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A Sociologist and a Philosopher Attempt to Learn from COVID

Edward Avery-Natale, interviewed by Colin C. Smith

My childhood friend Dr. Edward Avery-Natale is a professor of contemporary sociology, while I am a lecturer in ancient philosophy.  Although Ed studies the modern world and I the ancient, we are often struck by the overlaps between our research.  In particular, we are both interested in human culture, the tension between individual and society, and the struggle to achieve collective flourishing specifically through care, mutuality, and mindfulness. The recent COVID pandemic has left us wondering what, if anything, we have learned from this global tragedy.  These are highlights from my interview with Ed as we attempted to answer this.

CCS: How has your understanding of human culture changed since the onset of the COVID pandemic?

EAN: When COVID began, I felt optimistic. I remember being in the grocery store right before shutdown; the lines were enormous, stretching down aisles and the shelves were getting empty.  But everyone was being respectful and kind. People waited in line, strangers were talking to one another.  As lockdown began, it seemed like people were going to take care of one another.

Obviously, I was wrong, and that shouldn’t be terribly surprising.  Resistance to masking and quarantining are only recent victims of larger polarisation, and this tells us something interesting about identity. Specifically, it shows how particular identifications end up being affected by others, even when the subjects don’t realise it. Many who made the decisions to boycott masks or dine indoors would probably list ‘patriot’ as an important identification; these identifications are affected by larger socio-political events, as well as other identifications like those of political parties. 

The effect seems to be multifaceted: one perceives only some as ‘real patriots’; one is willing to threaten the lives and wellbeing of those who are not ‘real patriots’; one is even willing to risk one’s own life by exposing oneself to a deadly virus to show what side of an identitarian conflict one is on. In other words, it seems impossible to explain what we have witnessed since COVID began without understanding the ways in which multiple identifications intermingle in particular geo-socio-political spaces, constantly affecting and being affected by one another.

CCS: Surely the COVID disaster has indicated ways in which identitarian allegiance might be far more significant–and far more exploitable by the powerful toward violent ends–than we had previously realised, no?

EAN: Yes, the co-constitution of identities is even more exploitable than we had thought. Of course, most had already moved on from the more naive class-determinism of Marxism-after-Marx, such as those who saw the working class as destined to become proletarian revolutionaries in appropriate historical circumstances. We saw this forward movement in the ideas of Gramsci, Althusser, Laclau, and others. And we now recognise that the working class, especially the white working class, can be too easily convinced to act against their own economic interests. What we have seen in the last few years is that this is even more troubling than we knew. COVID taken together with the pro-Trump Capitol Hill Riots of 6 January in the United States, Brexit, and other global uprisings of the white working class in nationalist fervour show that the interplay of different identifications can be exploited by opportunistic right-wing populists. There is no way in which keeping Trump or Johnson in office is good for the working class; there is no way in which sacrificing the wellbeing of oneself and one’s neighbours through refusing to wear a mask is good for anyone. And yet, here we are.

Historically, white people have privileged their racial identity as whites over their class identity.  Therefore, poor whites identify with the sideshows that are Donald Trump or Boris Johnson more than they can with the poor Blacks being murdered in the streets. From this, we can follow a trajectory in which the relationship between being white and being poor is distinctly intertwined in a way that has too often hindered the working class from developing the class consciousness that Marx believed necessary for a proletarian identification. This is ultimately a lesson in intersectionality: one is never only their class, race, gender, sexuality, nationality, religion, or whatever else; one is always and forever all of them at once, and the distinct intertwining of these diverse identifications in a particular geo-political space will produce distinct outcomes.

In the United States, this manifested in the Capitol Hill Riots and, oddly, in anti-masking protests. It is unlikely to be a coincidence (which is not to imply a conspiratorial plot) that anti-mask protests further enabled the already deadly spread of a virus that took an especially brutal toll on Black and Indigenous communities. We see, then, that to understand the actualisation of this particular strand of populist and nationalist violence, whether directly through rioting or indirectly through anti-masking, we need to understand the relationships between class, whiteness, gender (including toxic masculinity), and so on.

