The Political Uses of Pandemic

Photograph Source: Michael Kowalczyk – CC BY 2.0

Crisis has long had political uses for ruling groups. As I wrote in a piece for CounterPunch in 2015, elites and their intellectual courtiers often manufacture crises themselves, though what sociologist Stanley Cohen called ‘the amplification of deviance’ (or blowing things utterly out of proportion). Where not directly complicit themselves in the process of engineering crises for political purposes, elites and their ideological lickspittles reveal time and again a tenacious capacity to exploit legitimate crises—if not for proactive personal gain, then to avoid responsibility for creating them in the first place. Much about the global response to the COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic reflects this historical truism.

In coming to terms with attempts to politicise the pandemic for ideological purposes, it merits recalling at the outset social and environmental issues associated with the origins of the pandemic. Not least of these appear to be the role played by deforestation and land-clearing in bringing humans into closer contact with wild animals and the exotic viruses they carry—such as wild bats in the case of COVID-19. In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, disease ecologist Peter Daszak, argues that ‘Plagues are not only part of our culture; they are caused by it’—which, in this context, means our culture of reducing every facet of life to objects of the predatory gaze of capital, valued only to the extent that they serve the diktats of private accumulation and profitmaking.

‘Pandemics,’ notes Daszak, ‘usually begin as viruses in animals that jump to people when we make contact with them.’

These spillovers are increasing exponentially as our ecological footprint brings us closer to wildlife in remote areas and the wildlife trade brings these animals into urban centers. Unprecedented road-building, deforestation, land clearing and agricultural development, as well as globalized travel and trade, make us supremely susceptible to pathogens like coronaviruses.

Given this fact, then, the COVID-19 pandemic might be understood, not simply as a nasty accident, but as a broader reflection of capitalist social relations, a rather predictable consequence of dynamics long in the making. Such are evident in another piece from the Times, this one notable for its eight year vintage. Disease, argued Jim Robbins in 2012, is ‘largely an environmental issue . . . Sixty per cent of emerging infectious diseases that affect humans are zoonotic—they originate in animals. And more than two-thirds of those originate in wildlife.” As the Oakland Socialist blog points out, large-scale capitalist agriculture plays no small part in deforestation, contact with wildlife and the potential for contact with zoonotic infectious diseases, as do other factors such as urbanisation:

Genetic monocultures of animals remove whatever immune firebreaks may otherwise slow transmission. Large population sizes and densities facilitate greater rates of transmission. Crowded conditions depress immune responses. Fast turnover of livestock provides a continually renewed supply of susceptible hosts.

Failure to acknowledge the impact of deforestation by corporate agrobusinesses driven by the profit imperative and act accordingly, Robbins added, would eventually result in a breakdown of natural ecosystems and their associated ‘firebreaks,’ and ‘come back to haunt us in ways we know little about.’ Such an understanding in all its now-eerie and rather telling pathos was the basis for work Daszak later carried out in anticipation of ‘Disease X,’ which he concludes has come to pass in the form of COVID-19.

If the novel coronavirus pandemic is not simply ‘stuff that happens,’ then, in other words, it is an expression of underlying hierarchical social relations premised on the reduction of the planet and everyone and everything in it to passive objects whose primary (even sole) value is exploitation for profit. To appreciate that fact is to appreciate the motivation those responsible for perpetrating this mentality, with the result that industry driven by demands for private accumulation encroaches on natural environments to the point of unleashing new and exotic coronaviruses, might have (A) for dodging accountability for the consequences of their pathological covetousness and self-interestedness, and/or (B) for exploiting such consequences for further escapades in serving their own self-interest at the increasingly lethal costs to the common good.

