COVID-19: A political crisis, not an existential crisis for society

by · March 25, 2020

A guest post from Ireland by ALYS ROWE

Ok, I’ve seen enough of my friends calling for the army to be sent onto the streets at this point that I’m just going to say clearly what I think and let the chips fall where they may.

First of all, let’s be clear about what putting the army on the streets actually means. It means that a few weeks down the line we may be reading about the death of some young lad from Tallaght or Ballymun or O’Deavaney Gardens who had his head split open with a rubber bullet for throwing rocks at squaddies trying to impose a curfew or trying to rob a pair of trainers out of a shuttered up shop. And unlike the rest of the deaths that are going to happen over the coming period, that one will be your fault because it will be as a result of measures you agitated for. Because that’s what happens when militaries are employed to control civilians — they kill people. The police, bad as they are, at least are extensively trained to control volatile crowds, and they still manage to maim and kill people from time to time. The army are not, and they will be worse, and people will be hurt, and people might die, and all of the people currently casually propagandising for this outcome will be to blame, because while there is much that is outside of our control here no one is forcing you to do that.

And besides that, it means men with guns are going to be put onto the streets to take away our freedoms and corral us into our homes for god knows how long and with no guarantee of the measures being lifted. Because while it’s absolutely true that “commitment to democracy” might result in the speedy return of our civil rights if this virus is ever contained (big if), it is also true that while we’ve all been obsessing about a virus that has thus far killed a whopping 0.0002 percent of the world’s population (rounding up) the reaction of political states has driven the global economy into a crisis almost certain to be far worse than the crisis of 2008, the kind that threatens the stability of states and brings populations onto the streets to demonstrate and riot.

Absolutely nothing guarantees that the police state currently being rapidly assembled before our eyes will just voluntarily disassemble itself rather than being maintained to enforce the death grip of the failing capitalist system on our lives. Capitalism likes democracy when it effectively ensures the smooth running of business by convincing us (or enough of us) that we’re actually the ones deciding what happens, but that is the extent of capitalist commitment to democracy: when it functions as the more sophisticated means of maintaining the regime of exploitation and the political domination that manages it. Absolutely nothing says the state of emergency doesn’t become permanent as we become habituated to it, and you only need to look at the aftermath of the last mass panic of this kind, 9/11 and the “War on Terror”, to see that that is true.

That economic crisis, by the way, means millions of people will die, just not all at once, spectacularly, of the same thing in the same way, to streams of headlines and our rapt attention, but gradually and invisibly in a thousand different ways over the coming years. As much as I enjoy edgy memes about stonks going down and the like (gallows humour has gotten me through an awful lot) the economy is not (only) an abstraction, it is the means by which we produce the means of our survival and (maybe) thriving, and when it crashes it means mass suffering and death, not just rich people’s share portfolios being wiped out (though also that). And while it’s true that a recession of some kind was inevitable in the near future due to the poor health of the economic system (which is why there’s going to be no bounce back “once this is over”) the depth and extent of the crisis that’s coming was not baked in, but is the effect of the state actions currently playing themselves out which will determine the quality and viability of our lives for years to come.

This was never a question of pulling out all the stops to save as many lives as possible, that’s sentimental bullshit, but of who dies and in what manner and, crucially, with what political consequences. I’d call it irrational (and there’s clearly a level to which panic is driving things) but there’s a cold and cynical calculus to this (on which more later).

The failure of the social distancing policy — i.e. the fact that the entire population isn’t willing to completely abandon their social lives because the government tells them to — does not mean that people are selfish and bad and don’t deserve freedom. It means that the policy is wrong and doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. That the models that purport to show that it’s possible to “flatten the curve” through social distancing are wrong and fail to represent reality. A model of a phenomenon is not a fact about that phenomenon; it’s an idea about how that phenomenon works expressed in an abstract mathematical form. What happens in reality is what tells you whether the model is good or bad. When you start reasoning the other way around and treat some model as a standard against which to test reality and decide things like whether or not human beings deserve freedom then you’re no longer in the realm of science but of ideology. You’re no longer treating the model as a scientific hypothesis that can be right or wrong but as a piece of political philosophy expressing ideas about what would have to be true about human beings in order for them to be allowed their basic freedoms.

