For much of the past year, Covid has been absent from the news. But lately, the rapid spread of the “Eris” variant, which takes its name from the Greek goddess of discord, has occasioned a new round of anxious coverage as well as a return to pandemic protocols in a few places and calls for more of the same. These responses have generated, in turn, a backlash from those who warn that renewed concern about the virus will once again serve as a Trojan horse for a new global authoritarianism. While such worries about the dystopian potential of pandemic response persist, what is far less visible now than three years ago is their flipside: a paradoxical utopianism that saw in lockdowns a positive vision of the future.

For many on the left, the disruptions of 2020 signaled that another, better world was possible: one in which the cheering on of essential workers heralded the recognition of the centrality of caring labor, and where the shared effort of “stopping the spread” instilled us with a new spirit of collectivism and solidarity. Academic luminaries including Slavoj Žižek, Judith Butler, and Bruno Latour all hailed the supposed transformative possibilities of Covid lockdowns. From their perspective, the pandemic offered the opportunity for a reckoning with everything from the sins of late capitalism to colonialism, racism, and, inevitably, the climate emergency.

“The shock of Covid and the ensuing lockdowns unleashed a new round of utopian thinking.”

The German-Jewish Marxist mystic Walter Benjamin argued a century ago that “the concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe.” It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the shock of Covid and the ensuing lockdowns unleashed a new round of utopian thinking. What’s more, the pandemic landed amid an increasingly apocalyptic turn within critical theory. Precisely because we were “living in the end times,” Žižek proclaimed before the pandemic, “the future will be utopian, or there will be none.”

The dream of a dramatically different post-pandemic life has crashed hard into a more banal reality. As Michel Houellebecq predicted in 2020, the world today is “the same, just a bit worse.” Traffic, tourism, and other scourges lamented during the early days of lockdown have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels or beyond, and none of the supposed socially transformational benefits of Covid—compassion, solidarity, a renewed respect for care work—are much in evidence. Meanwhile, we look around and see war, inflation, instability, and rising inequality.

Despite the dead end it has reached, the pandemic-era utopian turn marked a significant shift in left-wing thinking, the broad consequences of which remain to be seen. Specifically, the left’s embrace of public-health authoritarianism, while justified by appeals to the humanitarian ideals of human-rights advocacy—saving lives, protecting the most vulnerable—entailed a dismissal of the foundational assumption that rights pertain to individuals. As a result, the Covid-era revival of utopianism had as its casualty “the last utopia”: the dream of universal human rights.

Utopianism was central to left-wing thought in the 19th and 20th centuries, but this tendency was on the wane by the dawn of the 21st century. At the turn of the millennium, historian Russell Jacoby declared “the end of utopia,” lamenting the demise of alternatives in a world increasingly dominated by a global neoliberal consensus. Around the same time, cultural critic Tom Moylan noted the dominance of dystopias in literary spaces previously occupied by utopian figurations. During the first decade of the new century, the adage that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” attributed to the Marxist literary scholar Fredric Jameson, was widely repeated on the left. The British cultural critic Mark Fisher later captured this mood in the titular phrase of his 2009 book, Capitalist Realism.

“Human rights aimed for a morality beyond politics.”

But if we are to believe the historian Samuel Moyn, one form of utopianism survived this end-of-history moment. This was the human-rights movement, which Moyn dubbed “the last utopia” in his 2010 book of that title. Against the background of the failures of communism and postcolonial independence, Moyn argues, human rights emerged out of leftist disenchantment. Organized around a universal, homogenized, and abstract humanity, human-rights activism focused on a minimal politics of negative freedoms, rather than broader social transformation. Indeed, human rights were initially conceived as a prophylactic against the excesses of fascism and communism. If the sort of fundamental societal overhaul envisioned by earlier utopian projects was no longer feasible, people could at least be free from arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and extrajudicial murder at the hands of the state. Limited in scope, this new hybrid of idealism and realism attempted to ensure that innocent victims didn’t suffer the worst forms of human cruelty. Human rights aimed for a morality beyond politics structured by an unassailable moral ledger, in which victims and perpetrators were the primary categories.

The bland, inoffensive minimalism of the human-rights ethic was the point. Because of the modesty of its moral vision, human-rights advocacy hardly registered as utopian, and, indeed, was often underwritten by an anti-utopian animus. But all this changed, as Moyn has explained, when human-rights globalism, intoxicated by the millenarian consciousness of the last decade of the 20th century and the post-Cold War “peace dividend,” became the new utopian dream. The results of this shift were anything but utopian. The architects of the post-9/11 wars justified their interventions, cynically or not, on humanitarian grounds. The abject failure of their efforts to impose democratic regimes around the world led critics to see human rights as a new, albeit softer, pretext for imperial hubris. The tensions between local and grassroot support for human rights and their top-down imposition by Western states and NGOs were the foundational cracks in human-rights utopianism that ended in disasters in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere.

The advent of nationalist and soft-authoritarian regimes around the globe formed one half of the backlash. On the other side, the liberal left came to see both the universalism and the limited scope of human rights as increasingly problematic. The “not enough” in the title of Moyn’s follow-up work spoke to the inadequacy of human rights for addressing more concrete questions of economic and social rights, structural inequalities, or historical injustices. The real-world limits of human-rights moral minimalism became difficult to ignore. Around the same time, many on the left were becoming more suspicious of, if not outright hostile to, political rights like freedom of speech. The idealized and abstract universality of a global human family fragmented into identity-based historical grievances on the left and aggressive nationalism on the right. The human-rights utopia, like all prior utopias, failed to materialize.

The maximalist public-health response to the novel coronavirus was predicated on a human-rights utopian logic but also incorporated elements of the varied backlash to it. Once more, the categories of victim and perpetrator offered a simplified moral accountancy. Only now, the victims were no longer Mideast dissidents, but anyone vulnerable to the disease, while the Arab autocrat was supplanted by the superspreader—any neighbor or fellow shopper who failed to follow the rules. The mantle of the human-rights activist or humanitarian worker, meanwhile, was taken up by epidemiologists, public-health officials, and health workers, who were empowered to speak on behalf of all medically vulnerable populations.

The logic of mass quarantine likewise deployed a human-rights vocabulary of victimhood, vulnerability, marginalization, and protection. Confining the entire population to protect the most vulnerable was presented not only as the best option but the only moral option. Anyone opposed to this was likened to a supporter of or apologist for genocide—a “denier.” The maximalist logic of protection, the flipside of maximal vulnerability, meant children should be kept in virtual schooling or wearing KN95 masks even when engaging in outdoor sports. The utopian fantasy underlying these demands was a denial of death. All Covid deaths were considered failures of political will or the result of moral turpitude, rather than consequences of a highly transmissible airborne virus.

There was a key difference, however: While the earlier human-rights-ism had consistently demanded freedom from unjust imprisonment, the new lockdown utopia required indefinite detention as a condition of moral life. If human rights were premised on a borderless world of indefinite mobility and the erosion of national sovereignty, Covid containment policies led to an unprecedented global sealing of borders, the resurgence of state authority, and expansion of police and military power. Suddenly, the aspiration of xenophobic isolationists from Donald Trump to Viktor Orbán—securing the border—could be embraced by an avatar of enlightened liberalism like Jacinda Ardern.

It follows from all this that the same contradiction between the aspirational solidarity of universal human rights and its normative imposition by governments, often at gunpoint, resurfaced in the new public-health humanitarianism. Public-health measures were presented as public goods necessary to save lives; adhering to them was tantamount to simply being a decent, caring person adhering to a minimal universal morality. At the same time, these measures were obligations imposed by the state and backed up with the threat of force.

