Shared belonging, once constitutive of democracy and nationhood, now only induces anxieties. Sharing the air we breathe, the surfaces we touch, the spaces we occupy, with others, is tension-ridden.
In the age of the pandemic, what unites all members of the demos is shared vulnerability. Bodily vulnerability is the foundation, we discover newly (!), of human existence. With new ideas and forms of the social, the very semantics of ‘public’, ‘social’, ‘civic life’ have changed, as we retreat into enclaves, isolation and quarantine.
How does ‘demos’ of democracy or ‘civitas’ of ‘civic’ change in such a context? Four features of this change become discernible: two focus on civil society and two on the state.
‘Divided we stand, united we fall’, the meme slogan for the Covidian age, captures the shift in the weightage of ‘demos’. Demos is now about the ‘problem’ of porous borders – of bodies, communities, enclaves, nations. Demos shows the heightening of vulnerability of the already vulnerable, and the amplification of inequality. In the new demos, we reimagine immunities: we see ourselves as vulnerable. Democracy and civic life now consists of being responsible for not impinging upon the space and, by extension, the vulnerability of the other – through conscious distancing, isolation and use of personal protection equipment (PPE). That is, to be a responsible citizen is to not share space proximately. A new social etiquette code emerges, perhaps even a moral one.
Estelle Ferrarese, a professor of moral and political philosophy, proposes that the idea of vulnerability: “presupposes a moral evaluation: vulnerability would thus appear only insofar as it entails a horizon of obligations … It enjoins us to a form of action, of protection, of care … it can be accompanied by the disapproval of those who take advantage of fragility thus formed”.
Irresponsible proximity and negligent PPE use unleash legal and social action against the civic offender. The civic space is defined as evacuated of precisely that which makes it a demos: people. It is from this presupposition that the second feature of the new civitas emerges.
The ‘horizon of obligations’ that marks a ‘good citizen’ today resonates with an older idea, of the public use of reason (or ‘public reason’), enunciated by Enlightenment thought. Public reason hypothesises that as citizens we make moral and political demands on each other. This means, we only endorse those regulations, such as physical distancing, that we believe can be justified through an appeal to shared considerations.
It is, one admits, a tough job to assume we can be governed through an appeal to public reason (given the inherent selfishness of humanity, and such), but that is precisely what the state is doing everywhere: telling us to behave because, as free and equal citizens, we expect others to behave the same way, by being conscious of public safety. The much-vaunted ‘self-reliance’ of individuals in civic society is contingent on a public reason of self-protection, an argument we believe will appeal to each member of the public.
Part of Herd
The problem is: does the employment of public reason as a persuasive strategy herald the withdrawal of the state from its essential role? This question leads to the next two points.
Shared vulnerability, we are informed, could be advantageous too, for it enables the emergence of a herd immunity (did we ever say/think we want to be a part of a herd, possessing, perhaps, a herd mentality?). This, however, is a dubious advantage, for some. The critic Judith Butler puts it well:
“Some policy-makers seeking to reopen the markets and recover productivity sought recourse to the idea of herd immunity, which presumes that those who are strong enough to endure the virus will develop immunity and they will come to constitute over time a strong population able to work … the herd immunity thesis works quite well with social Darwinism, the idea that societies tend to evolve in which the most fit survive and the least fit do not…Once the rationale for herd immunity is accepted by those who wish to open up industry and even universities, the assumption going forward is that the young and healthy will get sick and recover, increasing the number of people with antibodies [who will be] ready to work.”
Here the ‘herd’ is useful and useable: it constitutes an immune — or those with recovery-potential crowd that serves the economic interests of the neoliberal state. Butler’s critique, one can see, is directed at the new forms of a pliant and suitable ‘civitas’ that are emerging in the debates of the Covidian age.
If this civitas is being produced through insidious mechanisms such as the denial of (or provided inadequate) healthcare for all segments of the population, then the pandemic has been incorporated into a social engineering experiment. And this is a matter of some concern.
A New ‘Communism’
Fourth, and stemming from the above, the state’s role in the formatting of the new civitas has to stop being determined by market mechanisms alone. The commentator Slavoj Zizek proposes a new ‘Communism’ where the “state assume[s] a much more active role, organizing the production of urgently needed things like masks, test kits and respirators, sequestering hotels and other resorts, guaranteeing the minimum of survival of all new unemployed, and so on, doing all of this by abandoning market mechanisms.”
If the state expects public reason to be at the vanguard of a new civitas, it also, then, has to ensure that the public is ministered to fairly, equitably and consistently. Engineering a social Darwinism when asking the public to listen to reason is a contradiction in terms.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)
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