Part 2 of 5 of the COVID-19 Series
by Maximilian C Forte
https://zeroanthropology.net (April 27 2020)
The Routes of Panic
It turns out that when people panic, they panic according to a template. Panic follows established routes and is more structured than we might think since we might think of it as being amorphous, uncontrolled, and chaotic. Sometimes the template is handed to us via mass-mediated popular culture. On other occasions, the template has been provided by the state. We have moved from “duck and cover” in the 1960s to “plastic sheets and duct tape” after 9/11/2001, to the present insistence on “handwashing”, “social distancing” and “stay at home”. It’s amazing how often fear is regulated – and even comes with a manual.
Let’s look at the hidden rationale behind one instance of the current panic. Take the example of the panic-driven buying of toilet paper. Now why toilet paper? Whoever said anything about toilet paper being the first commodity that would disappear? Why all the urgency around getting mountains of toilet paper and cramming it all into one’s SUV? Was there some rumour that lumber mills had been paralyzed? Was the pulp and paper industry facing imminent risk of complete collapse?
The rush to buy toilet paper could not be articulated by many of the people who rushed to hoard it. For example, Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax, observed: “we’ve seen a lot of reports of erratic behaviour, people just not being able to explain what they were doing as they were buying toilet paper”. They cannot explain themselves in words, but that does not mean that they were acting irrationally. Instead, their action was “reasonable” given what, as a society, they had been conditioned to perceive and expect as the defining feature of an emergency situation.
To cut to the chase, what we observed here were the workings of a media-based cultural blowback from sanctions aimed at regime change in Venezuela, and the mass shortages that were provoked there. In the case of Venezuela, for years international media propagated stories about “shortages of toilet paper”. There were both worldwide and particularly US spikes of interest in the subject of Venezuela’s alleged toilet paper shortages, and especially in media coverage, throughout 2016 and again in 2018. The shortage of toilet paper appears to have become the new viral meme of crisis theatre. Having seen what happens when other countries faced a crisis, many in the US and here in Canada were thus trained to expect that we too would “naturally” face a shortage of toilet paper – because presumably that’s what always happens in a crisis. A crisis means a lot of people with unclean behinds?
More seriously, crisis is equated with shortages, and shortages are equated with shortages of toilet paper. I personally witnessed, like many readers have as well, individuals buying vast bundles of toilet paper, and virtually no food – a radical mismatch between “intake” and “output”. In the cases I witnessed, the cashiers withheld some of the toilet paper and blocked customers from buying beyond a fixed limit; in another supermarket, notices were posted that customers could not buy more than three family packs of toilet paper (which is still excessive).
But what is especially grim is that people were not panic buying because they thought they might need to “self-isolate” if they got sick. They are just not that altruistic, to go to extra expense at a time when their jobs were threatened, in case they had to stay home for the sake of others. Instead, why they were panic buying was because they expected everything around them to shut down. What they feared was a total shutdown of the economy, and its eventual collapse. Even in Canada, sales of guns and ammunition have soared in recent weeks.
The bizarre result could amount to a rudimentary schematics of social fission, a division between the haves and have-nots: those with clean behinds and loaded guns versus those with clean (or no) guns and loaded behinds. That is a joke (I hope). The really serious division is between the financially well-endowed upper classes and the very vulnerable working class which is shouldering the burden of this crisis.
When at the end of this series we consider the divergent likely futures that can emerge from this crisis, we will have to factor in how this crisis has turned “risk management” into an everyday feature of interpersonal relations. The kind of social structure that is informed by a culture of fear is something that is itself awesome to ponder. What happens if “distancing” becomes the new code, one that rewrites architectural design, urban planning, and mass transportation? What if “work at home”, now proven to be a feasible option in some professions, becomes permanent?
Is It an Experiment?