CCS: What failures has COVID exposed?

EAN: One is the failure of education, including civics education, political education broadly, and critical thinking in all forms. Specifically, I am thinking here of the failure to understand freedom. It’s clear that too many think that ‘freedom’ means, ‘I can do whatever I want even if it hurts others and without any semblance of consequences’. This is a foolish notion of freedom; perhaps it is a modern variation of Hobbes’s state of nature.  Personal freedom must always be balanced with social responsibility, as we see throughout the history of free and democratic political thought. The freedom of speech requires that I not scream ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre when there is no fire (and, furthermore, the responsibility to speak truth); similarly, the freedom to assemble clearly requires the social responsibility not to assemble without masks in times of plague.

But too few grasp this concept. This suggests that they have not thought about what freedom and responsibility really mean, nor have they given thought to how we should live together in a free society. This is, amongst other things, a failure of education to take its responsibilities seriously.

CCS: Given that the COVID disaster has shed light on the inconsistencies, or even incoherences, of our Western understanding of notions like ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’,  how can we use this historical moment collectively to refine our understanding of global society?

EAN: This is the perfect thing to think about globally. COVID began in China, spread rapidly to Italy, dominated the United States, and is wreaking havoc in India, which is to say nothing of the horrible toll it is taking on Brazil and the rest of the world. Although there is a significant misunderstanding of concepts like ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’, and ‘justice’ in the United States, I do not believe this to be a uniquely American problem. Instead, this relates to the global remanifestation of fascistic tendencies, and fascism has always had biopolitical components. This trend, most infamous in the case of Hitler, has recently reemerged in America with Trump, Brazil with Bolsonaro, England with Johnson, India with Modi, and so on. All of these leaders have sympathies for nationalism, populism, and authoritarianism, and, through COVID and xenophobic assaults on local minorities, this incorporates twenty-first-century biopolitics and necropolitics.

Countries with less sympathy for such fascistic ideologies have done better with COVID overall. Why? My guess is that the countries that have slipped into authoritarianism and xenophobia, while making some facetious claims about ‘freedom’, are also practicing a general lack of sympathy and concern for the Other. In other words, there seems to be some sort of relationship between not caring about the plight of migrants and refugees and not caring about others already within borders. Both cases entail a solipsistic, apathetic, and narrow-minded focus on the individual and a seeming rejection of external concerns. In the case of COVID, one must reject any concerns for those outside of the boundaries of one’s body. In the case of migrants and refugees, one must reject any concerns for those outside of the boundaries of one’s nation.

What does this add up to? Some say that we now should have more sympathy for quasi-authoritarian moves like forced tracking on our phones to help monitor COVID exposure or momentary lapses into martial law. I have to admit, I understand these thoughts and have, at times, felt sympathetic. Countries like South Korea and China, among others, have managed to implement such programs to positive effects.

However, I offer an alternative perspective: we need to revive the principles and values of democracy (i.e., democracy writ large and not simply the bureaucratic, hierarchical, top-down structures of the contemporary nation state). To take the project of democracy and self-governance seriously, we have to reinvigorate the long-held truth that personal freedom requires social responsibility.  To do so would, ideally, result in a better understanding of why we need to care for our fellow humans, what freedom and liberty really mean, and why wearing a mask to care for our fellow citizens is a sign of democratic vibrancy. Genuine concern with democratic thought, civics, liberty, and citizenship can encourage a willingness to engage in masking and vaccination, as well as an openness to immigrants, refugees, and all our fellow humans. If I’m right, then we needn’t concede to authoritarianism to protect ourselves. Instead, we need to take the values of democracy more seriously.

Ancient Philosophy Today: DIALOGOI provides a forum for the mutual engagement between ancient and contemporary philosophy. The journal connects interpretative work in ancient philosophy to current discussions in metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, and assesses the continuing relevance of ancient theories to current philosophical interests and debates. Find out how to subscribe, or recommend to your library.

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