ESSAY: Covid-19, Utopianism, and the Reimagination of Society
Pandemic responses produced a malleable population ready to accept and actively encourage all manner of things that they would have resisted just two years ago.
Many of us already see that the mainstream narrative about Covid-19 is flawed and implausible and that the threat it poses, while not insignificant, has been exaggerated. Despite this, our response to Covid-19 has been to fundamentally change our way of life in such a way that threatens our freedom, bodily autonomy, and dignity, by implementing radical measures that had been previously discouraged by the known science and which may very well cause much more harm than good.
Presenting evidence in support of the above interpretation of Covid-19 is important, but for many people to accept this evidence they would have to abandon a narrative that helps structure their most basic beliefs about themselves and about society and, without a new and plausible story to replace it, there’d be strong psychological pressure to instead reject the new evidence and its interpretation. Here is one such possible story.
The Utopian West
Although the word ‘utopia’, meaning ‘nowhere’ in Ancient Greek, was coined by Sir Thomas More in his 1516 work Utopia as the name of an imaginary socialist-monastic society, philosopher John Gray, in his 2007 book Black Mass, argues that the concept of utopia, a perfect society, has been around since at least the beginning of Christianity, and the history of the West is a history of utopianism. Early Christianity told us that history is teleological – it’s moving in a single direction towards a definite end – and it combined this with an apocalyptic element and an absolutist understanding of morality and the world: there is a universal fight of good against evil, and the world will end and be remade as what we might today call utopia, signifying victory for goodness and the redemption of humanity. This narrative was deeply embedded in our way of thinking because it shaped our beliefs about the meaning of life, which we thought was to partake in and encourage this historical and universal process. This line of utopian thinking, Gray argues, can be found again and again throughout history all the way through to today.
We saw this utopianism in Enlightenment thinkers like the French Positivists Henri de Saint-Simon and August Comte, who believed that inevitably we’ll reach a scientific or ‘positive’ phase of humanity, which will mimic medieval religious society, where instead of priests we’ll revere scientists and technocrats. Humanistic in their worldview, they looked forward to the replacement of God with the worshipping of humanity, and when this scientistic and technocratic society emerges, they thought, all conflict will cease, and we’ll live in utopia.
We also saw utopianism in the thought of the Jacobins of the French Revolution, and in the Enlightenment-spun totalitarian movements of the 20th century. The Soviet Union sought a communist utopia that history dictated could and would be achieved, and Nazi Germany sought a utopian ‘third age’ as an end to history, an eschatology that again harks back to early Christian mythology. Gray argues that we also see such utopianism in the contemporary world. Neoliberal and neoconservative ideology teaches that liberal democracy can and will be universalised and exported to create utopia, eventually engendering a global community of free and liberal states that don’t engage in conflict and war. This belief can be used to justify all manner of things, including, for example, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was seen by many in the US and UK governments as morally imperative to conquer evil and begin ushering in a new world of liberal democracy.
One problem with utopian projects is that people, when presented with a picture of a utopian society, rarely unanimously agree on whether this society is desirable or undesirable, tenable or untenable – thus the disagreement about whether More meant to endorse the Utopia he described or demonstrate its untenability. Another problem is that utopian thinking often leads many to think that immoral means are justified by the intended utopian goal.
Covid-19’s Utopian Potential
Western utopianism is sometimes millenarian in nature, meaning it believes in the transformative power of a cataclysmic event – the myth of Armageddon and the apocalypse – to usher in utopia and the triumph of good. In such movements, a catastrophe is expected to create the ashes from which the phoenix of a utopia can arise. These modern millenarian movements usually spring from bad societal conditions, such as economically and spiritually decimated post-WWI Germany.
Times of destruction and catastrophe can also breed a society’s susceptibility to radical change and conditioning. In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein shows how some 20th-century economists used a kind of ‘shock therapy’ on societies to help usher in free markets and liberalism. Where shock doctors intended to reduce their patients’ minds to a blank slate that could be built up again in a different way, economic shock doctors intended to use a collapsed society – whether this collapse was induced or accidental – as a blank slate upon which to build a new economic and political system. Crisis and calamity are often seen by utopian thinkers as environments to be capitalised upon to build their utopia. And, because harsh times can breed utopian thinking, those who live in such collapsed environments might become new disciples of the utopian vision.
In today’s globalised world, a deadly virus is perhaps the most calamitous and destructive occurrence that we can imagine, barring all-out nuclear war. Unstoppable global viruses as harbingers of death and destruction are as much a part of our mythos as is nuclear winter. As far as shock therapy goes, you could hardly ask for a more effective way of achieving a societal blank slate than to play on these deep-rooted fears of viruses and the very real fact that they could pose a massive existential threat to humans in our globalised world. Under such psychological conditions, should a global pandemic occur, society would be in the perfect state to both accept and encourage the development of a new utopia.
