This essay is part of a series concerning the Coronavirus pandemic. Read more from the collection here.
Given that it was written in 2015, Pierre Manent’s opening to Beyond Radical Secularism could not have had COVID-19 in view, but his claim is relevant to the moment:
States are large, over-burdened beings, slow-moving, and always postponing the moment to reflect and decide. Inertia is their rule. . . . Only one thing seems really able to educate nations, and that is political experience, when that experience is sufficiently brutal, penetrating, and overwhelming. Eventually, as Machiavelli said, some “extrinsic accident” such as war or revolution forces the members of a nation to “recognize themselves” and to take up again the frayed reins of common life. In fear or in hope, each person is now confronted with what is held in common. . . . The choices made during decisive hours or weeks will long haunt the lives of individuals as well as the life of the nation, which will in truth be shaped by these decisions for several generations.
Whether you judge the current pandemic to be an overwhelming threat, or the government’s response to be a hysterical overreaction, the scare is certainly experienced by many, including governments, as akin to Machiavelli’s “extrinsic accident.” Choices made during these “decisive hours or weeks” may well “haunt” the life of the nation for some time.
Not only will the President invoke the Defense Production Act, but $1 trillion in aid and bailouts are being debated, curfews imposed, schools and business shuttered, and firearm sales restricted. Cities and regions are in lockdown or quarantine—perhaps for as long as eighteen months in some form or another. These are decisions made in fear and hope, and made quickly, by states not given to reflection, learning, or wisdom.
Already proposals pour forth to remake significant aspects of our society and economy: nationalizing airlines, the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, a “new collective way,” making some crisis measures “permanent,” and more. Given this supposed “new reality,” some warn of a threat to liberty, others celebrate the end of small government, while others hope the new world order is expiring.
Much of this commentary is premature and hyperbolic, although it demonstrates that Manent is correct when observing that an extrinsic accident, like a pandemic, forces citizens to “recognize themselves” and take up “the frayed reins of common life,” as each person is “confronted with what is held in common.”
What many should recognize about themselves, I suggest, is that they have long forgotten to view themselves as citizens.
The Plague of Irresponsibility and the Unlimited Sovereignty of the Self
It’s quite obvious that, in Manent’s terms, common life is “frayed.” We already know we’re bowling alone, coming apart, and alienated in our fractured republic. Social capital has eroded, and trust in institutions is low, while polarization—of age, income, race, politics, geography, education, media—is high. Many simply do not see themselves as members of a common project.
For instance, story after story details how callow youth have headed to bars and beaches, concerts and brunch, despite the pleas and warnings of health officials. One club owner summarized the attitude as “So what? You get the flu, you’re not going to die,” even while that attitude places many others, especially the most vulnerable, in serious risk. In fact, COVID-19’s nickname (for some) is “Boomer Remover.” The boomers plundered the economy and ruined the climate, after all. Given that attitude, it’s no surprise to hear some young people respond to quarantines with a plaintive, “They’re preventing us from living”—with “living” here meaning drinking and dancing during spring break. Trained to obsess over their own identity and self-definition, the young are a “generation that often appears adrift from society.”
At the very same time, some young people complain that their boomer parents are refusing—yet again—to be serious about life, ignoring social distancing guidelines and acting as though nothing bad could ever happen to them. One told his parents, who were golfing and attending their usual social engagements, to “stop being rebellious children of the 1960s and to please grow up.”
In other words, this is not a question of age. Whether boomer or millennial, it hardly matters, for many do not see themselves as citizens—as participating in and being partially responsible for the common good. Even if we bracket the moral duty to avoid needlessly harming the health and well-being of others, which is a real duty, the sense of civic friendship, that we’re “in this together” as fellow members of a joint project, seems absent from the minds of so many. (Not of all, to be sure, and thankfully.) Pericles’ famous “Funeral Oration,” in which he recounts how Athenian soldiers “fought and died” for Athens’s good while the survivors remain “ready to suffer in her cause,” reads as if from an impossibly foreign culture and time, assuming as it does that the glory and good of the city come before private interest. In our own moment, many appear to have concluded that the nation is no more than “a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money.” The invitation “to lay down one’s life on its behalf . . . is like being asked to die for the telephone company.” And let’s be honest, no one is going to sacrifice for their cell phone provider.
If one views, as many do, the civic project as little more than a bureaucratic—if largely inefficient—way of delivering goods and services, then citizenship is experienced as mostly irrelevant or an outright inconvenience. Citizenship is an occasional visit to the DMV, in other words.
The gross irresponsibility of some in the face of coronavirus is not simply a failure of their moral character, but also symptomatic of an underlying political disease. According to Manent, our misunderstanding of rights is largely to blame: “Our political regime has progressively brought about its own paralysis. . . . The rights of man have been separated radically from the rights of the citizen, and, instead of freeing members of society in order to make them capable and desirous of participating in what is common, [individuals] are now supposed to suffice to themselves, and public institutions are nothing more than their docile instrument. We are probably the first, and we will surely remain the only, people in history to give over all elements of social life and all contents of human life to the unlimited sovereignty of the individual.”
Empty Rights and Denuded Individuals
In arguing that individuals are supposed to “suffice” for themselves, Manent does not mean that contemporary Westerners are self-reliant, like Jefferson’s yeoman farmers. Rather, as Manent argues elsewhere, when natural law and natural rights are replaced with human rights, the individual is no longer viewed as an agent existing under (divine or natural) law, but as an entity unto himself. Further, the individual is viewed as fundamentally unencumbered, that is, not as existing in thick networks of identity-making relationships—such as being a daughter or son, father or mother, Christian or Jew, citizen or subject—but merely as an individual without qualities. This is a denuded individual, one stripped of all that defines and shapes actual human beings—each of whom, after all, is a son or daughter, citizen or subject, believer or non-believer. The bearer of rights, then, “is the individual considered as distinct and separate by nature itself from other individuals.” Only because one is a living individual, a “unit of life,” but without any particular qualities or commitments—man, son, father, husband, American, Christian, and son to this father, husband to that woman—does one have human rights.
This “elemental and impoverished” understanding of human nature—as unencumbered and denuded of the actual relations that make for a human life, as opposed to being merely alive; a human nature which is “sexless and ageless, with no distinct capacities”—“has been isolated as the basis of human rights.” Consequently, everything else, all other real human things into which persons find themselves thrown, are judged to be mere “constructions,” accidents; and because they are constructed it is “possible or even urgent to ‘deconstruct’” them.
Our society, and its schools and colleges, have devoted themselves to unmasking, unveiling, and deconstructing the really human things, in order to reveal them as artificial: as nothing but power, privilege, or a religious hangover: as things that need to be destroyed, so that the individual qua individual can define himself or herself as he or she wishes to be. Rights are ascribed to the denuded, not-fully-human individual; they are all but devoid of content. And thus there is really nothing reasonable to say or think about rights, since they are mainly expressions of how and what the individual wishes for himself—not as a human living under law, but as a self-defining will.
Understood in this way, individuals are unlikely to view themselves as citizens, for each is an anarchic kingdom unto himself. It becomes highly improbable that such little tyrants could envision the common good, let alone make sacrifices for it, no matter how painless and inconsequential.
Some are arguing that COVID-19 will change everything. On the contrary, it simply reveals how many of our fellows have long ago stopped being citizens. Since they do not understand themselves as living under law, the loss of ordered liberty that is (very likely) to result from the pandemic was all but inevitable in a nation that is composed of consumers who claim rights rather than of citizens who claim responsibilities.