The collective reaction following CoVid19 seems to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the state of exception continues to generate fear, panic, anxiety, in all of their respective differences. On the other hand, to more than a few people, the fear strangely enough seems to go hand in hand with a feeling of relief. If I am not wrong on this point, and even if the feeling of relief will pass as the crisis gets worse, then what are the origins of this dramatic, emotional division?
My hypothesis is that one can only explain this two-sided collective psychology if we understand the social reactions to the new coronavirus as related to the helplessness societies are experiencing in the face of another civilizational tragedy: climate change.
As already noted by many commentators, the enormous panic and action readiness that the virus has installed in both the public and the state make the political and social reactions to climate change look rather vague. Obviously, the paradox here is that despite the great tragedy that the virus is, the enormous consequences of climatic mutations will, in all probability, by far surpass those of the virus.
The actions taken against the virus are without a doubt necessary, but we are still experiencing a huge, paradoxical distance between consequences and action. Citizens and social scientists would perhaps explain this gap with an analysis underlining the relation between affect and abstraction. Here, the argument would be that climate change does not accumulate affect and action because it is abstract, while the danger of the virus is concrete, and thus affects people and provoke action. In other words, two different phenomena of different abstractions, and two different reactions, where only one of them creates the necessary affect and agency.
However, this alone cannot explain the panic, the action readiness, and the civil mobilization that the virus has accumulated. If we wish to understand the magnitude of this reaction, it is perhaps more plausible to imagine that the public and the state are indeed affected by the enormous, abstract climatic risk but that its affects, because of sheer helplessness, now is projected onto the concrete virus risk, which certainly is easier to grasp: “Finally – a tangible apocalypse.”
My point is not that the draconian interventions in the infrastructure of society are unreasonable or exaggerated. My point is simply that we do not understand the sudden panic, action readiness, or civil sacrifice in a hitherto paralyzed society if we do not – at least partly – see this reaction as result of a collective, psychic milieu that climate change has made neurotic. Two different phenomena but perhaps one and same reaction in the end.
At first glance, this analysis seems unrealistic; it is too speculative, too psychoanalytic, too hypothetical. However, what is really unrealistic is imagining that there are not mass psychological consequences when a civilization for fifty years consciously ignores the proof of the catastrophic consequences of their actions and moves forward unabatedly in the same direction.
How could it not create a collective-panic psychic environment, which can now finally be compensated for in facing the virus, when a civilization walks blindfolded beyond four out of nine planetary boundaries and continues directly into a sixth mass-extinction event?
Now, this is exactly why the panic goes hand in hand with the relief. Am I wrong to suspect that the virus has not only accumulated fear but also a certain peace of mind in at least some people? Does my intuition lead me astray, if I detect next to peoples’ anxiety almost a sense of balance? When we are not short of breath, these days, are we then not breathing even better than before?
As noted above, this doubleness seems difficult to explain. However, if we understand these affects as partly deriving from the climatic changes, then we find at least two reasons for it being a logical outcome: on the one hand, because the pandemic now allows for a concrete drain of the collective anxiety that the climate’s abstract risks accumulate; on the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, because we are right now exactly seeing how all the social systems that we thought made the ecological transition impossible – production, consumption, mobility, etc. – are not chiseled in stone but that they are in fact changeable.
If we today are relieved about the world taking a break for a while, then it is not just due to the vulgar banality that “people do not want to go to work.” If we feel a certain balance in the pandemic’s dramatic reorganization and short circuit of society’s social and economic systems, then it is due to sensing that the “acceleration society”[i] can be stopped and that its unimaginable consequences after all might not be inevitable.
Thus, the point is not only, as Slavoj Žižek has argued, that the virus is a strike at the heart of capitalism. He is probably right that it is, but if this heart flicker leads to a collective feeling of relief, then it is because the lurking climatic catastrophe no longer appears as an absolute necessity. The relief emerges because the concrete crisis has shown us that the abstract crisis might not be unavoidable.
So, as Karl Polanyi would say, society can still defend itself[ii]. And not only are we watching social systems change, we are even discovering how social values are changing accordingly. Sure, some people are reinventing themselves as Ayn Randian, sovereign individuals by hoarding toilet paper, and a few of the ultra-rich escapists that Bruno Latour and I have previously discussed as a geosocial elite have fled to New Zealand where they are hiding from the virus in their climate secured bunkers[iii]. However, as Rune Lykkeberg notes, in general, the panic seem to have generated practices of solidarity that were impossible to even imagine a few weeks ago.
This only makes the relief even bigger. Both our material and social destiny are still negotiable. And if this is an important realization, it is of course because of the hope that we – when the time is right – will be able to take advantage of the current, collectivist momentum and its political energy to create a realistic connection between the direction of civilization and its earthly, material conditions of existence. However, the possibility of this is much greateer if we understand that it might already be the absence of such a connection that we are reacting to, in panic as well as with relief.
This relief might very well disappear from the horizon within a few days or weeks, when the virus crisis reaches its ultimate point. Fear will be all we have left and we will unequivocally wish ourselves back to the days where everything was as it used to be. However, this does not necessarily make its insights any less important or valid – perhaps even the contrary.
It will be a strange spring and perhaps even a strange summer. However, maybe the concrete threat has given us a number of cognitive and practical strategies to counter the more abstract crisis that we are facing with climatic mutations. Despite its tragedies, the virus might end up as an emancipatory tool in an age of paralysis.
21 March 2020
Nikolaj Schultz, sociologist, is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen. He is currently a visiting scholar in Paris, where he is working with cosupervisor of his PhD thesis, Bruno Latour, on developing the concept of geosocial classes.
[i] Hartmut Rosa 2013: Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, New York: Columbia University Press.
[ii] Karl Polanyi 1944: The Great Transformation. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. See especially Part II, “Self-Protection of Society”, pp. 136-228.
[iii] See Rupert Neate 2020: : “Super-rich jet off to disaster bunkers amid coronavirus outbreak”, The Guardian, 11th March, Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/11/disease-dodging-worried-wealthy-jet-off-to-disaster-bunkers and Edward Helmore 2020: ”Coronavirus lifestyles of the rich and famous: how the 1% are coping”, The Guardian, 13th March, Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/13/coronavirus-lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous-how-the-1-are-coping