John Crowley, Political Scientists, Ph.D. Chief of Section. Research, Policy and Foresight. UNESCO.
If you have any kind of sympathy with classical liberalism then, like The Economist, you hate the current pandemic.
Not because you hate the death toll and the confinement that serves to reduce it. So does everyone else. But because you hate the ideas it is giving rise to. And not simply because they happen to clash with your personal preferences, and perhaps with your interests. More profoundly, because you believe them to be both misguided and dangerous. (It’s noteworthy though that the cover above is from the 28 March 2020 North American edition. The EU edition on the same day had a different cover.)
So which ideas are emerging from the crisis, and why would a classical liberal be particularly uncomfortable with them? For the purposes of this article, I’d like to focus on three.
The labour theory of value
The first idea is actually the least challenging. It is the spectacular revival of the labour theory of value. Not just the blindingly obvious fact that the production of market value depends on labour, as any business currently declared “non-essential” has discovered, but the more important and less obvious fact that much value is not produced in or for a market and depends essentially on (often unpaid) human labour. The value produced by frontline health workers – at the risk of their own life – can be measured with some precision in terms of the maintenance of human capital. It depends, of course, on large amounts of physical and institutional capital, but the capital is literally dead without the workers that operate it. Respirators save lives – to take the current headline example – but they are not self-prioritizing, self-installing and self-operating. And the key point: this was always true, but behind a veil of ideology that meant it went largely unnoticed.
More profoundly, confinement serves as a reminder that paid labour depends critically on the unpaid labour – predominantly women’s – that holds households together. Confinement, in other words, makes brutally concrete what is rendered abstract and almost intangible in normal market conditions: the fact that labour power exists at all only in so far as it is socially reproduced.
The labour theory of value isn’t inherently challenging for a classical liberal. After all, both Smith and Ricardo explicitly subscribed to versions of it. Marx’s version is in some respects distinctive, but there is a clear family resemblance. This is what justifies, in terms of intellectual history, Foucault’s snarky dismissal of Marx, in Words and Things, as “a major post-Ricardian economist”. (Of course, Foucault was at that point also settling personal scores with the French Communist Party, which he had left a decade earlier – but that’s a whole other story.) The reason it appears challenging is that classical liberalism has largely been crowded out, since the Second World War, by the variant often termed “neoliberalism”, which in political terms is better termed free-market conservatism and subscribes to a very different theory of value, the source of which is seen to be the combination of technological and financial innovation. Human labour has, in this case, an ancillary and in principle dispensable function and, very logically, it is taken for granted in the neoliberal framework that market rewards should flow primarily to the drivers of technological and financial innovation. Furthermore, behind its ostensible theories, neoliberalism has generally been in alliance, since the 1980s, with big business corporatism, which for different and less theoretically coherent reasons has become increasingly dismissive of the role of labour in producing value.
As regular readers of The Economist will know, the magazine, as a self-conscious guardian of the classical liberal flame, was generally supportive of neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s, but has gradually moved away from it, particularly since the financial crisis of 2008, largely because of concerns about the dominance of big business corporatism within neoliberal coalitions and about the emergence – partly for this reason – of nationalistic and neo-mercantilist tendencies that are deeply inimical to liberalism in the classical sense.
So, classical liberals can live with the labour theory of value, including the affirmation of the importance of non-market labour, though of course they would tend to insist that such labour should preferably be either marketized or recognized as constituting the social value of the voluntary sector. The idea of a universal basic income is a way of achieving both objectives at the same time, which is why it attracts sympathy in liberal circles.
