Issue 170, June 2022
Special Section: Living in Crisis
Special Section Editors: Andrew S. Gilbert, Rachel Busbridge and Nick Osbaldiston
Andrew S. Gilbert, Rachel Busbridge and Nick Osbaldiston
This special section began to take shape sometime in mid-2020. Much of Australia was then in lockdown, we were working from home, national borders were closed, and it was looking increasingly likely that the annual conference for The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) would not go ahead. At the time, the spread of COVID-19 within Australia was very limited, especially compared to much of the rest of the world. Yet the pandemic had nonetheless brought unprecedented disruption to our everyday lives. In this context, the TASA Social Theory thematic group and Thesis Eleven collaborated to host an online workshop called ‘Living in Crisis’ in November, 2020. We invited attendees to think about the relationship between social theory and crisis in two ways. First, how can social theory be utilised to unpack what is happening in the world today? Second, do social theorists offer legitimate ways of understanding and responding to this crisis? With this special section, we hope to contribute to the diverse ways sociologists and social theorists have cast light on recent events associated with the pandemic. We also hope this continues the long tradition of sociology’s engagement with crisis and upheaval, not just as objects of our interest, but also as invitations for new ways of practising our craft.
Taking ‘the idea of the tragic’ as a point of departure, this article articulates an approach to sociology and social theory from the perspective of a ‘tragic vision’. In arguing for the relevance of ‘tragic thought’ for the analysis of contemporary crises, it suggests that ‘the tragic’ must be understood as a reflection of the long tail of the formation of a particular secular, modern ‘ethico-onto-epistemology’. In making this case, the article provides an ‘interpretive genealogy’ of tragic ethics in social thought, detailing the thought of Lucien Goldmann and Georg Lukács, and putting it in dialogue with contemporary posthumanist theory. It concludes by drawing on recent debates in the latter involving the place of ‘critique’ in contemporary social science, teasing out some implications for thinking about individual action and responsibility.
Sovereignty, society and human rights: Theorising society and human survival in times of global crisis [Open Access]
The coronavirus pandemic and climate crisis have highlighted the power of governments in relation to people and the societies in which they live. This article looks at two sociological approaches that together capture the core features of the relationship between sovereignty, society and individual safety. Sociologists of human rights point to the importance of sovereignty for the enforcement of human rights and draw on the work of Arendt, who argues all rights are lost to those who find themselves outside the protection of the state. Wickham’s Hobbesian sociology adds an important social dimension to these ideas. He adopts Hobbes’ argument that sovereignty secures both society and the protection of people. The article recovers additional ideas in Hobbes’ theory of rights that further link these two approaches. For Hobbes, governments hold a responsibility to protect their citizens’ right to survive. The article discusses the relevance of these ideas to the coronavirus pandemic and climate crisis. It argues sociology is well-placed to explore ways in which the continued exercise of sovereign power in relation to society and human survival is shaping humanity’s response to these global crises.
Constructing ‘others’ and a wider ‘we’ as emotional processes: A case of South Korea in times of crisis [Open Access]
This article examines how growing fears, insecurities and uncertainties during the COVID-19 pandemic have prompted an emotional distance from others. The aim is to explore how global solidarity and nationalism are challenged and constructed as collective emotional processes concerning ‘others’. Drawing on social theories of emotions during crises and emotions towards others, this study looks at policy decisions around vaccines and health services and their associated emotions in the context of Korea, which has a relatively small migrant population and a short history of supporting people in lower-income countries. The study finds that the COVID-19 pandemic has strengthened nationalism, both ethnic nationalism and cosmopolitan nationalism. This points to the need to highlight global norms such as human rights and justice and cultivate foundational emotions such as empathy and compassion. This article suggests paying attention to the role of emotions in generating othering practices and developing global solidarity.
