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Essays Political Theory

Between Comrades and Competition: COVID-19 and the Vices of the Human Condition

by L.W.
“Beyond those who risk infection at their jobs, the community oriented, self-sacrificing behavior of many is evidenced, in part, by an explosion of efforts toward charity, mutual aid, and collective action.”

It can be a challenge in moments like this, amid the still developing COVID-19 pandemic, to reflect on our circumstances and our collective behavior. However, as the virus does not seem to be going anywhere, and social distancing begins to feel like a dystopian new normal, such reflection is essential. I am certainly not alone in thinking through the lessons of COVID. Others have pointed, importantly, to how the pandemic has made even clearer the racial disparities in access to healthcare, how necessary low paid workers are for our basic needs, how irrational a for-profit healthcare system is, as well as other insights. However, below I focus on how individuals and communities have responded can illuminate aspects of our nature, and provide evidence as to what might lie ahead. In the spirit of such reflection, I use several analytical lenses borrowed from political theory to consider two parts of the human soul that the Corona Virus has brought to the surface: our self-interest and our mutuality. 

It was only weeks ago that a notorious hoarding craze took hold. We should all remember shelves empty of toilet paper and canned goods. Leaving aside the puzzle of why mountains of toilet paper was the object of so many rapacious individuals, the more ominous news stories of record gun sales in a country already brimming with armaments also stand out. My friend sending me frantic messages is still vivid in my own memory, as they tried to put guns in the hands of their friends in case of looting or home invasion. 

What does this tell us about our expectations of our neighbors? We fear the worst of them. We hoard necessary goods, because we anticipate others will. In such a situation it is reasonable to hoard. We tell ourselves that others will unjustly accumulate all that is available, leaving none for the rest. And we arm ourselves because we fear what others will do when they get desperate. Anxiety grips us as we contemplate what will happen if the state becomes weak enough that it no longer serves to impede people from acting with license, forcibly imposing their own interest and passions on others. I arm myself, because others do.

Even those who wish to abstain from it begin to mirror this behavior. When we see others acting with such self-interest, we begin to behave in the same way. Hoarding, like the virus, operates like a contagion.

That is, we see and expect others to act like Thomas Hobbes suggests they would in a state of nature. He famously wrote that absent a sovereign (read: state) to promulgate and enforce laws, humanity is in a state of war, all against all. In an oft quoted passage, he writes that in this state of universal war our lives are “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”. The danger of the absence of government’s power is such that we are driven to join political society, accepting its rule in whatever form it takes. He argues that without government and its monopoly of force we would live without security, and everyone would attempt to dominate whatever and whoever they could in order to find it.

Baruch Spinoza, while a markedly different theorist in important respects, agrees with Hobbes in this regard. For Spinoza, the state of nature is a state of constant anxiety, and each individual has a natural right to do what they are able. To alleviate the constant fear of imposition by others, again, we submit ourselves to common government. The absence of a government we submit to is simply too vulnerable for both Hobbes and Spinoza, where we are all in a constant competition for resources and survival.

The Corona Virus crisis reveals that we all see in one another the potential to act in amoral self-interest in the event of a major breakdown of the US security apparatus, or of serious resource shortages. And this is not unreasonable. I mean, if others were not preparing for such a contest, why is nearly everyone hoarding weapons?

However, it is important to note that our unprecedented moment also makes visible a radically different aspect of our nature. In the face of adversity, many have chosen to defy our cynical expectations and act like humanist saints. As of the writing of this editorial, James Mahoney, a doctor in New York, just passed after delaying retirement to join the fight against the ongoing pandemic. And Mahoney is only one example of such selfless acts. Perhaps the point has been already made too often and too loudly to be an original one, but the mere showing up to work at a high risk job in the medical field or at a grocery store is an act that places the communal good ahead of one’s personal good. As of mid April, over 10,000 medical personnel were infected doing just that, and still so many continue to push ahead, serving others. There are some who might argue that this is just an extension of the reasonable pursuit of self-interest (e.g., the effect of the shame for not showing up from others might outweigh the risk of catching the disease, or the prospect of losing one’s job might impel one toward going to work). However when placed in the context of other facts, I think it is more plausible that as humans, we have the capacity to sacrifice for, and often feel a duty toward, others which sometimes transcends our pursuit of interest.

Beyond those who risk infection at their jobs, the community oriented, self-sacrificing behavior of many is evidenced, in part, by an explosion of efforts toward charity, mutual aid, and collective action. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! reports that all over the country people and organizations, independent of (and oftentimes in spite of) government action, have come together to support those in the most need. Their aims include food for the houseless, rent moratoriums, assistance to LGBTQ+ individuals, as well as “child care, grocery delivery, food donations, housing needs, bail funds and other types of support… And those are just a few of the thousands of efforts”. These cannot be easily explained by self love alone.

What is more, the organizing actions during the Corona Virus pandemic taken by Amazon and gig economy employees for safe working conditions and hazard pay, as well as the many others participating in collective actions, together demonstrate an emboldened solidarity. This is mostly likely a low estimate, but People’s Strike reports that there have been over two hundred work strikes in the United States since the beginning of the COVID crisis, and over two hundred fifty rent strikes. In the face of a crisis that necessarily presses us into isolation, it appears that we are also driven to support and rely on one another.

Thus, while the hoarding and arming might show that we expect selfish and even bloody behavior, the incredible outpouring of mutuality has revealed that we have something fundamentally social and sacrificing about us. This harmonizes with a point made by Karl Marx, that we have a fundamentally communal feature in our nature. In “On the Jewish Question”, he writes that “[e]very emancipation is a restoration of the human world and of human relationships to man himself”. Further, “[h]uman emancipation will only be complete… when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a species-being”. In other words, human emancipation will be realized when our society reflects our essentially social nature. Simply put, a part of Marx’s understanding of humanity is that by maintaining a societal model where the normal is that we pursue our own interests before others, we are alienating ourselves from what it means to be human. 

The shearing away of normalcy and security by the current crisis has made evident this collectivist aspect of ourselves. And really, our world is filled with examples of how our behavior and the structures of contemporary society anticipate less individualistic modes of living. The historic Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin is another proponent for this claim. Discussing Marx’s work, explaining the evidence for the possibility of a communal future, Lenin writes, “On the basis of what data can the question of the… development of future communism be raised? On the basis of the fact that it has its origin in capitalism”. This point is well taken. Capitalism, and the United States in its current form, have made possible a more socially oriented and communal future. Specifically that so many people responded to this pandemic with mutuality, and the placing of others before themselves, illuminates a possible future which is more egalitarian. It appears hard to deny, in this moment, that there is a part of ourselves that is deeply concerned with others’ well being and our collective good.

The ongoing pandemic has made quite clear much that we should have already known about our society (deep racial disparities in access to healthcare, the necessity of food and delivery workers, the absurdity of a for-profit healthcare system, etc). But as I have illustrated here, it has also shown us two parts of our nature. Given this, there seems to be merit in both Hobbes and Spinoza’s analysis of human behavior on the one hand, and of Marx’s on the other. This suggests that humans might always be divided between our self love and our love of others. But, this could also show us that an all together better future is, in fact, possible.


About the Author: L.W. is a member of the editorial collective Houston Review of Books.

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