The Virus Diaries Chapter 2, Part II: The Biopolitics of Social Distancing

In this part of Chapter 2, Dr Rodanthi Tzanelli considers how the COVID-19 crisis exemplifies the consolidation of new Western styles of societal control matching populist bravado with an attack on professional expertise.

Voldemort virologies and COVID-19 sociologies
The power-hungry Voldemort, who controls our rights to life and death, is a master metaphor for the nation-state’s custodians and its governing medical bodies. The failures in governing a pandemic, including registering its existence, have already received ample attention in social analysis, with arguments ranging in focus from those considering the management of borders that remain shut to political refugees and asylum-seekers, to those that pronounce anew the agency of the state in globalised environments. It is true that socially disadvantaged populations belonging or not belonging to an internationally recognised polity always suffer most in any crisis. However, we must also find a way to consider things that we, critical sociologists, prefer to ignore about these disempowered groups’ agency, which can be very potent and negative indeed.

There are two observations to make on such issues (which, notably, I too have defended at some point in my work): first, the idea of the ‘border’ as the territory of infectious disease has a long history in migration and political studies; it is a sort of chorus scholars sing every time a crisis further displaces and/or excludes the vagabond of modernity from the alleged riches of the ‘Western Eden’. Tragically, in the current state of emergency we find that the primary carrier of danger is not the vagabond, but the tourist, and its primary territories of incubation are not those of the Oriental netherworld, but the once venerated cradles of European civilisation. We will mourn the lost populations of Venice and Barcelona in the years to come, with extra bitterness for the ironic hand of history: if Venice was once the renowned Grand Tourist’s selected place to die, the COVID-19 mobilities have turned it into the graveyard never to be visited again, unless it is the resting place of an unlucky loved one. To hide this ironic reversal behind conspiracy theories about a new (Chinese) ‘yellow peril’ or civilizational clashes (on which see a welcome analysis by my colleague, Ipek Demir) amounts to neo-colonial hypocrisy. At the same time, I would be cautious not to play the card of colonial victimisation, which, many post-colonial national polities use to justify their endogenous problems, or legitimise policies of violence against their own citizens under the excuse of a ‘state of emergency’. The second observation, which challenges hyper-globalist theories, is also well-established and reminds us – rightly so, I believe – that biopolitical organisation rests with the countries’ overlords, who are using practices of policing and surveillance to secure their power (on which see Nick Stevenson’ elegant analysis of Orwellian dystopias we once thought were excessive).

When we put these two arguments side by side, we reach the conclusion that the true source of virological politics are the country’s Voldemorts, as they orchestrate the illusio of ethno-national or racial togetherness against the allegedly infectious invaders-migrants. But there is a note of caution (contra Stevenson’s generous attitude towards all disadvantaged social groups) when extending support to the poor masses: experience proves that they are actually the enactors of such Voldemortian agendas. In an era of populist and alt-right political engagement with ‘the people’, virological disasters can turn for opportunists into a social currency to be spent on media self-aggrandisement and promise-making of a better future. To reiterate my Deleuzean comment from the previous instalment, we now look past the societies of surveillance to prognostication and moderate control. There would have been no Trump without the good poor folk of American heartland and its churchgoing civilizational margins; there would have been no Brexit political isolation from Europe in the COVID-19 context without the reactionary working-class that wanted to ‘take back control of their country’.

I would never lie to you

‘Follow push to reset the world’ (Image: Scott Richard, Flickr/Creative Commons)

Hence, my intention in this part of the chapter is to shift perspective, after making an important stop: to me, it seems that much like the political border, the generational border secretly informs national policies of viral management in Malthusian styles. Such styles control minds and hearts through stylistic or crude lies people want to be told when they think that the end is near. This became blatantly obvious in Boris Johnson’s insensitive statement in the early days of the viral onset that we should ‘be prepared to lose loved ones’. In his usual crude habitus, he did utter a truth, which he did not bother to sugar-coat, upsetting everybody. People prefer his big fat lies to such an extent, that someone cruelly told me when they heard the news of his hospitalisation for tests: ‘What tests? For pathological lying’?’ The game between truth and dare, the politics of exposure and concealment, emulate body politics to control the masses. Although there have been some COVID-19 deaths of young people, the disease mostly attacks the old and chronically ill populations – a reality known at the time of Mr Johnson’s blunder.

Just so I highlight another connection with Chapter 1, ‘working from home’ necessitates rescuing space and time to actually work. In contradistinction to easily home-bound toddlers and young primary school cuties, who can be schooled at home (albeit with considerable effort from their parents!), rebellious teenagers cannot always be effectively supervised, and in some cases, they introduce unusual hermeneutics in implementing ‘stay at home’ rules. I have repeatedly seen groups of teenagers in the neighbourhood ignoring the government’s rules of ‘groups of maximum 2 people’, while naively distancing themselves from passers-by and other groups of youngsters who do not even do that. Fixated upon the idea of childhood innocence, Western culture tends to give a pass on such incidents, or (a ubiquitous 20th and 21st-century failure of British governance) blame the behaviour on parenting. Yet, displacing responsibility from the state on to parents contradicts the very ideological tenets of centralised ideologies of producing ‘reliable soldiers’: without specific guidelines addressed to teenagers, the state turns groups of young strollers into murderers by default (for, not being treated as a responsible citizen always rebounces). You just try to work from home with three grown-up children demanding to go out, where you have no control over what they do. Their schooling has provided no serious guidance on these travails, but it is your fault, as their mother or father, if they are more carefree than they should be.


