3rd Dec, 2020
In ‘Thinking Beyond the Lockdown: On the Possibility of a Democratic Biopolitics’,1 Panagiotis Sotiris has provided a critical analysis of the Covid-19 pandemic, covering its pathogenesis, sociology and the implications for socialist strategy. His essay (and, with added emphasis, his social media posts) draw a line in the sand: lockdowns are repressive, iniquitous and should be opposed. In this response, I take issue with his analysis. The line in the sand, I shall argue, is muddying the waters, not least because it is organised around the concept of a “lockdown strategy” which has little relation to reality. Sotiris identifies lockdowns with neoliberalism and calls for anti-lockdown resistance – without so much as a glance at the right-wing libertarian camps that are also staked out on this terrain.
Before expanding on these objections, I should summarise a few of the many strengths of Sotiris’s essay. The first is in his identification of the social within the natural, in the aetiology of the virus and its epidemiology. On the former, he follows Rob Wallace and Mike Davis in elucidating the part played by capitalism in the origin of Covid. In a general sense, the social structuring of disease is of course not new to this virus. Even in the earliest agrarian civilisations, the mingling of people alongside livestock facilitated the transmission of pathogens and parasites and the mutation and transmission of a multitude of zoonotic diseases. To borrow a phrase from James Scott, the late Neolithic hosted a “multispecies resettlement camp”. As homo sapiens settled into agricultural production and town life we became more herd-like—indeed at the very moment that we were becoming parasitic on other herd creatures. Amidst the fraternising of herds, a Great Zoonosis took place, spewing out a succession of world-transforming diseases: smallpox, bubonic plague, typhus, cholera, measles, mumps and maybe malaria too. But, recently, under the force of the law of value, the pathogenic soup has been heating up. The coronavirus pandemic is not ‘natural’; it arose within a natural realm that is being ripped apart by profit. This is Marxism’s rewriting of Ulrich Beck’s ‘risk society’ thesis. Human destiny is becoming ever more powerfully shaped by global risks that are thrown up not by ‘the natural environment’ but as blowback from the short-sighted attempts by capitalist states and businesses to occupy and ‘master’ it.
Secondly, and in greater depth, Sotiris provides a socio-epidemiological survey. He tracks the roles of deprivation, dispossession, wealth inequality and socio-economic stress in the spread and lethality of Covid-19. Socialists have long emphasised that improvements to human health rely on provision of infrastructure (sanitation, fresh water, good housing, etc.) and on improving the social matrix (equalisation of income and status) more than on innovations in medical science. As the epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson have shown, as inequality grows, those who require healthcare the most are less likely to receive it. Social inequality varies directly with rates of infant mortality, obesity, homicide, imprisonment, mental illness, drug addiction, and length of working hours, and inversely with childrens’ educational achievements, life expectancy, and levels of trust. Why should this be? Rising inequality heightens social evaluation anxieties. We come to see social position as a more important feature of a person’s identity; those in the upper echelons feel greater insecurity, those in the basement feel devalued and demeaned. The resulting perceptions of competition and threat, and perceptions of social inferiority, create subjects who are less affiliative and empathetic, less healthy of mind and body.
Sotiris’s essay is at its most powerful when diagnosing the weakening of society’s immune system as Covid negotiates its way through capitalist social structures, widening hierarchies of race, class and gender as it goes. In Britain, it first nested in the posh quarters, as skiers flew home from Ischgl and Obergurgl to Westminster and Chelsea, and only later spread to the poor areas where it became endemic in its preferred habitat of high-density housing containing high proportions of ‘essential workers’ (often black and Asian) who cannot work from home, multigenerational households, and individuals with diabetes, obesity and other co-morbidities.
Consequently, to effectively tackle Covid – and future epidemics – requires class struggle (broadly conceived). Sotiris rightly stresses the need for social movements that push for greater equality, resist precarious labour and demand full access to health care. He identifies practical objectives that can be fought for, to make workplaces safer. For example, older and other vulnerable people could be retired from frontline duty, with those at lower risk stepping into their shoes. More immediately, the right to public protest and expression must be defended, as a cornerstone of society’s “collective resilience”. My own workplace offers an illustration of the link between class struggle and human health. Although most faculty have been forced to teach on campus each week despite the lockdown, our BAME colleagues are classed as vulnerable and may teach all classes online if they wish. There is no doubt that this year’s resurgent Movement for Black Lives (BLM) contributed to the decision. In this small example, BLM has directly helped to limit the spread of Covid-19, through fostering a recognition that racism is itself a deadly ‘underlying health condition’.
