Against Covid Libertarianism

Foucault critiqued the structures of the medical establishment, for worry they could control us.

Deleuze and Guattari asked why the masses desire their own subjugation.

Yet here we are, in a medically justified lockdown and no one is talking about them in this regard.

Originally tweeted by Meta-Nomad (@meta_nomad) on December 21, 2020.

The flipside of the debate around the tyrannies of postmodernism is doomed to another kind of irrelevance if we end up using the likes of Foucault and D+G to support Covid libertarianism. With respect, Meta’s recent tweet above epitomises this all too usefully, though it is a position I’ve seen expressed in numerous ways in recent weeks.

I think there is nonetheless a useful lesson to learn from this kind of provocation. It shows how there are two possible readings of the post-structuralists, but rather than pick and choose for our personal agendas, the hard truth is that they are describing the fatal entangling of right and left positions, leading to precisely the sort of relativism that many of its worst offenders say they want to warn us against.

Foucault may have critiqued the structures of the medical establishment, for instance, but more for how those structures enforce confined observation and bodily “correction” rather than anything remotely related to the Covid-19 pandemic. The only imposition made upon our bodies under lockdown measures is that we must all get used to wearing masks — and even then, most refuse to do so with a childish petulance, simply because someone else has told them they have to.

Why not embrace it for the new freedom it affords us? Whereas previously I couldn’t go into my local post office with my hood up, I’ve actually found the normalisation of masks to be hugely freeing. I like the anonymity it brings. It has allowed us to get out of our faces again, and has brought in a measure of disease control that is actually antithetical to every other form of controlled surveillance that we have otherwise gotten used to.

Beyond this, the Covid crisis is otherwise defined by a distinct lack of institutional control. After all, haven’t the institutions that Foucault despised in their similarity to one another — prisons, schools, hospitals — been disastrous hotspots for the virus? The virus has, in this sense, revealed just how tattered Foucault’s disciplinary societies are in the present — something that the linguistic ubiquity of virality has already implicitly revealed to us. This is to say that the coronavirus, by running roughshod over disciplinary societies and their institutions, reflects the predisposition to viral contagion that defines the spread of information in a Deleuzian control-society. “[E]veryone knows these institutions are finished”, Deleuze declares. Instead, we wander around “free” in an enclosed system.

This is not what Deleuze is attacking when he describes how the masses desire their own subjugation. In fact, this is how conservatives implement their own subjugation, by insisting on the sanctity of the enclosed system’s bounds, insisting that capitalism is all there is. A Covid control-society restricts movement and unleashes movement accordingly, whenever the market is shown to be suffering. Freedom is reduced to a cynical shadow of itself, whereby the donkey we all are is free to walk so long as it keeps walking towards that capitalist carrot.

This is precisely how Deleuze distinguished between his control socities and Foucault’s disciplinary societies, and also predicts how they have been dismantled by neoliberalism. The prison-school-hospital hasn’t been eradicated but internalised. Thatcher advocated for care in the community, for instance, as a way to refract institutional influence on individual lives, only to undermine collective consciousness by furthering the free-market idealism of “every man for himself.” And so, with the state no longer fit for purpose, the libertarian worldview instead views every individual as a sovereignty unto themselves. But this speaks less to a political agency than the susceptibility of useful idiots to further control. Whilst this gives your average conservative a baseline by which to judge the grounds of freedom, it also gives them a scapegoat for who to blame when the state goes wrong.

YouGov released some data earlier today demonstrating this very clearly.

Conservatives, who are far more likely to reject the government’s enforcement of rules on the public, nonetheless blame the public for not following the government’s non-existent rules.

As Milo Edwards put it:

the british public are absolutely furious with themselves about how they’ve handled the pandemic. they’ve really let down the government.

we are absolutely without a doubt the most cucked nation on earth

when assigning blame for this i refuse to impugn the people in charge, who are doing their best, instead i blame the public, who is everyone except me

Originally tweeted by milo edwards (@Milo_Edwards) on December 22, 2020.

This is the paradox of Covid libertarianism laid bare, and if the insights of Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari are relevant here, it is in wholly rejecting this sort of in-grown logic where a tandem rejection of state subjugation and self-affirmed subjugation supposedly cancels each other out. Sorry, libs, they don’t.

Mark Fisher, as ever, demonstrates this ahead of time on his k-punk blog, where he has yet another nugget lying in wait, wholly relevant to the current clusterfuck of conservative contrarian thinking:

What is facile about Thatcherism is what is facile about all brands of liberal conservatism: namely, the centrality to its ontology of an uncritiqued concept of the individual. The conservative distrust of the State (good) is counterpoised by its championing of the individual and ‘individual freedom’. Mrs Thatcher was explicit in her espousal of what sociologists call ‘methodological individualism’, the view that the only real social unit is the individual agent, when she (in)famously announced that there is no such thing as society.

But if Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Lacan, structuralism, post-structuralism and postmodernism have taught us anything, it is that the category of the individual cannot be treated as a given. Foucault was especially vociferous in resisting the dichotomy on which Thatcherite thought was based: the individual cannot be construed as first of all free and only afterwards constrained by the State. No: the individual is, in effect, a State in miniature. As ever, Spinoza anticipated most of these positions. He argued that, since it depends upon the welfare of others, individual liberty presupposes collective freedom.

Your average Covid-skeptic conservative doesn’t seem to understand the trajectory on display here, obvious to the left, who are dismissed as masochists.

To curtail our own individual freedoms for a common good ensures we regain our collective freedom sooner. But to flaunt individual responsibility in the name of individual freedom just keeps the crisis dragging on forever, giving further whiplash to the amorphous economic institutions they supposedly respect. This is why the ingrown logics of conservatism will lead to nothing more than their own demise. They insist on putting the cart before the horse, only to flog the horse when it keeps crashing into things.

Sort it out, yeah?

Update: A Twitter user predictably responds:

the only effective intervention against COVID is a vaccine, and the vaccine was invented in 48 hours, in… April.

the case for COVID libertarianism has never been stronger. you’re just not paying attention.

Originally tweeted by maha sam atman ☄️, lord of light (@djinnius) on December 22, 2020.

Not sure what the real point being made here is but saying “you’re not just paying attention” is this attention economy is the best summarisation of this post I could ask for. It defines the libertarian paradox in a control society perfectly.


  1. I suspect what @djinnius meant in that tweet is that the vaccine would have been out a lot sooner if it hadn’t faced such strong regulatory hurdles. Many American libertarians and conservatives have cited this recently as an example of why the FDA should be either abolished or heavily curtailed.

  2. I think it’s rather shortsighted to merely boil this down to an inconvenience of “masks.” Firstly, as a myriad establishments have gone out of business, I find this assessment less-than sympathetic. Two, we have yet to experience what the overall outcome will be. And more importantly, I’m pretty sure—no matter what the outcome, we will come out of this more dependent on the government—whether it’s in the form of direct aid and support, etc. This is a position we should be reluctant to cozy up to.

    1. “Short-sighted” is a very ironic turn of phrase to deploy here:
      1) Businesses > lives is precisely the response perpetuating the crisis in the UK. I’m far more sympathetic to human freedom than the rampant inequality produced by a Covid-susceptible free market.
      2) Again, pointless to talk about “overall outcomes” when current tactics are just pointlessly perpetuating the crisis longer than is necessary. The focus on short-term outcomes over long-term outcomes is far more damaging to freedoms — current debate around school closures makes that abundantly clear. Shouting about children’s education being something important to keep consistent is dumb when the quality of that education is massively diminished by a still out-of-control virus. It’s fighting for the freedom to stay dirty in a world of dogshit. I understand it is about the principle but your principles are moronic.
      3) I’m all for small government but it is an embarrassingly short-sighted point of contention when the government isn’t even fit for purpose. I agree that we will likely end up more dependent on the government in the future, but that is precisely because of government ineptitude and Covid libertarianism in the present.
      Covid libertarianism is the most short-sighted perspective going. It’s beyond moronic to try and argue the case, but I don’t see how anything you’d said here even resembles an argument. Just conceding to a general stubbornness.
      An embarrassing comment.

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