One does not need to believe that COVID-19 was deliberately deployed as part of some elaborate and extremely sinister experiment, to understand how it can still be used experimentally. There is nothing to stop the authorities from simply observing, learning, and applying knowledge gained from this experience. In some respects, this crisis could just as easily fortify neoliberal political projects, as it could undermine them. We are thus heading towards a massive socio-economic fork in the road, very quickly. If this is not the palpable onset of bifurcation, then what would be?
On the restorationist side, of those seeking to reassert the status quo ante, fear has granted a certain class of experts free reign. Innocently enough, medical doctors are allowed to directly shape public policy – but without much of a social science background if any. Thus some leading medical experts have commented to the news media that “fear” will “divide us” – which only proves that too much room has been surrendered to doctors. Analyses of fear are best left to psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and historians. There is nothing about fear that mandates that social division will result – indeed, fear can be a great unifying force. It can both unite and divide, even at the same time, on different levels. In other words, there is nothing inherent to fear that carries any specific social implications that take on any definite shape. Not only that, fear can be made to go away. However, it is in the interest of some to make sure that some type of fear retains a permanent presence, and that fear could be about health, or it could be about “the economy”. (Something tells me that by the time we surface from this pandemic, the concept of “the economy” will have been battered beyond repair.)
We are clearly being tested – even if not by conscious design – for our “resilience”, as individuals primarily. How good are we at following public health directives, and listening to the commands of our elected leaders? There is a video compilation of Italian mayors’ exasperated public statements, denouncing citizens for their failures to observe strict isolation requirements. Some found this to be hilarious, but I thought it was pretty disturbing with some mayors going as far as wishing extreme harm on their constituents. Some of these individuals might find themselves out of office soon: see the compilation (with English subtitles that unfortunately omit some richly colourful obscenities) at https://youtu.be/KxtGJsnLgSc.
We can see some evidence of the rule by technocrats, mixed in with the expansion of executive powers, and the additions of mass confinement, economic dislocation, and dependency on the authorities for survival. This can become a useful exercise in top-down fear management. The crisis is too good for neoliberalism to not use it to try to salvage itself, especially when its existence is what is immediately threatened. The fear, then, is on all sides.
The Politics of Risk and Fear
Fear maximizes regimentation. Fear dictates mass response. Fear can also increase trust in authority, out of a desire for protection, especially in societies that have long enforced processes of infantilizing and disempowering citizens. Fear renders those who normally live in a state of dependency – dependent on others for certification, for authorization, for jobs, for goods and services – even more dependent. Fear has people looking outwards and upwards. It is therefore not surprising that in the earliest days and weeks of the crisis that polls registered increased trust in the authorities, both in Canada and the US (personally, my fear maximizes my distrust of the authorities, probably because I am maladjusted, a misfit). There was a marked confidence in the authorities, that they would do their job of “protection” and “care”, of keeping us “safe”. There were very early suggestions that mass surveillance measures would now be justified.
As expected, this would soon begin to alarm libertarians who reserve for “big government” the kinds of critique which they always spare “big business”. They would soon begin to wonder aloud if basic civil liberties were being stolen, if the reaction had gone too far, and if governments were assuming too much power, so much that they would start liking it and maybe not let go of added powers once the virus was over. Libertarian ideologue, Fox News’ Judge Andrew Napolitano would more than once sound warnings such as this, that out of a desire for security Americans were sacrificing their liberty, and would end up with neither. The only result would be tyranny. It is one of the well-inculcated formulas of American ideological training. What leaves most Americans comparatively speechless, however, are the massive bureaucracies to be found in the monumental administrative apparatuses of corporations – something they forget until the time comes to call their health insurance provider. Had any of them read, or remembered, Max Weber’s analysis of the office, they would have made note of the fact that governance exceeds the bounds of government, that the bureaucratic structure of the office is a widely spread social institution, to be found in all sectors of modern society.
