This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis
by Michel Wieviorka (Paris)
How to think about the post-pandemic? This is not a simple question. The phenomenon is global, since it concerns the whole world, but its treatment is mainly national, with considerable differences from one country to another, with the risk of falling under what Ulrich Beck called ‘methodological nationalism’ (2006). It is “total”, to use the adjective popularised in the humanities and social sciences by Marcel Mauss (1923-1924), which implies examining innumerable facets, social, cultural, political, economic, religious, institutional and individual, etc., even though each register has its own specificities, its relationship to time, its spatial logics. The pandemic is not static but moving. Paradoxically it may well be long-lasting, since we do not know if and when humanity as a whole, but also specific countries, will be able to stop living with the pandemic, and precisely envisage emerging from it.
First of all, there is a problem of temporality, as the short term and the long term can be very different. Philipp Blom (2020) can provide direction here. Blom, a historian is interested in the consequences of the ‘Little Ice Age’, a phenomenon due probably to a volcanic eruption which propelled a cloud of ashes into the atmosphere, darkening the planet and thus causing long winters for several decades from 1570 onwards.
In the short term the climatic disaster first brought about or encouraged its share of social dramas: famines, epidemics, violence, persecutions, at the same time as the rise of religious, mystical and possibly festive responses, fantasies of the end of the world. But in the long term it also proved to be a ‘catalyst’, says Blom, of a cultural, intellectual, social, economic and industrial revolution already in gestation, but which it accelerated, contributing, in some countries, to the invention of modernity.
Similarly, there is no guarantee that tomorrow’s historians will read the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic as we may try to do today, even though we do not even know when it will end. Research, if it is a question such as that of the impact of a pandemic, must imperatively distinguish between temporalities.
Almost before it had been recognised for what it was, a global catastrophe, the pandemic has given rise to a flood of contradictory assumptions, with the result that many of them point in opposite directions. Some follow in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville, showing that the French Revolution was a culmination of the centralisation of the state in France, a historical process that had begun long before the Revolution, and which moreover was to continue afterwards; the Revolution overlapped and accentuated this process. In other words, they insisted on the continuity of the after in relation to the before. But Tocqueville relied on in-depth research, carried out in archives, and with the hindsight of time, since the first edition of L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution dates from 1856. Born in 1805, he added in the foreword that he was “far enough away from the Revolution to feel only faintly the passions that troubled the sight of those who made it, we are close enough to it to be able to enter into the spirit that brought it about and to understand it”.
Others predict the worst: decline, decadence, generalised crisis, at least for some countries, possibly collapse for the West in the face of China, or Asia; they foresee chaos or war. And as if symmetrically, on the other hand, others still envisage the entry into a totally new world, and speak, for example, not without some enthusiasm, of anthropological rupture or total mutation. In both these cases, one question deserves to be asked, that of the categories that make it possible to think about such radical changes, for better or for worse. For if the pandemic means a real break, if tomorrow is not to be like before, then what intellectual tools can we rely on? How can we trust modes of approach, reasoning, categories, theoretical instruments that have proved their worth in the past, but are perhaps unsuitable for envisaging a radical change?
The best thing here is certainly to be cautious, and nuanced, and to start from what we can already perceive, and therefore from the changes that can already be detected by rigorous observation.
The Covid-19 pandemic is often compared to the great epidemics that have marked history, such as cholera, plague, and, closer to us, the Spanish ‘flu in 1918. It is also an opportunity to mention AIDS and, less globally, SARS-Cov-1 which appeared in China in 2002. It is then one episode in a series of disasters associated with microbes or viruses that societies have learned to fight, particularly through vaccination. Such an approach makes the pandemic an accident affecting the planet, wholly or partially, without considering the actual type of society in which it occurs. We must do justice here to Ulrich Beck (2016), who died in 2015, and to the proposals he made regarding the risk society, global risk and, in his last book, published posthumously, the idea of metamorphosis. In his perspective, the pandemic is part of the world of risk and catastrophes which, since the end of the industrial era and the ‘first modernity’, have brought us into the second modernity, and lead us to think differently. Nuclear accidents, such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, (associated with a tsunami), volcanic eruptions, global terrorism, epidemics and climate change are at the heart of a metamorphosis, which are forcing us to consider or which are accelerating, and which makes each individual a ‘global player’. The pandemic belongs to a much broader family than epidemics, but from such a perspective, it is not a question of eternity, but of a historical era that needs to be defined, and which was inaugurated around the 1970s. It invites us both to reconsider norms, ways of thinking, and to devise new approaches to time and space. It may even have positive aspects, what Beck calls “the positive aspects of bads”, “emancipatory catastrophism”. From this point of view, Covid-19 accelerates a metamorphosis, already underway, it is not just another pandemic or epidemic in a long historical chain, but perhaps a decisive moment in the full and complete installation of our societies, or of some of them, in what we call hyper-modernity (Touraine, 2018), or the second modernity (Beck, Giddens, Lasch, 1992).