The question we should be asking at this point is not whether we are now unworthy of freedom because we have failed to make a bad policy work but why the response to this pandemic relies so heavily on a bad policy with a weak evidence base behind it (a claim I’m making based on a 2011 meta-analysis of non-medical epidemic interventions) that, to be honest, a dog on the street could have told you would not be complied with.

Let’s run a couple of thought experiments.

Imagine you are sitting in a room years out from this with all the world’s health ministers discussing the inevitability of a global pandemic of this nature (because the experts have always been in agreement that it is not a question of “if” but “when”) and the preparations that are necessary for such a scenario and you heard it being said that the central plank of the strategy would be to tell people they weren’t to see their friends for months on end and expect everyone to do it. What would you have said about that idea? And what would you have recommended they do instead? Because there absolutely are policies that could have been implemented that would not rely on attributing miraculous powers to a state PR campaign. If states had prepared for the known inevitability of this situation by stockpiling critical supplies and perhaps employing a larger number of doctors and nurses (working less time individually and enjoying a greater quality of life in ordinary circumstances), backed by PR campaigns centring interventions more strongly indicated by the data like hygiene measures, plus perhaps the possibility of progressive implementation of social distancing as a failsafe, the death rate for clinical cases would be closer to 1 percent (the actual population rate is clearly much lower, though also much higher than the flu). The mortality rates of 4-6 percent in some countries are entirely down to the failure of states to adequately prepare for this inevitability, not the characteristics of the virus, and express precisely the difference between what we are currently being told about how motivated the state is to preserve our lives and what is actually true.

Now imagine you’re a senior politician who’s facing down an imminent pandemic that you know you haven’t prepared for and that will result in a level of avoidable death that will cause a legitimation crisis for your regime and you know you will likely have to resort to authoritarian measures in order to cover for your own mistake and look like you’re willing to do whatever it takes to protect people by dramatically “pulling out all the stops” to get the numbers down. You know if you came straight out and said “everyone has to lock themselves in their homes for months because I fucked up and if you don’t we’ll send in the army to force you to do so” you’d be fucked, but you want to essentially do that but call it scientifically-backed medical policy and you’re wondering if you can foreground an intervention strategy that would have essentially that effect. What would such a policy have to do in the population? Wouldn’t a good candidate be a measure that involves bombarding people with messaging that effectively says that they are individually responsible for the deaths that you caused, and that causes people to direct their fear into obsessively monitoring the behaviour of others against a standard that there’s no way in hell they’re ever going to meet until they conclude that human beings don’t actually care about one another and need to be forced in some way to do the right thing?

I’m not saying the social distancing policy is secretly a propaganda campaign aimed at getting the army out. I’m sure Leo Varadkar and every other world leader is desperately hoping they can avoid that outcome. But I am saying if your aim were to get the population to somehow convert their instincts for compassion and solidarity into clamour for a police state you could hardly have chosen better. And I am saying that the mentality that has built up around this and through which many people seem to be doing their reasoning is the product of being continuously and monotonously bombarded with messaging that does have precisely that effect —¬ that the supposedly neutral medical advice that is being continuously pumped out does contain an implicit ideological message about who is responsible for this and what a good person looks like and what is a reasonable burden for a state to impose on its population.

If you weren’t being panicked and made to constantly feel like your every least action could lead to the death of millions of people and everyone you love and maybe yourself, if you were sitting in a lecture room listening to a political philosophy professor say that if a state can’t get basically its entire population to voluntarily lock themselves away from everyone they know and everything they like to do for weeks (or months) on end in the event that there’s a new severe flu-like illness in order that for the rest of the time the state doesn’t have to invest in the healthcare system beyond what’s necessary to run it on a shoestring that means the people are weak and stupid and bad and the state should send out people with guns to force them to do it because they don’t really deserve their freedoms anyway, would you say, “Yeah, that sounds reasonable”? Or would you say, “Why the fuck is that the policy?”

