Post-COVID Dispositions

Crises present the mechanism through which new dispositions, new discourses can be established and expand. Inverting societal dynamics and opening up established power to challenge allows for the multitude of potentialities to overwhelm the governance of ordered multiplicities, upending the “small acts of cunning endowed with a great power of diffusion, subtle arrangements, apparently innocent, but profoundly suspicious, mechanism that obeyed economies too shameful to be acknowledged, or pursued petty forms of coercion”[1]. However, by their very nature, the subtlety and microscopic scope of these various elements means they are adaptable, making the crisis double-edged in that it both cracks the ground of established power while allowing dynamics attenuated to that power to fill them in. The power of dispositions is in their fluidity. Crisis is the ground for this fluidity, bending and reshaping dynamics for further dispositionality.

The COVID crisis is like any other crisis in that it opens up power to questioning, making transparent what were administrative matters and actuarial backlogs. The economy has been displaced as the primary variable of governance as spending has been ramped up to wartime levels with controls on rent and payments. However, the subtle art of power has moved from an economistic basis of power to a medical one, forming around a medical totality a new regime of accumulation with associated mechanisms of control – controls of movement based around virology rather than labour markets; profit via pharmacology rather than finance; health bureaucracies superseding central banks. The emergence of this medical disposition has closed pathways from this crisis, whereupon a virus the product of globalisation and agro-industrial expansion is made the start point from which these continue to expand. From a molecular freedom that can inhere new subjectivities, a unitary disposition is pushed with new mechanisms of power replacing the old.

We are not seeing the development of a molecular freedom from the COVID crisis, but a molar imposition through centralised fragility and strict enforcement (in the form of mandates, lockdowns and digitalisation). The current strategy of focusing almost exclusively on vaccination as the way out of this pandemic, combining it with lockdowns and restrictions, is a good example of putting all your eggs in one basket. As the leakiness of these vaccines becomes apparent[2] (“the false promise of very high protection against ‘symptomatic infection’, found during official vaccine trials, was simply based on very high short-term serum antibody levels mimicking mucosal immunity”[3]) with quick antibody drop off and the inability to penetrate the immune weaknesses of vulnerable populations, the lack of serious investigation into viral treatments[4], increased hospital (and ICU) capacity, and alternatives to ventilator intubation presents future fragilities that allow for pandemic conditions to re-occur, maintaining justifications for extraordinary powers when the real issue is with government mismanagement in the first place.

In searching for a post-COVID disposition that provides greater anti-fragility and multiple pathways for communities/societies to maintain hospital services while maintaining basic freedoms, a maintained scepticism toward established powers/authorities must remain unless we fall into the trap of building vast infrastructures that provide meaningless data (as in the form of the UK’s pingdemic and the framing of COVID cases as the primary metric) and allow for the preservation of a bio-security totality that grows beyond the capacity to either question or fully understand it. In preserving a molecular freedom, the implementation of centralised, unitary solutions increases the risk of failure and puts the issue of medical data and choice as one of central determination (as through a lockdown or a vaccine passport). A health system is more than just medical expertise. It is an assemblage of negotiations and choices that at heart require a governmental imperative to provide a basic level of care, involving the patient or user at every step when it comes to the provision of treatments and the limitations of particular freedoms. Where healthcare systems grow beyond these means, developing autonomous facets that make them increasingly illegible and filter them through methods of “expertise” that produces political outcomes, the requirement for scepticism and (partial) deconstruction becomes paramount.

This is not to say that things like vaccines or pharmaceuticals are inherently bad. Memes about decentralised, community-based vaccine production labs may have some purchase with simplistic ideologies, but the wider issue of delineating the positives from the negatives when it comes to actions and policies of pharmaceutical companies and medical treatments cannot just be ignored because a few pharmaceutical companies, whose business models are reliant upon the expropriation of genetic codes and RNA profiles through strict intellectual property regimes and vast interconnections with various industrial complexes[5], made calculated decisions to be “charitable” and produce vaccines at cost. Such charity certainly comes at a price when developing nations cannot develop production facilities or produce vaccine variants due to the stringent patents these companies now hold on the formulas. Katharina Pistor notes how capital is coded through the machinations of various legal systems, producing legal innovations which retrofit onto financial and R&D innovations, providing them legal legitimacy while producing profit margins that squeeze productive wealth and inflate assets[6]. This code of capital is something that must be translated and deconstructed if it is to become questioned and delegitimised as an expert field beyond plebeian inquiry. The same must happen for the codes of medicine, questioning their infallibility and the unitarity of medical solutions, and the codes of other platforms and bureaucracies that distribute resources and produce choice architectures, creating interactive interfaces while leaving the rest of their stack unquestioned or ubiquitous.

