There are limits to the utility of theory in a crisis. So far, Covid-19 has not exactly occasioned a mass embrace of the mountains of leftist ideas—both theoretical and practical—that have been prepared for such a moment; instead, we’ve witnessed a hardening of the preexisting order, in which the old injustices have only become more grotesque.
Meanwhile, the intellectual class has tweeted, blogged, and otherwise emerged from the proverbial woodwork to declare (with varying levels of ridiculousness) that the present situation confirms their ideas. The Drift video chatted with one theorist whose work actually does hold up in the coronavirus crisis—and can even help us make sense of it.
Wendy Brown, a political theorist and professor at UC Berkeley, is a trenchant critic of contemporary liberal democracy. Over the past decade, she has written extensively on the political and psychological formations produced by globalization and neoliberalism—two of the factors that have rendered societies like our own so acutely vulnerable to a pandemic.
Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (2010) argued that the post-Cold War proliferation of border walls reflects a pervasive anxiety about the decline of national sovereignty in the face of increased globalization. It anticipated not only Trump’s nativist border wall project, but the widespread walling that is taking place in response to the Covid-19 pandemic—from travel bans and nationalistic rhetoric to social distancing and quarantine measures. In Undoing the Demos (2015), Brown examined neoliberalism as a mode of reasoning and governance through which everything becomes economized or marketized, hollowing out our democracy and molding the psychic landscape in which it becomes conceivable to sacrifice Covid patients at the altar of the stock market. Written in response to Trump’s election, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism (2019) looks at recent far-right political movements as a result of neoliberal policies—a framework that is eerily reflected in the current protests to reopen the American economy.
Over Zoom (what else?), we asked Brown how she’s thinking about the pandemic, the global response, and where we go from here.
Margaret Thatcher famously said “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” In a way, social distancing tests out the limits (and fundamental incoherence) of this idea. Are we learning anything new?
The extent to which the purpose of social distancing is misunderstood today is an index of the success of the mantra “There is no such thing as society.” So many treat social distancing as just about protecting yourself, so if you choose to go to the beach, the bars, or shopping, or choose not to wear a mask in public spaces, it should be up to you. It’s your life, and you’re free to do what you want with it, take your own risk. The idea that social distancing is actually a collective social pact—a worldwide mutual pact not about any individual but necessary to contain the spread of the virus—is incomprehensible from a perspective in which there are only individuals. So what do we get? Social distancing regarded as an illegitimate political encroachment on individual choice and the retort, “I can do what I want, and no state can tell me otherwise.” Interdependence isn’t just rejected here, it’s illegible, it doesn’t exist—Maggie Thatcher’s dream came true.
How else is the ethos of neoliberal rationality, which you’ve described as transposing democratic concerns into economic ones, shaping our experience of the pandemic?
I think it’s pretty obvious that the preoccupation not only with getting the economy open, but also with the tremendous threat to economic growth that the pandemic produced, together give us the stage on which much of this crisis is playing out.
The economy is predicted to decline or shrink by up to 3 percent this year. Now, that could be a wondrous thing. It could be phenomenal for the planet. It could sustain the crisis-induced reduction in the amount of stupid work many people do—producing useless stuff or useless services. It could reduce consumption of needless stuff, use of fossil fuels, the rate of waste and the pileup of garbage on the planet. It could be an extraordinary lesson in living smaller, better, slower.
But in fact shrinking the economy by 3 percent (compare this with the 2008 finance crisis, when GDP shrunk only by 0.1%) threatens not only the “health” of the economy, but all who are dependent on that health for survival, which is all of us. So we’re in a bind, which is that the health of this destructive economic order is intimately linked to the health of human beings, even if they collide on another plane, that of the pressure to “reopen” before the virus is contained.
Many of us hope that this last bind could produce the occasion to rethink our order, to ask what it means to be more preoccupied with the health of the economy than the survival of the planet and all forms of life on it. Yet, we are so steeped not only in neoliberal rationality, and so trapped in an extreme left-right political standoff that this rethinking will in no way simply unfold from this crisis. It has to be articulated and pursued as an active organizing principle. The clamor for a “return to normal”—that terrible normal we had before the pandemic—is far more ubiquitous than the clamor for revolutionary change.
