Tuesday 3 March 2020

The Necropolitics of Coronavirus

3,000 deaths. 50-odd cases in the UK, which are expected to grow. The EU has raised the virus risk level and, as if to underline the seriousness of the situation, Boris Johnson has been forced out of hiding to traipse around Public Health England labs and issue statements about hand washing. Striking a reassuring tone, Johnson talked up the preparedness of the UK and, on Andrew Marr at the weekend, health secretary Matt Hancock talked about a "battle plan", of which more shortly. As the former chair of the Global Health Council says we're heading for the worst case scenario, consider me reassured.

I have no insight to offer on the progress of the disease, nor novel ways of avoiding it beyond staying in a well-stocked bunker with air filtration, plenty of food, and three metre thick blast doors. But on the politics, there's plenty to say. Or to be more accurate, the biopolitics and necropolitics of the outbreak. Still not often used outside of academia or theory heads, biopolitics has a central place in understanding the social dynamics of any industrial and post-industrial society. In his work on asylums, medicine, prisons, and the birth of sexuality Michel Foucault coined biopolitics to cover the emergence of a microphysics of power. His argument is with urbanisation and mobilisation the state was transformed from a power that stood over the populace as a haphazard and punitive tyrant to a set of institutions absolutely concerned with the particularities of population management. In his works, Foucault goes into the archives and finds how we think about human beings today, as subjects of a particular kind, were produced as a consequence of technologies of discipline. For example, in prisons the people (or bodies) that enter them are disciplined by a particular regimen, such as the timetable organising their day, the implied and overt violence inflicted by prison officers, the "moral improvement" of prison work, the rules governing conduct backed up by sanction, and the consideration prisoners are subject to surveillance by the authorities - to the point where these techniques inaugurate a screw in the convict's head so they become self-policing model prisoners fit for productive life outside. Hence the knowledge accumulated about prisoners, the "truth" about them is simultaneously their subjugation and subjection. They represent the fusion of power and knowledge, their joining so utterly interpenetrating to be seamless and indissociable.

This did not produce docile subjects. Power invites resistance, as Foucault noted. But power/knowledge provides standards, justifications, and crucially the pathways by which institutions address and expect their inhabitants, or rather their objects to behave. There is no prison when inmates riot. There is no school when pupils up and leave the classroom for a climate strike. There is no factory when workers obey the picket line. And so when reaction comes, it tries stuffing these rebellious bodies back into the institutional grooves and moulds fashioned for them. Disciplinary power then pervades the social, and reached its apogee in the 20th century's great totalitarianisms. It is the stuff of struggle, the terrain on which class and liberation politics are fought, and why the identity politics bemoaned by conservatives and obsolescent hangovers is so pervasive. And though it has been supplanted by generalised surveillance of all by all, the politics of population management and inculcating/nudging appropriate regimes of governance remains the problematic and the privilege of the capitalist state. Biopolitics then is a politics of life, and ceaselessly struggling to ensure it walks only the well-trodden paths.

You might suppose necropolitics then is the politics of death, which is partly the case. It is about violence and risk: how much of the population should be exposed to the possibility of dying prematurely. For example, civil defence planning and the discourse around what constituted "acceptable losses" in the event of a nuclear exchange is an example of necropolitics. Building and centralising the emergency health service during the 2nd World War to manage mass casualties is another. And bringing matters more up to date, cutting public services and engineering the cruelties of universal credit and the work capability assessment involved throwing the unworthy poor to the wolves, the violence of poverty and destitution being deemed entirely acceptable by those for whom such words are merely dictionary entries. For the most part, like biopolitics, necropolitics is entirely naturalised. The state's power over life and death becomes overt when issues of peace and war and capital punishment command politics. Less so at other times as deaths are routinised as a mass of individual tragedies, as unavoidable consequences no amount of disaster and resilience planning can do away with. This is the dehumanisation of mortality, death as the inevitable end, thoroughly depoliticised and unpolitical.

The Tories response is absolutely of a "depoliticised" biopolitical and necropolitical piece. When we turn to the government's Coronavirus strategy document, it falls into two aspects: contain and research, and delay and mitigate. The most interesting aspect here resides under section 4.8, which states new health regulations confer new powers on "medical professionals, public health professionals and the police to allow them to detain and direct individuals in quarantined areas at risk or suspected of having the virus." The Scottish health boards have greater scope: "to place restrictions on the activities of individuals who are known to have the disease, or have been exposed to the disease, and to prohibit them from entering or remaining in any place." Section 4.21 specifies the separation of Coronavirus patients from the general hospital population and, particularly, A&Es. Taken together with other public health measures, these do amount to sensible precautions that aim to delay the spread of disease until the summer months can drive down infection rates.

The 'next steps' are where things get more interesting. 4.39 reads "There are also well practised arrangements for Defence to provide support to Civil Authorities if requested." In other words, troops on the streets. 4.45 raises the possibility of "population distancing strategies", meaning the closure of schools and other public institutions, encourage homeworking, and preventing large gatherings from taking place. 4.46 suggests a slightly sinister tone, "We would consider such measures in order to protect vulnerable individuals with underlying illnesses and thus at greater more at risk of becoming seriously affected by the disease. The effectiveness of these actions will need to be balanced against their impact on society." 4.48 suggests help will be offered to businesses suffering cash flow issues on a case-by-case basis, and devolved authorities and councils can look forward to advice dealing with a higher than normal death rate. 4.49 talks vaguely about supporting staff welfare.

