“We will need to rebuild, but not on ruins. The ruins will be within each one of us. That is why our task right now is to start envisaging the future.” Mauro Magatti lectures at the Università Cattolica in Milan and is one of the sociologists most closely observing the social dynamics in Italy. In his latest book, Non avere paura di cadere. La libertà al tempo dell'insicurezza (Have no fear of falling. Freedom in times of uncertainty) published by Mondadori in 2019, he reminds us that freedom requires practice, it is a continuous exercise in responsibility, sharing and expectation.
Freedom, Magatti explains “is a complex daily challenge that is never just about the individual but about every relationship that takes shape in social, cultural and political orders.” This is especially true today, as we face a pandemic that threatens to sweep away our sense of trust, relationships and connections – the foundations holding up the concept and practice of acting freely and responsibly.
Perhaps for the first time ever, we have reached a widespread understanding of the real meaning of life in the risk society…
We hadn’t fully grasped the importance of risk as observed by authors like Ulrich Beck. Beck’s theory is clear: advanced society generates risks and as it grows, the risks multiply. Whatever the origins of Covid-19 – whether it is the result of environmental crises or something else – the speed, momentum and way it has affected us are without doubt of such a magnitude that risk is intrinsic.
How has this magnitude with its intrinsic risks shaped our reactions to Coronavirus? Let’s start with the immediate reactions. When we first heard about what was happening in China, our first thoughts were that it was far away, that it would never affect or involve us. This state of unreadiness was a collective as well as individual reaction. Each one of us – I was among the first – experienced how vulnerable life is.
Are you saying that experiencing how vulnerable life is was once a private rather than a collective awareness? Disease and accidents happen to all of us. But we were used to processing our vulnerability in private, as if it affected others but not us or, vice versa, it affected us and not others. Now we are learning that we have a common understanding of vulnerability and fragility. On a collective level, this experience hit us like a bolt of lightning and that lightning is disrupting the society in which we live.
Since time immemorial, human societies have moved forward as a group, in solidarity, as a reaction to primitive instincts. And as a reaction to fear.
If we ask ourselves why Italy has been so badly affected by Covid-19, the range of replies will be very broad: pollution, climate, the delay in introducing quarantine. We can fuel the controversy or choose banal yet understandably subjective shortcuts. Jennifer Dowd, Associate Professor of Demography and Population Health at the University of Oxford and Deputy Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, has together with her colleagues carried out an in-depth study on the spread of the epidemic in Northern Italy. She maintains that the main reason is to be found elsewhere and it is structural rather than accidental: it is to be found in the very nature of social relationships in Italy…Covid-19 touches social relationships from many viewpoints. Since the virus is passed on via contact, societies – like Italy – where physical contact is very frequent are more likely to see a rapid spread in the disease. We need to understand and highlight this aspect, whilst taking care that we do not vilify contact itself or indeed even other social activities (take the example of runners and the controversy that has been triggered around them).
Are there any other situations we should be taking into consideration? Here’s the first: we use the expression viral to describe anything that spreads across the web and we use the word virus for anything that shuts down the network. In a society where individuals move around a lot and are closely connected, an epidemic – like a computer virus – can embed itself in the channels we use to move around and shut down the system. This epidemic has shut down the many interactions – both fast-moving and extensive – on which our society has been built. A society built on a basic assumption: that immunity existed to pain, to death and to fragility. We have now discovered that this is not true.
So, on the one hand, we have the intensity of our relationships which increases contact and gives shape to social bonding. On the other hand, we have the speed of interactions that accelerates it and spreads it. Between this intensity and acceleration falls the major issue of responsibility. Coronavirus obliges us to acknowledge the fact that our behaviours have an impact on others. As a consequence of this realization, what we need is a way through so that we can restore trust and hope: the understanding that no man is an island. Current events are teaching us a great deal about relationships and our way of being together.
Is Covid-19 also having an impact on our small daily habits, not just because of the restrictions imposed by law but due to the various ways each one of us practices a sense of responsibility? We are at a crossroads and we can see the degree of uncertainty in our relationships with others, especially now that technology has taken on the role of mediator.
It is clear that we need to cherish hope. It’s as if we had to build a bridge between the here and now and the future that isn’t here yet.
It could all go one way or the other. Just think about video surveillance, control over the population, but also forms of self-regulation or checking-in (Apps that send an alert when someone leaves their home). Evidently, we need to ask ourselves – where are we heading? There is no certain answer to this question. Anything can happen, this could herald in a surveillance state as has already happened in some countries. If the common good prevails over the responsible freedom of the individual, in conjunction with technology and with a complete delegation to that technology, then this opens up a new way forward, as an alternative to rebuilding trust.
We will conquer fear and distrust if we understand that the risks we are facing involve us all and they can only be overcome by strengthening the way we collaborate
What kind of way forward? The safety provided by control systems is the way that opens up before us – a regime where the proposal is clear: let’s keep everything under control, we remove the danger, we avoid the risk. And we free ourselves of anxiety and fear. Of course, this way forward is deceptive.
You spoke about uncertainty. Is this also true for technology? In recent days, we have seen how the digital infrastructure has saved us to some degree: it has allowed us to meet each other, to develop and maintain work and social activities. Our digital infrastructures will undoubtedly help us to imagine a post-virus society – a society that will look very different to the one we live in today.
The landscape ahead of us will be long-lasting. We will have to learn to live with risk and even with the memory of risk. It will take time. We will learn to live differently – we don’t yet know how but we know that’s how it will be. That’s how it will be at work – where we have begun to appreciate the benefits of smart working. That’s how it will be in our family relationships which we have ‘rediscovered’ during this challenging period of confinement. That’s how it will be in businesses as they see their individual responsibility defined ever more in factual rather than rhetorical terms. But all this has no meaning unless we start to imagine how the digital can really be a social infrastructure.
Is this the result of technology? No, it’s the result of social thinking. Thinking that reorganizes itself as it redefines the hierarchy of means and end. We have to operate during this period of profound uncertainty, as we sway between a surveillance society and a society that reorganizes itself into a network with intelligence and a sense of community. The match will be won or lost on this cliff edge. At such a historic moment, it is clear that we need to cherish hope. It’s as if we had to build a bridge between the here and now and the future that isn’t here yet. But that bridge can only rest on the shoulders of those who have hope.