Populism v Covid-19. Civilizing and Decivilizing Processes in a Time of Global
By John Pratt and Daisy Lutyens
What constitutes a “civilized society”? The Oxford Dictionary (2006) claims that it is one
that has arrived at “an advanced stage of human development in which people in a society
behave well towards each other and share a common culture.” Yes, but there is more to
“being civilized” than this. What can be understood as a civilized society is also one where
science, rather than magic or folklore, is used to fight disease; one where “disturbing
events”, such as the slaughter of animals for food, have been largely hidden from public
view; one where citizens have strong interdependencies with each other, based on high
levels of trust and cooperation; one where the state has a monopoly on the power to raise
taxes and to punish offenders, with vigilantism and other such interventions by private
citizens long since removed; one that has a free press; and one that is presaged on it having
a functioning democracy, with attendant respect for the rule of law and the separation of
powers. Indeed, it has come to be this very structuring of governance that encases and
protects scientific achievement, displays of good manners and shared values that inform
However, in Norbert Elias’ (1939, ) The Civilizing Process, “being civilized”
has a sociological in addition to any normative meaning that is given it. For him, the
characteristics of a society claiming to be civilized represent the latest stage of individual
and social development in a long-term process beginning in Europe around 800 years ago.
It initially involved forms of conduct and standards of etiquette to be found in court circles
that gradually permeated all classes. This process of civilizing and the above
characteristics that it set in motion have been made possible by the convergence of four
independent vectors: (i) the increasing authority of the central state and its organizations of
government; (ii) increased sensibility to suffering and the development of more refined
standards of behaviour; (iii) modes of knowledge based around science and human
expertise, making the world more predictable and calculable; (iv) the internalization of
controls and restraints (“habitus”) that have led to greater foresight and moderation in the
conduct of everyday life.
This process does not work at the same speed across all societies. Equally, it is
likely to take off at different tangents in individual societies, depending on the presence of
what Elias referred to as their “local centrifugal forces” (for example, population levels,
geographical boundaries, predominant religious beliefs etc). That said, particular impetus
in any one of the above vectors is likely to reinforce the civilizing process in the others,
bringing about a “civilizing spurt.” At the same time, this onward march of civilization
provides no necessary guarantee of civilized outcomes. Indeed, it has been argued that it
was the values and accoutrements of the civilized world itself – the emphasis on planning,
scientific expertise, the habitus of restraint and a reluctance to “get involved” in public
disputes or controversies – that made the Holocaust possible (Bauman, 1989).
Furthermore, this process can be interrupted at any time by war, famine or dramatic social
change. Under these circumstances, a “decivilizing interruption” is likely to occur, and
“the armour of civilized conduct would crumble very rapidly” (Elias, 1994: 253). Such
occurrences, he argued, then make possible the re-emergence of conduct and values more
appropriate to previous eras. Yet these apparent forwards / backwards movements
associated with the respective processes seem too mechanical and precise. Given the
uncertainties and contingencies involved in them, it would seem more likely that their
collision will produce a strange pas de deux, neither, of necessity, forwards nor backwards,
but with each of them escorting the other into tangential and contingent areas.
As this article is being written, another such danse macabre is being performed,
with the civilizing process in conflict with forces that pose another decivilizing interruption
to it. This conflict began with the contemporary rise of populist politics (especially in the
Anglo-American world on which this article is largely based). This politics has variously
undermined many of the characteristics associated with civilized societies, while
simultaneously strengthening the authority of its anti-democratic “strong man” leaders.
Indeed, to sustain their authority, it has become necessary for them to further weaken the
precepts and understandings of life in the civilized world. Thereafter, the arrival of the
Covid-19 virus has then brought this clash between civilizing and decivilizing processes to
a head. At this time of global catastrophe, most governments have aligned themselves with
science to control the virus. In the absence of a vaccine, they have imposed lockdowns
and, to varying degrees, have exhorted social distancing and mask wearing. At the same
time, they have attempted to unify their populations in this struggle with catchphrases such
as “we’re all in it together” or, in the case of New Zealand, references to “a team of five
million” (the entire population of the country). They alleviate the anxieties and pains
caused by unemployment, one of the bi-products of the virus, with the provision of safety
nets (government financed work furloughs, for example). In tandem with leaders of the
scientific community, government leaders or their representatives regularly hold press
conferences to keep the public well-informed. Nonetheless, the fragility of the civilizing
process is seen in the way in which fears of the virus and reactions to government attempts
to control it have led to uncontrolled emotional outbursts between citizens as they try to
safeguard themselves and their immediate family: panic buying in supermarkets has even
caused fights between customers over toilet rolls. There have been hate crimes, involving
mental and physical abuse of Asians, whose ethnic backgrounds (in the eyes of some)
makes them culpable for the spread of the virus. Until such a time that a vaccine is
generally available, the responses to the virus – isolation, lockdowns etc – revert to those
that were used in the Middle Ages against the plague.
These decivilizing characteristics have, meanwhile, gained strength from the
responses of populist politicians to the virus – President Trump in particular. They
disregard, sometimes denigrate, their scientific advisers. The ability of the state to provide
a unified and coherent approach to the pandemic has been undermined since such leaders
distrust the organizations of government and want to invest all authority in themselves.
