Posted on March 24, 2020 at 6:20 AM
Written by Stephen Rainey
Recently, I wrote about some possible limits of democratic politics in the context of climate change science. The idea was that politics could owe debts to citizens that might prompt suspension of established, and in themselves desirable, norms under certain circumstances. Coronavirus presents more such circumstances, so it’s worth revisiting those earlier thoughts, and looking at how the responses stack up in light of them.
Viruses are not really organisms in the sense of living things with which we are broadly familiar. Whereas plants are practically self-sufficient, in generating their own energy, and most other life requires the consumption of plant or plant derived materials to thrive, viruses are utterly dependent upon colonising the mechanisms of cells in order to survive.
Covid-19 is a string of ribonucleic acid (RNA), with a fatty coating, and a spiky crown of proteins. Like any other virus, covid-19 requires the cells of other living things in order to generate the proteins it needs in order to multiply. This involves hijacking the mechanisms of the host cells. Covid-19 is what’s called a messenger RNA virus, meaning it fools a host cell into creating not the proteins required by the host organism, but those of the virus.
We all know now that among the host cells amenable to Covid-19’s survival are human cells. As a result of this, thousands have died, thousands more have fallen ill and will fall ill, and we have witnessed a pan-national suspension of socio-political rights and freedoms. It seems remarkable that the protein generating requirements of a string of RNA could so directly impact upon established socio-political norms. But more to the point, it is right that such impacts are evoked by this virus. A response to such emergencies that falls short will be ineffective, and unethical.
In general, a political community such as a state ought only to suspend its established and desirable norms where such a suspension is in the wider service of those norms. This is because those norms are the material from which ways of life are made. They include things like freedom of movement, self-determination with regard to activities and hobbies, socialising, and so on. At least in a variety of democratic societies, ways of life and the political norms that ground them emerge from broadly discursive practices. Non-discursivity was the reason why Hobbes was brushed off in that last piece: it is a legitimacy gap in the Hobbesian approach.
Hobbe’s view is that, left to our own devices, people would inevitably try to dominate one another through the exercise of sheer power. This would lead to a famously nasty, brutish, and short existence wherein the most physically strong would simply destroy the lives and possibilities of those weaker. His solution is banding together in service to a strong tyrant, whose power over all would obviate interpersonal struggle through mutual fear of stepping out of line. The issue here is that power in itself doesn’t provide legitimacy. There is no room for agreement, only instrumental judgements about who is more likely to overpower another.
Consensus among well informed groups of citizens (including reasonable dissensus among and amid them) is possible through anchoring a state in discussion. A socio-political order with a discursive format displaces power struggle and conflict into a mode that can produce agreements about what’s best. Ideally, citizens are presented with information on political decisions to be made, evidence from reliable sources, commentary from a free press, and through mulling all this over, adopt a stance toward matters of the day. The force of argument replaces the notion of obeisance to a least-worst protector in a state of nature. From this, legitimacy can grow.
The reason norms arrived at via this discursive route ought only to be suspended in wider service to those norms is that there could be no legitimacy for a sudden disruption which was not itself arrived at via discursive means. The only legitimate reason for a suspension comes from a basis in protecting those norms, a role which politics (broadly construed) ought to occupy. So, when a socio-political disruption occurs it has to be for a reason that would result in damage to the prevailing norms more egregious than their suspension might. As I argued before, climate change is one example where this seems to hold. Coronavirus is another. These eventualities ought to prompt the suspension of established norms, as unchecked they would undermine the basis for normal life to continue.
In the UK, the prevailing rhetorical position has been one of individual freedom. Given fairly widespread suspension of norms already underway in Italy, Spain, Ireland, and others, this made it an outlier. Whilst individual freedom has been privileged in the current political discourse, there was little in the way of information for individual decision-making. At the same time, calls for community mobilisation and solidarity come from government ministers and city mayors. The slow motion shut down of bars and restaurants illustrates this well.
Where there is a lack of specific advice, and a rhetorical position of individual decision-making, confusion has emerged. This leads to worse health outcomes for more people, as well as an erosion of norms, as seen in panic buying and price-gouging, lying to GPs for better access, and inconsistent controls on travellers from virus hotspots.
The rhetorical privileging of individual freedom has persisted even into the current near-lockdown status. This contrasts with measures like those in France more centred on protecting the community. But the emphasis on individual decision-making, coupled with unclear information, risks undermining the possibility of individual freedom in the future. It is, in this sense, a kind of performative contradiction.
Exacerbating the lack of detail in response to the virus, is mixed-messaging. Boris Johnson declared that the “UK will send coronavirus packing in 12 weeks”, but declared a kind of lockdown for 3, pending review. At the same time, emergency legislation has been prepared that would last two years. Moreover, government leaks, newspaper reports, and social media reported the necessity of ‘social distancing’ to last 14 weeks, 6 months, or a year, depending upon what was being read. 12-14 weeks, 6 months, 1-2 years – the timescale of the response likely indicates the depth of the emergency to many.
The same government is currently petitioning thousands of medics, many of whom are likely in the most vulnerable groups, to come out of retirement to address healthcare system shortfalls. They are asked to risk their lives for people who until recently were still visiting Wetherspoons, with no clear reason in their mind not to. Where messaging isn’t clear, and where information is spread inefficiently, there is a failure to occupy properly the role of government as guarantor of normal life. This is a political failure for sure, that ought to prompt a legitimation crisis, but it is also an ethical failure. It needlessly jeopardises the health and livelihoods of many, while also damaging the prospects for a return to normality.
An ethical response to the Covid-19 pandemic would have been to shut down as much of normal life as possible, as soon as possible. This might sound counter-intuitive, given the value states like the UK place on individual freedom. But it would have been the optimal way to protect health as well as the possibilities of returning to normal life sooner. Were infections to soar despite a shutdown of normality, it would surely have been worse without. If things were to go well, and infection rates stall, the shutdown would look needless. But its apparent pointlessness would have been caused by its own efficacy. And if it really was needless, there’d be no way to know.
In one sense, anything done swiftly in the face of pandemic might look like over-reaction from this side of the emergency. But thinking about life afterwards, most responses will look unforgivably complacent.