by Erella Shadmi, Sociology, Social Feminist Activist, Beit Berl College, Israel
The new activism
Under the media radar, a lot of exciting activism is taking place – women, men, and grassroots organizations with unstoppable creativity. One can feel and hear the vibrant, diverse, and multifaceted activity. They are not waiting for the Left to re-organize, but have begun building the foundations of a new social order in Israel and around the world: the gift economy and the solidarity economy, communal families (e.g., urban communities), zoning and localism, cooperatives for work and housing, eco-villages, non-academic knowledge-production institutions (e.g., the Feminist Academy in Haifa or the University of the Earth in Mexico), grassroots services that the state fails to provide (women’s shelters against male violence, for example) or that state religions seek to obstruct (egalitarian synagogues), and courageous partnerships between so-called political adversaries (Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians in EcoPeace Middle East, for example).
These initiatives reflect a rebellion against capitalism (especially in its neoliberal version), the nation state, and the Western paradigm. They respond to the deep anxieties and insecurity of the individual standing alone (without the protection of trade unions, a stable job, the family, or the state) and confronting a climate crisis, countries that have ceased serving their residents, the corporate regime, democracies turning authoritarian, technology and artificial intelligence that profoundly transform our world, and a consumer society that wrongly teaches that the freedom to buy is true freedom. The activists who are creating the New World from below help sharpen the understanding that we are not reaching for the moon or Mars, but rather seeking warmth, care, connection, bonding, and security. To unite the disparate forces of all these initiatives, we need a new social contract and vision of a different society.
The global epidemic has revealed and clarified what many women and men have already known: our vulnerability when we are lonely and isolated; our need for solidarity, a gift economy, and bonding; the significance of human relationships, connections, and boundary crossing – such as food donations from the Palestinian Kafr Qasem to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Bnai Brak; the longing for a feeling of family. All these are practices that support us when the state fails us, exposing the wretchedness of existing institutions (political parties, the parliament, the health system) in which politicians are at a loss and the old conceptions fail at dealing with Corona just as they were helpless at dealing with inequality, the climate crisis, and human security. It is precisely the isolation, social detachment, and fears that create the opportunity for inner examination, for looking at what is important to us: our real needs, our interdependence, our craving for bonding with people and within communities. We find our shared humanity because we are all human beings, because my peace is interconnected with your peace.Continue reading “My Peace Depends on Your Peace: A Vision of an Alternative World Already Being Built and Revealed by the Pandemic”
by Felipe Carvalho, Philosophy, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil
It was March of 2020, and I was just starting a new postdoctoral position at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. I was excited and motivated, my mind bubbling with ideas about conferences, workshops and classes I was going to teach. I was of course aware of the coronavirus and its devastating effects in Europe, but in the beginning of March the city of Belo Horizonte in Brazil was detecting its very first cases, and the situation seemed distant enough to allow me to plan a somewhat normal semester. All doors were open and the sky was the limit, or so I thought.
Immediately after my initial bursts of excitement in the beginning of March, everything moved very rapidly. By mid-March the pandemic was advancing rapidly all over the country, the university suspended all its (in-person) activities, and most of the city was shutting down under quarantine. I spent the following weeks trying to understand the situation and what it all meant, not only for my personal and professional plans, but for the future of the university, the city, the country, and the planet as a whole. But, like most people in Brazil at the time, I didn’t have a clue about whether we would soon resume our normal lives, or whether we should prepare ourselves for deep, fundamental changes in nearly every aspect of human existence. The latter option turned out to be true.
Faced with grim and uncertain prospects, I started to ponder about how I, as an academic philosopher, could contribute to the global crisis that would follow. Shortly after I saw a call for essays on the following topic: “how the world will/should change? The corona crisis as an interdisciplinary challenge.” Well, I thought, this is it! Here’s my contribution as an academic philosopher: to provide an in-depth analysis of how the world will, or should change, due to the global crisis caused by the new coronavirus. So far, so good. Except that the question was still too generic to provide an answer to my yearnings. A first problem is that “the world” seemed too big to make the question tractable, as it refers to the totality of things and relations that exist at multiple levels of analysis, from the social to the economical, from the political to the ecological. The second problem is that “will change” and “should change” seemed to point to two different questions, which demand different answers and different methods for arriving at these answers. So what part of the world am I talking about, and which aspect of “change” do I want to focus on?
Regarding the first problem, I will talk about the part of the world that about happens to be my domain of action and expertise: academic philosophy. Although academic philosophy is but a tiny portion of the world, these changes have the potential to positively affect thousands across the globe, specially the most affected departments in third-world countries. As to the second problem, we should understand the “will/should” question not as disjunction of possibilities, but as an exercise in “grounded imagination”: to imagine the world we would like to inhabit, in a way that is fully grounded in how it is actually changing right now. In this picture, the question can be rephrased as: “what kind of change do we want to see in the world, and what aspects of how the world is actually changing point us in that direction?” I will refer to these changes as “the democratization and decolonization of academic philosophy.” Let me explain.Continue reading “The democratization and decolonization of academic knowledge in a pandemic and post-pandemic world*”
The emergence of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was first reported in December 2019 in a city known as Wuhan, China. The exact source of this virus is still debated and a popular hypothesis has associated its origin to a seafood market in Wuhan, China. However, the spread of the disease is not controversial as it has reached global proportions, and is still spreading far and wide in most of the world. The nature of the infection has forced authorities and the public to take unprecedented decisions on how to live and work. This is also true to educational and research institutions where most of the activities are now online. The spread of the virus has encouraged the social distancing which led to the shutdown of educational institutes, markets, offices, conferences and businesses etc. (Peterson et al 2020). The global lockdowns have major interruption on students’ learning, as schools, colleges and universities are closed, and most of the activities that include teaching and learning have shifted to online mode. According to the United Nations Educational Scientific Cultural Organization (UNESCO) 192 countries have closed their schools and universities as of April 30, 2020. This amounts to about 90%, and on a global scale that means 1.6 billion enrolled learners have been affected. The only historical memory of a similar pandemic that had severely impacted the world was the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 but the devastation caused by COVID-19 is not comparable. And some of the reasons for that could be the high levels of urbanization and a steep rise in population in the modern world, which also includes the educators and students. It is estimated that 90% of the world’s young people are enrolled in primary schools compared to just 40% in 1920 (UNICEF data). Similarly, education and research related events e.g. national and international conferences, meetings, workshops etc. have to be either cancelled, rescheduled, deferred, or shifted to online mode.
Merits of online teaching and learning
An online teaching schedule is relatively easy to handle as compared to a typical university setting where the limitation of availability of classrooms, time slots, course clashes etc. can greatly influence such decisions. The virtual teaching and learning mode allows multiple courses with ease where large audiences throughout the world can participate. Similarly, national and international education, research, and other similar meetings are now slowly shifted towards the online world (e.g. Garisson 2009), and this has the potential to drastically change the process of education and research communications in the modern times. The large global audiences, which were impossible in a typical conference setting, remain one of the most beneficial aspects of online communications. Easy access, user friendly, and interactive nature of online teaching and learning tools makes it doable with little knowledge about digital tools. Similarly, one of the most beneficial aspects of online communications is the recording facility that allows instructors to record, and audiences can replay lectures etc. whenever needed.Education and research communications often require travel to local, national or international institutions, and not all people are comfortable with travel related procedures because of various problems such as immigration, illness, physical body challenges, financial, or any other personal issue. The virtual world may prove beneficial for such a group of people as it provides opportunities that were previously impossible: they can learn at home and can socialize as well.Continue reading “Lessons from online teaching, learning and research communications due to COVID-19 related lockdown”
by Elena Esposito, Sociology, Bielefeld University, Università di Bologna
The present condition of social isolation makes most of us aware of the value of sociality – that we lack. But society is not only sociality, as we realize precisely when we mustminimize physical social contacts. In the emergency we perceive society much stronger because of a condition that appears as a global threat and seems to change everything everywhere. “There is the world B.C. – Before Corona – and the world A.C. – After Corona“ (Friedman 2020). The risk affects the entire world, from Hubei to Italy to New York to Rwanda, all sectors of society and each of us. The virus is a threat to people’s lives, but also to the stability of institutions, the soundness of finance, interpersonal relations, democracy, the maintenance of jobs, international links and many other things. In this short note, I refer to society in this global sense and analyze the coronavirus emergency with the tools of Niklas Luhmann’s sociological systems theory – primarily because it is a theory of society, and there are not many nowadays.
In the pandemic, society is perceived first of all as global interconnectedness that produces a domino effect and makes the crisis spread from one geographical area to another and between the different fields of society. In an emergency, the high interconnection of society becomes a threat. Coordination is required between different countries and also between political, economic, legal, sanitary measures to face the emergency. The most common response is to demand “tightening-up” (e.g. Gelfand 2020). If everything is connected with everything else, one claims, interventions in different areas should be coordinated according to the same approach and the same basic principles. Only in this way, one argues, can interventions be effective and avoid hindering each other. By going all in the same direction one does not get in each other’s way, reinforces each other and proceeds more quickly and effectively.
The classical notion that sociology proposes to study the interconnection of society is the concept of integration. The notion refers to what holds society together and addresses the relationship of the parts to the whole. Usually integration is interpreted in a general senseas reference to a shared unity, to a common perspective one recognizes and in which one can identify herself. Classical sociologists like Durkheim (1893) and Parsons (1977: 283 f.) use the notion of integration to deal with a widespread sense of belonging connectingdifferent parts of society, which should be preserved. Societies, that’s the idea, should be as integrated as possible, avoiding risks of anomy and coordination difficulties – especially in challenging times as the present emergency.
The principle seems plausible, but putting it into practice in a complex society is not easy. Integration in this sense is threatened by the increasing differentiation of society, starting with the division of labor. The challenge is maintaining a shared feeling of belonging not when everybody is equal and does the same things, but when everybody is different and does different things. The main obstacle is the condition that system theory calls functional differentiation, considered the basic characteristic of modern society (Luhmann 1997: 743 ff.). Functional differentiation refers to the articulation of society into different areas (or functional subsystems), each directed to a specific function: economy, politics, law, science, education, art, religion, mass media, families, healthcare. Whereas in previous hierarchically organized societies the different fields shared the same basic principles, in modern society each subsystem is guided by its own logic and criteria, which are not necessarily coordinated with those of others and cannot be traced back to a single order. The programs and priorities of the economy are different from those of science, politics, religion and any other subsystem – and success in one system does not by itself translate into a positive result in a different one. While the economy is driven by profit maximization, politics seeks consensus, research is directed towards the production of scientific truths and healthcare towards patients’ recovery.
Yet the pandemic today threatens everything – health and wealth, church and commerce, law, sport and families. Differentiation, which leads to different responses in different areas, in the face of this challenge seems to prevent coordination. Medicine needs tests to see who has the virus and must stay in isolation – while the economy requires tests to see who has the antibodies and can go to work. Restricting people’s freedom and tracing their movements is effective in countering the spread of the virus, but goes against the principles of the rule of law and the guarantees of the constitution. Reducing taxes can help companies overcome the crisis, but taxes are required to support research and equipment for hospitals. Science needs time to develop and test treatments, yet politics is in a hurry to give immediate answers (Gopnik 2020).Continue reading “Coordination by De-Integration in Pandemic Times”
by Eva Illouz, Sociology, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris
The Corona pandemics is more easily classified as a natural disaster than a man-made evil (although this is easily questionable given that it is the result of man-made zoonotic spillovers and given that China’s totalitarian regime postponed by many precious weeks the divulgation of the virus). Yet, everything in its management was so spectacularly interwoven with politics and the media, that it became impossible to view it simply as an inevitable natural scourge. It exposed and undid the stitches with which most spheres of society were sewn: those seamless stitches have come undone. The Corona crisis was properly stunning and it is the state of stupor I want to reflect on. Stupor is, on the whole, a very rare state. It is a state that overwhelms us but for which we have no prior routine or category to cope with.
Let me thus start with a book that dealt with man-made evil, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem because Arendt also tried to make sense of an event which produced a sense of stupor, the pan-European massacre of the Jews. To account for that sense of stupor she used a method of analysis which can be characterized as anti-historical in that she refused analogies from the past. The past cannot shed light on the present or the future because as Tocqueville put it, in times of crisis the “mind errs in obscurity.” Epidemics and even pandemics have always accompanied humankind. Yet, the Corona pandemic will be a milestone, not for the scale of the deaths it caused (it is, at the time of this writing, much smaller than many other plagues and diseases), but because of the ways in which we organized it socially, economically, politically and symbolically.
More than four billion people throughout the world have stopped their mobility, work, and ordinary socializing, willingly, without much protest. People were confined to their homes, assuming they had one, without the possibility of using streets, shops, or public transportations. That people would renounce their freedom willingly to defend their health is not, in itself, terribly surprising. After all, as Thomas Hobbes (and others) put it, we will always be willing to sacrifice a great deal of our freedom for our security. Fear of death is so powerful that people willingly accept the authority of a state which can save them, including surveillance measures which suspend their basic civil rights and confinement which verges on house arrest. Netanyahu’s or Orban’s delegitimization of the parliament or the supreme court are the normal fodder of anti-democratic authoritarian leaders.Continue reading “Home is not what you think”
by Katharina Kohse-Höinghaus, Department of Chemistry, Bielefeld University, Germany
Questioned how the Covid-19 pandemic will impact the future, especially regarding science and academic culture, I find myself constantly re-aligning my thoughts along with progressing developments. The question itself appears somewhat premature, since the nature of a new equilibrium – should there be such a state at all – and pathways towards it remain quite unpredictable. To watch conditions change, globally, in just a few weeks has been interesting and
worrisome. Correspondingly, I assume for the state transition from before to after Covid-19 that surprises might be encountered along the way.
The crisis has been described widely as the most disruptive global experience since decades, with severe medical, ethical, economic, political, juridical, psychological, further social and other consequences. The situation also depends sensitively on the local circumstances. A rather personal view may thus be the only valid perspective. You may have guessed from the above terminology that I am a natural scientist (indeed, a senior professor of physical chemistry); this certainly influences my view. I will present my current thoughts in five brief paragraphs.
• Scientific contributions
In the past weeks, it appeared that science, all of a sudden, was publicly recognized – not as nice-to-have cultural accessory, but as systemically relevant. Science was and remains omnipresent in reports about infections and their spread, scenarios and probabilities, health conditions, test functionalities, potential medication, and vaccine developments. With unusual depth, politics and media request scientific reports and updates, and facts and figures as well as background explanations are sometimes reported by the hour. Equally impressive is the international level of activity and collaboration regarding the disease and measures against it. I cannot remember a period in which scientific activity seemed so important. Science is needed to fight the pandemic, obviously, and to explain processes and precautions. Biomedical contributions have been more prominently in the spotlight, but other disciplines are also concerned with various aspects of the massive impact of the pandemic.
It is a situation for multidisciplinary, creative thinking, not only for inspecting immediate problems and possible reactions. How do we wish to live in the future? How to establish precautions that the present situation might not become repetitive? The crisis has illustrated many influences that might not have been regarded in context. Now accepted views and business-as-usual routines could be reflected. New concepts and bold ideas could constructively challenge established thoughts about global interactions, production and logistics, work, healthcare, social systems, mobility and other factors. Scientists could be the group that might develop perspectives and become a driving force.
• Sustainable transport and production
Transportation and production have been challenged with disruptive changes. With traffic between countries stopped, airplanes on the ground, and people working from home, air quality has improved and energy use decreased. Economy, prosperity, timely production, and delivery of goods have dominated public debates, rather than measures to plan more sustainable action for the future. A consequence of the current crisis regarding transport specifically might be a different split between air, land, and sea transportation, a different mix between transport of passengers and goods. Foremost, however, a different balance of economic versus ecologic aspects would be desirable.
Climate and pollution crises have not gone away. Health concerns and shutdown of regular operations in many countries are causing gigantic economic burdens. Warning signs regarding climate change and environmental threats have currently sunken in priority, with media attending mainly to the Covid-19 crisis topic. Gigantic support plans for the economy could present welcome chances for innovative pathways towards more sustainable industries and transport options. Natural sciences and technical disciplines are well positioned to address such pathways, together with their colleagues in other fields.Continue reading “Lessons learned? – Learning lessons!”
by Mariam Irene Tazi-Preve, Politics, Security, and International Affairs, University of Central Florida
Women who have children and earn their money through paid work have reached the limits of what they are able to bear. All the children, including teenagers, are now at home. The older ones aren’t allowed to get together, the younger are left staring at barricaded playgrounds. According to recent news reports it will be the middle of May, before schools start to reopen – even at a limited capacity. That means for months mothers are the sole entertainers of small children and are also responsible for homeschooling the older children. There seems to be total chaos at the kindergartens. Are they open or not?
The offers of help are ambivalent. The government emphasizes that there is capacity. So why aren’t women using them? You guessed right: out of fear of accusations of being bad mothers, who “give their children away.” That was always a cliche to end any discussion about preschool care and now it is being revived when women are accused of placing their children in danger of a deadly virus in order to egotistically relax at her home office and work.
In extreme cases single mothers are pent-up 24/7 with their children, usually in cramped quarters where they have to work from home for the office or as a one woman business (often a precariat). These tiny businesses were mostly founded because women have to plan their lives around their children. Such a situation is a recipe for disaster. Mothers were previously supported by their network of women, starting with their own mothers, who are no longer allowed to help, because a quasi-house arrest for senior citizens, even if a grandmother is young, she is supposed to keep her distance from her daughter and grandchildren. If the mother does not follow the rules she will be the one accused of any infection! When mothers so exasperated that they turn on the television or tablet, they are considered bad mothers; also if they don’t want to cook. Remember: mothers are always to blame. She is either accused of doing “too much” or “too little” or not the right thing.
The policy of outsourcing care for the elderly by temporarily importing Romanian and Hungarian nurses has proven to be horrendous. Now when all the support of the healthcare workers is gone, guess who will take over this care? A hint: it will probably not be the son-in-law.
At times when it would be feasible for mothers and fathers to equally divide up work at their home offices and childcare – a new study shows that again, that is not happening. Even when the chairman of the board and the general director cannot claim to be indispensable and must run off to a business trip or a meeting. It also turns out that male scholars increase their publication load while female researchers do not.Continue reading “Mothers in Distress. And what does that have to do with the economy?”
by Frank Riedel, Mathematics and Economics, Bielefeld University, Germany
The current pandemic that originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan has hit the whole world hard, and the whole world has been spectacularly unprepared for the crisis. The financial markets, whose job it is to anticipate future developments and to adapt prices according to their expectations, were caught by surprise. The Dow Jones plummeted by more than 20 %, experiencing the worst week in history in terms of percentage losses. Self-employed people and small and medium-sized businesses in the world fear insolvency. Governments and central banks are trying to bolster the economy with unprecedented spending and credits, surpassing the measures of ten years ago by a significant degree, thereby risking inflation, a currency crisis, or another debt crisis.
When this crisis is over, questions will be asked: how could we have been so stupid as to let this happen? Why did we leave the borders open? Why did we close them when it was too late? Why did we let Italy down (again)? Why did they tell us that masks are useless even though their usefulness is clear? Why did they tell us that closing schools does not make sense only to close schools a week later? These are good questions, and some politicians may have to pay for their negligence, maybe. However, it is always good to ask oneself: how would I have dealt with the possibility of a virus outbreak if I were a politician? Would I have been prepared? As it is impossible to be prepared for everything, we might ask what we can do for our markets and societies to help them through future storms.
For the second time in the twenty-first century, the world has been hit hard by a “small event”. In 2008, financial markets had been speculating for quite some time on credit risks, ignoring the possibility that many small-credit borrowers become insolvent at the same time; traders were believing in a law of large numbers that holds true for many small, independent, and statistically identical cases, yet not in situations when the many small events may be highly correlated via some common factor. Improper regulation induced even higher and higher speculation and the game went on until the unthinkable happened and the now famous “black swan” appeared on stage.
In these days, the world has been taken by surprise by another small event, a world-wide pandemic created by a virus. The possibility of such a pandemic was well known, of course. In fact, the German Government must have been aware of the possibility for quite some time, as it asked the Robert Koch Institute to carry out a study of potential consequences of a corona (!) virus pandemic in 2012. When you read the study, you cannot help but ask: why did the authorities not react on this study?Continue reading “The Robust Social Market Economy – Some Thoughts on the Corona Pandemics”
by Ernesto Perini-Santos, Philosophy Department, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil
1. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the world was facing another challenge of a different kind, also very harmful, science denialism. In this essay, I sketch a broad framework explaining the conflict leading to science denialism. I then argue that the pandemic alters both components of this conflict. This diagnosis has consequences to our dealings with science denial in a post-pandemic world.
2. Epistemic normativity enjoins us to adjust our beliefs to the available evidence. However, for any subject about which one is not an expert, the evidential basis cannot be assessed directly, and one has to defer to experts. Expert knowledge is also built cooperatively–in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, an epidemiologist might not have the competence of an immunologist, who might lack clinical expertise, and so on. And the general public counts on others to have information about the pandemic –its spread, its mortality rate, and its very existence. It is not only a matter of interpersonal trust, but also of trust in institutions, from the WHO and universities to governments and the media. All this goes a long way to show how much our knowledge is built on trust. It also shows a kind of vulnerability of science–many think that science denialism has its origin in a lack of trust in experts. This vulnerability has deep roots in human evolution. The asymmetric division of knowledge is part of the very fabric of human culture. We have evolved to learn from others, quite often things that we do not understand, and to track who is trustworthy on what matters (Csibra and Gergely 2011; Sperber et al. 2010). Evolution follows the benefits of the division of cognitive labour: a group as whole knows much more if epistemic competence is distributed, even if much of the resulting knowledge remains opaque to most of its members. Science takes to an extremely high level the asymmetric epistemic dependence and the benefits of knowledge, but both have always been features of our species. Epistemic asymmetric dependence has a long evolutionary history, and so does what enters in conflict with it. Large scale coordination requires the identification of groups, for which cues are required. Displaying beliefs is a way to show that one belongs to a group, and beliefs themselves are sensitive to coordination functions, being selected with the behavioural patterns they produce (Funkhouser 2017). The refusal of evolution theory is a case in point. Some think that for most people there are no practical consequences of accepting the theory of evolution or refusing it, and espousing creationism “can have significant social benefits, depending on whom one wishes to conform with.” (O’Connor and Wheaterall 2018: 90) However, as Dobzhansky famously said, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” There is no epistemic reason whatsoever to accept creationism, nor its pseudo-scientific counterpart, intelligent design theory. Such views are accepted as a way to signal the alignment with a group. Coordination pressures are so strong that some think that they always trump epistemic values. Harari, for instance, says that “we have always lived in the age of post-truth,” because we create fictions that “served to unite human collectives” in large-scale cooperation (Harari 2018: 195).Continue reading “When Two Crises Meet –The COVID-19 Pandemic and Science Denialism”
The world society is facing an unprecedented situation due to the corona pandemic: What happens when all of society’s function systems temporarily follow one imperative only?1
by Rudolf Stichweh, Sociology, Forum Internationale Wissenschaft and Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies, University of Bonn, Germany
Sociologists describe society by the forms of differentiation that occur within it. Differentiation means the distribution of societal activities and of participants of society among sub-systems (of which society consists). Up until the 18th century, and to some degree even beyond, premodern Europe understood estates or strata as its main sub-systems. There was the nobility, the clergy, different groups of commoners as well as peasants. The social order was the order of these groups and of the usually lifelong membership of individuals in one of these groups or strata.
Modern society, as we have known it for 250 years, is based on a complete replacement of this form of order. Hierarchically structured estates are replaced by communication systems that are ordered by thematic issues and societal functions. All of these communication systems are world systems: the polity, the economy, religion, science, education, law, art, sports, mass media, the healthcare or illness system as well as the system of intimate relationships and families. No one’s daily life takes place in only one of these function systems. Instead of belonging to them, one selectively participates in them (sociologists refer to this as inclusion), and the persons that participate in the function systems are individuals that become individualized through the extreme diversity of their participations. The individual exists outside of these function systems and is only connected to them in occasional events. Aside from the order of function systems itself, the individual is the other revolutionary invention of modern society.
Regarding the corona crisis, an essential sociological question is whether and how it temporarily puts modern social order into question and what this means for the development of society in the long term. First of all, the fundamental event of the corona crisis, the infection of an organism with the virus, is also the infection and potential illness of an individual, and there are two questions resulting from that. Firstly, how can it be prevented that an infected individual transmits the infection and disease to other individuals? This results in social distancing of an individual from other individuals as the new form of social life in the corona crisis. Secondly, how can the survival of an individual be ensured in case of serious illness?
