Coronavirus: a threat to the essence of society?
It took two months. Society as we know it has almost collapsed. A-levels are cancelled; Spoons is closed. Stock markets have plummeted; the FTSE 100 has fallen by over a third since January 20th. More than a hundred countries have imposed travel restrictions. Reservations at hotels and restaurants are non-existent, whilst the entire hospitality industry experiences a phenomenon usually reserved for the realm of economic modelling - demand is zero.
Society is a quasi-public good, something that is somewhat non-excludable and non-diminishable. Its non-excludability lies in the fact that my participation in society does not stop you participating (although, some argue that one person using the NHS does stop another, with reference to the allocation of scarce resources). Alternately, it is non-diminishable in that my being part of society does not decrease the total ‘amount of society’ available. A paradox forms - ‘society’ cannot be provided on the free market, yet is completely necessary for a market to operate.
What are the fundamental features of our society? One answer is institutions. Another is industries. These include, as suggested by philosopher Rom Harre, schools, shops, post offices, the monarchy and police. Yet these institutions are ceasing to trade… shutting down… pressing pause.
In the coming months we will stop interacting with the industries and institutions which are most normal to us, namely those educational and entertainment based. We cannot offer demand and the market cannot supply. There are no clubs, pubs, bars and cafes to go to; stage curtains will not raise each night; popcorn will no longer find its way onto the floor of cinema screens. As a result of COVID-19 the media has alluded to a potential breakdown of society. Thus, we should understand exactly what our society is. Then we might see how a tiny molecule of DNA/RNA with a protective protein layer could demolish elements of our lives which we have taken for granted for so long.
These institutions and industries appear necessary in the society that a typical person imagines. However, more elements are certainly required. The popular social history book ‘Sapiens’ argues that humans are unique in being able to believe a collective ‘lie’ in the extreme, or at least believe in something intangible. For example, a contract has the physical properties of a piece of paper, but we take its value as more than this – lying in the unseen legal force acting behind it. This builds on Searle’s ideas of three conditions necessary for communities;
Communities can collectively accept rules
Rules can exist in mental states
All rules are statuses assigned to some kind of object in the world. X counts as Y in C. e.g. paper issued by the bank of England counts as a medium of exchange and can be used as money in Britain.
If we therefore assume that some form of this collective belief is needed to form a society, then Mill’s argument that society is the aggregate of human minds is certainly convincing. It is in this common standard of morals that we could perceive the fundamental identity of our society to lie – in the fact that we have chosen to live together in groups and have joint beliefs, and not in Locke’s Leviathan “poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short” state of nature. COVID-19 has not annihilated these collective beliefs. We might not be able to go to school, but the institution of school still exists. We might not be able to meet at Spoons for a drink, but we are still social creatures. It is in our very nature to be in contact with one another, whether through modern technology or in a good old-fashioned game of scrabble with our families.
Mill has further suggested that social sciences seeks to derive the ‘laws’ governing society, but perhaps this is not the case. In the past 24 hours (I write this on Friday, March 20th) it would seem that every capitalist societal ‘rule’ with regard to the acceptable level of government spending is actually not a rule at all - more of a guideline which we don’t necessarily need to follow. For the first time in recent history, the British government, not the private market, is going to guarantee the wages of masses of the population. The Bank of England has purchased 645 billion pounds of government bonds for use in quantitative easing (designed to help stimulate spending by increasing bank liquidity, encouraging them to lend). The Australian government has announced a $17.6bn stimulus package; the UK has called for wartime levels of spending as the Chancellor announced that VAT payments for businesses would be deferred till next quarter, providing a cash injection. Conventional policy-making rules have been thrown out Number 10’s window.
This could suggest that there are no fixed laws which govern society. Yet, what then can be seen as the root of our society – and does COVID-19 truly pose a threat to this? Ancient philosophers suggest that society is rooted in justice. As long as you have a just society, you can allow your political system to flourish, enabling citizens to participate in the goings on of the state. COVID-19 seems so unjust because the country as a whole is blameless. Consequently, governments are behaving atypically to counter this injustice. In the UK, a more right-wing, traditionally less intervening ruling party is organising a level of state intervention never before seen. This suggests that ideologies are flexible; in time of true crisis, it seems parliament will do everything it can to keep society going. Governments will borrow to finance current spending when the need is greatest. Society is the ultimate public good. To keep society as something we all at least still recognise throughout these turbulent times (i.e. still as a collective of ideas, industries and institutions), evidence suggests that all governments will act.
What about international society?
Coronavirus has clearly demonstrated the lack of international cooperation or even communication between nation states; just think about how long it took China to communicate fully with the rest of the world, or the swiftness at which Donald Trump closed borders. This offers validation to the realist view of international relations, stating that the international system is in anarchy, with each state acting to protect solely its own interests. But this does not have to be the case. Super-national organisations do exist. WHO, the World Bank, the UN; all have their faults, but their mere existence is at least an indication that nation states would like to cooperate. This virus has brought a case of global need which calls for a global solution. In the case of pandemics, it is vital that we look to global, collaborative organisations such as the CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations) to counter disease outbreak.
COVID-19 has demonstrated that governments will do whatever they can to hold on to the remnants of domestic society. Hegel argued that humans are not capable of ‘self- consciousness’ independently; our identity of self requires us to distinguish ourselves from others. So, the presence of a society even through times of crisis is needed to maintain the individual identities of citizens.
Perhaps, we can learn from the plight of corona. We must recognise that international society is a public good too – one whose roots must also be maintained throughout these turbulent times.