Another contribution from anarchists on the anarchist response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. We don’t necessarily agree with everything that has been written in this text, but publish it as part of an ongoing discussion.
Submitted to Enough 14.
“The Covid19 crisis has presented a challenge to anarchists and others who believe in a fully autonomous and liberated life” – so a recent submission to Montreal Counter-information declares. These words certainly resonate with our experiences. Anarchy in the UK is not just presented with a challenge; it is itself in crisis. Spycops, squatting ban, abusers, Corbynism, TERFs – the list is long, and the virus already found “the scene” in a sorry state. But Covid-19 represents something different, and on this we can agree with the analysis from Montreal. This is also where our agreement ends. In the following text we critique the analysis – we do so as its arguments are similar to those we have heard among friends and even comrades over the past months. Though the epidemic in the UK appears to be waning, its associated tendencies remain. The text calls for serious critiques, and so we offer the following in the spirit of antagonism against the present. We close with some suggested points of unity for anarchists in these times.
“Politicians”, their text begins, “lie”, and big pharma has exploited the pandemic. Maybe we can agree on a little more! In the UK, we were told that the virus was only a flu and to keep working as usual. (At the time of writing, the death count numbers over 125,000.) And we were told of Oxford’s vaccine, a people’s vaccine with no patent or borders (a mask that quickly slipped as the state reverted to vaccine nationalism). But these aren’t the lies they have in mind. Rather, they argue that politicians and the media have craftily overstated the virus’ threat, in a cunning plan to impose lockdowns and reap pharmaceutical profits. (Surely the hand-sanitiser corporations are behind this too..?) Anarchists, we are then told, have believed this powerful lie. Out of an “admirable [!] want to do well by the elderly and infirm”, the state has succeeded in “hacking our hearts and minds”.
This idea, appealing as it might be, is only a pale shadow of the reality. Covid-19’s threat is not a conspiracy, any more than Covid-19 itself. It is not the result of media hype any more than it is the product of Bill Gates’ brain or transmitted from 5G towers. It is the direct consequence of severe ecological destruction and capitalism’s toxic living conditions. Having brought it into existence, it is of course “exploited” by capital and state. As the critic notes, it is unlikely that capitalism will eradicate it, even if certain states claim this as their goal. Instead it is managed, incorporated, capitalised upon. This is at a far more fundamental level than creating profits for some pharmaceutical companies – we are seeing in the colonial core an historic restructure of work and class-composition. Our critic begins to scratch at this surface (they describe lockdowns as “classist”, as if a lack of lockdown would be classless!). Scratch a little deeper, and we see that capitalism faces a familiar contradiction: exploit workers, but ensure there are workers to be exploited tomorrow. Manage the virus, manage production. Like inflation, the death-graph must be regulated – kept just right. Everywhere this paradox is obvious: “stay at home” but “go to work”! Technocrats and managers debate the 2 metre rule just as the 19th century Factory Acts debated the relation of profits, health and cubic-feet per worker.
We can call this capital’s “positive” side. Though each worker is cheap and replaceable, capital needs a body of workers. It can’t have everyone ill at once, and it can’t afford killing off too much of its working population. But it also finds and creates bodies superfluous to capitalist production: disposable bodies, bodies in the colonial margins, old bodies, less or unproductive bodies, bodies that cannot “work”. It’s here that we see capitalism’s eugenic and Malthusian tendency. This tendency, always present, has for the disabled been intensified in recent years, as the numerous lives lost due to benefit cuts demonstrate. Since the beginnings of “public health” in the 19th century, triage systems (a military invention) have ranked bodies in a hierarchy of value, rationing resources under conditions of artificial scarcity. In recent times, do-not-resuscitate notices imposed on Covid-19 patients with learning disabilities were the result of a care algorithm – tech meets “accidental” eugenics. Capitalism itself could accurately be described as an algorithm of crypto-eugenics, always at risk of fascism outright. Like fascism, Covid-19 presents an existential threat to the lives of certain minorities – the proletarian disabled and the elderly in particular – and a slower death to others. And like fascism, liberal democracies allow it to exist, manage it, keep their monster on the leash. At times this management fails: health-care systems collapse, production plummets. At other times, the far-right call for the monster to be set free.
