Boaventura de Sousa Santos – The Social Division of Suffering

On 14 June, a migrant boat sank in the Aegean Sea, killing between 400 and 700 people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Egypt. It brought immense suffering to the drowned and their families, who saw this infamously perilous journey as their last chance to escape the suffering caused by hunger, war, unemployment, flooding, drought, and religious hatred. Did anyone else suffer as a result? Did Greek society suffer? Did European society suffer? How does suffering get to be produced and contained in our societies? How does the propensity for suffering and the immunity to suffering get to be distributed? Why is it that so many people do not suffer in the face of all the suffering so many people go through?

Boaventura de Sousa Santos is the emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. His most recent book is Decolonizing the University: The Challenge of Deep Cognitive Justice

This article was produced by ZNet


Suffering is one of most profound and disturbing of human experiences. Whether physical or moral in nature, it is a real ailment, with varying degrees of severity; it is potentially life-threatening, puts one’s physical or mental integrity at risk, endangers self-esteem and self-control, and makes joy impossible. Both individual and collective suffering have been made more visible by neoliberalism, which has dramatically framed them as calamities, spectacles, and even business opportunities. The whole notion of suffering carries connotations of pathology, harm, crisis, degradation both at the personal and collective level, alienation, dependence. But the capacity to suffer is also a precondition for resisting exploitation and cruelty. In Jeremy Bentham’s An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), the author argues that human rights are not about the capacity to reason or to have a voice, but rather about having the capacity to suffer.

Because of its inherent complexity and depth, suffering has been addressed by every single branch of knowledge. The fundamental questions raised by this topic vary from one analytical field to another. What is suffering? What is the relationship between individual and collective suffering? Is there just and unjust suffering? What is the source or cause of suffering? What is its anatomy? How can it be overcome or redeemed? These questions are posed in varying forms by the different areas of knowledge, notably by theology, philosophy and the social sciences. It is the latter I am concerned with at present.

In contrast to the positivist or functionalist currents, which tended to focus on the description and analysis of suffering, the social critical theories have sought to identify the causes of suffering, particularly collective suffering. In a review of Müller-Lyer’s Soziologie der Leiden (“Sociology of Suffering”, 1924), Oskar Blum wrote: “We may justifiably designate suffering the fundamental problem of sociology.” Slavery and colonial violence, the Holocaust and the Gulag, the world wars and the Rwanda genocide, the atrocities committed in the Yugoslav wars during the 1990s, have given the social sciences a vast field for critical analysis. Let us bear in mind that the primary emphasis of the social sciences is on social or collective suffering, not individual suffering. The horrors of the Battle of Solferino (1859) gave rise to the Geneva Conventions and the International Red Cross.

From a critical theory point of view, the main issue is to determine which types of society tend to produce which types of suffering and to understand the relationship between individual and collective suffering. The latter is conceived of as a social pathology, a negative social experience that is often pushed into invisibility, and it is up to critical theory to bring it to light and find ways of allaying it. On the other hand, it is acknowledged that all this analytical effort can result in reproducing invisibility. This is probably why Bourdieu, in a fundamental book on the suffering of the world, argued that his role was, first and foremost, that of a spokesman.

From the point of view of the one who suffers, none of the conventional sociological theories provide an answer to the crucial question: “why me?” (in the case of individual suffering) or “why us?” (in the case of collective suffering). If suffering is a negativity, what is it that it negates? If it means a damaged life, what are the life-damaging factors involved?

My own response consists in trying to imagine the answers to these questions as they now lie in the depths of the Aegean Sea, inside the bodies of the drowned and just as invisible and silenced as the bodies themselves.

