Hannah Arendt once wrote that in times of deep crisis “we have a right to expect illumination”. It seems callous to suggest that this tenebrous pandemic is letting the light in, and daft to offer immediate consolations amid so much grief. But there is a sense that, with the world having ground to a halt, our fantasies are finally taking flight.
Much of what we have always been told was impossible is actually happening: the homeless are (in some places) being housed in hotels while prisoners are (in others) being released. Kids are told not to go to school and to forget exams. Massive government spending is ensuring that people are guaranteed an income even if they can’t work. Private hospitals in Spain are being nationalised. A hospital has been built in London under a fortnight. In Portugal, tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers have been “regularised” and given full rights. It’s not quite a revolution, but it’s an epic conceptual awakening.
I live in Parma, but despite the profound anguish here in Italy, it also feels, paradoxically, as if the world has come right in some way. With our despoiling suddenly stopped, wildlife is returning with innocent ebullience. Bottlenose dolphins have been playfully leaping in the waters around Venice. The canals are so crystalline that swans, and shoals of fish, have returned. Hares graze undisturbed in parks in Milan. Deer have been strolling the golf courses of Sardinia and paddling along sandy beaches. Mallards are bathing in Piazza di Spagna and birds have been nesting in the crooks of closed-up, disused wing-mirrors.
In some ways it’s like a blissed-out stoner’s dream of what the world might be. The “Pianura Padana”, the flat plain of the Po valley, usually has some of the worst air pollution in the world. The air is now perfumed by spring. You can see the mountains. Two weeks ago we were singing Rino Gaetano’s The Sky Is Evermore Blue from our balconies.
Realists have, rightly, tempered the utopian excitement and warned of a bleak future. Outbreaks of localised barbarism and criminality are predictable when people feel impoverished, paranoid and vulnerable. Already, in Italy, we’ve had instances of toughs refusing to pay in supermarkets. Democratic politicians have had a taste of almost dictatorial power over the people, and it will be hard to roll back rule by emergency decrees. Countries like Hungary might be slipping away from the democratic fraternity. Public health will be an excuse to ramp up state surveillance and, when we need to jump-start the economy, environmental protections may well be ripped up. The counter-revolution, those seers say, is just around the corner.
But despite all these fantasies, one of the consequences of the crisis is that we’re suddenly more serious about the truth. “Accurate scientific, economic, political and social information about what is happening somewhere,” Bill Foster, a history lecturer at Homerton College, Cambridge, told me last week, “is suddenly valuable everywhere. It’s literally a matter of life and death. We might just be tempted now to remember what we lost when we started to abandon trying to find truths together.” It’s intriguing that it’s taken this pandemic, rather than sensitive referendums and elections, to persuade social media companies of the need to combat fake news and conspiracy theories.
Without truth there is no trust, and the gates of civilisation are wide open to political blackguards and devious disinformation. Those gates have been open for decades, and it’s one of the hard-to-swallow lessons of this contagion that gate-keeping is paramount, that we need boundaries and membranes. Having managed a therapeutic community for almost a decade, I’ve always known that blocking, or expelling, damaging elements was vital to communal wellbeing ( you can’t, for example, have drug use in a rehab). I knew that monastic wisdom depended on enclosure. But I still instinctively baulked at any impediment to free movement on a global level. We internationalists inevitably struggle to accept the idea. And yet the very first principle of a functioning group (as enunciated by Nobel prize-winning political economist, Elinor Ostrom) is “effective exclusion of external, unentitled parties”.
The penny has also dropped that wellbeing isn’t individual but social. We are not actually independent at all, but dependent. We can make each other sick and we can try to make each other well. We’ve understood that a healthy community (as Wendell Berry wrote in his essay Health Is Membership) isn’t merely human, but also “its soil, its water, its air”.
It has been fascinating to see the speed at which other attitudes have changed. The indignation expressed towards people not respecting social distancing (from those who would never normally describe themselves as moralists) has been understandably shrill: here too we’ve suddenly realised that the wellbeing of the group is endangered by indifferent individuals, and that community – for which we’ve yearned for so long – means originally simply a pooling of duties.
