French philosopher Barbara Stiegler: “COVID has left us with an even more authoritarian and unequal world”


The protection of democracy and its future is a debate that is used all the time, partly because it is in the collective memory of Latin American countries and partly because of the continuous political instabilities deriving from various economic, political and social factors. In 2020 several individual rights were limited in Chile due to the health crisis. It is precisely on democracy that the French philosopher Barbara Stiegler presented this Saturday 21 January, at the round table “Democracy: more and more?”, during the Night of Ideas, a series of speeches held by the French Institute of Chile next to Santiago in Mil .

Stiegler is professor of political philosophy at the Montaigne University of Bordeaux and vice-president of the Ethics Committee of that city’s University Hospital. His early works focused on Nietzsche and the relationship between biology and the body. As a theorist of neoliberalism, she highlights its evolutionary sources through which the human species must learn to live in a new environment and to adapt through expert-led health and education policies.

This Tuesday, January 17, he presented his book you have to adapt (Il faut s’adapter) recently published in Spanish.

Although it seems far away, in 2020, due to the health emergency, several obligations allowed by the Constitutional Exception State were established: curfew, mandatory use of the mask, sanitary cordons, travel permits, among other measures to limit the rights of people.

In 2021 Stiegler published On Democracy in a Pandemic: Health, Research, Education, book where – from the reflections of the director of the English medical journal hand, Richard Horton– underlines that, in relation to COVID-19, one should not speak of a pandemic but of a syndemic. That is, the concentration of disease outbreaks in a population, interacting with the social, political, and economic circumstances of that population during a given time and place.

“His argument is that COVID is a disease that in developed countries, where chronic or polypathological diseases linked to aging prevail, affecting above all the most vulnerable and poor people, the policies that have been put in place have not taken into account these social factors By arousing the imaginary of the “pandemic” – a deadly disease that would have affected everyone in the same way as the plague, but that was not the case with COVID at all – states have played on fear to implement authoritarian and ineffective policies”, explained to The meter.

In this sense, he argues that “like many other epidemics, COVID is a worldwide epidemic. In this sense, it is indeed a pandemic. But nothing justifies the destruction these policies have wrought. This demonstrates the importance of the power of words. Talking about a ‘pandemic’ has made it possible to take power from companies. If the syndemic aspects of COVID had been insisted on, on the contrary, it would have forced the states to take responsibility for the fight against inequalities and the maintenance of public services”.

health democracy

The philosopher argues that during the health crisis health democracy was not respected, which, as she underlines, is a need born in another global pandemic: that of AIDS.

“In the 1980s, patients began to structure themselves into associations and establish themselves as a new power in health. Rather, they enforced the idea that medical knowledge could not only come from the brains of medical experts, but could only be processed with the participation of everyone: caregivers and patients”, he specifies.

In France, this public health demand led to the creation of a law on March 4, 2002, establishing health democracy as a public health priority. However, the researcher says that this has not been taken into account since the beginning of the pandemic.

“The fact that this legislative provision has been totally trampled on by the French management of COVID, is a double symptom of the fragility of our current model of health democracy, which was founded exclusively by the communities concerned. And how could these patient communities make their voices heard if we were all declared patients and also all threatened with death?

In this regard, he states that “for the dominant discourse it is increasingly clear that democracy cannot deal with crises. Ecological and health crises and even war require authoritarian power, the fist of a master. And in this view, the knowledge must be concentrated in the hands of those in power. The latter present themselves, as in the great hours of the Soviet regime, as defenders of the truth. Every critical or dissenting voice is declared a ‘conspirator’. The history of health democracy fascinates me because it reflects the recent history of our democracy. How and why such an idea, democracy, presented in the 80s and 90s as the end of history, is today attacked from all sides by the ruling classes?”

The pandemic and neoliberalism

When asked whether the handling of the pandemic is a symptom of the collapse of neoliberalism, Stiegler says that “contrary to what naive dreams of the ‘world after’ announced to us, COVID has left us with an even more authoritarian and unequal world”.

“For neoliberalism this was an opportunity to reinvent itself, producing a discourse on life and death even more invasive than what we had known until then. been imposed as the only way out, increasing the profits of billionaires. Public services have continued their descent into hell, with increasing austerity,” he adds.

In this sense, he argues that “this shows that no virus or climatic event can free us from neoliberalism. On the contrary. Only the political interpretation of the ecological and health crisis, with a real reflection on a democratic governance of life, and social mobilizations and policies strong and lively, they could give a glimpse of the end of this authoritarian regime”.

Social movements

In 2018, when the “yellow vest” demonstrations began in France, Barbara Stiegler left her academic prudence to join the yellow vests and march with health workers in defense of public hospitals.

Five years after the massive protests, the academic points out that social movements have been “brutally frozen by COVID, but they can start again at any moment”.

“As in the case of healthcare democracy, the only way for these movements to last over time is for them to abandon strictly individual or corporate logics (those of communities linked to a status or an identity), in order to turn to a properly political analysis of the question, which implies deliberating together on what we collectively want. But how to get out of it when most progressive movements know only one lever: the fight for the right to be different, for the defense of dominated identities and communities? In a world like this, everything is diffracted into small differences, even in the competition between victims. The common goal of a common future seems impossible,” he says.

Finally, in relation to left-wing political parties in the world, Stiegler states that the urgency is “to reflect seriously on the conditions of democracy and on our collective relationship with knowledge and truth. What is said to be true? How do we elaborate solid knowledge and how is this the starting point for a legitimate and valid decision for all? If leftist movements do not want to participate in the disintegration of the society of interest groups, these are the urgent questions that must be addressed”, he stresses.

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