From a biopolitical point of view, "population distancing" has two consequences. The obvious is the advertised desire to clamp down on the communication of disease, the other the management of populations at a moment of national crisis. Atomising people in their homes guards against outbreaks of mass hysteria, and allows for the forcible removal - if necessary - of the infected. The possible presence of the army on the streets would be reassuring for some, but their intimidatory aspect might be enough so no curfews are necessary. The necropolitics creeps in when we consider the fate of the vulnerable: what does "need to be measured against their impact on society" mean? A triaging of sufferers on the basis of age, underlying health conditions, record of economic activity, or some other indices of social desirability? The second is where biopolitics and necropolitics overlap. If by 'staff' the document is talking about workers generally, there are real issues about sick pay that are not addressed, and the same is true for those who are self-employed or are on zero hours. Then there are people who subsist on social security and have to jump through the hoops of signing on, showing they're actively seeking work, and compelled to attend training events. What happens to their payments in the event of "population distancing" - are they simply expected to get by on thin air?

Evidently, any society facing the threat of contagion has to take extraordinary steps to prevent infection and mitigate impacts, but understanding how it does that is inseparable from its configuration of the biopolitics and necropolitics. And what we see here is a population management strategy that either exposes vulnerable people to the risk of death thanks to arbitrary assessment criteria, combined with the "forgetting" of workers and others who simply cannot work from home - effectively the response to the viral threat carries with it an entirely unnecessary necropolitical threat the government could, if it wished, do something about. Unfortunately, its record these last 10 years with vulnerable populations doesn't fill me with confidence.


Anonymous said...

I don't have the stats but how many people die of the flu each year? … and I am not saying that it makes this situation ok. All the cuts in the UK to public health don't help of course.

Boffy said...

Its a typical moral panic. As Wiki defines a moral panic.

"A moral panic is a feeling of fear spread among many people that some evil threatens the well-being of society.] It is "the process of arousing social concern over an issue – usually the work of moral entrepreneurs and the mass media"."

As wiki goes on to say, health risks have been a common theme of such moral panics. The first cases of coronavirus were reported now nearly 6 months ago, in China,, with a population of over 1 billion people. Yet, even in China, deaths from the virus amount to only around 2,000. Globally, its still less than 3,000, even 6 months on. To put that in perspective, in 2019, 1600 people died in Britain alone from the flu, and in 2018, the figure was 17,000! or to give a global comparison, in 1918, with a much smaller global population deaths from Spanish Flu totalled 50 million!

Its getting ridiculous. We now have 24 hour a day News reporting of the virus, with no startling new developments, despite the fact its been spreading for nearly 6 months. Imagine if every day, the news was full of stories that "another person has been diagnosed in Britain as having contracted the flu"! Yet, despite the fact that so far the number of cases of people in Britain diagnosed with COVID 19 is only in dozens, compared to the tens of thousands that contract flu every year, and despite the fact that the mortality rate of the former is like flu less than 1%, the News heightens the sense of moral panic by reporting every individual case of someone contracting the virus as thou it were a thousand new deaths!

And, despite all that its quite clear the authorities do not take their propaganda seriously. Either that or they incredibly incompetent. For example, one firm in London when someone sneezed, sent all 20 staff home, who, if they were infected, then proceeded to spread it amongst London Tube passengers by the thousand. Individual family members are told to self isolate, but not the other members of their family!

Of course, what the panic does do is to justify the kind of action seen by the Fed yesterday of cutting interest rates. Even they admit it has no effect on the real economy, but was intended to boost stock and bond prices once more. The panic slows global economic growth, which was starting to rise again, and which itself threatened to cause interest rates to rise and asset prices to fall. Its part of a desperate last gasp to try to protect the paper wealth of the top 0.01%, by justifying additional money printing to prop up financial assets.

But, even that backfired on them. The initial consequence was a significant correction. On top the latest PMI's show continued growth of the real economy, but with people being told to stay at home, whilst modern consumers will continue to order goods online, especially in the higher cost environment of Trump's trade War and Brexit, the consequence will be higher prices, with the inflation itself causing higher interest rates down the line. So, the emergency Fed cut, caused bond prices to rise, and yields to drop ever closer to zero, which makes shares look cheaper. But that's another very short term sugar high that will soon be reversed.

BCFG said...

A virus is not a moral panic period and the quote Boffyt gives is typical of his utter and thorough dishonesty. The HIV virus caused a moral panic because it was linked to homosexuals, so the by product of HIV was homophobia. But HIV was a very real danger.

With the coronavrius there is no associated moral panic, the anti Chinese stuff has subsided now that we have higher rates than them.

So there is no moral panic, just statements and updates from the WHO, and we should listen to them not the idiotic ramblings of a self aggrandising lunatic.

“Power invites resistance”

And subservience.

The 20th century Totalitarians had nothing on the 21st century Totalitarians (the USA being the primary example). Stalin had nowhere near the level of control over the vast Soviet population than the USA elites have over their masses. The technology they are now putting to use outdoes anything those 20th century totalitarian states had to offer.

We are head long into totalitarianism and the liberals haven’t given it a second thought.

Capitalism particularly its neo liberal incarnation is a dehumanising and abysmal system. Resources are allocated based on ability to pay, not need and we allow people to be put in a position where if they get sick they can’t afford to take time off.

In world war 2 we apparently had rationing, and they could organise that without Artificial intelligence or Bots or any of the other technologies they use to control us. Yet in this day and age we cannot organise anything approaching rationing.

This virus may well simply be over-hyped but one thing is for sure we have created the worst societies for dealing with such issues.

The science is pretty overwhelmingly telling us that capitalism is literally killing the living environment and causing mass extinction and yet people carry on doing the same things.

Capitalism is a death cult.