Daniel Capó

Manuel Arias Maldonado: “The task at hand is to recalibrate the modern project, over and against its detractors, who wish to lay it to rest, but also its zealots”

Arias Maldonado has published Desde las ruinas del futuro. Teoría política de la pandemia (From the Ruins of the Future. Political Theory of the Pandemic), a dialogue for all seasons between the modern Enlightenment and the ancient plague, between the confidence placed in modernity and the fears aroused by the catastrophe that has been triggered by the appearance of  a new coronavirus


Manuel Arias Maldonado: “The task at hand is to recalibrate the modern project, over and against its detractors, who wish to lay it to rest, but also its zealots”
Foto: | The Objective
Daniel Capó

Daniel Capó

De la biografía me interesan los espacios habitables. Creo en las virtudes imperfectas y en la civilizada inteligencia de la moderación

Arias Maldonado has published Desde las ruinas del futuro. Teoría política de la pandemia (From the Ruins of the Future. Political Theory of the Pandemic), a dialogue for all seasons between the modern Enlightenment and the ancient plague, between the confidence placed in modernity and the fears aroused by the catastrophe that has been triggered by the appearance of  a new coronavirus.

“There is no choice but to get to work”, These are the words that close the latest book by  Manuel Arias Maldonado, an essayist from Malaga. In effect, this new work, titled Desde las ruinas del futuro. Teoría política de la pandemia (From the Ruins of the Future. Political Theory of the Pandemic) reads like a dialogue for all seasons between the modern Enlightenment and the ancient plague, between the confidence we have placed in modernity and the fears aroused by the catastrophe that has been triggered by the appearance of the new virus. It is characteristic of humanity, the author maintains, to sail continually near the cliffs, which leads to the discovery of our fragility as well as our range of possibilities. To get to work, therefore, means recovering what adult life demands as opposed to the puerile frivolity of the new politics or the  naysaying pessimism of the prophets of calamity. Instead of making predictions, Manuel Arias Maldonado invites us to think in a certain key, which is cultivated and informed, mildly melancholy but always hopeful. In this long conversation we speak of all this, without leaving aside technology, the crisis of liberal democracy, and posthuman scenarios.

And the virus arrived when man began to dream of biological immortality, you observe at the beginning of your book. Suddenly, instead of the homo deus proclaimed by popularizers such as Harari, there reappears the ancient world of the plague. The great subject of your essay would be,  then, in my opinion, the dialogue between modernity and the most primitive antiquity. Does the rediscovery of human fragility place us squarely before our own limits,  or does it place us before our possibilities?

Without question this is one of the main themes of the book, which offers a way to recalibrate the modern project, over and against those who would lay it to rest but also against its zealots. No matter how we try to link the pandemic to contemporary patterns and tendencies, zoonotic viruses are as old as humanity and epidemics are as old as humans’ social life; the fact that global interconnection facilitates contagion, or that we can discuss how human penetration into wild habitats produces outbreaks of the virus, is another thing altogether. Anyway, human fragility has to be the object of a permanent rediscovery, because an acute consciousness of our vulnerability is paralyzing and, if you really think about it, incompatible with any idea of human emancipation. Of course we are fragile and there has been no short supply of viruses, wars, or natural catastrophes capable of reminding us that we are. It so happens that viruses were not on our radar, despite the fact that AIDS has killed over 30 million people in the last 40 years and it hasn’t even been 20 years since SARS seriously struck Asian countries. And the contrast with technological optimism is, as you point out, shocking: How is it possible that more than a million individuals disappear from the face of the earth as a result of a virus? On the other hand, everything suggests that we will have discovered effective vaccines, with a new inmunizing technique, within record time. That is why we should not tend toward pessimism, but rather realism: humanity is capable of redrawing its apparent limits and history is the proof of that, but  it is not lacking in limits nor is it infallible when limits are found.

The rereading you propose of the myth of the cave,  in accord with Hans Blumenberg’s thinking on the subject, is very interesting: the cave, more than the home of shadows, would be the geography of thought, the protected space from inside which one begins to think. And you say, literally, “space for reflection is the prelude to action”. Traditionally, in liberal democracy, this fertile soil would belong to parliament, to academia and the media. For one reason or another all three are presently in crisis. How do we locate those liberal caves in times like ours? How do we recover and preserve those spaces necessary for reflection?

Yes, what Blumenberg points out is that the Platonic myth is an erroneous interpretation of the function of the cave among primitive humanity; in his view, it is there that the primitive hordes can take shelter and sleep peacefully after spending their time on the savannah; and it is there that the outside world can be represented or technology developed. Strictly speaking, our homes fulfilled this function duiring the extreme lockdown in the spring, even if, figuratively speaking, the task of reflection was carried out in shared spaces of communication, which in this case, unlike previous pandemics, included Internet and social media. But your observation is broader and refers to those arenas that have been the vehicle for reflection and deliberation within the framework of liberal democracy: parliament, academia, and the media. All of them are, as you say, questioned or in crisis.

