Jiří Přibáň:
4 Lessons from an Unfolding Emergency

April 4, 2020:

We recognise how free and democratic a society is by how it deals with abnormal situations and states.



  • The laughter of humanity, the roar of nature

If you are to get infected with anything, pray it’s laughter, the very best vaccine to counter the mass hysteria lurking under the surface of any quarantine. This laughter is so much more than simply mocking the ineptitude of politicians. There is, within it, a human response to the roar of nature reminding us that we are only its part, not its sovereign masters.

Still naively believing in the linear timeline of humankind, we claim that our civilisation has evolved to such a stage that we have entered the Anthropocene epoch, in which, allegedly, it is no longer nature that has the greater sway over humanity, but the other way round. We thought that nature was the world around us and that, having moulded that world so much in our own image, we had become nature’s lord and master. We took a modern-day representation of the political sovereign and transposed it to our relationship with nature, a move perceived in some quarters with rationalistic optimism and in others with apocalyptic dread about the fate of the planet.

Many believed that the voice of nature had fallen so silent that its mouthpiece was destined to be a Swedish schoolgirl who, they said, could hear its whisper much more clearly and would therefore lead us into a battle to save the planet with the zeal of Joan of Arc. All of a sudden, however, we realise not only the paradox that our civilisation’s maturity is making us more vulnerable, but also the enduring truth of humanity’s archaic experience that we can never completely dominate and control our own environment and circumstances.

In traditional societies, hygiene and health care was in the hands of priests who, in their ritual ceremonies, would combine immanent practical acts with transcendent divine commandments. The Old Testament’s rules of purification imply, for example, that Aaron’s status as high priest meant that he also held the office of chief hygienist.

The social function of priests as those who fuse immanent life, in its finitude, with transcendent order may have lost its erstwhile central political role in modern society, but has never vanished completely. The elemental experience that everything that shapes us as a community also transcends us in our capabilities is as true in today’s post-modern digitised and globalised society as it is in tribal communities.

In this sense, the coronavirus pandemic is simply nature informing us that it is not only something that surrounds us from without, but is also the place into which we are born, in which we die, and which we must respect. Nature does not roar like a lion or a tiger, but makes itself heard through organisms that are much more dangerous to us because they creep into human communities only to take them apart with deadly force. Unable to shelter from them in caves or behind city walls, we can only defend ourselves against them by engaging in the practices that form the very identity of society.

In other words, the first lesson we can take away from the current state of pandemic emergency is that society, if it is to survive, must constantly communicate with what simultaneously surrounds and transcends it as its environment. We cannot simply extend our sovereignty over natural resources and declare ourselves the supreme rulers of nature. This is precisely the sort of absurd notion that should provoke our contagious laughter.

  • A virus of absolute power

Yet it is equally evident that any response we make can only come from within society, rather than in the form of ecological and religious fatalism or political fanaticism. The more this coronavirus spreads and kills, the more it stokes questions about the essence of modern politics.

Was the legal philosopher Carl Schmitt right in viewing politics as a means to take sovereign decisions on the fate of others, and in defining sovereignty as the executive capacity to declare a state of emergency? Faced with how individual governments around the world are taking extraordinary measures, should we not accept the apocalyptically appealing idea ventured by the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who morally trivialised Schmitt’s concept of the political, fashioning it into a grim vision of a world that had become one big concentration camp and a struggle for bare life and survival? Would it not be preferable to take a sober look at what the first role of politics is, without classifying it as democratic, authoritarian, conservative, socialist, or – even worse – as good or bad?

Modern politics begins with the birth of Leviathan, the fictional monster brought into the world by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan’s voice, however, is not the roar of unfettered nature transported into the brutal world of politics, nor the seductive song of kindly human nature, as the Enlightenment would later dream. It is a realistic voice telling us that human society is dependent on political authority that is formed not because it is backed by some higher truth, but because it has the power and ability to assert and enforce obedience in society, if necessary by force.

