Scientists, public intellectuals, and journalists bemoan denialism, but have no solutions to offer apart from urging us to fight harder not to get sucked into an ocean of misinformation. This is because they refuse to engage with the roots of the problem, which cannot be addressed by doubling down on the denial that there are any legitimate sources of understanding apart from science. After scientism has hollowed out public discourse of any way to present and disagree about values and ways of living, where else is discontent with policies that claim to only ‘follow the science’ to be directed except at the science itself?
By fostering a political culture, in which placing responsibility for a political decision on ‘the science’ is a viable way of defending it, scientism has made challenging science the only way to challenge political decisions. But, in both cases, a debate that should be about politics is misdirected. Political decisions cannot merely follow science, because political decisions, as any decisions for that matter, are motivated by specific interpretations and values. They are not merely dictated by the facts. As Jana Bacevic recently wrote in an Op-Ed in The Guardian: “What policymakers choose to prioritise at these moments is a matter of political judgment. Is it the lives of the elderly and the ill? Is it the economy? Or is it political approval ratings?” If our ability to discuss and argue over values had not been degraded, we could demand that policy-makers defend their choice to prioritise certain values over others, rather than taking refuge in the claim that scientific facts determine what choices they make, as though they were hardly choices at all.
Pandemic humour, Polish style, via a UK colleague whose roots are in that country:
Translation: “Doctors are clapping disease out of the patient. Firefighters are clapping the fire out of the forest. The teacher is clapping knowledge into pupils.”
For all its ongoing troubles, Poland is apparently still a country capable of recognising performative bullshit when it sees it.
Struggling to write on sociological topics (or indeed on anything that engages significantly with social dimensions, whether academically or otherwise)? David Beer is, too:
… beyond the problems of the speed of change and a lack of focus, there is also a sense that the thing I’d normally be analysing – society – will not be the same. Unknowable differences are currently populating an imagined horizon. Those futures should be examined, but I’m also waiting to see what the social world that emerges will look like. It’s hard to do sociology and social science when you aren’t quite sure what the social is and how it is working. It could be that increased networking, heightened and more visual social media connections, video links, mobile tracking and other features will persist, these will need to be thought through in detail.
The new social formations might well be even more technologically centered than those that went before. The scale of the changes might even mean that we will need to rethink the domain assumptions, ideas and theories that have underpinned social analysis. Maybe, as things settle into their new formations, some new openings will be found. Social research at a distance is proving hard to fathom. Once any new variants of the social can be seen then the possibilities for understanding will need to be widely explored.
This is an issue that is coming up a lot among colleagues and friends at the moment. It thus feels a little odd to find myself in one of my more seemingly productive phases… but that may have something to do with a significant chunk of my last fifteen years having been spent in imitation of the lock-down experience when it comes to patterns of working: as much as I’m not particularly happy to be back there, working in my living-room is actually far more familiar to me than having an office to go to and colleagues to hang out with. It may also be related to my having withdrawn from the attention-barrage of socnets far earlier—though that means I’ve been feeling that detachment-from-the-immediate for far longer, too, and I’m as yet uncertain as to whether that’s a net win with regard to my work. (With regard to my mental health, however, it remains perhaps the smartest move I’ve ever made.)
I guess the takeaway point here is that, if you’re struggling to concentrate on writing about the world, don’t be too hard on yourself; some of the greatest minds in that business are struggling, too.
(That said, the Hot-Take Futures Factory still seems to be running at full tilt, but I think that serves only to underscore the point Beer is making: any serious engagement with social issues requires the starting admission that prediction is bunk at the best of times, and all the more so under the current state of fluxion. But ThoughtLords gotta ThoughtLord, amirite? Those Teslas won’t pay for themselves.)
OK, this is gonna be a long one. And if the C19 situation is fraught for you, then consider this a content warning—I’m going to talk about mortality and our societal attitudes to such.
I’ve been wanting to write something like this for a good few weeks, but have frankly been too much of a coward to do so. I’m only now stepping into the arena because I can follow in the footsteps of Silvia Camporesi, an bioethicist currently under lockdown with her newborn child in Northern Italy. After setting the stage in the present, Camporesi returns us to the pivotal moment of serious outbreak, and to a well-intended attempt at medico-ethical transparency which ran afoul of the polarising morality-machine of media in an age of attention economics.
The document [that the Italian College of Anaesthesia, Analgesia, Resuscitation and Intensive Care] released in early March aimed to guarantee ventilators for patients with the highest probability of therapeutic success – that is, those with the ‘highest hope of survival’. The criteria adopted were utilitarian: age and pre-existing medical conditions were factors that pushed a patient down the line.