If we take Bratton’s position regarding a post-COVID settlement, we see such a molar imposition of vulgar expertise and the extension of a post-politics through an immunological commons opposed to the medical scepticism and multitudinous critique (molecularity over molarity) I describe. Bratton posits that COVID is the biological real staring back upon us, opening up a chasm in the narratives of individualisation and demonstrating the naivety of anti-scientific and sceptical discourses. Such a real comes as a deathblow to the simplistic politics of populism and other institutional critiques that are anti-totality in their dispositions. Instead, a positive biopolitics shows itself as the primary vector to challenge dogmas and establish greater mechanisms of governance. Centred around big data, logistics and automation, such a system is best placed to control the flows of the viral real, having within its grasp a sufficient knowledge to counteract the stochastic spread of coronavirus and limit the spread of populism too via the distribution of resources and knowledge outside the constitution of a neutered demos. “In addition to the right to reasonable privacy there is also a right and responsibility to be counted. For post-pandemic biopolitics, inclusivity is essential. As said, equitable systems depend on the accuracy of models because the risk is always collective”[7].

What real is Bratton actually tackling? It is not the Lacanian real, a reflection of the madness and contingency beneath the façade of constructed realities and encoded symbols. This “cruel and insatiable agency”[8] is not the black swan Bratton seems to suggest, but the very elision of the logistical globalisation Bratton in places praises. The original vector for the virus was agro-industrial expansion in China, before moving through airport terminals, customs offices and cargo ships and onto supermarkets, shopping centres and public transport. The virus is itself a logistical by-product of globalised flows (of commerce, supply lines and tourism). And in Bratton conceiving a positive biopolitics, an immunological commons, he is constructing another symbolic order that cannot contain or understand its obverse.

The real of the virus, its capacity to complicate and make ungovernable, is as present in Bratton’s schema as any other. The reliance on big data inputs and logistical relays (moved away from unnecessary consumption to equitable programmes of global distribution of course) are as open to sabotage, oversights and gaming as the existing structures. The anti-vaxxers (“a sadly familiar coalition of the uninformed, the misinformed, the misguided, and the misanthropic”) who are supposedly making vaccine passports necessary[9] will always remain (and only represent one form of scepticism toward medical authority which cascades much wider than this group). Unless Bratton proposes killing them or limiting their freedom through extreme measures I don’t know what he expects a data-driven immunological commons to achieve as they (or some other scapegoat or intransigent multitude) will always remain as bottlenecks to any system of governance. For all his talk of equity, Bratton’s system resembles a Schmittian technocracy, incapable of tolerance to those outside its ontological purview.

Discussion around the right to be counted demonstrates this acutely, as this is an undefined variable. Bratton nominally positions it as a diagnostic tool, allowing excluded communities to be included in medical apparatuses. However, the possibility for externalities and corruption are never ceded, instead recreating a utopian discourse around the power of surveillance. The issue, though, isn’t a simple dichotomy of medical surveillance versus medical ignorance, but rather the type and kinds of surveillance required to maintain a balance between viral propagation and basic freedoms. The idea of molecularity is the lynchpin between individual subjectivities and their collective interactions[10]. One cannot be ignored without the other, but whether in discourses of neoliberal individualism or the molar imposition of medical tyranny, there are attempts to emplace one side or the other – either a crude libertarianism or a technocratic collectivism.

In contrast, as Agamben notes regarding anti-terrorism efforts and the security culture that developed, “maybe the time has come to work towards the prevention of disorder and catastrophe, not merely towards their control”[11]. Towards the development of systems structured around greater experimentation and granularity, that link together but also break apart, thus mirroring the discursive power of other dispositions while allowing for exits and sidelines that increase resilience and limit the possibility for centralised impositions and totalising narratives. Toward pragmatic exits and general scepticism rather than the molar impositions of discursive power. Instead of governing structures that rely on constant inputs with tight limits within which it can work, structures that limit disorder through greater resiliency and less formalisation. The constructed crises of the War on Terror or the 2008 financial crash show exactly what molar impositions achieve, constant repetition through maladaptation, kicking failures further down the road as they get increasingly more fragile.

