Until a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves call out: Hic Rhodus, hic salta!
Karl Marx, 1852
In Georgia, political life is taking unexpected turns.
The mayor of Tbilisi, who has insisted in the past on having “no information about the existence of homeless people” in the city, is now undertaking efforts to house them in various shelters. The prime minister, who built his career on suppressing strikes and protests against large businesses, is now threatening those businesses with expropriation, and condemning them for putting profits over people’s lives in this time of crisis. This metamorphosis has proven to be essential: the measures taken by the government against the virus are helping to save lives and preventing (or in the worst case, delaying) the collapse of the Georgian healthcare system.
While most of the population follows recommendations on isolation and social distancing, there are those who invoke the idea of individual freedom to portray safety measures as repressive. The most shameless of them, like the former Deputy Minister of Labor, Health and Social Affairs, compare the quarantined regions to Nazi concentration camps as if the Holocaust was a public safety effort. His own plan calls for an immediate cancellation of the state of emergency, a moratorium on regulations, and a return to “having fun outside”—paralleling the logic of flagellants who publicly whipped themselves to combat black death.
On the other hand, those affected most by the crisis: precarious workers, street vendors, the unemployed, the elderly etc. display unprecedented examples of public responsibility, consciously sacrificing their fragile material stability, social life and freedom in an attempt to save society as a whole. Exceptional circumstances have revealed the lifesaving potential of intergenerational solidarity, interpersonal accountability and mutual recognition of shared interests on a mass scale. They also reveal the infantile and, in this case, fatal character of neoliberal individual freedom making clear that the true restriction lies not in quarantines but in the capitalist realism that plagues our political imaginary.
When the number of cases drops, and the government reverts back to its usual functions, this historical instance of mass public responsibility will be the only lever we’ll have in facing the imminent brutal austerity measures. The majority of those who survive the virus will be forced to suffer from its economic aftermath. So, the imperative political task is in transforming our reaction to the crisis into organized resistance against its structural reasons. This self-organized network should support its every composite just as we support the vulnerable ones right now, and serve as a popular basis for progressive demands. The wave of collective responsibility must outlast not only the virus but also the economic reaction that will follow. It must become the new normal. The existing wave is already conditioning the possibility of what Panagiotis Sotiris, in a polemic commentary on Giorgio Agamben’s recent article about the coronavirus, termed communist biopolitics—democratic practices aimed at building reproductive autonomy beyond the reach of both market competition and state coercion, extending their democratizing effect from below to other spheres of social life. The realization of this possibility depends on political intervention (from home, for now).
Picture ‘The Survivors’ by Käthe Kollwitz (1923)