Monday 5 July 2021

Neoliberal Necropolitics

Sajid Javid provided the trailer, and Boris Johnson the main event. Ignoring surging infections, rising hospitalisations, and warnings about the prevalence of long Covid and incubating more infectious, deadlier variants, the Prime Minister announced the removal of practically all pandemic restrictions from 19th July. Almost embracing projections of positive tests rising to 50,000/day, Johnson hasn't so much surrendered to the virus but prostrated himself before it. No Churchillian affectations here, he has declared the country an open territory. Resistance to the surge of invasive infection is too much hard work.

It's easier to tally the few scraps of control that will survive the 19th. I.e. Self-isolation orders for positive tests, and travel bans to red list countries. Everything else is gone: distancing, masks, the elementary precautions for safe living in the age of Covid, these are now matters of manners or "courtesy". That's it, then. We are being doomed to take part in a grand medical experiment for which there is no informed consent. The likely results? More suffering, more death, and vaccine escape. How can anyone in good conscience and not beholden to the interests the Tories congeal and push back these moves? The BBC's health correspondent chances his arm. Nick Triggle argues letting infections rise now is better than in the early autumn because the health service will start coming under pressure from other respitory illnesses, and being outdoors in the summer means infections are depressed anyway. How about an alternative? Like keeping most existing restrictions - which are doing a poor job of containing the Delta variant anyway - and making sure workers and businesses are properly supported in the mean time, which has not been the case from the off. Vaccinate and drive down transmission.

We know the answer to this. The Tories want cities thrumming to the sound of workers marching to their workplaces so the property portfolios of their backers start showing rental income again. They want to dampen expectations about different ways of doing things by ignoring the pandemic and forcing us into the old patterns of life, and they want to make sure the petty authoritarianism of the bosses whip us back into shape following, in their eyes, an 18 month holiday. But how have they got away with their catastrophic handling of this crisis so far, and why, in the immediate term, is the scrapping of the rules going to be met with a shrug and mild grumbling?

It comes down to the necropolitics. As all states are concerned with managing their populations, their sovereignty is exercised over them in the first instance. Ultimately, this is exercised by deciding who among its citizenry lives and who dies. Coined by Achille Mbembe to think through questions of war and state violence, it equally lends itself to responses to emergency situations, like a pandemic. Every state has made decisions about expendable populations and, to borrow the language of nuclear war modelling, "acceptable losses". New Zealand and most East Asian states, for example, decided no deaths were a price worth paying for freedom/the economy/whatever, and the pain of a sharp, stringent lockdown was mitigated by a quick return to normalcy. At the other extreme were the Covid kleptocracies of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. For them suffering and death meant nothing as long as they could gesture their peculiar alpha male defiance of the disease. A pity it never carried both of them off after contracting it.

The Tories are closer to the latter than the former. Early on, Boris Johnson's first instinct was to recommend handwashing, working from home if possible, but otherwise carry on as normal. In the absence of government direction, but against the backdrop of galloping infections and mounting deaths, workers voted with their feet and the Tories were forced to appropriate the plan put forward by the outgoing leader of the opposition. Their desire for a necropolitical strategy that put GDP and rentier income before public health was thwarted when the public had other ideas. What emerged then was a compromise: a furlough and business support scheme with huge holes, effectively defining the lowest paid - mostly women, mostly minority ethnicities - as an expendable layer of the labour force. This at the time the government were shipping old people out of hospital into care homes and directly causing tens of thousands more deaths. Another acceptable loss. Moving into the summer Johnson talked bullishly about forcing people back into work, and thinking aloud about schemes that would encourage herd immunity by getting people back in shops. The eventual result was the infamous Help Out to Eat Out initiative, which according to the epidemiology was directly responsible for 8-17% of Covid infections by September and set the stage for the brutalities of the winter wave. Dishy Rishi served up a dose of the Covids to tens of thousands because, ultimately, they and the (mostly young) workers who served them were deemed worth risking. Certainly less important than getting the Bank of England to buy more government gilts to support hospitality and write them off later.

