Woflgang Klotz/ ETHICAL AND POLITICAL COLLAPSE, OR WHAT WE (RE)LEARN FROM COVID-19

 

Wolfgang Klotz was born 1954 in Lower Franconia as son of a workers family and in an environment deeply informed by traditional Catholicism. Studying Theology and Philosophy during the 1970s in Würzburg and Munich finally resulted in an emancipation from such tradition deeply rooted in the 19th century. Full emancipation, however, required another few years as taxi-driver and in various other jobs ending in a Frankfurt-based publishing house. Arriving, finally, in a milieu of mainly “post-68- leftists” he got engaged into the project of building- up the East-/West-European Cultural Centre Palais

Jalta followed by 10 years as managing director of the centre. In 1998 the idea and basic concept for the today Central and Eastern European Online Library was born and started under rather adverse conditions. While conditions didn’t really and considerably
improve, the library is constantly growing since then and he is engaged in it today among an international team of ten colleagues.

 

In the past few decades, an entire civilization (the prosperous part of the
world and humankind) has begun to promote the “optimization” of
everything and everyone as a kind of new “categorical imperative”. This
imperative is intending primarily to the optimization of ourselves, with all
sorts of technology now supporting us, all sorts of devices from which we
can constantly read the key data, at least of our physical condition, on a
bottom-up scale always showing on top: the optimum. Simultaneously, all
industrial and administrative processes are as well subject to constant
processes of optimization. Other terms that have been used to designate
the “optimal world” for centuries have long since fallen out of use: for
example the “Paradise” (Bible) or the “Golden Age” (Hesiod, Virgil, etc.) or
“Utopia” (Th. More et al.)
All these old terms had an intrinsic connotation of “the unattainable” and,
therefore, they are no longer suitable for the 21 st century, when such
modest acceptance of ideals being “out of reach” has somehow become
alien. The self-confidence that we, human beings, are the “optimal”
among all creatures thanks to divine creation, is no longer handed down
to us by the anthropology of Christian dogmatic. In today's everyday life, it
is rather expressed by our strong “belief” in our ability to perfect, through
our own efforts, what by nature is still deficient in our world. However,
once you get used to understanding any deficiency as something that
should be eliminated as quickly as possible through an optimization
process, you are ill prepared for a more general crisis. Such perception
always understands “crisis” as a state of sub-sub-optimum. Thus, “Crisis”
is a priori perceived as a pejorative term.
The Greek Κρίσις (crisis), however, simply referred to a situation that calls
for a decision, and in which we are (or should be) looking for the right
Κριτέρια (criteria) for such a decision. Hence, this search for the
appropriate criteria was identified as "criticism" in the history of thought.
Nevertheless, every search and every criticism can always go astray. Such
a mistake often does not happen in finding and applying the wrong

criteria; it happens much more often in a mix-up or a wrong use of criteria
that, in other usage, might be absolutely correct.
Would you like a little example?
In his commentary on the Covid-19 crisis (Neue Zürcher Zeitung, April 20),
the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben writes: "How could it happen
that an entire country ethically and politically collapsed in the face of an
illness without anyone noticing?" He is asking this question having in mind
his own country: Italy. But if we take a look, from a Covid-19 related point
of view, at the United States or Brazil, wouldn’t a slightly different
formulation of the same question raise in our mind, namely: "How could it
happen that an entire country ethically and politically collapsed, and that
it became publicly obvious only when we faced a pandemic?”
Agamben's criterion for the “collapse” is the “threshold that separates
humanity from barbarism”. Undoubtedly a very good criterion! However,
we know about numerous countries in this world that are “ethically and
politically” ruled by contemporaries who, since long time, are considering
themselves as “the optimum” for their respective country. So where
exactly that moment of “ethical and political collapse” could be found, the
beginning of that “inhuman and barbaric” policy, which in the USA or in
Brazil, as elsewhere, is responsible for hundreds of thousands of lives
which, under different “circumstances”, still today could be with us?
Human beings who consider themselves“optimal” individuals like to do so
especially in a physical sense. Hence, it is peculiar for them to ascribe
themselves a high degree of personal immunity, especially in the face of
an epidemic. Of course, this cannot be done without the imagination – in
the other half of your thinking universe – of a large number of those who
are sub-optimal or, in the concrete example, highly susceptible to
infection. In this part of their thinking universe, a wide space opens-up for
social-Darwinist fantasies, from which the step to racist thinking is
sometimes not far. How else should one interpret some recent statements
by the Brazilian president? Wasn't he convinced from the very beginning
of the epidemic that only the sub-optimized individuals (and collectives –
as the indigene tribes…?) would be carried away by it? In addition, what is
the disappearance of the “inferior” but the release of resources for the

“optimized”? – Even a slum inhabitant of Sao Paolo leaves behind her or
him at least one thing with his death: she/he "makes room.”
No, there are no countries (yet) which collapsed! Moreover, even if
Agamben certainly knows his homeland infinitely better than the author
of these lines does: Italy too did not “collapse ethically and politically in
the face of an illness.” A physical, economic, cultural and political collapse
threatens, as far as predictable today, much more likely in countries which
(democratically indebted or not) are governed in a way that (and by rulers
who…), long before Covid-19, suffered from the ethical and political
collapse that only became evident in face of the pandemic.
Another example?
Agamben, in his commentary, also wrote about the attitude of the Church
“in face of an illness” and stated: “The Church under a Pope who calls
himself Francis has forgotten that Francis embraced the lepers.” Again, a
quite good criterion slipped on the wrong side when used in this context,
because the fact that St. Francis embraced the lepers is, as we are used to
saying today, a "narrative" and cannot be accepted as historically
guaranteed. It is, without a doubt, a very nice narrative, but…
Some may be inclined (and they are completely free to do so) to attribute
to Saint Francis’ trust in God the power of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The
good Lord could not but immunize St. Francis against leprosy as a reward
for his affectionate heroism. However, if Pope Francis in 2020 does not
achieve such a degree of holy power as his titular Saint once did, this can
be reproached to him only by someone who is regarding even a lack of
holiness as a symptom of the “sub-optimal” to be eradicated.
However, the philosopher Agamben is certainly familiar with the idea of
the finiteness of all human effort and doing. Hence, even if we love, our
love cannot be perfect, all the more if we speak about love in a context of
society and politics. Here we can, at our best, find and achieve an ethical
and political “sub-optimum”, which we may define as the Responsibility
of our thinking and doing. Moreover, any ethical and political thinking and