You saw Trump’s election as a result of decades of neoliberal policies. What do you make of the government’s attempts to mitigate the economic crisis?
The neoliberal assault on democracy—on democratic institutions, citizenship, imaginaries, and even quotidian electoral practices—produced the ground for Trump’s rise. When this de-legitimation of democracy is combined with the challenges neoliberal globalization dealt to white working and middle class living standards, and you turn those challenges into something like injured white social rights, you have the recipe for his ascent to power.
And lest we think that neoliberal policy is on hold during this pandemic, that it’s been replaced overnight by consensus about the importance of government provision, a social safety net, etc., take a close look at the CARES Act. Most people got excited about the stimulus checks, mortgage payment postponement and unemployment insurance supplements to bail out working and middle class America. But that stuff comprised less than a third of the bill’s budget. There’s a reason the stock market spiked the day after it passed, and that reason was not the band-aids handed around to unemployed workers and hungry families.
More than two-thirds of the 2.2 trillion dollar CARES Act was dedicated to massive tax breaks for the wealthy and loans to business, most to large corporations which bled that fund dry in two weeks. And what are they doing with those loans? Industries like the hotel and cruise ship industries take the cheap money while their profits are down, and lay off most of their workforce while keeping their executive compensation and shareholder value up. In other words, the government is keeping corporations afloat for the long haul during a time when they can’t turn a profit while the $1200 stimulus checks were a one-time thing and unemployment insurance runs out after 4 months. The CARES Act also reduces the tax liability of 43,000 richest Americans by an average 1.7 million each in 2020. This means the 1% get a government benefit 1400 times the value of those little stimulus checks for those in the bottom 75%. It’s worse than the 2008 bailouts. The single largest spending package in the history of the United States is also the greatest upward redistribution of wealth in the history of capitalism. Neoliberalism anyone?
Lots of popular commentators are quick to pronounce that Western liberal democracies are at a disadvantage in fighting a threat like coronavirus, because they’re incapable of quick, authoritative moves that can impose effective public safety measures. What do you make of that line of reasoning?
I’m not sure that’s the right diagnosis, because it just presents two choices: Western liberal democracy or autocracy, America or China. What about New Zealand?
New Zealand did something quite remarkable. They said: We have a common threat. We’re not just going to mitigate it, we’re going to eradicate it. How? Everyone go home to protect everyone else and the government will do everything it can to protect each of you. Everybody stay home, and the government will make sure that your income and security are not disrupted. The state simply took over payments that prior to the pandemic came from employers.
Now, New Zealand’s not perfect. It has a grand history of racism like so many other settler colonies. It didn’t have the Covid testing capacities it needed. There’s more. But the principles were right and they were not about autocracy. Rather, the principles were: don’t oppose economic and human health; don’t take care of some but not others; don’t individualize, protect the entire society as a society. And what happened? New Zealand conquered the virus in less than a month.
So I don’t think it’s a question of autocracy versus liberal democracy. Rather, it’s a question of whether there is potential to build on practices of social trust and social provision, whether a government is regarded as serving the entire social body and fulfills that trust in its actions. Where are there already seeds, even amidst capitalism, of what folks like Jedediah Purdy call a “commonwealth,” what others call “the commons” in political practices—local, regional, national or transnational? These are what we have to water and nourish.
In Undoing the Demos, you write about the “shared sacrifice” asked of citizens in an era of austerity measures, and the way that neoliberalism frames self-sacrifice as linked to self-interest instead of collective interest. How does this square with the kind of sacrifices—social, economic, medical—being imposed on citizens now?
We’re in a complex constellation of languages and practices of sacrifice. On the one hand, there’s universal genuflection to the sacrifices made by health workers, first responders, grocery store and farm workers, delivery truck drivers, all those “essential workers” who are risking their lives to keep the rest of us alive. There is an almost religious relationship to the sacrifice of these “essential workers.”
