How Pandemics Can Create Change

The Black Death of the 14th century not only shook Italian society, but transformed it. It marked the end of an era in Italy and resulted in wide-ranging social economic, cultural and religious changes. This led to the emergence of the Renaissance humanism. Humanism called for the comprehensive reform of culture, the transfiguration of what humanists termed the passive and ignorant society of the dark ages into a new order that would reflect and encourage the grandest human potentialities. Neoliberal policies of the 21st century, in an anti‐humanist perspective, criticizes the notion of social rights and social justice with the denial of any human right above the laws of the market; are now understood by many as a direct response to the progressive policies and to working people’s increased share of total wealth during the period between 1950 and 1980. The COVID-19 pandemic lays bare the need for social and economic change including social justice.

Black Death triggered a financial crisis – trade ceased because of the fear of plague. As trade stagnated, businesses failed, and unemployment rose. The plague caused a complete social breakdown in many areas. The plague led to a shortage of trained monks and priests to deal with it; the Church hastily trained new monks and priests to serve the spiritual needs of the country, still coming to terms with the trauma of Black Death. This meant than many unsuitable individuals became clerics and this led to a drop in the standards among parish priests, in particular. The Church became increasingly corrupt and gradually over time lost the respect of many believers. In the long run, an increasing corrupt institution meant that many people lost their faith. This led to increasing secularization of Italian society as many increasingly turned away from the church in disgust.

The contempt many felt is evident in stories of Boccaccio of venal and deprived priests, monks and nuns. The church had traditionally monopolized education, but after the Black Death there was more secular education, especially in cities. This was decisive in the emergence of the Renaissance, with its emphasis on human value experiences rather than religion. People at the time were no longer willing to accept the status quo. This change manifested in numerous political revolts of the time – in particular peasant revolts. No longer are people as willing not to question the old ways of doing things, and no longer accepted things because they were sanctioned by tradition. The Black Death led to the questioning of the old certainties. This led many, especially among the urban elite, to use reason to understand the world. The new spirit of inquiry helped ignite the Renaissance, especially in politics and philosophy.

The Black Death changed Italian society in the 14th century and led to great socio-economic, cultural and religious changes. This unleashed the forces in Italian society that made the Renaissance possible. Those who questioned authority and the received wisdom, such as the Poet and Scholar, Petrarch inspired the Humanist movement, which valued reason and critical thinking. The Humanists are essential in the development and progress of the Renaissance. Their name was itself based on the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero’s concept of humanitas, an educational and political ideal that was the intellectual basis of the entire movement. Humanism included not only understanding, benevolence, compassion, mercy – but also, more assertive characteristics as fortitude, judgment, prudence, eloquence and even love of honor. Just as action without insight was held to be aimless and barbaric, insight without action was rejected as barren and imperfect. This called for a fine balance of action and contemplation, a balance born not of compromise, but of complementarity.1

Neoliberalism is an anxious form of crisis management attempting to cover over the gaps in its ideological contradictions. While this ideology champions that individuals have maximum freedom, a crisis exposes the clash with neoliberal interpretation of freedom and responsibilities, on the balance between personal freedom and the common good. Neoliberalism has not only created an economic crisis but also a political crisis. The state rescue orchestrated by the Obama administration transformed the 2008 crisis in private finance into a crisis of public finance and sovereign debt, which has to be solved through the austerity politics of neoliberals. “Instead of delivering growth,” a 2016 IMF report explains that neoliberal policies of austerity and lowered regulation for capital movement have in fact “increased inequality.” As a consequence of neoliberal ideology of the past 40 years in US, the top 1% has grown 23 trillion dollars richer while the bottom 50% has grown 900 billion dollars poorer.

Nobody, looking back at the first two decades of this century, can suggest that the political, economic and financial elites who brought you the euro crisis, the war in Iraq, the Great Recession of 2008, growing inequality and middle-class income stagnation have not made some very serious mistakes, of very enduring consequences, with very startling impunity. A lot of that anger and distrust toward large institutions remains to this day. A common complaint against twenty-first century democracy is that it has lost control of corporate power. More and more are protesting, boycotting, calling out, and sharing memes that reflect their contempt and anger about politics and social issues. We need to challenge the ideal of consumption as “happiness” and shift our understanding of freedom as residing in consumer choice. The first condition to overcome is selfishness on an individual level is to develop an awareness of and its root causes, and then to practice unselfish and compassionate acts.

Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) developed a theory of cultural evolution intended to account for the development of free-market capitalism, and explained why it works so well. He believed that it had allowed him to achieve what no earlier economist had – to paint “what now seems to me a tolerably clear picture of the nature of the spontaneous order.” Hayek thought he was solving the problem of modernity: the problem of objective knowledge. For Hayek, the market didn’t just facilitate trade in goods and services; it revealed truth. Supersizing Hayek’s idea and radically upgrading the price system into a kind of social omniscience means radically downgrading the importance of our individual capacity to reason – our ability to provide and evaluate justifications for our actions and beliefs. What is the face of a failed ideology? Many are going from being nearly poor to poor.

In 1893, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim published his theory of collective consciousness, describing how within each individual there exist two forms of consciousness: an individual consciousness, which emphasizes our individuality and distinctiveness, and the collective consciousness, which includes the shared values, ideas, and beliefs that are common within our entire group or society. The major role of the corporate media is to manufacture consent in order to shape the collective consciousness in ways that further the interests of the power elite. On the other hand, the world has become a tinderbox with seemingly minor changes in policies such as transport taxes prompting massive demonstrations. Today ordinary citizens hit the streets in outpourings of years of pent-up economic oppression, tired of “just getting by” or “not getting by at all.” But there is even more at stake: our civil society and our sense of identity, both as individuals and collectively.

Further to the point, neoliberalism is a backwards approach to economics because it isn’t capital that creates economic growth. It’s people that create economic growth. And, it isn’t self-interest that promotes the public good. It’s reciprocity. And, it isn’t competition that creates prosperity. It’s cooperation. Yet, neoliberalism is tethered to capital creation as the engine for growth, self-interest as the fuel for growth, and competition as the determinate of success. Most recently, the 2020 pandemic is disruptive not only to our routines but also to our sense of physical and mental well-being. The COVID-19 virus creates concern for individuals that points to reminders of the preciousness of others, can be a motivator to reach out and connect.  Almost 40% of American adults wouldn’t be able to cover a $400 emergency with cash – on the rise since 2013 – and disruptions of the pandemic only emphasize this challenge. 

COVID-19 risk drives the concern for the well-being of others mixed with an awareness of shared fragility.  Concern for vulnerable groups that brings to mind structural inequalities, can become a motivator, also to, when the time is right, join together and address particular things so that we might not again have to worry in the same way about the same things for the same people. To make a middle-class standard of living a realistic goal once again for most Americans, markets must serve society, rather than vice versa. Government has a greater role to play than just in propping up the private sector in the short term during an economic crisis, but rather in encouraging it to do what it should in the long term. And through collective action during the pandemic – through government – we recognize there are ways we can do things that we couldn’t do alone and which the market on its own won’t.

1 Eric Lambrecht. How did the Bubonic Plague make the Italian Renaissance possible? (29 Jan 2019)

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1 Response to How Pandemics Can Create Change

  1. Zach says:

    Great read, thank you

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