This essay is part of a special series of the American Project that seeks to address the crisis of loneliness during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Man cannot live by bread alone — or can he? Now that grocery stores alone remain open, and we are practicing “social distancing,” we have engaged in an extraordinary global experiment to see if we can, in fact, live by bread alone.
In the space of a few short weeks, our global-world-without-boundaries has collapsed in upon itself, because corona virus has brought the prospect of death to the forefront of our imagination. The dream of a borderless world has been supplanted by a nightmare that prompts many of us to mark our front doors as the outer limit of our habitation. Our minds sharpened by the prospect of death, life for many now consists in four activities: contact with those immediately around us at home; seeing, but not connecting with, others when we confer with them over the internet or pass them, at a distance, in the stores that provide our daily bread; listening to government authorities that inform us of what we must do next; and watching Netflix at home for entertainment and to dispel our boredom and anxiety.
We have entered brave new territory, and it would be foolish to minimize the risks. Amidst this crisis, however, we must not forget that, in addition to the immediate dangers posed by this pandemic, our attempts to combat it pose social and political dangers in their own right. However necessary social distancing may be at the moment, the issue of social distancing is bigger than coronavirus.
What has been most troubling about the rapid adjustments we have made as a society is not how difficult they have been, but rather — let us dare to admit it — how comfortable many of us have been in making them. I am not referring to, much less diminishing, the real difficulties, dangers, and dislocations faced by health-care professionals, first responders, or those whose lives have been upended by the coronavirus. But for a lot of Americans — especially those able to transition, relatively seamlessly, to “telework” — life in the time of coronavirus conforms to, rather than disrupts, many of our settled social habits. These are the habits that Alexis de Tocqueville long ago predicted would provide the foundation for the kinder and gentler despotism that awaits us at the end of history.
How do the four activities associated with social distancing that many of us now practice provide the foundation for a kinder and gentler despotism of the future? One long paragraph near the end of Tocqueville’s monumental “Democracy in America” (1840) points to each of those activities and to the kind of the world they together invite:
I am trying to imagine under what novel features despotism may soon appear in the world. In the first place, I see a multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around the pursuit of petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest. Mankind, for him, consists in his children and his personal friends. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, they are near enough, but he does not notice them. He touches them but feels nothing. He exists in and for himself, and though he may still have a family, one can say that he no longer has a fatherland. Over this kind of men stands an immense, protective power, which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate. That power is absolute, thoughtful in detail, orderly, provident, and gentle. It would resemble paternal authority if, father-like, it tried to prepare its charge for a man’s life, but on the contrary, it only tries to keep them in perpetual childhood. It likes to see citizens enjoy themselves, provided that they think of nothing but enjoyment. It gladly works for their happiness but wants to be the sole agent and judge of it. It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures [and] manages their principal concerns. Why should it not entirely relieve them for the trouble of thinking and all the cares of life?
Can we actually endure this sort of world — a world that encloses us within a narrow social circle, assured by the state that bread will be amply provided, and entertained so that the boredom and anxiety invariably attending mortal life need not trouble us? The answer ought to be, “No, we cannot.” There are deep longings in the human heart, for communion in all its salutary forms, that the sequestered life we are now called to live cannot address.
Tocqueville was perhaps the first to recognize the fragility of the everyday communion between citizens so necessary to build a civil life together in a democracy. He worried that such communion would be overshadowed by the subtle seduction to draw inward into a narrow social circle and to look upward to the state, rather than outward to our neighbors. In short, Tocqueville saw that social distancing would be the greatest temptation of the democratic age. That is why the end of “Democracy in America” reverberates with the unanswered question: Will democratic man chose what is comfortable for him, even though it is bad for him?
A former student of mine, living in the Netherlands and sequestered at home as we are in the United States, informs me that in Amsterdam citizens there are lining up for city blocks to purchase marijuana from the coffee shops that legally sell it. If Tocqueville could speak, he would remind us that we must have a vast range of human association available to us if we are to live well. When we voluntarily give them up, or when they are taken away from us — by our national government, by the E.U., or by some future world government — we suffer. In his 1931 novel “Brave New World,” Aldous Huxley completed the picture of the gentle seduction of modern tyranny Tocqueville masterfully began. To enfeeble citizens, finally and fully, it will not be enough to take away their political rights — or even for them to willingly renounce them. The boredom and anxiety they will feel when denied the deeper communion for which they long must be anesthetized with entertainment and with drugs. Grocery stores will not be enough; pharmacies (or marijuana-selling coffee shops) must remain open, too.
The social distancing we are now practicing because of coronavirus anticipates the kinder and gentler despotism that awaits us at the end of history. However necessary in the short term, the kinds of activities associated with social distancing are precisely those that Tocqueville thought would characterize that despotism. That is the bad news. Yet, there is good news that overrides it, which I can only hope we will have the good sense to remember when this pandemic is over: the need for communion in all its salutary forms is screaming out for our attention. Everybody feels it, even if they cannot name it. Grocery stores and pharmacies, important as they are, cannot provide us will all that we need to live well. We need human association.
Joshua Mitchell is professor of political theory at Georgetown University.