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OPINION Going viral: panic, precaution and the allegories of neoliberalism

PHIL COHEN explores the meanings of the global coronavirus pandemic

PANIC is deeply corrosive of civil society. It unites people only in negative reciprocities, where each of us is other to the other as a potential carrier and everyone looks out for themselves and their families.

In a predigital age, panics were relayed primarily by word of mouth, through rumour. The best and certainly funniest account of how panics spread in face-to-face communities is James Thurber’s short story The Day the Dam Broke, in which a mis-overheard comment on the main street of a small town in middle America coincides with someone breaking into a trot and soon has the entire population heading for the hills.

If you are in need of a good laugh right now, this is recommended reading.

Today digital online culture, particularly social media, has given a whole new meaning to “going viral,” not only because we now have a powerful model of unregulated and virtually uncontrollable communication but because there is a whole architecture built up as a system of defence against rogue pathogens, malevolent “bugs” that are continually trying to introduce “viruses” to infiltrate, attack and destroy our operating systems.

The advent of Covid-19 has also encouraged “phishing” expeditions by online hackers offering to sell you phony prophylactics in exchange for your personal details so they can raid your bank account. If the medical virus doesn’t get you, the computer virus will.

This doubling-up makes virology an all-too-ready source of symbolism for vilifying any populations that might be at risk of being portrayed as “carriers” of bad news. Perhaps we are seeing the first truly cyborg pandemic.

Here we need to be aware of how the real relations of viral transmission become doubled over in a set of imaginary relations. A virus uses the human body as its host and in a sense lives off it in order to reproduce itself.

If the virus is “stupid,” it kills its host quickly so that the chain of transmission is broken and the epidemic, though it has a high initial mortality rate, sooner or later becomes self-limiting. Ebola was like that, but Covid-19 is an altogether smarter machine.

The real trouble starts when this model of host-parasite relations is translated from the physical to the social body to compose what we might call the moral anatomy of a disease. Quite simply, the carriers get defined as parasites who are rewarding their hosts with the gift of a lethal illness.

The “cure” is therefore to exclude or eliminate the parasite at source before it can take up residence in the host society. We have seen this transposition manifested all too clearly in recent xenophobic attacks against Chinese students in London — Covid-19 becomes the new “yellow peril.”

The mechanisms that have come into play in this transposition are hardly new. We are in the midst of what sociologists call a moral panic, involving the creation of “folk devils” whose presence in society comes to be seen a threat to its moral health and even political integrity. This is because they are perceived to transgress the boundaries or normative behaviour traditionally policed by church and state but also upheld by communities as marking their internal borders.

In situations where these boundaries are becoming more porous and civil society threatens to becomes anomic, where social norms disintegrate, the population of “folk devils” multiplies — immigrants, paedophiles, and drug gangs currently head the list — in an attempt to draw the line between respectable citizens and outlaw denizens.

Perhaps then we need to go even further back in time and be mindful of the original definition and meaning of the “parasite.” It is a compound of two Greek words: para (alongside); and sitos (food); and it literally means to eat alongside someone, to share a meal.

In the classical Greek polis (city), those who were strangers, either because they lived beyond the city limits or spoke a foreign tongue, were admitted to its precincts and protected against abuse, exploitation, harassment or being taken hostage, provided they answered to their name, declared who they were, whence they had come and for what purpose they were now in the city.

The foreigner — xenos — transformed the citizen into a host, someone who, because they were masters of their own house and had the power to issue invitations, was both willing and able to invite foreigners into their midst and to share their food and dwelling place with them.

In return, the host transformed the stranger into a “parasite” in the original non-pejorative sense of the word: someone who has a right to a place at the table and whose need for nurturance and assistance is recognised without the need to reciprocate.

Interestingly, the term was also used for places at the table reserved for public officers who served the polis. It was only in 16th-century Europe that the term took on its current negative connotations, especially in times and places affected by the Plague.

Perhaps, then, it is time to stop giving hostages to misfortune and return to the original Greek sense of hospitality and, incidentally, to the deeper sense of hospital as a place where strangers who suffer come to be treated and made well.

We certainly need to mobilise and strengthen all possible forms of human solidarity and mutual aid if we are to get through this health crisis. But the signs are not propitious. In addition to the danger of creating pariah populations, Covid-19 strengthens the hand of those who want to create a new Fortress Britain, who saw Brexit as an opportunity to reinvent it as a once-again island nation surrounded by a “moat defensive” against the invasion of “foreign bodies.”

Ironically, it took a virus to bring home to everyone, albeit in a wholly negative way, just how globally interconnected our societies are through trade and tourism and just how much magical thinking is involved in evoking “national sovereignty” and “taking back control” of our borders as a cure for all our ills.

