Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

Political Economy and Politics – The Corona-Shuttle: Arriving Mentally in the Anthropocene?

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

Ludger Pries, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany

In the 21st century, social entanglements are transnational, mutual dependencies are global. The Corona crisis demonstrated this for everybody. Although climate change has been indicating this for a long time, it had not the same effect on public awareness and political action as Covid-19. Until the end of March, some 40,600 persons died due to the new virus, according to the World Health Organization. The same organisation calculated some seven million deaths annually linked to air pollution, and forecasts for the decades to come some 250,000 thousand additional deaths due to climate change. Deaths from Malaria oscillate between around half and over one million per year. How to explain the specific attention paid to Covid-19 in Spring 2020 compared to other catastrophes? Explanations range from conspiracy theories to business as usual approaches. Some sociological reflections could be helpful.

Selective Perception and Everyday Life Routines
At the end of February this year I participated in a conference called ‘Remittances – the Imagination of Connectedness’ at Princeton University. For Friday 28th the WHO reported some 79,000 confirmed cases and 2,791 deaths for China, and some 4,700 registered infected persons and 67 deaths for the rest of the world. In the conference my main argument was to proceed from the concept of remittances to that of transmittances. The impacts of migration and transnational mobility are increasingly not uni- but multi-directional, and they are not only economic, but also cultural and political. But I have to admit, neither me nor the other participants mentioned the Coronavirus as an example of transmittances. Looked at today, it was a signal of selective perception that we as sociologists practiced just like anybody else.

The example reveals the small windows of perception and attention that even we as scientists are looking through. Crucial social disruptors like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain were not forecast by sociologists. Human beings in general experience the world in their everyday life-world as stable and accountable, as organised by certain rules and mechanisms. The concept of everyday life-world was proposed by the Austrian sociologist Alfred Schütz, and includes all our knowledge that we mobilise regularly as taken for granted ‘until further irritation’. This includes ways of greeting, gender roles, values and norms of action, attitudes and patterns of behaviour according to situations, ideas of power relations and hierarchies, catalogues of expectable and still acceptable conduct, etc. The stock of knowledge mobilised in our everyday life-world is pragmatically oriented in those things that work and prove themselves. It would be too complicated, too energy- and time-consuming, to consider all possible options and aspects of social situations. We practice those habits and routines today that stood the test yesterday.

This explains in part why the fate of persons and social groups far away from our everyday life-world are not crucial for our behavior ‘until further irritation’. Only dense and concentrated messages transmitted by many channels of communication could cause irritation and enter our everyday life-world from outside. Since climate change did not enter disruptively in our everyday life-world but trickled in step by step and, additionally, was controversial for decades in science and public opinion, it did not have the same impact as Corona. Therefore, until now most people on the planet behave like a frog in a pot of tepid water. The frog will be happy whilst the water is warming up gradually, but he would try to jump out when a temperature shock would come. Global warming and, at the beginning, Covid-19 too, entered our everyday life-world step by step. In January and even in February 2020, most of the world population, and also we as sociologists in the Princeton conference, perceived the epidemic situation in Wuhan as a local and foreign affair. But then the Corona issue entered into our everyday life-world by time compression and perceivable facts. Infection cases were reported daily and in one’s own region. Friends and friends of friends knew someone who got severely ill or died due to the new pandemic. In contrast, the millions of deaths caused by global warming, are diffuse, not tangible, not directly related to the everyday life-world. Concerning this challenge, public awareness and discourse remain scattered and cause no general ‘irritation’.

Diverging Models of Society and Coping Strategies
Selective perception also was in play when, since February, Western and OECD countries looked at the quite coercive politics in China. It was easy to prove established views of an authoritarian regime that restricted individual mobility to an unpreceded level. But also more constitutional and liberal South-East Asian countries like Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong applied drastic methods to control the spread of the virus. Public life and individual mobility were restricted in ways not seen since the 1950s. Physician Christopher Willis is cited in the New York Times of March 20th: ‘The most important lesson is that the virus can be contained if people are responsible and adhere to certain simple principles’. Social distancing proved to be the best remedy to slow down virus expansion, which is held crucial in order not to overburden hospitals. In Europe and some other countries, quite diverging models to cope with the virus showed up.

In the United Kingdom until March 12th, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his consultant Patrick Vallance declared that people should not change their behaviour due to Corona. Forbidding mass meetings, extensive testing, tracing confirmed cases and enclosing infected persons in quarantine would not be the British way to manage the crisis. People should develop herd immunity, even if some of the positively-tested persons would have to die. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte argued in a similar way until March 16th that you could slow down the spread of the virus and at the same time build up controlled group immunity. Some of the statements came near to what could be called a Social Darwinism of contamination.

