In his Public Opinion Walter Lippmann writes about the ‘union sacrée’ (which I think derives from this) in which the fragmented character of public opinion is suspended by a coordinated purpose, seeking to enlist or crush any instinct contrary to it:
The symbols of public opinion, in times of moderate security, are subject to check and comparison and argument. They come and go, coalesce and are forgotten, never organizing perfectly the emotion of the whole group. There is, after all, just one human activity left in which whole populations accomplish the union sacrée. It occurs in those middle phases of a war when fear, pugnacity, and hatred have secured complete dominion of the spirit, either to crush every other instinct or to enlist it, and before weariness is felt.
This is a political minefield but it’s hard not to see the resemblance between the political character of wartime society he points to here and the political character of societies engaged in a ‘war on Covid’. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the generational character of this experience and how it intersects with class position and political outlook. At risk of generalising wildly from people I know (a category which becomes progressively more similar to me the older i get) and those I observe through weak tie and parasocial relationships, there was a sense of moral seriousness with which millennial leftists approached the pandemic. I suspect there are a number of reasons for this: a commitment to solidarity as a value, a desire to realise solidaristic responses to the crisis, a sense this was something akin to a warm up for the climate crisis and perhaps even a (complex and ambiguous) response to the nascent union sacrée and the unfamiliar feeling of inclusion within it.
I add those caveats about the epistemic constraints of my own networks because I’m trying to make sense of how class position shaped my own response, the responses of those I’m generalising from and the framework through which I have made sense of and imaginatively expanded upon those responses. I can see how the same measures I’m implicitly endorsing as solidaristic have amplified existing inequalities, producing new patterns of post-pandemic inequalities. The thing which feels most obvious to me is how widely academics have failed to account for their own positionality. This struck me again this morning when reading Franco Beradi’s Third Unconscious. He writes on loc 642:
We stopped consuming and producing, and for over a year we stayed home, looking at the blue sky from the window and wondering how all this will turn out.
Who is ‘we’? Statista suggest only 31.6% of the Italian population were working from home by April 2021, almost half of whom were in hybrid working patterns. However for university graduates this was 52.2%. Even allowing for these numbers being much higher during initial lockdowns, it’s likely a minority experience to be staying at home for a year with nothing to do but wonder about how things will turn out. Even for those who cold stay at home, there are significant differences. I’m enormously privileged in a whole range of ways but I was on a fixed term contract with nine months left when the pandemic started. I can only imagine how the existential stress this generated would have been compounded by factors such as significant caring responsibilities, existing financial difficulties or mental or physical ill health. It’s easy to see these occlusions when we look at the writings of a famous philosopher, while allowing for the complex interplay between physiological vulnerability and financial security which has characterised the pandemic experience of many (though far far from all) septuagenarians such as Berardi. But I’d like to understand the comparable occlusions in my own thought and, as is often the case, reflexive inquiry of this sort has opened up broader questions about the sociology of the pandemic which I find extremely interesting.