The pandemic has revealed the importance of civic solidarity and public trust, writes Ruairidh Brown. But they function best in a context of ‘friendship', a concept which needs to be recognised as central to political thinking in a post-Covid world
Current research is revealing that effective public health policy depends largely on public solidarity and trust: citizens are more likely to follow public health guidelines when they feel they are participating in a collective effort rather than if they feel they are being ‘dictated to’ by a government in whom they have little trust.
The need for solidarity and public trust has been stressed since the pandemic's outbreak, the WHO-China report in February drawing particular attention to the importance of civic solidarity. From African states to Nordic states, these twin values have since been recognised as essential.
Indeed, even in Sweden, whose response to the pandemic has been regarded in many ways as the antithesis to that of China, public trust and solidarity have been vital for government health measures. The ‘libertarian’ laissez-faire interpretation of Sweden’s approach ignored the fact that many Swedes adopted preventative practices voluntarily, rather than being compelled by law, due to the high levels of trust between citizens and government.
The recent resurgence of interest in the concept of ‘friendship’ has focused largely on recapturing such ideas of civic solidarity and collective public participation, providing an alternative vision of politics to that based on power and competition for office. It has also been proposed that the concept can increase solidarity, not just between citizens, but also between citizens and State.
Such thinking is not entirely new. In the nineteenth century, British liberal philosopher TH Green argued vehemently that the State was a positive and constructive force in people’s lives, with the potential to provide education, healthcare, and financial assistance when people were unemployed or too old to work. Green insisted that citizens ought to recognise the State not as their antagonist but as their ‘powerful friend’.
Nonetheless, the State is rarely considered in this friendly way. On the contrary, the most widely accepted definition of ‘State’ is that given by Max Weber, which focuses on its ability to compel citizen obedience through exercising a ‘monopoly of violence’.
to enhance public trust and solidarity, we must reconsider our perception of politics as a top-down power relationship
Such definition reinforces the perception of the State as a dictatorial antagonist, and politics as a top-down power relationship. If we are to enhance public trust and solidarity, this perception must be reconsidered. This is where the notion of friendship becomes vital to our future politics.
In terms of more specific means by which friendship can foster solidarity and increase public trust, recent scholarship has focused on encouraging citizens to safeguard the world they share.
Friendship acts as an insightful analogy. If we consider, for example, University friends, the University environment is fundamental to their friendship: it was there that they met and, had it not brought them together, they would have remained strangers. Subsequently, care for the good of this shared institution, maintenance of its ethical standards and a desire for its future good will become part of University friends' relationship.
We can extend this analogy to consider the political community: the social ‘world’ that brings us together and through which we relate to each other.
Being a citizen should involve cooperative practices which enhance and sustain our community: not trying to avoid taxes, voluntarily obeying the law, lending our support to heritage conservation, and visiting and supporting public galleries and museums.
Of course, in nearly all these activities, the State must play an active role. Understanding politics in this way reframes it as a joint venture for the good of our shared community, rather than a top-down exercise of power. In this way, the State becomes less an antagonistic force interfering in our private lives and instead a vital partner in the maintenance of our communities.
the Covid-19 response must be seen as a joint civic effort to control the virus, not the latest overreach of an overbearing State into our private lives
Such reframing is vital if we are to see the Covid-19 response as a joint civic effort to control the spread of the virus, and not the latest overreach of an overbearing State into our private lives. Indeed, it invites us to consider State power as a friendly force helping protect us and our world.
Viewing politics in the frame of this cooperative venture in the spirit of ‘civic friendship’ can thus be a vital paradigm for cultivating the sense of public solidarity and trust necessary to stop the spread of this virus.
Thinking about the ‘world’ we have in common is not, however, limited to the social world, but the physical world, too. Cultivation of civic friendship thus invites us to care for our natural environment, and to work together to conserve and protect it.
Covid-19 is being heralded as a wake-up call concerning humanity’s lack of care for the natural world, so such an approach is vital to tackle our current predicament.
Combatting the climate emergency will again require changes to our behaviour, and likely sacrifices to our liberties, to ward off an invisible foe
Considering how we can better care for the environment is not only vital in combatting Covid-19 or preventing another similar viral emergency, but in preventing the even greater and irreversible climate emergency. This will again require changes to our behaviour, and likely sacrifices to our liberties, to ward off an invisible foe.
If we are to succeed in such a struggle, solidarity and public trust in the spirit of safeguarding our shared world is essential. Friendship, helping us frame such thinking, is thus a vital concept for structuring the politics that will shape our future.