On the Limits of Simplicity: Coronavirus and Libertarianism

Following from Adam’s critique[1] of Matt’s post against covid libertarianism[2], and then Matt’s critique of the critique[3], I want to add some further clarifications and provocations to the mix. I find myself positioned between both Adam’s and Matt’s points, agreeing with both to some measure while also seeing some limitations that can be built out from.

“We come out of this pandemic ruled by more muscular governments, confident in their restrictive powers, prepared to suspend basic freedoms in times of crisis and setting a worrying precedent for what statist horrors await us in the rest of this post-liberal century”. The central issue regarding the ratchet effect that comes from coronavirus restrictions is important and is too often ignored as governments and media present the fight against coronavirus as a war mobilisation. This presents little room for critique or questioning as the implicit assumption is that the problem of coronavirus is so vast that we can do little but fight, no matter how futilely or deficiently.

Indeed one of the most important problems that arises from the effects of lockdowns and the presupposition of a post-covid world is the ontological stratifications embedded within it. As the world moves toward greater meta-systematicity or meta-perspectivism[4], it inheres a greater nomadicity in the way people relate to each other (with other not just denoting individuals but also institutions, nations, organisations and posthuman agencies). This takes us beyond both the communal and systematic lenses that Chapman has described[5], which themselves produce stratifications bared out in impotent culture war dynamics and postmodern populisms. The post-covid world in its contradictory values of restrictive atomism and collective unity (both to fight the virus) then presents a meta-systematic framework that gears itself through greater telematics (the furthering of an online world), greater surveillance (temperature checks, health passports, vaccine records) and greater risk aversion (with lockdowns being seen as a potential tonic to climate change[6] and flu deaths[7]).

However the very nature of this critique shows the limits of libertarianism in its understanding of the state, governance and freedom. Can there really be any brake on this developing meta-systematic being, and can the subject of a simplistic individualism accomplish anything more than, as Matt says, “screaming about the wrong issues”? I’m not trying to engender an historical telos surrounding these different concepts of being that Chapman elucidates, but instead show that being and its associated ideas of the individual are not settled matters upon which the configuring of institutions simply plays out. Indeed in invoking the molecular are we not invoking the very grounds upon which being and becoming transvalue between themselves, auguring new subjectivities. This also extends toward an understanding of the state and governance themselves, as the libertarian critique of them is shown to be inadequate. In mentioning Higgs’ ratchet effect as Adam does, we can both see the potential for exponential growth in governmental power, while also missing the very multiplicity of that power.

Higgs, in making the case for the ratchet effect, notes the difference in governmental responses to the 1893 financial crisis and the Great Depression. In the former, the Cleveland administration decided against intervening in labour disputes except where they interfered with the commerce clause, refused to devalue the dollar against gold, and maintained a limited government perspective in the face of the populist movement. In the latter, on the back of the ratcheting up of government power seen during World War I, the government invoked emergency powers to intervene in labour disputes and control vast elements of national production so as to maintain employment levels and prevent a deflationary spiral of decreasing wages and decreasing prices.

But in spelling out this narrative, Higgs shows the naïve assumptions of libertarianism. The first being that Higgs assumes that as Cleveland limited national governance to its constitutional bounds, it therefore was predicated on some kind of proto-libertarian ethos. The only way this makes sense is if you ignore the infrastructural subsidies and land clearances afforded to railway and telegraph companies during the mid-to-late 19th century which themselves relied on reinterpretations of the commerce clause and other constitutional edicts regarding the limitation of governmental power.

The other assumption is the unitary power and administration of the state. As Higgs noted when discussing Cleveland’s lack of desire to intervene in the labour disputes around railroad contracts and wage rates, he actually had the power to do so. Thus in this sense the ratchet effect Higgs describes emerging from the effects of the First World War isn’t so much one of emergence as one of positioning i.e. the positioning of ideologies and elites is itself built up by the power already afforded. This isn’t emergence but rather potentiality, which was exploited by Wilson and FDR during the world wars and Great Depression. Crises don’t simply produce power. Rather they transfigure the existing value field, allowing new actors or agencies to exploit the power that already potentially existed. This then limits the libertarian critique, as it becomes an ideology of ‘what could have been’ or ‘if it weren’t for x then y wouldn’t have happened’. The power of the exception is always there. A similar limitation concerns anarchist philosophy, in that they decry the very powers and agencies they must reckon with if they are to gain a foothold. Simply seeing the state as a unitary monolith ignores the very elements that exist beneath it[8], within it[9] and beyond it[10], creating grounds for exploitation and opposition. Lockdowns as an element of governmental power exist and must be understood as well as critiqued. Simply saying it limits freedom is meaningless as the very nature of our currently-existing freedom is being unravelled by the viral subject.