Such motivations are well understood historical features of realpolitik, as noted, and tend to become the basis for all sorts of conspiracy theories that function to deflect attention away from the responsibility of the powerful for the consequences of their actions (or inaction, as is at least equally often the case). Crisis and opportunity are well understood to represent two sides of the same coin for covetous predators looking for openings to advance their own interests; exploiting chaos and confusion to perpetrate underhanded, self-interested behaviour while everyone is distracted are well-documented features of panic-driven scapegoating and disaster capitalism.

On the latter count, Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine quotes Milton Friedman arguing to this end:

Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function; to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable (6).

Friedman’s quintessentially neoliberal mentality is manifest in any number of different developments related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not least of these in terms of potential significance is the potential for disaster capitalism, a topic we return to momentarily. For the moment, it perhaps suffices to recall a historical precedent in the form of the Black Death, from which grew the conspiracy theory of Jews and Brides of Satan poisoning wells—one that served the hegemonic Catholic hierarchy at the time by excusing it from having to explain the part played by bubonic plague in God’s Plan.

By way of beginning to demonstrate this dynamic in play in the present, we can look to one of the most immediately obvious examples in the outbreak of Sinophobia following the initial appearance of COVID-19, one that produced a spike in hate-crimes against Asians throughout North America, the United Kingdom, continential Europe and Australia. Reflecting similar spikes against Muslims after 9/11, they also embodied similar purposes. The bigotry driving this outbreak of xenophobia was fanned by the most unsurprising source on the planet, the Tangerine Emperor describing COVID-19 variously as a ‘foreign virus’ and the ‘Chinese Virus’—the hate crimes continuing as he doubled down on his reflexive Othering of those who find themselves at the sharp end of capitalist social relations. In Australia, whites abandoned Chinese restaurants in droves, hastening an 80% drop in business. Barely halfway through February, one iconic establishment in Melbourne’s Chinatown district closed doors permanently.

As the apparent default position for racist demagogues sensing any opportunity to push their own ideological barrows, Trumpist Sinophobia was parroted in Australia by calls from noted bigot Pauline Hanson as grounds to close the borders. Hardly needing a great deal of encouragement to implement racist policy serving class privilege, the Australian government up offered its own example of slavish obsequiousness to imperial ideology. Responding to the pandemic by announcing an economic stimulus package largely comprised of state subsidies to business as per ‘trickle-down’ neoliberal economics, the Morrison government fell in line with the Empire, whose breezy chats around the White House during the earliest stages of the crisis focused on tax cuts rather than medical aid.

This reliance of both Trump and Morrison on supply-side Reaganisms that even the IMF can no longer countenance, was arguably telling on a number of different levels—not least of which being the reassertion of disaster capitalism ass state policy. The existential threat that COVID-19 pandemic represents for the just-in-time model of private healthcare in the United States fell a distant second to making sure business interests were served, such being apparently consistent with its birth in the social laboratory of Pinochet’s Chile, as Klein goes to some pains to point out in The Shock Doctrine; an extreme form of free market libertarianism first developed within a fascist police state might be said to have found a natural home in a corporate oligarchy where class privilege and individual freedoms are freely conflated. With this as context, Secretary of the Treasury Minuchin most successfully captured the essence of disaster-capitalism-as-policy in describing the COVIC-19 pandemic as ‘an excellent investment opportunity.’

Having since applied her analysis to the current crisis, Klein characterises the excellent investment opportunity as ‘Coronavirus Capitalism’—another distinguishing feature of which is the ability to find $1.5 trillion for Wall Street (bailed out again), while a comparable amount for universal health coverage as proposed by candidate Sanders is allegedly too expensive. Other features of the Coronavirus Capitalist oligarchy are slowly making themselves apparent at the same time, not the least of which being the potential for draconian biosecurity laws, where fears of coronavirus fanned out of proportion such that people don’t know why they’re panic-buying become the basis for summary arrest and indefinite incarceration (those of us who lived through the moral panic over terrorism after 2001 await a new biosecurity incident to become the basis for renewed PATRIOT Act-style attacks on civil liberties, while the CIA stands around saying ‘the fuck are you looking at me for?’). Proposed further bailouts are directed towards industries notorious of late for engaging in stock buybacks to inflate share prices.