To be clear: I’m not advocating that people stop trying to implement social distancing. I think — given that this is the situation we’re in — we should, by ourselves as free and mutually-responsible people, make a reasonable effort to limit the damage for a limited period of time, because I do think, as a general moral principle, we have some kind of responsibility to compensate for the failings of our states in order to protect one another’s lives.

But that responsibility stops at the point that people want to start pointing guns at us in order to force us into our homes. It’s not the responsibility of random teenagers in the park to prevent a pandemic. The state does not have a right to a population that will spontaneously comply with whatever mad, self-destructive, anti-social thing it demands of us, and it does not have the right to turn our homes into prisons if it doesn’t get one. I mean, we have precious little agency over whether or not that happens, but the least we can do, as a matter of solidarity, and responsibility, and mutual defence from the convulsions of a state in panic is not to fan the flames while that still makes some kind of difference to what happens.

Spain’s military has been mobilised to enforce “social distancing”

Keep in mind: China did not suppress the virus with social distancing, they did it by barricading people inside their homes and hauling them off to concentration camps. (For anyone who thinks I’m being hysterical: a concentration camp is not an extermination camp, it was not invented by the Nazis, it means a camp where a state forcibly concentrates some portion of the population; a refugee camp is a concentration camp, the immigrant detention centres in the United States are concentration camps, and a quarantine camp is a concentration camp. They are not only dangerous when there’s a Hitler in power, but because they represent human beings at the highest degree of powerlessness in relation to the state and its functionaries. Any version that will ever be implemented will be rife with violence and sexual abuse at a minimum.)

The United States is already building, or has built by now, its own such camps, lest anyone think that’s merely a feature of Chinese authoritarianism that couldn’t be replicated in Western contexts. It remains to be seen whether European states will follow suit. It may be the case that European politics is sufficiently different that states wouldn’t countenance such measures, or that our health systems are sufficiently strong that it won’t reach that point, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

And in any case, who’s to stop them? The population that’s trapped in their homes with no ability to assemble in the streets, and which is, in any case, by this point so terrified and convinced of its own unworthiness that it’s willingly egged on that state of affairs? We don’t know where this goes once the state has already committed to widescale repression, but the political calculus of that situation is such that once that line is crossed they’re likely to just keep doubling down because the political regime that locks us in our homes and fails to suppress the virus by doing it is absolutely finished and they’ll know this. Once you’re that far down the road you have to come out the other end at least being able to say the measure worked, and that’s a logic that leads to piling repression upon repression.

So: whoever it is you’re worried about dying a horrible death in an overwhelmed ICU, you need to also picture that person being forced into some dreadful camp and balance those two risks against one-another before you speak.

This is not happening due to humanitarian concerns among our leaders and it is not happening due to the objective threat posed by the virus. It’s happening because the pandemic is going to kill a sufficiently large proportion of a politically significant sector of the population and show up the failures of states to adequately prepare for a predictable threat, and so will threaten the legitimacy not only of the particular parties currently in government but the form of governance they represent. Unlike all the other rolling humanitarian crises we just accept as a feature of life because they happen to people who don’t matter politically, this one is new, and happening all at once, and everyone’s paying attention, and affecting the kind of people the state is supposed to be for. And it’s revealing what it means to run a social service like healthcare on market principles of efficiency; i.e. constantly near capacity with little to no surplus capacity for dealing with unpredictable but expected surges of this kind. Rather than allow the story to be that neoliberalised healthcare means that many people will die unnecessarily in a pandemic because the hospitals that are perpetually almost in crisis as a matter of policy can’t take the strain, the story is one of national emergency, a deadly virus, strong leadership, extraordinary times, robust measures.