BLM was inspirational in many ways, but one in particular is germane to Sotiris’ argument. Despite Covid, tens of millions of people gathered in the streets and squares of US cities, making it possibly the largest movement in US history. They demonstrated, and shifted the political terrain. They did all this safely: outdoors, and mostly masked. According to a report in Nature, the BLM protests, “did not seem to trigger spikes in infections”. This contrasted, the same report goes on, with other outdoor events in the same period, notably a Georgia summer camp where “the virus ran rampant”. (At the camp, the children were not required to wear masks and they shared cabins at night.)
Evidently, BLM is the act to follow. With the exception of especially vulnerable groups, to stay away from street protest would be a wretched mistake. If class struggle is the way to combat Covid and future pandemics, demonstrations are indispensable. They can be undertaken safely: outdoors, masked, and – especially when levels of UV light are low – with social distancing. The latter illuminates the protestors’ care for others, etching a visible line of demarcation from protests organised by conspiracy fruitcakes and the far right.
With this, we arrive at a puzzling aspect of Sotiris’s essay. It defines its case in relationship to a so-called “lockdown strategy” but without mentioning the far-right forces that are voicing a similar critique. In Britain, for example, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has changed its name to Reform UK and will be campaigning against the lockdown. Farage proposes that “the UK should follow the Great Barrington Declaration, which calls for ‘focused protection’ for the elderly and other groups particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, while others continue to live relatively normally.”
Before returning to the far right and the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), we should unpack a few problematic aspects of Sotiris’s analysis. We can begin with his insistence on “challeng[ing] the lockdown strategy”. This implies that such a strategy actually exists. He pits lockdowns (which, he believes, gain their force from the “dominant discourse of apocalyptic projections and social distancing”) versus test-trace-isolate as alternative strategic options. Thus, “countries that did not enforce a lockdown strategy but opted for a strategy of testing, tracing and isolating cases, such as South Korea, had comparable or even better outcomes than countries that opted for lockdowns”. It is far more plausible, I think, to see lockdown not as an alternative to a viable strategy of test-trace-isolate but as an admission of failure, a desperate tactic resorted to when escalating hospitalisation rates overwhelm all preferred strategies. It is absurd to suggest that some states opted for “a lockdown strategy” while others opted for test-trace-isolate. Take Britain for example. The government’s initial strategy was to “contain” the outbreak through test-trace-isolate, and only when they failed was a lockdown imposed. Then, in autumn 2020, the government’s scientific advisors repeatedly urged implementation of a “circuit-breaker lockdown”, advice that the donkeys in Downing Street disregarded, leading to soaring hospitalisation rates and a panicked partial lockdown: an abject strategic failure, in other words. Throughout, they absolutely did not follow “apocalyptic projections.” Their instinct, rather, was to ignore dire warnings – whether feverishly hyperbolic or grimly accurate.
Secondly, Sotiris highlights the “coercive character of the lockdown strategy”. The “lockdown strategy,” he goes on, “is related to a conception of health that has more to do with ‘security’ rather than public health”. Up to a point, this is uncontentious. The term lockdown was coined in the 1970s to refer to enforced isolation of inmates of prisons and psychiatric hospitals on ‘security’ grounds. The recent ‘public health lockdowns’ have penalised those in overcrowded housing and without gardens, they have abetted domestic abuse and the double burden of working mothers, and have been conducive to authoritarianism. The mobilisation of the security forces as agents of public health predictably led to crimes and injustices, and ramped up surveillance and institutional racism. In locked-down London, racist stop and search operations by the cops increased sharply. In Nigeria, the government used post-lockdown conditions to ban the End-SARS protests. In Kenya, partial lockdown rules led to Covid-19 coming to be seen as “a law enforcement issue rather than a health promotion concern”, such that, within days, “the fear of Covid-19 was replaced by fear of the police.”
However, as these last two examples suggest, using public health as a pretext for authoritarian crackdowns goes beyond states in lockdown. We should also look more closely at the country that Sotiris cites as an alternative to “the lockdown strategy”: South Korea. There the government set up apparatuses of mass surveillance. It was not merely the temperature detectors set up at airports to filter out possible individuals to test, but the passing of GPS and payments data from the credit card companies and phone companies to government, allowing individuals’ every movement to be tracked. CCTV from restaurants and other venues was pored over by government employees. Individuals were ordered to self-quarantine. Text alerts were pinged by the authorities to all those living in the neighbourhood of persons testing positive, informing them of the person’s occupation, what venues (e.g. bakeries, cafes, motels) they had visited and at what time of which day. In many places they published detailed maps of the movements of patients. Attendance at political events (including protests) was limited to a maximum of 100. And when the test-trace-isolate strategy was overwhelmed in Daegu, it went into a lockdown in which people “closed their businesses, worked from home, refrained from all social activities, and limited having family gatherings”. (That the Daegu lockdown was relatively voluntary has been variously attributed to South Korea’s recent experience of SARS and MERS, its robust ethic of social solidarity, its citizens’ familiarity with digital technologies, and the legacy of Park-era authoritarian rule.)
