July 10th 2020

The Virus and the Pluriverse

Federico Luisetti


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Image credit: Eamon Ore-Giron, "Morococha," 2015. 2-channel HD video,13 mins

The coronavirus has revealed the fabric of our savage ecologies. In a time of pandemics and resilience factors, neo-extractivism and green economies, climate dystopias and adaptation metrics, toxic slums and sustainable energy, a new state of nature has emerged, a neoliberal variant of the pervasive apparatus of Western political naturalism and cultural imagination.

Its main feature is the implosion of any distinction between the natural and the social. Hundreds of years of philosophical debates about what is, and should count as natural or social, human and non-human have suddenly become irrelevant. The polluted air that people breath in their cities, the storms and floods that expose the poor to famine, the warmer and acid ocean water in which fish stocks die and reproduce themselves, are analysed, managed and feared as components of ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles.

If nature is an environment, it is both natural and social, as our bones and brains, printing paper and computers. Rare earth elements formed billions of years ago as the result of the explosion of gigantic stars are now extracted in the Jiangxi province and become part of smartphones and wind turbines. Even the astronomic life of supernovas has been socialized, while we contemplate cosmic nature in the metals of our laptops.

This mise en abîme of old categories reflects the naturalization of the economy and economicization of the environment that dominate the neoliberal discourse of resilience, complex adaptive systems and ecosystem services. As a result, the neoliberal state of nature absorbs in its eco-political disorder the violence of the law and state sovereignty, and replaces the ancient opposition of chaos and order, genocide and value creation: epidemic injustice and financial turbulence, climate disequilibrium and biodiversity loss, pauperization and toxicity are now folded into disease prevention, risk assessment and ecosystems’ regulation.

The Earth becomes Gaia, a planet which is both vital and unruly, a fragile biome and a fierce mythological goddess.

Violence and security are no longer separated by a colonial geography of savagery and civilization; they are now simultaneous and interlocked states of the neoliberal planet, the Anthropocene.

In the neoliberal state of nature, the imaginary savages that legitimated the colonial mindset have metamorphosed into the “ecological natives” of sustainable development and transnational environmental policies (Astrid Ulloa, The Ecological Native: Indigenous Peoples' Movements and Eco-Governmentality in Columbia, 2005). Indigenous communities are now framed as ecological partners by transnational corporations, multilateral institutions and non-governmental organizations.

In his work Discipline and Punish (1975), Michel Foucault recounts the orders introduced in France in the late seventeenth century, when cities were hit by the confusion of the plague: “The plague-stricken town” was “traversed throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing”. Confronted with the great epidemic of the plague, European states experimented what Foucault defines a disciplinary form of power, an “extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies”. Most importantly, the historical event of the plague was immediately perceived as “the utopia of the perfectly governed city”: “in order to see perfect disciplines functioning, rulers dreamt of the state of plague”.

The coronavirus may serve the purpose that the state of plague had for the rulers of early modern Europe, but at a planetary scale: it is the utopia of the perfectly governed Earth system, the coronavirus-stricken world is an actual scenario that offers the chance to test the models of the neoliberal state of nature, the efficacy of its cynical arrangements of stability and disorder, zero carbon citizens and infected urban poor.
In this context, a post-coronavirus world can only begin to take shape once the mechanisms of the neoliberal state of nature are denounced and abandoned and another reality appears; not the “one-world” of the current global environment but a “pluriverse”, a planet in which many worlds fit (Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary, 2019).

The secret concealed by the neoliberal state of nature, that climate change and now the coronavirus are unmasking, is the structural conflict between planetary life and capitalist accumulation. The corporate jargon of sustainability can only mystify this contradiction.

But the long-term solution is for neoliberalism exclusively a technocratic energy transition, the replacement of the finite resources of fossil fuels with infinitely renewable energy sources. Abundant oil, subjugated bodies, and the environment as cheap reservoirs and sinks for production and waste, have sustained until now the neoclassical economics’ illusion that markets are a transcendental, autonomous universe.

To guarantee its survival after the coronavirus pandemic and before a climate meltdown, the neoliberal state of nature must double the destruction of the planet accomplished by the carbon economy with the destruction of the planet through renewable energy industrial infrastructures, expropriating all other aspects of nature, beginning with the Global South: land grabs of indigenous territories for wind power, crops and mining; hydroelectric power plants drowning thousands of villages; intensive “smart” agriculture exhausting the soil, impoverishing rural populations and feeding the biofuel industry; invasive pines and eucalyptus plantations offsetting emissions in the North’s carbon markets’ schemes.

I wonder why we should bestow upon the modellers of the neoliberal state of nature the exclusive right to learn from the current pandemic; in their hands, this tragedy can only be used as a laboratory for improving hallucinatory Earth systems.

Let’s start instead from another premise: the coronavirus is more than its homicidal fury; it is a capricious earth being (Marisol de la Cadena, Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds, 2015).

This microscopic monster is seeking its reproductive happiness by spreading and co-living, killing and liberating, on its own terms. Along the way, it has also revived a pastoral imagination, cleared the skies in the most polluted cities across the globe, and saved thousands of lives from pollution-related illnesses; and it has been able to arrest the world economy, reminding that market relations are not at all free, they depend on nature’s favour.

The ambivalent force of the coronavirus contains a clear message: the neoliberal state of nature and its ecologies can be stopped, other ways of living can arise once we free our minds, bodies and environments from the spell of the globalization of nature.