Covid Libertarianism and Molecular Freedom

Adam has written a response to my previous post on Covid libertarianism on his blog. It collects together the myriad misunderstandings that have followed my post from readers on the right but it is at the very least clearly constructed, and therefore the first argument against my post I’m happy to respond to.

That being said, I’m sorry to say I found very little of value or insight here, but it does provide an opportunity to at least sharpen the argument, so let’s go through it.


To Adam, the main purpose of my previous post was to criticise the individualism that I see “underlying a lot of right-wing criticism of the lockdowns.” But I supposedly have a point: “a traditional liberal-humanist individualism is a flimsy foundation for anything”. This is because a liberal-humanist form of “individualism can pose various threats to a more molecular freedom; individualism does create new, subtler routes for state control.”

Except…Matt does not invoke molecular freedom at all in his piece (except peripherally via a Mark Fisher quotation), but focuses instead on collective freedom. He says To curtail our own individual freedoms for a common good ensures we regain our collective freedom sooner”. The phrases “common good” and “collective freedom” alone are enough to give me hives, but there’s something else being missed here: it was precisely collective freedom that the pandemic restrictions attacked.

I find this appeal to “molecular freedom” very bizarre, since my definition of collective freedom, which Adam quotes in italics, is precisely how molecular freedom functions, particularly at present… To consider the molecular is to consider individual or small parts, but precisely in their relationship to a larger whole. What Adam seems to be invoking is a far more atomistic view, focussing on the antagonisms that the right itself is perpetuating.

Let’s start with my peripherical invocation of molecular freedoms via Fisher, since that is apparently clear enough already. The molecular freedom that Fisher gets close to is Spinozist in nature, arguing that “individual liberty presupposes collective freedom”. It’s not that complicated a relation.

The molecular, philosophically speaking, is an interesting provocation in this regard because it complicates our causal understanding of any appeal to universalism. Collective freedom, understood molecularly, does not dissolve individuals into a mass to the extent they disappear from view. Rather, molecular freedom remains vigilant to the ways that individual molecules react and interact as part of a whole, whether that be biologically, ecologically, sociologically, et al. This is why the molecular is so important for Deleuze, for whom it instigates an inter-scalar philosophy of difference, from the microscopic to the cosmic, with human being produced in the fray.

Without getting too bogged down in the philosophical particulars, molecular freedom is a kind of individual freedom that understands itself in context. Any sense of individual freedom that does not understand itself in its relation to other beings is precisely the opposite of a “molecular” freedom. This is how Deleuze is able to “spiritualise dust” whilst, at the same time, pulverising the world (as he writes in The Fold). It is how he invokes the micropolitical and demonstrates its impact on a biopolitical whole; how new freedoms can be folded within new restrictions (and vice versa), making the political an innately creative endeavour always capable of producing new lines of flight. This is related to intersectionality, to molecular segmentarity, to seeing the connections between positions and perspectives — exactly the sort of considered thinking the wrecking-ball right seems to be incapable of, whether under the threat of the Covid pandemic or otherwise. Suffice it to say, with a little bit of consideration, Adam’s invocation of the molecular quickly becomes absurd.

He goes on to claim that, as far as I am concerned, “the only restriction made on our bodies was the imposition of mask-wearing”. This is not true. I simply highlighted masks as a positive example within a broader network of biopolitical failures. In fact, masks are the perfect example of how a molecular freedom is constituted. In wearing a mask, I am newly aware, under the pandemic, of having gained a new freedom — the freedom to hide my face — which I did not have previously. In this sense, it is a kind of heterotopic imposition, and the realisation it provokes pivots the world on its axis slightly, especially in a country where people who cover their faces for religious reasons have long been subject to all kinds of suspicions. It provides a new perspective on surveillance capitalism, which has had to quickly adapt to this new obstacle.

Wearing a mask, then, is a molecular freedom in the sense that this minor addition to my daily existence has reoriented by perspective on the world around me. It has meant I can move around my local town centre in ways I could not previously, but I also wear it because I understand that this new freedom is additional to the freedom it affords other people who are medically more at risk. Simply put, wearing a mask doesn’t really cost me anything — in fact, I gain a certain anonymity in a world where any semblance of it has been phased out — but it does allow more at-risk people to be reassured and to move around me more freely. Therefore, I do not see wearing a mask as a restriction — that was the point — precisely because I understand the effect that doing so has on my broader social relations.

[Update — 08/01/2020: Of course, there’s a meme perfectly encapsulating this argument now. See below.]

