Corona and Resurgence of Communitarian Ideas

Weekly Focus curated by Ludger Hagedorn

Although liberal democracies will hopefully prove capable of mastering the Corona pandemic, this does not mean that everything will, or should, remain unchanged. Perhaps this crisis entails a clear message for our highly individualized societies, namely that the mere pursuit of one’s self-interest is not enough.

Will Western liberal societies be able to fight against the Corona pandemic with the same rigor and severity as China’s authoritarian regime? This was a nagging concern of defenders of liberalism as the new epicenter of the pandemic shifted to Europe and the United States in mid-March. Would the measures they adopt to stem its spread be as successful as the Chinese ones? Would liberal democracies have the political will to impose restrictions and be able to exercise the necessary control of their citizens to ensure obedience? After three weeks of social distancing, an almost complete standstill of the economy as well as of public life, and a significant decline in the numbers of new infections in most EU countries, we may conclude that liberal societies accepted the challenge and can cope with the crisis.

By the time of writing these lines, Russia shows the highest relative increase in infection rates world-wide. Only a few weeks ago, the Russian state-run media declared the pandemic to be symptomatic of Western decadence. They prophesied that it would not only reveal the weakness of Europe’s liberal democracies but also ultimately lead to the collapse of the EU. Unfortunately, the second possibility seems to be a real one: The EU faces a severe crisis of confidence, maybe its biggest ever, and seems to be in imminent danger of falling apart. Remarkably the EU remained seemingly absent in all recent debates. For advocates of the EU it was extremely painful to observe how unquestioningly and unquestioned one country after another chose to close its national borders. Yet with the exception of Hungary, where Prime Minister Orbán has misused the virus for an even greater undermining of democratic institutions, in most EU member states the support for moderate centrist politicians has risen. So far there is no indication that extreme nationalists will be the major beneficiaries of the pandemic. It is too early for a comprehensive conclusion, but liberal democracies have undoubtedly proven that they are capable of confronting the crisis. In his article for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung dated April 6 Udo di Fabio, former judge of the German constitutional court, comes to the cautious conclusion that democracies have turned out to be not “as lascivious, undisciplined, and granular as their authoritarian enemies had assumed, and secretly hoped for” and that liberal democracies so far have dealt “surprisingly well” with the pandemic.

The USA is, however, an exception. While European countries are starting to discuss when and how restrictions on social and economic life should be eased, the US has become the new epicenter of the pandemic. It is unlikely to be brought under control very soon. It is clear that this has to do with the absence of timely political responses to the virological challenges. The country is paying the price for a mixture of unfortunate timing and misjudgments by its political leadership. As this crisis once more lays bare, world-class innovative research and high-tech medicine are one thing, but well developed primary health care infrastructure and mass health insurance coverage is another. However, the situation in the US indicates by no means a failure of the liberal democratic order per se. On the contrary, there is good reason to believe that a broader democratic consensus from the beginning, including open debate about various strategies, would have been an advantage.

Some of the political measures and restrictions put in place in most liberal democracies are a cause for concern. The sudden imposition of certain steps towards authoritarian rule – curfews, forced closures, rule by government decrees in place of parliamentary decision-making and, not least, the almost complete shutdown of public life – should be of serious concern to every defender of liberal order. One must be critical of these measures that curtail civil liberties and democratic rights. Yet, one also has to concede that liberal democracies so far have tried to master the pandemic without undue coercion and policing measures. If they succeed in managing this crisis without serious violations of civil liberties, it will provide strong reassurance as to the capability and flexibility of the liberal model. This also includes the respect for the right to digital self-determination. The obligation to use a “Corona App” to track the movements and social interactions of every individual was recently under consideration in Austria. Useful as this may be to fight the pandemic, the violation of personal rights involved is not a minor issue. Following strong protests by the opposition parties, it seems unlikely that the measure will be adopted by the coalition government. If such open public and parliamentary debate is possible even in times of a crisis of this magnitude, it is an indication and proof of the vitality of liberal democratic values.

