-Un diccionario del postdesarrollo. Icaria, 2019, Barcelona.

[18] Lichfeld, G. We are not going back to normal, MIT Technology Review, 2020.

Pueyo, T. Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance (What the Next 18 Months Can Look Like, if Leaders Buy Us Time) (2020)