Sara C. Motta
Decolonial/anti-colonial Black, Indigenous and Mestiza feminist movements and scholar-activists foreground how the oft-touted apocalypse that the Covid-19 pandemic heralds is not new, nor does it signify the great rupture into chaos that those from within modernity-coloniality often claim it to be. Rather Covid-19 is preceded by and will be out-lived by the apocalyptic anti-life onto-epistemological logics that are foundational to the (re)production of hetero-patriarchal capitalist-(settler) coloniality. However, one would commit the violence of reproduction of the epistemological logics and (ir)rationalities constitutive of the current system if the story ended there. We have survived (despite our losses) and our survival points to the urgent necessity and responsibility of (critical) social theory to listen to the story of the pandemic from a Black/Indigenous genealogy and to begin the sense-making of the Covid-19 pandemic, from prior to this particular virus, outside, against and beyond the politics of knowledge of critical social theory itself. Thus, I invite you to journey to an affirmative re-enfleshment of reason and theory-making in relation to and dialogue with Black, Indigenous, and subaltern Mestiza feminist movements in southwest Colombia and in southeast so-called Australia in the unceded lands of the Awabakal and the Worimi. I explore this through the metaphor, the materiality, the cosmology and the herstory of the mangrove swamps a knowing-being otherwise (in)visible to the dehumanising gave of Whiteness and bring to thought three stories of a politics of knowledge of/as the Black/racialised and feminised body/flesh. To do this is to suggest that the co-creation of pathways which are life affirming and life making beyond and out of the post-Covid 19 conjuncture involves an epistemological-political project which decolonises and feminises the containments of reason and knowing (non)being of coloniality/modernity.
Comparative moral economies of crisis [Open Access]
Benjamin Manning and Craig Browne
At times of crisis, existing institutional arrangements of societies are thrown into question. Crises that occur in multiple societies simultaneously present rare opportunities for comparative empirical analysis. Social theory can reveal the framing conditions of the responses to crises and the sources of variations between them. This paper compares the immediate responses of the Australian, UK and US governments to the global COVID-19 pandemic, particularly with regard to financing lockdowns, and points out significant differences between the three approaches. Drawing on Polanyi’s method of institutional analysis, we compare the responses of these same national groups to an earlier crisis, the Japanese prisoner of war camps during the Second World War, to show similar patterns of integration recurring eight decades apart. This analysis shows that aspects of moral economies that are not usually apparent can become pronounced during crises, and points to the importance of enduring social imaginaries.
The ideal of freedom in the Anthropocene: A new crisis of legitimation and the brutalization of geo-social conflicts
Mikael Carleheden and Nikolaj Schultz
Modern social orders are legitimized by the ideal of freedom. Most conceptions of this ideal are theorized against the backdrop of nature understood as governed by its own laws beyond the realm of the social. However, such an understanding of nature is now being challenged by the ‘Anthropocene’ hypothesis. This article investigates the consequences of this hypothesis for freedom as an ideal legitimizing social order. We begin by discussing the conception of legitimation, after which we examine three classical notions of freedom (developed by Hobbes, Kant, and Hegel), in light of the Anthropocene. Following our claim that these notions all have severe weaknesses in view of the Anthropocene, we argue that modern social orders are facing a new legitimation crisis. Such a crisis, we suggest, involves a ‘brutalization of social conflicts’, which under the conditions of the Anthropocene assumes the form of geo-social conflict.
This article defends Ernesto Laclau against the charge that his work, manifested most clearly in On Populist Reason, affirms an authoritarian politics to account for the genesis of collective identity. To outline this, I read Laclau’s thought through three logics – termed the logics of universal imposition, negation, and symbolic mediation – to argue that he rejects the first but adopts the latter two, with the logic of symbolic mediation being particularly important. Rather than unity resulting when distinct groups agree over a positive meaning of a signifier or when it is imposed on them by an authoritarian leader, Laclau claims that unity depends upon the existence of empty signifiers that lack substantial meaning. Engaging with the structure and functioning of this lack, I utilize Laclau’s notion of ‘constitutive distortion’ to highlight an often overlooked structural component of his account that I call ‘misunderstanding’. Rather than a negative occurrence, misunderstanding is a fundamental and positive condition of collective identity because it permits the various groups to affirm different, even contradictory, positions regarding the meaning of empty signifiers (permitted by the fundamental lack of such signifiers), all the while (through the shared but mistaken belief that they agree over its meaning) binding each group into a collective identity. This misunderstanding, which must remain hidden from the participants of the collective identity, is a fundamental condition of the process through which collective identity is created and sustained because it permits the various groups to believe that they share a collective identity while maintaining the heterogeneity that is necessary, on Laclau’s telling, for the continued existence of the collective.