Some ten years ago, I was working on a screenplay about the Hungarian state TV’s news crew during the Chernobyl disaster. I did a lot of my own research, and one thing that became clear very early on was that despite the fact that the official Soviet media at first said absolutely nothing about the explosion, and later its first communiqué was to categorically deny it, people knew very well what happened, the grapevine was working—I was two years old, and my parents, like all adults in the region, had stopped eating or feeding me “anything that grows in the soil”, carrots, potatoes, you get it.
On 26 April 1986, in the country next to the one I grew up in, a major nuclear accident occurred, blasting up a radioactive cloud that then blew over to places like Sweden and the east coast of the USA, before promptly returning to the East Bloc. The radioactive rain fell down on Prague and Budapest and Kiev on April 30; the next day the regime sent millions of their people outside to march up in celebration of May 1, the International Workers’ Day, i.e., in celebration of themselves.
TV crews didn’t revolt: you’d just get fired and there would be a correction, went the argument; my friend’s father, an anchor reporting on the May 1 marches, stood on the wet asphalt and winked into the camera: “I told my little daughter, if the sand is dirty, don’t go outside to play!”—everyone knew he had a son, everyone thought this was the most he could do and felt grateful.
If the social contract of the USA is that while the state won’t take much care of you, you can go far and become anything, the social contract of socialist countries was that while you can’t go far and become much, the state will look after and take care of you; the shock of Chernobyl wasn’t just atomic, it shook people up in realisation that their governments would let them die. Three and a half years later the entire Bloc collapsed, and not just because the perestroika failed, or the CIA streamed Dallas into shabby Kádárist apartments, but because people don’t want to die, and they want even less to have been taken for idiots. And so republics were declared, and dictators were shot, and the Wall was broken into pieces.
The moral foundations theory may be imperfect, but if there’s one thing it gets right is the complete, all-overwriting taboo of harm—it works on every scale of organisation, for instance my family fell apart when I found out that my physical safety wasn’t a non-negotiable sanctity after all, this knowledge made all other systems of hierarchy disappear. In the past five years, I’ve kept wondering if the other social contract, the one the American governance structure is built upon, might be under similar duress right now, and then, of course, COVID happened.