The online conference "(Re)Construction of the World" brought together speakers from literally all over the world from 12 to 14 February 2021. They staged a transnational discussion in which a transnational public sphere was evident and present. There was an engaging exchange of views on the catastrophic state of the world and what it would be like to live in a political culture that at least makes possible ways of escape from this dismal state appear conceivable.
After all, one can only come to an understanding about the structure of this world if one can conceive of another possible world, and by then searching for pathways that can help us reach this other world. It was along these lines that our conference, which we organised with the support of many partners, including the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, delved into the realm of the impossible, which is precisely what it is high time to do.
The large number of participants - at no point were there ever less than a thousand people listening or watching - shows that the conference quite obviously had its finger on the pulse of the times. And this during a global pandemic that poses a threat to each and every one of us, albeit on quite different scales depending on one's geographical, but above all social, background. By making the state of the world the subject of discussion, we not only elevated fear, but also its causes, to the topic of debate. State-of-the-art communication technologies made possible a global interconnection, producing a knowledge that no longer mapped a towering, majestic model of the tree of knowledge, and instead resembled a network of roots branching out in all directions.
Why should an aid organisation host a conference that one would actually expect to take place at a university? For two reasons. Firstly, to find a way out of the trap into which we have fallen. And secondly to fulfil its most noble task: to bear witness to the state of the world. As things stand, hardly anyone or anything is actually better geared for this task than an aid organisation that seeks to be political and is hence ultimately working towards its own demise and oblivion. For medico international, this has already been its third major conference, and this time in a new global format, aimed at critically addressing the issue of aid.
Haiti and Moria: Aid at a crossroads
The two opening forums addressed paradigmatic examples of the power as well as futility of aid: Haiti and Moria. Thus, the US anthropologist Mark Schuller looked at international aid in the wake of an earthquake, terming it "humanitarian occupation". The earthquake hit in 2010 and claimed 300,000 lives. The victims of the "occupation" have as of yet not been counted. Like the countries that fund them, the aid agencies have come to terms with the wretched and shameful conditions and with President Jovenel Moïse, who, with the support of the West, is in the process of becoming their dictator.
Just like in Haiti, the camps that have sprung up at Europe's external borders are clearly all about containment. Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos has become a symbol of this. The jurisprudence scholar Maximilian Pichl has coined the term "Moria complex" to describe Europe's system of camps, where stripping people of their rights has taken on a new dimension.
"Financialisation" of aid
On top of humanitarianism, which endows itself with money and clothes itself in morality while it is unable to solve anything, not only in Haiti and Moria, comes the "financialisation" of aid. Barbara Adams of the Policy Forum in New York in the third panel on aid described how the United Nations is pursuing a course of ever increasing privatisation of funding for aid. Although the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank, in their role as financiers of aid, have at the same time in the past steered a systematic line of encouraging indebtedness on the part of poorer countries, at this point one almost longs for their return, as they are at least formally speaking democratic bodies. In contrast, the banks, which are increasingly replacing these institutions nowadays, are only guided and constrained by one law: maximisation of profits.
In contrast, aid that seeks to address not only dire needs but also its causes faces the challenge of redefining itself. If it is no longer about mitigating misery, but only managing it, a repoliticisation of aid needs to once again pose the "system question". But how?
Capitalism: an achievement as well as a disaster
The climate goals can now seriously only be achieved through an end to growth, according to the economic journalist Ulrike Herrmann: in her view, the exigencies emanating from the climate catastrophe invariably force one to question capitalism. "But how," she asks, getting to the crux of the matter, "are we to devise a transformation process that does not end in civil war?" Can testing of alternative ways of living and doing business in the field of practice suffice to release the "mental blinders" that is preventing all of us from achieving the transformation necessary for the planet to survive?
In the view of the Italian political scientist Sandro Mezzadra, migration movements amply illustrate the fact that not only the global South, but also and especially the global North is "postcolonially" structured, and that these movements also reveal why this is so. The conflicts raging in connection with racism, white supremacism and the hierarchical production of knowledge play a very crucial role, as they constitute the emancipatory-dynamic factors in the current crises. The pandemic has triggered a crisis of mobility, however, and has now added hygiene regulations and vaccination cards to the existing border regime. Under these conditions, a dystopian form of migration management is conceivable, in which ghettos and even places like Moria could become reservoirs for temporary labour.
Above and beyond the dystopian tendencies of post-colonial capitalism that Mezzadra draws attention to, the Nigerien journalist Moussa Tchangari points to the disappointment over unfulfilled promises from the period following the end of the East-West conflict. One of these promises was the "global village" in which everyone - freed from authoritarian regimes - would be united in free and equal access to democracy, public goods and mobility. But this village is clearly disintegrating into parts completely separated from each other by insurmountable walls.
In contrast to the dystopian tone of the analysis, Mezzadra emphasised the importance of the movements that are making a name for themselves despite the pandemic: feminist uprisings, Black Lives Matter, ecological movements and precisely the stubborn tenacity of migration with its insistence on the right to mobility. Glimmers of hope in a gloomy state of affairs.
Control and death
The Argentine anthropologist and feminist Rita Segato asked what the pandemic was actually doing to modern Western subjects: subjects who, in the words of Segato, repress consciousness of their own death, and now that it is coming ever closer to them and their relatives, they are seeking to make it vanish behind aseptic hospital images. Against the backdrop of the femicides in Latin America and in the face of Covid-19, this contempt for death cultivated by white radical right-wing masculinity has opened up a male claim to dominance when it comes to the death of others.