One observation is indisputable: the entry of the entire planet into the digital culture and economy has accelerated considerably. We have known since the 1990s, particularly with the pioneering work of Manuel Castells (1998 & 1999), how decisive it was to think in the categories of the information or communication age. Confinement measures in many countries have changed the daily lives of those who could no longer leave their homes, but have also encouraged them to make massive use of the Internet, social networks and mobile phones. Applications have played a major role, particularly in ‘tracing’ virus carriers and their contacts, e-commerce has developed, and many online services have been introduced. Tele-working, which was possible before, has intensified on an unprecedented scale, as has distance education and training.
These developments do not, however, create a harmonious world. They have only positively affected certain parts of the population, those who were on the right side of the digital divide. They have strengthened the digital companies, the so-called ‘GAFAS’, and accentuated their hold on collective life, while other companies have collapsed, to the detriment, for the majority, of skilled work, and to the benefit of unskilled and precarious work, as can be seen in particular at Amazon. Moreover, the growing importance of digital technology has only exacerbated fears and worries about social control, of the kind relayed by the essayist Evgeny Morozov (2011). It may well be that the ‘data’ produced by each one of us is mobilised by capital on the one hand, and by big business, which makes new profits from them, and by states, which keep an ever-increasing watchful eye on their citizens, on the other.
Research in the humanities and social sciences can emerge from such a situation only if it is profoundly modified. Favourable conditions must be met for it to be recognised as essential and necessary for democratic life. The pandemic makes the classic ‘terrain’ of sociologists and anthropologists difficult. Whether it concerns higher education, destabilised by the closure of institutions and the extension of distance learning, or research itself, everything here also contributes to the strengthening of digital technology, both in the collection and processing of data. Such an acceleration deserves critical examination: the experiences of psycho-sociologists with groups, the sociological interventions along the lines indicated by Touraine, the participatory observation of anthropologists or certain sociologists, such as William Foot Whyte and his well-known Street Corner Society research, or the tradition of the Chicago School, where the interviews require a strong and direct relationship between the researcher and the person being interviewed will become much more difficult to promote, while work that is either purely speculative or linked primarily to access to digitalised ‘data’ will flourish. This can save considerable time for the researcher, who can be dispensed with producing the data, since it is now available online, and proceed directly to the important questions he or she wishes to formulate.
Moreover, cooperation will be both facilitated by digital technology, on a global, international scale, but also virtual, as it is digitised, with much less of the concrete interpersonal relationships that also make up the quality of scientific exchanges. Moreover, it is not obvious that public or private budgets, from foundations or large companies, will be directed towards these disciplines, which do not today appear as being a priority for donors. In the United States, during the 1929 crisis, and then with the New Deal, the humanities and social sciences were largely ignored and had little capacity to shed decisive light, and likewise for the moment, they have not shown great responsiveness, real mobilisation, even though countless questions could involve them.
The formidable and ever-accelerating technological change presents a positive aspect for the humanities and social sciences, with unprecedented possibilities, but it also has a dark side. Its ambivalence, in the future, should give rise to new types of research, but the risk is that this research may be directed in directions that exclude others, however important.
Another observation is obvious: it is necessary to distinguish between two registers, social on the one hand and cultural on the other.
Socially, the pandemic has above all reinforced pre-existing trends that were very much in evidence and characterise the social structure, with differences from one country to another. For example, in France, it has highlighted the health professions, which have shown exemplary dedication and a sense of collective responsibility. Even before the pandemic, these professions were already able to mobilise themselves to exert pressure on the authorities (health and particularly hospitals in France are part of a large public sector). After the first wave, and in the context of the de-confinement in the summer of 2020, the government granted them considerable measures (wage increases, hiring, etc.).
