The pandemic we are experiencing, regardless of its interpretations, is an international catastrophe that will have grave consequences at every level, which, some experts warn, may be comparable to those suffered in a world war.
Crises, both personal and social, like any catastrophe, come by surprise. So, to a large extent, we are now living a kind of dream experience. Many patients tell me: «It is as if I were living a dream, to which I cannot react». Our perception now undergoes a certain alteration of consciousness, because the daily social reality is largely unknown, reason why we are experiencing changes in vital rhythms, sleep disturbances, feelings of strangeness and a different experience of the passage of time.
And that dream is not pleasant; it is rather closer to a nightmare, in which we find vulnerability and death — two things which often accompany a catastrophe. Pandemics, unlike other disasters, are slow catastrophes: the state of alarm and the tendency to chaos and panic are manifested and increase progressively.
Other psychological approaches that also investigate the phenomenon of fear as systemic, cognitive, or constructivist, argue that these situations stimulate creativity and the emergence of values such as solidarity, and that they lead to the search for solutions. In my view this description may be attributed to the instinctive reaction that occurs in nature in general and in mammals in particular, but in many cases, it is not what we observe in the human mammal. In our case, we have been losing contact with instinctual functioning: we move through stereotypical patterns of social behaviour and we are governed by the predominance and specialization of reason and cortical thought. This may be largely due to the influence of the patriarchal society in which we have lived for centuries, which has emphasised the objectives of achievement, efficacy and phallic supremacy of power over the human attributes of instinct, affections, tenderness, sexuality and human relations. This dysfunctional social context is reflected in the unhealthy relationships that are maintained in essential ecosystems (e.g., family and school), which are very distant from those developed in natural and ecological environments. Although fear tends to lead mammals to a solution, in humans it often leads to a crossroads.
Whilst at the behavioural and social response level we are far from having self-organized instinctive responses — autopoietic, according to the definition by Humberto
Maturana —, at the biological level we do have them. Although many deaths have occurred in the pandemics suffered by the human race throughout history, our species has been able to survive. This can be better understood by applying the Sheldrake’s Morphic Resonance Theory, according to which the human species, like every species, collects the legacy of centuries-long survival responses in the biological field. Every time a molecular variable to which the human species is not accustomed appears, there is a period of vulnerability where there are deaths until the period of immune self-organization arrives. This process happens without necessarily the existence of previous vaccines or specific medical solutions.
In The Year of the Plague, Daniel Defoe offers a fictionalized description of one of the historical pandemics: «Society was perplexed when they showed that, suddenly, without any new medicine, without any different intervention, people not only stopped dying, but recovered and healed. Even the doctors could not explain it, because it was a Divine fact. God punished us and God forgives us». In the absence of any other possible explanation in the mid-nineteenth century, Defoe and most people attributed the situation to divine intervention.
What is certain in all pandemics is that they last for a time. Today we are better prepared, not only thanks to medical advances, but also because humans are more immunized as a species than they were centuries ago. However, this does not necessarily apply to isolated tribes with little contact with civilization, who are especially vulnerable, and who can disappear if adequate measures are not taken. Indeed, this could already be happening in places like the Amazon rainforest with the consequent tragedy and human genocide.
The current crisis may be considered an international catastrophe with a biological base that will last for a time and will cause deaths. And the deaths will depend, in turn, on two variables. The first one consequence of the biological mutation as a result of a world- battered nature — a Gaia mistreated by our destructive actions which will continue to generate geophysical and biological catastrophes. Perhaps this is why, while the 20th century was the century of war, the 21st century will be the century of «natural» catastrophes. The second is the greater or lesser biological and psychosomatic strength of each person, a consequence both of their congenital predisposition and of the distress suffered throughout their personal history, especially during the first years of life. Both things could be alleviated; by eradicating risk factors of all kinds in the first case, and by using preventive measures in essential ecosystems (family, school, organizations...) in the second case, such as those shaped in the project that I named at the time: «Ecology of Human Systems».
On this occasion I will not evaluate the decisions made by governments in the face of this crisis, but I will evaluate the consequences of these decisions. Immobility and confinement for months will mean a recession in the economy and very strong emotional and infrastructural suffering for millions of people, with not only social and economic consequences, but also psychosomatic ones which will cause defensive and pathological behaviour. We will find reactions far removed from the instinctive and natural functioning of our species described above and responses based on the predominance of those denominated by Wilhelm Reich as “secondary cultural drives,” such as selfishness, individualism and sadism. These drives take shape through our character, a term this author describes as the armouring of the self. That is, the sum of defence mechanisms organized throughout our maturation process in the form of rigid behavioural traits, which are part of our personality. Among them we observe compulsive, phallic, masochistic or hysterical features.
Likewise, during the time of confinement, these Character attitudes will take strength to face the crisis, but over time they may crumble, giving way to deeper reactions as a consequence of the character structure — that is, the pattern of organization that is essential to each person:
- Impulsive or dissociative reactions, in the case of the Borderline Structure.
- Divided by panic or paranoid-conspiratorial and delusional, in the case of the
- Psychotic Structure.