Thirdly, Sotiris’s argument tends to assume that any alternative “strategy” will be largely free of the specific ills of lockdown. It is indisputable that lockdowns impact negatively on unemployment, on childrens’ education (especially among oppressed groups), on mental health and on general health through cancelled appointments; that lockdown programmes have failed sufficiently to protect essential workers or occupants of nursing homes; and that, especially when coercive, they undermine the capacity of subaltern classes to resist. Lockdowns are dreadful and they exacerbate inequality. But so too does the spread of Covid. All of these just-listed evils, and more, result from the crashing of hospital capacity that is occasioned by the epidemic running riot. That Sotiris omits to mention this is striking. In terms of the ‘lockdowners vs libertarians’ debate – in the British context this is exemplified by the SNP, the Guardian and mainstream epidemiologists versus backbench Tories, the Telegraph and GBD signatories—Sotiris rains blows on the former while leaving the latter unscathed.
Fourthly and relatedly, Sotiris presents the “lockdown strategy” as the culmination of a neoliberal agenda. In the neoliberal era, a “bio-security approach” has come to prevail, one that treats the pandemic as an “external other” and configures solutions reductively in terms of “social distancing” and vaccine development, rather than in terms of the complex social determinants of health and disease. He concedes that shutting down “large parts of the economy in the name of a broader necessity … seemed to run contrary to the basic tenets of neoliberal governance” – but the image is deceptive. The underlying ethos of lockdown is neoliberal. Indeed “the very notion of ‘social distancing’” embodies a “suspension of sociality”. Social distancing reflects “a neoliberal disciplinary worldview, in the sense of a mentality that in general people must ‘stay at home’ and ‘mind their own business,’ not engage in social interactions apart from work and market transactions, and ‘listen to the experts’ instead of debating political decisions”. Lockdowns play to a culture of fear, one that has been historically constituted over the grinding decades of neoliberalism. “Fear and risk” govern the neoliberal order, in sharp contrast to the previous era which featured a much stronger “sense of social safeguarding”. This is why the Hong Kong flu pandemic of 1968–69, “despite its severity and significant loss of lives, did not create the same reaction of generalised fear” as we have experienced in 2020.
Sotiris is playing fast and loose with the Hong Kong flu data, which should not be likened to the Covid pandemic in terms of lethality, but of more immediate relevance to my argument is that he gives a one-sided reading of the popular response to social distancing and lockdowns. We can agree that life under neoliberalism pulverises people into atoms and that this is conducive to ‘security’ paranoia and authoritarianism. But the lockdown sensibility was cross-hatched with collectivist altruism and solidarity. Social distancing, for many, attests to care for the lives of others – this is not suspended sociality but the reverse. Conversely, lockdowns can be opposed on impeccably neoliberal grounds. Consider the reason cited by the Confederation of Italian Industry, Confindustria, for resisting lockdown: because “the global market demands it.”
The panopticisms of everyday life
The downplaying of the contradictory interests and motivations at work within lockdowns – the collectivist altruism among sections of the public, the coercive instincts of political elites, etcetera – is reinforced in Sotiris’s essay through an extensive borrowing from Foucault. In the chapter entitled ‘Panopticism’ in Discipline and Punish, Foucault explores the Great Confinement of seventeenth-century Europe, which included “lock ups” aimed to prevent the spread of plague. He describes a plague-stricken town that was “traversed throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation. … Everyone locked up in his cage, everyone at his window, answering to his name and showing himself when asked”. In the lock up, Foucault continues, “each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the dead—all this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism”. This marked an epistemic revolution. Such administrative responses to infectious disease were moments in the crystallisation of a new regime of disciplinary power. Disease and deviance were no longer constituted and branded primarily through “rituals of exclusion” as lepers once had been. Instead, “the plague gave rise to disciplinary projects [which] called for multiple separations, individualizing distributions, an organization in depth of surveillance and control, an intensification and a ramification of power”. As Foucault puts it in Abnormal, it was “not exclusion but quarantine”; it was “not a question of driving out individuals but rather of establishing and fixing them, of assigning places”. All became the subjects of utilitarian and forensic disciplining: a winnowing and ordering and making-productive of bodies through tools of classification, administration, and scientific discourse. In such ways the disciplinary response to the plague laid the foundations for the Panopticon of Jeremy Bentham. It, in turn, symbolises the modus operandi of modern power: what Foucault in Discipline and Punish terms “the panoptic machine,” or the “panopticisms” of everyday life—the mechanisms of disciplinary power (in prisons, schools, lockdowns, hospitals, etc) that regiment us, render us docile, orchestrate our bodies and fabricate our subjectivities and which we all help to sustain.
