At home and abroad, the pandemic is wreaking social and political havoc. There’s anger in the streets in the metropolitan capitals, as pandemic deniers, anti-vaxxers and anti-statists combine forces to decry governmental control, cast aspersions on science, and make a stand for the individual. There’s anger at the borders, state and national, as lockdowns and lockouts disrupt economic networks and undermine profit, as well as established rhythms of social life, including assumptions about air travel to maintain dispersed, globalised families. There’s anger at what is perceived as poor guidance and inadequate provision, as governments not only struggle to cope with the scale of the health issues but, as with Australia’s federal government, reveal in their ideological commitments a more devil-may-care relationship to the people than the people ever understood it to be.
There is, of course, also ‘compliance’, as it is put. Indeed, despite all of the above, there may be more fear than anger, and an on-the-ground sense of responsibility to others, or some atavistic knowledge of how to behave in a pandemic, leading the majority to ‘socially distance’ and take the jab. However, what this compliance actually consists in—compliance with the state, compliance within the bio-technical complex—and whether, as a thought-through stance, it will be resilient to other claims and conflicts in the coming period cannot be taken for granted. The public scene is rife with cross-cutting conflicts, and potential ones; the life-world doesn’t feel secure. Distrust and hesitancy, and not just about COVID, define many aspects of life and undermine any sense of a shared future we are still able to summon.
While the lineaments of some of these conflicts might conform to established political constituencies and ideological divides, to world political histories and received understandings of them, there are also strange political alliances emerging, and new cultural-political issues taking centre stage. Past histories and received social divisions are without a doubt bequeathing pain and suffering in circumstances of pandemic; but the pandemic and responses to it may also point to new sources of power and emerging social-cultural divisions.
As the Delta variant spreads, the pressure on health systems and mounting deaths in less wealthy countries are revealing profound structural inequalities internationally. One crucial factor as to death rates and systems being overrun, whether in the West or not, has been the more or less authoritarian style of government in place and ideological attachment to the neoliberal market: Trump or Johnson, Modi or Bolsonaro, their disinclination to act to control or to adequately resource has been characteristic of their politics of power and neglect. Now, however, the pandemic is penetrating to a still deeper level, laying bare the piteous state of overburdened health systems in poorer countries, as in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, and the shocking ‘vaccination inequality’ between countries that has been a focus of largely failed UN appeals to internationalist humanitarian sentiment.
In a similar vein domestically, class and ethnicity have been salient factors in various ways. Capitalism’s urban geography is central, with blue-collar and service classes, and intersecting marginalised ethnicities, defining key qualities of the persistent COVID hotspots. Living in distinctly different social formations—larger families, and perhaps valuing extended family more than the dominant Anglo-Celts—and with different access to information if not services, people in these settings have suffered most. The west and south-west of Sydney and the west and north-west of Melbourne, being those prime hotspots, have in turn been targeted with more punitive interventions and singled out in sometimes discriminatory governmental discourse. Whether in the Flemington Housing Commission flats in Melbourne or the LGA of Fairfield in Sydney, the presence of police has been felt especially intensely by ethnic communities, and this is not to mention the meanings attributed to the presence of ADF personnel as a still further ramping up of the presence of enforcement, rather than public health, personnel. As for Indigenous communities, while remote communities in the Northern Territory were a model of self-organisation during at least the first wave of the pandemic, we see now the Indigenous divide open up too, especially in New South Wales, with large Aboriginal populations suddenly finding themselves unprotected and, as in the case of Walgett, their early-allocated vaccines redirected to greater Sydney.
Without a doubt, there is a biopolitics at play here. The pre-existing fault lines of class, race and ethnicity expose the distribution of death and suffering, the distribution of ‘solutions’ in the provision of vaccines and healthcare, the distribution and forms of control employed. Followed through, they also expose the disciplinary proclivities of state and of government, and the different political/ideological commitments of the institutional parties involved. We might contrast the ‘benign control’ of the Labor states, and the model lockdowns they have ‘successfully’ engineered, with the reluctance to shut down in Liberal New South Wales—examples of prioritising the group over the individual, and vice versa, as has been pointed out; or point out what may be an especially Australian inclination to engage the military in public health delivery—whatever happened to the fine tradition of social administration in our public service?; or ponder the political success of Fortress Australia, welcomed by the population as benign, yet so readily carried through because Prime Minister Morrison and former Home Affairs minister Dutton already had finely honed expertise in border repression. More or less obvious conflicts, and contradictions, abound.
Yet one can find other, perhaps more perplexing issues being thrown up by the pandemic and responses to it that are not necessarily related to the class, ethnic or racial structures of industrial modernity, or colonial capitalism, or the received forms of their management. Rather, they may better be seen as manifestations of emerging relations and identities in the cultural-political field, as tied to the role of high technology and science, in contemporary globalising capitalism.
Biopolitical control has always been the business of the modern state. The nation state and an interest in and management of ‘the population’ arise at the same moment in history, and are co-constitutive: you can’t have one without the other. Health, medicine and statistics sit centrally in the calculative and recuperative concern for control, as well as production, of persons in the state complex. The ‘production of persons’ refers to the particular type of people we have become in modern states and the assumptions we make about our bodies, their health and our selves. These may be assumptions that facilitate a healthy working population for capitalism’s willing or needful workforce. But they also speak to our willingness to ‘give’ ourselves to medicine and science as the benign facilitators of better selves and better futures in a much more general sense. Not only did population statistics and the medical clinic give us a healthier working body, or for whites a ‘superior’ racial one, it changed the relationship of all modern persons, and any ‘others’ in their wake, to our material bodies and the medicalised meanings we invest in them.
Medicine, health and population statistics are today the ever-present markers of our common—if to a significant degree differently distributed—experience of the pandemic. They are supercharged in the context of pandemic by fear of mega death, and for some the obverse: militant death-denial. Yet this age-old fear has new features, and so too the contemporary biopolitical complex, which includes significant changes in medicine and science, an increasing proclivity for probabilistic thinking in the culture, and shifts in the nature of the state and its powers. It is an overdetermined moment in the history of pandemics and our responses to them, or a distinctive conjuncture in capitalist economy, culture and society in relation to another ‘nature’. Of course ‘nature’ is exactly the point around which the most fundamental political and philosophical debates are occurring today. It is the crux of how we are to understand ourselves; there is no nature without also an adequate cultural understanding of it.
In this context we are surely pressed to ask just what is new, and just what is so dire, about the present moment. We are confronted in pandemic times, and under pressure of climate change, by a nature we do not ‘recognise’—a nature that certainly doesn’t recognise us in any way we would feel happy about. On the one hand, we have emerging a humanly uninhabitable heated world, depleted of species, its nature degraded; on the other, we are facing a virus released from nature that is entirely ‘other’ to us in its needs and capacities, and so far mutating in ways that even the latest medical and epidemiological science finds it hard to control or ultimately predict.
As has been suggested elsewhere, there is not only a practical coincidence now of climate change and pandemic, but a crisis for us in terms of the means of thinking about this conjuncture in such a way as to lead to an adequate response to it. These are problems that defy the political categories of Left and Right, and thus the frameworks of the mainstream political parties that many still hope will guide us towards a better future.
The pandemic very likely is the result of development pressing into once wild places and disturbing achieved balances between nature and human settlement, development that has been fuelling worldwide consumption and a disconnection from nature at an ever-accelerating pace. The argument is strong that COVID-19 moved from animal populations now encroached upon, as is the case for the other key viral epidemics of the past forty years (HIV and the various SARS), and carried around the globe in uniquely postmodern ways along air routes, by representatives of new trade relationships and by virtue of mass travel. Climate change and the pandemic may thus be fairly evidently related in this conjuncture of capitalist development and consumer culture causally. Yet these two ‘natural’ forces, unleashed socially, reverberate intensely as harbingers of something no framework of understanding has yet come to grips with. We might observe that just as the techno-sciences announce their conquest of all forms of scarcity, offering a supposed plenitude of hope, we are plunged into a state of radical indeterminacy, if not a fundamental unknowing.
Conflict is occurring at present not only in parliaments and on the streets, but in the courts and in workplaces, as well as among friends and family: there are elements of civil war in this. To vaccinate or not; to insist others do, or not; to cleave to freedom, whatever that means, or not; to fight the state, be suspicious of science, or fearful of medical intervention, or not: the ground of experience is febrile—whatever is felt is likely to be in some degree of turmoil. Even though you decide to vaccinate, you’re not fully sure—after all, we’re asked to think about it in terms of risk and probability. Even if calls to ‘freedom’ are hyperbole, there are aspects of the state as we know it that we just don’t trust, especially in view of the cruelties of neoliberalism and recent shifts towards primitive corporate-state forms. Even if medicine has been our friend, we know its message to help and to heal now massages into place techno-practices that do far more than help, and may yet undermine given human determinants—as techno-science does generally in its contribution to seeing and acting on the natural world as object and means. A number of articles in this issue of Arena take up exactly these issues, questioning the social-technical form in which we live and revealing aspects of our relationship to Earth and nature. They point towards something like a politics of life—a cultural-political engagement with the conditions that threaten it and an exploration of practical forms of life that will reset our understanding of our place in nature and the world.