So the question cannot be one of whether we can escape the clutches of “big government”. Clearly, we cannot. The only question is which big government do we trust more – the one over which we might have some nominal control, or the one designed to answer no one except shareholders and serves the interests of profit for a few. The failure of libertarians is in recognizing the replication of forms throughout a society, or the appearance of supposed opposites as pairs – for example, that the corporations of the public sector are what we call political parties, whereas the political parties of the private sector are what we call companies; or that both business and government involve bureaucracy. The same basic form is geometrically reproduced across society, whether in the private or public sectors: thus properties are shared in common between prisons, factories, army barracks, and schools. When mass regimentation happens, it is never just the “fault” of “big government”.
There have already been some protests, like those in Michigan, which were conveniently and opportunistically timed to be featured prominently on Fox News on the eve of Trump’s announcement of a gradual reopening of business activity. Trump himself was frank in his support for the protesters, claiming that they supported his way of thinking and “liked” him – of course they did. The protesters were banded together as the so-called “Michigan Conservative Coalition”. The US has a long record of promoting and organizing protesters in other countries to undermine target governments. The next day, Trump cheered on protesters in Minnesota who, ironically, called for a relaxation of restrictions on the same day that the state registered its largest number of cases. Since then a new organization has been formed, calling itself “Liberate America”. Yet the protests are not restricted to Trump-land alone, with some materializing in Germany and Canada.
When there seems to be no “off switch” or no “stop button”, everything that lies ahead seems more perilous than what we passed on the way here. This has not been an “apocalypse”, Hollywood-style, but it has been devastating and it could conceivably become a social apocalypse if things start falling apart. If the authorities clamp down too much for too long, without providing enough of a social safety net or an escape valve to release pressure, then popular discontent could mount. Working in a lose-lose situation, if the authorities appear to relax too much, too soon, effectively handing the population over to the viral wolf at the door, that too could stoke popular opposition.
Seeking to quell popular opposition, and maybe prevent the occurrence of riots and looting, “stay at home” orders can be employed by authorities that fear the masses. Such orders can be useful for quashing any attempts at organizing, protesting, or rioting. Using “public health” concerns to justify repressive policing is not that far-fetched, and many fearful, trusting citizens will applaud the authorities for bashing in a few heads, for the greater good.
Where some libertarians and more interesting thinkers have a valid point is in alerting us to the risk of governments appropriating, exploiting, and abusing “public health risks” as a convenient means of increasing their power. This would actually be in keeping with a substantial amount of modern history, from colonialist “hygiene” campaigns to eugenics and class control in urban areas of Europe and North America. Numerous missionary campaigns launched expeditions to save the Natives from themselves, in the name of eradicating “sickness”. We need to be really wary of this, because a similar set of features took shape after 9/11, with the “securitization” of everything. “Security” and its conjoined twin “safety” left their mark everywhere, from the level of the state, to a foreign “war on terror”, to increased home security, gated communities, and now even “safe spaces” on campus. Everything was now about security. A health emergency can fit in perfectly. We thus need to be extremely sensitive to, and beware of how a good cause – public health – and how a genuine risk – a viral pandemic – can be hijacked by power-hungry opportunists: in a word, biojackers. “Biopolitics” and “biopower” will now take on new meanings that can be understood more bluntly and more literally than Foucault’s still debated concepts.
“Public hygiene” – which is a legitimate good cause – can be misdirected and twisted to suit agendas that go well beyond health concerns. We have seen this very same process in the case of “human rights”, becoming “humanitarian intervention”, and thus an ideological fig-leaf for naked imperialist aggression serving the cause of regime change. After 9/11, the state drew legitimation from the need to “protect” people and ensure their “security” and “safety”, which – very quickly – became a justification for permanent war, permanent occupation, regime change, mass surveillance, the curtailment of civil liberties, censorship, and persecution of dissidents. Fear of a “public health crisis” erupting in this or that locale (especially one conveniently situated atop massive oil or strategic mineral reserves), would be a crisis too good to waste.