If all of this ducking and weaving around the root causes of the COVID-19 pandemic was not enough, and while the Tangerine Palpatine dissembles, his reptilian enablers on the far right look to follow his example firstly by conspiracy theorising about the role of Jews in engineering COVID-19 (which scientists explicitly point out has natural origins, for reasons described above), and by looking to exacerbate the panic and confusion created by the pandemic crisis to further their accelerationist agenda more generally. Defiantly ignorant ideologues of this cloth habitually conflate doubt and FUD (fear, uncertainty and dissembling), acting in characteristic bad faith while claiming the good faith of angels. Simultaneously, they play the victim and conflate being criticised and being attacked, painting themselves victims of the exact same kind of violence they metre out to anyone daring doubt the majesty of their judgement in conflating institutional privilege as whites and human rights (much less to say anyone taking pride in achievements instead of relying on the false pride associated with accidents of birth).

Rounding out the symptoms of a failed state teetering on its last legs, professional hothead Alex Jones is reportedly ramping up his act with a view to increasing sales of his personal merchandise. Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) is in the firing line for alleged insider trading after receiving classified intelligence on COVID-19, while having downplayed the seriousness of the looming pandemic in conformity to a party line dictated by an emperor wearing no clothes. Echoing the logic of witchcraft conspiracy theory associated with the European Witch Hunts, numerous usual suspects try to blame the novel coronavirus pandemic on our sinful ways.

Such in the final analysis are relative errata to the main event, which appears to be the use and abuse of the crisis created by the novel coronavirus pandemic in time-honoured fashion. The patent obvious of this tradition of exploiting crisis for political gain is patently obvious enough now that late appeals for calm ring transparently hollow—as does political grandstanding over hoarding of consumer goods from political leaders who otherwise act like their main purpose in life is to reduce parliamentary democracy to a wholly owned subsidiary of transnational corporate totalitarianism.

The final word on this count comes from an Italian writer currently ensconced amidst one of the pandemic hotspots, and who with that being the case would appear to have some idea what he’s talking about:

. . . the epidemic has caused to appear with clarity is that the state of exception, to which governments have habituated us for some time, has truly become the normal condition. There have been more serious epidemics in the past, but no one ever thought for that reason to declare a state of emergency like the current one, which prevents us even from moving. People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective. A society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society. We in fact live in a society that has sacrificed freedom to so-called “reasons of security” and has therefore condemned itself to live in a perennial state of fear and insecurity.

After almost two decades of terror panic and many other forms besides, and prior, things could hardly be otherwise. As previous iterations of elite crisis management and panic leveraging tend to reveal, states of exception tend to serve class privilege in a variety of different ways. If they don’t provide opportunities for further class war attacks on the rights and wellbeing of subject classes, they simply facilitate the shifting of attention away from institutional causes of crisis, laying blame at the door of handy scapegoats.

In the case of the current crisis, both are, to one or another extent, true. The simple fact is that, as a pandemic fuelled by zoonotic infectious disease, the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic reflects the culpability of the capitalist class for the consequence of its own collective rapaciousness. As such, it presents a threat to the populist politics built on precious little besides the sacrificing of the liberal wing of the capitalist class to the anti-elite pretences of corporate oligarchs, and to capitalist social relations per se. Sensing as much intuitively, mainstays of the old world perpetrate vicious cycles of fear and blame, exploiting the fact that crisis and opportunity are widely understood to represent two sides of the same coin. The bad news for these agents of terminal negativity and tantrums raised to the level of ideology is that the same knowledge can be used to promote cycles of virtue as a form of resistance, to learn from the thinking that produced the crisis, and to rise above it in the name of moving on to bigger and better things, as many of those now engaged in forming things like mutual aid networks are now demonstrating.


Ben Debney is the author of The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).