They deny the existence of the virus; or maintain it will just “disappear.” It is nothing more
than “a little flu” according to President Bolsonaro of Brazil, and anyway, “we’re all going
to die one day.” Or they put forward their own snake oil cures – have you tried injecting
yourself with disinfectant, asks Trump. They also ferment public outrage and dissent at the
state’s insistence on lockdowns and the like, claiming these are assaults on individual
freedom and choice. In the US, refusal to wear a mask has become a gesture of defiance
against the authority of the central state and scientific knowledge. Populist leaders further
attempt to exploit the turmoil caused by the virus by advancing conspiracy theories about it
on the internet.
The conjuncture between the consequences of the pandemic and populism thus
provides a further illustration of the fragility of the civilizing process. However, it will be
argued here that the pandemic and populism are mutually antagonistic. The virus shows up
populism’s “strong men” leaders to be nothing more than incompetent charlatans and is
invulnerable to their magical solutions or their disavowals of its existence. In those
societies that have effectively controlled the virus, at least, there is a renewed trust in the
central state alongside recognition of the importance of scientific achievement;
interdependencies between citizens and in some ways between nations have also
strengthened. In contrast, public support for populist leaders has declined. In effect, and
notwithstanding Covid-19’s own attack on the civilizing process, it may also bring an end
to the more deep-rooted populist assault on it.
The article traces the emergence of contemporary populism and its subsequent
impact on the post-1945 trajectory that the civilizing process had taken in the Anglo-
American world. It then shows how the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic has weakened
these populist attacks while simultaneously rejuvenating the civilizing process, even if this
does not necessarily follow the same course from society to society. The article closes by
discussing the implications of these developments for life in post-pandemic society.
The post 1945 civilizing spurt
Let us first be clear about what is meant by this term “populism.” It exists where there is
“an ideology of popular resentment [or what has come to be known as “grievance culture”]
against the order imposed on society by a long established, differential ruling class which is
believed to have a monopoly of power, breeding and fortune” (Shils, 1956: 100 – 101).
Similarly, Canovan (1981: 9): “populism should be understood as a particular kind of
political phenomenon where the tensions between the elite and the grass roots loom large.”
While these tensions had led to populist demagogues coming to power in Europe and
beyond in the 1930s, they ultimately met with total defeat during World War Two. To
eliminate the possibility of any further populist resurgence, the authority and scope of the
central state and its organizations of government was greatly strengthened and enlarged in
the post-war era in Western societies. By so doing, it was intended that the sense of
betrayal by government amongst large sections of the population that fuelled pre-war
populism would be denied any more oxygen. The extensive planning and coordination that
had been a feature of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany were thus seen as essential
characteristics of post-war governance. The celebrated British sociologist Barbara Wootton
(1945: 48) wrote that planning would be freedom’s guarantor, even though this necessitated
“people putting old individual liberties in trust for the common good.”
Accordingly, rather than leaving economic and social development to the
fluctuations and uncertainties of the market, planning expertise would provide certainty and
stability in everyday life: “planning aims at providing better and healthier conditions of life
for men, women and children… it involves the best possible decisions by the ablest
personnel available” (McAllister, 1945: 13). Extensive welfare programmes were
introduced to protect the well-being of citizens, so that they would not be left to the
uncertain fate of market forces as in the pre-war era. Putting these plans in place
necessitated a vast enlargement of the infrastructure of government: civil servants in the
UK thus increased from 340,000 in 1931 to 720,000 in 1955. New levels of welfare
assistance also helped to bring an end to disturbing sights brought about by the economic
ravages of that time. In the UK, for example, “with the advent of social security and
unemployment benefits and other advantages of the welfare state, it is clear that begging is
now on a much smaller scale” (Home Office, 1974: 19).
Governments were also committed to maintaining full employment, another way of
providing stability and social cohesion. Typical of these governments at this time, it was
acknowledged in Canada that “when unemployment threatened, government would incur
deficits and increases in the national debt resulting from its employment and income
policy” (Howe, 1945: 548). And as governments strengthened their authority through these
measures that made everyday life more secure and calculable, this also brought high levels
of public trust and confidence in government and the democratic process, reaching a
highpoint of 77% in 1964 in the US, in respect of the federal government (Pew Research
It was also intended that interdependencies between citizens would be strengthened
in the design of new towns being constructed to repair wartime damage (in the UK
especially). Drawing on Le Corbusier’s 1930s architectural vision of “the Radiant City”, it
was envisaged that all social classes would be able to mix freely together in this
environment: “our aim must be to combine in the new town the friendly spirit of the former
slum with the vastly improved health conditions of the new estate… we may well produce
a new type of citizen – a healthy, self-respecting dignified person with a sense of beauty,
culture and civic pride’ (Silkin, 1946: c1091).
An insistence on post-war social and cultural uniformity further strengthened and
solidified social cohesion (if it also meant that excesses and difference were viewed with
suspicion). The first issue of the US periodical National Review in 1955 ventured that
“there was never an age of conformity such as this” (Levin, 2016). Similarly, J.K.
Galbraith (1958: 70) wrote that “the display of ostentatious outlays… is now passé… it was
much wiser to take on the protective coloration of the useful citizen, the industrial
statesman or the average guy.” Scientific achievement was venerated, though. It had not
only helped to win the war, but the advances it brought in health care, medicine and
technology would further advance the well-being of nations and individuals. The US
National Science Fund, the National Institute of Health and the provision of federal aid for
education were all established in the 1950s.
