On Covid Subjectivities: Some Thoughts

Following on from Matt’s critique of the covid libertarian streak[1] seen on social media or aptly demonstrated during anti-lockdown protests in the US, the nature of these protests, the response to them, and the wider institutional response to coronavirus displays both the inadequacy of the libertarian subject as a means to understanding how to respond to the challenges of the pandemic, and the innate institutional stupidities which put their responses rightly within the firing line.

“This is how conservatives implement their own subjugation, by insisting on the sanctity of the enclosed system’s bounds, insisting that capitalism is all there is”. The impotence of anti-lockdown protests is caught precisely here, in the desire to return to a base capitalist normality that is shorn of the critiques the pandemic has raised. Coronavirus has entirely exposed the debt-laden, consumption-reliant economy as a box of tinder waiting for a spark. If it hadn’t been coronavirus, the bubble-like build-up of asset prices combined with near-zero interest rates would have developed dynamics similar to those in the 2008 financial crisis, as junk bonds and securities (guaranteed by central bank QE) proliferated. The below-zero oil prices and the winding down of high streets presage and extend the kind of consumption habits that have been prevailing (rightly or wrongly) for the past decade and which will continue as climate change affects the viability of long-distance supply chains (of which out-of-town and high street retailers are reliant upon) and limits personal travel.

However the enforcement of lockdowns has destroyed and curtailed most small businesses in the personal health, personal care and retail industries, furthering the predominance of retailers like Wal-Mart and Amazon, as well as increasing the reliance upon products from Microsoft and Google[2]. Community businesses are forced to close without adequate compensation, and here the anti-lockdown protestors have a point. There is an extremely limited choice being presented between which type of capitalism is preferred, one with some small businesses or one entirely monopolised by platform companies and scalable logistics. And here is the limit of the libertarian subject, prefiguring a reality where one or another form of business ontology prevails. However the institutional subject is no better either.

“The Covid crisis is otherwise defined by a distinct lack of institutional control”. When it comes to overt actionability by medical authorities and governments, the type of control seen has been truly panoptic in that its illusory, reliant upon a weak narrativisation. The coronavirus is mediatised, with public reaction shaped by news and social media to the extent that emotional narratives and institutional lies combine to inform how people should react to the pandemic. The kind of bullshit promulgated around the efficacy of masks or the potential dangers of leaving one’s home have refracted institutional knowledge, showing its reliance on epistemic biases[3] and unleashing petty authoritarianism (as with police reactions to people walking in parks or beauty spots or the desire to snitch on neighbours who may be breaking the “rules”). It allows for the promotion of emotive nonsense that neither relies upon evidence[4] nor informs people on how to act[5].

This all reveals the poverty of the individual vs. state dichotomy inherent within libertarianism. But this dichotomy also comes out in these fragmentary institutional narratives. As per the YouGov polling Matt cites, the majority of the public (and a substantial majority of Conservative voters) blame individual action for the spreading of coronavirus rather than the government. However this is as meaningless a distinction as that between individual and state. And it presents the same framing as those opposed to covid restrictions i.e. that we are dealing with a flu-like disease. Those who are anti-lockdown compare coronavirus to the flu, seeing it as a virus primarily effecting the old or infirm (of which there is some truth), while those who are pro-restrictions see a more deadly, more transmissible flu[6]. However the actual nature of the virus is that it spreads stochastically, particularly in its early phases of transmission[7]. Symptomaticity is dependent on viral load, and asymptomatic spread (while unlikely with transmission rates between 0-2.8%) is possible. Thus the strong potential for superspreader events as a major vector for transmission, as seen in South Korea where one woman created a viral chain of hundreds of infections by attending a megachurch service. This then stochasticises the pandemic response, as governments always remain reactive, with policy being contingent. Policy responses themselves are contextual to a nation’s culture, potential transmissibility and demographics, as with Sweden[8] and Japan[9].

This stochastic nature sidelines both the libertarian and the institutional subject, with the emergence of a viral subject of pure critique that unsettles the ontology of these subjectivities into the ontic of reality. This makes it both integrable into these increasingly unstable subjectivities (as with the culture war dynamics of pro vs. anti-maskers) but that also moves beyond them as it increases their instability. This also raises the question of what lies beyond the pandemic response in a so-called post-covid world. Difficult questions portend inadequate answers as the pandemic responses have been both impotent and authoritarian, whether through the intensive track-and-trace of Japan, the curtailment of basic liberties in Australia, or the lack of hospital capacity in the West, they all suggest the ratcheting up of government power that, as per Robert Higgs[10], is exceedingly difficult to claw back. But then neither is a return to a business ontology (either premised on small business populism or corporate monopoly) truly feasible without significant reform that will come through some form of governance (whether that be state-led, platform-led or locally-led). The viral cracking of the ground of subjectivity has opened up chasms with no clear options.

[1] https://xenogothic.com/2020/12/22/against-covid-libertarianism/

[2] https://greenwald.substack.com/p/the-threat-of-authoritarianism-in

[3] https://wmbriggs.com/post/34040/

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-55496640

[5] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-55370823

[6] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/coronavirus-infections-symptoms-flu-doctor-dispatches-a9419146.html

[7] Muge Cevik, Julia L. Marcus, Caroline Buckee & Tara C. Smith, SARS-CoV-2 Transmission Dynamics Should Inform Policy

[8] https://necpluribusimpar.net/why-did-more-people-die-of-covid-19-in-sweden-than-in-other-nordic-countries-it-probably-had-little-to-do-with-policy/

[9] https://www.japanpolicyforum.jp/diplomacy/pt20200605162619.html

[10] Robert Higgs, Crisis & Leviathan

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