On the other hand, there’s a political rebellion against demands for sacrifice by those we talked about earlier–those who understand their individual rights as supervenient, who regard political restraints as inherently tyrannical or socialist, and are furious at being asked to sacrifice in any way for the well-being of the whole.
And then there’s a third dimension on which sacrifice is operating today, sacrifice of health for wealth, for economic growth or the recovery of the stock market. The “re-open now!” demand presumes some may have to be sacrificed for the economy and its link to the power and power-position of the nation. Here, the potential sacrifice (deaths!) entailed in re-opening the economy before it is safe to do so is generally wrapped in patriotism. We may just have to lose some to protect the “greater good,” the economic status of the nation. What’s sad, of course, is the way that the little people have been roped into this with rhetorics of freedom to consume and rights to work, rhetorics organized by neoliberal rationality.
You’ve written about the link between sovereignty and decision-making power. In a time where there seems to be a vacuum of both at the national and collective levels, who’s in charge?
In our current administration, there’s a fantastic oscillation that’s been understudied. On the one side, there are assertions of absolute authority, complete personal identification with the sovereignty of the state (“l’état, c’est moi”). That’s the authoritarianism, the refusal of checks and balances, the aspiration to absolute decisionism that frightens even many in Trump’s own party. On the other side, however, there’s a constant devolution of responsibility to states, to individuals, to the market. This oscillation is part of Trump’s extraordinary political wiliness, to be able to identify himself with a white patriarchalist sovereignty and with an anti-statist devolution of responsibility.
You could say that’s just the wiliness of neoliberalism, which pretends to minimal statism, with power disseminated to free markets and free individuals, when it actually consolidates political power to support markets and traditional morality. There’s some of that going on, but there’s also a faux sovereignty at work here. This is represented by the continued building of the wall, even during this pandemic—trucking workers down to the border of Arizona to get another 10 miles of that wall built, to be able to say we are containing and protecting America. From what? Now from not only guns and drugs and immigrants and rapists and murderers, but a virus, too. A virus that came from elsewhere to sicken our beautiful country. So, from Trump we get a late-modern performance of sovereign power that parallels wall-building itself: both aim to signify absolute power in a masculinist modality, displace serious problems (crime, substance abuse, now Covid) onto an imagined external enemy, and in fact do nothing to solve these problems. It would be manifestly pathetic if it were not also so dangerous, so costly for so many and to the future.
In the past you’ve criticized Jared Kushner’s clumsy language in describing government as a company, which renders its citizens consumers. Is this the view of the government we’re seeing now, and how does it undermine efforts to respond effectively in a crisis?
To address the pandemic, we need universal, accessible health care. We need universal, accessible testing. We need the raw capacity for social distancing, which means provisioning it for those in refugee camps, in prison, in homeless camps, and other spaces where the idea of social distancing is a bad joke. We need cooperation rather than competition with all of the programs around the globe engaged in research and development of vaccines and antivirals. None of this is prioritized in the current administrative response.
At the economic level, we need to address the catastrophic unemployment rate in an economy in which survival is still, arcanely, tied to paid work, and in which urban housing costs were obscene before the pandemic. Affordable housing, guaranteed minimum incomes—these are essential to avoid pushing the already precarious off a cliff.
There are lots of things that would be sensible to do if we were not bound up with the illusion that markets hold the magic solution to almost every problem and wedded to national and nationalistic modes of addressing a crisis. We may want to talk about this—about where rhetorics and discourses and practices of nationalism intersect the current crisis.
Please, let’s talk about that.
Borders are so interesting right now. We all reference them all the time: How are Italy or Spain doing? What’s the Covid rate in Brooklyn? Or in San Francisco versus Berkeley? What are the shelter-in-place regulations, or the re-opening practices, and how do they vary from region to region, state to state, nation to nation? We’re all acting as if cities, states, nations are containers for this virus, and, of course, the differing practices and policies do matter. But there’s a madness and a conceit running through our discourse about sovereign or bounded entities, one that pertains to the idea that the microbe can be made to respect boundaries when its failure to do so is the very definition of a pandemic.