Foucault’s insight is that modern states are constructed through forms of disciplinary power (and its close cousin, biopower) that organise people, exercise control, administer life and death, and above all implement strategy, in the field of welfare as much as in warfare. Welfare, you might say, is the continuation of war by other means, and the welfare-warfare analogy was peculiarly vivid in March this year as the pandemic exploded: in its suddenness, strangeness and universal effects, in the sense of risk, fear and the fixation on death, in the violent lurch of social coordinates and in the dramatic intervention of the state in all spheres of life. But this was a health emergency, not a war, and protests cannot realistically gather around the simple demand of ‘stop the lockdown!’ The side of the state that comes to the fore in a health crisis, however haltingly and blunderingly (or worse), is organisation to save lives, not to take them. In crisis the state presents itself as the protector of society, with ritual presidential addresses and the incantation by politicians of all stripes (Ireland’s Leo Varadkar, Britain’s Matt Hancock, etcetera) of our collective sacrifice for the good of the nation. Nationalism becomes a vital part of the state of emergency, stifling critique, naturalising relations of power, sanctifying the state, and excluding non-national denizens.
Foucault’s disciplinary biopolitics sheds light on the martial codes and strategies that course through society, constituting “the very principles upon which social relations form”. He teaches us of the microphysics of modern state formation, its intricate construction through fields of specialised knowledge, rationalities and strategies. But Sotiris has not convinced me to take Foucault as our pilot through the shoals of lockdown. Lockdowns are shot through with contradictions and contestation. They involve human actors (individuals and movements) as they struggle and negotiate, and as they form cultures of solidarity around social groups formed through kinship and friendship, social reproduction, and collective labour. They are imposed by authorities which, the force of Foucault’s insights into the microphysics and miniaturised moments of coercion notwithstanding, remain concentrated within “the grand and obdurate apparatus of the centralised state itself”. And states, subject as they are to continual pressure from the populace, justify lockdowns not only through reference to bloodless scientific discourse but in the banal-and-emotional language of nationalism, the religion of state. Foucault’s analytical toolbox contains none of the above concepts. Further, his principal target was repressive-welfarist reformism, personified in Bentham, the patron saint of liberal lockdowns; this left libertarianism relatively unexplored. In The Birth of Biopolitics he does comment, in passing, on “so-called libertarian American liberals” – advocates of laissez faire economics and the withdrawal of states from any welfare role – in a phrase that has resonance today. The libertarians, he warns, justify their preferred policies as defences against any slipping from free-market society toward the various new serfdoms: “socialism, fascism, or National Socialism”. But, he asks, do not the libertarians’ own policies “surreptitiously” introduce modes of action that are just as harmful as the tyrannies they fear? The relevance to debates over pandemic politics consists in the fact that, at least in Britain and the US, the major opposition to lockdowns comes not from Marxists such as Sotiris but from libertarians. And, for epidemiological warrant, the libertarians look above all to the GBD.
The GBD was supported from the get-go, indeed its opening event was hosted at its Great Barrington base by, the American Institute for Economic Research, a Koch-funded libertarian think tank. The GBD’s core message is that lockdowns should be lifted except for vulnerable populations; for these, they should be ratcheted up and lengthened. The GBD’s lead signatories have attracted widespread critique, which need not detain us. Briefly summarised, it includes their misrepresentation of the long-term damage that the virus can inflict on those it infects, their underestimation of its danger to children and working-age adults (including ‘long covid’), their sanguine predictions (e.g. already in May that Covid in Britain had “largely come and is on the way out”), and their assumption that vulnerable groups can be accurately identified and hermetically sequestered from the rest – around a third of the population of many countries. The idea that we can siphon all the vulnerable people away from the rest of the population cannot work in practice, and precisely who is vulnerable to this novel disease is hard to say, not to mention the logistics of breaking up multigenerational families and ensuring they somehow live apart for months or years.