In The Need for Roots, her manifesto for how to refound society after the second world war, the philosopher and activist Simone Weil wrote that “the notion of obligations comes before that of rights”. It’s a complicated, but convincing case, and it seems to me that in the last month there has been a radical shift in the balance between rights and responsibilities that has changed the timbre of our lives. I’ve never seen so many news items about applause, or so many social media posts accompanied by clappy emojis. Before, “in the absence of adversity”, the psychiatrist and philosopher Iain McGilchrist said this month: “We grew flabby, selfish. We manufactured grievances that now can be seen for what they were.” Now, when people meet their obligations to us we’re obliged. Gratitude replaces knee-jerk annoyance.
The lockdown has made everything local. The world has got much larger and we’re rediscovering corner shops and neighbours, the wisdom of proximity and closeness. The great Italian communalist Lanza del Vasto once urged: “Find the shortest, simplest way between the earth, the hands, and the mouth.” That shortening of the supply chain has rehumanised us slightly. We’re bartering with strangers on our street and sales of yeast and flour have increased exponentially as we rediscover the consolations of baking.
I have a high-powered lawyer friend who has described the joy of just darning socks and knitting. It sounds folksy, I know, but the kitchen table is the centre of our lives once more. We’re rediscovering that frugality and resourcefulness are creative, if not always comfortable. Last week I was cutting the communal grass of our palazzo – the only place our kids can play outside – with a borrowed billhook, which is a bit like cutting hair with a fork.
That centring has been mental as well as physical. It’s a truism of modern life that we struggle to be settled or present. Because we can be anywhere, we actually end up being nowhere. We suffer, as the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once wrote, an “electronically assured out-of-placeness”. We’re notoriously fidgety and lacking attention. We just keep clicking and tapping. When I was running our community, one of the hardest things for those in early recovery was just to sit still. We used to have Quaker-like silences twice a day, and to begin with, many just couldn’t cope with the sudden stillness.
It seems to me as if we’re all in a similar situation right now. We’ve come to an emergency stop, and it’s painful not just because we’re separated from others, but because we can no longer separate from ourselves. Until now we’ve kept frenetically busy to keep from reflection, but now that we’re still, demons, voices and shame can quickly surface. I know friends who are suffering panic attacks, even something close to psychosis. Many are alone and far from the solace of any fellowship.
The poet and psychologist Hala Alyan wrote a beautiful essay in Emergence magazine last week, in which she suggested that this pandemic is “serving as a flashlight – illuminating people’s unsteadiest, half-finished parts. It’s showing us where our work remains. People talk about their ex-boyfriends, their long-resolved eating disorders, their childhood secrets…”
My optimism about this time of collective retreat isn’t a denial of such anxieties or lonelinesses, but the opposite. The Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen once described a healing community as a place not where “wounds are cured and pains are alleviated”, but where “wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision”. I don’t delight in the pain, but I am glad we’re being honest about it.
It may be that this medical emergency will offer the space and time for us to focus, for once, on our interior worlds. Because any speculation about the future is redundant unless there is spiritual, as well as medical, healing. Johnny Sertin, founder of a soul-centred consultancy called Becoming, said last week: “We need another way, another world, but it’s impossible if we cannot do that from a place of being at home with who we are.”
As we’re all pondering self-preservation, it’s inevitable that we’re wondering what has been eating us up all this time. Many of the friends I’ve talked to in recent weeks have expressed relief that there’s an enforced detox from shopping. Many seem to have realised the true nature of consumerism, which is that we’re not only consumers but also being consumed by it. Choice is so limitless that we never make up our minds. All the energy, movement and money to buy stuff and experiences leaves us feeling empty and remorseful. I personally know that every time we drive to the out-of-town shopping mall, built (allegedly) on the proceeds of organised crime, with speakers in the car park blasting the very worst pop music, to buy cheap clobber for the kids – it rips my spirit.
As long ago as 1955, Victor Lebow suggested that we seek “spiritual satisfaction” in consumption. Acquisition pretends to fill an existential void but only deepens it. We’re constantly engaging in a psychic gorging and purging that leaves us weak and guilty. It’s only during this slow-down that I realise how similar we are to Leonia, the imaginary society described by Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities: “expelling, discarding, cleansing a recurrent impurity. Street cleaners are welcomed like angels”.