Autumn and winter was the same story. The country was late into the second lockdown, which was far less stringent and enforced than the first, and it was only apocalyptic scenes in hospitals in late December and early January that forced the Tories' hand again. These were not the actions of a government who put the defence of the realm first, unless "the realm" is defined by the power politics structuring the Tory imaginary. On this occasion, they were quite prepared to keep on risking the health of teachers and parents by letting children attend school and spread the infection to their families at home. That was until the teaching unions forced them to backtrack. And immediately, the same issues manifested. Not enough support, a lockdown with a wizard's sleeve's worth of openings, more latitude to bosses to reopen workplaces, the lack of seriousness undoubtedly prolonged the third wave and caused needless illness and death.

And now we're in the foothills of a fourth wave driven by a more infectious strain with some resistance to the AstraZeneca jab. How have the Tories managed to avoid political punishment for the disaster, and are set on letting it all rip? The public health management was a joke, but the Tories have handled the necropolitics expertly. Even while Johnson dithered, the accent immediately switched to personal responsibility. The government were prepared to enforce the rules, but we had individual responsibility to obey them. This strategy was reinforced by that trip to Barnard Castle - Cummings was pilloried, failed to show contrition and was protected by the Prime Minister, but the message emphasised the importance of individual conduct. If he was irresponsible, then others still catching it under the circumstances of a relatively stringent lockdown must be likewise. People were being foolhardy, careless, or were downright unlucky. This is the key to the government's success with the necropolitical. We have not seen the last year's levels of state intervention since the war. The economy was kept on life support by political decisions, and government took direct responsibility for the NHS, particularly PPE procurement and vaccine funding. The corruption, the failures, and the forcing of millions into work unnecessarily was their decision and their responsibility. But this has almost entirely been negated thanks to the constant stress on individual behaviour, buoyed by press stories about illegal raves and a myriad of curtain-twitching tales circulating on Facebook. The lack of official opposition has assisted the Tory framing of the necropolitics too, underpinning the indifference and apathy sapping Keir Starmer's leadership.

With nothing to stop the Tories, they're moving to the next phase of their dangerous experiment. The state is ostensibly washing its hands of pandemic governance and leaving it to what Johnson likes to call the good sense of the British people. If you are unfortunate to fall ill now, it's bad luck or you weren't abiding by voluntary measures. The fact everywhere is opening, government support is getting run down, the neoliberal logic central to Tory necropolitics is being allowed to stand on its own two feet, like the good pair of discursive and material bootstraps it is. The heavy paw of the state is out and the invisible hand is our best defence against the invisible enemy. The Tories can, they believe, affect a "not me guv" pose and as tens of thousands succumb they blame it on misfortune or bad decision-making.

Neoliberal necropolitics isn't going to work. It will maim and it will kill, and the Tories might pay a heavy price for their reckless indolence. A guaranteed failure even before given free reign, an entirely deregulated and "free" necropolitics is worth a gamble because the promise of their utopia is so close to hand. This is a world in which they're utterly dominant in British politics and the historic opportunity they have to set the tenor of state power, its episodic Keynesianism and industrial activism, and management of class relations has been shrunk by the Coronavirus distraction. Rigging the country's political economy and the rules of the political game permanently to their advantage is the prize. And if the bodies have to pile high by the thousands, that's a price the Tories are happy for others - us - to pay.

Image Credit


Anonymous said...

Something of a continuation of the previous post so something of a continuation of the previous comment.

- with almost the entire adult population having received at least one jab (at least, those that want it) one has to wonder when would be an acceptable time for you. Quick answer - effectively, never.

- I think the comments on these threads say more about the innate authoritarianism of the commentators and the instinct that it must be a good thing to restrict people's freedoms.

- Furthermore, they prefer a state of crisis/ emergency because psychologically, it is where they already live - ie under an incompetent right-wing Brexit government. The last thing they want is for people to forget about that.

- Covid will always be with us - people will always be falling ill and some will be dying, just as some die from a range of diseases every day. Surely the priority should be ramping up the NHS accordingly.

- I think there is also an obvious resistance to the concept the Tories may have achieved success with the vaccination programme, notwithstanding their failure in every other area. It is therefore imperative to howl down talk of opening up as this will imply success for the hated ones.

- This, therefore, is not really a rational forum for discussion - it is the poor who have suffered by far the worst from lockdown, rather than wishing to sustain their suffering (for, perhaps, a corrective in their thinking?) better to see things open up again. I don't see much actual compassion here, more like crocodile tears.

Kamo said...

I'm in agreement that it would be better to retain some restrictions e.g. face coverings and social distancing. But at some point the UK, the world even, has to learn to live with Covid-19. Yes there will be costs, but never ending lockdowns have severe wellbeing and socio-economic costs. The reasons for now are not spurious; a good chunk of the population has been vaccinated and it does make a difference, we know how to treat the illness better now, and going later carries greater risks (unless permanant lockdown is simply a flag of convenience under which a political agenda can be attempted).

There are some who will bear greater risks through no fault of their own; like those who are extremely vulnerable or who cannot be vaccianted, but they are at greater risk regardless of Covid-19, and stopping society from functioning puts at risk lots of other people whose health and wellbeing is endangered whilst draconian conditions are imposed. At some point paternalistism has to be put aside and the kind of people who are too stupid to wear masks properly, or prefer vaccine conspiracies over genuine medical advice, have to accept the consequences of their choices.

As for the trends that have accelerated during lockdown, the cat is well and truly out of the bag. Yes, some overstretched rentiers will be furiously throwing donations at politicians to try and save their portfolios and some old fashioned command and control managers will be fighting to maintain their relevance as their obsolesence beckons, but everywhere else change will continue to happen.

gastrogeorge said...

"it is the poor who have suffered by far the worst from lockdown"

Counterpoint. It is the poor that suffer the worst. Full stop. Suffering is only exacerbated by the pandemic. Which class suffers a higher death rate? Which people will die when lockdown ends?

Anonymous said...

You comment as if there isn't a specific context in which the pandemic has happened namely a decade of austerity, outsourcing and NHS privatisation. There is not going to be any "ramping up" of the NHS because that does not make money for Tory donors. It's perfectly legitimate to aim to understand the potential harms of one set of policy decisions within this very clearly defined context.

Blissex said...

«New Zealand and most East Asian states, for example, decided no deaths were a price worth paying for freedom/the economy/whatever, and the pain of a sharp, stringent lockdown was mitigated by a quick return to normalcy.»

Quite to the contrary their non-thatcherite governments decided that the minimal restrictions of a test-trace-isolate public health approach were compatible with *both* greater freedoms *and* much lower death rates, and indeed this was very successful.

It is sad to read such a sterling thatcherite argument from our blogger, entirely within the thatcherite frame of harder/looser general lockdowns fully endorsed by Starmer and Johnson.

«At the other extreme were the Covid kleptocracies of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. For them suffering and death meant nothing as long as they could gesture their peculiar alpha male defiance of the disease.»

Actually in the case of Trump and the USA, things have been quite different from this TDS induced hallucination:

* The death rate per 100,0000 in the USA has been lower than in the UK, Italy, Slovenia, Belgium, Poland, etc, and overall broadly comparable to that of several non-trumpist "neoliberal democracies":
219.30 Belgium
213.41 Argentina
211.70 Italy
211.64 Slovenia
197.74 Poland
192.25 United Kingdom
184.48 United States
174.67 Chile
171.87 Spain
166.01 France

* A large part of the response has depended on state-level, not federal, policy. Some states have tried to adopt test-trace approaches:
“The U.S. Needs More Covid Testing, and Minnesota Has Found a Way Get everybody in an entire state to spit into a tube? You betcha.”

* Regardless, the Trump administration has created a vast vaccine programme that has been quite successful.

I understand that TDS is a work-related illness for academics, but the big deal is not Trump, but the thatcherite approach "stay home, save lives" adopted by them, compared to other countries, 10 times lower death rates per 100,000:

17.63 Finland
14.85 Norway
11.92 Cuba
11.72 Japan
8.03 Iceland

and to the not-thatcherite approach of more civilized countries, death rates 100 times lower than "neoliberal democracies"

3.20 Thailand
2.89 China-Taiwan
0.63 Singapore
0.53 New Zealand
0.35 China
0.09 Vietnam

Blissex said...

