For the past two months, the majority of countries all around the globe have found themselves in some stage of lockdown or quarantine. Thousands upon thousands of people have lost their lives, loved ones, and livelihoods to the first global pandemic that any living person on the planet today has ever experienced. When this whole thing started, it seemed like a good idea to try and find some sort of literary representative heuristic for what a global plague town circa 2020 would look like, and most of us found our answers in science fiction and lazy speculations based on clumsy estimations of what contemporary technology and power-knowledge structures could do in order to curb the aleatory nature of the human species in the face of a mass biopolitical felling. But none of these sources properly prepared us for how politicised something like a global pandemic would become.
What has become very clear, is that there exists a massive divide between the biological preservation of human life, and the necessity for individual productivity, for the sake of the economy. It is a fact that many people and small businesses have been thrown into financial ruin, thanks to the superimposition of restrictions on individual movement. Since the start of lockdown procedures, voices from all around the globe have been lamenting these superimpositions as indicative of authoritarian attempts at infringing upon the individual liberties and freedoms that most Western countries afford their citizens. And almost every single one of these arguments can be reduced back to the aforementioned fact that individuals, households, and businesses, are going down the proverbial shitter, whilst we are all being forced to sit at home and pray for summer.
The other end of the debate is filled with people who, usually from a position of relative privilege and comfort, spend all their time evangelising the sanctity of bare human life, and that the importance of this overrides the immediate needs and liberties of the individual. Suddenly, every second person on social media has become stricken with an overwhelming concern for the biological longevity of their own population, as well as a profound understanding of epidemiology that serves as the ideological backbone for the self-righteous slogan “stay the fuck home”. Sure, this might have seemed nice at first, but slowly and surely, one becomes burdened with the realisation that the people who are shouting about staying home can only do so because their positions of privilege make it possible for them to draw this quasi-virtuous line in the sand.
Whilst the people on the libertarian side of the isle spend all their time labelling their opposition as privileged lefties who have no idea how the economy works, aforementioned lefties are more than comfortable with accusing their opponents of being selfish mammonists who would murder their own grandparents for the sake of unwittily lining the pockets of their billionaire overlords. If Covid-19 has reaffirmed one thing, it is that reductionist shit-slinging is still the number one mode of political discourse in the West, with doctors, businesses, politicians, and ideologues on either side producing information and narratives that serve as confirmation bias par excellence to the armies of social media warriors who have nothing better to do than to vomit vitriol at each other from the comfort of their quarantine spaces.
But maybe we should ask something more interesting. What if neither of these positions could function without a fundamental reliance on the assurance of the other?
If you look at the genealogical work of Michel Foucault, you will find several distinct types of apparatuses that are used to ensure productivity within a population. And if you read his work past this phase, you will notice that the ideal neoliberal state is one that is completely populated by self-governing subjects, who have the ability to regulate themselves, as well as function independently towards larger goals that tend to be, to some extent, perpendicular or supplementary to the goals of the state.
The problem with neoliberalism is that its emphasis on the sanctity of individual liberty and aspiration seems to override, in the mind of the individual, the importance of keeping the population as a whole healthy. You see, Foucault himself drew a distinction between apparatuses of discipline that rely on the subjectivity of the individual, and apparatuses of regulation that function, if necessary, in a superimpositionary capacity, in order to assure the safety of the entire population. The problem with pandemics is that the subjective capacities of the individual suddenly become a threat. Sure, when we are all healthy and happy, then we love living in a world where every individual works hard, monitors themselves and their peers, sticks to the laws, makes money, and then spends that money however they choose. Freedom within the confines of civil society is exactly what allows people to be creative, inventive, and productive in ways that stimulate themselves and the economy. We rely on the aspirations of the neoliberal subject, as well as the freedoms that allow them to carry out those aspirations, in order to live in a world where people invent shit, snitch on potential crimes, buy Apple products that they don’t need, and start businesses that create the opportunity for others to do all the aforementioned. Liberties, freedoms, and rights sustain our current society, make no mistake about that. It is precisely because you have the freedom to starve, that you end up going out and labouring your life away in the pursuit of non-starvation.
However, problems like pandemics introduce a new element or a new factor that muddies the waters of the neoliberal wonderland. What if the very individual capacities that neoliberalism generates and relies on, suddenly become threats that could result in a massive loss of population. I mean, free people who accidentally kill each other by sneezing pose a huge risk at the very moment they exercise their state-given rights and freedoms to leave their houses.
Look at it this way. Jeff is a small business owner, and he has created several jobs and stimulated the economy by subjectively taking advantage of the rights and liberties that are afforded to him. In a world that is not ridden with plague, Jeff is the ideal subject of neoliberal governmentality. However, as soon as there is a pandemic, Jeff becomes a threat. You see, by doing the same things that he would normally do, Jeff might be acting as a vector for a virus that could murder half of the people that he comes in contact with. So, what the fuck do you do with Jeff now? We all know the answer because it is fresh in all our memories. If the state is truly invested in the longevity of the population, then it has to temporarily relieve Jeff of some of those rights, and liberties, that have been afforded to him and has benefitted those around him. However, Jeff has been indoctrinated since birth to understand the injustice of this kind of quasi authoritarianism, and he might rebel. You can’t blame him, not really. He’s been taught to chase carrots since he was a child, then he worked really hard and started his own carrot farm. Today, a lot of people get to eat carrots, because of Jeff, who won the carrot race (at least relative to most of his peers). It’s all about carrots folks, and it always has been. However, now, he has to stay inside, deprived of all the rights and liberties that allowed him to have many carrots, and his supply is decreasing. Add to that the fact that he’s been schooled about the injustice of this kind of occurrence his entire life, and you might understand why Jeff is pissed.