Besides virological and economic arguments against a massive slowdown of the economy and society, there were also liberal considerations of freedom. Especially in Germany with its National Socialist history, it took a while until on March 18th Chancellor Merkel gave – for the first time outside of her traditional New Year speech – a TV message. She criticised an authoritarian (Chinese-like) solution and invited all citizens to follow the rules of social distancing and solidarity. A few days later, the mayors of different cities in Germany began strictly to forbid public gatherings of more than two persons. Sweden also developed a strategy in between authoritarian and liberal approaches, counting more on civic responsibility than on either control or laissez-faire. All this reflects different approaches and understandings of society and how to cope with new challenges.

Logics and Mechanisms of Social Action – And Revival of Nation-States?
Some anthropological assumptions hold that individuals are selfish and egoistic actors, ready for free-riding tactics wherever possible. Thomas Hobbes’ idea of homo homini lupus est laid the ground for the idea of a strong State able to control individualistic actors. Pictures of consumers fighting in supermarkets for massive quantities of noodles, tinned food and toilet tissue during the Corona crisis, could be interpreted as sustaining such a picture. On the other hand, there are basic understandings of humans as good and socially-oriented beings. According to this, moral sentiments are part of our genetic heritage. Public singing on Italian balconies or collective applauding from household windows in appreciation of the work of medical and social services, are examples that suggest such an idea of the human.

In a more sociological perspective, all capacities and attitudes of human beings developed exclusively in social interactions and entanglements. What individuals are depends on the social groups they are living in. People (re)construct the knowledge, norms, values, habits and patterns of their behaviour in social relations. Social life always means interchanging and negotiating different perceptions, experiences and preferences. For the sociologist Alfred Schütz, the world of our everyday life consists of the taken-for-granted norms, values, habits and patterns of behaviour as our common knowledge. This common knowledge is challenged in times of substantially changing living conditions. Corona already is – independently of its future outreach and effects – such a fundamental challenge to our shared knowledge of behaviour. The Corona crisis in a way can be considered as a ‘natural experiment’ of how humans react, interact and re-negotiate their norms, values, habits and patterns of behaviour.

At the level of larger entities, one has to accept that the Corona case almost exclusively led to more national, and less joint international or global, solutions. New forms of nationalism spread around the world since Donald Trump’s ‘America first’ approach, followed by the UK’s Brexit, the exclusive refugee politics of EU member states, and authoritarian nationalist regimes in the Global South. Admittedly, answers to the Corona challenge were fully national, especially in the EU. Long-lasting individual rights like free mobility in the Schengen space were canceled from one day to another by national governments almost without any consultation. Nation-states began to compete for medicines, protective masks and other goods. Many voices were raised in favour of re-nationalising the production of certain critical commodities.

Arriving Mentally in the Anthropocene or Business as Usual?
In some regions and social groups, there arose new conspiracy theories. Some blamed the CIA and other secret services as having caused the Coronavirus. Why did the crisis hit China and Iran? – These are the most important enemies of the USA. Such primitive approaches are unable to catch the complexity and unintended consequences of individual and collective social action. On the other hand, some authoritarian regimes exploit the Corona case in order to implement even more public control of everything, like in China, and to weaken democratic control, like in Hungary. What will the situation at the end of 2020 be like? There is much doubt that this period of disruptive inflection will be used for far-reaching reflection. The world develops towards an anthropogenic period where risks and challenges for the planet – for plants, animals and humankind – increasingly are of a human-made nature. And more and more people around the planet become aware of this. But there are no social mechanisms and governance structures to cope with this. Market liberalism failed in the Corona crisis and cannot produce public commons. There are only a few partisans of an authoritarian world government as an eco-dictatorship. Networking communities of solidarity and democracy were studied by the Nobel-Prize winner Elinor Ostrom. But the social mechanisms of their coordination and capacities of conflict resolution from regional to global levels, are quite unclear. The basic challenges of humankind are social, not natural or technical. We must not follow one of the founders of Sociology, Auguste Comte, who argued that Sociology ‘completes the system of sciences’. But Sociology actually has to be at the very centre of things in contributing to anthropogenic challenges.

Much solidarity and civic engagement have popped up since the Corona crisis. Much hope has been raised that our modern market-driven capitalism could be questioned in a deeper way. Such optimism seems exaggerated. The Corona crisis lays open a structural challenge in the evolution of humankind that needs fundamental answers. For a century or so, the relevant social groups and frameworks, in which people organise their everyday life-world, increased constantly. Economic, technical, social, political and cultural entanglement and intertwining become more and more global and transnational. But during the last few decades, the international and global bodies became weaker. Nationalisms are on the rise. The complexity of coordinating and harmonising nation-states becomes clear for the case of the EU. The UN and its bodies have lost authority since the start of the new century. Pandemics and climate change, social inequality and transnationally organised crime and violence demand border crossing and global solutions. Sociology has to take a lead in reflecting upon these structural challenges and developing models of how to organise our social living together and everyday life-world that increasingly becomes an everyday life-World.

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