Ask yourselves why these statistics are not on the front page of every newspaper every day, and why they are not at the beginning of every discussion about COVID-19 public policy:

211.70 Italy, 197.74 Poland, 192.25 United Kingdom, 184.48 United States, 166.01 France, Sweden 142.25, Switzerland 127.05, Germany 109.95

17.63 Finland, 14.85 Norway, 11.92 Cuba, 11.72 Japan, 8.03 Iceland

3.20 Thailand, 2.89 China-Taiwan, 0.63 Singapore, 0.53 New Zealand, 0.35 China, 0.09 Vietnam

Anonymous said...

I'd be interested if Javid & co could explain exactly how minimal precautions (such as wearing masks in shops and on public transport) are negatively affecting people's mental health? Because that's what we're talking about here: the minimal precautions. Not 'lockdown' because there is no 'lockdown' at this point.

As to when it would make sense to drop such requirements; why not just wait another couple of months until everyone (or at least the vast majority of all age groups) is fully vaccinated? Is that answer so hard to figure out?

And as for the idea that Tory ministers care about our mental health, really?!

Blissex said...

«Ask yourselves why these statistics are not on the front page of every newspaper every day, and why they are not at the beginning of every discussion about COVID-19 public policy»

Another interesting data point is India-Kerala, a state with 35m residents, with a rate of around 30 deaths per 100,000 residents:

That is a state where typical wages are around £100-120 per month, so not exactly a rich place, but still non-thatcherite, unlike so many "neoliberal democracies" with death rates 5-10 times higher. They have a younger population profile, but that is no the major reason for the difference.

Lost Tango said...

Not sure of the argument being made by Blissex. Leaving aside relatively small island nations that were able to run effective quarantine operations, wasn't the response of for instance China very much "stay home, save lives", enforced via an extremely stringent lockdown? Other than that, and factors of luck, it appears that the countries which controlled the pandemic most effectively were simply those that took action most promptly, whatever that action was.

Lost Tango said...

Going forward, it's notable that despite rocketing cases, death rates appear to be remaining low. Hopefully we'll not see a more deadly variant, and "long Covid" will not prove permanent, but if we have a disease that's now no more deadly than influenza, it's difficult to see how serious restrictions can be maintained for much longer. There is already a growing (and considerably underreported) street movement against lockdown, with far right and conspiracist involvement. Eventually restrictions will start to damage the government electorally; probably at least as important to them as rentier income.

Blissex said...

«Leaving aside relatively small island nations that were able to run effective quarantine operations»

It is difficult to take seriously bellowing imbecilities like thinking of Thailand, Korea-south, India-Kerala, Japan, Finland, Vietnam as "small island nations".

«wasn't the response of for instance China very much "stay home, save lives", enforced via an extremely stringent lockdown?»

Do you have any evidence that China-mainland or China-Taiwan ever had a national lockdown that lasted months, or is that yet another bellowing imbecility?
«China, which clamped down on Covid with compulsory mask wearing isolation of the sick, and effective contact tracing. Chinese are blithely eating in restaurants, sitting in theaters, attending school, and going back to work. On Jan. 18 the government reported GDP grew 2.3% in 2020, which makes China the only major economy to to avoid a contraction for the year. Exports helped: they rose 18% in December from a year earlier despite slow demand growth abroad because Chinese exporters grabbed market share from foreign rivals. This year, Bloomberg economics forecasts that China will take advantage of stronger economic growth abroad to realize GDP growth of 8.2%.»
«While the number of UK deaths has entered the hundreds of thousands, New Zealand has recorded only 25 deaths from Covid-19 so far. Taiwan has recorded seven, Australia 909, Finland 655, Norway 550 and Singapore 29. These countries have largely returned to normal daily life. [...]
Countries that managed to effectively contain Sars-CoV-2 implemented screenings of new arrivals and 14-day quarantines for those entering the country. [...]
The second fatal flaw in the UK’s response happened on 12 March, when the government made the fatal decision to stop community testing, abandoning its line of sight over who had the virus and where it was spreading. Community testing is absolutely vital for controlling the virus. This was later resumed, but England outsourced testing and tracing to private firms instead of using local public health capacity.
Isolation – a key part of the test, trace, isolate response – was only ever an afterthought, and there has been little support for people who would struggle to stop working for 14 days. Even now, the majority of people have been refused a discretionary self-isolation payment, while statutory sick pay is a paltry £95.85 a week. By contrast, Finland and Norway offer 100% and 80% of income to people who are self-isolating. The result of the UK’s inadequate support is that many who have tested positive have ended up going into work and infecting others. [...]
«But Wuhan has not had a local coronavirus case since mid-May, and about 9.9 million people in the city have been tested for the virus. There are no bans in place on large gatherings. However, Sanjaya Senanayake, an associate professor in infectious diseases at the Australian National University, said that while a majority of the city's residents had been tested, there was still the risk of the virus being introduced from elsewhere. "The problem is we haven't eradicated Covid-19, and what that means is that as long as its not eradicated, there's still the risk of having it introduced, whether from overseas or elsewhere," he told the BBC.»

