Morality and Law
The Pandemic Era: Valuing Non-Freedom and a New Social Contract

We can say with a certain degree of confidence that the pandemic has largely destroyed the previous forms of social contract between citizens and authorities in a number of countries. Also, this imbalance of trust has spread from the national levels to the global attitude of people towards international organisations and their activities, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which has seen the emergence of new, more dangerous strains of the virus, as well as protests against quarantine measures in different countries have ensured that the novel coronavirus has remained an unpredictable matter of utmost importance. These issues were the focus of a special discussion recently held by the Valdai Club with the participation of health care professionals, sociologists and political experts.

One issue that was addressed during the discussion in detail was that the balance between freedom and security amid a pandemic has sharply shifted in favour of security in the vast majority of countries throughout the world. Objectively, this is logical and probably justified. As a result, in the context of the new values of the coronavirus era, an oxymoron — “the values of non-freedom” — has come to take on special resonance. We have already analysed this topic on the Valdai Club website. It is also natural that this placing of value on the constraint of freedom has begun to generate growing irritation, and has been rejected by significant segments of society. They share a growing fear that this newly-emerged imbalance between freedom and security may become entrenched in power practices, even after the end of the pandemic.

Totalitarianism of Love: How Not to Get Lost in a Changing World
The second day of the Valdai Club Annual meeting began culturally  with “Dostoyevskian psychology”, but in a good sense of the word. The session, which opened a series of expert discussions in Sochi on October 16, was devoted to national identity in a changing world. Without referring to the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, there is a certain “political understatement”, as say the authors of the Valdai Club report, which was presented the day before.
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An integral component of these fears was addressed in a discussion about the “power of medics” over society (more precisely, not doctors, but public health officials — medical bureaucrats). Naturally, no one questions the heroism and selfless work of doctors in the fight against the pandemic. However, dissatisfaction with the values of non-freedom, which are now being implemented precisely through medical prescriptions, has led to increasingly postulated fears that “doctors have gained too much power” (again, not doctors, but public health officials) and that this excessive “medical power” may persist in the future. Thus, the constructs theorised by Michel Foucault about “biopower”, which the Valdai Club also wrote about, can become the reality of a “medical dictatorship”.

As a result, one cannot deny the growth of public discontent during the pandemic. Therefore, one important socio-psychological consequence was the growth of mistrust between society and the authorities in a number of countries. It manifested itself in open protests, and in tendencies of sentiment according to the results of opinion polls, and in the perception of official statistics. In some places this mistrust focuses mainly on the effectiveness of medical, quarantine and economic measures taken by the authorities, while elsewhere it quickly moves from the pandemic to other political topics. It is obvious that this violation of the balance of trust may well acquire a stable, self-sustaining character, at least in the medium term. It, apparently, will remain, even if the disease can be overcome quickly enough by vaccination. This factor of entrenched mistrust should be kept in mind when predicting and assessing future options for the development of the situation.

This growth of mistrust leads to another tendency, which was quite noticeably manifested during the pandemic in a number of countries — the strengthening of the processes of self-organisation of society in the face of the postulated ineffectiveness of power. This was manifested both in large-scale volunteer activities and in the formation of alternative channels for the authorities to inform citizens about the development of the epidemic and the logistic response to it. Naturally, in terms of social theory, this self-organisation was anarchic and spontaneous, but nevertheless, it became a fact of the pandemic era.

In a number of cases, this anarchic self-organisation tends to grow into real civil self-government at the grassroots level, again acting independently of the government.

Thus, a tendency towards the parallel functioning of civil society and the authorities began to develop, which may persist even after the pandemic. And thus, socio-political relations around the world can get another split factor.