The document provoked an uproar. The media feasted on it, spreading the panic. The situation in Italy was certainly exceptional due to the sheer number of cases presenting themselves each day. It’s likely the first time that many of these doctors, especially the younger ones, were being faced with such harrowing choices. Yet, from an ethical point of view, the document was neither unprecedented nor revolutionary.
She goes on to compare the triage process to that used in deciding how to distribute organ transplants, while pointing out a significant difference, in that folk in need of transplants can conceivably sit in a holding pattern for some time before a suitable donor is found; a C19 patient may die very fast if they can’t be given a ventilator.
But here’s the important bit:
The fact that we Italians think that these decisions are exceptional reveals the ways that our privilege has concealed the reality of finite healthcare resources. One of my bioethics students, Caitlin Gardiner, is also an Accident and Emergency (A&E) doctor in the UK. She reminded me that, in her native South Africa, such balancing acts are the norm. There, as she told me, only the tiniest fraction of patients who are ‘not too sick’ – that is, not too old, not living with HIV/AIDS, not too ill or too premature, if they’re babies – get to receive intensive care. And death from tuberculosis (another infectious respiratory disease), after being denied access to intensive care, is entirely normal. There are lessons to be learnt from the Global South, such as how to have humane but open discussions about prioritising patients. It’s best to have this kind of conversation in a non-emergency situation, when the emotions of patients, relatives and clinicians aren’t running quite so high. Arguably, we should talk not just about whom to intubate, but also about when to withdraw ventilation if a patient with a better chance of survival were to arrive. Beyond the context of a pandemic, developed countries don’t typically face these quandaries, which explains the moral distress on the COVID-19 wards in northern Italy, where doctors and nurses have been reported weeping in the hallways.
Camporesi goes on to discuss the intergenerational dimensions of the lockdown responses, whereby (to simplify a great deal) the young and less-at-risk are being cooped up and, in many cases, put in a situation where their already precarious employment circumstances are totally hosed—this being the same generation that (unavoidably) will have to pay off the debt incurred by the lockdown response in taxes and (more likely than not) endure yet more years of austerity in state provision. She also points out that the evidence that any of this will be any more effective at dealing with the virus in the long term (by comparison to, say, the Swedish approach) is extremely thin, to the point of being almost entirely based on speculative models assembled quickly for an audience of policymakers—i.e. for people whose working notion of futurity is rigidly delimited by the current electoral cycle.
For the sake of clarity, this is not to endorse the UK government’s much-discussed early-phase “herd immunity” strategy; I’m not doing that, and I’m pretty sure that Camporesi isn’t, either. (Nor is it to side with the misinformed rent-a-mobs besieging statehouses in the US—though there is perhaps at least one level on which we should sympathise with them, even while believing their actions to have been purposefully misguided by manipulative hucksters and shills.) The point is to get beyond the prevailing moral binaries and start grappling with the really tricky shit… and we can start by reiterating a crucial distinction which is getting lost in the discourse. To re-quote Camporesi again:
The fact that we […] think that these decisions are exceptional reveals the ways that our privilege has concealed the reality of finite healthcare resources.
Over the last fifty or sixty years, those of us with the privilege to be among the middle class of the Global North have grown accustomed to the idea that no one has to die before their time. That idea is illusory on two levels.
Firstly, it relies on a quantitative metric whereby the goodness of a life is measured by its length. This contradiction has its ultimate expression in the absurd and tragic immortalist aspirations of the transhumanists, and is tied up with the logic of accumulation: if capitalism is the game of seeing who gets to die with the most stuff, then the longer you’re in the game, the better chance you have of placing high on the leader-board. But the contradiction at the heart of that morality is manifest in privatised and for-profit provision of social care, an oxymoronic project in which miserable conditions for workers and inmates alike do little to disguise the extractive logic of the underlying system. The fact that it is this same for-profit system of social care where so many of the C19 deaths are concentrated is perhaps the grimmest irony I’ve ever encountered in my life so far.
The second level of illusion was pointed out by Camporesi further up. It’s never been that “no one” should die before their time, it’s that no one like us should die before their time—nice white middle-class people with money. Outside of the Global North, people die “before their time” all the fucking time—indeed, increasing numbers of them die in the course of their trying to get into the Global North. But that doesn’t merit much of a response, save either fleeting feelings of pathos which can be alleviated by charitable donations, or a more callous (but in some respects more honest) dismissal of those lives as being less deserving of duration.
