Maurizio Piseri - June 2020

In these months, marked by the health emergency, "epidemic" and "crisis" are the words repeated more than any other by mass media. The one and the other are usual terms for those who, like me, have the chance of being a historian; two words that lead to reflection, especially when they are associated with expressions such as "extraordinary event" or "nothing will ever be the same again”. I'll skip over the "secular uniqueness" of an event that is not at all exceptional and, if anything, expected. The historians of epidemics are well aware that, in cycles of 30-40 years, the appearance of a new influenza virus will affect a population with no immunological memory. If we go over the last century, besides finding corresponding phenomena (the Hong Kong influenza of 1968 and the Asian influenza of 1957), the health crisis brought about by Polio was much more dramatic. The Spanish flu itself would have had a far different impact on mortality if it hadn't affected populations subject to the nutritional stresses of war and the aporia of economic development in the United States. Instead, I prefer to focus on how the words 'epidemic' and 'crisis' are interrelated with ''nothing will be the same as before''.

Let's start with "epidemic." Unless it exterminated half the population (as the pneumonic plague of 1348 did the European population) no epidemic has ever changed the course of history. Of course, school books have taught us that the decline of Italy in the 17th century was caused by the plague of 1630 - the Manzonian plague. Manzoni, in addition to the sadness he brought to our adolescent studies, substantiated several false historical facts, such as the process of re-feudalization of the economy in Lombardy or the idea that a generous thunderstorm would be enough to rinse away the plague (if anything, the humid environment and the drop in temperature would have made great allies for Yersinia pestis). In reality, the plague brought about an awareness to the contemporaries of the time that "nothing would be as it was before" ... but for that "before", one had to look 20-30 years back when, as yet unnoticed, the decline had begun. Certainly, CoViD is not the Plague but in this widespread fear for tomorrow, there is an awareness of the crisis in the West; a crisis that was not initiated by the epidemic but which began much earlier. A crisis that is different from the cyclical crises of capitalism because it has redefined the world balance with the obvious supremacy of Asia and, above all, of China.

We have thus entered the domain of the word "crisis"; a term loaded with negative connotations in the common sentiment and which leads to a pessimistic vision of the future. Yet the crisis can be seen as an opportunity. The entropy of a system can unleash new perspectives of change. There is no doubt that change also means accepting Europe's new position on the world stage. And there is no doubt that recovering the social dimension expressed by the communities can be a starting point for an "elaboration of the crisis”. After all, the Chinese leadership has revealed itself in its civil and communitarian response to the emergency. Those who, in the face of this emergency, have evoked authoritarianism are victims of their own entropic ideas of “freedom"; a necrophilic "freedom" because it separates the individual from the world, preventing the individual from being able to act upon reality. The conviction that freedom coincides with the individual explains why the fear of "nothing will be as before" is declined to the singular; it is the atomized subject who fears that, for him, nothing will be as before.

The great challenge of the coming years is the liberation of the homo consumens, of the atomized individual who self-identifies in objects to the point of objectifying his/her own affections. The same social commitment, when present, is brought back to the sphere of one's own specific interests (from ecology to animalism, from sexual belonging to the rights of migrants) according to that model defined as "groupism" by Immanuel Wallerstein. But these same groups are atomized entities competing with each other to gain or maintain certain positions in the socio-economic and political arenas; a competitiveness that overshadows the selfsame interests that drives their existence. Bringing man back to his true nature as a politikòn zôon, a social animal, is a pedagogical problem. Certainly not solvable by the cognitivist and structuralist pedagogies, which are fashionable nowadays, that separate man from the world and his collectivity. Pedagogy, as Paulo Freire's lesson teaches us, in order to be liberating must be based on the word and, through the word, build a sociality capable of reflecting and acting upon reality. It is in sociality that man understands there are no particular problems that separate one from the other, because every particular feeling must be resolved in a collective sentiment capable of leading, through dialogue, to a true and authentic awareness of the problems of humanity.

Maurizio Piseri - Historian of Education at the University of Valle D'Aosta Department of Human and Social Sciences