The pandemic has also shed light on innumerable workers who are vulnerable, whose status is precarious; these include home helpers, delivery workers, stock handlers, garbage collectors, etc., who cannot benefit from teleworking, with the supermarket cashier as an iconic figure. These professions are on the whole not very capable of mobilising themselves, and did not obtain any particular advantages at the time when the government was granting them to health professionals. A more precise sociology would show that these vulnerable and low-income workers were often also part of the Yellow Vests movement.
It is not possible in the context of this article to go into detail: let us say that in France as elsewhere, inequalities and social injustices increased during the pandemic, without profoundly changing the social structure. This phenomenon cannot be dissociated from the economic changes generated by the pandemic: massive destruction of capital, liquidation of companies, decline of entire sectors, such as aeronautics, boom of the platform economy, which in fact only bring a low added value and mobilise essentially unskilled jobs without qualifications, etc. It is capitalism as a whole whose changes are accelerated and inflected by the pandemic; this should encourage a renewal of the science of economics, including in the way they advise public policies and State action.
But let us now consider a more cultural register. With the pandemic, interpersonal relations, at work, at school, at university, the relationship with culture, the possibility of going to the theatre, the cinema, libraries, places where sport is practised have been transformed, sometimes suppressed, while others have been invented, with strong recourse to digital technology.
For all those whose lives have become much more digital, and therefore virtual, than before, for all those who, more generally, are experiencing a reduction in the number of meeting places and opportunities, whether professional, recreational or other, for those who have had to stop travelling, or at least drastically reduce their journeys, who have changed their conception of holidays, leisure, tourism and studies, the space for relationships with others has been transformed. It has been enlarged in virtual terms and reduced in actual fact. The opportunities for discovering in person, in real life, people and places other than those we already know and frequent have been reduced. Social networks have acquired an even greater importance, and usually in the sense of the constitution of imaginary communities; some of which are inscribed in local spheres, others at national level and yet others at supranational level. This contrasts with Benedict Anderson’s (1983) classic analyses of the formation of imaginary communities at national level, and even with Arjun Appadurai’s (2001) more recent emphasis on the ‘deterritorialisation’ of culture. The phenomenon has become global, articulating but also separating distinct levels ranging from the most general, or global, to the most local, and thus inscribing itself in spaces that sometimes tend to be closed, including at the national level. The impact of confinement and, beyond this limited period, the impact of the extension of teleworking and distance learning are also considerable when it comes to family life and relationships between couples. In some cases they have been improved, in others complicated, and deteriorated, possibly leading to increased disputes and violence, which is reflected in police statistics in some countries, such as France.
With the pandemic, the virtual globalisation of interpersonal relations is combined with the strengthening of networks which are relatively homogeneous culturally or intellectually, and with the logic of withdrawal into oneself, into the family or the couple or into restricted groups, with possible negative consequences, exacerbated tensions, conjugal violence.
From the moment when older people were described as more vulnerable, with medical statistics to back it up, unprecedented questions arose: if health concerns must take precedence over economic concerns, if life must take precedence over employment and income, then does this not place the burden of survival on the younger people, who are little or less affected by the virus? The debate has been lively, and responses have varied from country to country and in function of the period in time. Intergenerational tensions may have led to ethical difficulties: who should be given priority when the hospital has only one resuscitation bed when two patients present, one young, the other elderly? The younger or the ‘senior’?
The pandemic has thus created or exacerbated in several countries new intergenerational, economic and ethical tensions. Research in the humanities and social sciences should eventually show whether these tensions are indicative of the affirmation of new generations, or whether they are indicative of structural issues relating to the ability of various generations to live together and develop new types of relationships.
Information about the sources of the epidemic involving a market in the city of Wuhan in China has sometimes fuelled racial hatred, when manipulated by a power insisting on its ‘Chinese’ character, as was the case with Donald Trump. We witnessed the resurgence of the ‘yellow peril’ thesis.
In many situations, in Europe, Africa, America, the pandemic has seen expressions of racism targeting Asians, and especially Chinese. This phenomenon, from one country to another, has been unevenly combated by the authorities.