This “civilizing spurt” was also reflected in the way, right across Western society,
the state, in conjunction with its expert advisers, was prepared to move ahead of public
opinion (but in line with the advice of most criminal justice experts) and abolish the death
penalty (Loader, 2006). It was thought that these trappings of Nazism and totalitarianism
should have no place in the post-war civilized world. Similarly, the 1948 UN Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, illustrative of renewed interdependencies between nations,
was committed to ensuring that there could be no further abuses of state power, at the
expense of individual rights, that had been allowed in the Nazi criminal courts.
Punishments that were not fixed and certain came to be regarded as one such abuse.
Recognition, as well, that criminological science could not then predict future criminality
anyway (one of the justifications for these measures), helped to bring an end to
indeterminate sentences. By the 1970s, most such provisions had been abolished or had
fallen into abeyance (Bottoms, 1977). Similarly, respect for human rights in the US
Supreme Court brought an end to the prosecution of vagrants, beggars and the like – they,
too, had legal rights that had to be protected and respected. Their status did not make them
quasi-criminals who could then be brought under criminal justice control for being so (see
Pratt, 2020). There was also growing disenchantment with imprisonment. By all rational
criteria, it was too inefficient and expensive, as well as inhumane. Those societies with the
smallest prison populations were thought to be exemplars of civilized society. Government
reports, commissions of inquiry, and the publications of research institutes, largely
disseminated through the authoritative broadsheet press and public broadcasting
organizations, structured public discourse around these issues.
Neo-liberal restructuring and the return of populism
The election victories of Margaret Thatcher in the UK in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in the
US in 1980 signalled an end to the economic and social arrangements that had made the
post war civilizing spurt possible. Subsequent neo-liberal programmes of economic
restructuring, intended to restore “individual liberty” in these and similar societies, greatly
undermined the authority of the central state. The restructuring involved shifts from direct
to indirect taxation and the opening of borders to global trade and labour. Many
government services were privatized, while those working in the public sector were
regularly demeaned as “time-serving bureaucrats.” Financial and service industries rather
than manufacturing became the focus of economic development, along with a reliance,
again, on market forces rather than careful planning and its residual safeguards in place.
Reagan’s observation that government was “the problem, not the solution” was illustrative
of both growing distrust of the state and the development of a habitus that came to be
shaped around individual risk-taking and self-reliance.1 It thus became second nature for
individuals to become their own risk managers, as reflected in the growth of private
insurance schemes, pensions, health education etc from this time. Meanwhile, the more
successful one’s risk-taking, the more this could herald entry to a world of fabulous wealth
and fame, as with the emergence of entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson and Donald
Trump in societies where cultural values began to emphasise difference and celebrity status
rather than solidarity and conformity.
There was no guarantee, though, that the return to free market economics would
necessarily bring an economic boom that all could enjoy. Some certainly became winners
of massive fortunes in the casino style economies that had been brought into existence. As
Bauman (2002: 62) wrote, “individuals who are untied to place, who can travel light and
move fast, win all the competitions that matter and count.” Indeed, it was as if it was best
to be free of ties and encumbrances altogether – whether these be family, community or
employment duties and responsibilities – that might impede this travel in the fast lane to
success. In effect, social life and relations were being restructured, as well as economic
life: the decline of marriage and the growth of divorce, for example, from this time (see, for
example, Pratt, 2020) ensured that interdependencies became much thinner, fleeting and
more guarded in the rush to individual success.
However, events such as the stock market crash of 1987 illustrated that many were
destined to become losers all the same, with the state now unable or unwilling to protect
them from personal disasters. When asked about the crash at a press conference, President
Reagan (1987) said “I think everyone is a bit puzzled… I have no more knowledge of why
it took place than you have.” The New York Times responded to him as follows:
The noise you heard was not just the crash of the market. It was the crumbling of
support for… Reagan. In a moment of frightening crisis, [the public] suspected that
they were living in an economic fantasy… They were being told again and again
that they and their country could have something for nothing, wealth without paying
for it (Lewis, 1987: 35).
But notwithstanding the sense of certainty and security that careful state planning had
previously been intended to provide, neo-liberalism evangelicals actually welcomed the
ensuing uncertainty and insecurity brought about by restructuring:
We are not prisoners of an inevitable future. Uncertainty makes us free… where
everything works according to the laws of probability, we are like primitive
people… thank goodness, the world of pure probability does not exist except on
paper… it has nothing to do with breathing, sweating anxious and creative human
beings struggling to find their way out of darkness (Bernstein, 1996: 229 – 230).
In reality, though, while individuals were exhorted to put themselves first, this meant they
also had to adjust to the uncertainties of fate by themselves. The vastly increased social
distances that began to appear from the 1980s demonstrate the vicissitudes of relying on
free market economics: the growth of gated communities at one end of this spectrum was
accompanied by a resurgence of homelessness at the other. And while the restructuring had
brought about the assembly of lives free to enjoy its economic rewards, it had also brought
about the assembly of lives without attachments, that no longer had any familiar roadmaps
to guide them as they made their solitary travels, lives that had become much more
uncertain, burdened by unwelcome risks and unnerving dangers at every corner.