Bratton appears to recognise this but then fails to see the underlying issue at stake, that of who controls such surveillance and how it is controlled/directed. Bratton even goes so far as to say that these questions are at best secondary, the importance being primarily in building such systems of data-based monitoring. “Ultimately, it does matter whether the administration of this qualifies as a state or a decentralized autonomous organization or a law or a platform or machine or something yet unnamed. What matters more, however, is that it is actually built”[12]. Bratton uses the example of water processing to make his point regarding the efficacy of automated systems. Their automaticity doesn’t require political wrangling or negotiation, but instead a system of infrastructure and monitoring that makes sure it works. This ignores the underlying negotiations that created such automated governance in the first place, from the imposition of particular property rights to partition claims to water sources to utility privatisations that created the utility monopolies seen today. All of this is political, but it’s the politics of boardrooms, lobbies and regulatory debates.

Such an example shows the limitations of Bratton’s perspective, as he fails to see politics as a deeply enmeshed flow of constant negotiation that affects any field of action where resources are distributed. In calling for a politics that tackles the phenomena of automation and platform systems, he doesn’t begin to specify what this would entail. Certainly not the disruption of these platforms by strikes or economic exits, as he celebrates them for their capacity to keep things going, allowing us all to shop and order food despite COVID (and thus reducing life to the bare elements of consumption). The politics he appears to search for is a post-political disposition, one focused on governance and administration with some fetters regarding the accountability and openness of these systems. What should be made primary (accountability and openness) is made secondary. Similar issues plague other analyses that are critical of folk politics (Srnicek & Williams’ Inventing the Future for example), seeing within the ambiguities of huge administrative and logistical systems a wider administration of things whose goals can be directed toward emancipatory ends.

In such a view, the innate waste and complexification inherent within these structures are additive features that can be undone. What is important are the maps they produce, that allow a wider governance to clearly plan and distribute resources through a full understanding of their use and exchange values. However these maps are themselves obfuscatory, as the legibility of these maps are the function of the systems themselves, beyond the human inputs and the various grammars of algorithms and codes that make up their output. “Unless the representations such systems provide widen our capacity to do and to make, to effect changes upon the world, they will make that world more rather than less opaque, no matter how richly descriptive they might be”[13]. The autonomy of these logistical and administrative systems goes beyond the cognitive capacity of human legibility or even systemic legibility, as the variety of inputs that produce an output are not simply re-programmable. Large, interconnected systems produce both the expected output and the unexpected or unwanted externalities which reduce systemic efficacy. There is a certain irony in that Bratton posits the necessity of reducing the human as the central axiom of analysis and action (instead placing us in the wider flows of ecosystems and logistical processes) while constructing a politics to deal with this very issue. One form of hubris removed while another one is placed where it once stood.

Such unexpected outcomes are seen in existing supply chain issues today. While Bratton sees the ongoing profiteering of Amazon and Wal-Mart as examples of globalised supply chains’ resiliency and efficiency compared to more localised economies of scale, the current reality of offshored production and tight supply lines show there limitations in important aspects. The lack of manufacturing capacity in the US and UK to manufacture ventilators or provide PPE was demonstrative of how reliant countries in crisis are on external inputs. When those inputs are unavailable, crises are exacerbated. Looking at more recent supply issues, we can see wider supply chain crises due to long-term structural deficiencies combined with slowdowns in supply due to coronavirus policies as a variable that shows the limits of Bratton’s view on logistics. Their spatiotemporal acceleration increases their opacity, putting them beyond the control of one company as each company in the chain becomes reliant on the continuance of its inputs. Through just-in-time logistics and cost-cutting methods in particular, the reliance on these highly tenuous supply lines is made central.

The below-zero oil futures last year showed such fragility, and continuing supply chain issues surrounding haulage driver shortages[14] is a continuation of this trend, where highly-strung supply chains are unable to adapt to crises and new contexts of global trade and material inputs. Logistical capacity is extremely limited, as the minimal profit margins and cost-cutting measures that different parts of/companies within supply chains are required to take to stay afloat shows. There is an overreliance on cheap labour inputs (particularly related to component manufactures, mining of source materials, immigrant drivers, slave labour in agriculture, etc.) and significant subsidies (to transportation costs through road price subsidisation and naval protection of seaways, government funding of port infrastructure, tax and customs breaks, etc.) within modern logistics, that masks a significantly indebted industry. The fact that Amazon have been able to exploit this fragile structure to turn huge profits is no indication of its underlying strength. Instead its an indication of its deep superfluities, becoming an outlet for pointless consumption and furthering the fragilities of outsourced manufacturing capacity to adequately utilise these production and supply lines.