It is the collision of these two illusions, and their simultaneous shattering by an Outside Context Problem which has demonstrated that a system over-optimised to the point that it has no slack is a system with no long-term resilience, that is causing the ongoing epistemic rupture. The grief over loved lives lost is real, and a significant part of the societal trauma, but there is another level of grief at play as well—namely the grieving of the shattered imaginary world in which this sort of thing wasn’t meant to be possible: the grief for deaths, but also the grief for the rediscovery of death in the abstract as an implacable and fundamentally unfair aspect of being alive. Death doesn’t care about your class, your education, about where you were born or how hard you worked. Death just ends you anyway. And our ability to assume otherwise is, to reiterate, a pretty recent (and unevenly distributed) thing, as Hugh Pennington’s memories of the all-but-forgotten flu pandemics of the late 1950s and early 1960s make clear.
I am a socialist. I believe that the entire point of a collectivised healthcare system is to minimise the inevitable suffering of our mortal existence, and to distribute what suffering cannot be done away with as fairly as possible, without regard to the privilege of circumstance. That neoliberalism has twisted that ideal into this lottery of misery is beyond tragic, and has made me very angry for a long time. The C19 situation has only amplified that anger. I am not for a moment suggesting that the UK government’s herd-immunity approach was ethically valid.
But I think it’s long overdue that the reasons for its ethical invalidity were discussed truthfully. Yes, to have followed that strategy would have resulted in far greater numbers of deaths than are even now currently occuring—but that scale of deadliness is in no small part a function of the socioeconomic structuring of UK society as currently constituted. As the experiences of Germany and other countries have shown very clearly, the rate of mortality could be much lower—and that’s nothing to do with the virus itself, but rather the systems in place to deal with such an eventuality.
And so you get the UK lockdown situation, where the vast majority of people accept the need to endure the restrictions so as to minimise the deaths and suffering that would result from a less draconian response—because contrary to the Hobbesean mythology at the heart of liberalism, people are for the most part decent and compassionate, and would hate to think that they’d caused someone else to suffer through their (in)actions. But you also get a very successful manipulation of the narrative by the government, whereby the real and genuine horror of the consequences is positioned in such a way as to obscure the cause of their scale—a cause which was always-already political.
It is entirely right, and entirely human, to grieve for the deaths and suffering of individuals who contract a symptomatic case of C19. It is also entirely right, and entirely human, to point out and decry the systematic and wilful mismanagement of the social contract that has resulted in the number of those deaths being so huge, and to question what might be the long-term consequences of the panicked yet still highly performative and politicised responses to that circumstance; it is not a question of either/or, but a question of and/also. By keeping the focus on the immediate catastrophe, those same people whose actions have made the scale of the catastrophe possible are laying a trail down which they will abscond from responsibility, not just for the catastrophe itself, but for the decades-long aftermath to follow.
(And if that sounds cynical, well, hey: I grew up in Thatcher’s Britain, and then came of age in the ideological vacuum of Blair’s. I’ve seen the successful adaptations that neoliberalism selects for, and the vast majority of the current crop—on both sides of the house—seem like some tiny Pacific island crowded with moral mutants, the halting state of a game to determine who can best compartmentalise their own humanity in order to secure and hold an abstract notion of power for its own sake. None of them ever saw a catastrophe they didn’t fancy themselves fit to manage, because you don’t even make it onto the island if you don’t turn up with that mindset already fully internalised. I know we’re supposed to hate the game rather than the player, but I’ve rather lost patience with that position of late.)
It is my hope that the C19 crisis might do something to dispel the illusion of immortality that capitalism confers upon the privileged. This is not because I somehow relish the thought of people dying, or consider it “necessary”; if you’re looking for the social Darwinists in this situation, you should be looking at the architects of the lockdown, who are quite willing to exploit our emotional response (and, it seems, doing a bang-up job of it, too) in order to get away with retaining their own grasp on power.
Rather, I hope we learn to become more accepting of the uncaring randomness of mortality for two reasons. On an individual level, I think it might serve to make us more appreciative of the time we get—and in a world where pandemics like this are likely to be an increasingly regular event, staged against the unfolding deep-time catastrophe of as-yet all-but-unadressed climate change, we’re going to need that ability to live for the moment.
But on the societal level, I believe that we need to get reacquainted with the randomness of mortality because it serves to remind us that, whether within privileged societies or more globally, the current distribution of death and suffering—and indeed of risk more generally—is mapped by class and race and gender.
We cannot defeat death. But we can seek to distribute it without making tacit decisions about who is more deserving of life—and the first step to doing that is accepting that we cannot expect to be kept alive forever, and that the quality of the time we get matters more than the quantity.
