Coronavirus can bring about an inflammatory response within the human organism. The inflammatory response is not the illness but the body’s attempt to overcome something that is foreign to itself. The illness arises through the interaction of something foreign with a host organism that has some level of susceptibility or imbalance; the inflammation is the body’s attempt at healing and restoring balance – it is, generally speaking, an acute response.
Likewise, in the social organism, we can see the various responses by government, business and the not-for-profit sector to the current social situation. These are all attempts – however varied – to help the social organism find some kind of health. This is the social organism’s attempt at healing. In a similar way to the human organism, the illness in the social organism is not simply the presence of a pandemic but, rather, the illness arises through the fact that the social organism has not been configured in a healthy or balanced way.
In this sense, the social organism has been ill for some time. The conditions for this (and resulting symptoms) have to do with the inter-relationships between the three areas of social life – culture, economy and polity, as expressed through civil society organisations, business and government. Essentially speaking, it has not been possible to find the human being reflected in the social organism. The social organism has become inherently hostile to the whole human being. The illness of the social organism expresses itself in different ways in different regions of the earth. But essentially we can say the social organism has been suffering with a chronic illness for some time.
All inflammatory illness, if left unchecked, can prove harmful – even fatal – for the human being. It is the celebrated accomplishment of modern medicine that the inflammatory illnesses of the world have been reduced. However, the cases of chronic illnesses have increased. In many ways, globally speaking, we have replaced our acute illnesses with chronic ones.
The quality of an acute, inflammatory illness is, generally speaking, that it tends towards heat, pain, redness and swelling. The general quality of a chronic sclerotic illness is that it is cold and contracting. A polarity can be seen here: expansive and dissolving when it comes to acute illness; contracting and hardening when it comes to chronic sclerotic illness. Inflammatory illnesses are generally seen in younger years, while chronic sclerotic illnesses generally belong to later life.
If unresolved, acute inflammatory illnesses can move to become chronic ones. In terms of social life, sudden upheavals represent an acute, inflammatory change in conditions (think of any revolution); while existing power structures continually re-asserting themselves represent a hardened, chronic condition.
In the Western world, at least, it has been some time since we have found ourselves in an acute situation such as this. Our current situation goes further than the so-called Global Financial Crisis. So how are we expected to work with the current, inflammatory moment?
When it comes to inflammatory illnesses of the human organism, the medicine that is the fruit of a sclerotic social organism often seeks to remove warmth, reduce pain, and so on. That is, it can seek to go against the inflammatory process. Needless to say, this is sometimes necessary when the illness carries the patient too close to death. The number of potential deaths from coronavirus points, generally speaking, to our inability to combat this virus and to work with the body’s inflammatory response to it. As a side note, even if it were bacterial in nature, we are seeing more and more antibiotic-resistant infections (35,000 Americans die as a result of such infections each year).
There is currently a growing recognition amongst scientists and doctors (see here) that the best way to treat a fever, for instance, is to work with it, and not against it. Of course, given we are in the midst of a pandemic, many other measures are also required. The nature of the coronavirus also has an affinity for a particular part of the organism, being the lungs, which also requires additional treatment. But here we are talking general principles, not in order to treat the virus more effectively, but to understand the situation – the health, or otherwise – of the social organism.
So the question remains, How are we to work towards health in the social organism in the current situation? If we are to consider the current global situation as being generally inflammatory (in relation to existing social structures), then we must ask ourselves what the appropriate course of treatment is wherever the global social organism finds individual expression in the different parts of the world. In some countries we also see, mixed into the inflammatory response, a reinforcing of existing structures and the status quo (see Hungary, for instance). Certain countries have also gone through various stages of denying that there is even a problem (USA, Brazil – but most countries, to some extent). And while the effect of some of these social responses is to further socially isolate human beings – making it more of a sclerotic effect, by nature – the activity behind this effect, or that which causes it, can be seen as coming from a place of acute, inflammatory social reaction.