Aside from the logistical element of Bratton’s positive biopolitics, there are also weaknesses surrounding its data-driven component. The coronavirus has shown the limits of data gathering if we look at the way statistics are skewed to create various different pictures of the same reality. There are significant issues regarding under/over-reporting of cases depending on the regional measures and the way deaths are counted, as well as the accuracy of transmission modelling[15] which predict more linear transmission dynamics despite the stochasticity of COVID viral spread[16]. The lack of parsing between COVID-related deaths and deaths from COVID[17] presents both cases of misreporting and over-reporting that fail to capture the granularity of data required to develop effective treatments and provide advice beyond generalities centred around a floating IFR. When taking into consideration the exogenous factors that contribute to COVID’s fatality rate as well as vulnerability to hospitalisation (particularly pre-existing conditions related to obesity or immobility as well as existing societal inequalities[18] and a society’s age profile[19]), the problem isn’t just the spread of coronavirus but also the infrastructural systems that coronavirus is spreading within.

In Western populations with high prevalence of unhealthy living habits as well as significant long-term care facility (LTCF) patient rates due to aging populations and inadequate social care infrastructure, the capacity for large-scale data monitoring to prescribe generic measures that fail to tackle the heterogeneous populations that face COVID and home in on uniform solutions means that these particularities get missed. Regarding LTCF residents in particular, the focus on vaccine dosage with an across-the-board efficacy based on limited trial data has failed to account for immunosenescence[20] in these demographics, maintaining their vulnerability, while at the same time overestimating the vulnerability of younger populations despite a significantly reduced IFR. Even if we go beyond IFR and to post-viral complications, particular long COVID, similar issues regarding the efficacy of data crop up. The studies showing the extent of long COVID are reliant on self-reported symptoms, with many of those self-reporting either never having taken a COVID test or having been negative when they have been tested[21]. Even in studies with less selection bias, we see a significant link between pre-existing mental health issues and preponderance to long COVID[22], thus questioning the line between this being physical and psychological. The variety of symptoms associated with long COVID, including confusion/brain fog, myalgia, fatigue and so on predate COVID in other diagnoses, particularly chronic Lyme disease[23] which shows a similar pathology of various misattributed symptoms that actually underlie general conditions of modernity, such as blue screen use, processed food and drink consumption[24], caffeine consumption[25], decreased mobility, generalised chronic pain[26] and other unhealthy habits/outcomes.

The extent to which large datasets can amend these structural deficiencies rather than simply portend or mask them is questionable. It is instead the granularity of particular data that may be helpful in providing targeted treatments, whether providing adequate hospital care for hospitalised COVID patients (through adequate viral treatments, particularly anti-inflammatories to help limit cytokine storms) or recognising particular vulnerabilities amongst certain demographics, thus tailoring the structure and provision of healthcare at localised and regionalised levels. The project of data surveillance Bratton favours has been integrated as part of the very governance he describes as failures, with nearly all countries following mass data-gathering paradigms together with lockdowns and mandates to limit movements and prevent spread, with nearly all failing at one stage or another as the contingency of the virus escapes their control.

The contingency of autonomous systems is reflected in the stochasticity of COVID itself. The idea that there is a set template for a pandemic response and an ontological lesson regarding the centrality of the individual show the hubristic character of Bratton’s analysis acutely. Bratton attempts to dichotomise different state responses to the pandemic along the lines of those taking an immunological response (centred on data tracking and strong healthcare systems) versus populist governments who failed to adequately deal with the pandemic until it was too late due to their scepticism of expertise, “built on simple, cathartic stories of resentment and recrimination”[27]. Bratton notes the positive biopolitical response that countries like Taiwan, South Korea and New Zealand took, making sure transmission was limited and that effective border checks and contact tracing were in place. Here is the anti-populist response to the pandemic, thoroughly technocratic and centred on central datapoints.