What form did these risks and dangers take? They were articulated in new modes of
knowledge that technological advancement and the deregulation of broadcasting now made
available, especially cable / satellite television and talkback radio. In most cases, these new
sections of the media were dependent for their existence on advertising revenue that in turn
necessitated them having large audiences. The way to generate these was by common-
sense concentration on what seemed to be the most immediate and direct threats to
everyday well-being, in large part themselves the product of restructuring. The focus was
thus on fears that the return of the homeless, beggars and such like was threatening the
quality of life of those who had to encounter such sights on a regular basis:
many citizens are primarily frightened by crime… involving a sudden, violent
attack… but we tend to overlook another source of fear – [that] of being bothered
by disorderly people. Not violent people, not necessarily criminals but disreputable
or unpredictable people: panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers… loiterers,
the mentally disturbed’ (Wilson & Kelling, 1982: 29 – 30).
And fears of “strangers” (Sennett, 1976), made much more threatening by what has come
to be the “minaturization of community life” (Fukuyama, 1999), amidst the spatial and
social consequences of restructuring. This included the decline of informal controls and
warning mechanisms that had previously served to inform local knowledge of such
intrusions (Jacobs, 1992). In their absence, strangers could be transformed into monsters,
capable of inflicting irreparable harm on all that had come to have special importance in the
course of restructuring. They might thus be paedophiles, menacing increasingly scarce and
precious children. Or they might be sexual predators, likely to attack women, now much
more vulnerable to them as their presence in public space increased in accordance with post
1970s economic and social changes. Neither paedophiles nor sexual predators had had any
significant place in public discourse before the 1980s (Pratt, 2020).
Rather than merely reflecting government opinion on such matters, the new modes
of knowledge usually attacked government and their bureaucratic organizations, insisting
that the influence of liberal criminal justice elites on policy making had left ordinary
citizens defenceless against such risks. They were thus informed by and looked to, instead,
victims’ rights groups, law and order activists, business organizations, right wing journalists
and media personalities. These sources, in turn, claimed to speak on behalf of those who
had been left behind by government while apparently favouring the unworthy –
lawbreakers, prisoners and those whose presence on the streets constituted a threat to public
well-being. The evidence for such claims was usually based on anecdote, sensational one-
off cases, distortions or outright fabrications – but very attractive all the same to the new
media outlets. Equally, the “public opinion” these campaigners said they represented was
more likely to be based on headlines in the tabloid press or angry voices on talkback than
any social scientific survey.
Nonetheless, governments were increasingly prepared to align themselves with
these extra-government forces, thereby reducing the influence of criminal justice elites on
policy. The realignment also weakened the state’s monopolistic controls on the punishment
of offenders – the simultaneous rise of vigilante activities (particularly against supposed
sex offenders) is itself indicative of the declining state authority (Johnston, 1996). It also
meant that emotion rather than reason began to guide much policy development in this area
(Pratt, 2000). In effect, the realignment marked the renaissance of populism in such
societies – at least, a form of penal populism at this juncture. Its impact has since been
reflected in more severe penalties such as “three strikes laws” – reflective of the
“incarceration mania” (Harcourt, 2001) that then took hold of the US especially. There has
also been a resurgence of indeterminate sentencing in some of these societies. Previous
concerns about the effectiveness and cost of imprisonment, or the difficulty in predicting
future criminality, were relegated in importance. Those politicians who aligned themselves
with these new voices now claimed that a high prison population was an indicator of
government success rather than failure (see Cavadino & Dignan, 2002; Pratt & Clark,
This penal populism has also been reflected in the development of a new kind of
utilitarian criminal justice. This is intended to control the risk of crime rather than reacting
to crime already committed. It does this by restricting and limiting movement in public
space, with its initiatives spanning the spectrum of risk and danger. These include UK anti-
social behaviour legislation and public space protection orders. Warning notices now
proliferate in all parts of England and Wales, telling everyone what they cannot do in that
area (“no loitering”, “no urinating”, “no camping”, “no begging” etc etc) on pain of
prosecution and punishment that can lead to prison, even though no crime has been
committed. Meanwhile, those already imprisoned for sex crimes can be further indefinitely
detained at the end of their term if they are considered at “high risk” of further offending,
as with the US sexual predator laws and New Zealand public protection order legislation:
no new offence will have been committed before this de facto additional sentence is
The enabling mechanisms for this range of measures – a variety of retrospective and
hybrid laws, lowered burdens of proof, and changes to rules of evidence where these
seemed to get in the way of efficient risk control – all undermine the rule of law and its due
process protections. Nonetheless, these changes to criminal law and penal policy have also
effectively redefined human rights. Now, rather than the need to ensure protection of
individuals from excesses of state power, this utilitarian justice endows the public with a
right to protection from those individuals who seemingly put their well-being at intolerable
risk, by using such excesses of state power to do so.
The realignment has been especially attractive to both left and right governments in
the Anglo-American societies because it allows them to claim that they are still living up to
the democratic obligations that are expected from them in a civilized society. That is, in
this area at least, they are committed to protecting their citizens when they face what appear
to be the gravest risks to their well-being and security, made even more so since these risks
were likely to be beyond their control to alleviate. Indeed, the more spectacular
governments can make their rescue measures, the more this seems proof that governments
are on the side of the public, prepared to go to almost any lengths to give them the level of
protection their advocates in the media demand, notwithstanding that, in so doing, they
were undermining some of the cornerstones of the civilizing process. They would not be
held back, though, by the liberal criminal justice establishment in pursuing such rescues.