I do not know whether Sotiris has signed the GBD but there is a resemblance between its policy proposals and some of his own – notably the talk of “fostering” of elderly people, and of the need to protect the vulnerable with little consideration of how amidst rising infection rates that can be done without some restraints on the liberties of those thought to be non-vulnerable. Sotiris has been circulating the writings of George Nikolaidis, the GBD signatory who translated the declaration into Greek, and he invited him to act as discussant for his Politics of the Pandemic session at the Historical Materialism conference. There, Nikolaidis pitched a GBD line: oppose all lockdowns, downplay the failures of Sweden’s pandemic response, frame policy responses as strengthening “resilience” (that buzzword again) rather than avoiding needless deaths.
The magical thinking of the GBD lends legitimacy to libertarians agitating for a lifting of all restrictions. In a general sense this is not new. In the nineteenth-century, opponents of smallpox vaccination presented themselves as defending “personal liberty” against the tyranny of government. The rugged individualism and Social Darwinism of libertarians in the USA in particular open doors to the alt right – some have dubbed it the libertarian-to-alt-right pipeline. They are the ones who seek a suspension of sociality. For libertarians, mandatory mask rules represent an infringement on constitutional freedoms, and the planet can go fry before we’ll relinquish our God-given right to SUVs and pick-up trucks. For them, the politics of the pandemic is framed as personal liberty versus the tyranny of government: ‘lockdown: for or against?’ But their own policies, to paraphrase Foucault, would wreak greater harm than the tyranny against which they rail.
2020 should be remembered as the year of extraordinary anti-police uprisings in the USA and Nigeria, but it has also seen a carnival of repression, some of which has been spawned by lockdowns. These have fostered authoritarianism, with police powers augmented and a ubiquitous government-led mistrust, which at street level takes the form of snooping and finger-pointing at “other people”. (In Britain, it has come as no surprise to learn that, after the initial uprush of mutual aid had abated, neighbourhood cohesion actually declined.) Opposition to these iniquities should not be left to the libertarians and the far right. I share Sotiris’s unease, his call for a revival of demonstrations, his emphasis on mutual aid and civic mindedness, on empowering communities and social-reproduction class struggle as the foundation of a socialist anti-pandemic strategy, and his long-term vision for a ‘democratic biopolitics’ that can challenge the biopolitics of capitalist states. But what is the capitalist biopolitics of the pandemic? It is not constituted by a binary of repressive “lockdown strategies” and Korea-style test and trace. There is no “lockdown strategy”, and the upward-twist in repressive power, notably the infiltration of the tech giants into powerful political positions through the pretext of assisting states in a public health emergency, have been introduced under states with widely different responses to the pandemic. No survey of pandemic politics, moreover, would be complete without mention of the laissez faire model associated with Sweden (on which Sotiris voices criticism, but only of its failure to protect the vulnerable) or its formalisation in the GBD (on which he remains silent).
In framing lockdowns as an uncomplicatedly authoritarian strategy, one that features a “comprehensive stay-at-home order with extreme restrictions on movement and face-to-face communication, with all use of public space prohibited, and most of social and economic life shut down”, Sotiris neglects to consider the full range of actually existing lockdowns and the messiness and contestedness of each. Lockdown is a loose label for rafts of rules geared to viral suppression that usually penalise the poor but can be relatively consensual and humane, as Daegu and Kerala have shown. (Even Britain’s preposterously corrupt and inept lockdown programme included one commendable element: the ‘Everyone In’ policy which provided hotel and hostel accommodation for homeless people.) I am not advocating the statist, social-democratic biopolitics which calls for “complete lockdown now”, but, instead, in line with the Zero Covid campaign, that any realistic left response should centre on “collective discipline and social solidarity” but, where necessary, with lockdowns too. Labour activists are at the forefront of pressing for safety at work and social distancing measures, and for lockdown-related demands too. These should include the full financial support—with full pay for workers obliged to isolate and pandemic pay for essential workers—that can help enable any temporary acceptance of restraints on liberty in the interests of suppressing infection rates to the point where a find-test-trace-isolate-support method can kick in. Only the state can disburse resources on that sort of scale. In organising to push it to do so, sparks of Sotiris’s ‘democratic biopolitics’ may be seen.
- 1. Panagiotis Sotiris, ‘Thinking Beyond the Lockdown: On the Possibility of a Democratic Biopolitics’, Historical Materialism 28.3 available at: https://brill.com/view/journals/hima/28/3/article-p3_1.xml. Acknowledgments: I am grateful to Tithi Bhattacharya, Andreas Malm, and Sara Farris for comments on an earlier draft.