Wednesday 9 September 2020

The Tories are Winning the Necropolitics

"Abide by the rule of six!" exclaimed Boris Johnson during a rare appearance at a Coronavirus press conference this evening. Announcing new rules, all settings should be restricted to no more than six people - unless you are on a train, going in to work, walking into a shop, or heading into the classroom. As any scientist will tell you, Covid-19 is a notorious respecter of the places people gather to sell their time to their boss and only becomes infectious in private, home settings. Following the fourth day in succession of 2,000+ new infections, Johnson's new measures which, he says, "breaks his heart", are not going to curb transmission much. He doesn't want a second national lockdown, but if cases keep going up the political consequences of not acting become increasingly expensive. Fluffing the containment of Coronavirus twice is a can the Tories would rather not carry.

Yet there's a strange absence from the discourse, a void barely remarked upon by leading politicians of the government and opposition. The press are uncharacteristically quiet on this issue too and the left, even the left aren't banging on about it. The absence I'm speaking of is the absence of absent people: the dead. At the time of writing, the official count says 41,594 people in the UK have died of Covid-19. Excess deaths in total are between 50k-65k since the start of the outbreak. A lot of people who should still be with us are just not getting talked about. Why?

Back before the lockdown, we had occasion to consider Tory strategy ahead of the calamity about to engulf the country. What the theory heads refer to as necropolitics. If biopolitics is how a state goes about managing its population at a remove via forms of governance selecting for, nudging, and using the stick to encourage acceptable patterns of behaviours and styles of living, necropolitics is the management of death and the risk of death. From the off, the Tories' management of the risk of death was slapdash and cavalier. They were slow to lock down and let hundreds of sporting events take place, including Cheltenham which, alone, led to dozens of deaths and thousands of infections. Then, to clear the hospitals ready for a wave of Coronavirus patients, elderly people were discharged back to care homes, some of whom were already ill (but untested). A recipe for death on a huge scale which, peculiarly, has yet to trouble any conspiracy theorists. These criminal failings go hand in hand with the Tory abandonment of track and trace at the very moment it was most needed to stamp out the spread of disease. Instead, they allowed Covid-19 to flair out of control until the closure of practically everything brought the rates of infection down.

A mix of complacency and incompetence characterises, and continues to characterise their management of risk. If negligence of this magnitude had taken place in a company, the boss would rightly face a battery of charges. And yet, far from punishment, Johnson and the Tories continue to enjoy handsome polling. One of the reasons why is because, so far, they've successfully depoliticised the necropolitics. The question "why are 60,000 people dead?" is yet to elicit an answer along the lines of "because of the Tories." And the government have managed this accomplishment by a mix of design and fortuitous accident.

There were two phases to the lockdown. The first was a zealous campaign of curtain-twitching and over-enthusiastic coppers busting people for taking the dog for a walk in the middle of nowhere. Stories abounded of feral youths being ... outside, and panics about lockdown not getting taken seriously. There was cringe talk of reviving the Blitz spirit (replete with VE Day congas that, strangely, did not attract the press's critical attention), but the stress here was on the individual responsiblity we have not to make others ill. With hundreds of deaths piling up everyday and government uniformity backed up, as ever, by the media , the lockdown zeroed the public's imagination down to social distancing and being careful. As such, the background presence of death underlined the seriousness of the situation. And yet, for all its ferociousness, it struck seemingly at random, a consequence of chance, poor luck, or failure to behave responsibly in the new situation. All the public messaging rammed this point hope: stay at home, control the virus, save lives. This is where the accident of Dominic Cummings's legendary trip to Barnard Castle actually helped with managing the necropolitics. This blatant case of hypocrisy caused the Tories some pain, and while it did undermine people's trust in the rules, it placed renewed stress on individual responisbility. Cummings's breach of lockdown did not lead to a generalised popular critique of the Tory handling of the crisis, instead it helped justify rule-breaking while affirming one's responsibility for Covid avoidance. If you're daft enough to do a Dom and catch it, the government is not to blame for your foolhardiness.

As the lockdown restrictions have eased, the press and TV news regularly pepper their output with illegal raves and huge house parties. There was also plenty of faux concern in the Tory papers about the health consequences of Black Lives Matter protests. And so as we see with the building wave of infections, because the young this time are disproportionately affected a whole summer of reportage on their irresponsibility allow the government to escape its share of the blame, despite the failures over testing - something even Boris Johnson guffawed about in the Commons earlier - and the debacle of test and trace mk II. But the point needs stressing. The vectors of infection aren't because a few young people have secretly met under tree cover to indulge their mutual love for repetitive beats, but thanks to the government's ludicrous eat out to help out scheme. Epidemiology isn't string theory. You have large numbers of people encouraged to visit cafes, bars, takeaways and pubs then the people most likely to fall ill will be those exposed to a flow of patrons for long periods. And guess which age group is overrepresented working in these trades? The 18-24s.

The Tories wanted to depoliticise the dead, and they've found a willing partner in the Leader of the Opposition. The strictly limited terms of Keir Starmer's opposition is a stress on Tory incompetence. A wider critique is off the cards: contesting the politics of coronavirus is limited to only nibbling at the edges. Whether this is thanks to now-is-not-the-time-ism or thinking plodding managerialism plus a refusal to take up a firm critical position will endear him to Tory voters (or, for that matter, both), the result is the same. The Tories get to define the necropolitics of Covid-19 uncontested, and while some might fetishise the inquiry to come, it's naive to suppose what they're doing and getting away with is going to come back in 18 months and wreak catastrophic damage on them.

The Tories then are winning. Whatever happens over the next four years, they've boxed out the damage tens of thousands of totally unnecessary deaths should have caused them. Whether they can carry on doing this as the next wave laps at the country's toes depends on whether the opposition changes tack. If not them, who will speak for the dead and those who are about to die?

Image Credit


Anonymous said...

Powerful article- yes indeed who will speak for the dead.

BCFG said...

According to the stats, its only the weak, vulnerable, those from the most deprived areas and minorities who are dying from this in statistically significant numbers. Which means people like Carty, Boffy couldn't give a shit and argue, why are we not just letting these deadwood people die, don't you know business are missing out on passing trade and middle class people have to shop, its their inalienable right don't you know!

I would have expected Twitter and Facebook users to be all over this, so Nan died and those Tory tossers, those 5 million business owners and their families, the conspiracy theorists, the ultra ultra right loons such as Carty/Boffy are fucking to blame!

Not using Twitter at all (a place where people think quoting Oscar Wilde passes for an argument) and avoiding Facebook other than to look at the odd pic, is this not happening?

Blissex said...

«According to the stats, its only the weak, vulnerable, those from the most deprived areas and minorities who are dying from this in statistically significant numbers»

The death statistics are only part of the damage: the weak and vulnerable who don't day anyhow get many weeks of often terrible illness, and often they get long term negative consequences too.
One factor perhaps is that men (in particular those with high blood pressure, an issue that seems more common among men than women) seem to have twice or more the chance of having a serious illness or dying, so the virus apparently discriminates women. Most political strategists will tell you that men as voters are less important than women, as the latter seem to swing their vote more easily. In particular the Conservative base is mostly older people, and among them there is a significant majority of women.