When a public figure—tasked with the democratic, modern liberal job of holding government to account on behalf of the people—instead openly and publicly expresses the eugenic question of whom the government should let die for the sake of the economy, then it has become clear just how far the public sphere has shifted from being a space of upward pressure into being a testing ground for potentially unpopular policy.
A pandemic lifts the veil on the biopolitical core of modernity, its concern with the administration of life (and thus, of death) but we already knew about this. Contemporary politics is thoroughly biopolitical to the extent that a form of governmentality which is not concerned with the health and welfare of its citizens is today unthinkable, despite neoliberal ideology’s attempt to disguise this concern with a rhetoric of ‘public choice’. Consequently, biopolitics is a field of tensions that is too big and complex to simply oppose tout court: there is a good biopolitique as well as a bad. What should concern us however is the distribution of the inherent sovereign power at work in biopolitics: the question of who exactly gets to decide over situations of life and death. Today it is the authoritarian and contrarian right that are asking questions about this rather than the left. And because it is the right that is asking, they are asking the question with a right-wing reactionary mindset, framing their questions in order to guarantee certain hierarchies of power and privilege which they regard as normal and to a large extent natural. As Corey Robin has argued, this is precisely what the reactionary mind does: it stages everything in order to favour the preservation, reactivation or retrenchment of these hierarchies of dominance. We will never see workers favoured by such hierarchies.
The sovereign decision over life now takes a blatant form. Questions that no-one could have asked, at least openly and publicly, twenty years ago are now appearing with some regularity in the media, particularly the print media. It used to be that in asking which group of people could legitimately be offered up to Mammon, selecting for age or gender, ability or nationality—anything like this—would see you rightly branded as an apostate of the deepest fascist creeds in history. So what has changed? To be honest, I’d venture that all that has really changed is the visibility of social policy choices. The choices in operation now were in some respects already implied but operationally kept at the deniable distance of arms’ length through mechanisms of private contracting and outsourcing, effectively defaulting to a stance of ‘letting the market decide’ who lives and dies. After all, Austerity let 130,000 people’s otherwise-avoidable deaths happen, according to a now-infamous article in the organ of the British Medical Association. In these alleged cases, we do not know exactly who they were but it is probably safe to say that the figure is disproportionately composed of the elderly, socially isolated, disabled or economically disadvantaged in some way and not young, well-connected and economically privileged socialites. The arms’ length deniability of letting the market decide who ought to be caught by the social security ‘net’ and who let slip through is perhaps only slightly less cultic than the Papal Caedite eos, Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius of the Béziers massacre of Cathars during the Albigensian crusade.
It may seem from the point of view of the late 20th Century that the window of acceptability has shifted significantly in the second decade of the 21st, so that eugenics has been to a large extent normalised whenever The Economy is at stake. Taking a rather more longue durée view however, reveals that despite the concealment of sovereign power by the neoliberal order in the rhetoric of market freedom and public choice, it is those private competitors who won the governmental contract—those whose anonymous ‘decision makers’ can never be identified and held to account with any degree of public oversight, only institutionally challenged through a strictly limited tribunal—who in the case of the 130,000 Austerity death-toll held the sovereign power of letting die. It was not strictly ‘the market’ that decided, as God purportedly did during the Crusades, whose soul was worthy of redemption and whose of condemnation. It was a privately contracted group of professional bureaucrats, working to a behavioural economic strategy. That they officiated over so many deaths while ‘nudging’ people’s lives in honour of the glory of The Economy no less than the crusaders killed in honour of the glory of their God is hard for us moderns to get our heads around but the loss of human measure is patent.
That the issue of who can be legitimately abandoned to let die for The Economy looks more like the Good Sense of an Economist reader than a demented cultic question today is perhaps merely a question of presentation. Indeed, it seems almost a trivialised question—to the point it may often be assumed that the issue of who are the ‘productive’ and ‘non-productive’ members of society can proceed smoothly and frictionlessly without any interrogation in the slightest of the producerist framing of such questions. And again, since such framing occurs itself within a reactionary Weltanschauung that manages to erect hierarchy everywhere, we find a hierarchy of producers, the top tier of which ‘naturally’ deserve life more. Examining these hierarchies in critical detail however, makes them fall to pieces. Instead of bailing out Richard Branson with public money, with which he will produce who knows what, it would make more sense to fund the hospitals, which produce public health. It would make more sense to fund nurses’ colleges, which produce medical practice and specialised knowledge. It would make more sense to fund public education programmes which produce better social attitudes and public safety. But the strain of producerism that the right has taken hold of today, a populist strand once banded about by the industrial left, views production as the narrow process of fabricating physical and tangible goods. Against this it is vital to insist that the more immaterial social goods are precisely those that cannot be left to markets or gods: social welfare, public health, human existence. If we are to take the world as given—biopolitcs are entrenched in our way of life, longevity is always implicitly prioritised for some groups—and are to take up a producerist view of what is most invaluable, most ‘necessary’, in earnest, rather than leaving these questions to fall to the right wing, then we should seize every opportunity to demonstrate how everything from knowledge, experience and attitude to medical wipes and hospital cleanliness are things produced, and produced by human labour.
Of course production is super important. Pharmaceuticals, hospital beds, gowns, masks, ventilators, bedside observation units, sprays, detergents, needles, swabs, intravenous tubing, disposable gloves; the list of necessities is endless. But essential too is the education and training of those who use such equipment, because this too is something produced. And one without the other proves fatal: quality gear without the properly trained staff to put it into correct use is as harmful as a surfeit of well-trained staff without essential personal protective equipment. Both situations are downright bizarre, but the most lethal combination is a lack of both kinds of thing, the combination you would definitely bank on if you intended maximum tragedy. Sadly, this is the very situation we are in. It is almost as if there had been a long-term systematic plan to deprive a health service of both staff and equipment; a sustained program of cuts over a period of twenty-odd years, with (until recent years) cross-party consent; ignoring and muting as far as possible publicity for potential pandemic research along the way. While keeping the public entranced for decades with moral panics over immigrants, foreigners, terrorists, ‘cultural marxism’ in the university, the absurdity of political correctness and the bloody cheek of EU laws on sausages, no one continually crying wolf ever considered that once the actual wolf, the killer condition Covid-19, was at the door the bottom would have fallen out of public healthcare. The absolute fundamentals, the basics of producing the health service were gone. No-one was producing it any more, merely managing it.
As such we must ask who are the producers of cleanliness and hygiene in hospital environments; who are the producers of patient and equipment delivery, and of the portage of people and things around hospitals; who are the producers of specialist medical knowledge and practice; who are the producers of patient health and safety; who, ultimately, are the producers of public longevity and health, of public life itself? We must ask this, not in order that we know whom to applaud on a Thursday evening or send our empire-nostalgic medals to, but so that we know who to place in full view of, and reward in, meaningful economic terms. If British biopolitics’ embedded soteriology of whom to save, whom to spare and salvage, is an unavoidable question, then it should at least be acknowledged that a better chance of survival should not automatically go to the already-privileged, but to workers such as ambulance drivers, paramedics, cleaners, porters, caretakers, nurses, healthcare assistants, junior doctors, radiologists, surgeons, virologists, research students, teaching assistants, tutors and so on…