doing, which is based on Responsibility in the Κρίσις as the determining
Κριτέριον for decision-making, we may briefly (but definitely) name with
the term “Solidarity”.
Hasn't it become evident in the entire course of the Covid 19 crisis so far,
that Solidarity (both with regard to individual behaviour and with regard
to state governance) comes closest to the requirements of ethically and
politically human action? We have seen many examples for a lack of
Solidarity in the last few months – in individual behaviour (keywords
"party" and "binge drinking" on Mallorca) as well as in political decision-
making (keyword "Brussels" and "fight for a Budget of Europe-wide
Solidarity"). In all such cases, the virus is “teaching” us that Solidarity is
the only path we can still take with the prospect of limiting the social costs
of the crisis.
In the weekend nights of the crisis, thousands are gathering in the public
squares of major European cities for parties in order to demonstratively
defy the crisis. It may often happen that a healthy participant hugs an
infected one. However, that’s not that embrace of St. Francis. It does not
happen in a affectionate and conscious deferment of one's own well-being
and one's own health. It happens as a defiant clinging to a habit of after-
work-enjoyment, it happens as an assertion of one's own optimization
achieved (including immunity assumed). In addition, the small device,
from which my current body mass index can be read, has long mastered
the logarithm, which calculates the probability of a random infection
regardless whether in Barcelona, Milan or Zagreb.
Those who want can limit their sense of Responsibility to responsibility
just for themselves. No one who feels “Solidarity” is doing so. If virology
would have existed already in the 13th century, then the legend about St.
Francis would perhaps also tell how intensely Francis washed his face and
hands after hugging the leper and maybe even changed his habit.
However, we are not told anything about it, and we, including Giorgio
Agamben, can at best do a bit modernizing of the traditional narrative for
the crisis year 2020.
A third example?

At the end of Agamben's comment, we read the classic question: “Quare
siletis iuristae in munere vestro? (Why are you silent, lawyers, when it
comes to your task?)” He is posing the question in view of so the many
“emergency acts” and in view of a “permanent state of emergency” which
he perceives to be threatening. Again, without any doubt, it is a duty of
lawyers in every democratic republic to prevent this or to make it
impossible. Nevertheless: the danger that neither society as a whole nor
the lawyers in particular will be able to prevent such a “permanent state
of emergency” is far greater in Hungary or Poland or Turkey or Serbia or
Russia or China…. than in Italy, Germany or France. Distinction is needed
and would be helpful!
It makes a difference to the whole in which country the “emergency acts”
are enacted out of Responsibility and Solidarity, or in which they are only
issued as a collateral benefit of the epidemic for the rulers to maintain
power.
In this paragraph, Agamben refers to an assertion that Adolf Eichmann
once "never ceased to repeat, that what he had done was done on the
basis of his conscience in order to comply with what he believed to be the
commandments of Kantian morality."
In a debate about “ethical and political collapses” we are facing in 2020,
we mainly have to discuss about political personnel as “relevant” to which
may belong Viktor Orbán or Jaroslav Kaczyński, Tayyip Erdoğan or Vladimir
Putin or Aleksandar Vučić and Xi Jinping as well. A reference to Eichmann
in such a debate can only be helpful to draw the attention of us 2020ers to
the following: that none of us would expect from any of the politicians
named above an attempt to legitimate his or her political doings and
decisions by invoking the "commandments of Kantian morality" as
justification (even if Aleksandar Vučić, some years ago, had a short period
when he liked to justify his politics as based on Max Weber).
Perhaps, any politics of “making great again” (regardless whether America
or Russia or China) does not need any justification at all.

—————–
Who today might dare to seriously design a picture of the ethical and
political life of our societies in a post-Covid-19 era? Somehow the
sympathetic utopia of a future era comes to mind in which the above-
mentioned civilization of the prosperous part of the world and humanity
has come to a new perception (or even only to a return) of our finitude,
our mortality. And that this process of self-reconsideration has resulted in
the fact that a newly anchored recognition of the values of Responsibility
and Solidarity has been achieved in many social majorities.
Far less utopian, however, is a perspective in which this civilization will
register, at latest with the successful development of a vaccine, a further
proof of its never-ending optimization potential. The epidemic will then
have been a brief interruption, but it will not really call into question the
general trend. The old tradition that we humans speak of ourselves as the
"mortals" in order to distinguish ourselves from the gods (the
"immortals") will remain forgotten. This article here will remain one of the
very few texts in which you briefly appeared again.
Once the other crises (climate / biodiversity / world food) will really push
themselves into an all-determining foreground (as Covid-19 has been
doing for months now), then our descendants will no longer look into an
uncertain future as mere “mortales”, but rather as "Morituri" (doomed).
The author expressly is asking for your forbearance for his pessimism.