If the best way to work with fever, generally speaking, is not to fight against it but to work with it – to carefully monitor and actively engage in the body’s attempt to heal itself within certain parameters (outside of which further interventions are required) – then we can see that in the current situation we are being asked to work with the increased temperature of the social organism – to approach it as one way in which health may be promoted. One example of this is the UK government’s and the Australian government’s payments to employees whose work is affected by the virus. While not exactly the same, this deed begins to move in the direction of a universal basic income (which would be understandable coming from more left-leaning governments, but both of these governments are conservative). Taken through to its logical conclusions, we have here to do with the separation of labour from income – with a de-commodifying of labour (we may also, in time, come to a de-commodifying also of land [seen, in some ways, in the housing of those without a home and others needing to self isolate, be it in vacant properties or in hotels], and of capital [though we did not seem to learn this lesson during the GFC]).
One way of working with fever in the human organism is to stay warm. When it comes to the social organism, warmth is carried and created in the relationships between human beings. Social warmth is required now more than ever (albeit in the context of physical distancing).
The characteristic of pain is that it brings consciousness to a particular part of the organism. Now, more than ever, we can also see where the regions of ‘pain’ are within the social organism. Those most affected are the most marginalised – indigenous people, those without a home, the aged, the chronically ill, those who are economically impoverished, artists, cultural creatives, and so on. These areas of social pain are brought to attention now in new ways.
One of the functions of illness is that it provides a different place for a system to (using the language of MIT’s Otto Scharmer) see and sense itself; that is, for a system to see and have a feeling of/for itself. In systems-change processes we attempt to create the conditions whereby stakeholders can experience this through various creative processes, including the social arts and other mapping techniques. In illness processes we are forced into this situation. We see both the system and ourselves. In the current moment we can see both ourselves as human organisms, and we can see the social organism.
The question is, to point to the ideas of Schiller and others, Can we find the human being within the social organism? Do we organise social life in such a way that it is possible to find the human being – ourselves – therein?
The current situation is, generally speaking, showing us a socially inflammatory and dissolving process – numerous social structures that we might have been tempted to think as given, or somehow natural, are currently being remade. The temptation is, of course, to want to return to how things have been previously. There is always, in any illness, the tempting desire to turn the clock back – to avoid the illness at all costs – and return to how things were beforehand.
Sometimes the best insights come from single individuals after a lifetime of observing related phenomena. The Dutch GP L.F.C. Mees observed the biographical and health journeys of his many patients throughout the course of his professional life and concluded that people can experience positive growth, development and transformation if they are able to approach their illness in a healthy way, together with the support of others who are prepared to see things in a similar way with them. He summed this up in the title of his book, Blessed by Illness.
Now, of course – when it comes to the human organism – this will not necessarily always be the case, nor will it be experienced as so simple. Many people will die because of this and other viruses; much pain will be experienced, and the last thing it will feel like to many is a blessing. Essentially, it is impossible to enforce such an idea onto others – nobody can ever say to another ‘you are blessed by this illness’. Rather, it is only a question that can be explored by myself if I choose to do so. Others can support me in this, such as doctors, if I invite them into such a process.
When it comes to the social organism, I am called on to be just as (or even more) active in this process, and to also support others in their processes. What does this social situation say to me? Is there a blessing in this for me? Are there things in myself that I might be being asked to overcome? What is not essential that I might be being asked to discard? What is essential in what I carry – in who I am – that might be being called for now more than ever, in this very instant?
In Scharmer’s schema, if the system can see and sense itself, then consciousness can be transformed, and if consciousness can be transformed then systems can be changed and thereby understood (also Kurt Lewin on this last point).
The current acute illness of the social organism is forcing us into a position of seeing and feeling the reality of the social organism and also its relation to the human organism. What is my contribution to this situation in the current moment? What is my current social contribution? How can what is currently observed and felt become the foundations from which a new world is made through a healthy and revitalised social organism and by a healthier and more whole human organism – a human organism which is able to be active out of all that it is – a physical being, but also an enlivened being, an ensouled being, and a Self-possessed or spiritual being capable of imagination, inspiration, and intuition for what the highest possibilities of the earth and of the human being are asking for – are asking of us – right now, in this time, in this place.