And so we had Trump for example braying, “I closed the door to China. I did that first and nobody gives me credit for it.” In fact, almost every nation closed its borders or imposed travel restrictions in response to the virus. This doesn’t repel the problem but does make the biopolitical management of it a bit easier.
You might say these closed borders are a false assurance, as the virus explodes inside the boundary. Yet, they serve the important political function of treating the virus as if it invaded us from the outside and acting as if we are meeting that threat with sovereign power.
How might this crisis remake physical and social landscapes, and what psychic effects might we expect to see? Will social walling produce similar anxieties to the ones that, as you’ve written, arise from physical walling?
I’m quite sure of it. I think we’re seeing versions of what you’ve just described in what’s being called Covid shaming—failing to wear masks or socially distance. Among communities that feel like they’re trying to do everything right, there’s a sudden fear that attaches to the one who’s misbehaving.
But there’s also this: Consider relatively privileged people obsessively hand washing, staying home, masking and so forth and who are desperately dependent on their housekeeper, gardener or nanny. They are terribly anxious about where those serving them have been, especially since the latter cannot protect themselves from the social as radically as their employers do. But the privileged also can’t live without their servant class—there’s a parallel here with border fortifications and punitive immigration policy cutting the supply of farm and construction labor on which the nation depends. In the case of COVID, how do these social walling practices, combined with intense dependency on a servant class, play out? India provides a certain window here: Many domestic workers serving the middle class live in slums where social distancing is impossible. But the middle class can’t imagine surviving without them. So the association of a servant caste with pollution is now intensified but also complicated—how does a middle class live with what it fears and depends upon? Raka Ray recently said we need to think about the difference between spatial distancing, which is what we are really doing with our 6 feet of distance and our masks, and the social distancing embedded in India’s caste and class system. We likely need this analytic distinction to think about the Upper West Side, the Berkeley Hills, and the Hamptons, too, where the virus is complicating the navigation of an upper class’s radical dependence on labor it socially distances from, and now seeks to spatially distance from, but needs for the most intimate practices and spaces—cleaning, cooking, babysitting. How does the pandemic reveal novel dimensions of racialized classed and gendered care work? There’s serious feminist theoretical work to do here.
Tell us more—what are the gendered forces at work here?
Well I’ve just referred to one, but there are many layers on which gender is playing out in public these days. There’s Bolsonaro out doing push-ups in the middle of rallies, demonstrating that masculinity and strength will rebuff the virus. There’s Trump’s manifest fear of emasculation by the mask, his fear that it conveys fear and vulnerability. Then there’s cooking, cleaning and tending to the heath of bodies; work that is disproportionately done by all women in the home and by women of color in the economy. It’s unpaid or underpaid, always undervalued. It’s not all done by women but is always feminized. And this is still not widely comprehended as a critical feature of male dominance, patriarchy, whatever you prefer to call it these days. It makes almost zero appearance, for example, in #MeToo. Then there’s the old story about sharing domestic work in the home. I saw one of those little anecdotal pieces in the Times, in which nearly half the men they interviewed said that they were doing at least 50 percent of the homeschooling, and only 3 percent of the women reported that their male partners were actually doing this work.
You’ve written that neoliberalism narrows democracy down to just “rights and elections.” We’re seeing both of these categories threatened during the pandemic. How should we be thinking about assaults to democracy and the ways to rebuild it?
Well, if by democracy we actually mean something more than rights and elections—if we mean sharing power so that we can govern ourselves together, we have a lot of work to do.
Any effort by the left at addressing the social and economic effects of this crisis has to be paired with attempts to build out democratic possibility.
We could start by exploiting the rift between national and local governments. Many local governments are actively defying federal protocols, whether it’s about when to open their economies, or how to think about testing, health care, or homeless populations. This rift is not even a right-left issue. Many localities are simply saying that stuff coming from the top is crazy, irresponsible or simply irrelevant to their predicament. And as they take matters into their own hands, we should be building on this as a source of democratic power, people-controlled power, oriented to community needs.
Of course, there are also other practices of democracy that are happening on the left in response to the crisis. There are formal and informal practices of mutual aid, ways of taking care of neighbors and looking out for those on the edge. We’re discovering, as it were, that there are democratic hearts—egalitarian hearts—that we are not told to expect from people in fear and in isolation. There’s democratic potential in that too.
The end of the Democratic primary, as well as Joe Biden’s sexual assault allegations, have been overshadowed by the pandemic. How should we be thinking about these defeats for both the Bernie movement and the #MeToo movement, and what else are we failing to pay attention to?
Don’t bury the #MeToo movement yet, or the Democratic Socialism movement! The example of Occupy is instructive here. Many say it failed, or it died, burning out after a year. But what Occupy did in 2011 was put inequality at the heart of democratic discourse after 30 years of neoliberalism had sent it packing. Equality was really not an acceptable metric for anything in politics anymore until Occupy jammed it back into the civic square, made it the frame for student debt, labor, banks, bailouts, Citizens United, privatization of public goods, and so much more. Occupy literally changed the political discourse to make the extreme inequalities of neoliberalism a mainstream political concern. It was a huge challenge to the normalization of inequality by neoliberalism. And Occupy, in turn, helped pave the way for movements for Democratic Socialism, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, free college. So don’t go just declaring the Bernie movement and #MeToo over. They too are hugely generative, whatever happened in the latest round.
But you asked a bigger question: what are we missing while we’re preoccupied with the pandemic. You know what really scares me? How much news has fallen off the page. What is Israel doing in Gaza and the West Bank? What’s happening to Ukraine? What’s going on in South Africa? What’s going on in Syria and Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan? What’s happening with the refugee crisis in the Greek islands? And, ye gods, what’s happening to the remains of the American electoral system or the dismantling of environmental protections. You have to work to follow these things, to see what various forces and leaders are getting away with while everyone is preoccupied with the pandemic.
Does the growing demand for a better system, particularly among younger people, give you hope? How do you think about the impact of neoliberalism on different generations?
Look, your generation barely needed to be taught formally about the dark side of neoliberalism to understand it. You live every aspect of it. You didn’t need to be told that you are bits of self-enhancing human capital who have to figure out how to enhance its value or perish and this is a terrible way to live. You didn’t need to be told that we desperately need to leash Big Pharma and Big Oil, that giving real estate and finance free reign creates cities you can’t afford to live in. You didn’t need to be told that we need universal healthcare and a universal basic income, that we need real support for the arts and also for care work. Above all, you didn’t need to be taught that markets will not save a planet in peril.
You were born into neoliberalism’s manifest crisis of human and planetary survival. This does not mean it is your job to save the world. But your generation has little to lose and a future to win by demanding and charting a different course of things, and so many of you know this. Pete Buttigieg aside, there’s a growing consensus among millennials on what is primary and how important it is to make radical change.
That said, there is a giant struggle ahead, not just between left and right, but between left and center. The last round of this struggle defeated the Sanders and the Warren campaigns, and pushed climate change, universal health care, and ending domination by corporations and finance away from the center of a progressive agenda. But that also left the progressive agenda startlingly blank apart from getting rid of Trump. It’s essential to reveal that blank and push back.
Do I have hope? I join others in insisting that hope is not something you have but something you create, you make in the world. Otherwise it’s just empty attitude. Thankfully, a lot of social and political movements are creating that hope. A different question: will significant structural change in our political economy come before the planet burns up and before economic desperation turns more and more people hard, mean and vigilante-ish? I don’t know. I do know that it’s an ethical-political imperative to do all we can to make that change happen.
THIS INTERVIEW WAS CONDUCTED BY REBECCA PANOVKA AND KIARA BARROW. IT WAS CONDENSED AND EDITED FOR CLARITY.