It will thus require some sensitivity to history, and some sophistication in understanding how any one thing can be manipulated into becoming many other things, to understand that “public health” and “hygiene” can be revived in the cause of global recolonization. The hygienic narrative can easily be added to the repertoire of humanitarian interventionism. There will be no shortage of both racism and ethnocentrism. We may soon hear justifications for intervention on the basis of “preventing a public health catastrophe and a repeat of COVID-19”. Governments (“regimes”) allegedly failing to enforce public hygiene, will be treated as if they had forfeited sovereignty. The failure to maintain public hygiene, the imagined threat of conditions being created for a new viral outbreak, will be seen as the equivalent of a people being incapable of self-governance. Self-rule, national self-determination, will be challenged on the grounds of health … “and remember”, we are sure to be told, “health issues are human rights issues too”, wink, wink.
The lurid, power-hungry glimmer appearing in Trump’s eyes as he asserts that he has “total power” is just one sign of the lustful delight that “emergency” can furnish to opportunists. True, Trump clearly resented the virus personally, as an opponent that threatened his chances at re-election, one preventing his “numbers” from “going up”, not allowing him to boast about paper-thin “economic gains” just when he started bellowing at rallies that the new slogan is “Keep America Great!”. Just as the virus for Trump became a personal matter of his desires and fears, it soon took another form: something delicious, a beautiful opportunity to get bigger and badder.
Borders and Distancing
Typically over the past 20~30 years, anyone who openly worried about the prospect of international passenger jets carrying contagion, would likely have been called a reactionary Luddite, a xenophobic demagogue, or even a racist for implicitly linking “the foreign” with “danger”. This crisis must be exceedingly embarrassing and inconvenient for the orthodox scribes who attend to the upkeep of the once-dominant narrative. We are waiting to be reminded of how globalization has made the world more stable, and made our lives better. Behold how peaceful and prosperous is a world shut down and quarantined by capitalist globalization. Let’s hear three more cheers for capitalism, how it has made everyone safer, and remember: “capitalism works”. The coronavirus also works, and without any of the armies which capitalism used to annihilate alternatives.
“The virus respects no borders” – this is what we heard from both the World Health Organization early on, and governments such as those of Canada, France, et al, that is until they did a radical about-face. If borders really did not matter, then why self-isolate? Why the quarantines? Those are border-making processes. The neoliberal option was to transfer the principle of borders from the society-level, down to the individual level, in conformity with the neoliberal dictum that there is no society. Self-responsibilization was thus emphasized, as it too is a cornerstone of the neoliberal ethic. Thus we saw an ideologically-driven commitment to keeping borders open, even while imposing borders between individuals and sites within the society. The virus did not move magically across borders because it had some sort of contempt for borders as if COVID-19 had been a regular participant at Davos gatherings. The virus had only to move inside people who were allowed to pass through borders. Saying that shutting down travel and restricting entry would be “ineffective” manifested the determined paralysis and deliberate inaction that purposefully sought to undermine basic principles of national sovereignty – at least for as long as it seemed politically feasible (not long at all). If restricting movement was truly ineffective, then so would quarantines and self-isolation.
Neoliberals such as Justin Trudeau did not shut down borders until the virus had been allowed ample entry into Canada, through multiple ports. Only when the virus began to rapidly escalate, and when other countries began restricting travel, did Canada follow suit. In any case, it didn’t matter: keeping borders open to countries that restricted travel made little sense. However, what was detectable for a couple of weeks was the neoliberal preference for open borders, and a society broken down into confined pockets. The primary goal was not in preventing people from getting sick, but preventing them from getting sick all at the same time. Political leaders are the technocratic managers of the transnational capitalist class, so their decisions in a time of crisis are instructive. Trudeau instructed Canadians that the length of the shutdown would “depend on the choices that Canadians make”, thus making individuals responsible for the policies imposed on them. He said so explicitly when he spoke of how Canadians needed to make “responsible choices”. This is the neoliberal idealization of agency. Canadians would need to automate their ability to act as rational choice calculators, to deploy as informed and vigilant consumers, and to show deference to authority.
