From corona anxiety towards a new Enlightenment – Why a return to normal is not a meaningful option

BY GUIDO PALAZZO

Why do societies collapse? Jared Diamond (2005) finds a rather simple, but frightening, explanation. When we are in a crisis and we do not know what to do, we tend to reinforce established routines. Sometimes, those routines make things worse. These might even be the driving force of the crisis and, as a result, societies collapse.

Default mode of consumption

The dominating routine of the modern Capitalist society is consumption, an activity so defining for us that, in moments of crisis, more consumption is perceived as the appropriate solution. In reaction to the September 11 terrorist attacks and the financial crisis of 2008-09, politicians incentivized and motivated the population to go shopping in order to restart the economy – and so they did. The pattern holds also in the Corona crisis: for example, at their Guangzhou flagship store, Hermès made USD 2.7 million in sales just on the weekend of the post-quarantine reopening (Lerma, 2020). Previous crises even ended with higher levels of consumption, as Schmelzig (2020) showed for the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages, where city states like Venice had to impose severe tax on luxury goods.

The looming specter of the ecological crisis

This default mode of consumption is dangerous since it is the driving force of the much bigger ecological crisis (Otero et al., 2020) that has been temporarily eclipsed by the urgency of the pandemia. Back in 2009, Rockstrӧm and colleagues identified the nine biggest ecological risks, arguing that some of these were transgressing irreversible thresholds. Since then, this ecological crisis has seemingly accelerated. Consider just these four bits of information, all published in October 2019:

  • The governor of the Bank of England warns that financial markets might abruptly collapse because of rising temperatures and that companies will go bankrupt if they fail to adapt their strategy to the changing environmental conditions.
  • A study predicts that the US army and infrastructure could collapse over the next two decades due to the climate emergency (Brosig et al., 2019).
  • A study finds that up to 78% of insects have disappeared in Germany in just one decade (2008-2017) (Seibold et al., 2019).
  • Over the last 50 years, one in four birds has disappeared in the USA (Rosenberg et al., 2019).

Using temperature projections, Trisos, Merow and Pigot (2020) have argued that the climate crisis is highly probable to arrive with the same cataclysmic and disruptive impetus as the corona virus. Regarding these imminent problems, Bruno Latour (2017) argues that “as horrendous as history has been, geohistory will probably be worse since what had remained quietly in the background up to now – the landscape that had served as the framework for all human conflicts–has just joined in the fight”. In the current pandemia, humankind watches helplessly, while nature is acting. Consider this situation a test run.

The return to normal. Or not. 

Although we know about the link between the ecological crisis and our way of life since a few decades, we obviously have a very flat learning curve. Humankind burned more fossils and produced more CO2 after Al Gore’s first book on the climate (1992) than in the entire human history before (Nova, 2020). Why are our routines so “stubbornly persistent” (George et al., 2016: 1880), given that we know that infinite growth on this finite planet is not possible and potentially leads to collapse? In the current pandemia, why are we motivated to save shareholders and kick start the consumption machinery as soon and as forceful as possible so that we return to normal? The Fridays For Future Kids and the Extinction Rebellion, two movements that mobilized millions of people in 2019 around the world, identified that normal was the problem. In this pandemia, what we certainly do not need is a return to this normal. A societal transformation towards a more sustainable society requires a thorough understanding of the mechanisms that keep us from changing our routines and that let us stubbornly sleepwalk into trouble.

My proposition is very simple: Societies are guided by narratives in which values and beliefs about the world are transmitted, reinforced and enacted. It is with reference to such powerful linguistic patterns that Orwell (1946) argued “words [are] like cavalry horses answering the bugle [they] group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern”. We act without thinking, following the signposts of the metaphors we live by (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Societies only change when the web of beliefs changes.

Current dominant narrative

The narrative of our pre-corona normality is neoliberalism. This narrative contains a series of assumptions about the world and makes particular normative claims that might help to understand not only the behavioral dynamics behind the ecological crisis, but also our current reactions to the pandemia. It can be summarized as follows (Gonin, Palazzo & Hoffrage, 2012):

Neoliberalism is based on the idea that human beings are egoistic utility maximizers, with some economists (e.g. Williamson) even arguing that humans are opportunists who break contracts whenever they can and thus need to be kept under strict control. From a neoliberal perspective, society is nothing but an aggregation of individual interests that have to be protected against the government and that manifest foremost in the freedom to own property. The modern-day property owners are shareholders, whose right to maximize profit trumps all other rights. This simple interest in profit maximization should be considered the only social responsibility of corporations because free markets (as unregulated as possible by as weak a government as necessary) will transform those egoistic interests into welfare for everybody. Welfare will trickle down through the “magic of the market”, as Ronald Reagan called it. Abracadabra. On those markets, we engage in a Darwinian struggle for survival because competition is supposed to be the dominating human drive.

