Postscript on collective (re-) action

After my last post, watching the protests in the US (and the rest of the world) unfold, I kept wondering about some things. #BlackoutTuesday took social media by storm, and even those who have never posted anything remotely political took part in the event. One might argue that the protests are not a form of crisis or that conversely, they are against the status quo, but aside from that, it got me thinking about another thing.

It seems to me that the notion I laid out in my last post, that we collectively and individually uphold our social order is historically a relatively recent phenomenon - or at least in the forms of individual accountability and individual (re-)action. Consider the pandemic again as an example: We can find several heads of states addressing their citizens with statements such as this one from Angela Merkel:

„I really believe that we will succeed in this task, if every citizen understands it as his or her task.“ (Merkel, 2020. Own Translation)

Or from Emmanuel Macron:

„I know that I asked you to stay at home. I also asked you to keep calm in this context ... We all need to have the spirit of responsibility.“ (Macron, 2020. Own Translation)

What is evident in the reaction to the pandemic is the amount of individual responsibility professed. Reading Foucault's analyses of the smallpox epidemic in his lectures (c.f. Foucault, 2004: 57-81)1 it would be hard to imagine the various sovereigns address their subjects in the same manner. However now, be it in a time of a worldwide pandemic, a racist terrorist attack or a racist policing system, the question is not only "What can be done?", but "What do I need to do?" and "How am I accountable?". The pandemic and its state ordered counteractions may be state ordered, but they were still the responsibility of each citizen. In other words, they are a matter of and relate to conduct. Within each of these crises, there is a sense of individual accountability. In this way, it seems, from an armchair-psychoanalytic perspective, quite evident that we would only take part in superficial collective re-actions.

Because everything we do is just radically reflected back at us. We consume alone. Our individual votes matter. Our individual presentation is key. I don't really am knowledgeable enough to be able to pinpoint this change, or even define it,2 however, it seems analogous to what Foucault described with the emergence of the concept of the population.3 He uses the example of the military, where in the 17th and 18th century, being a soldier "more or less voluntary" [Foucault, 1978: 201. Own Translation), whereas once being a soldier became "not just a profession, not even a general law, but an ethic, a conduct of good citizens" (ibid.), transgressive conduct, i.e. in most cases desertion, became a violation of social ethics and an affront against society. I think with regards to this very vaguely defined social order I have employed, the same pattern can be seen: If upholding the social order and the social self-image is both an individual and a collective responsibility, if the individual effort is a "conduct of good citizens", then naturally the failure to uphold said order is "like a refusal of the values presented by society, like a refusal of a certain relationship with the nation ... that is considered obligatory" (Foucault, 1978: 202. Own Translation).

Conversely it would be so easy to just go ahead and consume, not think about the ethical implications of our consumption, go vote for whoever looks kinda friendly, and live it up in a hedonistic bliss. And maybe this is key: Maybe the sorts of collective reactions I outlined are so surface-level or even ignorant, because they don't need to be anything else. On a macro level they serve to reaffirm the social order, but on the individual level they serve to calm us. And in the same way that Zizek outlined the Starbucks coffee being an ideological cozy blanket where I can just pay a few cents more and consume with a supposedly clear conscience (see here), a superficial collective reaction such as a feel-good concert, or clapping from your balcony, or (maybe, don't quote me on this one) posting a black square, shows just enough individual accountability as a proof of good conduct that I can go back to my solitary hedonistic existence.


Foucault, Michel (2004): Sécurité, territoire, population. Cours au Collège de France. 1977-1978. Seuil/Gallimard.

Macron, Emmanuel (2020): Adresse aux Français, 16 mars 2020.

Merkel, Angela (2020): Fernsehansprache von Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel.

Wallace, David Foster (2012): The Pale King. Penguin Books.

  1. Ha, you thought I would use the example from Discipline and Punish, didn't you? Well, look how smart I look now!
  2. I am however reminded of a passage from David Foster Wallace‘s The Pale King, where - speaking about Vietnam - a character says: „[H]ere was a whole generation where most of them now for the first time questioned authority and said that their individual moral beliefs about the war outweighed their duty to go fight“ (Wallace, 2012: 134)
  3. See, it makes sense to have brought it up above.