In the midst of the pandemic that keeps the world hostage, an old truth makes its way back: no one can be saved alone. It was pronounced by Pope Francis to an empty and rainy Saint Peter’s Square. In his Homily, the Pontiff emphasized that "human beings have discovered that we cannot part from each one’s way, we need to reunite and work together". The Argentine President, Alberto Fernández, uses this expression as a catch phrase in almost every governmental public appearance.
The content of the phrase goes beyond a simple call to solidarity; it highlights that leaving care strategies to the discretion and will of each person is not only dangerous but also impossible: in the current context, each decision affects the life of the person making it, but also, inevitably, the lives of others.
It is, without a doubt, a motto that should function as a guideline on the current state of affairs. But why do we need a pandemic to remind us the importance of such an elemental truth? What succession of historical events ended up causing it to be almost contrary to our daily perceptions? What particular chain of ideas led our common sense to always seem to seek individual salvation?
Looking towards our near future, we must take advantage of the exceptional nature of the current situation to ask ourselves why a phrase that should be obvious to us reappears in the form of a extraordinary exhortation.
Individual, society and State
The notion of the “individual”, that great invention of European modernity, occupies a central place within the set of ideas that enables the speculations about a lone salvation. This notion served as a basis for the expansion of political liberties and civil rights, but also cemented the commercial logic that is characteristic of modern societies. Over the centuries, this logic expanded its scope until it almost subsumed the whole of social relations, including those liberties and rights that once opposed the power of the monarchies.
The creation of the image of an absolutely independent life began more than 300 years ago, with the emergence of the liberal tradition. That primordial liberalism defined individuals as units in and of themselves, possessing an understanding and a will that allowed them to be masters of their actions. Contact with other individuals took place only by virtue of their own needs; there was no commitment between parts, only an exchange of conveniences. Society is conceived as an aggregation in which each individual, guided by the criterion of self-interest, relates to others within the commercial logic. Following this argument, the State appears, in more than one sense, as the opposite of society, since it arises from a contract in which individuals give up a certain portion of their natural rights to ensure their freedom. The State is understood as an administrative instance that must provide for certain basic services; a kind of necessary evil that produces benefits while containing dangers. Thus, the State is understood as the opposite of society, and society, in turn, as the opposite of the individual, who must make sure he receives everything he was promised in the exchange.
This ideology was reinforced during the 20th century by totalitarianism, which used equality as a justification for the homogenization of peoples, with the final annulment of individuality. This is why today, for the most part, we think of ourselves as owning our personas, we see collectivization projects as the enemy, and we project pleasant victories in solitude.
Robinson Crusoe as a demonstration of the absurd
When we search for a concrete representation of the individual who triumphs in solitude, we find that this figure dissolves. What would someone who effectively manages to save himself alone be like?
Let us take a fictional example: Can we think of Robinson Crusoe, the character created by Daniel Defoe, as being safe on his desert island, with no provisions other than some tobacco for his pipe? Was the character of Tom Hanks in Castaway, accompanied only by a ball that could do nothing to ease his tooth pain, safe? We can also remember an episode in The Twilight Zone in which a poor guy who was continuously insulted by his wife and mistreated by his boss ends up being the only survivor of a nuclear disaster, and when he believes that he has finally been given all the time he has always desired to do what he loves the most -read-, he stumbles and his glasses get smashed on the ground: all the novels in the world at his beck and call, but no lens maker to turn to in order to enjoy this infinite treasure.
Beyond fiction, within our pandemic reality, we could try to imagine a situation that illustrates this topic: suppose a man locked in a comfortable home, away from all danger -biological, economic and social. Imagine the cupboards full enough to feed the man for months. Imagine a good computer, a good cell phone, a very large screen and a fast internet connection. That’s our "solitary surviver".
But let's now take a look at the same scene with a different lens, with a prism that shows us all the work that was necessary for that scenario to take place: someone built the walls, someone painted them, someone did the electrical installation. Someone grew and harvested the vegetables that fill the refrigerator. Someone made and packaged the noodles in the cupboard. Let's run the film, and we will also see all the essential tasks that allow our “survivor” to be in his “solitary” condition: somewhere someone activates gas pipeline controls; somewhere else, someone manipulates the controls of a power plant. What both do is essential to keep the heating, cooling and lighting of our loner's house active. And the same could be said regarding internet service, garbage pickup, etc.
From this point of view, all stories that emulate Robinson’s appear as a demonstration of the absurd compared to the truth contained in the phrase that summons us here.
For a new way of thinking about the relationship between individuals, society and State
This exercise in reflection invites us to understand that salvation is impossible in solitude and that, inexorably, humans need their neighbors in order to have fulfilling lives. The pandemic shines a light on what the neoliberal imprint and its mistaken globalization does not want us to remember: we are part of a totality that encompasses, includes, and exceeds us. This does not imply that we should give up our individuality, it means that we must approach it from a perspective that allows us to experience the distinction between State, society and individuals in a different way. The challenge is to develop a way of living in which these three instances are linked by continuity and contiguity rather than by opposition: that society not appear as the opposite of the State, and that the State not be thought of as the opposite of freedom but as a field in which possible constructions are discussed, ones which are always complex but unfailingly collective.
This virus that spread globally, putting the lives of entire populations at risk, has clearly reminded us of a truth that we should not have forgotten: human life, in any situation, requires the dimension of the community. We must retrace our aspiration to salvation in solitude so that it does not end up working against itself, that is, as a generalized way of condemning ourselves as a species.
Sebastián Botticelli is Professor of Philosophy and PhD. of Social Sciences. University professor specialized in inquiries about neoliberalism and its political implications. Researcher at the Center for Studies on the Contemporary World (UNTREF).