And so, we all have to panic and have our lives suspended in limbo like everyone’s about to die when they just aren’t. The projections I’ve found, which are highly speculative as the key facts about this illness are not known, put the number of people expected to die worldwide from this this year somewhere between the number who will die from stroke and the number who will die from heart disease, the two biggest killers annually, or slightly higher. That’s a bad thing, and tragic, but not something that requires the army on the streets by a long way, nor something that really justifies an extended shutdown of social and economic life beyond perhaps giving them fair go at containing the disease to the point that it goes away entirely, which is definitely not going to happen now that it’s everywhere, and particularly given that it’s made its way to poorly-resourced and badly-organised states that stand zero chance of achieving containment.

“Millions will die!” and “a flu-like illness will kill a comparable number of people to heart disease this year” are two equally valid descriptions of precisely the same fact about this virus but give wildly different senses of the imperatives that follow from it. This is a crisis of the health system and a political crisis for those in power, but it is not an existential crisis for the population. This is not a situation that shows that in some ultimate sense when the chips are really down the state is there to protect us from harm, it’s a situation that demonstrates the irrationality and cynicism and capriciousness of political states that will attack their populations and treat our lives as inconsequential stuff to be thrown about according to their whim. As evidenced clearly by the willingness of the Italian authorities to deny the dead from this virus the dignity of a proper burial with no fucking justification whatsoever.

It’s easy to get the impression that the coronavirus is the only thing that’s happening in the world, or the only thing that matters, given the way we are being bombarded with information about it, and given that the entirety of public social and economic life has presently been subordinated to it. But it isn’t. And it’s understandable to see stories of people dying and grieving loved ones going through terrible heartache and trauma, and to connect it to your own loved ones and to spiral into a headspace where nothing else matters and everything is acceptable to avoid the horror of their death. If anyone I loved were to die from this or any other cause it would be the only fact in the universe and I would absolutely sacrifice millions of peoples quality of life and freedoms to prevent it, if that were a thing that it was actually possible to do. But that’s because there’s something fundamentally anti-social about loving another person. You raise them above general society so that they, and their life and happiness become a unique and precious and incomparable good. The problem is when everyone’s doing that about the exact same thing and the political sphere is feeding off it, all sorts of destructive and dangerous measures become possible.

There’s a thought experiment about AI, about what it would take to write an AI that could wipe out humanity. It’s called a “paperclip maximiser”, and the idea is that it doesn’t have to be written for a purpose that is overtly evil. All it takes is for it to try to carry out some seemingly innocuous command like “make as many paperclips as possible” with insufficiently defined boundaries and to be connected to enough power to do what it wants, and it will wipe out humanity by turning everything in the world into paperclips. That’s like what’s happening here. It’s like a runaway algorithm has taken control of the world and all anything is about now is keeping one number as low as possible no matter the cost.

No, we absolutely should not bring in the army to keep the coronavirus death tolls as low as possible because it’s not a big enough threat to warrant it. No, we should not, as some people are suggesting, keep everything locked down for months or in waves for years, because it also matters whether we get to live our lives or not. We absolutely should not do everything it is possible to do to make sure as few people die of coronavirus as possible because that’s an inferno of madness that will consume everything else in the world that matters. More people are going to die than usual this year, and flu season is probably going to become more dangerous for the sick and elderly and that’s just that and we can’t remain morbidly obsessed with it with everything shut forever.

Like, if we don’t care about what it’s like to be alive why do we care if people die? Seriously. Isn’t what’s good about life, and what’s tragic about it having to end, that it contains the possibility of joy and love and friendship and connection and fun and adventure and exploration and experience? In other words that there is freedom, a freedom to give life content and meaning, to do things with it.

It is terrible that people will die, but is it not also terrible that everyone who will die between now and the time these measures are lifted will have all of that stolen from them? At a certain point, isn’t this just piling a crime on top of a tragedy? That not only are people to die, but they are to be forced to spend the remainder of their lives trapped in their homes trying to avoid death whether they want to or not, because we have decided that all that matters about their lives is that they are not dead? How many of the sick and elderly would rather take their chances and live their lives, and are their lives not theirs to risk?

And do we all not, at a certain point, get to say that a terrible thing is happening, and it is sad, but we have done enough, and we want our lives back?

Alys Rowe is a writer from Dublin, Ireland. A version of this post originally appeared on Facebook.

