Philip Allott is Professor Emeritus of International Public Law at Cambridge University and a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge. He reflects on the exceptional circumstances the world is currently facing.
Never in the whole of recorded human history has humanity had to face so starkly the fragility and the complexity of the social aspect of human existence. Wars and natural disasters have something of the same effect, but on a limited scale. Climate change has begun to teach us that our personal behaviour, and the behaviour of businesses and governments, can affect the future of the planet and the future of humanity.
The coronavirus crisis is exceptional. It has placed the challenges of human social existence at the centre of the lives of everyone, since its consequences in terms of life and death immediately affect each human being individually and all human beings everywhere and all human societies. We all now know that our response to the challenges of social existence involves a mass of compromises worked out from day to day whose practical effects can prove to be very good or very bad and everything in-between.
It is in the family that we first discover the conflict between independence and interdependence. We are expected to do what is expected of us. Families become cities. Cities become nations. Nations co-exist. All of them must resolve the conflict of the one and the many in order to survive and prosper.
It is also in the family that we first learn of the problem of our identity, the conflict between the self and the other – me and them. We form our idea of our self and our needs and desires in the company of other people with their own identities. Self-interest is in a permanent struggle with shared interest. And so it is with cities and nations and all intermediate forms of human society.
Brexit is a vivid instance of the struggle between the one and the many – independence and interdependence – does the EU increase or decrease what people call our ‘sovereignty’? – and also of the struggle between the self and the other – do British people see themselves also as Europeans? do Continental Europeans see us as Europeans? – us and them. Indeed, the EU itself is a massive set of compromises between nationalism and internationalism – national identity and European identity – national interest and common European interest.
The eruption of Black Lives Matter during the coronavirus crisis has reminded us that the compromises of social existence are made in terms of shared values, including not only utilitarian values but also the very high values of justice and human dignity. In every society, from the most liberal democracy to the most autocratic dictatorship, interpretations of those values are ultimately enacted in the form of law.
Black Lives Matter has also reminded us that societies are systems of power, the expression of the human will, individual and collective. Power is unequally distributed, and the law, an application of power, may be the source of gross injustice and permanent violations of human dignity.
We know from human history that the struggle of identity can have terrible consequences when the idea of the other becomes a source of hatred, discrimination, persecution, violence, oppression, nationalism, war, and genocide. Human history is full of the evils caused by the transformation of Me and the Other into Us and Them.
The superficial response to these facts of human social existence is that they reflect human nature. That is how human beings have always been and always will be. This pessimistic view of human nature ignores the further fact that human beings have discovered how to create societies that allow millions, now billions, of people to have the possibility not only of surviving but also of flourishing. After millennia of oppression and exploitation, the mass of the people can now enjoy forms of life that had only been available to the most privileged members of society.
We fail to recognise this staggering achievement of the human mind and the human will. The idea of progress is ambiguous. Much that many people see as progress may be seen by many other people as symptoms of decadence. For example, the intense socialising of people in the twenty-first century, especially through the social media, may also be the insidious undoing of our powerfully creative individuality. But the possibility of human progress is now established as an integral part of human nature.
Like climate change, the coronavirus crisis is a challenge to humanity. The historian Arnold Toynbee surveyed the rise and fall of what he called ‘civilisations’, that is, exceptionally powerful social systems that had a distinct identity. He identified civilisations that survive as those that responded successfully to existential challenges.
As in the case of climate change, our response to the coronavirus crisis has been primarily dominated by governments. It has been subject to much criticism. Retrospect will say whether they could have done better. Governments cannot now escape the fact that there has been a great increase in the sophistication of the thinking of their citizens about the way in which they are governed. Everyone is now thinking about it and talking about it and shouting about it. Black Lives Matter is contributing significantly to this new consciousness. The citizens have also shown a sense of responsibility in doing, individually and collectively, what governments have failed to do effectively.
Historical turning-points can only be seen in hindsight. In the meantime, it is not unreasonable to think that some deep form of human progress may emerge from what we are now enduring. We may believe that humanity is capable of responding successfully even to existential challenges that have no precedent in human history.