This essay by Luděk Sekyra was originally published by Seznam Zprávy on April 29, 2020.
Freedom affects us all, as does the epidemic. It serves as an ideal tool for those who wish to limit the autonomy of individuals, warns Luděk Sekyra, a developer who collaborates with Oxford University, in this essay for Seznam Zprávy.
The specter of coronavirus is haunting the world. After a century that eradicated the highest number of epidemics in history, we now have a century that has birthed a global pandemic. It is not the first, and probably not the last, to gradually make its way from Asia to the other continents.
For example, the Plague of Justinian, which broke out in 541, destroyed any ambitions that the Eastern Roman Empire would once again be united with the western part of the former empire. The plague gradually weakened its population as well as its ability to defend itself, and was one of the causes of the rise and territorial expansion of Islam. Repeated attacks of disease turned the 7th century into a dark age.
The Black Death, which began to spread in the mid-14th century, killed about a third of the population of Europe and caused people to turn away from the church, leading to the rise of fanaticism and heresies. Cruel pogroms against Jews, who were supposedly responsible for it, led them to migrate to Eastern Europe.
The so-called Asiatic cholera afflicted Europe throughout the 19th century, beginning in 1817, and caused a fundamental reform in the way that people lived alongside one another in large agglomerations, including hygienic rules, widened streets, standards for housing, and the distribution of potable water.
Finally, the Spanish flu from 1918–20, whose geographic origin is uncertain, may have killed up to 100 million people, most of them young. It had a harsher effect on the Central Powers like Austria and Germany, which contributed to their loss in World War I.
In the context of this history, there is symbolism to be found in the final words of Albert Camus’s remarkable work The Plague: the plague bacillus “never dies or disappears for good”, but “bides its time” for its day to come again.
Even though these pandemics had dramatic effects on individuals as well as society, none of them changed human nature, which can overcome traumatizing experiences with humility and hope and push them out of memory with the arrival of new ones. It is no coincidence that the Spanish flu, more global and devastating than any previous pandemic, is known as the “forgotten” one. This, too, fills me with a certain optimism and skepticism towards the dark predictions that the world as we know it will never return. Still, some features of a pandemic are always the same. The dominant subjective feeling is fear, and its objective consequence is the limitation of freedom by the authorities.
Fear and social recession
Fear of infection is a subconscious fear of death. The rich have generally left the cities for isolated residences in the country, while the poor have clung to superstition and mysticism. According to Thomas Hobbes, one of the founders of modern political philosophy, fear of a violent death is the reason for shifting power towards authorities and the creation of the state, because fear leads us to respecting and fulfilling our obligations. On a psychological level, every pandemic is an epidemic of fear. But fear, the most selfish human feeling, can also lead to a positive emotion.
Today, every day, we are witnesses to an enormous wave of solidarity. The togetherness and selflessness of health care workers in the most strongly affected areas is changing the equations of our behavior, which are critically important to overcoming the infection together. In essence, the virus is antisocial: it limits both physical and social contact, which has fatal consequences among the elderly, for whom loneliness and losing contact with loved ones has a particularly negative effect on mental health and the course of illness. This can often lead to depression and a rise in the suicide rate – that is, to what Ezra Klein aptly called a “social recession”, in which communities break down.
The social dimension of the pandemic is to a large extent in the hands of the state authority, which limits freedom, especially in terms of interaction and movement. This atomizes society and clears out the public sphere. In an atmosphere of worries about personal health, people are more willing to submit to infringements on their personal integrity; anxiety essentially makes individuals more controllable.
The value of freedom
Why is freedom so important? It is the moral foundation of our existence, and it has three prerequisites: spontaneity, which liberates it from the laws of nature; autonomy, which makes it depend exclusively on one’s reason and will; and reciprocity, mutuality, because the border of our freedom is the freedom of others.
According to Immanuel Kant, probably the greatest thinker of the modern era, “freedom is […] the inner worth of the world” and “morality first discloses to us the concept of freedom”. Freedom is not arbitrary, but the ability to act according to principles that have moral content such as respect for fairness, dignity, and equality for other members of one’s community.
Despite the fact that acting according to certain principles is quite demanding, interpersonal relations are founded on what I would call “moral gravitation”. We are attracted both by principles impressing us with their perfection and specific positions and examples of heroism and sacrifice.
Let us allow that freedom extends beyond moral behavior that excludes neutrality and calls for courage and effort, and can be expressed in other ways as well. It is nonetheless desirable to have some common denominator. I have a feeling that the one most familiar to us is the idea of the West, the idea of human rights, the rule of law, tolerance, and critical thought.
There is still currency in philosopher Jan Patočka’s claim that Czechs have to be “more Western than the West itself” because we live in an ambivalent liminal space. The previous century brought us into the arms of the East, which threatens us with its aggression, just as we are threatened by the betrayal of our own elites.
