“There is no such thing as society.” Margaret Thatcher said that. I often think about that quote, about what it means for a politician to say a thing like that, regardless of context, and have people cheer it on. If there’s no such thing as society, then what on earth was Thatcher running to lead? What on earth were the people cheering her on voting for? It’s particularly baffling when you take into account the hyper-patriotism that nearly always sits, unmolested, next to this way of thinking. There’s no society, but there is a nation that must be ruthlessly defended. I suppose the emphasis on gratuitous displays of military might reveal that it’s just about power. There’s also access to the rooms where members of the club skim off the top to consider. None of that has anything to do with a real notion of society or collective well-being.
Our lives are interconnected. We rely on each other. We have duties to each other. These connections and obligations are what create functional societies. Co-operation. Solidarity. A sense of collective responsibility. These values aren’t utopian ideals to be sneered at. They are essential to our survival as a species. So are public goods like properly functioning, readily accessible health care. Truth-telling and diligent competence are also vitally important. There come times in human history when all the carnival barking, jazz hands, smoke and mirrors, and other distractions that drive so much of our discourse collapse in on themselves. The snake oil salesmen are revealed. This is one of those moments.
You can’t bully a virus. You can’t con or gaslight death. Lies are ineffective against contagion. Magical thinking and notions of exceptionalism provide no shield. Confronting widespread disease and illness, like any test of leadership, requires humility as well as care and expertise. Disaster follows when these values are jettisoned. Boris Johnson’s government is taking the nihilistic cruelty of Thatcher’s “What society?” philosophy to its logical conclusion. The British government’s “plan” to deal with the coronavirus outbreak is to let the disease burn through the population to create herd immunity. Our societies gained and maintain herd immunity from a large number of pathogens through intensive vaccination programs, not from letting measles, smallpox, etc. run rampant. The British government’s position is staggeringly stupid. It’s also evil. Huge numbers of vulnerable people will die.
Across the Atlantic, the response to the pandemic in the United States has been bungled spectacularly. There is woefully insufficient testing, no leadership at the federal level, and misinformation and outright lies coming from the Trump administration. Much of it is incompetence, but, similar to what’s unfolding in Britain, it is also about choices. The decision not to allow states to use Medicaid for their coronavirus response demonstrates the stonehearted callousness at work. At its root, these decisions come down to whether or not the people making them believe in the concept of society.
Many of our societies reward narcissistic behavior. It is often packaged as “toughness” or “ambition” or “grit.” Winning is all that matters. Humility, self-reflection, and compassion are devalued or outright derided. Winners to exalt create a necessary class of losers. Those losers are poor. They don’t have health insurance. They are often hungry and lack access to proper shelter. They are at the bottom of an economic system that treats them as disposable. The notion of being bound to them is anathema to the winners, whose wealth sequesters them from most of the problems of people struggling economically. Even so, without the rest of us healthy and able to move relatively freely, the stock markets are crashing. It’s worth it to consider: How much of that has to do with the real value of underlying assets, and how much of it is the panic of a handful of people who fear their wealth hoarding plans have hit a snag? How much hotly debated activity affecting The Economy™ should be happening adjacent to a Las Vegas sports book? With no demand for flights, airlines are being hammered worse than they were after 911. Major events have been canceled internationally. Sports leagues are on hiatus. Italy and Norway are on lockdown. Much other economic activity will collapse as people in countries all over the world confine themselves to their homes to prevent the spread of the virus.
World leaders and influential people are testing positive for coronavirus or have been in close contact with people who have. The virus is highly transmissible, including by people who are asymptomatic, and it’s made its way into the halls of power. One of the most troubling things about the response to the pandemic the United States was the dismissiveness about it from the Trump administration and Republican lawmakers. There was a sneering way it was being shrugged off or even described as a hoax. I think they all thought they were safe. They weren’t. Some of them are among the infected now. The magical thinking that drives exceptionalism is a poison pill. It destroys the thing it exalts, because it divorces the holder of the beliefs from reality. The resulting bad judgment always creates a chain of events that ends badly.
The novel coronavirus pandemic is revealing the notion of rugged individuals conquering all on their own to be an elaborate fantasy. There is a society buttressing them. If that society collapses, if a world of societies collapses, there’s nothing to climb but piles of rubble and heaps of ash. It’s not so easy right now to conjure the rest of us away in service to grasping selfishness. We exist. Society exists. The fates of the ones who believe themselves to be masters of the universe are bound to ours whether they want to accept it or not.