The rise of populist politics
In effect, the realignment allowed the use of criminal law and punishment to maintain
social cohesion amidst the divisions brought about by restructuring. However, this form of
populism was unable to sustain this function. The effects of the global fiscal crisis of 2008
and the mass movement of peoples around the globe (variously escaping civil war or the
effects of global warming, or simply trying to claim their own place in what is thought of as
the civilized world) further challenged and undermined the sustainability of the civilizing
process. Interdependencies, for example, became still weaker and thinner. The financial
crash not only intensified existing divisions but brought new ones into existence: between
those who remained secure and still prospered amongst its ruins, and those for whom there
was no recovery, nor was there ever likely to be one. It had brought a new social class into
existence – the “precariat”:
Taking a temporary job after a spell of unemployment… can result in lower earnings
for years ahead. Once a person enters a lower rung job, the probability of upward
social mobility or of gaining a “decent” income is permanently reduced. Taking a
casual job may be a necessity for many, but it is unlikely to promote social mobility
(Standing, 2011: 25).
The increasingly high patterns of immigration in the aftermath of the crash appeared to
further erode basic levels of certainty and security for local citizens, especially those
already left behind. It was as if immigration not only further endangered their employment
prospects, but even put their national identity at risk – all that many of them had to cling to.
Levels of trust in the authority of the state continued the decline that had set in with
restructuring. The coincidence of the crash and mass immigration then provided the
opportunity for “anti-politics” politicians, posturing as being outside of Establishment
circles, to proclaim themselves as saviours for those who appeared to have been abandoned
by the state. They positioned themselves on the side of “the people” and against central
government and its elite circles of administration. They offered the vision of a glorious
future based largely on a mythical past. This was what was inferred in Donald Trump’s
2016 motto “Make America Great Again” and, in the UK, the Brexit campaign’s “Take
Back Control” of the same year. But only by “draining the swamp” of government
corruption and nepotism, they claimed, would it be possible to fulfil these visions. Now,
rather than populism being used by governments in its penal manifestations to maintain the
status quo, a recharged populist politics intended to overturn the existing democratic order
altogether: “strong man” leadership rather than effete democracy was needed to bring about
the necessary cleansing and purifying procedures to avoid further erosion of national values
and related characteristics.
The menace of crime and crime risks remains part of the populist repertoire,
nonetheless. In the UK, Johnson’s Conservative government has signalled predictable
initiatives such as “'life to mean life' for child murderers, together with more prison places
… and less early release” (Jenkins, 2019). What is the justification for these policies?
Invocations of the empty phrase “Most people think” (or the variations on this – “people
tell me that”, and so on) now determine the direction of government, rather than expert
knowledge. Thus, a Prime Minister's source claims that “most people think all [political]
parties and the courts have lost the plot on sentencing” (ibid.). And in the US presidential
election of 2020, Trump regularly claimed that he was “the president of law and order”
(despite regularly trying to undermine the rule of law himself), usually trying to pitch this
in terms of protecting “peace loving citizens” from rioting sparked by racial injustices and
protesters that his own policies and statements had galvanized. He thus claims that “the
stated goal [of the Black Lives Matter movement] is to achieve the destruction of the
nuclear family, abolish the police, abolish prisons, abolish border security, abolish
capitalism and abolish school choice” (Massie, 2020). As regards police racism, “wealthy
liberal hypocrites want to defund the police in our inner cities while living behind walled
compounds, you have got to see how some of these people live, they live pretty well”
However, the same tactics that had brought penal populism success – anecdotes, lies,
distortions and conspiracy theories – have been deployed by these politicians, but on a
much broader canvas. This has been at the expense of science and reason – these are seen
as merely matters that can be discarded or distorted to suit: “truth isn’t truth”, Rudi
Giuliani, Trump’s “personal lawyer” has exclaimed (Morin & Cohen, 2018). Indeed, all
those who stand in the way of leaders such as Trump in the US and Brexit campaigner, then
Conservative Prime Minister, Boris Johnson in the UK – rival politicians, judges,
journalists, academics, scientists and economists and so on – can be denigrated, sometimes
physically threatened as out of touch Establishment figures and “enemies of the people”
themselves. Conservative Cabinet Minister Michael Gove, another leading Brexit
campaigner thus proclaimed that “the British people have had enough of experts” in 2016,
after being challenged about Brexit’s economic viability (Mance, 2016).
And while penal populism tore up conventions, norms and rules to allow for criminal
justice initiatives previously thought to have no place in the civilized world, populist
politicians have taken the destruction of the characteristics of the civilizing process beyond
this narrow enclave. They tear up agreements and covenants that had provided for stronger
international cooperation and interdependencies between nations: the UK has left the EU,
the US, under Trump, pulled out of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Accord. In these
respects, what neo-liberal governance had set in motion to sustain itself, populist politicians
exaggerate and twist and distort still further in their bid to affirm the legitimacy of their
authoritarianism and isolationist nationalism. Their persistent attacks on what they claim to
be elitist, corrupt institutions of government – a free press, an independent judiciary and a
politically neutral civil service – further erodes trust in bedrock features of democracy and
the civilizing process. Richard Spencer, Secretary of the Navy in the Trump administration
before he resigned over Trump’s decision to pardon a Navy SEAL for war crimes has stated
that “it is the rule of law sets us apart from our enemies” (Cummings, 2019), that is, those
societies without these characteristics which, ipso facto, makes them “uncivilized.” But
judges who would safeguard this pillar of civilization are likely to be publicly denounced if
they give a decision that populist politicians disagree with. Trump (2017) reacted with the
following tweet regarding a judge who removed his travel ban to the US on seven Muslim-
majority countries for ninety days: “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially
takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned”: as if
the decision automatically made the judge another member of the ‘deep state conspiracy’
that Trump and his acolytes project themselves as uncovering and fighting.
