Raúl Zibechi — Pandemic and civilization collapse

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In its effects and consequences, the pandemic is the great war of our days. As happened with the two conflagrations of the 20th century or with the black plague of the 14th century, the pandemic is the closure of a period of our history that, summarizing, we can name as that of modern, Western and capitalist civilization, which encompassed the entire planet.

Neoliberal globalization has embodied the zenith and the beginning of the decadence of this civilization. Pandemics, like wars, do not happen in any period, but rather in the terminal phase of what the professor of economic history Stephen Davies (of the Metropolitan University of Manchester) defines as an ecumene, a part of the world that has “an integrated economy and a division of labor, united and produced for trade and exchange” ().

In his analysis, pandemics are verified when a period of “increasing economic and trade integration on a large part of the planet’s surface” comes to its end. They are made possible by two complementary phenomena: an elevated human movement and an increase in urbanization, both empowered by a way of life that we call globalization and by “intensive cattle breeding.”

Strictly speaking, the pandemic accelerates pre-existing tendencies. There are basically three: the interruption of economic integration; a political weakening that provokes a crisis of the ruling classes; and profound psychological and cultural mutations. All three are accelerating until ending up in the disarticulation of the capitalist world-system, in which our civilization is anchored.

The first is demonstrated in the interruption of the long-distance supply chains that lead to de-globalization and the multiplication of local and regional ventures.

Latin America is in terrible condition to face this challenge, since its economies are completely focused towards the global market. Our countries compete with each other to place the same products in the same markets, contrary to what happens in Europe, for example. The narrowness of the internal markets works against it, while the power of the one percent tends to make it difficult to exit this extractive neoliberal model.

In second place, pandemics, Davies says, tend to “weaken the legitimacy of states and governments,” while popular rebellions multiply. Pandemics especially affect large cities, which make up the nucleus of the system, as is the case with New York and Milan. The ruling classes inhabit the metropolis and are above the average age, so they will also be affected by epidemics, as can be observed now.

But pandemics often also wipe out much of the wealth of the elites. Just like wars, major catastrophes “produce a great reduction in inequality.” That’s what happened with the black plague and the wars of the 20th Century.

Davies’ third point, the cultural and psychological changes, are so evident that no one should ignore them: the activism of women and indigenous peoples, with the tremendous crisis that they have produced in patriarchy and colonialism, are the central aspect of the collapse of our state-centric civilization.

The Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, in the second volume of the monumental work for his defense before the European Court on Human Rights, contrasts “state civilization” with “democratic civilization,” and concludes that they cannot both coexist. [1]

For Öcalan, the State “was formed based on a hierarchical system about the domestication of the woman” (p. 451). With time, the State was converted into the nucleus of state civilization, with a “strict relationship between war, violence, civilization, State and justice-Law” (p. 453).

To the contrary, democratic civilization differs from state civilization, in that it seeks to satisfy the whole of society by means of “common management of common issues” (p. 455). Its material base and its genealogy must be sought in social forms prior to the State and in those that, after its appearance, were left outside the State.

“When communities reach the capacity to decide and act on the issues that concern them, then they will be able to talk about a democratic society,” Öcalan writes.

Such societies already exist. They make up the ways of life in which we can be inspired to construct the arks that allow us to survive in the systemic storm, which now appears in the form of a pandemic, but which in the future will be combined with climate chaos, wars among powers and against peoples.

I know some democratic societies, especially on our continent. The largest and most developed already has 12 caracoles of resistance and rebellion where they construct new worlds.

[1] La civilización capitalista. La era de los dioses sin máscara y los reyes desnudos, Caracas, 2017. (Capitalist civilization. The era of gods without masks and naked kings.)

Friday, April 10, 2020


Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee