Home is not what you think

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.

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