The university may be the institution that has come off the best in this crisis, for science was capable of producing knowledge about the virus at a notable pace despite it all, and  the University of Oxford is even behind one of the vaccines that has been announced; the digitalization of academic journals has shown its usefuleness in that sense. More problematic, naturally, is the figure of the academic turned party activist, and social media throw this phenomenon into relief. In Spain this may be even more prevalent because of the disproportionate weight parties have in civil life and the low pay in academia.

As for the role of parliaments, it is logical to think that they would take second stage in exceptional situations; it is quite another thing altogether that they should renounce the elementary task of monitoring what is done, as has occurred in Spain during the last state of alarm. Because one must resist the temptation to read all of the West in the light of what goes on in our country, where the presence of a populist party in government and the influence of nationalist parties on national politics has converged in a worrying way. Although I am getting off the subject: spaces of reflection exist, despite the fact that the politics of the various parties is less and less deliberative and the digitalization of public conversation grants greater prominence to emotional or sensational content. That same digitalization allows for the creation of spaces for significant discussion, just as it facilitates our access to all kinds of material useful for understanding reality. They are minority spaces, but that is inevitable.  A different topic altogether is the influence this reasoned content can have on those who make decisions and here, again, one would have to distinguish between different political cultures and levels of democratic quality.

From the Ruins of the Future aims to understand the pandemic “from a political as well as a social perspective”. Bruno Maçaes maintained a short time ago that while it is true that the West has been built on institutions, the great subject of our time is technology and its relation to politics. Do you think that the future of politics in the 21st C. will depend basically on who has control of key technologies?  And, in any case, how do you think   technologies of the future will influence democracy?

I am not so sure that the West has been built on institutions; it is more the case that it has taken shape through a complex process of interaction between institutions, civil society, markets, and technologies. The printing press paved the way for the press, and the press played a decisive role in the formation of democratic popular opinión, which in turn relied on legal institutions intended to guarantee the exercise of journalism. We also see the development of “welfarist” polítics, since the end of the 19th C., as a response to the impact of the Industrial  Revolution.

Having said that, technological ruptures are not and cannot be the object of democratic deliberation, because in that case innovation would never take place. And there are technologies with a strong destabilizing potential, as demonstrated by Internet in relation to social media. But that same technology allows farmers from developing countries to know the price of their merchandise and even to pay with their mobile phones.

Most of the time technology produces ambiguous effects; they can emancipate us at the same time that  they create new kinds of subjection. I think there is a vast territory to be explored here, which relates to the refinement of State tools for the administration of the social body in areas that fall under its purview.  For example, the rationalization of public spending to avoid absurd outlays of money, the evaluation of policies, or the adjustment of public assistance to income,  are all facilitated by information technology…if a State makes up its mind to undertake the necessary reforms. The problem, then, becomes political. More than controlling key technology, which can only with difficulty be monopolized by the State acting on its own, the difference in the future will be marked by the capacity —and the will— of each democracy to make the best possible use of existing technology. It is quite another thing to ask how representative democracy will manage to operate now that the public conversation is unfolding chiefly through social media, and political parties are the first in making use of of the latter, with designs more persuasive than deliberative in mind. Although here too it ought to be made clear that not all public opinión nor all political parties are equal: there are still some societies that are more rational and even-tempered than others.

“Modernity harbors no doubt about its superiority”, you point out with Thomas Mann in mind, and further on you ask if the pandemic can become an accelerator of a global consciousness as opposed to nationalist sentiment.  I know your book doesn´t aim to make predictions about the future, but do you think that the very logic of modernity leads irrevocably to cosmopolitanism?  How do you work meaningfully with that movement in history combined with the proliferation of identities?

The logic of modernity does lead, without a doubt, to an increase in cosmopolitanism, but not necessarily to the triumph of cosmopolitanism nor much less to its dizzying advance. And, as many critics of modern reason have pointed out, cosmopolitanism has been cropping up all throughout history,  with its black traces of imperialism and colonialism as well. The fact that we can situate these phenomena in their context and even distinguish between better or worse civilizations should not prevent us from seeing the damage an overbearing reason can come to do. It is true that this selfsame reason is critical with respect to itself, from the School of Salamanca down to Joseph Conrad, and we should hold on to that self-reflexive capacity. In any case, modernity inaugurates a time that is conscious of itself and bent on constructing itself through the use of reason. This does not mean, however,  that the first enlightened citizens were naive: they knew very well that the road was a long one and full of reversals. It is the 19th C. keeping pace with an accelerated material and social transformation, that opens the door to  excessive rationalist optimism. What I suggest in the book is that a vulnerability rediscovered in universal terms, like the fragility of the species faced with environmental aggression, makes it possible to reach a minimal agreement on the concept of humanity understood as a biological species. I don´t expect much from that possible agreement; nothing like world government. But it might serve as the basis for elementary agreements that would insure the hospitality of the planet, reducing, if possible, the inhospitable quality that it has acquired for many other species because of our actions. 