What does this have to say regarding vaccination rates and the ongoing farce of zero COVID in Australia and New Zealand. The EU showed its political colours when strongly criticising and threatening pharmaceutical companies for not meeting their contractual obligations for vaccine deliveries, moving the blame from EU delays over vaccine approvals to the companies themselves. Is this not populist? The zero COVID strategies in Australia and New Zealand, combined with mismanagement regarding vaccine rollout, mean that a limited proportion of these populations are vaccinated compared to the US, UK, Israel and Europe. They now also increasingly rely on exclusionary[28] and almost-crazed rhetoric that blames individuals watching the sunset on the beach[29] and other selfish individuals for the rise of cases in Queensland, failing to understand the stochastic nature of COVID spread and the limited effect things like stay-at-home orders and outdoor mask ordinances actually have. Again is this not populist? Even when we look at countries that implemented technocratic policies and did very well in the first wave of the pandemic, throughout the early summer of 2021 all saw[30] cases[31] skyrocket[32].

The dichotomy Bratton presents is a pointless one, because the stochastic nature of the virus and limited effects of policies mean that success in one instance can translate as failure in another. In the UK[33] [34] and Sweden[35], cases and deaths have levelled off over the summer of 2021 comparably, despite their more “populist” policies. The specific failures regarding the UK response are something that predates Boris Johnson’s premiership, instead showing a long-term lack of investment in ICU care and hospital capacity. “Most other advanced health care systems have also reduced bed numbers in recent years. However, the UK has fewer acute beds relative to its population than many comparable health systems”[36]. This global trend, while more pronounced in the UK, is something entirely separate from the rise of populism, instead mirroring the development of post-political technocracy in other European countries as well as the UK under New Labour.

Going beyond Bratton’s dichotomy, the very nature of COVID’s contingency and its mapping upon inadequate health infrastructure suggests that the effect of policies to reduce transmission will remain limited, with their affect not going beyond the level of individual responses to changing conditions. The necessary trade-offs and distributional conflicts that COVID posits mean the nature of public policy responses are always limited and swayed by the apodictic nature of the particular governing coalition. The various cultural, scientific and economic realities that structure the diverse array of economies and their interconnections are not amenable to a one-size-fits-all plan, favouring more decentralised experimentation to combat “a range of multiple and more localised collective action problems the structure of which will vary according to geography, population density and the cultural characteristics and beliefs of the populations concerned”. “This does not necessarily undermine the case for a public policy response – though neither does it imply that voluntary measures are obviously inferior – but at the very least it suggests that expectations for publicly organised pandemic response should be modest”[37]. The stochastic nature of the virus and its mappings onto heterogeneous governance structures invalidates a governing consensus, as all solutions are various degrees of muddling through. And this filters down to wider mandates and prescriptions that attempt to curtail voluntary reactions, including mask and vaccine mandates which have similar characteristics to other responses, forging processes of epidemiological and political action in extreme uncertainty as to its outcomes and efficacy.

This stochasticity then displaces centralised dispositions such as an immunological commons. Attempting to ontologise the viral moment has led Bratton to conceive of something universal that doesn’t expand beyond its particulars. He fails to differentiate viral context from general immunology, positing an ontological position that is meant to work in the face of COVID, but doesn’t necessarily have applicability to other existing or potential pandemics. An immunological commons is meaningless in the face of flu outbreaks and had little meaning in previous pandemics, as in other coronavirus outbreaks. Instead, experimental policies that helped prevent transmission based on demographic variables combined with herd immunity allowed for less pronounced adaptations while also increasing healthcare capacity (allowing South Korea, Japan and Taiwan to have first-mover advantage in dealing with first coronavirus wave).

But even here there must be caution, as the successes of these countries’ healthcare capacity in the face of the first wave have already struggled/failed in the second and third waves. The oversights and bottlenecks that plague any surveillance system do not disappear simply because their subject matter is more pressing. On masks in particular Bratton ontologises their wearing as something beyond their limited context. Their use inheres a general trend away from tactility as a primary human faculty toward subtler forms of communication – trust as a function of collective mask-wearing rather than handshakes or facial gestures. But masks are only useful in crowd-based contexts with limited social interaction (i.e. public transport or supermarkets) and have only been enforced via coercive mandates. If anything they are a sign of the opposite, of substantial distrust which as the virus has become more endemic have ebbed away. And considering the limitations of their efficacy (particularly of cloth masks[38]), the attempt to perceive them as a sign of a wider immunological commons suggests an ontological deficit in understanding the way human agency and virology interact.