Quite a few people have argued that the current state of emergency is tantamount to a state of war, when in fact it teaches us less about the thin line between life and death than it does about the general function of politics and its capacity to take, implement and enforce collectively binding decisions and rules. Nor is it true these days that, in a state of emergency, all power is unconditionally assumed by a dictator. On the contrary, laws invoked to declare a state of emergency serve as confirmation that emergency powers have a clear constitutional framework that cannot be transgressed.

It could even be said that we recognise how free and democratic a society is by how it deals with abnormal situations and states. And the ability to tackle such crises is guided by a society’s historical experience, cultural and political practices, and unwritten rules.

Thus the pandemic has resulted in a national unity government in Israel, while in the United Kingdom the cabinet, having initially resisted declaring a state of emergency, had a special law passed in parliament that was clearly time-limited and laid down rules restricting and controlling its own power. The Hungarian government, on the other hand, staged a coup against itself when prime minister Orbán pushed through a law handing him sweeping emergency powers and deploying the military into the economy. And in Sweden, where eugenics has traditionally been more popular than elsewhere in Europe, they embraced a risky epidemiological experiment that left schools, shops and even restaurants open.

The state of emergency in this global crisis, though absolute, is manifested differently from one country to another. Consequently, instead of an overarching state of emergency, we are seeing a global pandemic engendering many different states of emergency. Even in these circumstances, however, political will does not take absolute precedence over the rule of law. The principle of proportionality still applies to all steps taken by a government during a state of emergency, and the constitutionality and legality of those actions must be assessed retrospectively.

In exceptional situations, we expect to be strong-armed into obeying rules that will save our lives. Yet in democracies we protect our luxury of free elections. These are the most effective means of counteracting the risk of a permanent state of emergency and, at the same time, they guarantee political accountability no matter how exceptional and catastrophic the circumstances.

The second lesson, then, is that, where democratic immunity is weakened, there is a risk of a virus much more virulent than “C-19”: the virus of absolute power that will render a temporary state of emergency permanent. That is why Hobbes made every sovereign power subject to a social contract giving citizens the legal certainty that the political sovereign would not abuse its power.

  • Scientific knowledge, public opinion

While a state of emergency may seem like a sovereign moment of politics, even the current pandemic reveals, in reality, how much power lies in expert knowledge and how dependent politicians are on scientific knowledge of virology, epidemiology, mathematical modelling and artificial intelligence.

The political distinction between public opinion – the doxa that steers populists – and the expertise derived from scientific knowledge – the episteme that guides the technocrats – becomes blurred in a state of emergency. The slightest political mistake can have incalculable and fatal consequences. The doxa prevailing in the public arena is therefore stuck in absolute uncertainty, expecting the episteme of science to lead to the right political decisions.

However, whereas scientific knowledge is never definitive and can be refuted, a political decision is definite and irreversible. Moreover, modern history is crawling with instances of politically abused science and cases of bad science. Fresh in the mind, for example, is mad cow disease in the United Kingdom, when statistics predicted hundreds of thousands of infected and dead citizens in a matter of years, but in the end there were fewer than two hundred victims. Similarly, economists’ reassurances that the global system was stable right up to the moment it tumbled deep into crisis in 2008 hardly boosted the prestige of scientific opinions.

That is why, especially in the last decade, we have seen expert knowledge and its role in politics attacked from both the left and the right. The radical left was buzzing with the vision of the mobilisation of the masses and what the philosopher Ernesto Laclau described as populist reason, while the far right cut straight to the chase and railed against all members of the elite who were intent on pontificating to nations and scorning their common sense.

However, a state of emergency steeped in natural disaster means that the hard episteme dictates decisions to the soft doxa. The public sphere is a theatre of permanent conflicts between different values shared in different regimes of the doxa that never have a clear-cut rational solution, but for all that claim permanent validity. The scientific sphere, on the other hand, is an expanse of clear, but always temporary, solutions of the episteme.

