Pandemic (Part Two): our tragedy

To see PANDEMIC (Part ONE) go to: https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/pauladkin.wordpress.com/3348

For decades the largely hypocritical ethics of neo-liberal ideologies have been globally chipping away at the public sector of the system from all sides, disfiguring the State and undermining any democratic quality of it. This weakening process has been carried out to such an extent that there is a widespread sense of distrust from the demos towards those who organise and govern them. In tragedy-terms, the natural law that composes the democratic State, a polis for the people elected by the people, has been perverted.

In the Greek sense of tragedy, the tragic comes into play when the human ethics clash with the divine, natural laws of the gods. Applied to our current situation, our tragedy unfolds because the nihilistic ethics of the capitalist economy that drives our system, have fallen into conflict with the natural laws of ecological sustainability.

The co-habitation of conflicting forces is the underlying condition that makes tragedy possible. In the case of the pandemic, the forces contributing to the tragedy itself are the conflicting elements of the private and public sectors, two spaces that exist in the same space (the State), competing for possession of that space. The pandemic has revealed the real scope and existential significance of that conflict, which was hardly tangible in the pre-tragic scenario, so dominated by the private sector at the expense of the public. The pandemic has shown us the impotence of the public/private system, by revealing its fatal flaws.

On the surface, it seems that the State is able to manage the opposing forces comfortably. It could be said that the function of Western democracies is solely to bind these opposing forces together and guarantee the co-habitation of the two. Within this role, the State exudes self-confidence, seeing itself as a simple individuality in which public and private dynamics and needs are harmonised, but this perception is diluted and dissolved when the true situation is revealed with the unfolding of the tragedy. So, to see the real impact of the pandemic, we need to look at the essence of that which the State truly represents in order to see beyond the illusion that its public/private mask perpetuates.

For the State to make any democratic sense, it must be regarded as a guarantee of survival for the people that constitute it. At a secondary level, it needs to be dedicated to providing comfort and dignity, both materially and spiritually. It is the organisation that organises not only the lives of the people, but also their deaths, and this organisation is expected to be primarily quantitative. The democratic success of the State depends on the quality of life enjoyed by its citizens, as well as the protection against that life ending prematurely, and the guarantee for everyone to be allowed to die in a dignified way.

This latter point is often overlooked, and that is part of the reason why the pandemic tragedy is so bewildering. In the pandemic, the need to regulate death in the society suddenly jumps to the fore. Remember, the primary aim of the State is its guarantee of ensuring the survival of its citizens, and the pandemic reveals this essential objective very clearly. Like the Greek tragedy Antigone, the pandemic tragedy is set around corpses. It is about the real problem of death in society, which is, above all, a question of dignity.

In the 2020 pandemic, what we have seen is a humiliation of human arrogance and the principle product of that arrogance is the capitalist economy. It has also revealed the dangers of perpetuating a system which is anti-natural, in our contemporary sense of working in a rapacious manner that constantly violates and destroys the ecosystem that is ultimately our only true source of sustenance.

To be natural, politics must be a conjunction of human will and nature in which the human will is harmonious with the restrictions of natural law. To ensure this, the human will must submit to ecology, and the only political force fit enough and potent enough to organise and carry out that submission, is the public sector.         

Pandemic (Part One): Tragic reconciliation and the fall of the Private Sector

Underlying the tragedy that the Covid-19 pandemic is, lies a conflict which is quite clearly revealed, if not yet resolved, by the extent of that catastrophe. We’re referring to the political/economic conflict between the public and private sectors of our lives.

For decades neo-liberal thought has argued the superiority of the private sector in terms of quality and efficiency, and yet, now, when put to the real test, that private sector has shown itself completely incapable of tackling the most pressing problems (health and security) created by this crisis. In fact, the pandemic has stripped the private sector bare of all its lofty pretensions, revealing its absolute impotence, while promoting the power of the public sector as the only force capable of dealing with crisis.