What do we have in common if we are to reconstruct the world?
How key the voice and thoughts of the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe are in any political debate about post-colonial capitalism was underscored once again through his lecture. Mbembe delved to the bottom of the question as to whether it is possible to reconstruct the world and what it could look like: starting with Africa.
In his words, it is necessary to reconstruct a "world for everyone and everything", based on a different order and sorely in need of a new set of ethics. The present-day world, with its development model based on "extractionism" and "financialisation", is inevitably creating ever larger no-go zones that have to be controlled and contained in a kind of "remote management from afar". These zones are reminiscent of colonialism, but have done away with the colonial paradox, as Mbembe puts it, which combined control from a distance with direct physical confrontation. Today, however, the "map of development" is being redrawn. In the new map, two development alternatives stand in opposition to one other: "a world of permanent emergency managed by technocrats versus a structural transformation of society and humanity as a whole".
A post-Eurocentric cosmopolitanism must place the different archives of knowledge and memory on an equal footing and not in a hierarchal order. However, "the persistence of racism exposes a failure of the liberal order project". Mbembe highlights the ideology of white supremacism, which for centuries has maintained white people's deceptive self-image of autonomy, ignoring their dependence on the well-being of their slaves and hence denying both their own responsibility as well as their understanding of the obligation to make reparations. Mbembe thus places the reappraisal and triumph over white supremacism at the centre of the transformation task.
But what do we have in common? The Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owour made it clear that polished incantations and invocations of what we have in common only serve to deepen the divide: "The past creeps into the present, shaping it, colonising it in the here and now". At the same time, however, a new world is in the making. Those who want to be part of this process, says Owuor, need to do one thing above all else: "grow up." The sociologist Sabine Hark linked this appeal to insight into the differences from which the obligation to find a common ground in an asymmetrical globality comes about: "Unlearning privileges, unlearning an imperial way of life, actively saying no to socialisation in a regime of dominance shaped over the centuries, requires something different than redefining oneself as a political citizen from a position of dispossession which has also been shaped over the centuries."
Moussa Tchangari's desire, formulated out of a situation of hopelessness, "for something completely different" and Mbembe's insistence on the inevitability of a "transformation of humanity as a whole" broached the question of revolution, unspoken but unmistakable. But nothing is clear-cut. The US philosopher Susan Buck-Morss echoed Mbembe's plea for a de-hierarchisation of the archives of memory. "The revolutionary collective is not the universalisation of an abstraction"; rather, it can be experienced precisely in the "enormous illumination of movements" that are "very different from one another".
Her two fellow discussants also underscored this merely apparent but not real paradox. The Syrian filmmaker Saeed al Batal explained why people took part in the revolution in Syria despite the spectre of death: "Not every life is worth living". According to al Batal, it was precisely this insight that enabled the revolutionaries in Syria to risk their lives for the revolution in the first place.
Pierina Ferreti reported on the social explosion in Chile, borne on the wings of millions of citizens. Among other things, it was said to result from a reification of existence in its entirety in super-liberal Chile, where people are only objects in the pursuit of profit - no matter what is at stake. The movement, she noted, had sparked an anger in society - an anger about which the ruling political class was unable to fathom and which no political party, not even a left-wing one, was able to harness and represent. That is why, she said, that each and every individual in the movement had to speak and stand for themselves.
The revolution of human rights
It can be said of all modern revolutions that they have failed to achieve what they set out to accomplish. At the same time, it must be noted with regard to all these revolutions that they turned against the revolutionaries who started them quite early on. Recent critical theory has coined the term "human rights revolution" in opposition to this consistently premature end, or to put it in more pointed terms: in opposition to the ever-recurring interruption of the revolution. The revolution is the historical process in which we have pledged to one another and have promised each other to be free and have equal rights. Strictly speaking, even the permanence of revolution is to be understood as a human right, i.e. as the right enshrined in Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to an "international and social order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized": for all and for everyone, everywhere.
It strikes one almost as a truism that the planetary problems that the conference was addressing can only be solved globally. But where are incipient global solutions to be found? In the closing panel discussion, proposals for a different approach emerged around four themes that recurred throughout the conference in one way or another and which go well beyond the horizons of the present-day perspective: Reclaiming health as a human rights-based public good; containing corporate power - for example, through laws enforcing human rights in global supply chains; linking up the transnational anti-racist struggles in the Black Lives Matter movement to the notion of abolitionism; and the need, in a time of "crises of alternatives" (Buck-Morss), to lend contours and visibility to other realms of possibilities, as can sometimes be attained in projects that serve, at least temporarily, as "islands of reason". This is sometimes realised by art, as theatre-maker Milo Rau demonstrated using the example of his film "The New Gospel", in which Jesus is a refugee activist from Cameroon, while the apostles are sex workers, "illegalised" labourers on tomato plantations and small farmers in southern Italy.
It was on this concluding note that the final panel once again placed the entire conference within a frame surrounding a cornucopia of content: starting from aid and its testimony to the state of the world, the aim and objective was to perceive possibilities for the world's transformation. With this serving as a foundation, we can venture a look at a possible political culture that approaches another world in a philosophical, political and artistic venture seeking to surmount frontiers, which is still in the realm of the possible.