Bernard-Henri Levy: ‘How shall we avoid an epidemic of despair?’

Bernard-Henri Levy: ‘How shall we avoid an epidemic of despair?’

It’s been a year since one of Europe’s most renowned intellectuals, Bernard-Henri Levy, came to Athens and performed his monologue “Looking for Europe” at the Pallas Theater. The iconoclastic French philosopher enlivens speech by charging it with the refreshing power of competing ideas.

Close to the great and powerful yet at the same time a defender of the weak, he is a socialist against communism, a supporter of the West, the USA and NATO while also a close friend of freedom fighters in Bangladesh.

Himself a fighter for humanistic principles who fervently believes that everybody should defend the founding ideas of Western culture without qualms, Levy spoke recently to Kathimerini about the fundamental changes that have been caused to peoples and societies across the globe by this new era of pandemics that has abruptly been ushered in. 

One billion people are now united in spirit by living in quarantine and having to cope with the foreboding sense that a pandemic might invoke the sufferings of hunger, war and death. What cure would you suggest for this collective state of imprisoned mind?

Are you sure they are united in spirit? Aren’t they, on the contrary, completely isolated, cut off from each other and considering every neighbor as a possible threat? Of course there is solidarity. Of course there are these magnificent doctors and nurses who put their own life at risk in order to protect ours. But, as for the rest of us, I don’t know… A “united confinement” is a real oxymoron! And “united in quarantine” seems to me paradoxical and absurd! I’m not saying it is not necessary. I am not an expert, I am not a doctor, and I trust experts and doctors when they say that it is necessary and that we have to accept this new social distancing. But let’s not mix the science and politics. I leave medicine to doctors, but I have some sort of common sense – and I refuse the illusion of pretending that “social distancing” can mean and be a “brotherhood”… 

Six months ago in a public debate in Greece you decisively battered Steve Bannon for his nationalism and nativism. In “The Empire and the Five Kings” you warned against a US retreat from the world. Has this retreat contributed to our poor, delayed, self-harming response to the pandemic? Has the “plague of populism” (to use one of your own phrases) led us to plague?

A plague is a plague. It is a natural phenomenon. I really mean “natural” – which, by the way, might make a little more modest the ecologists and other experts in climate change who blame “man,” or “civilization” or “technicality.” It has nothing to do with anyone’s retreat. And, when we speak of this plague, we definitely have to get rid of this moral and punitive way of thinking. That said, I will add two points. First: One of the reasons why the virus spread is the politics, not of America, but of China; it is the Chinese government who lied, punished its whistleblowers, censored the journalists who wanted to warn the world and bring forth public opinion etc. Second: One of the reasons why the plague is so violent is the fact that all our democracies have sacrificed their public healthcare systems for decades. Arianna Huffington published a book a few years ago about the collapse of the American infrastructures, including hospitals. She was right. When I see the heartbreaking images of New York, when I get news of my American friends who go to the supermarket with fear in their stomachs, when I see that the most powerful country on earth sometimes does not even have the possibility of properly honoring and burying its dead, my heart bleeds, yes; but I can’t help thinking, too, that there is something rotten in the State of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. And this, alas, comes from long ago! It is not just a recent evolution! And it has little to do, alas, with Trump and so on… 

Western democracy is having difficulty breathing. Is the coronavirus the “Sixth King”? Is this “King” more dangerous than even the Soviet threat? If social control and limiting rights are imperative to cope with pandemics, is China about to export to the West, alongside its much needed ventilators, its trademark system of governance based on the predominance of the collective over the individual? 

No, no and no. Certainly not a “king”; no “will” of any sort; and that’s why, by the way, I don’t feel comfortable at all with the rhetoric of “war.” Coronavirus is not an “enemy”; it’s just a stupid brainless virus that will, sooner or later, be eradicated by a vaccine. Second: Of course not a Soviet threat; there is no way to compare this to any rogue, totalitarian or terrorist power; and, again, we will prevail against this disease far more easily than we did against Soviet Union. And third: China will certainly export ventilators and masks; no doubt they will make a point, and take advantage – against the US and the Europeans – of this tragic situation; but I cannot imagine the export of their system of governance! For Greece (fatherland of democracy), for France (source of the Enlightenment), for America (still the greatest liberal society in the world) it would be a defeat, a disaster and a disgrace. 

