“Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will”: Empathy and Solidarity in the Times of COVID-19



As expected I have been too busy to sit down and make another video. I made an extra video for my students instead.

Last night a friend shared this. The news arrives at a time in which I have been taking action to support in any way that I can students and colleagues online. Personally, I have also been trying to support those businesses that have been now closed due to coronavirus and who will surely struggle, such as bookshops, record shops, indie bands and musicians, newspapers and magazines that I like. For the time being, while I can, I am happy to make an extra financial effort that hopefully sends a small message of appreciation and support.

This led to me reflect out loud, as one does, on a Twitter thread today. I have reused some of that writing below, expanding on some related ideas.

I’m not a political economist but I find it sadly ironic that a system that eminently depends on the circulation of capital simultaneously would be so efficient at making participants so disconnected/alienated from the economic responsibilities and consequences of our actions.

The student petition covered by the BBC in the link above made me write in the thread that in the case of higher education it’s clear its marketisation is embedded in a system that depends on social polarisation; the dehumanisation of universities and their staff, seen by some stakeholders as semi-automated service providers.

I do think we had not experienced in our lifetimes such a paradigmatic moment where the consequences of fostering market competition through rankings, metrics, funding allocation, student fees will demonstrate its most acutely negative consequences. Where the educational experience has been transformed into an experience that can be bought and satisfaction measured (like one books, say, a package holiday or a cruise) we can’t be surprised solidarity and empathy between competing providers and their consumers will be scarce.

It is now more than ever that we urgently require solidarity between everyone who is part of society (and that is everyone); this is essential if we want any resemblance of an optimistic present and future to take place. The system of exchange we have all embraced has disconnected consumption from production and has made consumers believe they are always right and in a position to get what they want when they want it how they want it, irrespective of context.

Attitudes to Higher Education do not exist in a vacuum. In the context of immigration, health care and welfare we see a similar phenomenon too, where those ‘unskilled’ workers that a hostile environment has made its best to exclude are very likely to be the ones keeping society running at the moment. One wonders how many deaths could have been and be avoided if only the NHS, welfare, education, equality and societal cohesion had been priority instead of the sustained campaign against it in recent years, fueled by the bigotry of those who favour ‘the market’ over human rights.

Though it’s easy to focus on what seems negative or pessimistic about the ideas above, I’d like to emphasise that what I seek is to communicate the urgent need for greater empathy and solidarity. It is possible for an apparently optimistic stand point, that focuses on individual, family unit or organisational self-care to fit within the structures of alienation/disconnect that have enabled inequality in our societies.

Any optimistic or ‘positive’ approaches to the coronavirus pandemic should, in my opinion, be framed and motivated by an awareness of the interconnectedness of everyone and everything. In order for us to be well others need to be well too, and others will be well only if we are well too. It goes both ways- and this wellness is also dependent on the circulation of capital, and this depends on people’s ability to earn a living. The pandemic affects everyone- and this means it affects everything we humans do.

Finding the balance between critically engaging with what is happening and trying to maintain a semblance of normality is important, but not easy. Gramsci’s motto, “Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will”  calls for this ongoing interrogation of what happens whilst having trust in our ability to stand up to challenges pragmatically and strategically. There cannot be solidarity and empathy unless there is awareness of difference, and this implies an awareness of privilege, and of the fragility of that privilege.

In a time in which nearly everyone has the ability to broadcast publicly aspects of their private lives, and when many -but definitely not all- will be at home, some of which will be working from home- it’s to me essential that we try to reflect on the interconnectedness of everything- home, until recently the quintaessential ‘private’ space, does not exist outside society, even if we never physically leave it.

When we make a complaint or ask for our money back, when we buy all the possible loo roll packets we can afford at once- let’s think carefully about the consequences those actions have on others and on ourselves. This is not a time to treat others, including organisations or services, as mere means to an end- but as key interconnected points in the wide network of society- all playing a role, and forced to play many other roles whilst under these exceptional circumstances.