However, this did not prevent the explosion of anti-racism, which expressed itself vigorously despite the ban on demonstrations, and denounced in particular the police excesses in the United States and their racist violence against Blacks. This anti-racism calls for justice and democracy, it is universalist, even if it is here and there penetrated by themes of rupture, highlighting not only a culture or a community, but sometimes a black race, or other elements. Its strength, which has become spectacular with the demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd, is an element of cultural change that is accelerating with the pandemic, or during the pandemic. Three other elements of the utmost importance must be added here. On the one hand, in several countries, the mobilisation of women against the violence they suffer has not only not ceased despite the pandemic, but has even shown great vigour. On the other hand, environmental protests, especially on climate change, have also remained strong, and various elections have shown that they give strength to the parties that are most directly at stake.
Concerns and fears have not prevented individual and collective reflections from developing in an attempt to give meaning to the events linked to the pandemic. Ecology has provided the most frequent answers here: the health crisis has in fact been an opportunity to try to promote other conceptions of living together, of production and consumption, to reconsider our relationship with nature, and to concretely modify certain behaviours. It is thus, for example, that ecological approaches have led to an increase in the sale of organic food products, a very clear phenomenon in France, or that in highly urbanised situations, confinement has given rise to plans to move from the city to the countryside. Environmentalist and ecologist discourse has received a reinforced and renewed echo, and the pandemic disaster itself has even been interpreted in terms of ‘collapsology’, as if the health crisis were also and primarily an ecological crisis.
Finally, democratic pressure or mobilisations, against corruption, for justice and equality, have not been nullified by the pandemic, as we have seen in Israel, Algeria or Sudan, for example.
Renewed anti-racism, active feminism, ecology and democratic pressure have not been annihilated by the pandemic, quite the contrary, which testifies to a collective will to enter further into the ‘second modernity’ despite the health crisis, and in this context, without waiting for it to be overcome.
The lack of knowledge about the virus, the absence of treatment and vaccine, the somewhat erratic behaviour of the authorities and the ease of communication offered by the Internet and social networks have made it easier to spread fake news and look for scapegoats. When reason and science fail to confront a major risk like that of Covid-19, irrationality combined with fear find a wider space, ‘conspiracy’ theories flourish, apocalyptic discourses, but also phantasmagorical proposals for treatment or explanation find a ready audience. Any scientific proposal, if we follow Karl Popper, must be falsifiable, and since scientists and medical doctors alike have not provided a clear, consensual and effective answer, doubt in science has flourished. As long as scientific research has not provided a strong and effective response to the pandemic, it is to be expected that post-truth will flourish and that the search for scapegoats will continue; anti-Semitism finds a particularly favourable breeding ground here.
Let us return for a moment to Philipp Blom’s research already mentioned above. He shows that in Europe the modernising impact of the Little Ice Age differed from one country to another, with the Netherlands and England clearly entering modernity, and Spain, on the contrary, beginning a historical decline, which obviously owes much to other factors as well. Blom also points out that a link is suggested by some researchers between a period of cold weather in the middle of the 5th century AD and the decline of the Roman Empire.
As we write these lines, what are we witnessing? Some countries have obviously faced the pandemic much more successfully than others, in Asia (China, but also democracies such as Taiwan, South Korea or Singapore), and also to a lesser extent in Europe (Germany, in particular). For Asian countries, there is no reference to a cultural break, a great leap into a new era, simply because they have already at least partially entered it, or are moving without hesitation in its direction. The hypotheses of decline and the worst, or, on the contrary, of an anthropological break, are associated with the idea of a way out of the pandemic, especially in the societies most affected, and whose political, economic and social future is more uncertain.
One idea spread spontaneously from the moment the awareness of the pandemic became apparent: in politics, the preference is for withdrawal, populism and nationalism, and is a factor in growing demands for security and authoritarianism.
In the short term, in any case, such an idea is highly questionable. For example, extremist opposition parties, or at least national-populist ones, in France (the Rassemblement National), in Italy (the League) have had disappointing results in the 2020 elections, and in Germany, the AFD has entered a phase of difficulties, if not destructuring. What is true for opposition forces could also be true for the powers that be: Bolsonaro in Brazil, Johnson in the United Kingdom or Trump in the United States did not benefit from the pandemic, which instead brought them into question and uncertainty. It is true that all this can change very quickly, but one thing is no less clear: if there is a link between the pandemic and a planetary drift to increasingly authoritarian and nationalist logics and regimes, it cannot be reduced to an automatic and almost immediate determinism.
The worst is not certain.
Translated from French by Kristin Couper
Michel Wieviorka is Professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and former President of the International Sociological Association (2006–2010). He is a leading authority on matters to do with violence, terrorism, racism and social movements. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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