Infected with Passivity: Letter from Catalonia

“Perseus wore a magic cap so that the monsters he hunted down might not see him. We draw the magic cap down over our eyes and ears so as to deny that there are any monsters.”

– Karl Marx

The coronavirus epidemic has been like a searchlight sweeping through our societies, bringing to light their true character and flashing its beam into some of their darkest corners.

In the small Catalan city where I am holed up, grim lessons abound. A few examples are that the Spanish government clearly believes dogs to be more important than children (after all, the former are property, the latter not entirely); that there is a mysterious quality called “social value” which makes some lives more valuable than others in the ICU; and that our society fails to recognize domestic work as anything of substance (otherwise the government couldn’t so nonchalantly promote teleworking in already busy households).

Yet the pandemic has shown another thing: the nearly total incapacity of the left – especially our lack of a strategic vision and absence of organizational force. Precisely because the left is so lacking in these areas, it has generally been a mere spectator on the political scene, sometimes despairing and catastrophic, but more often falling back on one of its oldest religions: belief in spontaneous progress. However, as Daniel Bensaid pointed out: There is nothing less revolutionary for the left, than a paralyzing faith in automatic progress and a guaranteed future.

Today, in so many contexts, there operates an obscurantist conviction that everything will turn out alright if we obey the authorities. Some even think that strengthened public institutions will spontaneously emerge. Meanwhile, we brew up ideological draughts that aim to sweeten our weaknesses. For example, the left independentist party in Catalonia CUP, which has won my heart on many occasions, recently put out a video “El Dia de Després” (The Day After). With images succeeding each other over an uplifting music track, a voiceover speaks of all the things we will do when the quarantine is lifted. Yet the problem is that struggling cannot be postponed to the day after!

A puzzle for the left: do we trade in this ideological nonsense because we are weak, or are we weak because we trade in it? Obviously, it is a bit of both. The left laces its Kool-Aid because it has lost the habit of fighting and then it grows even more pallid because of its addiction to the stuff.  Yet the important thing to recognize is that things could be different. A more serious left – at the very least – would have control over the health workers’ unions and thus prevent classist and racist triage, and it would take children out to walk in acts of civil disobedience.

But there is something more important: The left needs organization and preparation. It even needs to prepare for clandestine activity. Afterall, all it took to expunge us from the streets was a new form of Haussmannisation: declaring a state of alarm plus promoting the myth of cyberconnectivity. This governmental authoritarianism combined with its negligence should provoke our rage, but what to do?

Very early in his political career Lenin took a step back from the immediate political situation: there was a pending crisis and hence imminent revolution in Russia. But he understood that the key question was not strictly speaking “what should be done?” (despite Leninists’ obsession with this phrase) but what organizational mechanism would allow it to be done (a well-organized party). Something similar can be said now; even more so, since right now we don’t even dare to ask what is to be done, because we have internalized that we can’t do it.

Last Wednesday, a handful of progressive intellectuals and politicians, including some former heads of state, talked about what should be done in a streamed panel organized by the CELAG. All the old contradictions came to a head. These people, many of whom once acted like vacillating Alexander Kerensky when they governed, now proposed to magically transform those state structures when outside of power. They freely talked about what governments should do, but seemed to have forgotten that most of them no longer have any foothold in state power.

Lenin said: The basic question in any revolution is state power. We are surely not in a revolution, but today the left is facing an almost complete rout because not only does it not have power, but even seems to have lost the vocation for it.

Chris Gilbert is professor of political science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.