by Federico Neiburg

Translated by Lucas Fraga    Reviewed by Matheus Lucas Hebling

Originally published in Portuguese April 15, 2020  link

In recent years in Social Sciences, particularly in anthropology, an ethnographic critique of the concept of life has been gaining strength, discussing its self-evident character and questioning the binarisms that oppose biological and biographical lives, natural lives and social lives, universes of life and death, of human and non-human lives, and which also focuses on the links between human lives and the lives of other species – links that are so important to shed light on the socio-biological dynamics of the pandemic that currently sweeps the planet. Similarly, relevant to understanding our present are the relationships between life and the economy, which until the current crisis seemed to have remained outside the radar of our disciplines. In this brief essay, I propose a view of these relations (between life and economy) on the ones I have been working on for some time, never imagining that they would have the dramatic relevance that they have gained in the last few months, turning into strategic questions to outline the present and the future of our collective existence.

We know that one of the characteristics of crises is the radical change in temporal experience. More than a simple acceleration, it is about a true compression of temporality that collapses present, past, and future, threatening to make any photograph of current events obsolete or trivial. Increased demand for responsibility for intellectuals and social scientists, more than ever in need of humility and empirical foundations. Far from the hasty diagnoses that flood the emergency, it is necessary to describe and put it in perspective.

Today we see as never before, public figures compelled to comment on the cost-benefit (or trade-off) relationships between life and the economy. From Boris Johnson to Donald Trump, from Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Jair Bolsonaro, from the governor of Texas to the Mexican president, it is claimed that the remedy is not more painful than the disease, condemns the alleged false humanism of those who value the lives of the relatively few (sick people) at the expense of the lives of the many (the unemployed, for example). Others respond by denouncing the former for prioritizing the lives of companies and banks to the detriment of people’s lives, demanding the universalization of social policies or basic income, announcing the inevitability of a Post-Neoliberal or Neo-Keynesian time to overcome the emergency. The top leaders of the International Monetary Fund and the World Health Organization jointly sign statements calling to reason and balance1. On the same line, the media that has traditionally been the spokesperson for financial capital (The Financial Times2, The Economist3) do their manifestation. They say ‘the trade-off is inevitable’ even in the molecular forms of the disease management in which health workers are forced to manage scarce resources, such as respirators, deciding who lives and who dies in hospitals.

The pace of production of new economic regulation measures overflows the understanding of their own experts: financial aid packages from the European Central Bank and the national monetary authorities, from the People’s Bank of China to the Federal Reserve. In just a few days, not only in Brazil, legal provisions are edited and revoked (provisional measures, constitutional amendments), architected projects are confused with current rules or for coming into force. It is known that one of the characteristics of emergencies is always the massive transfer of resources. Battles take place over the distribution of values ​​never seen before: billions and trillions of Yuan, Dollars, Euros, Reais… Nothing compares to the scale of the monetary flow set in motion, demonstrating the relative smallness of those who until now they were considered big problems, today infinitely reduced: from the budget deficit and the public debt of some states to the funds estimated to fight climate change. Announces the end of several eras: American hegemony, the European Union, democracy, neoliberalism; and the beginning of so many others: from the planetary digital state of exception to the utopias of universal communion at a “slower” and more “green” pace. A more egalitarian “New-Deal” that would supposedly be fed to public health instead of the war and carbon industry.

The diffuse proximity of death in the form of a virus whose precise behavior is unknown, accentuates the uncertainties shaping individual and collective behaviors. A new standard of good manners emerges – physical distance, isolation, the discipline of bodies, and emotions in quarantine distributed in a dramatically unequal way (who said that the pandemic levels human lives?). For the majority, for the multitude of the unpaid that grows exponentially at the same pace as the pandemic4 or for the migrants living in the circuits of the diasporas, immobility is an inaccessible luxury, a synonym for death and not for life; for many others like the millions in refugee camps or prisons, immobility was already a condemnation that the virus now multiplies. In the last few years, we have learned new meanings of the walls: until now, barriers were built and condemned. Today the fear that walls sought to exorcise by reshaping frontiers takes on new meanings with the tenacious search for the positive value of “social distance”. Technical diagnoses based on numbers proliferate that are mixed with ethical-moral arguments contributing to the densification of the emergency atmosphere or, more properly perhaps, of the “plague state”5. Thus, the acceleration of the cismogenetic dynamics of dystopia occurs.

