Neoliberal Necropolitics

As Boris Johnson prepares to let the pandemic rip, the All That is Solid blog analyses 'necropolitics'


This article originally appeared on the All That is Solid blog Monday 5 July 2021

Sajid Javid provided the trailer, and Boris Johnson the main event. Ignoring surging infections, rising hospitalisations, and warnings about the prevalence of long Covid and incubating more infectious, deadlier variants, the Prime Minister announced the removal of practically all pandemic restrictions from 19th July. Almost embracing projections of positive tests rising to 50,000/day, Johnson hasn’t so much surrendered to the virus but prostrated himself before it. No Churchillian affectations here, he has declared the country an open territory. Resistance to the surge of invasive infection is too much hard work.

It’s easier to tally the few scraps of control that will survive the 19th. I.e. Self-isolation orders for positive tests, and travel bans to red list countries. Everything else is gone: distancing, masks, the elementary precautions for safe living in the age of Covid, these are now matters of manners or “courtesy”. That’s it, then. We are being doomed to take part in a grand medical experiment for which there is no informed consent. The likely results? More suffering, more death, and vaccine escape. How can anyone in good conscience and not beholden to the interests the Tories congeal and push back these moves? The BBC’s health correspondent chances his arm. Nick Triggle argues letting infections rise now is better than in the early autumn because the health service will start coming under pressure from other respitory illnesses, and being outdoors in the summer means infections are depressed anyway. How about an alternative? Like keeping most existing restrictions – which are doing a poor job of containing the Delta variant anyway – and making sure workers and businesses are properly supported in the mean time, which has not been the case from the off. Vaccinate and drive down transmission.

We know the answer to this. The Tories want cities thrumming to the sound of workers marching to their workplaces so the property portfolios of their backers start showing rental income again. They want to dampen expectations about different ways of doing things by ignoring the pandemic and forcing us into the old patterns of life, and they want to make sure the petty authoritarianism of the bosses whip us back into shape following, in their eyes, an 18 month holiday. But how have they got away with their catastrophic handling of this crisis so far, and why, in the immediate term, is the scrapping of the rules going to be met with a shrug and mild grumbling?

It comes down to the necropolitics. As all states are concerned with managing their populations, their sovereignty is exercised over them in the first instance. Ultimately, this is exercised by deciding who among its citizenry lives and who dies. Coined by Achille Mbembe to think through questions of war and state violence, it equally lends itself to responses to emergency situations, like a pandemic. Every state has made decisions about expendable populations and, to borrow the language of nuclear war modelling, “acceptable losses”. New Zealand and most East Asian states, for example, decided no deaths were a price worth paying for freedom/the economy/whatever, and the pain of a sharp, stringent lockdown was mitigated by a quick return to normalcy. At the other extreme were the Covid kleptocracies of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. For them suffering and death meant nothing as long as they could gesture their peculiar alpha male defiance of the disease. A pity it never carried both of them off after contracting it.

The Tories are closer to the latter than the former. Early on, Boris Johnson’s first instinct was to recommend handwashing, working from home if possible, but otherwise carry on as normal. In the absence of government direction, but against the backdrop of galloping infections and mounting deaths, workers voted with their feet and the Tories were forced to appropriate the plan put forward by the outgoing leader of the opposition. Their desire for a necropolitical strategy that put GDP and rentier income before public health was thwarted when the public had other ideas. What emerged then was a compromise: a furlough and business support scheme with huge holes, effectively defining the lowest paid – mostly women, mostly minority ethnicities – as an expendable layer of the labour force. This at the time the government were shipping old people out of hospital into care homes and directly causing tens of thousands more deaths. Another acceptable loss. Moving into the summer Johnson talked bullishly about forcing people back into work, and thinking aloud about schemes that would encourage herd immunity by getting people back in shops. The eventual result was the infamous Help Out to Eat Out initiative, which according to the epidemiology was directly responsible for 8-17% of Covid infections by September and set the stage for the brutalities of the winter wave. Dishy Rishi served up a dose of the Covids to tens of thousands because, ultimately, they and the (mostly young) workers who served them were deemed worth risking. Certainly less important than getting the Bank of England to buy more government gilts to support hospitality and write them off later.

Autumn and winter was the same story. The country was late into the second lockdown, which was far less stringent and enforced than the first, and it was only apocalyptic scenes in hospitals in late December and early January that forced the Tories’ hand again. These were not the actions of a government who put the defence of the realm first, unless “the realm” is defined by the power politics structuring the Tory imaginary. On this occasion, they were quite prepared to keep on risking the health of teachers and parents by letting children attend school and spread the infection to their families at home. That was until the teaching unions forced them to backtrack. And immediately, the same issues manifested. Not enough support, a lockdown with a wizard’s sleeve’s worth of openings, more latitude to bosses to reopen workplaces, the lack of seriousness undoubtedly prolonged the third wave and caused needless illness and death.

And now we’re in the foothills of a fourth wave driven by a more infectious strain with some resistance to the AstraZeneca jab. How have the Tories managed to avoid political punishment for the disaster, and are set on letting it all rip? The public health management was a joke, but the Tories have handled the necropolitics expertly. Even while Johnson dithered, the accent immediately switched to personal responsibility. The government were prepared to enforce the rules, but we had individual responsibility to obey them. This strategy was reinforced by that trip to Barnard Castle – Cummings was pilloried, failed to show contrition and was protected by the Prime Minister, but the message emphasised the importance of individual conduct. If he was irresponsible, then others still catching it under the circumstances of a relatively stringent lockdown must be likewise. People were being foolhardy, careless, or were downright unlucky. This is the key to the government’s success with the necropolitical. We have not seen the last year’s levels of state intervention since the war. The economy was kept on life support by political decisions, and government took direct responsibility for the NHS, particularly PPE procurement and vaccine funding. The corruption, the failures, and the forcing of millions into work unnecessarily was their decision and their responsibility. But this has almost entirely been negated thanks to the constant stress on individual behaviour, buoyed by press stories about illegal raves and a myriad of curtain-twitching tales circulating on Facebook. The lack of official opposition has assisted the Tory framing of the necropolitics too, underpinning the indifference and apathy sapping Keir Starmer’s leadership.

With nothing to stop the Tories, they’re moving to the next phase of their dangerous experiment. The state is ostensibly washing its hands of pandemic governance and leaving it to what Johnson likes to call the good sense of the British people. If you are unfortunate to fall ill now, it’s bad luck or you weren’t abiding by voluntary measures. The fact everywhere is opening, government support is getting run down, the neoliberal logic central to Tory necropolitics is being allowed to stand on its own two feet, like the good pair of discursive and material bootstraps it is. The heavy paw of the state is out and the invisible hand is our best defence against the invisible enemy. The Tories can, they believe, affect a “not me guv” pose and as tens of thousands succumb they blame it on misfortune or bad decision-making.

Neoliberal necropolitics isn’t going to work. It will maim and it will kill, and the Tories might pay a heavy price for their reckless indolence. A guaranteed failure even before given free reign, an entirely deregulated and “free” necropolitics is worth a gamble because the promise of their utopia is so close to hand. This is a world in which they’re utterly dominant in British politics and the historic opportunity they have to set the tenor of state power, its episodic Keynesianism and industrial activism, and management of class relations has been shrunk by the Coronavirus distraction. Rigging the country’s political economy and the rules of the political game permanently to their advantage is the prize. And if the bodies have to pile high by the thousands, that’s a price the Tories are happy for others – us – to pay.

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