The precautionary strategy of personal and social distancing scales up frictionlessly into policies of national isolationism, with a little help from nativist rhetoric. Unfortunately the worst-case scenarios currently being spelt out by some epidemiologists and inflated into fully fledged genocidal nightmares by the popular press provide an all-too-convincing rationale for the nativist dreams of the populist alt-right.

We also need to question the “Don’t Panic — Keep Calm and Carry On, Britain Can Take It” message headlined by sections of the right-wing press, especially the Daily Telegraph, which as always is keen to reanimate sentimental memoryscapes of wartime Britain, when everyone tightened their belts and pulled together.

Courtesy of such imaginaries, we are being sleepwalked into a vision of sunlit uplands where the bug has finally melted away and we all live happily ever after in Tory Brexitland.

Do we need reminding that the reason why “Don’t Panic,” as uttered by the elderly Lance Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army, was so funny is that it was uttered in such a panic-stricken voice? One reason a video clip of this has gone viral again is that it perfectly captures the ambiguity of many of the public pronouncements about Covid-19, albeit in an inverse way: the voice of calm authority issuing statements maximally calculated to induce panic.

Perhaps it is as well, then, that stiff upper lips are hard to sustain in these days of touchy-feely politics and definitely not possible while wearing a face mask. No doubt we will be encouraged to display “resilience,” that weasel word which the evangelists of neoliberal individualism use to describe and celebrate passive adaptation to their austerity regime. Please note that fortitude and courage have a quite different genealogy, in the psycho-social resources generated through emotional attachment to others and to the common good.

In more general terms, the key strategy of do-it-yourself quarantining at home uncannily reproduces the “alone together” culture of online community on a vastly enlarged scale, yielding a world in which face-to-face contact is no longer required for going about one’s business. Although much direct communication is today digitally mediated, physical co-presence still seems essential whenever major decisions have to be taken.

Skype is no substitute for being there and democratic governance cannot be delivered if there is no-one in the room. The root meaning of parliament is to “parley,” and that means to negotiate face to face, not just screen-to-screen.

As Plato was the first to tell us in his Symposium, human dialogue and debate is best pursued in the context of conviviality. The shutting-down of occasions of public congregation, deliberation and pleasure, however temporary, must have a profound impact on the quality of social and political life.

Moreover, a policy of minimalising physical contact by virtualising everything from House of Commons business to medical appointments, lectures and school exams will also further marginalise those who find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide.

An epidemic inevitably exposes the faultlines in society, especially those of class. A society whose dominant values maximise competitive individualism but whose political economy creates conditions of widespread precarity for large sections of its population is not best equipped to counter the negative bias hardwired into our brain chemistry and which makes us such gluttons for punishment and so addicted to bad news.

The neurological propensity to catastrophism is greatly intensified when and wherever chronic insecurity puts minds and bodies on constant red alert. If people literally do not know where or when their next payment or next job is coming fro, then their level of trust in the world as a safe haven for their hopes and aspirations tends to fall to zero. So too does their trust in politicians who promise them a cornucopia of good things and deliver at best a few crumbs from the rich man’s table.

As for epidemic researchers, including scientists and medical authorities who attempt to reassure people that things are not as bad as they might seem on social media and that the solution lies in their own hands — provided they wash them often enough — they are lumped in the same category: “Danger! Experts at work!” As a result, some of the most vulnerable groups are least likely to heed public health advice.

There is also a generational dynamic in some of the more off-the-wall responses. The fact that Covid-19 is most dangerous to senior citizens, especially those with underlying medical conditions, has not been lost on closet eugenicists who welcome the “culling” of this “surplus population” as stabilising a demographic equilibrium that has been distorted by life-prolonging advances in medical science.

Social Darwinists are also crawling out the woodwork to reassert the pseudo-evolutionary principle of the survival of the fittest. A quasi-oedipal dimension is added by those who see an opportunity here to challenge and undermine the power of the gerontocracy who are hoarding assets such as houses and opportunities such as jobs by refusing to retire, at the expense of the young. It’s the bittersweet revenge of Generation Rent, who will be able to come into their inheritance rather sooner than later.

Many of these responses belong to the rich psychopathology of mass epidemics. But one of the savage ironies of the current public health crisis is that some of these constructs are mirrored in the precautionary strategies advocated by certain epidemiologists.

Those who stress the importance of attaining what they call “herd immunity” as quickly as possible, in lieu of any vaccination, are demanding the radical separation of the generations. The young and healthy should be herded into spaces of maximum contact such as clubs and pubs, where they can cross-infect one another and get mild versions of the illness that will give them the necessary antibodies to prevent onward transmission.

In contrast, the elderly and infirm should be quarantined in spaces of maximum social isolation to ensure their safety. In this way, the epidemic of isolation and loneliness already suffered by many senior citizens, who have little or no contact with family or neighbours, is transformed into a life saver.

