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Resisting Resilience: The Revenge of the Zombies

By Remco van de Pas
on July 16, 2015

‘Resisting Resilience’ was the title of the most inspiring presentation I attended in the last half year.  Early June, Mark Neocleous, a professor of the Critique of Political Economy,  presented his view at a conference on the resilience discourse organized by Medico International in Frankfurt. If you want to know what makes his argument so compelling, the subtitle gives you a clue: ‘Against the Colonization of Political Imagination’.

In a nutshell, Neocleous connects the resilience agenda, which originates from physiology, psychology and ecological systems thinking, directly to the security issue. Security is central to liberal-capitalist order and state formation. Resilience should be seen as a state of constant threat, awareness  and preparedness for future catastrophes (e.g. bioterrorism, a natural disaster or a global economic melt-down). Besides a focus on building resilient ‘systems’, this also leads to  individuals subjectively  dealing with the uncertainties and instability of contemporary capital(ism) and the insecurity of the national state.  In essence, resilience prepares us, “good subjects”,  for war: surviving all the structural insecurities in life and just  ‘bouncing back’ from all the difficulties we’ll face in the future, from wage freezes, greedy CEOs & politicians, cuts in pension, health care and education, to terror attacks  and pandemics (and we probably forget a dozen others). By accepting this resilience discourse, the status quo is maintained. The people will remain individually and collectively insecure, and are not allowed to mobilize (politically) against  the oppressive structures & ruling classes that maintain structural violence and inequity. Worse, resilience disables us from imagining an alternative (“another world is possible”).

Two empirical cases exemplify the argument. First, the resilient health systems discourse,  promoted amongst others by the Rockefeller foundation and its president Judith Rodin (a psychologist by training). The resilience mantra slowly becomes the main modus operandi for health systems development in the nearby future. Health systems must be aware, diverse, self-regulating, integrated and adaptive in order to be able to deal with future crises such as another Ebola epidemic or airborne virus, climate change, wide-scale antibiotic resistance or severe health workforce shortages . Even more interesting is what the resilience concept does not cover. Although paying some lip service to Universal Health Coverage, there hasn’t been any reference to universal principles and rights-based approaches to health care and the determinants of health.  Moreover, the concept of health equity and action on the more upstream social determinants of health are completely neglected.  Only a few scholars have pointed out the political pathologies of the Ebola crisis and the need to confront the social ‘vectors of disease’ (e.g. finance capitalists and multinational corporations) . The majority of the global health community remain (resiliently) in their comfort zone, talking about ‘incentivizing recipient governments towards crisis preparedness and reducing the potential for moral hazard’. To some extent, the resilient health systems frame even reminds us of the political debate on comprehensive vs. selective health care from three  decades ago.

On the second issue I can be short. In my view, the Greek tragedy that has unfolded over the last weeks can (and should) be seen through a resilience lens as well.  There Is No Alternative. The Greek people, and their elected government, need to swallow the bitter pill of structural  adjustment, even if this is considered madness and killing the European social project.  The Greek Demos resisted and voted  in majority “Oxi” (No) to the austerity package in the referendum on the 5th of July.  But now they are being told by the European leaders that this new (and even harsher) neoliberal package is the price to pay for daring to imagine a political alternative (i.e. the leftwing Syriza government). Europe is “stuck in a political trap” and we (the European citizens) are brainwashed to believe that this crisis is a normal state of affairs and that we should further prepare economic and monetary reforms so as to continue business as usual.  These are dangerous times, as the related deep sense of injustice will eventually be channeled one way or another. History tells us that.

In the ensuing discussion with Mark Neocleous, at the conference in Frankfurt, the metaphor of ‘Zombies’ came up. While ‘Vampires’ could be considered an apt  metaphor for capitalism in the 19th century, perhaps the ‘Zombie’ can be considered the creature capturing best our modern times, the resilient living-dead creature willing to kill its fellow (still) humans, having been relentlessly brainwashed. “If vampires are the dreaded beings who might possess us and turn us into their docile servants, zombies represent our haunted self-image, warning us that we might already be lifeless, disempowered agents of alien powers”.

Luckily the seeds for change are already there. There is a new generation that really imagines (and engages in transnational action for) a different, fairer and more dignified society. We only need to remember and live the words of the Latin-American writer Eduardo Galeano, who passed away this year:

I  advance two steps, it goes two steps backward.  I take ten steps and the horizon moves ten steps forward. No matter how far I walk, I will never reach it. What is the use of utopia? That’s its use: to help us walk”.

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