Fundamentally, the contingency of COVID’s infrastructural spread goes beyond the prescription of a post-pandemic politics that can pivot us toward an immunological commons. The limitations of current COVID policies/interventions to adequately halt transmission suggests a future of COVID endemicity and the requirement of widespread herd immunity through targeted vaccination (two doses of the currently available vaccines) and boosters for those with immune vulnerabilities, and general spread across populations to induce natural immunity (much as has happened with previous coronaviruses through T-cell immune functions in SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV infections[39]), as well as adequate viral treatments for hospitalised cases and better advice regarding longer-term health issues that create vulnerability to respiratory illnesses, including vitamin D levels[40] and reducing the extent of obesity and immobile ergonomics.

Primarily, this is the development of greater regional experimentation regarding COVID interventions that moves away from a centralised position of unitary policies toward greater contextual policies based around the particularities of demographics and the extent of existing healthcare capacities. In younger populations like Africa this means more targeted interventions and greater natural herd immunity, while in older and/or unhealthier populations this means greater vaccine coverage and greater clarification over long-term viral effects. The policy failures of lockdowns and the failure to adequately increase bed and ICU capacity[41] despite a lack of significant occupancy (particularly in the UK when comparing the flu crisis to the COVID peaks – where general bed availability was reduced as occupancy rates reduced[42]) are now themselves becoming endemic, as unitary strategies surrounding vaccine coverage fail to prevent transmission (and fail to prevent viral mutations as intra-host single nucleotide variations develop through continued transmission vectors – as happened with the Delta variant[43]) and creating further fragility through a centralised strategy with limited exit options. As vaccine uptake increases worldwide, greater vulnerabilities could be induced through selection pressures that escape vaccine coverage, creating something akin to a Marek effect. The Delta variant has already accomplished this with regard to vaccine’s efficacy surrounding the prevention of transmission compared to the original type and other variants, as breakthrough cases become more substantial elements in hospitalisations, particularly in Israel.

Such policy endemicity can be seen as a general governance failure and a crisis of supply and production inputs, while at the same time presenting new methods of economic exploitation that can inform a successor regime of accumulation, adapting the contingencies of the pandemic to platform digitalisation and new work architectures to develop new capitals that can innovate toward a potentially post-neoliberal or neo-neoliberal consensus. This tracks much of what has been produced by the WEF and their policy platform (the Great Reset). “But whether it was the War on Terror that removed all opposition to the programmes and technologies of the global security state, the financial crisis that justified the fiscal policies of austerity, the housing crisis that drove up property prices for off-shore investors, or the environmental crisis that is opening up new markets for capital investment, capitalism has always emerged from such crises with its grip on the world a little tighter”[44].

The production of digital simulacra is a new accumulation/investment strategy, moving alongside a stronger and more integrated biomedical sector and innovations in data processing complexes. This means the production of new social classes centred around more abstract notions of property and asset ownership (particularly those focused around reflexive human capital and intellectual property), as well as a greater precariatisation of the workforce and wider citizenry, integrated into vast data centres as commodities or data points within logistical plans and regulatory agreements. Narratives surrounding the requirement for people to adapt to the “new normal” and not hark back to the past are part of this accumulation regime, making them legible to individuated contractualisation and labour market flexibility as the effects of the pandemic create greater ebbs and flows in production lines and consumer demand curves. It is both the failure of governance within a crisis, and the production of a new governance for capital that is emerging.

This is not a construction or a conspiracy, but the facets of ideology and capital finding within crisis new modalities of existence. Debates over whether businesses support lockdowns or re-openings are meaningless as the existing mode of governmentality is governed by the pharmacological, toward the establishment of biosecurity-based power. A reterritorialisation of a crisis of capital as methods of pharmaceutical companies and platform “utilities” become central to a new mode of existence, one focused around digitalisation, mass data management and a pervasive society of control. The move from lockdowns as extraordinary interventions into the lives of individuals justified by the novelty and severity of a barely-known virus, to a standard practice of medical intervention to manage healthcare pressures[45], extending this from a novel coronavirus to more general respiratory and influenza-like infections[46]. This is also reflected in the centrality of pharmaceutical and biosecurity figures with substantial conflicts of interest regarding their relations to vaccine-producing companies and the US military-industrial complex, including epidemiologists involved in the swine flu farce[47] and those involved in the anthrax attack response[48].