Recognising the pandemic as an existential threat is where “our conversation should begin”. The critic talks of anarchists on the one hand, and the elderly and “infirm” on the other. It’s the anarchist that is agent-subject here, their freedom to act with or without them (the “vulnerable”) in mind. It erases from the beginning elderly anarchists, disability anarchism. Where are they and their freedoms in this imagined revolt? Our critic continues: as free anarchists, we also care for others, we co-operate with “consent” and without “force”. But who’s force, what consent? It’s a simple truth that your right to drink in the pub (that is, the right of the business to re-open) shits on the freedom of those at serious risk, those a few links down the chain of transmission. These chains of transmission are our chains. As anarchists we affirm the violence of liberation. Let us be clear: those that threaten the disabled cannot be consented with. We will find no freedom in frozen morgues.
The critic goes on to downplay the threat of Covid-19, a familiar refrain. Montreal Analysis come Barrington Deceleration – talk about technocrats! They cite statistics on average risks, masking the deadly risks to specific minorities (it won’t be bad for you!). They pit Covid-risks against cancer treatment (we can only afford one or the other!), despite the virus being far more deadly for those fighting cancer. Even were Covid-19 somewhat less risky (look, only 60,000 deaths!), the crypto-eugenic logic remains. In the UK, we must critically analyse recent events – particularly that certain assemblages of the state openly plotted course for “herd immunity” without a vaccine. It’s safe to assume that this Malthusian wet-dream would have led to health-system collapse and perhaps half a million deaths (“acceptable losses”).
Where the critic calls on anarchists to question and critique the Covid-19 threat, we call on anarchists to reflect critically on eugenics as a logic of capital and state. We must also grapple seriously with its nasty history in the anarchist tradition, from Emma Goldman’s writings to sections of primitivist and anti-civ thought. As pandemics become more prevalent and eco-fascisms enter the mainstream, anarchists must fight to ensure nobody is “left behind”.
Finally, our friend attacks the tyranny of lockdown, claiming that as anarchists this should be our aim, and that in failing to do so we have cowardly ceded ground to the far-right. But their target is both abstract and confused. They use the terms curfew, lockdown and closures interchangeably (one of their cited articles even describes mandated mask wearing as “draconian”!) and argue that these measures must be attacked “in principle” as they are imposed without “consent”. We argue that as anarchists there is no state which can be consented to, and that the very notion of a social contract has nothing to do with anarchy. Rather than make vague statements for #freedom in the style of the Tea party right, we must locate and attack the instruments of power and control. “Lockdown” has come to mean a myriad of very contrasting measures – from asking people to stay at home to policed curfews, from enforcing meager workplace health and safety to the breaking of strikes, from closing businesses and schools to violent prison lockdowns (the term’s original meaning), from fining tourists and quarantine hotels to detaining migrants in military camps. It should be obvious which of these as anarchists we must attack, and which we can leave alone – or even fight for.
We must define our targets and recognise our enemies. Free business has nothing to do with our freedom. Simply opposing lockdown “edicts from on high” is as empty as supporting all protest. In the UK we have seen large, rowdy Covid-conspiracy demos led by celebrity anti-Semites, but we have also seen unpolitical gatherings fighting the police – as well as organised demonstrations for black lives. The US presents an even simpler dichotomy. Nothing could be clearer than the difference between the late-Spring business protests against Democratic governors and the Summer’s black uprising against the police. The first stood for the rights of small businesses and merged into the right-wing militia movement. The second exploded anger at the cops, expropriated goods and created temporary autonomous spaces. As anarchists we know where we stand.