It’s considerably harder for classical liberals to live with the spectacular revival of demand-driven economics, perhaps precisely because Keynesianism is itself a variant of liberalism. Family quarrels are always the hardest to deal with. But it’s tough for any business to argue in April 2020 that it doesn’t depend on its consumers and on their effective capacity to spend cash on its products or services. The idea that supply creates its own demand, that the only real challenge for governments is to create the right supply-side conditions for businesses to invest, has been smashed to pieces in front of our eyes, and over an astonishingly short timespan. Everyone now knows that supply-side issues arise only when a basically stable economic structure exists, which depends in turn on institutions and processes of reasonably stable effective demand – on the social conditions of production and reproduction, in other terms. In this case, it was the pandemic that brutally annihilated demand for whole sectors of the economy, which as a result went bankrupt overnight – subject of course to public intervention to rescue them in ways still to be defined. But in doing so, the pandemic revealed an underlying structure that goes to the heart of neoliberal financial globalization. To put it very simply, workers and consumers are, on average, the same people. Globalization has worked, since the mid-90s, as a very successful Ponzi scheme, expanding the global consumer base geographically just fast enough to compensate for its erosion in its historical heartlands. But any Ponzi scheme involves running faster and faster just to stand still: at some point, you can’t keep up with the treadmill and you fall off. Through shortness of breath, so to speak, that has just happened – probably shortly before it would have happened anyway due to the sheer excess of speed.
Pandemic governmentality and biopower
The third idea is different in so far as it bears on the political rather than the economic thrust of classical liberalism. As the cover of The Economist suggests, the pandemic has produced a powerful and remarkably successful wave of big government control. Considered sociologically, what is striking is not that there has been resistance against confinement – both ideological rejection and individual evasion – but that there has been such general acceptance. Of course, this is partly because political management in Western democracies has been fairly astute. Recognizing that populations would find purely precautionary approaches difficult to accept – however justified they may have been in purely technical terms – governments have delayed action just long enough for people to be calling for confinement themselves. I don’t mean by that that there was some clever plan to manufacture consent. All the information available on decision processes through February and March suggests rather the opposite: that governments were slow in acting because they were not technically prepared and failed to grasp the significance of some of the tough choices. But once they were up to speed, around the third week of March in most countries, the politics have been managed surprisingly well. For those of a libertarian streak, the sight of such public docility is deeply disturbing, but in the circumstances it actually corresponds to a fairly straightforward Hobbesian bargain in which individual and collective risks and benefits are, at least temporarily, well aligned. Contagion, sickness and death – given what we now today about epidemics in general and this one in particular – make the issues surprisingly transparent. They’re not difficult to understand, at least so long as one is not suspicious on principle of all claims based on expertise.
sovereignty, in the liberal sense, is ill-equipped to deal with emergencies
And this is the crux of the matter, for the classical liberal. What has emerged in the highly compressed course of the pandemic is a mode of technocratic governmentality that depends crucially on expertise and involves a set of biopolitical claims that cannot be coherently individualized, even though they may, briefly, coincide with what individuals would choose collectively if they were given the opportunity to do so. This sounds very abstract, of course, and using the theoretical vocabulary of Michel Foucault may seem odd in a discussion about classical liberalism. After all, Foucault is more likely these days to be mobilized in support of radical left positions. However without being able to go into great detail here, I would suggest first that the thrust of Foucault’s thought is much less radical than it’s often made out to be, and secondly that some of his concepts are sufficiently useful to work even without reference to his own political intentions in developing them.
The first point I’m borrowing from Foucault here is the idea of “governmentality”, as contrasted with “sovereignty”. The language of democracy, like the older language of liberalism, is a language of sovereignty: where it inheres and what it grants. The standard liberal answer in the age of democracy is: sovereignty inheres in the people, and it grants supreme legal authority to the state within the limits of the constitution that enables it to exist in the first place. Other variants of democratic thought would, of course, offer somewhat different definitions and might, in particular, prefer to stress the nation rather than the people, or refuse to admit that sovereignty can be limited without ceasing to be sovereign.