This very issue of failing to see beyond the existing moment is also what limits Agamben’s critique of the lockdowns. He posits an emotive response against restrictions, suggesting that by limiting face-to-face contact we empower a state of exception that furthers restrictive biopolitical-technocratic power. Regarding masks, he sees them as limiting the ability to emotionally connect to each other, as without the ability to see each other’s face we lose an inherently human connection. I agree with this to an extent, but then this is a criticism that can be levelled at societal dynamics that predate covid, including urban agglomeration, the growth of telematics and social media, the loss of community in neoliberal governance (as documented by Putnam) and the loss of connective tissue institutions in political parties and social institutions in favour of technocratic governance (as described by Mair). The past that Agamben wants to return to was dead long before covid. Again we are faced with an impotent conservatism that sees a power (as represented through lockdowns) that can only be opposed in its entirety, and so for all intents and purposes may as well not be opposed at all. This then is just a continuation of the failures of the libertarian critique, always staring at the past with a blissful eye and failing to see the heterotopic potentiality that crisis events unfold.

Even going beyond these abstract positions, I don’t understand what the anti-lockdown crowd really want. They suggest an alternative to the lockdowns would be to allow those who are young and without pre-existing medical conditions to live their lives as normal and make sure the elderly and vulnerable are protected. But in producing these protections, they would naturally increase the power and extent of government intrusion as it would require an extensive track and trace system (so that those asymptomatic don’t interact with the vulnerable) and the implementation of buffers between healthy and unhealthy that a libertarian would find untenable. Even when they suggest existing alternative models they ignore the underlying context. Sweden is one alternative, a society already extremely atomised demographically with a high proportion of single-person households whose extent of government intrusion (around public health and education) is significantly greater than that in the UK or USA. In reality, the nature of the viral agent is that it follows the peaks and troughs both of seasonality and of the culture of governance found in each context. In the UK we see it latch onto a governance structure reliant on donor lobbying, fragmented social care, and endemic undercapacity in healthcare. In Japan it latches onto an authoritarian culture that can implement an extensive track and trace system. In the USA it latches onto a highly stratified structure of local, state and national governance, with bureaucratic power as partisan as its political parties. There is nothing here, whether in theory or reality, that suggests the viability of the simplistic individualism inherent in libertarianism. Even if the virus were allowed to let rip across populations, this would engender ontological stratifications regarding how we treat old age populations or how we structure healthcare systems, requiring a new relation with death.

“We should be getting ready for what comes next”. “Rather than pondering this question with hope for a better future, the right seems to be insisting on a conservative self-harm that preserves suddenly outdated forms of social organising”. I agree on both counts with Matt. However I don’t see much in the way of post-covid speculations that are either viable or desirable. Of course that is entirely subjective on my part but while the libertarian critique of covid realities is impotent, lockdowns and other restrictions cannot be seen as long-term solutions either. Difficult questions regarding living with the virus and reforms to commercial and social activities need to be answered, and there doesn’t seem to be any left-wing answer to this as of yet. The institutional powers of the UK Labour Party and US Democratic Party seem to be more of the same, more lockdowns, more mask-wearing and in some sections, zero-covid. The viability of these answers is as limited as those of the libertarian critique unless they really do mean a lockdown along the lines of China, which neither politicians nor the public seem willing to stomach.

Matt suggests the BLM protests during the summer are one such route for post-covid potentiality, both subverting surveillance and limiting viral transmission. There may be something there but my criticisms would be whether they can escape the petty culture war dynamics elements are engaged in (as with the clashes in Portland or during US Election Night) and whether they may not devolve into an HR politics of petty behaviour policing that is fully integrable with capital. Whatever the case, the viral subject of critique that coronavirus is presents fields of potentiality for post-covid speculations, being both heterotopic but also orthodox in the questions and answer it portends. The simplicity of subjectivity, whether it be that of libertarianism or that of public health orthodoxy, is not tenable except as petty critiques that look backwards.

[1] https://cybertrophic.wordpress.com/2021/01/04/covid-the-shadow-of-despotic-biopolitics/

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

[3] https://xenogothic.com/2021/01/05/the-individual-presupposes-the-collective-covid-libertarianism-and-molecular-freedom/

[4] https://thelibertarianideal.com/2019/08/11/fields-of-potentiality-part-3-patchwork-and-institutional-oceanography/

[5] https://meaningness.com/communal-vs-systematic-politics

[6] https://americanmind.org/salvo/democratic-civil-war/

[7] https://www.ft.com/content/3ba60e3d-43e3-4419-977c-0e255c7b0049

[8] https://thelibertarianideal.com/2018/08/24/the-hobbesian-jungle-over-leviathan/

[9] https://www.urbanomic.com/document/leviathan-rots/

[10] https://thelibertarianideal.com/2020/12/23/collapse-patchworks-a-theory/

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