As an intellectual who has delved into the phenomenology of power, do you trust people in power to acquire special powers without the side effect of developing a penchant for restricting rights at every opportunity? If novel, digitally enhanced “viruses” of surveillance and social control infect and colonize the “polis,” how could citizens, fearful and powerless under the current circumstances, fight back and reclaim their fundamental rights? 

The real problem is fear, you are right. Of course fear is normal. Of course we all have friends and relatives who have been hit by the virus. But irrational fear should not be the response. Irrational means leading us to accept any solution. Irrational means being ready to sacrifice all our rights in order to save the illusion of a guarantee not to die. Irrational means considering that nothing counts, nothing has any value, except breathing. That’s what Alexandre Kojeve, the great commentator of Hegel, called the animal life, at the end of History, as opposed to the true human life in real History. And that’s what you Greeks meant when you opposed the “euzein” (the good life, the organic life mixed with values, ethics and so on) and the “zein,” the fact of just living, as a plant or a fish. But, again, let’s be cautious. I will not say, as you do, “people in power.” I would not put them all in the same bag. You have those like Viktor Orban in Hungary, who clearly seizes the opportunity and pushes his illiberal agenda. And you have those, in France, in the UK, elsewhere, who certainly do not have the same intention: the rights and liberties they momentarily suspend, we will get them back if we wish so. 

Power strips citizens of their fundamental rights so as to fight disease. Then they are stripped of their economic rights as the battle against disease leads to capital destruction. If the “plague of populism” led us to real plague, would the real plague lead us to more inequality and even more populism? How would we break this vicious cycle?

For the moment, we have. Most of the states behaved properly, cleverly and even bravely, avoiding the huge mistakes of 1929. The central banks played their role. The international institutions too. And the unions – I mean the workers – played the game too. Now, the states will not be able to spread helicopter money indefinitely and with no limits. At a point, it will have to stop. And the economy will have to resume. How, without rebooting the economy, shall healthcare systems be rebuilt, or even built? How, in a world of unemployment, shall we avoid an epidemic of despair? That’s the question now – not to mention the damned and cursed of the earth who were sometimes just emerging from underdevelopment and who might be buried back in a desert of misery, hunger and… other plagues! I am just back from Bangladesh. A country very dear to my heart since I was there, 49 years ago, with their freedom fighters, during their Liberation War. So many plagues are devastating the country. Starting with the plague of poverty and climate change… 

France, Greece, Italy, Spain and other countries are all demanding Eurobond-financed solidarity from Berlin. But this equals asking the German taxpayer to underwrite the rest of Europe with no strings attached. Would this further boost the prospects of the anti-EU German extreme-right? Is the Eurobond demand morally balanced enough for rekindling the moral imperative of a more united Europe?

I am only sure of one thing for the moment. Thank God we have Europe! Without it, without the minimum solidarity it provides, without the Central Bank, without the huge financial support that came from the European institutions, we all would have collapsed! Not enough is done, for sure. Especially with Italy that is, with Greece, the other birthplace of Europe – and we don’t remind ourselves of this enough. But, nevertheless, few things are more stupid than the new commonplace: “the crisis proves the necessity of nations and borders.” It’s the opposite: It proves the necessity of Europe. Or better: the necessity of more Europe.

Plagues preceded the fall of the great. The plague in ancient Athens led to the demise of Athens. The Plague of Justinian contributed to the fall of Byzantium. Do you suspect it is inevitable that the era of pandemics will eventually lead to a new world order?

If the West encloses itself inside its borders and barricades, yes. The real danger, now, is there. It would be to say “farewell to the world.” It would be to leave all our cultural influence to actors like China or even India. And it would be to close the door. If we see this plague as a new pretext for retreat and withdrawal, then, yes, it will be a big date in the long history of our decline.

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