Images 1 and 2 – Gourinchas, Pierre-Olivier; Flattening the Pandemic and Recession Curves Econfip March 2020

The first treatise on monetary imbalances and management of food supply chains were written precisely in the middle of the 14th century in the context of the black plague – the most famous of them, Da Moneta de Nicolás de Oresme. Especially in the growing urban centers of European pre-modern, at the same rate in which deaths multiplied by the millions, properties without owners and heirs proliferated, instabilities were produced that had never been seen in prices before: goods were left in the absence of consumers, others were scarce the disappearance of producers and distributors. The relationships mediated by money between people and between people and things were questioned. Also, the relations between currencies and the very existence of the political entities that issued them – city-states, kingdoms, principalities. As Oresme evokes, it is a world in turmoil that “never remains the same”, in which measures and values ​​change dramatically, requiring a “new discipline of calculus” and measurements.

This new discipline would only gain density (and legitimacy in universities) long after, at the end of the 19th century, giving rise to the emergence of a new behavioral science: Economics. As Georg Simmel suggests in the Philosophy of Money, it had as one of its founding axes precisely the monetary measurement of human lives: how much should a murderer or his family pay as compensation to the victim’s relatives? What is the monetary value of human labor? How to quantify enslaved labor? What are the meanings of bribery, the monetary value of love or honor? More precisely, how to calculate the cost of living? The German sociologist describes much more than a continuous process of monetization: a progressively differentiated valuation of human lives that presents itself in a dramatic and fleshy way in our current emergency. On one hand, human life in the singular, as a common value to all; on the other hand and at the same time, plural lives, unequal, according to social and moral metrics that distribute life expectations differently: regions of the planet, skin color, gender, landscapes and neighborhoods within the metropolises, from the slums to the parking lots of Las Vegas hotels today ghostly empty and dedicated to distributing the bodies, properly isolated from each other, of thousands of homeless6. Lives organized on ordinal scales, such as monetary ones, those draw hierarchies, and injustices.

Economic emergencies are specific spatial and temporal regions that gained unique status shortly after the First World War and that have the property of showing, blatantly, the modulations of the relations between life and economy. The reconstruction of food supply chains and infrastructures, first, the government of debts and hyperinflation that plagued Europe, soon afterward, led to the multiplication of emergency regimes: radical interventions in the functioning of markets to restore their “autonomy”, issuing money (in the case of Germany, of the so-called “emergency monies”, Notgeld) to, paradoxically, maintain the purchasing power of individuals and families. Moreover, in parallel after the post-World War II, heated debates between the most prominent figures in economic science, from John Maynard Keynes to Friedrich Hayek and many others. In fact, and that would be the subject of a much longer note than that, the emergency becomes a routine way of governing the economy, a true endemicity of the extraordinary that occurs in various time and geographic scales: the state of Rio de Janeiro. January that declares economic emergency in 2015 as a way to legalize the suspension of payment of salaries and other contracts to the “statistical emergency” decreed the following year by the Argentine president (Mauricio Macri) as a way of intervening in the official organs for measuring the cost of living to supposedly better fight inflation – not to mention the Emergency Banking Act signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 or the Economic Stabilization Act signed by George W. Bush in 2008, and so many more.

Emergencies, as we have seen dramatically these days, involve real cognitive crises, radical changes in ways of conceptualizing reality in general, and the so-called “real economy” in particular. It is enough to observe the almost disappearance in the daily media metrology of the country or inflation risk indicators (the technicians of the Statistics Institutes can no longer carry out their work by measuring the cost of living, it is announced in several countries), and the substitution by numbers and curves of sick and dead, images that project proportions of intensive care units or respirators per inhabitant. Sometimes, too, as in the past few weeks in the United States, terrifying aggregates of unemployment arise – we are told that in 12 days, between the end of March and the beginning of April, the number of people applying for unemployment insurance in the largest economy in the world it went from 250 thousand to more than 20 million (and the curve is exponential, like the infected). Lives at imminent risk and in an indefinite temporality due to the dynamics of the virus and the recession affirm the perverse metonymy between economics, medicine, and war.

Emergency has the property of putting us in front of the contradictory imperatives of truth and urgency. The (re) valuation of science in times of the virus (yet another echo of the 14th century European) the hope of a new revival on the horizon of the post-pandemic. Cognitive issues that are, at the same time, moral and political and that intrinsically imply us as social scientists, although we are not, nor can we be, specialists in the conjuncture. One of the lessons we have learned by putting the crisis in perspective is precisely the long horizon that the dizzying present obscures. A hope and a commitment to discover new objects and new concepts and our own role in a world that we still do not know, while we continue to reflect theoretically and empirically on issues that have always been with us, and that the emergency puts in the flesh, as the dynamics of inequality, interdependence, instability, and uncertainty.

Federico Neiburg is a Professor at PPGAS, National Museum, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He is currently a member of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University and Coordinator of the Research Center for Culture and Economics (NuCEC).