Their constant recycling from public to private institutions and back is indicative that they are in the positions they are in because they follow the edicts of this ideological edifice. They follow an incoherent set of rules and enforcements precisely because it provides a base for power and status, pushing forth their message. The volte face around mask wearing and assertions regarding vaccination’s capacity to effectively reduce transmission are there to inculcate a narrative of pastoral scientism, one where information doesn’t really matter only the validity of its source (with validation left to technological gatekeepers). The UK government has made this into an effective PSYOP, with different departments briefing contradictory[49] messages[50] to various media outlets to gauge the acceptance of messages around further coronavirus restrictions, creating confusion to induce apathy and acceptance.

From this new modality of existence, this new accumulation regime, we also see the construction of new divisions, of new classes that bind narratives together. Vax vs anti-vax, vaccinated vs unvaccinated. These are new dividing lines to govern the distribution of resources, particularly the provision of healthcare. Vaccine passports follow, becoming a way to distinguish clientele, providing specific services to the vaccinated. But of course with the leakiness of existing vaccines in their inability to prevent COVID transmission, and the drop off in their efficacy after 6 months due to declines in antibody production, the definition of vaccinated will become a floating signifier, much as preceding definitions of illegality and criminal did, expanding and delineating fluid borders. Soon only those with boosters will be considered vaccinated, and with vaccine mandates like Biden’s that means potentially more unemployed and more lacking access to healthcare.

The great unwashed become the great unvaccinated. The ridiculousness of this growing narrative against the “unvaccinated” is never truly important, so long as it masks the structural failures that led to this position. Reality shows that the majority of people have taken up both doses of the vaccine, with the remaining unvaccinated simply requiring expanded healthcare capacity to deal with any potential surges. They do not in and of themselves create variants and they do not put the vaccinated at risk, unless of course the vaccines aren’t as affective as advertised in which case this narrative is nonsensical anyway.

However the logic of the argument is irrelevant, as it is designed to mask decades of failing governmentality in drug production and healthcare spending. The unaccountability of pharmaceutical companies in producing drugs and illnesses at huge markups and with limited safety protocols (as in the anthrax and swine flu vaccines). The historical underspending and cost-cutting seen in nearly every Western healthcare system, slowly denuding hospitals of beds, spare capacity and long-term staff as they become reliant on webs of sponsored contractors. This is what the great unvaccinated covers over. Long-term structural issues can be ignored so long as a convenient scapegoat is found. And what this leads to is greater frustration and confusion as the lines within this division are constantly remade depending on the ambiguities of emergency legislation and legal mandates. Such frustration creates anger and resentment, and thus recreates the very conditions of ontic violence that already affect societies today: mass shootings, riots, police repression, lone wolf terrorism. From this then comes a new addition to the homo sacer, as terrorism once again invades the divisions[51], requiring more surveillance and more top-down control. There is no start and end point with this, just a constant cycle of justifications for state repression.

Foucault describes the extension of disciplines as insidious expansions that work through institutions, maintaining a non-central invisibility while turning the art of that discipline upon the subject, normalising it and in turn causing an internalisation of its method[52]. The instruction of various institutions, their ideological makeup, becomes the grounds of subjectivation. However, in the COVID crisis narratives have frayed as psycho-scientific complexes have held contradictory positions on the dangers of COVID, the importance of masks, the efficacy of the vaccine, etc. Instead of the extension and subsequent intension of a medical narrative, we are faced with a fragmented bureaucratic structure saying different things at different times. There is no desire for coherency as instead people are bombarded with all sorts of information, confusing recommendations with rules and advice with law. Even the disciplinary institutions of the police force and the hospital are unsure of the legal clarity surrounding COVID-era rules.

We are moving from the disciplinary society, with its swarming of mechanisms and inversion of power, that contains a clarity of moral function and direction of individual utility, toward a confused mechanism of mass information, which “decomposes into atomized, deracinated, politically submissive masses, which are exploited and manipulated to support Regime priorities. Party offices proliferate. Informal syndicates now come to dominate over regular procedures. Institutions are co-opted. Front groups are established. The bureaucracy is politicized and weaponized”[53]. Narratives are no longer internalised, with information instead flowing ever-quicker between and through various conduits. There is no coherency, only a non-transparent openness. This is a logistical power of the constant flow and flux of information with no actual stopping point, instead existing in increasing speeds of circulation. It is designed to induce apathy through confusion. Look at UK government lockdown messaging, confirming both that we won’t have another lockdown and that we may indeed have another lockdown (if certain arbitrary conditions aren’t met). From the disciplinary society to the circulatory society.