I don’t want older people to die in lonely agony for the sake of corporate profits and political advantage. Nor do I want younger people to live straitened lives of penury and panoptic sousveillance against a backdrop of ecological collapse.
Morality is easy. Ethics is hard.
Back when I used to live in Velcro City’s original namesake, I remember being told many times over, by many different sources, that difficult cases of social exclusion or dysfunction were often tagged by overburdened social workers in the area with the acronym NFP—“normal for Portsmouth”.
Quite how normal (or not) those cases actually were—and quite how true the story was, given that I don’t think I ever heard it first-hand from a social worker—is not the point. (Though I would note that little I have learned since about Po-town or the rest of the UK has given me reason to suspect it of being a complete falsehood; it was always a troubled polis, in a lot of different ways.) The point is that I’m getting a stark lesson in the situated subjectivity of normality right now, and struggling to process it.
To be clear, there are many worse struggles I could be facing; this is not a call for pity, by any means. Furthermore, I suspect everyone’s getting some variant of the same thing, whether on top of other more vital struggles or not: the pandemic is global, but the way we experience it is predominantly local, even as we are plugged in to various sources of news and opinion and experience from elsewhere. Coronavirus is throwing all sorts of new light on the world, and not much of it seems to be flattering in terms of institutional preparedness and honesty.
Things are particularly weird for me right now because I have little precedent for what normal looks like in my current location. I’ve been living in Sweden for a few weeks, and one of those weeks was spent in the Netherlands. I’ve stayed in Lund and Malmo before, but not enough to have a feel for what a busy day or a quiet day looks like. As such, how normal things are now is something of an open question for me. It’s definitely quiet here on campus at Lund… but there are people chatting in the corridor outside my office door right now, and there are students in the common areas downstairs, though perhaps fewer than one might expect even this close to the end of the semester. There were people on my train in to work, though again, fewer than I’d expect for the time of day. There were people at the bar I went to last night, but not many, and the vibe was subdued. There was plenty of food in the shops yesterday, and at present I have no reason to suspect that won’t be the case this evening, too.
All of which is to say: when I open up my channels of news and experience from the UK and the US, I’m slapped with a huge wave of cognitive dissonance. Things are looking pretty panicky in the Anglosphere right now, to say the least.
I have various thoughts and feelings about all of this stuff, but I’m largely keeping it to myself—not least because I’m not an expert in epidemiology or disaster management, and furthermore I’m not sure that anyone needs or wants my lukewarm takes on how things are being handled by anyone, anywhere. There’ll be time enough for that after the pandemic—which, for the sake of total clarity, I very much believe to be a real thing.
But I can’t help but be drawn to the differences between the public vibe here in Sweden and elsewhere—particularly that of the UK, where most of my experiential accounts are coming from. The Swedish government has recommended self-isolation to those with symptoms of respiratory infection, and there’s a recommendation also against gatherings of more than 500 people which is not, AFAIK, actually a thing with any legal force so much as a polite suggestion from the powers that be (albeit one delivered with a justified confidence that it will be followed without significant protest or argument). Lund University is carrying on pretty much as normal, modulo the afore-mentioned self-isolation (my PI, bless him, has had a fever for over a week, but is sat at home grinding out impact evaluations for an ongoing project), and the inevitable uptake of the opportunity to work from home by knowledge workers in a country where working from home is a very easy ask, and where sick pay is decent and unlikely to be quibbled over. And as already mentioned, trains are running, shops and bars are open, toilet roll and teabags are still obtainable without recourse to black-marketeering.
But just across the water, the Danes have closed their borders. Well, they’ve closed them to anyone but Danes… or anyone with a really good reason to be there (e.g. caring for a sick relative), or people going between Kastrup (Copenhagen Airport) and Sweden without stopping anywhere in between… or people involved in mantaining supply chains, such as truck drivers. A lockdown with that many exceptions is likely to be fairly unsuccessful… and it’s been suggested to me that this might be reflective of a long-standing anxiety about borders and infection that is endemic to Denmark.
(Though that suggestion has mostly come from Swedes, who do rather pride themselves on not being the Danes, in what I can already tell is one of the most epic nation-state-scale cases of the narcissism of small differences one might wish to encounter. Heck, it may well be that the Swedes are sticking with a calm and open-for-business attitude primarily as a way of differentiating themselves from their Scandi cousins. It’s probably quite handy to be able to point at your more performatively racist neighbours when you’re a polite, tacit type of people who don’t want to talk about your own problems with a rising far-right movement.)
And as for the UK… well, I’m too distant to get a good read on it, and I’m staying well out of social media as usual. My decision to quit the platforms has never looked wiser, to be honest—and that outsider’s perspective makes it all the easier to agree with Ryan Diduck when he suggests that “[i]t’s almost as if the media were the virus”.