- Adaptive but experiencing more or less serious personal or relational conflicts depending on their prevailing character trait, in the case of the Neurotic Structure. This may be reflected in the following: behaviours with compulsive routines; depressive emergencies; victimizers; despair; evasive-maniacal, histrionic chaos; or leadership with the marks of saviours of humanity.
From this systemic and structural assessment of the present situation, before even considering possible measures to weather the crisis and the post-crisis, we must assume that the consequences of this pandemic will be global and unpredictable in the short and medium term. For this reason, as Edgar Morin wrote, «It is necessary to learn to navigate in an ocean of uncertainty, through archipelagos of certainty.» For us, those archipelagos are the general laws of the Ecology of Human Systems. By applying them, we will be able to navigate in a safer and more efficient way.
The starting point that will allow us to do so emerges from the Theory of Complexity of the aforementioned philosopher, E. Morin. According to him, in order to know the reality of a phenomenon we must detect as many variables as possible that make that phenomenon possible. Therefore, in this crisis, it will not be useful to adopt positions based on a response to a single variable. This erroneous approach has been manifested in some reactive positions which have deemed the Government responsible for everything that has happened, or in attitudes that take refuge in mystical ideas with siren songs and think everything will be solved by the force of nature and that the human being will change from now on and everything will be different.
It would also seem injudicious to remain in the mere mechanistic pragmatism of thinking that everything passes for medical solutions and a saving vaccine. The situation is complex, and we must therefore seek answers that consider the various variables that are influencing this crisis.
Instead, it may be beneficial to examine the position recommended by W. Reich of «Silent Observation», which resembles a principle of quantum physics, according to which the peculiarities of the observer become one more variable to be taken into account in the observation of the phenomenon under investigation. In the first step in this silent observation, the observer themselves must ask themselves what are they feeling and how are they experiencing what they observe, as well as the conditions they are in. If this theory is applied to the present situation, there is little point in proposing alternatives or solving problems to others if one has not previously stopped, looked at oneself and asked: «How am I living and suffering this crisis? What feelings am I experiencing? How do I feel during the night and during the day? How am I with others — More angry, depressed or anxious? Am I sleeping more or less, can I sleep or not? How do I experience the passing of time, the absence of social encounters...?» This self-observation will help a person learn and better manage their resources.
The second step is observing the outside. We must try to observe without prejudice, categorisations or interpretations, avoiding what Reich warned “the pressure of the mechanistic interpretation of things.« In the present case, failure to contextualize the set of variables of the current pandemic, such as the number of daily deaths, the measures to be taken, the economic crisis, etc... will increase the collective fear of the virus. Of course, this is part of reality, but other variables seem to be neglected, such as individual and social immunological logic or the influence that mistreatment of nature has had on the emergence of this pandemic. At the same time that we recognize that this coronavirus, along with the rest of millions of other viruses, is part of biodiversity and, as such, has a vital function, we must investigate and understand it, to neutralize the epidemic ecologically and to prevent other possible ones coming, instead of presenting it as an invisible enemy to be destroyed and defeated. To achieve this, the necessary resources must be provided to the specialized and scientific teams that follow these lines of research, such as Máximo Sandin, or Patrick Forterre.
In turn, others will reflect only another part of reality, describing and emphasizing the capacities of humans, those who advocate an idealized human response to this crisis, saying that we will be able to take advantage of it to change, to show solidarity and regain a certain cosmic awareness that promotes a more sustainable future. But it should not be forgotten that these capacities of the human race are reduced and limited by the armour and character structure of each person (one thing is to want to achieve something and another is to be able to). And we must not forget that the economic and social crisis will be global and will cause tensions and conflicts, so it will test our potential capacity to be more human, facing the panic of the armoured individual.
From this position of Silent Observation, once we have carried out the two tasks described, we will have access to a greater understanding of the phenomenon (the pandemic crisis), which will allow us to design an adequate intervention strategy. Two other necessary tools for us to advance in this journey are Hans Selye’s Theory of Stress (Suffering) and Henry Laborit’s Inhibition of Action. To the distress of the catastrophe we must add the one we carry inside us as a result of the fears experienced in our history. Together, they advocate pathological psychosomatic responses described by Selye, which are aggravated by not being able to react to the frustration caused by impoverishment, illness, immobility or the lack of accompaniment in close mourning, adding to the previous pathologies produced by the neurohormonal alterations described by Laborit.
By applying these theories to our situation, we will be better prepared, and we must alert the healthcare community to the considerable increase in acute psychosomatic reactions and emotional and psychopathological crises, such as acute symptoms of anxiety, panic attacks, depression, etc., that will appear as the crisis progresses and the gradual recovery begins. At the moment our defensive system (character armouring) is containing disease processes because it «knows» that it will not receive care, evades perception and prevents its emergence. But when the conditions are there, the emergency will be virulent and acute. It is a dynamic similar to that of a traffic accident. In the first instance, we recover normality as much as possible, but gradually the trauma and the consequences of the impact appear.
The same applies to the emergence of individual pathologies, couple conflicts, or family crises as a result of the distress of the catastrophe — we have to prepare ourselves for a financial crisis of post-war magnitudes. No matter how hard governments try to neutralize its effects, these will occur, and, as is often the case, the most vulnerable will be the most affected.
