It is probably prudent to start with a clear affirmation that the pandemic is real, that COVID-19 has taken many lives, and that public health measures have been necessary to try to limit the devastation of the disease. No denying here.
But it is also evident that the messaging by health authorities has often been confusing, and that has undermined their own credibility: for example, in the shift from initial advice against wearing masks to the current (if inconsistent) mandate to do so. If the science on a particular question is not fully settled, it might be better for the authorities to be honest about that indeterminacy rather than to lay claim to an infallibility they cannot maintain. That clarity, however, would mean a willingness to trust the public to think on its own and to act in the spirit of individual responsibility, instead of issuing orders and vilifying critics.
Communication concerning COVID-19 was exacerbated in the United States by the context, as the pandemic erupted onto a highly polarized political landscape just prior to a national election. As a result, every coronavirus policy immediately turned into a target of partisan crossfire, whether at the federal, the state, or the local levels. When governors and mayors were caught disobeying their own ordinances, public doubt could only grow. Similarly, the remarks by then vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris that she would not take a vaccine developed under the Trump administration has likely contributed to anti-vax sentiment in minority communities. And the ups and downs of fatality rates under Democratic and Republican governors are given more or less prominence in the press, depending on the partisan orientation of the respective newspaper. No wonder the expectations about objective journalism are so low.
Yet the coronavirus debate is not only an American phenomenon. Overseas, notably in France, the Netherlands, and especially Germany, there have been robust and often polemical debates—although never as clearly party-political as in the United States—concerning the character of the restrictions imposed on society in the name of slowing the spread of the disease or “flattening the curve.” There have been plenty of different strategies, and, in the future, there will be ample room for political scientists, civil rights advocates, and epidemiologists to review data in order to ask which country got it right: too much or too little lockdown of the economy, too severe or insufficient the suspension of education, religious services, or other public gatherings, and so forth. In earlier texts published here, we have seen German philosopher Otfried Höffe prioritize liberty over excessive restrictions, while novelist Thomas Brussig controversially proposed “more dictatorship.” Clearly the pandemic required some policy response, but we are still a long way away from a nonpartisan evaluation of the different sorts of strategies and their effectiveness. That necessary discussion is still pending. We are likely to be able to determine, sometime in the future, that some leaders got it all terribly wrong.
German historian and author Gérard Bökenkamp, in an essay translated here, approaches the problem from a different angle. He sheds important light on what we have been living through, including the heated polemics around coronavirus policies—but he links it all to the phenomena of climate politics as well. Yet instead of asking which policies were effective and which failed, he reflects on a widespread (but surely not uniform) willingness of the public to embrace them. Why has so much of the public willingly submitted to restrictions on their freedoms, and why have they responded with such animated hostility toward the minority of opponents to the coronavirus prevention regime or to climate policies? In other words, his argument is not an attack on the scientific legitimacy of the public health measures adopted, about which he maintains a distanced agnosticism here. Nor does he cast doubt on the claims about climate change. He does not even present an argument about the dramatic power grab by political authorities, their utilization of the crises to introduce new strategies of societal control. Instead Bökenkamp proposes a hypothesis concerning the motivation underlying the willing and often eager public acceptance of restrictive orders: not why this or that policy was right or wrong but why the German public largely acquiesced. What makes obedience so attractive?
Drawing on the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas and the scholar of religions Walter Burkert, Bökenkamp argues that the public’s proactive embrace of the various strictures associated with policies linked to the pandemic (e.g., mandatory social distancing) and climate change (reduced energy consumption) repeats some recognizable patterns that he associates with certain religious phenomena. These include expectations of sacrifice, in the form of self-denial or self-punishment; the prioritizing of moralistic arguments (pandemic or floods as punishments for wrongful behavior); rhetorics of denunciation targeting heretics (anti-vaxxers and climate deniers); and the emergence of prominent figures who, in Bökenkamp’s view, play the roles of saints or priests. The participation in coronavirus and climate policies, he argues, involves the repetition of atavistic behavior patterns otherwise familiar from traditional religions but now, in a largely secular society, played out under the aegis of scientific authority. Hence his suggestion that science has been operating as a substitute religion.