(And again, for the avoidance of doubt: I’m not denying the existence of the virus as a thing, and nor is Diduck, as far as I can tell. But there’s a definite medium-as-message element to the discourse around the virus, and that piece makes a damn good grasp for it.)
None of this is to discredit people’s fears or anxieties, either. I suspect it’s easy for me to be a bit sanguine precisely because I’m in a sanguine environment, with little exposure to the amplificatory feedback loops of the birdsite et al. I dare say that if I were still in the UK, and had no expectations of being anywhere else any time soon, I would be feeling a lot more precarious. But therein lies my point: the virus has become a surface onto which all other social anxieties are being projected. As I remarked to someone last week, it’s as if after what must be a decade of those nauseating and bedamned “keep calm and carry on” snowclone posters, and all the lively but nonetheless very stiff-upper-lipped protesting and pushback about The B-Word, the virus has finally cracked the lid on what passes for the British geist, and released a vast cloud of anxiety, fear and anger. Ditto the US—it’s as if in both cases everyone has spontaneously moved on from bargaining and anger about the situation, and finally started focussing on its concrete implications. Here I’m modifying a Źiźek riff from this morning, which is (it seems to me) uncharacteristically positive: now we’ve all been forced to face the truth that can no longer be denied, bargained with or argued away, we’re going to (have to) start working on the problem instead of just shouting or tweeting about it. Sickness as solidairty, solidarity in sickness… the possibility of the pandemic as a force for a renewed and networked internationalism.
I’m plugged in sufficiently well to know that’s not going to be a fashionable take—and presumably even less so, given who I’ve just cited. But if you won’t take it from ol’ Slavoj, how about Rebecca Solnit? A newsletter in my inbox this morning reminded me of her thinking in the years immediately after Hurricane Katrina, which are summed up in this 2009 NYT review of her book A Paradise Built in Hell:
… this same sort of positive feeling has emerged in far more precarious circumstances, from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to Hurricane Katrina. Disasters, for Solnit, do not merely put us in view of apocalypse, but provide glimpses of utopia. They do not merely destroy, but create. “Disasters are extraordinarily generative,” she writes. As the prevailing order — which she elliptically characterizes as advanced global capitalism, full of anomie and isolation — collapses, another order takes shape: “In its place appears a reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative and local society.” These “disaster communities” represent something akin to the role William James claimed for “the utopian dreams” of social justice: “They help to break the general reign of hardness, and are slow leavens of a better order.”
Lastly, there’s the panic myth. A sociologist who set out to research panic in disasters found it was a “vanishingly rare phenomenon,” with cooperation and rational behavior the norm. More typically, panic comes from the top — hence the reaction of officials during the Three Mile Island evacuation: “They’re afraid people are going to panic,” another disaster scholar notes, “so they hold the information close to the vest about how much trouble the reactor is in,” putting the public in greater danger. A weightier charge by the disaster sociologists, one echoed by Solnit, is that “elites fear disruption of the social order, challenges to their legitimacy.” Thus, Solnit argues, the official response in 1906 San Francisco — where the subsequent fire caused more damage than the quake — kept volunteers “who might have supplied the power to fight the fire by hand” away, relying instead on “reckless technological tactics.” In the aftermath of Katrina, there were myriad accounts of paramedics being kept from delivering necessary medical care in various parts of the city because of false reports of violence. Whether this was elites defending against challenges to their legitimacy or simple incompetence is unclear; as Solnit observes, the “monolith of the state” is actually a collection of agencies whose coordination may be illusory.
My feelings and opinions about the situation alluded to above might be lightly summarised by my observing that the most panicked populations at the moment would seem to be those with the most dysfunctional and authoritarian governments. (The functional authoritarians, e.g. China, appear to be weathering it pretty well after a bad start.) Again, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t concerned; nor am I suggesting that a state response is not necessary. What’s interesting here is rather the character of the response, both of (and also between) the dysfunctional state and its public, and the light that the situation is throwing on those governments. If Źiźek and Solnit are right, we may see a new sense of cooperation and solidarity emerging at street level as this thing progresses… and we might also find that a whole cavalcade of emperors are suddenly understood to have been naked all along, by people who will swear blind that they were never duped in the first place.
Gotta find your hope where you can, right? Stay safe, everyone—and try not to give in to the fear. (Especially not the fear of your fellow humans, regardless of where exactly on the planet they may be from, or currently living, or recently returned from.) This handwashing PSA via Damien Williams pretty much nails it, I’d say: