COVID-19 and the neoliberal state of exception

President Donald Trump talks to reporters before signing the coronavirus stimulus relief package in the Oval Office at the White House, on March 27, 2020 [AP/Evan Vucci]

In late February 2020, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben criticised the Italian media and government for prescribing quarantining and social distancing without sufficient evidence that COVID-19 was any different from the usual influenza virus.

For Agamben, these measures created what he has described in his work as a “state of exception” – a heavily militarised situation in which the government acquires unusual powers over citizens and their civic freedoms. In a state of exception, the state authorities curtail freedoms in the name of “safety” that they alone can ostensibly guarantee.

Quarantines, lockdowns, and governmental monitoring all over the world in the last several weeks also remind us of what French philosopher Michel Foucault describes as an exceptional mode of political control introduced by the plague in 18th-century Europe. “The plague is the moment,” Foucault writes, “when the spatial partitioning and subdivision (quadrillage) of a population is taken to its extreme point, where dangerous communications, disorderly communities, and forbidden contacts can no longer appear.”

Governments partitioning populations to limit the spread of an infectious disease is a flagrant display of an “exhaustive, unobstructed power that is completely transparent to its object and exercised to the full”. For Foucault, quadrillage in the time of contagion reveals naked governmental power.

While Agamben has likely changed his mind about the severity of COVID-19 following more than 10,000 deaths in Italy alone, his Foucault-inspired argument about a “state of exception” warrants a closer look. What does the “state of exception” mean in a primarily neoliberal world order where governmental “power” is inseparable from the interests of the private sector?

How do we make sense of the initial hesitation of many governments over asking citizens to stay home or declaring a state of emergency? Why didn’t the US government immediately assert its “unobstructed” power to bring the situation under control?

Consider first the varying degrees of reluctance demonstrated by several governments to impose a lockdown or mass quarantining measures. By all accounts, lockdown measures in the Chinese city of Wuhan were extremely strict. But the lockdown came only after a certain “tipping point”.

While the Chinese government’s own fears of the effects of a pandemic certainly played a role here, this tipping point was also the product of pressure from non-state actors, both domestic and international.

As The Guardian recently reported, the Chinese government knew of the earliest COVID-19 case in November 2019. By mid-December, there were about 60 confirmed cases. But instead of looking into the possibility of an outbreak, the Chinese government reportedly censored media reports and even cracked down on whistleblowers concerned about a new SARS-like virus emerging in Wuhan.

While the WHO China office issued an international alert concerning the situation of “44 patients with pneumonia of unknown etiology” on December 5, and the state-owned China Central Television confirmed the novel coronavirus on January 7, it was not until January 20 that the Chinese government officially acknowledged the human-to-human transmission of the virus. And the Wuhan lockdown finally began on January 23.

A large-scale lockdown or quarantine of this kind, then, was the last thing that the Chinese government wished to impose to control its population.

What the Chinese government wanted to prevent by suppressing reports of the virus was precisely what the lockdown led to – a historic slump in the country’s industrial production growth in the last two months.

The truth is that in the current neoliberal global economy – which is a strange mix of economic nationalism, the dominance of the stock market and transnational corporations, and oft-disavowed economic interdependence – any large-scale restriction that hinders the movement of capital, labour, and commodities is seen as “counter-growth” and hence undesirable by governments and corporations.

Caught in its own plague-like state of exception, Italy is also not immune to a severe economic fallout. While giving extraordinary powers to local and state governments, lockdowns in Italy have also triggered fears of a looming recession.

According to the investment firm Goldman Sachs, the sectors most affected by the lockdown – including tourism, travel, hospitality, and retail – account for about 23 percent of the Italian gross domestic product (GDP).

For many critics of the European Union’s neoliberal austerity measures, the lockdowns in Italy and Spain are, in fact, glaring revelations of the weaknesses of a free market economy, the overreliance on the private sector, and overwhelmed healthcare systems.

On March 16, the same day that the Spanish government decided to nationalise all private hospitals, the whole world watched the footage of a woman crying inconsolably outside a hospital in Madrid. Her husband had just died from COVID-19 and she herself had also tested positive. But the woman had been turned away from the hospital because she was reportedly “not sick enough” to be treated under these emergency circumstances.

The state of exception decides which citizens’ lives are worth saving and which ones are not. Paradoxically, the moment at which that decision is taken lays bare the neoliberal state’s incapacity to save and care for most of its citizens.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, both the United Kingdom and the United States have been slow to impose lockdown measures to fight the virus. The unspoken fear here is that a state of exception will not only affect the mobility of people, goods, and the financial market but also put additional responsibilities (long ceded to the market) on the national government.

The reluctance to declare a state of exception is, therefore, “natural” given that subsidised healthcare for all is either inadequate (as in the UK) or nonexistent (as in the US). And each country , now struggling to respond to the pandemic, is being forced to reckon with the increasing spread of the virus, the health of its most vulnerable citizens, and its global reputation as a “developed” capitalist economy.

The toll of neoliberal complacency and outsourcing is perhaps most glaring in the US response. The federal government downplayed the severity of the virus for several weeks before finally declaring a state of emergency and releasing guidelines for social distancing in mid-March. But let us not forget that it was not so much the number of deaths in or outside the US as the multiple historic dips of the stock market that led this government to wake up to the dangers posed by the virus.

In fact, until the emergency, there was a striking similarity between the attitude and tone of the US President Donald Trump and the conservative host on Fox News who claimed that COVID-19 was “yet another [Democratic] attempt to impeach” the president.

Let us also not forget what took priority over the federal government’s social distancing directives or even its trumpeting of private-public partnerships to improve the testing infrastructure – the US Federal Reserve rushing to help banks with $1.5 trillion in short-term loans to prevent a financial crisis.

While some have made a strong case for these loans as “emergency backstop for the markets writ large”, we should note that the president’s emergency declaration on March 13 was accompanied by an announcement of an initial federal aid of $50bn, significantly less than what had been made available to the banks.

As Politico’s Anita Kumar noted, even the announcement of federal aid to fight the virus in a state of emergency had “a distinct market-first flavor”, as the White House touted unprecedented public-private partnerships with corporations like Google, Target, Amazon, and Walmart to increase testing all over the country.

While these partnerships might seem more desirable than government inaction, they also make clear that the true architect of this state of exception will be the private sector, specifically giant multinational corporations whose fortunes drive Wall Street. The exceptionalist neoliberal state is, at this point, dysfunctional without these partnerships.

At the same time, we should not ignore the implications of the persistent disconnect between the federal government and the responses of local and state governments, in spite of Trump’s attempt at damage control by invoking patriotism and rebranding himself as a wartime president.

Here, too, what Agamben calls the state of exception or what Foucault calls unobstructed governmental power needs to be rethought. Long before the federal government declared a national emergency, state governors and city mayors had taken the lead in ordering school closures and social distancing measures. And notably, while the president is now raring to loosen social distancing guidelines and open up the economy before Easter, public health officials and state governors are calling for stricter measures to flatten the curve.

COVID-19 has, therefore, ushered in a US state of exception that is internally split, one in which the imperative to save lives through quarantining (in the face of a broken healthcare system and a completely collapsed welfare structure) is jostling against the inclination to do everything possible to revive the financial market.

While these cracks and divides may well be coloured by the fact that this is an election year, they point towards deeper socioeconomic emergencies in the months to come that neither presidential hyperboles, nor neoliberal buzzwords (like “freedom”, “democracy”, or “the market”) will be able to fix.

It is too early to tell if the “disaster socialism” of the just-passed $2 trillion stimulus bill is anything more than a re-election strategy. On the one hand, it promises much-needed economic relief to state governments, hospitals, and industries. On the other hand, the bill’s priorities are telling: $500bn for businesses, $100bn for healthcare, $150bn for state and local governments, and little relief for low-income families.

Confronted with a severe medical infrastructure crisis and skyrocketing unemployment insurance claims, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has already criticised the funding allotted to his state as a “drop in the bucket”. Cuomo and other Democrats have also openly disapproved of Trump’s refusal to nationalise the production of medical equipment even after invoking the Defense Production Act.

Here, again, we find ourselves in a peculiar state of exception in which the federal government refuses to take charge. It only wants to delegate.

In the state of exception that Agamben and Foucault describe, governmental power is pure discipline. In contrast, the US state of exception seems to be pure chaos.

And for the millions of Americans whose lives and livelihoods will be seriously upended by the time the virus slows down or a vaccine becomes available, this chaotic state of exception is also the moment of waking up to the dangers of living in a country that is wholly dependent on the volatilities of a thoroughly privatised economy, especially since the average American has no control over its fluctuations.

Politicians and TV anchors love to talk about the “American people” as lovers of “freedoms” afforded by the free market. The American people living through this faltering state of exception might actually start changing that perception.

As Naomi Klein has recently argued in her video on “Coronavirus Capitalism” , while impossible ideas can become possible in times of crisis, it matters whose ideas are deemed possible: those of the dispossessed and the vulnerable or those of the already wealthy and the privileged.

This state of exception can be an opportunity for change for the people in the US and elsewhere, but only if we mobilise for comprehensive people-centric safety nets and refuse to be content with trickle-down measures and pro-market corporate bailouts.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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