15.10.2020

"The virus is an attack on our modern understanding of feasibility"

The year 2020 once again stokes fears of the apocalypse. Sociologist and OeAW member Stephan Moebius explains what drives people to regularly proclaim the end of the world.

How long will the world out there last? The current corona crisis is fueling fantasies of the end of the world.
How long will the world out there last? The current corona crisis is fueling fantasies of the end of the world. © Shutterstock

Whether climate crisis, economic crisis, or now corona: apocalypticists regularly proclaim the approaching end of the world. When and why are we humans particularly susceptible to doomsday narratives?

The sociologist Stephan Moebius, member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW), talks in an interview about the dramatic rhetoric surrounding the coronavirus and why the fear of an apocalypse can also be a positive driving force for change.

Mr. Moebius, how did the idea of an apocalypse come about? And what semantic change has the term experienced?

Stephan Moebius: Ideas of the apocalypse can be found in all of known cultural history and in most known cultural groups. However, they can have different content, legitimacy, and social functions depending on culture and religion. While the Apocalypse of the Old Testament, for example, still offered the possibility of a new beginning – apocalypse does not mean an absolute end – i.e., was intended as a kind of transition stage or vision of redemption, modern apocalypse scenarios often assume a relapse into uncivilization or irrevocable destruction.

Can you give an example?

Moebius: One thinks, for example, of Oswald Spengler's 1918 historical-philosophical thesis "The Decline of the West" or the final downfall. This is not surprising, because today the complete self-destruction of humanity, for example through nuclear weapons or climate change, has objectively moved into the realm of the possible.

Ideas of the apocalypse can be found in all of known cultural history.

What drives people to regularly proclaim the end of the world?

Moebius: Doomsday narratives are reactions and attempts to deal with (perceived) crises, and to give them meaning. Pluralization and with it the loss of a communally binding sense of meaning increasingly lead to "alternative" interpretations, which can also be notions of an apocalypse. Thereby, situations perceived as threatening and fears of the future, which at the same time express longing for change and for something new, are processed differently.

Which people tend to fear the end of the world?

Moebius: It is sociologically interesting why some react with doomsday scenarios and others rather with trust in politics and science. Those who react with doomsday scenarios tend to be those who, in the present or in their future prospects, see themselves as disadvantaged, unheard, powerless, or unnoticed.

Doomsday narratives are reactions and attempts to deal with crises, and to give them meaning.

Regarding the corona crisis, there is talk of the "greatest threat since the war". Why this dramatic rhetoric?

Moebius: This rhetoric is not only due to the media, which tends towards dramatization. The dramatic thing about the corona crisis that differentiates it from previous wars, for example, is that it is so global in scope. On the other hand, the attack does not come from someone who has certain economic or political interests but from nature itself. Although sociology never assumes a pure nature-culture dichotomy, but always focuses on their reciprocal relationship and intersection.

What does that mean in terms of corona?

Moebius: In the case of corona, you can see it very clearly. Human interference in nature was likely to have been decisive for the development of this virus and its transmission between animal species and then to humans.

In any case, the natural character of the virus changes the semantics of the apocalypse. While apocalypses have often divided the world into the realm of good and evil, as Samuel Huntington did in his thesis "The Clash of Civilizations", the virus is inherently neither one nor the other.

While apocalypses have often divided the world into the realm of good and evil, the virus is inherently neither one nor the other.

In what way?

Moebius: To us, the virus is evil, but it does not act according to these moral categories, it is indifferent, actually "mindless" – and this senselessness is much worse for us than if we were dealing with an opponent to whom we could ascribe motives and interests and with whom we could at least potentially communicate.

However, this indifference does not mean that it hits everyone equally hard, but that social inequalities are emphasized. It hits the already disadvantaged hardest; those who cannot work from home, who are already largely cut off from medical and psychological care, or who are exposed to inhumane living conditions.

The virus is also an attack on our modern understanding of progress and feasibility, according to which we have everything under control.

To what extent does the virus also show our vulnerability as a society?

Moebius: The virus is also an attack on our modern understanding of progress and feasibility, according to which we have everything under control. It is this loss of technological controllability and of the self-evident nature of civilization that gives rise to, on the one hand, even more controllability, for example greater state surveillance and control practices, and on the other hand wild interpretations and conspiracy theories, as well as a hypertrophied belief that science will get everything under control.

Keyword climate crisis: can the fear of an apocalypse also be a positive driving force for change?

Moebius: Fears and experiences of loss and powerlessness are something that should be taken seriously. They have always been the driving force behind collective action. The signs of human self-destruction may be there. But that does not mean that we should now fatalistically wallow in a teleology of doom, but rather that we should look at how we can deal with, overcome, and prevent the crises.

And the role of science?

Moebius: Science plays a central role. Not only in connection with the articulation and research of crises, in the search for concrete solutions such as vaccines or climate-neutral technologies, but also in the socio-scientific analysis and reflection of the different reactions to them. Science does not stand outside of social contexts. What changes is it experiencing now? Why is it getting into a crisis of function and legitimacy? How can it maintain its relative autonomy? Does it follow, in its answers and reactions, a traditional view of science as omnipotent, or does it try to take into account a reality that is not completely controllable?

 

AT A GLANCE

Stephan Moebius is Professor of Sociological Theory and Intellectual History at the University of Graz and has been a Full Member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) since 2019.