Freedom affects us all, as does the epidemic. It serves as an ideal tool for those who wish to limit the autonomy of individuals. In fact, in Greek “epi demos” indicates a phenomenon that touches every person. French philosopher Michel Foucault captured this in his famous statement from his work Discipline and Punish that “an epidemic is a dream of the powerful” because it “makes it possible to control the population”. Epidemics are probably the greatest enemy of freedom, because epidemics always represent deviations from regular rules, both hygienic and social. Especially in an environment without an established liberal tradition and a fragile institutional structure, one can see the appeal of attempts to turn a state of emergency, or elements of it, into a permanent advantage.
Today, the exemplary representatives of the Central European political mainstream are fluctuating populists. Their mission is political cynicism, riding on the moods of the moment, manipulating negative emotions towards groups of individuals as well as institutions. Their strategy, without principles or scruples, finds favor in an atmosphere of fear, whether of infection or virtual refugees. They frequently fluctuate between extremes, from proclaimed liberalism to xenophobic nationalism, from conservatism to intolerance and constitutional nihilism, from fighting corruption to corrupting their own electorate.
The face of the region embodied by this group of power players is Viktor Orbán. In the eyes of the West, the others, led by Jarosław Kaczyński, remain in his shadow, mere imitators – some more conservative, some more popular. When political positions lack authenticity, the only principle is holding power. Their reactions to the current situation are telling: the former has undertaken an unprecedented strengthening of government powers, while the latter has changed the electoral rules in favor of his preferred presidential candidate. The Czech courts, as well, have ruled that some of the steps taken by our executive have been illegal. The liberal model can come in many different shades, but it must always be a constitutional system.
Unlike in the West, the concentration of this type of politician cannot simply be attributed to the growth of social media. Their roots go deeper. Hungarian intellectual István Bibó called Central European politicians before and just after the Second World War “false realists” who tended to push out Western-style idealists. These political actors came to power on a wave of popular storms of existential fear and political hysteria and especially superficial nationalism which, ever since the national revival movements of the 19th century, had shaped the political priorities of their nations, often at the expense of liberal efforts. Thanks to these politicians, the explosive postwar period culminated in totalitarianism.
A new phenomenon falling into this model was described by sociologist Yuri Levada, who noted that the post-Soviet sphere gave rise to the “wily man”, an adaptable person who adjusts to new conditions but also looks for loopholes in them that he could exploit. He does not just tolerate unfairness and deceptive behavior, but has a parasitic mentality including an obsession with influence – not just behind the scenes.
These formative sources for the political characters of Central Europe reinforce their eclectic fluctuations – something from everything, something for everyone – but also, in contrast, the significance of principled actors like Masaryk and contributions of people like Havel. The mainstream is becoming an evolutionary environment where admiration for authoritarian models and their disciplined reaction to the epidemic is unsurprising, even though we don’t really know the true facts. However, the ever more frequent argument that regimes that issue commands are more effective than liberal and consensual ones comes up short. Especially when it is evident that initial censorship of information led to the virus’s uncontrollable spread – not for nothing are people calling it the “Chinese Chernobyl”.
Of course, some measures can be more effectively implemented in undemocratic systems. There is no debate over orders. After all, not even the nationalist American president, who effectively gave up on a broader coordination of approaches in the context of the G8, for example, has been advantageous. On the other hand, it is many times more difficult to close off an open, multicultural metropolis like New York than a provincial city like Wuhan. With all respect to the Confucian ethic, which has many parallels to the Aristotelian one that birthed our culture of virtue, it is impossible to learn to stabilize society (as Czech president Miloš Zeman has recommended) where freedom – especially negative freedom, freedom from the state – is not a political value.
An epidemic of digital control
Of course, an epidemic has many faces. Those who live in urban agglomerations face greater risks, and the concentration of infections presents a psychological and emotional burden. There is also a demonstrable connection between coronavirus and the environment: the infection spreads more quickly in greater pollution. Greta’s wake-up call is the appeal of future generations to address the climate priorities expressed in the Paris Agreement and the European Green Deal.
In connection with increased digital oversight of social interaction and movement, the epidemic threatens the inviolability of the private sphere. Also contributing to this inconspicuous erosion is the personalized online communication of the virtual public sphere. Ultimately, data intended for the fight against coronavirus can also be used for political marketing to have an influence on the next generation, perhaps a “distancing” one, for whom the value of physical contact will not be a priority because they live on the internet.
As early as the 1990s, philosopher Gilles Deleuze used the prophetic term “dividual”, which indicates a person lacking individuality. People are turning into streams of information, data, and access codes, because they live in a society of oversight – or, if you will, surveillance capitalism – where, paradoxically, an invisible version of Orwell’s Big Brother is always present. The most vulnerable among us are slowly losing the outlines of their identity; all that is left is dependence on someone else, or the habit that everything must be permitted. The result is not just fear of infection, but fear of freedom, which opens us up to responsibility and criticism.
We all want the epidemic to retreat, whether by running its course, a cure, or a vaccine. But we must be alert to the retreat of freedom grounded in autonomy, so the longed-for return to normalcy does not degenerate into the reality of a new era of “normalization” – a term that, in the context of Central Europe, has always represented a fundamental restriction of civil and political freedoms by totalitarian powers.