Coming back to the subject of cosmopolitanism: humanity is condemned to get along with one another and to perceive itself as one in light of planetary cohabitation. It so happens that this is a slow process, a despairingly slow one for those who are in a hurry, because tribal impulses and identitarian needs continually throw up obstacles in its path. That is why I believe critics of globalization, understood in its broad, indeed broadest sense, are wrong; however much we may have to correct its inevitable defects and negative impact, only globalization will allow us to add a layer of cosmopolitanism to the different layers of belonging that we all accumulate in the course of our lives.

The etymology that you employ for the word risk is very attractive; it is “a term”, you say, “that invokes the dangers of sailing too close to the rocks”. This is what humanity has done since time inmemorial: sail close to the rocks. Continuing in that line, do you think that with technical advances we have also entered into an eschatological time, at least as a possibility? In sailing too close to the rocks, is it not possible that modernity —and man—  might end up in a shipwreck?

That possibility cannot be ruled out. As you know we are a just a little blip on the screen in planetary terms: in the calendar of time on Earth, which translates the planet’s geological time into a year’s duration, we show up just a few minutes before New Year’s Eve. Biologists know that the species will not last forever, unless the transhumanists turn out to be right and technology allows for a bodily improvement that will catapult us, if not into eternity, then into a certain invulnnerability. For now, it is up to us to make sure not only that the planet is habitable in the long run but that conditions are benign for the development of human life; if we do not manage to do this, we enter the realm of dystopic science fiction. Naturally, taking a step back so that we can see ourselves from outside of the human anthill, is dizzying. Doing so, however, if only for a moment before we go back to our everyday concerns and the modest horizon of individual existence, can make us understand that declarations of optimism are unfounded: we are, really, nobody. And maybe that realization, more than leading us to hysteria, could help us to take seriously the need to govern the Anthropocene Age in a sustainable way,  without, for all that, giving up the elementary tenets of modernity.

In the book you defend the idea of a pessimistic use of the Enlightenment and not a certain infantilile use of reason. It would be basically a matter of a way to think reality instead of asserting an ought- to- be. The concept has made me think of the “melancholy ironist” that you presented in in one of your best known books, La democracia sentimental (Sentimental Democracy). How is one different from the other? And, in any case, how do you think the pessimistic enlightenment dialogues with technologies such as Artificial Intelleigence or synthetic biology, which are beginning to situate themselves in posthuman scenarios?

To speak of a pessimistic Enlightenment is, in some way, to return to the original sense of Kant’s proposal. Kant stressed that an age of enlightenment is not the same as an enlightenened age and that he, like his peers, was familiar with all manner of catastrophes.

It’s a matter of accepting that the historical display of reason will stumble on accidents, no small number of which are caused unintentionally by reason itself. It is an Enlightenment that accept  responsibility for its own disappointments instead of taking refuge in the lucid irony of postmodernity. Ideally, of course, the melancholy ironist embraces this pessimistic concept of the Enlightenment and, to complete our survey of my latest books, does not to lapse into nostalgia for a sovereign ruler,  because the melancholy ironist knows politics’  limitations. Posthumanism does not have to stand for an inordinate optimism; we can with caution also go down that road, though I suppose  one needs to have considerable faith in technological possibilities  to work in that sector. But just as there exists a gut-level rejection of those possibilities, it is also possible to tackle them with a critical gaze which does not reject them out of hand but accepts that it is unlikely that they will have an immaculate development.

Finally, the Celáa Law has just  been passed. As a university professor, what opinion does the development of education in our country over the last few decades merit in your eyes? Where do you think a quality law of education should be headed?

I have a negative opinion about this, for two reasons: the unusual confirmation that Spanish is hardly used in the Catalan classroom, which is an example of the path other regions are taking; and the ratification of the fact that we prefer students’ emotional satisfaction —and that of their families— to raising the level we demand of them so that they attain a more complete preparation. A quality law of education provides instruction in the knowledge available and teaches the student to use it: that’s all there is to it. That can be done well, or poorly or not at all. And my impression is that in Spain we believe less and less in that, which is going to place us at an inevitable competitive disadvantage with respect to societies that are concerned to give real meaning to the different degrees their educational authorities confer. In the last instance, weakening public education is unfair to those who cannot afford a private or “concerted” (semi-private) education. And the solution is not to do away with the latter but to raise public education to the standard of the other two.  

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