Although liberal democracies will hopefully prove capable of mastering the pandemic, this does not mean that everything will, or should, remain unchanged. Perhaps this crisis entails a clear message for our highly individualized societies, namely that the mere pursuit of one’s self-interest is not enough. Interestingly, it is now under almost complete isolation that many have rediscovered their need for human interaction, but also their dependence on one another in very practical ways as a “community”. The Italian invention of the joint applause by the quarantined from the balconies and windows of their apartments for the doctors and nurses at the forefront of patient care is a wonderful expression of the need for community solidarity. In France, more than 200.000 people have volunteered as agricultural seasonal workers. Inconceivable that this could have happened under “normal” circumstances. Countless people worldwide are shopping for older people, or those with underlying health conditions. And most strikingly: this pandemic reminds us that we must trust our fellow human beings that they will take all necessary precautions not to infect us, and vice versa.

This is neither to idealize or romanticize human behavior in exceptional circumstances. Situations like these bring out the best and the worst in human beings. People hoard groceries and sanitizers. In Berlin, for instance, since three weeks one cannot find any toilet paper to buy despite there being no shortages. States confiscate respiratory masks that have already been sold to some other country; some countries forbid companies to export medical equipment. News of hundreds of such examples circulates in the social media. But even these negative examples generate an awareness of how crucial communality is for our well-being. Both kinds of examples, those of generosity and those of anxious self-centeredness, demonstrate the extent of our mutual interdependence. And should make us think harder about what kind of “community” we want to live in.

The theoretical foundations of communitarianism have been elaborated by philosophers such as Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer, Alasdair MacIntyre, or Michael Sandel. Though careful not to be identified with any particular political ideology, they have clearly pointed out the shortcomings of a liberalism that overemphasizes individualistic values at the expense of community. Individuals can flourish only within a social context, they argue. This context is supplied by societies and institutions. Some of their groundbreaking writings were published and widely discussed over thirty years ago. But perhaps there has never been a better moment than now to reconsider the implications of their work after decades of highly atomistic and individualistic neo-liberal mantras like, there is no society but only individuals.  Communitarian perspectives may provide today inspiration to recalibrate the functioning of liberal societies.

Charles Taylor, who has been a Non-Resident Permanent Fellow of IWM for many years, published one of his groundbreaking articles on the topic in the Institute’s journal Transit. Published in winter 1992/93 this now classic text was aptly entitled “Wieviel Gemeinschaft braucht die Demokratie?” (How much community is needed for democracy?). It was republished (also in English) in 2017 by IWM’s partner journal Eurozine. This week’s thematic focus provides with links to the English as well as to the German version. As the then IWM Permanent Fellow Klaus Nellen explains in his lucid introduction to the 2017 publication, Taylor provides a “normative definition of democracy that avoids the pitfalls both of liberal individualism and authoritarian collectivism.” Looking at recent political developments worldwide, Taylor’s authoritative definition has never been more timely. Among other key thinkers on communitarianism is Michael Sandel, a long-time associate of the IWM and a member of its Academic Advisory Board. This link takes you to the video of the lecture he gave in 2013 in memory of the IWM’s founding rector Krzysztof Michalski. What begins as a talk about the loss of a close friend and respected scholar, turns into a reflection on the irreplaceable role that solidarity plays in our societies. Both reflections as well as further references to the rich material of the IWM archives on the subject of the need for community and the importance of bonds of solidarity provide inspiration to revisit communitarian ideas in these difficult days.

Once this immediate crisis is over, it will definitely not be over. It invites us to rethink some basic features and the functioning of liberal societies. More than ever, it is the time to reflect on

  • public health care and health insurance: there is no liberalism of choice in being left alone to suffer or die;
  • social and economic justice: these days the enthusiastic applause usually reserved for football stars goes to nurses and medical personnel, but interestingly the average earnings of a Liverpool club player is 120.000£ per week, more than three and a half time as much as the average British income per year;
  • political communication and decision making: a pattern one can discern in political processes these days is that most “strong leaders” were utterly wrong in their solitary decision-making – broader democratic involvement pays off;
  • human solidarity: being dependent on others, and have others depend on us, is the very basis of our existence; it is nothing exceptional – it is just that exceptional times make it clearer to us.

Obviously, this short list is meant pars pro toto, it could be extended in many directions. There is tremendous concern these days for the economy, rightly so. The well-being of the economy is certainly one of the fundaments of the good life. But we should not forget that the main currency of human interaction is trust and solidarity. We have the chance to realize that especially in times of a crisis such as this.

Ludger Hagedorn is a Permanent Fellow at the IWM and head of the Institute’s Patočka Archive and Program.