It feels as if this crisis is allowing us to glimpse the back office of society, not just those street cleaners, but also the detritus we’re sprinkling every day online. Perhaps it’s because notions of personal protection are now at the forefront of our minds, or because talk of biometric monitoring and state surveillance are now being explicitly discussed… but I feel as if we’ve finally awoken to the truth about the information age: that it’s we who are being informed upon. In an attempt to understand this pandemic, many of us are fixated with statistics, graphs and clusters. But we’re also constantly giving ourselves away. That jittery clicking comes at a cost. As that old adage goes: “When something online is free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.”
It seems even more important now, because almost the last distraction now left to us is the internet. All our social rituals – in pubs, clubs, schools, religious gatherings – are currently mediated by screens. There’s still idealism in our digital connections, as evidenced by the open-source community’s collaboration on the design or production of medical equipment. But our online habits are being constantly monetised. Writing about surveillance capitalism last week, Simona Guerra, an associate professor of politics at the University of Leicester, said that, just like manual labour of old, “human activities themselves are sold and bought”.
Because of this crisis we’ve also begun to question the greatest absolutism of the last half-century: the supremacy of the market. It’s become clear, as Rowan Williams said to me, that “the so-called ‘market state’ is lethally ill-equipped to cope with large-scale collective crisis”. The minimum wages of essential workers, the failure of supply and demand for medical equipment and the sheer cruelty of comments suggesting that the vulnerable could be sacrificed to keep the economy going – all have revealed the pickpocketing of the market’s “hidden hand” and the steepness of its “level playing field”.
It’s as if the sacred “market” has, like a hated dictator, finally been toppled. Instead of our society having a market, we’re realising that the market had our society. Jonathan Rowson, the philosopher and director of the Perspectiva research institute, wrote recently that “the state”, instead of “socialising and humanising the economy”, had allowed “markets to gradually economise and dehumanise society”. Even the Financial Times has been advocating Keynesian, collectivist financial packages. We’re rehabilitating those heretics who have long lamented neo-liberalism’s corrosive effects. The great social theorist Steven Lukes is blunt: “market fundamentalism”, he told me, has created “devastation and unbridled inequalities”.
Globalisation has been a large part of the market’s supremacy. The idealistic telling of globalisation was that it was an equitable trading free-for-all which could enrich the poor. The reality, though, has been incessant outsourcing so that our consumables remain as cheap as chips. We’ve come to expect all produce, at all times, in all seasons. Globalisation has been a race to the bottom, which has created semi-slavery at the harsh end of very long supply chains. It has eradicated businesses and jobs close to home and shred local networks of trust and kinship. Like the globe-trotting money, we’ve become frenetically mobile and rootless.
But the most naked truth of this crisis is that we can no longer remain in denial about finitude, not just our own as we see mortality close up, but also our planet’s. The Quaker economist Kenneth E Boulding once (allegedly) said: “Anyone who believes in infinite growth on a finite planet is either mad or an economist.” It’s so obvious it’s been ignored for decades. But if this Covid crisis is a dress rehearsal for the climate one, we have seen some of the costs and consequences. “The case for post-growth economics,” Rowson says, “just became stronger. We need economies that make sense of 8 billion or so human beings living together in a planetary system as a whole, not the extraction of profit to achieve abstract aggregate targets like GDP.”
It’s long been one of the truisms of modern life that we suffer mythic deprivation. We tell stories, but are never enveloped in one. There has been no belonging and thus no community, no heroes and no quests. Suddenly we have all the above. But it’s not entirely like a film where the heroes would be the medics dying to save us (125 in Italyat the time of writing) and the quest would be the global race to find a vaccine. They’re just a part of this story. Heroism for the rest of us is much subtler and quieter: it’s about restraint and retreat, solitude and stillness. And our quest is perhaps even harder: to discern the common good and look for enlightenment in this darkness.
Tobias Jones is the author of A Place of Refuge