Indeed, Trump has become a master of presenting himself as a victim of the
corruption and conspiracy of “the Establishment and their media enablers [who] control
this nation… Anyone who challenges their control is deemed a sexist, a racist, a
xenophobe, morally deformed. They will attack you; they will slander you; they will seek
to destroy everything about you, including your reputation” (NPR, 2016). And by loudly
asserting his victimhood, he is seen as that longed for saviour by those left behind and
forgotten about in the last few decades (those working in sunset industries such as coal
mining, for example). The more swamps in need of draining that can be discovered, the
more victims that can be found to defend, the more powerful populist politicians become.
By the same token, the more imperilled the nation state is made out to be in these
conspiratorial machinations, the greater the need for strong man leadership, as if they alone
are able to extinguish such existential risks to the nation. Conjuring new clusters of
enemies (real or imagined) sustains the sense of grievance and victimization that attracts
supporters to them. Trump, for example, called out the National Guard in 2018 to defend
the border against mythical “caravans” of foreign hordes and alien others approaching from
Latin America – and then bypassed legal channels and human rights concerns altogether by
declaring an “emergency” that allowed him to override such matters. In such instances,
interdependencies change again, becoming much narrower and limited, but also more
intense and strong, in the form of blind loyalty to “the leader” and increasing intolerance of
those who oppose them.
Meanwhile, the use of new social media outlets, largely unbound by any kind of
ethical constraints (at least until 2020, when censoring protocols were introduced, followed
by the forced closure of Trump’s Twitter account in 2021), has facilitated their bids to do
this, in conjunction with broadcasting / newspaper outlets (such as Fox News in the US and
the Daily Mail in the UK) that abandon any pretence of objectivity and peddle conspiracy
theories that confirm and strengthen the version of reality the leader proclaims, however
distant this may be from the real world. Any criticism of this populist trajectory in the
mainstream media, meanwhile, can be dismissed as “fake news.”
The arrival of Covid-19
The rise of populist politics has thus undermined or reversed important features of the
civilizing process: fostering a culture of anger and intolerance; attacking science and expert
knowledge; bringing about a habitus framed around distrust of the state that systematically
undermines its authority; narrowing and sharpening interdependencies; and relying on
modes of knowledge that promoted these beliefs, while regularly trying to delegitimize the
For a politics that thrives on identifying and attacking “enemies of the people”, it
might thus be thought that the arrival of the Covid-19 virus in early 2020 would be
welcomed as another such enemy. But this is an enemy that is real rather than imaginary.
And it exists in microbe form. It cannot be blocked by a wall or scared away by the
presence of the National Guard. It cannot be detained. It cannot be shamed out of
existence by a Twitter outburst, but it brings incalculable harm to individuals and societies.
Gated communities for the privileged are unable to shut this microbial enemy out of their
residents’ lives. While individuals make their own choices to stay safe, further levels of
protection are needed from government (co-ordinated strategies, delivery of vaccines etc).
The virus has thus become another intolerable risk. Although Trump tried to make his
particular version of law and order the most significant issue in the 2020 US election, this
was a manifest failure: the virus was ranked by the electorate as the most important
problem facing government.2
Its presence has instead led to a huge public demand for more knowledge about it.
Where is this to be found? Many widely read conspiracy theories exist on social media: it
was deliberately unleashed on the rest of the world by China, for example; or, it does not
exist at all but is a plot fashioned by Democrats / international bankers / George Soros / the
mainstream media etc to destabilize Trump’s presidency. In these ways, social media
continues to undermine science as well as the authority of the state. However, vast
numbers of citizens have looked instead to the mainstream media – particularly public
broadcasting organizations – to understand its extent, symptoms and risk. In the UK, “ the
BBC was the most popular source of news and information about Covid-19 – used by 82%
of adults during the first week of [March 2020] lockdown” (BBC News, 2020). For them,
it seems, truth is truth after all, and is not something to be discredited or falsified if it
happens to be inconvenient. By the same token, it is no longer the case that people have
“had enough of experts.” On the contrary, the opinions of epidemiologists, virologists,
immunologists and the like, regularly given in press conferences or published in the
mainstream media, are eagerly awaited.
