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The Destruction of Empathy, Part One

On the political situation in Spain

This article, originally published in Spanish at the blog El Diario, is part one of two. It was translated to English for Public Seminar by Liz Mason-Deese.

Is it possible to read the current socio-historical political moment in Spain not only as a dispute between different groups for power, but as a clash between different perceptions of social life, between different sensibilities of life in common? That’s what I try to do here, relying on the evocative concept the “pedagogy of cruelty” proposed by the anthropologist Rita Segato, briefly explained below.

Life, across societies, is becoming more and more precarious: vulnerability and the degradation of rights are generalized, transversal tendencies. Today capitalism is not concerned solely with its regulated reproduction, but it seeks incessantly to conquer new objective and subjective territories: that is, new lands and new layers of being to exploit. It is a predatory capitalism.

This permanent conquest requires not only the abolition of old regulations and protections (often the fruit of struggles carried out by people of the lower classes), but also a radical desensitization. In the war of everyone against everyone, generalized competition, and each person for themselves, the other can only be perceived, first and foremost, as an obstacle or threat: as an enemy.

The principle of cruelty is the decrease in empathy: the Other is disposable and dispensable, nothing binds me to them, our destinies have nothing in common. There is a neuro-militaristic programming of low empathy in our societies. And violence is the key tool: it launches the instructive message that the Other (woman, elder, migrant, poor, black, dissident) is superfluous, can be eliminated.

Thus what sustains the policies of the precaritization of life is a certain configuration (or deconfiguration) of perception and sensibility. These are issues of the utmost importance, but analyses of the conjuncture barely notice them, more focused on reviewing partisan maneuvers and palace intrigue, the relations of force between organizations and factions, the state of polls and “public opinion.” It is urgent and necessary to equip oneself with a seismographic poetic sensibility to delve into and describe this plane of reality.

An Affective Turn to the Right

It has been repeated many times. The 15-M movement [“the indignados”] functioned as a sort of “firewall” against the ascent of right-wing populism that expands at a micro and macro level throughout Europe: the National Front, Brexit, Alternative for Germany, Pegida, the Northern League, CasaPound, the Golden Dawn.

But what type of “firewall” was it? For our part, we have insisted on thinking and describing the 15-M as an effect of sensitivity. A phenomenon of collective sensitivization. Since May 2011, a kind of “second skin” was deployed throughout [Spanish] society in and through which you felt something similar and close to what was happening to strangers.

This is not to say that everyone was present for every blockade to stop evictions in the neighborhoods, in each action accompanying a migrant without a health care card, in each sit-in at a school threatened with budget cuts, but rather that there was a general social climate that embraced, connected, and amplified each action, each initiative. The 15-M created a sensitive common in which it was possible to feel others and to feel with others, as similar.

That skin has disintegrated or fallen asleep, weakened largely by a “verticalization” of attention and desire, which, during the phase of the “assault on institutions,” was deposited in and delegated to the electoral promise of the new politics (Podemos, the municipalist confluences, etc.). Captivated by the stimuli coming from above (television, leaders, political parties), meanwhile neglecting what was happening around us, that skin cracked.

We have not actually emerged from any crisis: sensitive contact has simply been lost between the “drowned” and the “saved” (or those who think they are saved for the moment). The withdrawal of the 15-M “firewall” clears the way for forces that are always there: the deepening and consolidation of general existential precarity, the war of all against all and each person for themselves.

The poison of bitterness that lurks in everyone due to so many everyday humiliations — whether big or small, real or imaginary — turns into the stinging resentment of those who feel victimized that today circulates freely on social media networks amidst jabs and attacks.

The “turn to the right” that has been spoken about recently, especially as a result of what was “awakened” by the conflict over Catalunya, is not primarily a question of ideology, identity, or politics, but a social and affective tension. A hardening of perception and sensitivity.

Behind the Spanish flags that can still be seen on balconies is fear, bitterness, loneliness, and a reactionary desire for order, consumption and a heavy hand against anything that deviates from or destabilizes the fiction of normalcy, with anti-Catalanism as its main cohesive element.

Currently Ciudadanos is undoubtedly the party that most outspokenly agitates that “dark passion” (Diego Sztulwark) with the aim of later reaping the fruits electorally and using it as the basis of a political project to convert society into a complete enterprise. Where there is only room for winners, where there is no place for opponents (who are disqualified as interlocutors through repression, censure, and criminalization) or the “anomalies” (like spaces of urban commons or manteros [1]).

Against that dark and tense background, voices and movements nevertheless appear that call forth a different sensibility, activate another mode of perception, and give life to another skin. Without aiming to be exhaustive or totalizing, in part two of this article I will concentrate on three (out of the many) examples. The March 8 women’s strike and the mobilizations in response to the deaths of Gabriel Cruz and Mame Mbaye.

Amador Fernández-Savater (Madrid, 1974) is an independent researcher, an editor of Acuarela Libros, and has been involved involved in different social movements since the mid 1990s, always seeking encounters between thought and political action.

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[1] Mantero is the term to used to refer street vendors selling counterfeit goods by laying them out on blankets on the sidewalk. Since their appearance, they have faced intense persecution by the municipal police. Detentions for this type of street vending — considered a criminal offense in Spain — has enormous consequences, including heavy penalties and a criminal record, especially for people with unregularized migrant statuses.

 

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Amador Fernández-Savater

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