However, before we all take up torches alongside Jeff, consider the fact that Jeff’s rights and liberties exist because the state wherein he finds himself contains the necessary conditions for these rights and liberties to function to the benefit of himself and others. Think about the impact that something like a pandemic can have on these conditions. If twenty percent (a hypothetical figure) of the population disappears, so does twenty percent of the workforce, and twenty percent of the consumers. If people fear going outside and the risk of infection for years to come, how many of them will still regularly make use of all the services that people like Jeff provide?
Foucault’s disciplines do, indeed, create the kinds of subjects that function ideally within the neoliberal state, but only insofar as this state can support these subjects existing in this way. Disciplines create subjects that, when afforded their rights and liberties, will turn into the Jeffs of the world, and keep the neoliberal capitalist machine running. However, these disciplines, liberties, and rights, can only operate within the ideal neoliberal state, wherein the necessary conditions for the creation, and perpetuation of Jeff exit. If suddenly there was a virus that killed a shitload of people, then these conditions do not exist in the same way anymore. What would any sane state do? I venture to speculate that it would temporarily implement regulatory apparatuses, that superimpose retractions upon the entire population until the threat of mass-death can be curbed or eliminated. It makes perfect sense that Jeff would temporarily lose the right he had a few months ago because he’s no longer living in a world where the benefits of those rights are significantly greater than the drawbacks. Those rights have changed from overwhelmingly beneficial to posing a serious biopolitical threat.
This does not mean that we all have to put away our torches permanently since the keyword here is “temporarily”. If a state or government seems set on perpetuating these regulations beyond the point where they do more good than harm, then the entire population should be very concerned. These regulations can only function properly if they work towards arriving at a position where Jeff could flourish again. This should be their purpose, and it functions as one of the fundamental prefaces for any pro-regulation augment that is worth having. I am not going to name names or talk about specific new regulations, but I am sure many people have seen their own governments sneak in strange littles laws and rules that seem dangerous, or might suspect that there are ulterior motives to some of the regulation extensions. There have, indeed, been several extensions on particular laws and bans in my own country, that have gotten people very suspicious. Furthermore, if these measures continue, and the rationale for them becomes even lazier than it already is, then it would be fair to start protesting against them. This is definitely the time for people to become very politically aware because the possibility still exists that we might end up on the other side of the pandemic, with fewer freedoms and rights than before, probably under a slogan of prevention.
The bottom line here is this: congratulations, you were all right all along. The lockdown was never an absolute good, nor an absolute evil. It was a desperate attempt at finding the lesser to two horrible evils that would have left a lasting impact either way. Choosing between large-scale population death, or the infringement of individual liberties is a shitty decision to have to make. Both these options are destructive, and picking between them means that somewhere along the line there was going to be harm on one level or another. If we didn’t lock down, then the death toll could have been a lot worse, which is bad. However, when we did lockdown, a lot of people were put in a position of economic deterioration that rendered them destitute, which is also bad. There was never a win-win option on the table. However, we can spend ages discussing whether or not they picked the lesser evil or not, but hindsight has never been more useless than it is right now. No amount of finger-wagging is going to help restore everything that we have lost during the last few months.
What we have to do now, is try our darndest to make this return to homeostasis work, whilst being vigilant about the willingness of our governments to lessen their respective grips on our lives. And I want you to know that I am not being callous, nor am I ignorant of the privileged position that I am in. Just being able to write this means that I am better off than a lot of people. To all those who have lost things to the pandemic that they can never get back, I am truly sorry, and I am not trying to provide instruction on what it is that you, personally, should do, because I am in no position to do so. I don’t know what resources you have at your disposal to put your life back together, so I cannot, and will not, make any personal recommendations for what you ought to do right now. All that I can say is that I am sorry for your losses.
But for those of us who can get back on that ol’ workhorse, now is the time to do so, and to reclaim our rights and liberties as they are slowly being made available to us again. And if we realise that some of those rights aren’t returning, then a hefty inquiry might be warranted. This whole thing had a crummy impact on all of us, sans a few billionaires who actually managed to get richer off of it. There is no way of telling what is going to happen next, but what can be known is that there are very few people who emerged winners out of the global plague town. Damned because we did, but probably just as likely to be damned if we didn’t, we have to attempt to move forward now. Oh, and crying about having to wear a mask to work, or to the shops, does not fall within the parameters of what I have been talking about. Wear a mask, it won’t kill you, but it might save you or somebody else.
Contributor: Sarel Marais
Disillusioned academic going through every day life. Entertainer, musician, and comedian that hates entertainment, music, and comedy. Writer that uses any and all writing skill, stretching to the far reaches of my vocabulary to convey my utter annoyance with the absurdity of human existence.