And rather than the magical cures proffered by populist strong men, or their outright
denials of the existence of the virus, most have put their trust in science. A Canadian
opinion poll in March 2020 reported that 87% of the public cited the local health authority
as the most trusted source of information (Angus Reid, 2020). In the US, a New York
Times poll in June 2020 showed high levels of trust in medical scientists (84%), the Centre
for Disease Control (77%) and Anthony Fauci, the Director of the Institute of Allergy and
Infectious Diseases (67%) as opposed to Trump (26%) (Sanger-Katz, 2020). The
willingness of most of the public at least to wear masks and practice social distancing is
another indication of widespread conformity to medical knowledge.3 Trust in science is
also reflected in the high number of people wanting to be vaccinated against the virus when
given the opportunity.4 Indeed, opinion poll surveys indicate high levels of support for
even stricter lockdowns than most governments have been prepared to introduce, as well as
support for travel bans and other restrictions.5 Many have demonstrated a willingness to
sacrifice individual liberties that lockdown restrictions impose to support the public good of
In those societies where governments have worked in tandem with their experts,
expressed confidence in them (rather than try to undermine or ignore them), public trust in
government has also increased – as with Australia and New Zealand, two of the most
successful countries in containing the virus, with government approval rates of 85 and 86%
respectively (Deveaux, 2020; Brain, 2020). In other words, there are high levels of support
for strong but accountable central governments that provide clear, effective leadership and
that are prepared to give both good and bad news – but news which is true, accurate and
clear. Reversing the Reagan aphorism, it is as if, once again, governments can be the
solution rather than the problem. In contrast, trust in government is much lower in those
societies where expert advice has been ignored in favour of maintaining economies and
what is presented as respect for “individual freedom” – even the right to become infected
and then infect others. Or where government policy is inconsistent, shifting according to
news headlines and soundbites: a familiar populist strategy but one which in this case,
where the public are hoping for consistency and clarity, only undermines trust in those who
vacillate in this way. In the UK, there was an initial support for the response of the Johnson
government (72% in March 2020), that had slipped to 34% by November 2020 (Yougov,
There is also a high level of public recognition that the solution to the virus involves,
first, the development of national strategies that are part of a global response, rather than a
race to be first with a vaccine, that can then be celebrated in a form of jingoistic
triumphalism. This means a willingness to develop and disperse vaccines with other
nations, as advocated by the WHO, and as is being practiced by the EU countries, rather
than populism’s emphasis on isolation. Second, there is recognition that government
policies need to provide protection for all citizens: not protecting all will only lead to
higher levels of infection. Hence, in New Zealand, the seemingly intractable problem of
homelessness was resolved in a matter of days during a lockdown period from March to
May in 2020, places being found for the homeless in empty hotels, hostels and camp sites.
At the same time, opinion poll surveys reflect a yearning for government to provide
adequate health care rather than leaving this as another consumer product to be purchased
in the private sector: post-pandemic health care should be prioritized over economic
growth, according to 60% of UK respondents (Harvey, 2020); and the government has a
responsibility to provide health care for all (63% of US respondents, Jones, 2020).
Certainly, the lockdowns have become part of the terrible price – economic, social
and psychological – that Covid-19 has exacted, with the poorest and most vulnerable
members of communities likely to be the worst affected. Yet lockdowns and related
restrictions have also had the effect of strengthening interdependencies. As mobility has
declined, this has simultaneously provided the opportunity for stronger social cohesion.
Volunteers have delivered food to those unable to do their own shopping. Where central
government has been unable to provide leadership on such matters, local government and
citizens groups have organized this themselves (Harris, 2020). Doctors and nurses have
come out of retirement to help with medical services. In the US, “the Auntie Sewing
Squad, which has sewn more than a hundred thousand cloth masks to distribute to frontline,
vulnerable and devalued groups from farmworkers to former prisoners” (Solnit, 2020). In
the UK, “hundreds of the nation’s top restaurants… pledge their support to a charity
focussed on feeding the most vulnerable after the pandemic left them in urgent need of
support” (Roberts, 2020).
The restrictions on movement have also meant that “threatening strangers” are much
less likely to be sighted, while the narrowing of horizons and frontiers can refurbish
informal mechanisms of surveillance, control and support. Furthermore, there is evidence
of a strong desire for post-pandemic personal and social change across many societies. In
an April 2020 opinion poll, only 9% of Britons wanted a return to their pre-pandemic lives,
based as these had been around expectations of lengthy commuting and endless striving to
win all the prizes economic restructuring had made available for themselves (Wood, 2020).
Instead, there was greater recognition of the importance of environmental improvements
(cleaner air, more wildlife) and more appreciation of family and community belonging.
Moreover, a global survey by the World Economic Forum and Ipsos similarly found that
86% of respondents wanted the world to be more equitable and sustainable after the
pandemic, and 72% wanted their personal lives to change (Broom, 2020).
New role models have also emerged during the pandemic. Rather than risk-taking
entrepreneurs endlessly and publicly celebrating their wealth, the new models are those
who provide medical care or social care along with those working in supermarkets,
pharmacy, retirement homes, public transport and so on: essential occupations that not only
heal but which help to bring communities together. In such ways, Covid-19, despite its
own decivilizing potential, has actually had the effect of strengthening many of the
characteristics of the civilizing process that populism had been undermining: a strong, well-
coordinated central state is the solution to the virus, not the cause of the problem; public
broadcasting organizations are valuable sources of knowledge once again; the production of
a Covid vaccine is likely to bolster public confidence in science; stronger interdependencies
can make everyday life more certain and calculable again; and, despite all the well-
publicized exceptions, taking precautions against the virus such as mask wearing and social
distancing have become second nature for large sections of the population, usually without
any need for police to exercise enforcement powers, and irrespective of any imposition on
individual freedom: public good has priority. Cultural values, often after revelations of
horror stories of overcrowded hospitals, increasing deaths and bodies stored in freezer
trucks, have demonstrated a heightened sensitivity to the sufferings of those affected by the
virus, or those bereaved by it, with an abhorrence of the lack of empathy shown by leaders
such as Trump.
Indeed, the virus has fully exposed the failings of populist demagogues and their
empty promises of a glorious future. Their expensive vanity projects – Trump’s proposed
wall across the southern border with Mexico or Johnson’s dreams of a bridge between
Scotland and Northern Ireland – become irrelevant fantasies. They have failed to protect
their citizens from the intolerable risks posed by the virus, and in so doing have failed to
live up to the most basic obligations and expectations of democratic government. In the
UK and the US – and similarly in other societies that have succumbed to the lure of
populism such as Brazil and India – the response of Johnson and Trump has resulted in
their countries having some of the highest per capita death rates and levels of infection.