It is a very familiar point that sovereignty, in the liberal sense, is ill-equipped to deal with emergencies. Carl Schmitt is perhaps the most famous thinker to have made his name theorizing sovereignty in terms of the exceptional circumstances that the sovereign is called to deal with, which by their very emergency nature prohibit the expression of the will of the people and explode the notion of constitutional limits. As he famously argued, liberal sovereignty only actually works when you don’t need it. There are some major theoretical problems with Schmitt, which I can’t go into here, even beyond the distasteful personal choices he claimed to justify by his own arguments. But what’s important for present purposes is that many other thinkers, and practitioners, have reached similar conclusions to Schmitt’s, without the conceptual and ideological baggage. The whole “republican” brand of political theory takes its inspiration from Machiavelli’s claim to place his love of country above the salvation of his soul. Which means, in this context, that the exercise of sovereign power cannot conform to standards of personal morality. Salus populi suprema lex – in an emergency, do whatever it takes: something every scriptwriter, in every planetary disaster movie, has put in the mouth of every fictional President or Prime Minister. Though maybe not quite whatever it takes. George Orwell, to whom I’ll return below, in a famous passage of Homage to Catalonia, recounts how, as a Republican sniper in the Spanish Civil War, he once had in his sights a Fascist soldier squatting with his trousers down, doing what one does even in times of war, a literal sitting duck. Orwell – who was himself nearly killed by a sniper a few weeks later – couldn’t bring himself to shoot. A Fascist with his trousers down, Orwell wrote, is no longer a Fascist, and thus no longer an enemy. He’s just a man. Staying decent in times of emergency is a question that exercised Orwell throughout his life.
What’s interesting about Foucault is that he completely ignores these questions about the nature and limits of sovereignty, which he regards as rooted in a largely meaningless legal fiction. What he proposes, under the notion of “governmentality”, is to focus on what governments do and how they do it, without reference to the basis of their legal authority to do so. “Government”, for Foucault, is less a specific public institution than a process through which things are brought to happen, possibly traceable to the intentions of particular agents with the capacity to act, but just as likely corresponding to contexts, technologies and taken-for-granted knowledge frameworks (“epistemic”, as he calls them) of which agents are the servants as much as the creators.
Classical liberals tend to be uncomfortable with the idea of systems operating behind the backs of the agents that make them work – oddly, since Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” provides a generic template for this kind of thinking. The historical reason is probably hostility to Hegel, who made the “cunning of reason” a kind of cosmic invisible hand, thereby dismissing the liberal claim to have uncovered the timeless truth of human affairs. (There’s an extensive literature reading the later Hegel as a liberal, but that’s beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that the dominant public image of Hegel, in so far as he’s still referenced, is defined by his influence on Marx.)
In addition, classical liberals are very explicitly suspicious about governments when they claim a distinctive sphere of action that goes beyond administration of sovereign decisions. And that, of course, is exactly what governments are now doing, justified by an emergency rather than by the expressed will of the people, and taking major decisions by reference to bodies of technical knowledge that are only partly available to the people and, in so far as they are, not submitted to their deliberation or decision. In classical liberal terms, this isn’t how politics is supposed to work.
For the classical liberal, biopower is a profound challenge both philosophically and politically.
What’s useful about Foucault’s approach to governmentality – in this case the technocratic emergency governmentality of pandemic response – is his emphasis on the “how”. Of course, a discourse is produced on the nature of the risk and of the public good in relation to it, but much more interesting in many respects are the practical arrangements – the “dispositifs” in Foucault’s vocabulary – that give substance to the discourse. Confinement doesn’t mean anything without detailed specification of its nature and the permissible exceptions, which have duly been produced, at accelerating pace, by governments endowed with emergency powers by the various constitutional procedures specified in different jurisdictions. Furthermore, echoing a point Foucault himself strongly emphasized in discussing the major shifts he saw occurring in 19th-century Europe, many of the specifications are not negative but positive. They do not state what people must not do, as legal codes have since time immemorial, but what they must do – something classical liberalism has traditionally regarded as inherently tyrannical. The question of wearing masks has, in this respect, become a very important marker, the fine line between advice and compulsion constituting an invisible ideological frontier, which is not just about freedom but also about the normalization of a technological dispositif. Asian countries in which mask-wearing was widespread long before the pandemic have (so far) significantly less rapid epidemic progression, which means that cultural norms of personal interaction come into play within epidemic governmentality, connecting government to self-government in very classically Foucaldian manner.