Blissex said...

«Do you have any evidence that China-mainland or China-Taiwan ever had a national lockdown that lasted months»

Some more quotes:
«Mark George @MarkDGeorge
Taiwan beat the coronavirus but the threat from its overbearing big brother might make another #MilkTeaAlliance country a better choice. Greetings from Thailand, population 70 million, not an island, <4,000 cases, 60 deaths, no local transmissions in months.

Andrew Cornelio* @andrewcorn
Strange that Thailand is never mentioned in the list of countries that have successfully managed the pandemic. We’re living our lives practically normally now. Masks are mandatory. We haven’t had a local case in over 3 months.
«Upon our plane touching down in TPE, we were immediately placed in two lines: one for folks with a working intl cell phone, one for the rest of us (to buy a very affordable local SIM card.) The government is then able to track us while we are in the country Once through immigration and baggage, we are required to take govt-approved covid-safe cars to our quarantine hotels. (If you are a local, you can self-isolate at home.) No leaving your room (or home) for 15 days. Not for walks- nothing. At the hotel: meals are left outside your door three times a day. There is no contact with anyone. Every day, you get a call from the health department asking if you have any symptoms. If so, they will immediately rush you to the hospital for care. [...] after 15 days, you are free to go. For 7 more days, you are required to check your temperature every morning (they actually gift you a thermometer) and someone calls every day to make sure you're okay.
Because most local citizens have voluntarily signed up for contact tracing (and all of us foreigners are required to opt-in) should a case break out, anyone who was in significant contact would be notified, then required to self-isolate for a number of days. At any point, if you break quarantine - which they can tell by the movements of your phone - you could be fined 10-30k. They are quite serious on this point. Then again, they haven't had a case in 200 days. And everyone has been living their lives freely since February. A note on contact tracing: I'm no expert, and historically a proponent of privacy, but if you have a credit card, or downloaded any number of apps, it seems "they" already have your info. So in a gosh-darn pandemic: sign up for contact tracing!
Again, not an expert. But again: EVERYONE IN TAIWAN HAS BEEN LIVING THEIR LIVES FREELY SINCE FEBRUARY! I mean yes, people voluntarily wear masks in public places, but otherwise, restaurants, subways, etc are packed.
«Daniel Shaw @DanboShaw
The PRC has had a similar centralized quarantine system, as well as contact tracing apps; local infection rates are also down to virtually zero. But since no Western country would want to cite China as an example of what is possible, it's good to use Taiwan...

BCFG said...

Chav is a word that, I think, described a real phenomenon, it was no doubt used disparagingly and was aimed at the lower classes. But it still described a real, actual trend. Namely an utterly feral, obnoxious, loud mouthed, illiterate, ignorant cesspit of debased inhumanity. I believe it was a product of neo liberal politics.

But why am I saying this? Well I think we need a word for the likes of Julia Hartley Brewer, who is the middle class version of this horrific dehumanised excrement. A sort of cross between Marie Antoinette and Joseph Mengele, not in deeds obviously but in morality.

So Chav for the lower orders and maybe Charv for the upper orders.