Bökenkamp provides a convincing description of the phenomena, the rapid willingness of much of the public to accept limitations on their exercise of freedoms previously assumed to be unquestionable. Presumably some of this participation might, of course, be reasonably attributed to the assumed credibility of science: rightly or wrongly, the public “believes” in science. Some of it might also be explained in terms of an inclination to obedience, in the sense of a noncontroversial willingness to respect the law, whatever it is. With those alternative explanations in mind, one can ask whether Bökenkamp’s insistence on an analogy between aspects of public behavior and anthropological aspects of religion is credible and whether it suffices to prove that a religious substance is at play.
There are no doubt some apparent similarities between, on the one hand, public behavior facing the crises, COVID and climate, and, on the other, aspects of traditional religion—sacrifice, guilt, and the denunciation of heretics are Bökenkamp’s main points. Yet other parts of religion, perhaps the most vital parts, seem to be absent: the centrality of numinous or holy experiences, the role of miracles (which would of course be at odds with the priority of science), and the absence of any possibility of transcendence. The simulacrum of religion at stake in the embrace of crisis politics is at best an impoverished religion or the eviscerated substitute for religion in a largely secular culture. With that limitation, Bökenkamp is surely on to something important.
In any case, Bökenkamp does describe convincingly the emergence of a repressive conformism, legitimated in the name of public health crises—whether or not one can describe this adequately as a form of religion is almost secondary. While his examples draw on the specific German example, the account rings true for the United States as well, where, however, the twin crises of COVID and climate have been compounded by the cultural moment around BLM and the emergence of cancel culture censorship. Actually Bökenkamp’s religion thesis might find supporting evidence in parts of the American experience, especially the pseudo-religious liturgical moments: the taking the knee ritual at athletic events and the insistence on reciting the names of the dead. Germany and other European countries also have had their versions of American neo-anti-racism, but it was rarely as overwrought as in the United States, from which ultimately it was imported. (Indeed the dissemination of this American discourse can be viewed as a new form of American soft power in the present, even as it purports to be critical of the U.S. past.) Whatever the particular religious dimension of this current development—and this depends a lot on how one evaluates religion as such—Bökenkamp is certainly right to point out this new wave of repressive conformism as a culturally distinct event, with transatlantic common denominators despite some specific national distinctions.
The net effect of these three arenas—public health responses to the pandemic, new regulations associated with global warming, and the various formulations of cancel culture—has been an acceleration of the management of public opinion: from above, through media and employer mandates, and from below, through social pressure, including threats of violence. How so? In the end, we are facing greater monitoring of mobility in the interest of contact tracing, heightened security at various buildings (greater frequency of the need to swipe into buildings that were previously open to the public), a generalized kind of biopolitical surveillance through extensive testing, social ostracism directed at dissenters, and especially the pervasive prospect of censorship on social media. Merely by calling out censorship or doubting the infallibility of government scientists, this text may by endangered. Read it while you can.
How to explain this transformation? The space of unmonitored freedom has been reduced considerably. Yet the public responds with a gleeful renunciation of its previous lifestyle, a willingness to accept policing (even as police forces are to be defunded!), and a particular fanaticism in the denunciation of heterodox viewpoints. We have long ago lost the expectation of a space of public debate in which one could claim to disagree with an opponent on the basis of reason and evidence: at stake now is the vilification of antagonists in order to silence them. Voltaire’s promise to defend the right of one’s opponent to speak has been abandoned.
The steps taken to respond to real crises, like the pandemic, are increasingly a matter of prohibitions and mandates, with little value placed on individual responsibility. That distinction however may help understand what is going on. Modern societies are undergoing a quantum leap increase in social control. Bökenkamp’s concluding explanation—leaving the religion question aside—is alarmingly credible. We have been living in societies with deficient social cohesion. The social-political disciplining that ensued from the Cold War ended decades ago. Traditional cultural ties that can bind and that may have existed in the past are gone, and this structural disruption has surely been amplified by the experiences of globalization, as well as the protest against it, populism. The new forms of social control, legitimated by pandemic and climate change, should be understood as a response to that instability: manage opinion and monitor behavior in order to limit dissent. Meanwhile the new technologies and their transformation of the public sphere provide the infrastructure for surveillance and censorship. The social system has been able to take advantage of the genuine challenges to public health, whether from the virus or from climate change, in order to impose a new regime of control. The crises have been turned into opportunities that are not going to be wasted. Welcome to the new panopticon.