Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

Being Cosmopolitan and Anti-Cosmopolitan – The Complex Risks of Covid-19: The Demand to Move from the ‘Society of Normalisation’ to Global Medical Surveillance

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Tue 2 Jun 2020 0

Sergey A. Kravchenko, MGIMO-University and Russian Academy of Science, Moscow, Russia

Due to formal pragmatism, rational knowledge and disciplinary technology, the ‘society of normalisation’ arose that is based on liberal biopolitics. It might seem to be a kind of a ‘rational surveillance tool’ for health care. However, this type of surveillance is limited by nation-state sovereignty and the dominant ‘true’ knowledge about the nature of diseases and the reasons that cause them.

Nowadays the essence of surveillance is changing. Giddens argues that ‘surveillance refers to the supervision of the activities of subject population’, and he speaks about the dispersion of social control [1]. There appear complex factors facilitating nonlinear development, such as globalisation, the rise of the network society, digitalisation, and global risks at all levels. These risks have new characteristic features: 1) delocalisation (their causes are not limited to one geographic location); 2) incalculability (their consequences are in principle incalculable); 3) non-compensatability (human genetics makes possible irreversible interventions in human existence) [2]. All these features are seen in the risks of Covid-19, and the first one has even increased: its delocalisation concerns not only geographic location but also bio-space. Some scientists note the complication of the proliferation of viruses that can move from animal to humans and back, making illnesses more difficult to cure. Besides, many risks of Covid-19 are socially and culturally constructed – there have appeared a lot of myths and fake stories about the virus’s damaging influences. With active participation the whole of humanity observes the deaths of many people in real time. Some viewers may not even realise that their consciousness is being traumatised – they accept exaggerated news as real, which increases the effects of ‘liquid fear’ [3], and that is now acquiring a cosmopolitan character. To a large extent the cosmopolitanisation of fear by Covid-19 is based on media performances that are ‘spectacles whose drama is empty and whose purpose is merely mystification’ [4]. As a result, a cosmopolitan fear has been born that makes the distinction between the risks of Covid-19 and the cultural perception of them blurred.

Under these conditions, traditional biopolitics – as the dominant ‘life-administrating power’ functional only within national borders – is not suited for controlling and rationalising societies all over the world and their health systems. These realities foster the passing over to a new type of medical surveillance, one that is globally organised.

At first sight the recognition of the complex risks of Covid-19 might lead to a kind of ‘post-national ethics of responsibility’ [2] as the expression of the becoming of cosmopolitan humanism. The common dangers might give an initial impulse for elaborating a humanely-oriented global system of surveillance, which is aimed at preventing different catastrophes and epidemics. There are some grounds for such expectations. There appear some trends involving a kind of ‘green Orwellism’: political leaders worldwide worry about environmental problems [5]. Cosmopolitan humanism manifests itself in ‘post-anthropocentric technologies’ that ‘are also re-shaping the practice of surveillance’ [6], making friendly relations between people, bio entities and non-living Nature.

But nowadays the real picture is the reverse. In Europe and in the wider world, one can see the rise of disintegration, isolation, even nationalism and xenophobia. The self-declared European values do not function. The reaction to risks presupposes decisions and actions. For Italians, the risks of Covid-19 are more important than other threats. Consequently, they expect help from the European Union, but it is paralysed and does not make decisions for rendering the necessary medical, financial and monetary support. The difference in interests of practically all the countries of the European Union is evident. They do not only close their borders on the basis of quasi-laws, but they apply a national mobilisation, stopping the cooperation which is very acute for the management of the – in actual fact – global risks of Covid-19. Nothing, or very little, is done to overcome the ‘non-events’ (Baudrillard) and other myths of the pandemic. As a result, to the existing ‘multiple Europe’s crises’ [7] at least two more are added: the crisis of medical surveillance, both at world and European levels, and the crisis of trust in common values and institutional constructions. Nation-states focus on their own survival.

I believe that this tragic situation is not forever, and that the scientist should think about the post-Covid-19 world. The future world will be very different from the one we used to live in. The ‘butterfly effect’ of the viruses named Covid-19 (a trauma of the bio-matter of a concrete number of individuals) will not be forgotten while elaborating multiple futures. Modern societies as complex systems ‘are characterised by a lack of proportionality, or “non-linearity”, between apparent “causes” and “effects”. There can be small changes that do bring about big, non-linear system shifts, as well as the converse’ [5]. Here are only some of the non-linear system shifts that will influence the character of the post-Covid-19 world: the existing forms of cooperation among countries is traumatised; the economy has gone down, causing unemployment and new inequalities; recession is highly likely; to the challenges of ‘distant love’ [8] those of distant work and distant health care are added; the cosmopolitan fear of insecurity has traumatised social consciousness; there appear new enclaves with sick people.

At the same time there are objective factors that can potentially produce possible hopes for better post-Covid-19 futures, and that can create previously unthinkable alternative preconditions for establishing a humanely-oriented global system of surveillance, which is aimed at preventing different catastrophes and struggling with epidemics. One of them is the type of digitalisation that produces the so-called ‘digital surveillance’, which ‘tends to obscure the constant daily assaults on privacy that take place well within the law by major businesses, embedding a system best called “surveillance capitalism”, and by government, which is increasingly acting like a surveillance state’. These realities give inhuman opportunities for ‘data-hungry businesses and governments’ to ‘deepen tracking and control of citizen behavior and attitudes’ [9]. One more factor here is ‘liquid surveillance’, that is, ‘the world of monitoring, tracking, tracing, sorting, checking and systematic watching’ [10].