Of course, recognition of the abject failure of populism in the face of the pandemic is
by no means universal. A significant section of the US public continues its support for
Trump and further threatens the characteristics of the civilizing process, ranging from
hostility to science to Trump’s own attempts to overthrow the democratic order by
endlessly disputing legitimate election results and even encouraging insurrection. In other
words, the fight against Covid-19 will not of itself make populism disappear. Nonetheless,
the mismanagement of the pandemic by populist leaders has led to a decline in public
support for them (Rooduijn, 2020). As regards Trump, for example, Covid enlarged “his
faults so they became too frightening to miss. It showed him lacking even the most
rudimentary empathy … it showed him to be dishonest, insisting that the virus was likely to
‘disappear’… and it showed him to have contempt for facts and science, regularly
contradicting and undermining the US response” (Freedland, 2020). The result of the 2020
US election thus did much more than simply defeat Trump and ultimately lead to his own
pitiful, snivelling end (so much for the almost demonic powers of this supposed
strongman!). Indeed, given that he had become populism’s most potent standard bearer, it
may be that his defeat may also act as a telling blow against his admirers and other would-
be autocrats, at least in those Western societies where democracy, through the mechanics of
the civilizing process, is seemingly well-embedded..
Where, then, does this confrontation between populism and Covid-19 leave the civilizing
process and its post-pandemic trajectory? These twin threats have certainly demonstrated
its fragility and contingency, but they have also demonstrated its fortitude in the face of
them. The accoutrements of the civilizing process – science and expertise; a central
government that has the support of the public; strong interdependencies between citizens,
with a revival of interest in the performance of civic duties and responsibilities; and a
habitus where mask wearing etc becomes second nature – will ultimately defeat the virus,
notwithstanding that the speed and extent of this triumph will vary from society to society:
the more deeply entrenched populism has become in societies such as the US, and the more
resistance there is to science, the authority of central government and so on, then the longer
and more arduous will be the return to what the civilizing process can offer.
In more general terms, though, a different political agenda for post-pandemic society
may emerge. One of its features is likely to be a further reshaping of the way in which
human rights are understood. The importance given to “public good” that serves the well-
being of the whole community by providing protection from health risks may gain
prominence over the way in which “public protection” from dangerous outsiders has been
allowed to redefine this concept, with the attendant breaches of conventions, rules and the
like that had undermined the rule of law. The reordering of public expenditure priorities
under these circumstances may, in turn, be a catalyst for reductions in the prison estate.6
Indeed, given the revitalization of the civilizing process, crime and punishment are anyway
likely to play a reduced role in maintaining social cohesion. And where there is a renewed
emphasis on civic duties and responsibilities and much less by way of social division and
individual responsibilities, there is likely to be less emphasis on the need for anti-homeless
ordinances and anti-social behaviour legislation. As it is, solutions to the problem of
homelessness continue to be found without recourse to punishment and control measures.7
And successful resistance to populism – indeed, the outright defeat of its leading figure – is
also likely to mean less encroachment on the criminal justice characteristics of the
1. Trust in government and politicians began to fall across the Anglo-American world from
the mid-1960s. The US provides the best illustration of this, with trust in the federal
government falling from 77% in 1964 to 30% in 1980, then down to 19% in 2019 (Pew
Research Centre, 2019).
2. A CNN (2020) presidential election exit poll found that the majority of the electorate
ranked containing the coronavirus (52%) over rebuilding the economy (42%) as the most
important thing to do now.
3. In the US, a National Geographic opinion poll found that “more than 6 in 10 Americans
questioned say they are more favorable toward people wearing a mask, and there have
been steady increases in mask usage among people of all ages, demographic groups, and
political leanings … Despite noisy no-mask protests, 92 percent of 2,200 Americans
polled say they wear a face mask when leaving their home, with 74 percent saying they
‘always’ do. That ‘always’ percentage is up nearly a quarter since July, according to the
poll, which has a 2 percent margin of error” (Whang & Elliott, 2020).
4. 76% in New Zealand in December 2020; 75% in Australia; 69% in the US; 77% in the
UK; 71% in Canada (TVNZ, 2020; IPSOS, 2020).
5. For example, there is strong support for mandatory vaccinations against Covid-19 in
Australia (77%) and the UK (70%). In the UK, the public have supported more extensive
lockdowns than the government had been prepared to impose. During the first lockdown
period in that country in April 2020, “We found that 87% believed the lockdown should
continue for at least another three weeks (with 6% unsure and 7% disagreeing) … when
asked their opinion on whether the UK’s plans over the next few weeks were ‘not firm
enough with restrictions on people’ or were ‘putting too many restrictions on people’, …
56% felt they were not firm enough” (Recchia, 2020).
6. Prison rates have declined in the Anglo-American countries during the pandemic: in
New Zealand, from a rate of 214 per 100,000 of population in 2018 to 188 in June 2020; in
Australia, from 172 to 160; in the UK, from 140 to 132 by November 2020. No
corresponding figures available for Canada and the US (World Prison Brief, 2020).
7. The Portuguese government is trying to provide a long-term solution. The Lisbon City
Council has used declining tourism to turn Air BnB’s into affordable housing, by offering
to “rent” the properties from landlords for a fixed-term period. The council is then able to
rent the properties at a subsidised rate, capped at one third of the household’s income.
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