COVID & the Shadow of Despotic Biopolitics

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unprecedented restrictions on human freedom. The behaviour of ordinary citizens in liberal democracies has been restricted to an extent not seen since World War Two. Criticism of these restrictions however has generally been muted and fringe, with few mainstream figures willing to raise an intelligent and reasonable line of objection to them. 

Particularly disheartening to me has been the complete non-response of the radical left. While right-libertarians and many others on the right have been vocal in criticising the restrictions, figures on the radical left—even those “anti-state” leftists who often sympathise with libertarians—have either been deathly silent or vocally complicit.

The exception of course is Giorgio Agamben, who sadly went too far in the other direction and aligned himself with the David Icke-style fruitcakes. In a bizarre post-structuralist ramble*, Agamben went as far as to imply that the virus didn’t even exist. He then followed up the article with a horrendously bad poem about freedom. In fact, Agamben’s attack on the lockdowns was so cringe-worthy, it almost seemed like a false-flag operation.

In any case though, beneath the multiple layers of intense cringe, Agamben’s piece does contain some worthwhile points. The fact that these arguments have been dismissed with hysterical laughter by the rest of Continental philosophy is extremely disheartening. Very few have attempted to steel-man Agamben’s case, despite it being quite easy to do so.

Bear in mind: there is no contradiction between supporting the imposition of restrictions and critiquing those same restrictions. Someone could be in favour of the harshest lockdown imaginable while still maintaining a critical attitude around the state and the way that human behaviour has been controlled during this pandemic.

Agamben remains right that governments today are too ready to invoke what he calls a “state of exception”. Again, even if we support the restrictions, we should acknowledge that the ease with which governments were able to revoke basic liberties in the name of public health is quite frightening.

As Agamben points out, biopolitics has now developed to a point where the state feels justified in doing practically anything for the sake of public health. We should expect that the radical curtailment of basic liberties in response to public health crises will be a recurring feature of this century, and that its later manifestations will be much less obviously justifiable than during the pandemic.

The most problematic aspects of state power are not those that are obviously unjustified, but those that are obviously justified. This is why it is unwise to dismiss Agamben-style anti-state critique on the grounds that only a madman would object to the COVID restrictions.

In his book Crisis and Leviathan, the historian Robert Higgs charts the growth in the size and scope of the American state. He finds that the state grew most rapidly in times of war, especially the two world wars. A “ratchet effect” occurs, after which it is virtually impossible to de-grow the state.

Criticising the growth of the state during WW2 would have seemed ridiculous. Indeed, the mobilisation of the entire resource base of the Allied nations and the top down coordination of those resources was necessary for defeating the Axis. The growth of the state during WW2 was justified. Nonetheless, it was that same well-justified growth of the war state that engendered the bloated domestic states we see today.

As Nick Land points out, in order to defeat the fascist enemy, the Allied states had to adopt various aspects of fascism (aggressive nationalism, top-down control of the economy, forced labour, mass surveillance, suspension of elections, crackdowns on dissent etc.). Once baked into the state, these fascistic elements proved very difficult to remove.

We come out of this pandemic ruled by more muscular governments, confident in their restrictive powers, prepared to suspend basic freedoms in times of crisis and setting a worrying precedent for what statist horrors await us in the rest of this post-liberal century. We should remain vigilant, especially during the times when it seems easiest to let our guard down.

Appendix: COVID & Collective Freedom 

In a piece on his blog, Matt Colquhoun criticises the individualism that he sees underlying a lot of right-wing criticism of the lockdowns. He has a point: indeed, a traditional liberal-humanist individualism is a flimsy foundation for anything, and he is right that this kind of individualism can pose various threats to a more molecular freedom; individualism does create new, subtler routes for state control.

Except…Matt does not invoke molecular freedom at all in his piece (except peripherally via a Mark Fisher quotation), but focuses instead on collective freedom. He says To curtail our own individual freedoms for a common good ensures we regain our collective freedom sooner”. The phrases “common good” and “collective freedom” alone are enough to give me hives, but there’s something else being missed here: it was precisely collective freedom that the pandemic restrictions attacked.

In fact, COVID-era biopolitics produced precisely the kind of atomism that many critics claim is engendered by libertarianism. Everyone stuck at home on their own, connected to others only through a screen, entitled only to the most exquisite and merciless negative freedom: all the time you could ever want to be on your own; no-one allowed to touch or even approach you.

The thing feared most by governments during a pandemic is not the lone rugged-individualist but the crowd. Matt claims that the only restriction made on our bodies was the imposition of mask-wearing, but that’s far from true: the injunction against our bodies freely coagulating into a mass was the biggest corporeal restriction.

All the nervous energy pent up during the first lockdown found its release in the mass: huge protests across Europe, and months of rioting in the US. In the mass, the biopolitical state found its nemesis, in the traditional sense as well as the modern: police failed to disperse crowds in London because they knew they couldn’t do it without triggering riots.

And indeed, it became clear quite fast that these mass gatherings did not even pose the kind of dangers that many expected. Seems like governments should have been a lot less concerned about amorphous crowds outdoors and a lot more concerned about atomised workplaces, schools and restaurants.

While the success of the mass in resisting state-power (in Italy protests even caused a reduction in the severity of restrictions) is promising, we should be wary of the precedent set by crowd-as-threat-to-public-health. What COVID has shown is that even collective freedom is not safe from public-good collectivism. It’s certainly rather nauseating to see this kind of “sacrifice for the public good” argument made in support of any kind of freedom.

*Never go full reta…err, post-structuralist.

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