Hence the bridge with the parallel Foucaldian notion of “biopower”, by which he means an understanding of power in so far as it applies not to individuals, or to groups of individuals that can in principle be enumerated, but to populations – human aggregates that have features not reducible to any properties of the individuals that compose them. Epidemic response is essentially biopolitical in so far as it deals specifically with such aggregates and their characteristics: infection rates and death rates. The notion of “herd immunity” is, in this sense almost purely biopolitical: it is a population-level outcome that, while it has individual consequences, cannot be disaggregated into the properties and behaviour of the individuals that make up the population.
For the classical liberal, biopower is a profound challenge both philosophically and politically. Philosophically, biopower is inherently collectivistic, and politically it calls for forms of panoptic technocratic government intervention that are very difficult to submit either to individual opt-out or to collective democratic control.
But of course, anyone can accept, pragmatically, that emergencies call for emergency measures, which by their nature can’t be perfect. The real worry classical liberals are expressing is about what might happen after the pandemic, and on that point many non-liberals can easily agree with them.
Not the revival of the labour theory of value, which, again, even liberals can subscribe to and constitutes a welcome rebalancing of economic thinking after a slightly absurd period during which vital tasks have been undervalued and workers in general regarded as somehow dispensable. Nor even the revival of demand management, which is hardly avoidable as a response, given the severity of the macroeconomic shock the pandemic has inflicted. Liberals will, correctly, be concerned that the vast sums mobilized will be suboptimally used, and will in particular worry that they might flow to politically connected oligopolies rather than creating the conditions for a new phase of economic development. But those are issues within demand management, not a comprehensive alternative to it.
No, the real concern, way beyond the limits of classical liberalism, is about the rise of new forms of biopower and their possible perpetuation.
Why would they continue?
The idea that national emergencies are times when people, on average, feel that they are more connected to others, that their life is more meaningful … is as old as sociology.
Partly because they mesh with tendencies already observable to mandate health as a kind of reciprocal duty – incumbent on the government, which needs to create the right conditions for citizens to be healthy, and at the same time on citizens who can be “good” citizens only if they take proper care of themselves. In some ways, indeed, these tendencies are hard to argue with. Informing people about the risks of, e.g., non-communicable diseases such as diabetes hardly restricts their individual freedom, though there’s a more complicated discussion as to whether people should also be free to ignore such information.
Partly because extensions of governmental power tend to work on the ratchet principle: once some area of life has been brought within the purview of government, it tends to remain there, though the nature and scale of intervention may change considerably. In the initial stages of pandemic response, many governments had recourse to the language of “war” to justify the scale of the restrictions placed on citizens. This was not because war was a good analogy for either the circumstances or the response measures, but rather because only “war” offered a readily available political language to make sense of circumstances that were not literally unprecedented but lay outside the personal memories of everyone involved. In future, this will presumably be untrue. The response to the Covid-19 pandemic – assuming of course that it succeeds in its own terms and retains broad public support to its completion – will become an alternative, readily available template for government action to deal with public health emergencies, and indeed, perhaps, other kinds of emergencies too. And this connects in turn to the point made in the previous paragraph. The question what constitutes a “public health emergency” is itself embedded in the conceptual and institutional development of new forms of biopower. A dispositif, as Foucault argued, can tend to create the conditions that justify its application, precisely because it is inseparably a technology and an epistemic framework that makes sense of it.
But if it were just about mission creep, concerns about what happens after the end of the pandemic response could be framed in the familiar language of democratic control of government action. One of the reasons why liberals – and others – have a concern that goes deeper than this is the surprisingly high level not just of compliance but of positive buy-in shown by populations in very different cultural settings.