Our third lesson, therefore, lies in the paradox that, as a rule, the authoritatively calm voice of scientists guided by logical reasoning must resound with the pathos of political persuasion if it is to assure the public that the measures proposed are correct. But scientists’ voices, too, can be difficult to discern in a polyphony, when what society is actually looking for in a state of emergency is absolute unity and submissiveness. There can be no straightforward decision, from either a medical or economic point of view, on whether to opt for the most stringent quarantine in the hope that it will stop the infection in its tracks, or rather to fix upon more moderate measures in an attempt to mitigate the worst effects while keeping society running. In the end it is left up to the politicians anyway, and they are reliant on the latest public opinion.

  • The value of the economic system

In recent weeks, we have probably all asked ourselves the question of whether to save human lives even at the cost of becoming much poorer in the years to come, or whether to potentially sacrifice tens of thousands of fellow citizens so as not to jeopardise the prosperity and wealth of society. While most of us dismissed the proposition out of hand, intuitively believing that saving people’s lives always takes precedence, some bankers have warned that the current situation is akin to economic hara-kiri.

Although we refuse to admit it and claim that every life has absolute value, in society our lives and everything we do actually carry only relative value. In health care, for example, the considerations that always come into play are not only whether the treatment is effective, but also whether society can afford it economically and what quality of life the patient would have. We have waiting lists for some treatments, while others are so costly that they are available only privately or for patients up to a certain age.

On the other hand, it should not just be economists and technocrats who get to decide exactly what we can afford. We should also listen to voices on the other side, as when one Spanish doctor, exasperated and exhausted from placing herself at risk every day in the fight against the epidemic, berated the nation, saying that if doctors and nurses are paid thousands while football stars rake in millions, it is Messi the people should be going to for a vaccine.

Just as our bankers are questioning the value of human lives compared to the economic crisis, we can also query the value of an economic system that, in the past three decades, has deepened social inequalities, reduced people’s opportunities in life, and indebted first households and then, to prevent itself from collapsing, entire states by resolving its own crisis on their dime. What sort of economic system is this that values so poorly the work of nurses, teachers, carers and others without whom society would have collapsed long ago in today’s state of emergency? Where did our Leviathan put his head after losing respect for his own hands and hearts?

The fourth and last lesson, then, is that even the value of economic gain is socially relative. That is why our present emergency is also an opportunity to rectify global economic asymmetry and the colonisation of other social areas, from science and education through to health and public services and all the way on to the environment.

What we are experiencing is not a battle between capitalism and socialism, globalism and nationalism, or democracy and authoritarianism. It is a much more fundamental conflict in which the market rationality of the economic system threatens to engulf all other social systems and, through money, to dictate to the law what justice is, to politics what power is, and even to art what beauty is or to science what it is to explore.

When the financial crisis erupted just over a decade ago, political institutions proved to be so weak that they let the patient dictate the treatment, and paid all of his costs in the process, while skimping on other patients. Today we are in a different situation: we are reassessing not only political, but also economic, values, and thus the next doxa of public opinion, besides saving human lives, should revisit the value of economic profit in the light of its public benefit and relationship to public goods.

In these extraordinary times, the mayor of the Sicilian city of Messina reminded us of the importance of public space and goods: sitting in isolation at his computer, he raged at his fellow citizens for breaching the curfew and shouted at them to stay at home because, while they might think they have personal freedom of movement, he has the power to forbid them from walking down the city’s public streets. This anger is brimming with the timeless political truth and paradox of today that perhaps only a virus from the outside can save us as a political community with its citizens, goods and values.

Translated from the Czech by Stuart Hoskins. The essay was originally published in
Salon, the literary supplement to the Czech daily newspaper Právo, on 2 April 2020.


Jiří Přibáň (1967) is a legal philosopher working at Cardiff University. He was Patočka Visiting Fellow at IWM in Spring 2019.