In any case, we can say with a certain degree of confidence that the pandemic has largely destroyed the previous forms of social contract between citizens and authorities in a number of countries. Also, this imbalance of trust has spread from the national levels to the global attitude of people towards international organisations and their activities. It is difficult to say whether there is a social contract at the global level. Both global civil society and the structures of global governance, apparently, are not yet so consolidated and stratified. In any event, however, the civic perception of the effectiveness of global governance during the pandemic has been greatly shaken, and this is also an important factor for the future.

If the old social contract ceases to exist, the imbalance of trust between society and the government will persist, and the processes of alternative anarchic self-organisation will develop in society. Then this, according to the logic of political theories, may put on the agenda the issue of concluding a new social contract. It’s an open question what form this could take, of course, and there is no direct answer to it. In any case, the anarchic left-progressive tendency that grows out of the aforementioned self-organisation of society may have a political perspective. Earlier, during previous stages of civil discontent with prevailing forms of social contracts, we have already seen this: in Italy it was the ideological trend that led to the electoral success of the Five Stars Movement, and in Spain — to electoral support for the Podemos movement. If we follow this logic, then the political institutionalisation of new “post-Covid” civic movements, and the emergence of new political actors in the electoral field in a number of countries is possible.

Another possible outcome is that the already-existing, “old” left-wing progressive movements that emerged from the previous stage of civil protests in the 2000s-2010s, will assume the function of political representation based on these new sentiments. Here, however, in some countries the situation is such that these “old” protest movements in the current Covid period have already undergone institutionalisation: they have parliamentary representation and have become an integral part of ruling coalitions — again, Five Stars in Italy can serve as an example. Therefore, the current distrust of society in the authorities, which we mentioned above, extends to them. Does this mean that the political institutionalisation of the left-wing progressive protestors can only take “one-off” forms, and must be restructured whenever the “old” protest movement gets power and is quickly reborn due to the temptations of power, is a complex and controversial question. And the answer to it will be given by the electoral practice of the coming years.

In parallel with the left-wing progressive movement, let us not forget about the non-systemic right-wing protestors. It is clear that Trump’s defeat and the events in the Capitol in early January 2021 dealt them a serious blow and to the media discrediting this trend, and now it has been permanently stigmatised in mainstream public opinion. But this does not negate the fact that these views are quite widespread in society in different countries. In the context of the current pandemic, non-systemic right-wing sentiment has transformed into a sharp “Covid-denial”, which, we will agree, also has the potential to spread further, into fairly wide segments of society. It was the right that was the engine of violent street protests in European cities against quarantine measures. So the post-Capitol-riot tendency to consider the non-systemic right as entirely outside of any social contract, old or new, could be explosive.

At the global level, growing distrust of institutions may result in increased demands for effective civilian control over the activities of intergovernmental organisations. The issue of the democratic deficit of international institutions has been discussed for a very long time, and has begun to be perceived by many as a routine fact. But now, amid the ongoing pandemic, this democratic deficit has taken on a qualitatively new dimension. I think it is in this direction that the real self-organisation of a global civil society could go, as well as the very transformation of this type of society from a conceptual model into reality.

As a result, the “lack of freedom” values, which are probably necessary at the acute stage of the fight against the pandemic, are beginning to be rejected to a greater and greater degree within the civil societies of different countries. Public opinion is beginning to suspect that the authorities may be tempted to reinforce these values of non-freedom, to maintain the imbalance between freedom and security, even after the epidemic ends. It is clear that the term “social contract” is a very abstract theoretical construct in the minds of many, and real socio-political relations almost never correspond to this theoretical ideal.

But at the same time, we agree that the transformation potential of global civil society has become stronger and more visible in the era of the pandemic, and the issue of its political institutionalisation can seriously affect world politics.

Russia and Global Security Risks
Optimum Society 2: The Remote Watcher
Arkady Nedel
How much will the presence of the remote ruler remain in our society after the end of the pandemic? How much it will become part of our civic and political life? This depends largely on us. The paradox is that free will is quite compatible with the device, but only if the latter has not replaced the free will, writes Arkady Nedel, Russian and French philosopher and writer.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.