Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Covid politics – Pandemic, War Metaphors, and the Process of Civilisation
Daniel Arenas, Department of Society, Politics and Sustainability, Universitat Ramon Llull (ESADE), Spain
In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, government after government could not avoid resorting to worn-out war metaphors, in some cases even granting the military a visible role in the management and communication of the crisis. The idea that trenches, combats, and life or death confrontation against one’s enemies, bring out the best in humanity has a very old history. But it is, of course, highly questionable. Apparently, the metaphor did not appear during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, probably because a real war was taking place at that time. Our predicament today would be a very strange kind of war indeed, in that it urges great levels of self-restraint and great care about physical contact with others, in order to protect more vulnerable groups like the elderly and hospital workers. Perhaps it is more appropriate to use a different approach and ask if some of the new behaviours, attitudes, and policies can be understood as an advancement in civilisation, rather than harking back to military comparisons.
This alternative approach might get some inspiration from Norbert Elias’s classic The Civilising Process , which asks questions such as: What do we mean when we talk of civilisation? How has the meaning of this word come to be shaped? What social and political structures, and what individual behaviours, do we associate with civilisation?
In transferring these questions to our situation, we definitely have ambiguous reactions. First, in the midst of this strange collective quarantine, many of us long for hugs, lunches and dinners with parents, brothers and sisters, friends and workmates, and even the exchange of a few words with a stranger in a café or at the counter of a bar. We feel that all this forms part of what we believe is worthwhile in life, or at least our way of life, our culture, or, if you will, what we take to be a civilised life. Moreover, some of us fear that the consequences of the pandemic put civilisation at risk, including the freedoms we cherish, the level of well-being, and the type of society we had built. In this sense, the changes we are experiencing and those that will ensue might be seen as part of a decivilising process. And third, some consider this crisis as a consequence of our civilisation, of our way of interacting with the natural environment, of our global interconnections, and of our past political decisions concerning the economy and public health systems.
Starting with individual behaviours and psychic structures, in the first part of his book Elias delves into the changes in table manners and other sorts of social interactions that began in the 16th century. In particular, he spotlights the advice given by Erasmus of Rotterdam in what became something of a bestseller of the time: do not make noises with your mouth while eating, wash your hands before you eat, make an effort not to spit everywhere, do not blow your nose on the tablecloth, do not dip your fingers into a shared pan, and other surprising tips. This advice (and the enthusiasm with which it was received) shows that at that time a new awareness was taking root of the distance between oneself and others, and a greater concern about what others will think of oneself, reinforced by shame and embarrassment. This distancing, awareness, and sensibility are among the elements that set in motion, according to Elias, the civilising process in Western Europe.
Following this approach, today’s sociologists could ask: Would we call the distancing behaviours we expect from ourselves and others in this confinement civilised or decivilising? Will some of these new conducts and habits remain when all this is over? Will they be seen afterwards as part of the process of civilisation? Probably not all of them. For example, wearing masks in shops, or using our elbows for activities we used to do with our hands, like opening doors, covering our mouth, or greeting one another (one of the alternatives to the handshake). But maybe others will, like stricter hygiene measures at home and in the street. And maybe a new sensitivity will take root too: the idea that we take these measures not just for our own sake but to protect others. In the wake of this, perhaps there will also be a heightened awareness of the fragility of our own bodies and those of others, and that these fragilities are interconnected. Unlike in the 16th and 17th centuries, these new behavioural expectations and this new sensitivity have nothing to do with marking differences of origin or class: they apply equally to Orientals and Westerners, Italians and Danes, rich and poor. Lastly, perhaps we will also see a strengthening of the shared conviction that our societies need a public health care system that is well equipped with resources to cope with crises, and that they need to find the taxation mechanisms to make it possible. Some of these behaviours, sensibilities, and awareness might be understood as civilising. Or at least maybe we are better off looking at it this way, instead of through the war metaphor, which evokes de-humanising situations.
As is well known, Norbert Elias’ process sociology does not only study developmental processes of self-restraint, emotional internalisation, and the consolidation of new forms of sensibility. It also attempts to show that these processes go along with increasing social interdependence, which leads to a more centralized coordination, strengthening the monopoly of violence and of taxation. In this regard, questions concerning the outcome of this pandemic, and whether (and how) it should be seen as part of a civilising (or a decivilising) process, become more ambivalent. One anticipated consequence can be a growth in the power of central governments of nation-states in the form of increased surveillance of citizens and restrictions of some freedoms, leading to authoritarian measures in the name of safety and efficiency. Another alternative is increased forms of coordination among states to face future health and environmental crises, even if the initial reaction at the European Union level did not seem to indicate it. Regarding social relationships, the Coronavirus crisis exposes and exacerbates the inequalities of social stratification, as it disproportionately affects those using public transport, working in close physical contact with others, and with less access to medical tests. Moreover, there are of course many uncertainties still concerning the impact on international commerce, long-supply chains, tourism, and work and consumption habits. Perhaps there will be a rebirth of local manufacturing and other centrifugal tendencies. But, according to some analyses, the great corporations that control platform capitalism, such as Google, Amazon, and Netflix, are the clear winners in this story. How governments (on their own or in coordination) will be able to respond to these quasi-monopolies (or new Leviathans ) will continue to be an issue in the foreseeable future. This was an aspect that, incidentally, was not contemplated in Elias’ classic. While there can be reasons to doubt whether it helps to discuss any of these tendencies as part of civilising processes, this question still offers more interesting perspectives for sociologists than the military language that many journalists and politicians are fond of.
To conclude, Elias’ approach encourages us to study long historical processes unfolding over time, paying attention to the gradual accumulation of small changes. The Coronavirus pandemic is, at the moment of writing, an episode that has lasted about three months. The crisis is certainly very severe and intense, but it might be a temporal episode. Yet, it is not unlikely that it will have long-lasting consequences and will contribute to strengthen some tendencies in individual habits, social relationships, politics, and economics. Looking at the crisis and its consequences using the analogy of war blinds us from discussing which aspects will become part of the future of civilisation, and, perhaps more importantly, which elements we would like to see in this future.
 Elias, N. (2000) The Civilizing Process. Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations. Basil Blackwell.
 Chandler, A.D. and Mazlish, B. (2005) Leviathans: Multinational Corporations and the New Global History. Cambridge University Press.
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