Yet in another respect, neoliberal management failed itself, because there is no winning in a crisis such as this one. The failure to enforce borders directly resulted in a shutdown of economic activity – a cardinal sin for any good neoliberal. “Creative destruction” is one thing, but this is starting to look like just destructive destruction. Stocks plunged to the most dramatic degree since the Great Depression, with unemployment skyrocketing to an extent also not seen in many decades. This was neoliberal mismanagement: a combination of dogma and indecision, of being actively deployed in a state of paralysis. There was no better example of this active paralysis than a quarantined prime minister and his infected wife, remaining in seclusion in his residence even after his wife’s recovery, pretending to operate the country via remote control.
One of the additional features of active paralysis has been absentee governance, or something approximating an absence of government at the federal level in Canada in terms of the reluctance to have elected parliamentarians sitting in the legislative assembly in Ottawa to do their jobs. Meanwhile, minimum-wage cashiers in supermarkets are required to risk their lives to serve the public. It is not just fear that would have a ruling party or head of government virtually or actually suspend parliament: it was out of a desire to avoid having to answer for their actions and decisions. Israel has now become a fully-fledged dictatorship. Trump wanted to “adjourn” Congress – that is, suspend parliament – while declaring that his power is total. (Next, he will cancel elections.) In Canada, Trudeau rules from isolation and digs his heels into the ground when it comes to having parliament sit.
What has become painfully evident to all of us is at least two things. One is that globalization, and the globalism that upholds it, have literally sickened people. All have been put in danger, many have already died, and more will die. Such a system cannot be allowed to continue, as a practical matter of survival. Concerns for “cost” and “efficiency” will necessarily have to be tossed aside. Goods may cost more, but it would also mean more local employment, and hopefully at higher rates of return. Emphasizing cheap costs means emphasizing low wages, which in turn means poverty creation and thus the production of a class of people who become especially vulnerable to viruses and to spreading them.
The second facet involves greater reflection on the wasteful, needless nature of the incessant travel that has occurred worldwide in ever-increasing volumes over the past years and decades. People were jetting and cruising around as if it had been an ordinary, routine necessity of living – and now the reality that has exploded in everyone’s faces is just how harmful were such consumption patterns. In academia hopefully this will spell an end to the extreme travel culture that has taken hold, with many tens of thousands of academics jetting to-and-fro every week of the year to attend any of the countless conferences in dozens of disciplines, or to appear as guest speakers. Huge amounts of publicly funded research grants have been extinguished as exhaust in the atmosphere, by travellers who directly exposed themselves and their societies to needless exposure to actual or prospective viral outbreaks.
It is important that we become accustomed to Zoom video conferencing, or whatever alternative platform emerges. Personally, I would also recommend that universities move towards a greater mix in the delivery of courses, allowing some to be delivered online, or allowing some faculty (those who wish) to do all of their teaching online. Perhaps the latter move could reduce costs to students: reduced tuition should follow from lessened demand on space and the various overhead expenses needed to maintain physical spaces. For cash-strapped universities, greater online teaching could free up enough physical space that whole buildings could be sold, or refitted and rented, immediately generating new revenue either way. Every university student and professor in North America today has had direct and recent experience with online teaching – so at least the very concept is no longer unthinkable. Online teaching has just entered the tried and tested column.