Preparing to face this means applying another of our main laws — only with cooperation and mutual support in the face of selfishness can these extreme situations be contained and overcome. Applying ethnology, more than a century ago, a libertarian figure, Pior Kropotkin, reflected this view in his celebrated book Mutual Support. It is not a matter of «cooperativism», but of joining forces, personal capacities and functionally managing collective resources, to achieve common objectives.
It is not an easy task because nobody has taught us — rather we have learned to work in the opposite direction —, and in some cases, our experiences in personal and social relationships have been so destructive that our tendency is to defend ourselves from others, because we have stopped distinguishing between «equals» and «opposites». This causes dynamics of avoidance, flight, even betrayal, as represented in the figure of the Judas of the Gospels, which W. Reich analyses along with other examples, within what he defines as reactions of an emotional plague. I am not only referring to individual reactions, but also to the corporate movements of large companies, who will take advantage of this crisis like vultures and vermin. The conditions even exist for the resurgence of fascist leaders, who, with their lies, defamation of democratic representatives and promises of security and control, cast spells on the masses in need of healing balms, and attempts to create a new international authoritarian order arise. This scenario should not come as a surprise, but it should prepare us to avoid its repercussions as much as possible.
The need for cooperation between parties and nations is mentioned in the political speeches of many world leaders in the face of this global crisis. But we know from history that this concept of cooperation, unfortunately, has been rather an arrangement to carve up the cake more or less equally among the powerful, leaving only the crumbs for the rest of society. This solidarity among those in power is measured by the number of hidden interests that can be exploited in the circumstances, and the way to do this may be devised in each new situation. They may lose something initially, but in the long term they will recover what they lost, and often with «interest».
Whilst we may assume the limitations of certain government policies, we can support the actions and proposals of some leaders of the left who favour the most vulnerable, as is now happening in the Spanish State. But we must not lose sight of the fact that this support for left-wing ideas will be curbed by right-wing or even fascist parties, which represent the powerful sectors of society, as well as by the lack of support from other small parties who prioritise their own demands over the joint search for solutions that is required in this crisis. On too many occasions, we do not remember or learn from history, and the mechanism of «compulsive repetition» described by Freud in relation to individual neurosis is visible in social dynamics, as described in W. Reich's avant-garde book, The mass psychology of fascism.
In the post-war period, Reich took up the libertarian principle of cooperation. He integrated it with his character-analytical knowledge, advocating a social movement of «labour democracy», of self-management in small social spaces (later to become known as systems and ecosystems): family, school, groups and organisations. These are spaces where it is possible and realistic to start establishing ecological atmospheres and to implement the principles of mutual support and solidarity. It is precisely in these essential systems that the levels of power are sought to be influenced, imposing individual, retrograde values. But since we know this can happen, we may try to change it, because these are our real spaces, those that we can manage. In those where we do not have an active presence — bureaucratic, municipal, or government organizations —, we will participate indirectly, through functional claims and helpful votes.
We must take charge of the situation by starting to develop relationships based on respect, recognition of the functions of each role and administration of resources from self-management. We should not take this outcome for granted. We should not expect the government to give us a salary, a house or pay our rent for us, because it may be able to do it for a month or two with a few thousand people, but not with everyone. With our work, resources and capacities, we must feel capable of achieving these things ourselves, while we share knowledge and expose misinformation from those who hide behind promises that will not materialise.
Let us overcome the crisis with our unity, equality, liberty and fraternity — values established by the shedding of blood of many. With cooperation and the implementation of the dynamics of creativity, ecology and self-management, we may establish networks with other international environmental groups, while demanding political actions and legal changes. We may support valid proposals by honest politicians while knowing that the economic power structure will use its mechanisms to stop them.
So, «let's be realistic, ask for the impossible», as was demanded in the movement of the French May '68. Let us work for what is possible from our limits and move forward to build what we can: to establish human and ecological relationships with our peers, with our partners, with our sons and daughters from the beginning of life, in school spaces and in our daily collectives. Let us provide the means so that our insensitive perception, our emotional awkwardness and our character rigidity in Human Structures, and those of future generations, can be transformed, so that they recover the ability to live and be part of “la trama de la vida” (Fritjof Capra).
«Embodying vitality», a concept thoroughly investigated and defined by the distinguished neuroscientist, Antonio Varela, involves embodying the impressions, ideas and sensations that may be beautiful and poetic in our heads but may remain mere ideas. Let us embody them, feeling the strength they have when we integrate them with our being, with our affections, our sexuality, our creativity and our capacity to love. And let us join our bodies and our beings in a strong and secure network that establishes the necessary matrix where we can advance with our capacities, possibilities and contributions along the path that has been forged by those who lived, fought and died for it before us: the path that leads to Utopia.
I will conclude with the words of Ernesto Sabato in his book Before the End, published in 1999: «Only those who are capable of embodying Utopia will be fit for the decisive fight, that of recovering what we have lost of Humanity.»
Health and strength to all, Xavier Serrano Hortelano
El Puig (Valencia), April 15, 2020.