Perhaps nowhere is this contradiction more apparent than in one of the major utopian manifestos to come out of left academia in the wake of Covid: Judith Butler’s What World Is This? A Pandemic Phenomenology. Butler’s main target is the notion of individual freedom that supposedly underlies objections to public-health measures. Fault lies with “personal liberty,” equated by Butler with a “death drive,” ostensibly because resistance to public-health measures is equated with killing people, either oneself or others.

While drawing upon a human-rights tradition driven by concern for vulnerability and suffering, Butler’s vision departs dramatically from the idea of human rights by rejecting the underlying philosophical premise from which it emerges, namely that an individual possesses, or should possess, certain rights and freedoms. The short preamble of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights uses the word “freedom” seven times, often interchangeably or synonymously with “rights.” The utopian potential of pandemic lockdowns, for Butler, is that they can help demolish this foundational set of assumptions and replace it with a new conception of the subject defined by interdependence.

Notwithstanding Butler’s hopes, lockdowns haven’t made us a more caring society; among other things, sharp declines in charitable giving and surges in violence and homelessness suggest otherwise. Academic studies also point to the opposite effect. The cumulative impact of lockdowns on young people, for example, is that they have become less empathetic and crueler. In the end, Butler’s vision reveals one of the dystopian endpoints of the utopian human-rights dream: the forced imposition of isolation in the humanitarian name of caring for others.

Concerns about the dangers of autonomy also animate the lockdown manifesto of the late philosopher Bruno Latour, After Lockdown: a Metamorphosis. As in Gregor Samsa’s case, according to Latour, our Covid metamorphosis is irreversible: “It seems that we’re not about to turn back by waking up out of this nightmare. Once locked down, always locked down.” By metamorphosing our daily conditions of living into a lockdown, according to Latour, Covid and the public response to it revealed the true nature of our reality. We are vulnerable because of our dependence on our fellow human and non-human inhabitants, which, in turn, are being assailed by the destructive forces of the new climate regime. Those who resist lockdown, he claimed, erroneously fancy themselves “autotrophs” capable of autonomously producing the conditions of their own existence, but our terrestrial reality is, as in Butler’s vision, one of interdependence: we are heterotrophs! Sure, we might feel discomfort and limited, suffocated even, but if we want to continue to live and mitigate our vulnerability, we have no other choice.

“The underside of the warm embrace of interdependence is a harsh authoritarian imposition.”

Latour’s vision accords with what many believed was the utopian potential at the heart of the Covid dystopia. Where others saw the unsustainability of lockdowns, Latour glimpsed in lockdowns a model of sustainability, in the form of future “climate lockdowns” legitimated by the same logic of emergency. However, as in the case of Butler’s pandemic intervention, the underside of the warm embrace of interdependence is a harsh authoritarian imposition.

The first wave of human-rights activism was predicated on a simple moral logic: We all have an ethical responsibility to care about, and to work to relieve, the suffering of prisoners of conscience locked up in authoritarian nations. Whatever the limitations of this moralistic attempt to supersede politics by focusing on victimhood, human rights have nurtured a moral reflex that  engenders a shared sense of humanity. The hope that caring for the suffering of distant others might become part of a shared moral intuition in future societies was utopian in the best sense of the term. But it was utopian in the worst possible sense to think that this moral vision, grounded as it was in the simplistic opposition between victim and perpetrator, would supersede politics and become the glue holding societies together in a community of global human rights.

It is sobering to realize that the success of human-rights advocates at inscribing victimhood and vulnerability as dominant political and ethical idioms helped facilitate broad compliance with pandemic measures that placed human lives in the abstract over human rights in the concrete. In true dystopian doublethink, progressive intellectuals claimed that we could only be free by being locked down and only care for the other by breaking fundamental social bonds. Seen thus, a retrograde return to normal is preferable to the fantasies of those who saw in lockdown an opportunity to reimagine and remake the world.

Let their utopias be lost forever.

Ari Gandsman is a medical anthropologist at the University of Ottawa.

José López is a political sociologist at the University of Ottawa.

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