In the process the social atomisation endemic to neoliberal capitalism is massively validated. It also serves to seal the trauma of debility or loss inside the individual, where it will germinate a subsequent epidemic of post-traumatic stress with which our impoverished mental-health services will struggle to cope. There is no vaccination against the mass emotional fallout of Covid-19.    

So we cannot separate out responses to a health crisis from the broader culture and body politic in which they are embedded. A prevention strategy built around the notion of self-isolation, both for victims and the vulnerable, is a way of privatising illness in a situation where public services, especially the NHS, have been so run down that they clearly cannot cope with even “normal” epidemics such as seasonal flu.

Moreover, an approach that makes everyone individually responsible for their own safety gives a therapeutic gloss to the neoliberal agenda. The overall impact of austerity has been to drastically weaken the collective capacity of communities to respond proactively and rationally to crisis situations.

Ironically, just at the moment when neoliberalism has lost traction, even among the business classes, it is given a new lease of life as a pragmatic response to the health emergency in a way that allows its political evangelists to wash their hands of any responsibility for the state of our public services.

Boris Johnson declares that his government is on a “war footing,” but this is wartime neoliberalism, not wartime socialism, although it remains to be seen whether new forms of citizen solidarity and mutual aid may yet emerge if and when the state fails to cope with the emergency.

So far, the body politic seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Solitary confinement, not as a punishment for bad behaviour but as a protective device, may initially be voluntary but it relies for its enforcement on the state’s assumption of special emergency powers which suspend many hard-fought-for civil liberties.

Although public consent may well be engineered for a time, there is some risk that under the present administration some aspects of this “state of exception” may become the new normal or at least have a long-term ratchet effect on democratic rights.

The health crisis also potentially empowers technocratic visions of a surveillance-and-control society in which “at-risk” groups, such as those profiled as an epidemiological threat, are electronically tagged so their movements are traceable and mappable at all times. The utopia of “smart cities” or urban governance by algorithm all too easily morphs into an Orwellian nightmare.

In fact, we are seeing the materialisation of a new geography of risk that mirrors the dystopias portrayed in films such as Blade Runner — exclusion zones, evacuation zones, “red” lock-down zones, so many lines drawn in shifting sands. Public places are suddenly depopulated, ghost neighbourhoods and even whole cities are patrolled by zombies in space suits. The familiar rhythms of everyday life are disrupted or rendered strange. The urban uncanny rules OK.

More immediately important is that the implementation of emergency measures comes up against some harsh economic realities. A new spatial division of labour is emerging between the “homies,” those who can work at home, and those who cannot.

The former are mostly concentrated in back-office managerial or administrative functions, or in the knowledge economy; the latter in manual work and the delivery of front-line personal services. Many of the at-risk groups are on low incomes and working in the gig economy on zero-hour contracts, where they cannot afford to take time off if they are ill, even if to get some minimal sickness benefit for staying away. The demographic of the illness is likely to reflect these facts.

If there is not going to be any fairytale ending, are there any rational grounds for hope that some good things may still come of it? Schools that abandon Sats may discover that they can do without them altogether and that there are other more useful and creative ways of evaluating educational performance.

People who don’t have cars but feel that travelling on public transport is too risky may take to walking or cycling instead and find to their amazement that this is a far more enjoyable, efficient and cheaper way of getting about.

The crisis will emphasise the central importance of public services, not only the NHS, but social care and welfare systems, the youth service, the arts and parks, in maintaining the moral fabric of civil society.

Finally, we may also discover the limits of state intervention and relearn the capacity for collective self-organisation and mutual aid that is the foundation of any participatory democracy. Certainly plans for dealing with the emergency, if they are to be effective, need to be built up from locally situated knowledge and sensitively adapted to the specific circumstances of particular communities, not imposed by legislative fiat as a one-size-fits-all top-down model. For example, hygienic practices that might be acceptable to one faith community might seem bizarre or abhorrent to another.

Local initiatives may yet prove game-changers and certainly something worth putting on a map of possible outcomes. From a left perspective, we need to be sure that, as and when such positive actions take place, they are not highjacked by a triumphalist one-nation Toryism but joined up into a vision of what it might be like to create a polity and economy that works for the many and not the few.

Phil Cohen is the research director of Livingmaps Network. This text, first published on the Lawrence & Wishart website, lwbooks.co.uk/blogs, is an extract from a longer article due to appear in Livingmaps Review, livingmaps.review, in April.

His latest book is Waypoints: Towards an ecology of political mindfulness published by Eyeglass books in 2019.

He is currently collaborating with Ruth Lister, Valerie Walkerdine, Dick Pountain and Mike Rustin on a think-piece about political mindfulness and the renewal of the left for Compass. For more information, see philcohenworks.com.

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