by Rogerio Haesbaert

Translated by Lucas Fraga   Reviewed by Matheus Lucas Hebling

Originally published in Portuguese April 09, 2020 link

Illustration of the advertising campaign “Refugiados de Dante”, by the organization Médecins Sans Frontières

Some mantras of planetary globalism dominant until now were: move, travel, accelerate, grow, expand, extract (resources), consume, privatize, do flexible (labor relations), delocaçize (companies)… All of this, in face of the Coronavirus pandemic, was suddenly reversed: stop, do not travel, slow down, withdraw, do not consume, invest in public policies, nationalize (companies in crisis)… Here, amid a neoliberal boom, like a plague, the last mantra to be contested has not yet been reversed: for workers, further flexibilization of labor relations continues to be proposed, as if they were testing how far the resignation of this mass of extremely vulnerable (un)employees goes. It is as if, while the rich people can stop and protect themselves, the poor must continue to move, taking risks to ensure our survival.

Seventeen years ago, in “The myth of deterritorialization”, I wrote that the “end of the territories” (Bertrand Badie), the “end of the borders” and the Nation-state (Kenichi Ohmae) or even the “end of geography” (Paul Virilio) was not happening, contrary to what was propagated from Europe and the United States. When it was said that we were in a process of losing territorial ties, the term ‘deterritorialization’ was used very poorly, applied much more to the rich people who moved frequently and had more than one residence (including in different countries) than to poor people who really suffered the loss of control over their living spaces. So I proposed to the rich people, especially the executives of large transnational corporations, the term multi-territoriality, because they have full control over the multiple territories they frequent, always in the “mobile bubble” of the same hotel chains, resorts, stores, restaurants… Even so, however, they depended on a large network of services offered by workers — in general, migrants, and these were deterritorialized (or precariously multi-territorialized).

In a look from our Latin American reality so unequal, I reserved the term ‘deterritorialization’ more for the effective loss of territorial control of the poorest, subaltern groups that struggle daily for their own survival. I even stated that a homeless person, for example, can make the defense of the marquee of a building at night his own territory, just as a prisoner in an overcrowded cell can make a mattress his territory during the few hours in whom can sleep, taking turns with others. In this sense, deterritorialization can be seen, mainly, as the precariousness of territorial controls that guarantee our own condition of life. Imagine, as the most brutal result of this pandemic, in a world where public health has never been a priority, what it can cause in countries of historic inequality as debasing as ours in Latin America. Starting with the thousands of homeless people, the end of this pyramid, and the most vulnerable, as they are the least able to isolate themselves or “getaway” socially.

It was even stated that fluid and the liquid world was projected increasingly impetuous, a “gift” of neoliberal globalization that consumes and remakes everything, in an atrocious technological reinvention, all the time recreating “unnecessary needs” that, stimulated with the billions spent on advertising, even indebted, we consume vigorously. In this eagerness for the new and the movement, however, it forgot that the old may not die and that fixation and closure are the other, inseparable part, of opening and movement. It would take a killer virus to remind us of those old lessons. Moreover, to reinforce our much-vaunted thesis that deterritorialization, of ‘tourists’, was a myth.

The metaphor of Zygmunt Bauman’s globalized ‘tourists’ (being careful not to overdo it) also helps to understand the rapid spread of the coronavirus. In addition to the metaphor, in the last decade, the number of tourists around the world has almost doubled, reaching today around 1.5 billion people. If we remember that international migrations have also increased substantially in the last decades, reaching 272 million people in 2019 (that is, 3.5% of the world population, against 2.8% in the year 2000), we perceive the intensity of the movement of our bodies across the planet. All without mentioning the enormous international mobility of the day due to work. Besides, there were still those who looked down on this material, the corporeal dimension of human life, in the name of generalized virtualization or dematerialization (erroneously also called deterritorialization).

Paradoxically, the great inequality that drives the economic system is now revealed with all its rawness among those who can be isolated, hypothetically ‘immunized’ in the shelter territories of their homes, with economic conditions to remain there, and those who, without the guarantee of their resource territories, are forced to cross the city to ensure food, health, cleanliness or security for the entire population.

Recalling the distinction that Jean Gottman proposed (later incorporated by Milton Santos) between the territory as a shelter and the territory as a resource it is clear that it is impossible to live our lives without the overlap of these two properties. Our homes, as the last refuge-space, can guarantee us a certain shelter, protecting us (relatively) from the spread of the virus. However, this condition is only really achieved by overlapping with access to multiple resources: channeled water and sewage, wired energy, telephone by an antenna, the food we need to get at the supermarket, medicines at the pharmacy, and fuel for transporting these goods at gas stations, etc.

The time when we were autonomously ‘sheltered’ in our homes is long gone. Few people today enjoy this privilege. However, we have another huge privilege that we rarely realize. We need to become aware of how much the security of our individualist quarantines is due to a mass of (vulnerable) workers who guarantee us access to these many resources necessary for our survival. This pandemic could teach us a little more to recognize our own fragility and the degree of dependence that we have on the many services, guaranteed by these workers with whom we should have the greatest respect and solidarity. Going to the windows to applaud health professionals is a timid start.

In a broader sense, the unprecedented and overwhelming challenge this pandemic poses to us is to stop – at least slow down – or to perish. It opens up what, for many, incomprehensibly, still did not seem clear enough: the failure of a system that, in theory, abolished the idea of limit and called itself the sovereign of the planet. As stated in an article four years ago, unlike dominant discourses, the fluidity of planetary globalization has brought to the fore, with even more force, the debate about limits.

“…limits such as restriction, restraint, in a negative connotation, but also in the sense of being an inseparable part of our civilizing dynamics, insofar as, biopolitically speaking, the hegemonic corporate model, based on accumulation and / or ‘growth’ capitalist, put at stake even our survival as a biological species on Earth”.

If the immediate fight against precariousness and brutal inequality is not prioritized, we will have no way out. The defense of the planet’s Bio and Ethnic diversity requires, more than ever, a common planetary culture and policy that values, in the first place, the reduction of perverse inequality among the peoples of the Earth.

This compulsory stop, in addition to the very probable social upheavals that it will trigger (already rehearsed in recent protests in Latin America and various corners of the world, from Lebanon to Hong Kong) may bring a serious rediscussion of civilizational directions. If Big Brother from the extreme right does not take advantage of the occasion to impose more perverse controls, this may be our last chance. The tremendous deterritorialization in terms of the resulting social precariousness will be the most ruthless indicator that we either sympathize with the most fragile and recognize our common destiny, or we all perish together, because the boat, more than ever, has proved to be one, and it’s sinking. There will be no domestic or individual trench capable of protecting us from this shipwreck.

Rogério Haesbaert is Professor in the Geography post-graduation program at Fluminense Federal University.