‘Face the music, Miss’ (at 2 meters’ distance). Image meme: Anon

Surely, the ‘working from home’ policy could find a more useful interpretation in the management of such practices of thoughtlessness? Young strollers are ‘travellers’ released from their home-pods, who potentially carry a deadly guest in their bodies. When they display such naivety (for this is not always the case, and I have also witnessed young people adopting more responsible attitudes than adults), we should remember that our age-prejudiced cultural mentalité has deprived them of the critical tools necessary to respond accordingly, and so change our pedagogical agendas instead of demonising them (on this also see my colleague, Kim Allen’s witty analysis).Unfortunately, short-term necessity may require stricter curfews to save lives, but this needs coordination with learning tools (incidentally, ‘irresponsible behaviour’ can also be displayed by the most vulnerable groups, people of old age, who also need to be put in their place!). For us theoreticians, critical to the state of surveillance and of the surveillance state, COVID-19 is a call to reality: we do actually need these tools to save lives. The true problem is, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

So, let us concede that in the COVID-19 évènement we deal with death by natural selection that allows the dwindling welfare state to cope with care in the short term, and is left with productive ‘young soldiers’ to oil the capitalist machine thereafter. This realisation is only a stepping-stone to my alternative perspective, which presents not meticulous biopolitical organisation, but the politics of chance as our viral era’s greatest challenge to democracy.

Con MacGyver populism
As a teenager, I was particularly fond of Angus MacGyver’s TV persona (1985-1992), which displayed intellectual proficiency, knowledge of engineering and applied physics, multi-language skills and a preference to resolve conflict in non-lethal ways. MacGyver’s employment by a think-tank, the Phoenix Foundation, provided numerous opportunities for the makers of the show to present their hero as an ‘inventor who ‘thinks on his feet’, who nevertheless draws on existing knowledge repertoires to achieve his objectives and goals. Needless to add that the real world lacks such people; if you come across one too often, you have probably been conned.

The policies of two of the most powerful Western democracies, the U.S.A. and the U.K., figure as very pale copies of MacGyver’s ‘know-how’ craftsmanship.  I believe that we have entered a new biopolitical era of governance (still managed by men, or occasionally women acting like men), which is not informed by rigid and meticulous planning of border-control and risk-management, but by the cultures of serendipity. Populist prowess trumps knowledge and expertise. Donald Trump’s failure to institute infectious containment operates on such a seemingly neo-Darwinian parable of natural selection, which is actually a Malthusian example of population management (what others prefer to term ‘epidemiological neoliberalism’).

Postmodern politics – to be revised, some time, maybe next week (image: Leeds for Europe, Facebook)

According to American pseudo-MacGyverism, those killed by the disease are just unlucky, whereas those who want to live, work harder for the enhancement of the American Dream. The scariest aspect of this logic is its foundation in a folksonomic erudition that adheres to populist repertoires. For anyone doubting this, I direct them to Trump’s recent decision to advise American citizens to wear masks in public (a measure rejected by medical experts as ineffective and not even followed by himself). Trump’s tragicomic announcement of these new measures was also followed by his reflections on the models projecting the virus’s spread and death toll:

“The models show hundreds of thousands of people are going to die. You know what I want to do? I want to come way under the model. The professionals did the models. I was never involved in a model – at least, this kind of a model.”

This ‘know-all’ (but really clueless) machismo was matched in the case of Boris Johnson with a making ‘on the go’ style of governance, which has already cost many lives. We have watched our Prime Minister making out-of-the blue requests to business to switch to making ventilators; changing tactics from freedom in public movement in his usual neoliberal style of individualist responsibility to stricter and stricter rules on citizen movement in public places, which are not properly policed; and promising the materialisation of virus tests when NHS staff complain about lack of basic protective equipment. Under such conditions, the discharge of biopolitical measures is literally about belonging bio-physically to the right group of humans with an immune system strong enough to fend off COVID-19.

What I am most concerned about is one of the expected – at least to a cultural sociologist – effects of this turn to serendipity on the masses: if chance is all we have, then we need a higher-than-human authority to call upon and beg for release from our suffering. Reports on church masses in the U.S.A., which remained open to the public when other restrictions were strictly imposed in recent days, present us with an erratic and self-defeating policy on containment that will surely cost more lives. The turn to divine authority signals a return to feudal fatalism – another sign that we are witnessing the slow but sure decivilisation of the West. Under such conditions, the viral onslaught is the least of our problems. We are losing our ability to think critically, evaluate the challenges thrown at us by our ecosystems, and turning into the proverbial primate test subject of scientific laboratories we see in dystopian science fiction movies. Surely, critical sociologists should not applaud ‘common folk’ who seem happy to join this category without second thoughts.

Lots of good wishes

The Northern Notes Blog Editorial Team wishes the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, speedy recovery and a return to his happily expanding family. We feel unable to extend our wishes to his return to work, for reasons including, but not limited to the fact that he has proven to be a reckless huggy.

Stay tuned for Chapter 3 of The Virus Diaries saga, which will be published with lots of Easter bunnies.

Dr Rodanthi Tzanelli is Associate Professor of Cultural Sociology and Current Chief Editor of the Northern Notes Blog, School of Sociology & Social Policy at Leeds.