In a few months, the pandemic has dealt a crippling blow to our private-sector-friendly world, throwing the system into a melt-down, and exposing its failings in such a way that it has to be asked who the system was built for in the first place. If it was built for society, why has it proved so incapable of protecting society in times of crisis (not just in this crisis but in any tragic time)? The answer is clear, the private sector is not designed for the authentic needs of a society as a whole, but for the surplus needs and fantasies of the wealthy, who are the only ones who really benefit from the private-sector economy.

This revelation has to be taken seriously, and regarded as a positive lesson as we approach the challenges of the greater tragedy within which the pandemic has emerged – the tragedy of the climate emergency.

Like all tragedies, the pandemic generates both fear and pity, but also the idea of reconciliation, which, as Hegel points out in his Aesthetics, comes from “the glimpse of eternal justice”[i] that it affords. Hegel goes on to say:

“In its absolute way, this justice overrides the relative justification of one-sided aims and passions because it cannot suffer the conflict and contradiction of ethical powers which according to their concept must be unified to be victorious and permanent in true actuality.”[ii]

According to Miguel de Beistegui, Hegel believed tragedy to “awaken in us the feeling of the necessity of the reconciliation of the powers of ethical life.”[iii]  

The pandemic is not a tragic work, but a tragedy experienced, endured and suffered by hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. Nevertheless, this real rather than fictional or literaryform of tragedy does not diminish the level of calamity with it, rather it exacerbates it.

Of course, writing from the very midst of the real, may seem to argue against the author’s credentials by accusing him of a severe lack of objectivity, but the very act of analysing the crisis from the point-of-view of the aesthetics of tragedy does, in fact, proportion an objectivity.

What the tragedy of the pandemic has shown us is that the tragic figure lies in the private area whilst the hero of this epic disaster is the public sector. This is not the typical tragic tale of the fall of an over-ambitious individual, but that of the collapse of a whole, over-ambitious system. That is the great revelation and hope that this current disaster affords us.

The shock we are experiencing today, is an age-old one that exists in all tragic art; it is the clash between rights and duties. But once exposed, the weaknesses of one must succumb to the virtues of the other in order for a necessary, mutual co-existence to be feasible in a sustainable way in harmony with the natural world and its laws. A natural world that will, like the gods, destroy us if such a co-belonging cannot be resolved.

As Beistegui says in his essay on the tragic in Hegel: “The revelation, the true stake of tragedy, is the proper mark of the Destiny which imposes itself as the absolutely rational in which Spirit is reconciled with itself.”[iv]   

Our actual world, smitten by a profound nihilism that has been seeping into its fabric for the last hundred and fifty years, seems bereft of Destiny … Perhaps it is, or has been, but the current tragedy has unveiled the enormous errors of our system and the desperate need for it to reconcile its most antagonistic forces. In this way, the tragic scenario we are currently immersed in has to be seen as intrinsically necessary and, because of that, essentially positive.  

We have evolved in a rapacious way, away from the natural world which also constitutes and ultimately conditions our own natures. It is now time for humanity to look for an authentic destiny through which our own sapiens’ dimension can be realised and developed. We stand now exposed as a species, and despite the horror, we need to understand that we can, we now have the opportunity to, elevate ourselves through this challenge by allowing the heroic-side of our societies, the public sector, to take the lead.

The tragedy of the Covid-19 pandemic is the tragedy of the audaciousness of capitalism. Capitalism has a tremendous pride in itself and pride attracts the wrath of hubris, which paints all cruel self-satisfaction with the tar of tragedy. Like Oedipus, capitalism has perverted the laws of nature with its arrogant own laws of perpetual growth. It has ravaged and slaughtered in a consciously self-profiting way, like Macbeth, which is also an unethical way. Our world is like Hamlet’s Denmark and we all know something is rotten in the State. However, after the pandemic has left the State stripped naked and infirm, Fortinbras arrives in the form of the public sector to rebuild the empire. In this sense, the reconciliation has to come through the off-stage reconstruction. After the tragedy the revolution.    

Read PANDEMIC (Part Two): our tragedy https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/pauladkin.wordpress.com/3354


[i] Hegel, ÄSTHETIK III: 526

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Beistegui, M. & Sparks, S., PHILOSOPHY AND TRAGEDY, Routledge, 2000, p. 11

[iv] Ibid.