Dialogue around the new normal also falls into this trap of endless repetition. Whether in the WEF’s reimagining’s of a post-COVID world or Bratton’s immunological commons, neither actually escape the malaise of postmodernity. For all the talk of an inhuman intelligence emerging from the COVID demiurge, the figure of Bratton’s immunological ontology is a human one. It is a technocracy with a human face rather than a posthuman data network, fully ensconced within a governance stripped of any analysis of power or class. Such new normals are no more than posthistorical continuities, reordering neoliberal governance into new niches with new ideological justifications. The new normal is just TINA for the COVID age, maintaining a monotonic background.

By contrast, a molecular freedom that moves toward a sceptical position of established authority without reneging it or going toward moronic conceptions of self-sufficiency must resist this monotonic urge through the pertinence of exit as a primary variable of political action as a counterweight to the developing autonomy of institutional configurations. A post-COVID disposition must be one of experimentation so as we do not get caught in the ossifying traps of fragile healthcare and medical systems which develop unitary solutions in the face of a stochastic (and beyond that contingent) reality.

Bratton is right to decentre the human as the primary locus of agency, instead seeing a vast cornucopia of agential potential in interlocking systems and sub-molecular entities that both confuse human agency and require solutions beyond the individual. However the hubris of Bratton’s solution fails to actually do this, instead repositing human agency in the form of administrative bureaucracy and data-based planning. The contingent, multiplicitous nature of the coronavirus and wider difficulties in adequately parsing and grammatising (“in which knowledge and memory is discretised into reproducible and combinatorial bodily gestures — phonemes, graphemes, keystrokes, bits — and then exteriorised through inscription in matter”[54]) interlocking, autonomous systems isn’t simply a bug to be fixed, but the essence of administrative “efficiencies” that produce externalities.

A molecular freedom that decentres human agency does not simply do away with it, but instead places it within a conflictual field with autonomous systemic agencies, ecosystems and endemic viral agents. The position of the human subject in a truly inhuman environment, one not geared toward the simple production of bare life but something beyond and beneath it, is the removal of the constraints of technocratic imperatives and molar impositions, instead fighting these and developing exits for greater resiliency and self-government. Where centralised structures extend their agential flows, these should always be made transparent and open, with alternate subjectivities acting as much as bottlenecks and terrorists as they do compliant entities. This inhuman ecosystem is one of agential reckoning, molecularising systems and getting inside their nodes, cooperating and fighting them within different contexts. Meaning-making here spans the range of agential potential, from the individual to the community and up toward systems and meta-systems. “They are the pre-contractarian quanta that Hobbes described as inhabiting the state of nature, societal experimenters caught in flows of chaos, beginning the process of capturing and attuning information toward mooring it within an institution or ideology”[55].

In the context of post-COVID dispositions, this must aim toward a granular analysis of COVID’s virology, moving away from symbolic abstractions like an immunological commons or a great reset and toward more decentralised, multi-scalar systems that can direct health resources toward specific demographic targets and better combine the requirements of healthcare (social care, hospital care, community care) so as to understand the individualised affects of the virus. Vaccines may be one tool in this structure, but others are required if we are to maintain freedom of choice and limit the centralised power of governance to dictate medical terms (whether through mandates, regulations or lockdowns). A viral agent of global logistics will not be tackled by more of the same. Rather, a multitudinous set of tools and systems which can target care where needed and allow for exits and experiments in how to deliver such care are required, alongside greater questioning and scepticism of the medical establishment, seeing within their data diagnostics and treatment guidelines mechanisms for the expansion of molar power and the further externalisation of failures (of leaky vaccines, inadequate healthcare capacity and contradictory propaganda). Otherwise, the dispositions of medical tyranny will continue to expand.

[1] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish





[6] Katharina Pistor, The Code of Capital

[7] Benjamin Bratton, The Revenge of the Real

[8] Slavoj Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes




[12] Benjamin Bratton, The Revenge of the Real















[27] Benjamin Bratton, The Revenge of the Real

























[52] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish




One thought on “Post-COVID Dispositions

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s