Speculative points of unity:
Smash crypto-eugenics, of the right and of the left
Obstruct Covid-conspiracy demos, recognising them as far-right mobs Resist the criminalisation of the pandemic, policing powers, curfews and intensified surveillance
Target the reinforced border regime and “lifeboat fascism”
Organise against the return to unsafe workplaces
Fight the evictions of anarchist spaces and the mass-eviction wave
Further networks of mutual aid and act with dangerous care
Sabotage ecological destruction and animal exploitation, the cause of present and future pandemics
Analyse the changing terrain, refuse the postponement of anarchy
- “It has been stated over and over again that the English doctors are unanimous in declaring that where the work is continuous, 500 cubic feet is the very least space that should be allowed for each person. … [but were this to happen] [t]he very root of the capitalist mode of production, i.e., the self-expansion of all capital, large or small, by means of the “free” purchase and consumption of labour-power, would be attacked. Factory legislation is therefore brought to a deadlock before these 500 cubic feet of breathing space. The sanitary officers, the industrial inquiry commissioners, the factory inspectors, all harp, over and over again, upon the necessity for those 500 cubic feet, and upon the impossibility of wringing them out of capital. They thus, in fact, declare that consumption [tuberculosis] and other lung diseases among the workpeople are necessary conditions to the existence of capital.” Karl Marx, Das Kapital (Chapter Fifteen: Machinery and Modern Industry, Section 9). If we assume a work-room height of 10 feet, 500 cubic feet would give a base of approximately 7 x 7 feet, 7 feet being a little more than 2 metres.
On the 26 June 2020, England revised its guidance from 2 meters to 1. Whilst “the evidence shows that relative risk may be 2-10 times higher”, “there are severe economic costs to maintaining 2 metre distancing. With a 2 metre rule in place, it is not financially viable for many businesses to operate.” https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/review-of-two-metre-social-distancing-guidance/review-of-two-metre-social-distancing-guidance
- The linked Guardian article is from February 2021, but concerns regarding do-not-resuscitate forms were raised by medical establishment bodies at the beginning of the UK epidemic. https://www.cqc.org.uk/news/stories/joint-statement-advance-care-planning
- “I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?” Fred Moten on racism (interview, 2013). Vaccine nationalism is increasingly shifting this to the “postcolonial” elderly and disabled. Other groups of course include certain sections of the workforce (mostly low-paid) and people of colour, the urban poor, the incarcerated, migrants. (We would argue that the existential threat directly applies here to the elderly and disabled, whereas the Covid-regime intensifies existing threats against the latter groups.) A lot could also be said about the privatisation of Covid-risk to the household and the domestic abuse this has further enabled.
The UK’s Office for National Statistics estimates disabled people as making up 60% of all Covid-19 deaths (November 2020). Similar to “BAME” deaths, “raised risk is because disabled people are disproportionately exposed to a range of generally disadvantageous circumstances compared with non-disabled people.” https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/articles/coronaviruscovid19relateddeathsbydisabilitystatusenglandandwales/24januaryto20november2020#main-points
- The ONS estimated that approximately 15% of the population had antibodies to Covid-19 on the 18th of January 2021 (the rate was lower for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland). On this date the total UK deaths of people who had received a positive test result (a relatively low measure) was approximately 95,000. “Herd immunity” is estimated to require a threshold of at least 60% (the percentage Chief Scientific Advisor Patrick Vallance gave in his interview with Sky News on March the 13th, 2020) possibly more. That is, to reach herd immunity without a vaccine, more than four times as many people in the UK would need to have been infected than had in January 2021, making it reasonable to assume four times as many deaths (giving 380,000 as a conservative estimate). This is before considering reinfection, the lack of treatments at the beginning of the pandemic, likely health-system collapse, the higher chance of new variants etc. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/conditionsanddiseases/articles/coronaviruscovid19infectionsurveyantibodydatafortheuk/3february2021
More evidence has emerged of herd immunity without a vaccine being a pushed for strategy prior to March 23rd, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-54252272