The New Utopian Vanguard
Many global influencers and leaders have been explicit in their desire to reimagine society in the wake of Covid-19. In June 2020, Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF) – a powerful and influential group whose stated aim is “to shape global, regional and industry agendas” – published his book COVID-19: The Great Reset, co-authored with Thierry Malleret. He tells us that, because of Covid-19, “many things will change forever”, and implies that this can be good, because “unless we do something to reset today’s world, tomorrow’s will be profoundly stricken”. He says that we “should take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity to reimagine our world.” It’s difficult not to interpret Schwab as saying that our world is now a blank slate upon which society can be built anew, as a utopia. And far from being the speculative exploration of a single book, this utopianism is now being implemented in the form of the WEF’s Great Reset initiative.
Klaus Schwab and the WEF are highly influential, both directly and indirectly – for example, via its leadership training programme which boasts many alumni who are currently active as political leaders – and they serve as just one example of a contemporary shift towards a kind of utopianism that, as we have seen, has surfaced time and time again throughout the history of the West. Given the influence of some of the actors who are endorsing it, this utopianism has almost certainly influenced our global response to Covid-19.
The Reimagination of Society
The global response to Covid-19 has been influenced by a kind of utopianism that was borne out of early Christian mythology and which has resurfaced over and over again throughout the history of the modern West. There are many avenues for detailed research and investigation into how this has played out specifically, but for now, we can at least say that the changes we have made in response to Covid-19 have normalised things that will enable better compliance with ongoing and future ‘utopian’ projects.
First, and most obviously, severe restrictions on space and movement have been normalised, and there’s already talk of using lockdowns for other purposes, such as to combat climate change. Second, we’ve seen a dramatic shift in our stance towards medical interventionism and bodily autonomy. While Covid-19 vaccines might be safe, the stance that many are increasingly taking towards those who don’t want one seems unreasonably hostile and forceful, given the short duration of their clinical trials and the open questions surrounding their safety and effectiveness. Gray tells us that “the theory that guides the construction of Utopia is taken to be infallible; any deviation from it is treated as error or treason”, and we’re now seeing that those who don’t want the Covid-19 vaccine are increasingly being treated as treasonous. And if the path to utopia is one of absolute good vs. evil, they might increasingly be treated as evil. Third, we’ve witnessed the normalisation of constant state surveillance, tracking, and identification, even for partaking in normal day-to-day activities. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in society’s reverence of chosen experts and their scientific proclamations. The phrase ‘the science’ is now commonplace, despite the fact that science is not absolute and is debatable, contestable, and rarely ever settled, especially when it comes to what is new, like Covid-19 and our response to it.
This last point is worth focusing on because our post-Covid view of science isn’t so different from the way that Comte and Saint-Simon said that things would be in a future technocratic and scientistic utopia. Our reverence for ideologically correct science – utopian science – is such that we now allow scientists of the WHO or experts of government-picked SAGE to structure our way of life. Our Pontiffs are the chosen scientists, our commandments are lockdowns, booster vaccines, and distancing, and our sacred garb is the mask, or, in some places and perhaps soon in more, the immunity passport. Anyone who disagrees with the commandments, takes off their garb, or challenges the Pontiffs – even if they’re qualified experts themselves – is treasonous and should be treated accordingly.
All of these changes enable the easier implementation and enforcement of whatever utopia is so desired by those who are influencing things. We now live in a world that accepts technocratic rule, state control over movement and bodily autonomy, constant tracking and surveillance, and a ‘papers, please’ approach towards many of our everyday activities, and, with each passing month, we’ve seen these things gradually become more and more normalised and further extended. We also revere as absolutely and unquestionably true the stories told by those chosen few who represent ‘the’ science and ‘the’ way forward, and we go out of our way to suppress and discredit those who deviate from this reverence and present a reasoned and informed alternative view on things.
The ultimate consequence of Covid-19 utopianism so far has been to lay the foundations for a society in which almost any projected utopia can be easily achieved. These foundations include a malleable population ready to accept and actively encourage all manner of things that they wouldn’t have only two years ago. We have yet to discover what our dictated ‘utopia’ will be, but from the perspective of the new utopian vanguard, Covid-19 has made getting there that much easier.
Jacob Fox is a PhD student in philosophy at Keele University who specialises in topics surrounding the meaning of life. He is also a freelance writer who specialises in writing about computer hardware. You can find him at https://www.jfoxwriting.com/
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