Distance Annihilates Globalization
Those in power have done something interesting by introducing the distancing ethic. Distancing is the exact opposite of the ethic of globalization. In Canada some in the media quibble over whether the better term is “physical distancing” instead of “social distancing” when they amount to the same thing. Liberal Canadian media like to downplay the social impacts, reducing everything to individual human interest stories – they pretend that mediated “togetherness” is what counts most, and in-person distance is merely “physical”. The point is, however, that globalization promised an end to all distancing, particularly physical distancing. How “physical distancing” can become useful to the authorities is by reinforcing some other lessons: that your health is your responsibility; public health is a matter of individual decisions and individual practices. Physical distancing could emphasize individualism if it magnifies and isolates the “I” and obliterates the “us”. On the other hand, individual distancing, motivated by a concern for the common good, would instead introduce a collectivist principle. In other words, little is really clear-cut in a crisis that has every social sector losing something. What is interesting to see is that globalization itself is proving to be one of the biggest of all the losers.
Among the famous phrases purporting to explain globalization, were ones such as “time-space compression”, and how “time had annihilated distance”. Globalization itself is projected to become one of the main “losers” of the coronavirus, both in the immediate and near terms. That the new ethics of distancing and isolation, coupled with national self-supply, both mean the annihilation of globalization, is a fact that is now recognized by too many writers for all of them to have been lifelong, hardcore anti-globalists. Outlines of the next economic model have come into focus.
However, to be clear not everything one may associate with globalization in all of its multiple forms, will just vanish. Some aspects may be strengthened, particularly the advance of digitization, Internet communication, and automation. Travel, hotels, airlines, international car rentals, Airbnb, all of these may suffer a deep and irreparable decline, and one can reasonably expect some businesses to fail utterly, including Airbnb. While travel and tourism can be expected to go into a deep and enduring decline, the value of the Internet has been enhanced. Thus de-globalization will be as partial and selective as globalization itself was.
Note also how the epicentres of the pandemic were most often the centres of the world economy: China, the US (particularly New York state), Italy and Spain in the EU, the UK. On the other hand, most of the periphery – minus major exceptions like Iran – still remain peripheral to the outbreak. COVID-19 is a disease that follows the pattern of global capitalist integration. The lesson here is a reverse of the globalist dogma taught in development studies for the past 30 plus years: now it’s those with fewer linkages that fare better. That does not mean that Africa, for example, has remained untouched – on the contrary, even the initial effects of the crisis have already been severe.
The new buzzwords in the North American media – still shy about calling it de-globalization – are “onshoring” (instead of the “offshoring” of companies, capital, and jobs), or “reshoring” (as in “bringing it back home” with reference to the production of strategic supplies). “De-coupling” is a rather oblique term, fashionable among Financial Times writers, for essentially speaking of de-globalization: a breaking off of linkages that rendered one country dependent on another. Suddenly it is common to hear about “supply chains”, particularly since it became evident that even supposedly major economies went into this crisis totally naked, without their own production and supply of masks, gloves, and medical gowns, let alone their own domestic supply of key pharmaceuticals. At the very least on the medical front alone, the post-COVID world will be remarkably altered, and it is already altering rapidly. This is not a hypothesis as much as an observation. We can expect that in academia new life will be breathed into Dependency Theory, which now seems much more relevant and useful than four decades of fluffy globalization theories.
As we now collectively begin to speak of national self-reliance, and look to ourselves and our own resources, skills, and abilities in meeting our own needs, another old realization will come back to the fore: we do not need any foreign master. We do not need any foreign master, whether new or old, whether it is China or the US. Some think (wishfully, not analytically) that it is only China’s alleged plan to become the centre of global power that will be harmed from this pandemic – but it is US hegemony that will now meet its fullest and most visible decline.
As an anthropologist, I want to challenge readers to stop thinking of the world necessarily being polar, whether uni-polar, bi-polar, or multi-polar. The fact of the matter is that for the vast majority of the time that humans have existed on this planet, our planet was non-polar. Global “poles” are an invention of the last 500 years – not a particularly good invention, rarely a welcome invention, and clearly not a sustainable invention. As we increasingly turn into a New Old World, let’s hope that the “old” part is really old.
Part 3 of this series turns squarely to questions of geopolitical dominance, especially where the two contending powers – China and the US – have both rooted their power in a highly deficient process: globalization.