The idea that national emergencies are times when people, on average, feel that they are more connected to others, that their life is more meaningful – feel, in some very general sense, “happier” – is as old as sociology. It plays a central role in Durkheim’s seminal book On Suicide, which showed, perhaps counter-intuitively, that rates of suicide fell in the countries he had statistics for in times of war or economic crisis. It is, of course, far too early to make any empirical judgement as to how people feel in the present emergency, and one would expect differences between categories, in particular between those performing vital functions in the health system or elsewhere, those confined in reasonable comfort and economic security, and those bearing the immediate brunt of the economic crisis. But there is at least a possibility, which demands reflection, that significant groups of people will not regard an emergency in which everyone is required to pull together as an altogether bad thing, and may perhaps support future proposals for schemes of civic commitment (which can obviously take many different forms) that would, in earlier times, have been regarded as unacceptable modes of regimentation. This, I suspect, is the real liberal nightmare: new forms of voluntary servitude – in the sense of La Boëtie’s famous 16th-century essay – indexed on the widely accepted demands of public health. Furthermore, even for those who don’t regard this prospect as a nightmare, it is at least an important variable in trying to sketch possible post-pandemic futures.
All of which brings us back to Orwell.
as human history shows in abundance, people will not necessarily choose peace, quiet and comfort when danger, discomfort and sacrifice are on offer
A striking feature of Orwell’s political thinking, one he was absolutely explicit about but that often passes unnoticed, is his rejection of hedonism. He expressed it in his reflections on Brave New World as well as in his remarkable review of Mein Kampf – just one of a number of writings in which he tried to take seriously what young men find attractive in Fascism. And, famously, the rejection of hedonism is central in “Ingsoc”, the ideology has ascribes to the ruling Party in the Oceania of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In particular, O’Brien’s setpiece speeches to Winston Smith, in between episodes of physical torture, assert that people care much less about pleasure than about power. Hence the famous image of the future that O’Brien offers to Winston: of a boot stamping on a human face, for ever. O’Brien’s point is not – or not mainly – that the Inner Party is motivated by a sadistic lust for power as physical oppression. Rather that such power is something that maintains a stable balance between the Inner Party, the Outer Party and the Proles because those subjected to it, at some deep psychological level, consent to it. Sadism cannot function with masochism, and Oceania is, above all, a profoundly masochistic society – a structural masochism from which only the Proles, as Winston half-grasps, are to some extent free. This, indeed, is the deep meaning of the Party slogan “Proles and animals are free”. Not just that freedom is something unworthy of Party members, who are conditioned to subscribe to what Hume called the “monkish” virtues, but that what it consists in is pleasure, joy, happiness – everything vitalistic that Julia briefly embodies in the novel. (Orwell seems to have been little aware of Freud, but there are obvious parallels in his thinking on these points with Freud’s thinking “beyond the pleasure principle”. But that would need another paper.)
Orwell was satirizing rather than predicting in his novel, and one aspect of what he was satirizing was, precisely, the collective masochism of the war spirit in the UK and, perhaps even more, of the peace mobilization that followed. Orwell himself was a (critical) supporter of the Labour Party in the post-war period, and he was hardly personally immune from masochistic tendencies, as his biographers have stressed with respect to his domestic arrangements over the years. He was thus, among other things, satirizing himself – which is one reason why the satire resonates so strongly. It has a deep psychological plausibility. It reminds us that, as human history shows in abundance, people will not necessarily choose peace, quiet and comfort when danger, discomfort and sacrifice are on offer.
My point is – obviously, I hope – not to predict that pandemic response will morph into some new form of totalitarianism premised on permanent pathogenic warfare. I’m not even suggesting that such an outcome is a particularly plausible scenario. What does follow from the points made above, however, is that, alongside the strong pressure to return to the status quo ante, which will be one driving force in post-pandemic politics, the taste for mobilization, perhaps even to the point of regimentation, is unlikely to disappear and may be expected to recirculate to other issues. This in itself, even apart from the incoherence of the status quo ante, makes “going back” a somewhat improbable outcome, and suggests new and perhaps heightened patterns of political polarization.