The coronavirus pandemic has proved both horrifying and fascinating in almost equal measure, writes Gwen Jones.
The world has watched as societies have been turned completely upside down; the sense of being both deeply connected by shared experience, and isolated as we shelter alone in our homes. Particularly remarkable, at least by the standards of today, has been the enormous power and scope of state action – the greatest state-ordered infringement of liberty that most have experienced in peace time. Necessary? Most certainly. But note-worthy, nonetheless. Indeed, it is because of their wider context – deeply entrenched liberal norms, a robust and fiercely defended private sphere, and a steeply democratic tradition – that such drastic measures are so momentous.
The response, in the UK at least, has been resoundingly accepting. In fact, a recent poll found that fewer than one in 5 brits favoured an easing of current lockdown restrictions. A simple explanation is, of course, that the British public have simply seen good sense – but their reaction has not been mirrored everywhere. Anti-lockdown protests have amassed thousands of supporters across Brazil and Latin America. Protestors in the US have taken to the streets citing civil rights violations and demanding to be allowed back to work.
It is not a simple picture – what is clear is that there is more to the story than populations simply on the right and wrong sides of reason. A lockdown is a crude expression of state power; of force, of coercion. But it is also more than that. The reason we obey goes beyond reason, and beyond fear. To use a Foucauldian term, we obey because we are subjectified – first, objectified, studied by the sciences, turned into objects of analysis. These structures – of biology, psychology etc – wield an influence of their own, and exert power over the way individuals think and behave – information becomes authoritative. Now, more than ever, we are reduced to our biology, our susceptibility; to R0 numbers, death statistics and agent-based models. These in turn become gospel, a new language that we speak and a new way we live. We socially distance, we self-isolate, we flatten the curve.
This approach to state power goes beyond the ‘domination’ of one interest over others. Rather, subjectification is inexorably linked to pastoral power (again, in Foucault’s language), which seeks not to influence us through brute force, but rather, to know our minds and thus, create and influence what it is that we desire to begin with. It is through these means that we, as individuals, as citizens, are created. We are fearful, but we are patriots; we understand that times are hard, but are keen to be a part of the national effort we know will prevail. ‘Stay home, save lives, protect the NHS’ – the words pull us in the direction of good citizenship; together with rousing speeches, not accidentally reminiscent of war time, and we are practically digging for victory. Our all-important sense of agency has not been removed. Rather, this is what we want, or more importantly, who we want to be.
None of this, I hope obviously, is to suggest that the end to which all this is directed is not desirable. On the contrary; the fact that power operates says nothing (in my view at least) about its moral content, or that of those who exercise it. But understanding the ways in which our behaviour is regulated without being the product of mere obedience to rules (or, more likely, in addition to it) can help explain the chasm between those who have welcomed lockdown measures, and those who have rebelled against them. Rules are one thing, but the social structures we occupy are quite another. By forming a part of ongoing context in which we live, these structures alter our dispositions, and how we experience ourselves relative to the wider world. The subsequent understanding of ourselves that emerges from this process shapes our behaviour, which in turn, shapes our social spaces and reinforces their norms. It is these complex and ongoing interactions between social agents and the fabric of their environments that has led to both Clapping for Carers and the rise of anti-lockdown militias. The latter has found fertile ground in nations led by men whose public disregard for the threat posed by coronavirus, and active contempt for the lockdown itself, have been widely reported. Moreover, these are places where the revolutionary spirit of populism is alive and well, and where calls for ‘true’ democracy, for a return to peoplepower, are felt deeply and bitterly. When examined through this lens, the differential is hardly surprising.
Even in the time of this supposed ‘great equaliser’, power relations are still very much alive and well. For better and for worse, the way we experience our lives is being shaped by forces beyond our control (microbial and otherwise).
⬤ Gwen Jones is a third-year HSPS student at Queens’ College.
Photo “Social change in the eye of the Pandemic” by Jessica Francis