But both the inhuman types may acquire a humanly-oriented option. This transformation depends on people as conscious agents. The collected data can definitely be uploaded and functionally used by healthcare professionals, in order to prevent some diseases, especially epidemics. Among the significant objective factors that, in my opinion, can foster a humanely-oriented form of global surveillance is the metamorphisation of the world’: ‘The theory of metamorphosis goes beyond theory of world risk society: it is not about the negative side effects of goods but about the positive side effects of the bads’ [11]. The possible consequences of the metamorphosis of the world may be for the better or for the worse – that depends on the subjective factor. How people humanise their knowledge and rationalise the institutions of their countries, depends largely on the essence of the surveillance instruments and the ways they are used. In my view, the first step to a successful path is connected with the integration of the achievements of all social, natural and human sciences [12]. On the basis of this quite new intellectual consolidation, it is possible to start moving towards political consolidation, cosmopolitan humanism and the humanely-oriented system of surveillance that can link businesses, governments, and peoples from different countries, for the sake of the protection of human inhabitants of the planet from currently existing and future epidemics. It is very important to note that the process of the metamorphisation of the world produces only potential hopes – much depends on the people themselves [13], and on their activities both to construct cosmopolitan organisations, and also to implement in life a possible global bio-geopolitics with a human spirit.

Here are ten glimpses of possible hopes for, and the vision of, the post-Covid-19 world:

1. ‘There is no simple growth of disorder’ [14]. The factors of complex and non-linear development may foster the establishment of quite a new world order based on cosmopolitan solidarity and global bio-geopolitics. The realisation of this depends on people’s agency.

2. Civilisations and cultures reacted differently to the risks of Covid-19, with positive and negative results that will influence the characteristic features of multiple futures.

3. There will appear new political movements, with demands for global medical surveillance and health security. Consequently, new leaders will come to power. Whether Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will be among them depends on the results of the struggle against Covid-19 and the epidemic situation in the USA and Russia.

4. The consequences of Covid-19 will change the essence of Europe as a ‘turbulent and mighty continent’ [15]. In order to limit turbulences and achieve sustainable development, the new political leaders will pass over from confrontations to different forms of cooperation with diverse world actors. It is highly likely that in the renewed European Union, China – which displayed certain achievements in overcoming the pandemic, and which rendered concrete support to different countries – will acquire a special friendly status.

5. The birth of the post-Covid-19 world will be difficult, perhaps accompanied by a recession which, however, may become a significant factor of the new world order, based on a sharing economy, social solidarity and integral forms of freedom and disciplinary. I believe that the fetishism of modesty in consumption is also being born, displaying the possibility that Ulrich Beck’s idea about the essence of the modern metamorphosis bringing ‘positive side effects of bads’ might be materialised.

6. It is necessary to rediscover the place and role of all countries in world politics. In addition to the existing criteria (economic development, the possession of weaponry, etc.), new ones should be taken into consideration: the power to struggle effectively with epidemics, the possibility to reorient the digital realm from pragmatic consumerism to health care.

7. Human rights should be extended, including the rights for health care, a safe life, and a sound environment.

8. Cosmopolitan fear becomes a new challenge for humankind. Its overcoming is connected to a large extent with the establishment of effective cosmopolitan solidarity and global humanly-oriented medical surveillance.

9. Distant care systems based on digitalisation already have proved their efficiency – these and other activities will be extended.

10. There is a co-dependence of systems of governance, disciplinarity, economy, culture, medicine, etc., that is significant for the effective risk-management of epidemics. All these phenomena make the coming post-Covid-19 world more rational and humane.

[1] Giddens, A. (1990). The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford. CA: Stanford University Press, p. 58.
[2] Beck, U. (2010). World at Risk. Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 52, p. 16.
[3] Bauman Z. (2006). Liquid Fear. Cambridge: Polity Press.
[4] Alexander, J.С. (2017). The Drama of Social Life. Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 2.
[5] Urry, J. (2011). Climate Change and Society. Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 159, pp. 41-42.
[6] Braidotti, R. (2015). The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 127.
[7] Castells M., eds. (2017). Europe’s Crises. Cambridge: Polity Press.
[8] Beck, U., Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2014). Distant Love. Cambridge: Polity Press.
[9] Mosco, V. (2017). Becoming Digital. Toward a Post-Internet Society. Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, p. 161.
[10] Bauman, Z., Lyon, D. (2013). Liquid Surveillance. Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 8.
[11] Beck, U. (2016). The Metamorphosis of the World. Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 4.
[12] Kravchenko, S.A. (2011). “Sociology on the move to interaction of theoretical and methodological approaches”. Sociological Studies. Monthly, No. 1, pp. 11-18 (In Russian).
[13] Kravchenko, S.A. (2017). “Metamorphoses: Essence, increasingly complex types, place in sociology of knowledge”. Sociological Studies. Monthly, No. 1, pp. 3-14 (In Russian).
[14] Urry J. (2003). Global Complexity. Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 23.
[15] Giddens, A. (2014). Turbulent and Mighty Continent. What Future for Europe? Cambridge: Polity Press.

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