The capitalist, colonialist and patriarchal societies in which we live do not allow all the humans to be treated as fully human. There are humans and then there are subhumans, and their respective suffering is addressed in completely different ways. The fully human are all those who lead lives that are similar to the lives of the readers of this column, people who are in a position to read this column, who have the freedom and the time to read, not to mention reflect, on it. The life-world in which they live allows them to distinguish clearly between individual and collective suffering. In fact, the reason there is individual suffering is because there is no collective suffering. It takes exceptional occurrences for society to suffer collectively: natural disasters, wars, pandemics, extreme weather events, infrastructure disasters (financial, transport-related, etc.). Whether made invisible or turned into a spectacle, individual suffering bears no relation to collective suffering, because society, during normal times, does not experience collective suffering nor is it aware of doing so. Therefore, individual suffering tends to be experienced as a suffering-against, not as suffering-with. Unjust suffering is experienced in a manner that tends to be a lot more personal and less shareable. Given that identities are experienced in a neoliberal (i.e., authoritarian, zero-sum, aseptic and inquisitorial) key, sharing one’s suffering is something that is a lot less available to the individual sufferer immersed in the sociability of the fully human. Whatever possibility of sharing may be available to him or her is not based on a community of complex relationships and the tight web of affections they generate, but rather on a virtual or professional media community made up of simplex relationships. In such societies, the suffering of the individual sufferer is endured in greater isolation, whether accompanied by silence or displayed as spectacle. The silence/silencing of the sufferer is often directly proportional to how much he or she is talked about. Ambulances, fire trucks, the violence and mere repetition conveyed by the footage of an accident or scandal, the sheer amount of comments and converging analyses by pundits, have the cumulative effect of silencing the sufferer by reporting on her and of making her invisible simply by showing her. The answer to the question “why me?” can only be found in the individual, never in society. After all, there are so many people who, although faced with the very same circumstances, do not suffer at all. Possible explanations range from bad eating habits to antisocial behavior, bad temper, family or workplace disputes, etc.

The fact that individual suffering bears no relation to collective suffering makes it possible to address it in a socially organized way, with the understanding that it is individual suffering, and individual suffering alone, that needs to be solved. This is how health systems and social policies in general work. There are sick people, but society itself is not sick; there are poor people, but society is not poor; there are ignorant people, but society is not ignorant; there are criminals, but society is not criminal.

The migrants on the boat that sank in the Aegean did not live in the society I have just described. They lived in the society of the subhuman. From the point of view of the society of the fully human, the subhuman do not have problems. They are themselves a problem. That is why the distinction between individual and collective suffering is in their case a very tenuous one. Individual suffering is no exceptional occurrence; on the contrary, it is a recurring experience. There is individual suffering because there is collective suffering. The question “why me?” is a moot question. Individual sufferers never suffer individually, for they suffer-with. In the context of the relationships between the subhuman and the fully human who usher them with high tech means and eventually watch them drown, individual suffering, whether endured or inflicted, is invariably an illustration or a consequence of collective suffering. Individual suffering has no intrinsic merit nor does it need any explanation. It is always derivative. There is individual suffering because there is collective suffering. The latter is just – and so is, of necessity, the former. Here is a paradigmatic example: when the foreman or the planter punishes the slave, the latter’s suffering is but the emanation and justification of the collective suffering that is the hallmark of slavery. The suffering slave is slavery justified. Individual suffering is just because collective suffering is just.

The suffering of the drowned migrants was just in that they dared to enter illegally what they were never supposed to enter – the society of the fully human. Their suffering does not compare with the suffering that exists in our societies. Valuing their suffering would be to encourage them to persist in illegal behavior. Their just suffering is the precondition that spares us, as fully human, the unjust suffering we would have to endure if they were to invade.

This structural condition has not changed much over the last few centuries, but its specific impact on social experience has differed from one historical context to the next. Neoliberalism brought a qualitative change to that experience. As a version (the final version?) of capitalism, neoliberalism is characterized, among other features, by the systematic transfer of wealth from the masses of impoverished people, including the middle classes, to a minority made up of the super-wealthy. The transfer is justified by the notion of permanent crisis, as a result of which a situation of distress and suffering is created, even in the society of the fully human. The suffering inflicted on the fully human is legitimized by converting it into the well-being inherent in not having to endure the much more violent suffering the subhuman are forced to endure. Social well-being then ceases to have a positive content and becomes the mere absence of the specific distress felt by the subhuman as a result of the seriously violent suffering that is inflicted on them. As for the fully human, the only way of remaining unaware of suffering is not to suffer as the subhuman do. Moreover, the suffering inflicted on the subhuman becomes a precondition for mitigating the distress and suffering that are imposed on the fully human: “we’d be better off if it weren’t for all those immigrants sucking up our resources”. In this way well-being is drained of any positive content. This is what lies at the root of the politics of hate, which promptly turns the other victims of neoliberalism into supposed aggressors and, hence, into targets of hatred. The zero-sum game is no longer between oppressors and oppressed or between aggressors and victims, but rather between oppressed and between victims. The extreme right with its politics of hate is the political conscience of neoliberalism.

Ultimately, there will be no well-being except in the contemplation and exacerbation of the suffering of others. What kind of society is this, where the only way to be well is to know that others are worse off than you? What kind of society is this, where to fight for your own well-being means to contribute actively to increasing the suffering of everyone else?

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