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“Freiraum Festival”
Freedom Under the Regime of Corona

Reflecting in crisis mode
Reflecting in crisis mode | Photo (detail): © Goethe-Institut 2020

The biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber, a participant in the Goethe-Institut’s "Freiraum Festival", on the question of how much freedom individuals can have in a community under the dictates of the coronavirus.

By Andreas Weber

Thoughts come tumbling when reality overtakes theory. These past few months, people on earth are only just beginning to grasp what a biopolitical crisis is because it is taking place in real time. The questions posed by the "Freiraum Festival", organised by the Goethe-Institut, were very personal and specific for all participants: Who am I allowed to meet? Who can I visit? Where can I go without a mask? What is the state of freedom in Europe, now, today, under the Covid-19 regime?

The Virus Is a Freedom Issue

Quite a few progressives may perceive the pandemic as a disruption to their political agenda. Anyone campaigning for equality or fighting to save the climate now has to struggle with increasing social restrictions. The coronavirus consequences upstage all other grievances. But the virus is only seemingly a distraction from the important issues of our time. Actually, it is an incomparable spotlight on our most pressing problems.
The coronavirus gives voice to what has always remained silent despite countless mobilisation efforts. The virus is the issue of freedom that our societies struggle with; not as a theory, but as an event in the world. The pandemic raises the question of how much freedom individuals can have and how much they are permitted in a community. It raises the question as an agent of life, not in discourse, but through the facts that it creates. This becomes most obvious when we realise that a seriously ill Covid patient being kept alive with oxygen is expressing the same thing as George Floyd in 2020, Eric Garner in 2014 and a number of other African Americans killed in the strangleholds of the US police, namely, “I can’t breathe.” 

Biopolitics on Morning TV

Under the coronavirus, biopolitics has moved from being an obsession to being less of a topic on morning television. Climate change and other ecological disasters are similarly breaking into society. The crisis is no longer an insinuation by a critical minority, but a monster embracing everyday life. Discourse immediately becomes a question of action. The state of freedom in Europe has become a question of survival. The political issue of the day is whether we can breathe, whether we – human society, but ultimately all beings with whom we share an atmosphere – have enough freedom to exist.

In 2019, the influential Marxist philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi of Bologna, who long worked in Paris with Deleuze confidante Félix Guattari, clairvoyantly titled his latest work Breathing. Today it is the key concept in a world in which coexistence is physically and specifically a question of shared breathing. It seems hardly possible, but this is the place where Covid patient Trump and his victims meet. And it is where we humans meet with all other living beings, even the atmosphere, the oceans and geology: Breathing – the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen – is the metabolic process through which all life is one and all lives inseparably rely on one another.

The Coronavirus Embodies the Crisis of Reciprocity

The pandemic reveals what happens when those who set the tone in the global community refuse others freedom. We can therefore say that the coronavirus embodies the crisis of reciprocity. It was passed on from an animal because humans robbed other creatures, which share our breathing space in the atmosphere, of their space. The coronavirus is an ecological disaster that results from humankind’s refusal to allow non-human beings enough air to prevent them from suffocation. “I can’t breathe” has long been the silent cry of the biosphere and is now on our own lips due to the pandemic.

It thus shows that the political and the ecological crisis are one and the same, namely the breakdown of relationships. Ecological disasters such as the coronavirus pandemic are the result of humankind’s refusal to grant equality to non-human beings and to treat them according to the principles of reciprocity. Social reform thus seems impossible without emancipating non-humans as equal participants. Here, politics and ecology both require a practice of unconditional reciprocity. This reciprocity means nothing other than allowing each other to breathe in a shared atmospheric space in which all living subjects permeate each other in their metabolism..

The Virus Is the Proverbial Anthropocene Agent

The coronavirus pandemic is not an event that can be assigned to a political line of argument. It’s an issue of civilisation, of fair relationships. The eco-political disaster shows the enslavement of the invisible many (namely the entire non-human biosphere), which only in this way support the expansion of the human. This enslavement is now exploding in a revolt of the nonhuman others. The virus is the proverbial Anthropocene agent:  without consciousness, but not without reason for action.

It is noteworthy that this community issue was reflected in the immediate reaction of many to the exponential epidemic in the early days of March: They restricted their freedom of movement in order to protect themselves and the community, the collective. After people had refused it for so long, the topic of “freedom through reciprocity” appeared on the world stage by itself. And it quickly became clear that some (e.g. in a Zoom conference from the comfort of their sofas) can afford such generosity in the long term, but others cannot at the price of their lives.

The coronavirus – without planning, without preaching – aims to restore reciprocity. It aims to correct “semio-capitalism” (Berardi), namely the abstract semioses that dominate all human beings, which put code, data and efficiency before the concrete, i.e. before expression, experience, poetry and relationships. The coronavirus, however, is concrete, so concrete that it needs no words. It places relationships at the centre, the one in which I now am, that determines my existence, that is my life. The pandemic emphasises the fact that everything we think of the world and each other and everything we make of it is based on our remaining capable of relationships.

You Cannot Be Where I Am

Capitalism is the organised and systematised rejection of relationships. Its theoretical germ lies in the false assertion that success presupposes severing relationships and knocking others out of the field. Capitalism’s freedom is exclusive: You cannot be where I am. By contrast, life’s freedom includes everyone: It is based on radical sharing. Interestingly, this lesson does not come from our thinking or our morals. Rather, ecology itself, empowered to act, grants it to us.