In the neoliberal narrative, resources are endless and the ability of the planet to absorb side effects is unlimited. Infinite growth is natural. Progress manifests in a combination of always more efficient production processes and always higher levels of consumption, with the latter being the key to happiness. In 1955, economist Victor Lebow summarized this narrative: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individualityin terms of what he wears, drives, eats- his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.”

Globalization of neoliberalism

The end of the Socialist experiment in 1989 reinforced the impression of the superiority of the neoliberal narrative and led to its globalization, both for production (globally stretched supply chains) and consumption (planetary expansion of Western mass consumption). It was “the end of history” as Francis Fukuyama triumphantly claimed in the 1990s. However, globalization took away one decisive element of the neoliberal narrative – one that had tamed and framed markets to a certain degree: Within the postwar nation state world, the law was perceived as the limit to profit maximization and Capitalism was assumed to be embedded in democracy. Under the post-national constellation, such limits disappeared for globally operating companies and the link between democracy and free markets became questionable. Operating in globally stretched supply chains, multinational companies could achieve even higher profit margins.

The question is, why do such higher profit margins exist? A superficial answer would be that this is due to variations in salaries, tax or other cost factors. While this is certainly true, the deeper truth is otherwise: higher profit margins exist because companies with headquarters in stable, developed and democratic countries, work with suppliers in corrupt, fragile, repressive and underdeveloped countries with dysfunctional regulation. Higher profit margins result from the exploitation of humans and of nature in such contexts. So-called externalities. As a result, consumers in developed countries can buy and replace stuff at an accelerated speed and always at decreasing prices. A vicious circle for the planet, a paradise for shareholders, a role model for underdeveloped countries, and a threat to democracy. Globalization has aggravated our problems by contaminating the whole planet with the virus of the neoliberal narrative.

An enchantment lost

Over recent years, this narrative has begun to collapse in slow motion in front of our very eyes. The corona pandemia is not creating, but only accelerating this process of disenchantment. This is by no means a new phenomenon. Sooner or later, any narrative gets disenchanted and replaced. While the ancient Romans built their society on the stories of Aeneas and of Romulus, the early Christians could not comprehend their irrational superstition. Voltaire and his early Enlightenment contemporaries could not comprehend the Christians, considering their belief irrational superstition. Now it is our turn. We strongly believed in self-regulating markets and now we find that there is not much more evidence for this idea than there was for the story of the twin brothers in ancient Rome. It turned out to be just another constellation of beliefs, for which we temporarily suspended our critical faculties. This is the “suspension of disbelief”, as coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817, referring to the willingness of a reader to believe in something that is not logical and hard to believe, but necessary to keep the story going. For the joy of the story, we ignore the implausibility of a particular narrative… until it gets disenchanted and replaced and the cycle starts again. The power of the suspension of disbelief is visible in the way children get upset once you change the version of the fairy tale you have told them many times. They will protest, because they make truth claims from within the story.

Quo vadis?

From within our story, we will not solve our ecological problems. Our crisis is a narrative crisis and it will not be solved by new technologies, but by new stories and new metaphors that enable us to see the world from a radically different perspective. We are facing a problem of semantics, of zombie metaphors and a failure to understand new challenges within the limits of our language. How we live and work, produce and consume, assign value and make decisions will have to be fundamentally different from the pre-corona crisis. Because after this crisis is certainly before the next one. Thus, going back to normal should not be an option.

When a pandemia strikes, the institutional order of the affected societies rarely survives. While such an institutional collapse might not necessarily result from the pandemia itself, it definitely pushes systems, which are already in crisis, over the edge of the cliff: The Roman Empire collapsed in a pandemia (Harper, 2017). The medieval bubonic plague ended the feudal system in Europe (Bridbury, 1973). The conquistadors defeated the Latin American empires not with their handful of soldiers, but with infectious diseases for which the immune systems of the locals were not prepared (Crosby, 1967). And most recently, the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed between 20 and 100 million people, strongly influenced the dynamics of the 1920 and 1930s that eventually led to the Second World War (Blickle, 2020; Spinney, 2017).

Unlike our ancestors, we have a deep understanding of the driving forces of our crisis. With this higher order reflexivity (Beck, Giddens & Lash, 1994), we could use the corona virus crisis as the starting point for turning our grand challenges into a successful Grand Transition. However, this transition requires a clear, consistent and motivating vision of where we want to go, how we want to change our institutional order, our relationship with nature and with each other. This transition requires a new Enlightenment movement. Against the problems created by the pandemia, against the much more threatening ecological crisis and against the possible endarkenment by the returning specters of nationalism, populism and Fascism, we have to bet on the hope that change, after all, is possible.

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Guido Palazzo is Professor of Business Ethics at HEC Lausanne, University of Lausanne.

In his research, he is passionate about the dark side of the force and examines unethical decision making from various angles. He is mainly known for his studies in globalization, in particular on human rights violations in global value chains, but he also studies the reasons for unethical behavior in organization and the impact of organized crime on business and society. Currently, he is examining the illegal toxic waste business of the Italian Mafia.