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Discussion2 Comments

  1. Indescript says:

    Are there really mass calls for martial law and the expansion of the police state outside of random panicky people on social media? All the organized left groups I know are calling for a combination of direct action to help the vulnerable, and arm-twisting the government to support workers in the wake of the now-inevitable economic downturn. And I’m seeing plenty of public outcry against both private and public surveillance measures that are creeping forward as a result of this pandemic.

    Asserting that social distancing and travel bans/quarantines are a “failure” without evidence is also a little absurd. This is a novel disease, all we have are models! The concern is not simply that “more people will die this year,” but that waves of sick people will overwhelm the already-threadbare health services, leading to even more suffering and deaths as healthcare workers are out sick and no beds are available for those with other medical problems. Every medical professional I’ve seen interviewed has denounced Boris Johnson-style “herd immunity” schemes as dangerous given the potential for the virus to mutate or reinfect people, consigning even more people to infection while putting even more strain on hospitals and medical supplies.

    And how exactly are working people supposed to prevent a militarized state response to the crisis, when they could do nothing about the inaction and under-funding that caused this crisis in the first place? How are working people simultaneously incapable of obeying social distancing and quarantines, but also supposedly able to perform the social care needed to protect the vulnerable, independently of the state, while also staying at work to keep the economy from crumbling? This is a very confused set of arguments, especially coming from a publication which keeps driving home the lack of an organized social base among the working class, and the anti-democratic disconnect between workers and the elite party-states that claim to represent them.

    • Alys Rowe says:

      Thanks for your comment.

      So, the story of this post is that it was written for Facebook, and directed towards the people in the specific milieu of Irish anarchists and other left-wing activists that populate my FB friendslist, and whoever else happened to see it through shares. It got a bigger and more positive reaction than I’d anticipated, and a number of people expressed the view that it ought to be published in order to be seen more widely. Left-Flank offered to do this and I agreed.

      I’m not a Left-Flank person, and while I am coming to see a lot of value in the “collapse of social bases” analysis of contemporary politics, it is not my framework, and I think it was published here more due to affinity between outlooks than a shared outlook.

      I’m not making any claims about the general level of support for militarised lockdowns in Ireland, I’m addressing a particular audience and responding to the kind of ideas being expressed among that audience, which involved a lot of “I’ve lost my faith in people, we’ll need the army on the streets at this rate” kind of declarations.

      The failure of social distancing I’m addressing, then, is first and foremost its failure in the perceptions of particular others, i.e. the observation of others “not taking it seriously” and persisting as normal that anecdotally seems to be the experience everywhere with this. Besides that, I mean clearly social distancing must do /something/ to reduce the replication rate of the virus, but the claims being made for it by authorities are very strong. We’re being told that populations can be reasonably expected to artificially cause the epidemic to peak and decline well before its natural peak, and there is currently, so far as I’m aware, no example of this occurring, but numerous examples of it failing and states preceding to militarised lockdowns (though there’s an ambiguity in the term ‘social distancing’, since it would seem to imply voluntariness, but a population under lockdown is ‘social distancing’in a sense). And what I’m encouraging people to think about is whether propaganda from authorities has been putting forward a reasonable-sounding idea about how the population ought to respond to the pandemic that is in reality not reasonable, essentially bound to fail, but effective at ‘manufacturing consent’ for the suspension of civil liberties. For instance, this graphic produced by the Health Services Executive in Ireland, as I describe at the link, expresses an idea about what the Irish population is going to do through social distancing and other means that is clearly fantastical, and one has to suspect that it was produced by people who do not seriously believe in the truth of the idea they are representing. Link: https://tinyurl.com/vwm9sdn

      In terms of the ‘what is to be done’ question, I have not made any claims about populations having strong agency over the course of this. Quite the opposite, and my prescriptions in this regard have been negative ones like “at least don’t fan the flames”.

      I don’t know what we’re to do. But I do think disconnecting from the panic mentality, and reconnecting with our previously held intuitions about how the world works and the rights and freedoms we ought to have is a prerequisite of being able to do anything at all.

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