It is striking that the second question is predominant. We dictate to the individual to practice social distancing (which is difficult to endure) in order to keep the reproduction rate of infections at a level that makes survival of as many individuals as possible more likely. It is impressive how much this latter aspect has priority. Each individual counts. Each death of an individual is one death too many. The incredible significance of the individual in modern society is illustrated in the corona crisis, too, by the fact that no other value can compete with the highest valuation for saving as many individuals as possible. In this perspective, the socio-political shaping of the corona crisis appears to be – across all nations – structurally conservative in relation to one of the most fundamental structural decisions of modern society.
Even more dramatic, then, is the temporary break of the corona crisis with the other structural decision of modern society: the emergence of functional differentiation as the horizontal interplay of numerous global communication systems among which no order of primacy or differences regarding societal significance can exist anymore. This order is, in fact, not only in principle a horizontal order of equal significance of each system. It is also an extremely dynamic order in which each function system is incessantly put into motion and challenged by rapid and surprising developments in other function systems. Both descriptions are no longer appropriate in the current situation. Instead, a peculiar order of function systems emerges to which there is no historical precedent.Continue reading “Simplification of social life”
by Christopher J. Lee, History/African Studies, Lafayette University, Easton, Pennsylvania, USA
The first sentence of Achille Mbembe’s essay “Necropolitics” (2003) begins with the assertion that “the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.”1 The pandemic of COVID-19 appears to be a test of this contention. Mbembe’s argument for the emergence of a new form of politics centered on power over death, recently elaborated in a book of the same title, precedes this pandemic and has been applied primarily to the context of Africa.2 Nonetheless, his concept provides a way of thinking through the politics of the current moment without resorting to conventional frameworks of left and right that have preoccupied discussions thus far in the Global North. Though this established set of politics has fundamentally shaped the infrastructural capacities of states to respond to the crisis, namely with northern democracies such as Britain and the United States facing a distinct challenge in responding from years of austerity and the privatization of medical care, neither should the opportunity be lost to think differently about what is at stake. COVID-19 isn’t simply a medical or epidemiological crisis; it is a crisis of sovereignty.
The events of the past weeks and months cannot be completely recapitulated in this instance, but they can be characterized as an attempt to reclaim sovereignty. They reveal an emergent necropolitical landscape defined by states that have power over life and those with only power over death. A brief sketch of notifications, bans, and closures is useful in this regard: medical doctors in Wuhan, China, first report the existence of an unspecified virus in late December 2019; on January 23, 2020, the city of Wuhan with 11 million people is placed in a mandatory quarantine with additional travel restrictions in place for other cities in the Hubei province (totaling 57 million people); Italy declares a state of emergency eight days later on January 31, 2020; Italy imposes a national quarantine on March 9, 2020; a travel ban is put into place on March 11, 2020, by the Trump administration for travelers from Europe who are not US citizens; Spain announces a national quarantine on March 15, 2020; on the same day Germany implements new border restrictions; South Africa places a travel ban on foreign nationals from high-risk countries on March 18, 2020; Australia imposes a travel ban on foreign nationals on March 19, 2020; and so forth. What this brief summary outlines is a return to the most basic techniques of territorial control and state power—a politics of border restriction, community management, evening curfews, business closure, public dispersal, and empty streets. Citizens are further asked to self-discipline, in a Foucauldian fashion, through social distancing. The scale, speed, and global extent of these sovereign measures appear unprecedented.
To be clear, these measures should be pursued. In contrast to normative conditions when such methods would be seen as authoritarian, they are essential for sustaining life in this instance. Taken together, they constitute a reactionary version of necropolitics concerned with the management of life and death—to reduce the territorial proliferation of the disease, mortality numbers, and the rate of infection more generally. However, this reactionary stance equally indicates an unevenness of state capacity, that not all governments are able to respond alike. COVID-19 has highlighted a long-term failure among some states to sustain public health, to sustain life, through their commitment to neoliberal agendas to end state welfare in favor of privatization. The US and British governments are particularly egregious in governing on the basis of provisional schemes of affordable death through privatization and austerity measures, respectively. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s initial proposal of “herd immunity” whereby COVID-19 is allowed to run its course through the population exemplifies this approach—a laissez-faire economic attitude applied to ordinary, vulnerable people in the context of a disease pandemic.Continue reading “The Necropolitics of COVID-19: A Global South Approach to the Current Pandemic”