Nevertheless, attempting to refute an apparent claim about masks, Adam argues that “the injunction against our bodies freely coagulating into a mass was the biggest corporeal restriction.” Unfortunately, coagulating into a mass does not a molecular politics make. Adam’s choice of words here are increasingly telling. Coagulation — transforming from a liquid to a solid or semi-solid state — is an odd word to use in an apparent appeal towards freedom. It shows how the right desire reification over flux, precisely desiring their own subjugation whilst decrying that apparent tendency in others. It is contradiction all the way down, making the entire paragraph in which this line occurs ridiculous — and that’s without mentioning Adam’s invocation of “Covid-19 biopolitics”, a terrible bastardisation of what Foucault meant by that term.

This is blatantly apparent when Adam argues against the ban on groups coming together, suggesting that “it became clear quite fast that these mass gatherings did not even pose the kind of dangers that many expected”, linking to an article from Forbes illustrated by a mass gathering of Black Lives Matter protestors… all wearing masks.

The prevalence of masks at BLM protests is significant for all the same reasons listed above. They dampened the spread of the virus whilst also frustrating state surveillance. Gathering like that is still a risk, but it is a risk in numerous ways. Frankly, you’d be an idiot to go to a protest that politically sensitive and not wear a mask, virus or no virus, no matter what you’re fighting for. But even beyond the issue of masks, the BLM movement is molecular politics in action, understanding the micropolitical relations between peoples, practices and institutions. BLM understands that, yes, whilst mass gatherings are ill-advised, their anti-racist cause is synchronous with the broader biopolitical impact of the virus, which is affecting BAME working class communities more than anyone.

Far-right protestors, on the other hand, rather than develop a sensitivity to the relations between political causes, are more likely to protest the masks themselves. Because they cannot see the wood for the trees. They do not see how their actions prolong the restrictions they claim to be fighting against, because they lack any sort of functional understanding of biopolitical dynamics, despite paying lip service to them. They fail to understand how biopolitics is a contradictory set of relations and folds where individual and collective are entangled to produce contemporary (and, perhaps, a new future) subjectivity.

Their failure to comprehend these complex stakes is epitomised by Adam’s poor invocation of the molecular. In fact, the more I think about it, the harder it is to avoid the obvious irony… Keep open the prisons, hospitals and schools, the right insists. Keep open those institutions that Foucault decried for their smothering infrastructures. Don’t take away my “molecular freedom”! But traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions are breeding grounds for the virus. The right mistakes “molecular freedom” for the free movement of molecules, especially those of the coronavirus itself.

This is somewhat paradoxical, of course, but it is a paradox that Foucault baked explicitly into his understanding of biopolitics, specifically in the lectures entitled “Society Must Be Defended”. What Foucault describes here is the way that a “disciplinary” form of bodily control has been implemented because disease catastrophically disrupts productivity. In the final lecture, he goes into some detail about the transitions that have taken place regarding how societies are controlled, which were the direct result of the state’s emergent disease-consciousness. He connects an increased awareness of illness during the eighteenth century with the state development of a medical establishment, for instance, suggesting that societies are coagulated into population masses so that they can be better understood epidemiologically. He notes how, at the end of the eighteenth century, “it was not epidemics that were the issue, but something else — what might broadly be called endemics, or in other words, the form, nature, extension, duration and intensity of the illnesses prevalent in a population.” Increasingly, diseases like smallpox, cholera, measles, the plague, et al., “were not regarded as epidemics that caused more frequent deaths, but as permanent factors which … sapped the population’s strength, shortened the working week, wasted energy, and cost money, both because they led to a fall in production and because treating them was expensive.” And so disease control is developed for the sake of the economy. As with most things, medical institutions are not created in accordance with the Hippocratic oath alone but in order to service capitalist productivity.

I don’t think the right are presently arguing against disease control for the sake of anti-capitalism, however. They have bizarrely turned this logic on its head, confounded by their distrust of the state which they oppose to the extent that they smother the very world they’re desperate to get back to.

This is why I previously invoked Deleuze’s “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, which no critic has engaged with and which Adam has clumsily trampled all over. The right is dogmatically refusing to kowtow to apparently new restrictions on their freedom not because they want to escape contemporary control societies but because they would rather get back to a previous form of disciplinary society that, arguably, hasn’t existed for decades. It’s the mythic oasis of national sovereignty and imperial greatness applied to contemporary biopolitics — the individual as Brexit-state in miniature. It’s moronic, plain and simple.

I’m of the opinion that this sort of thinking manifests because the epidemics Foucault describes as catalysts for control were wholly jettisoned from the first-world Western mind. Around the time that HIV/AIDs was a thing, diseases became things that other people had — subalterns in particular. Disease is what you get when you don’t conform. Now, we abide by this level of biopolitical control having forgotten the threat that implemented it in the first place, and sit back as it further erodes our freedoms in other contexts. We look over at Asia and blame them for the virus, all the while bemused that they’ve managed to contain it far better than we have. Because they are used to this kind of threat. In the West, on the other hand, when the threat of an epidemic — worse still, a pandemic — arises anew and the medical-industrial complex previously set up to deal with such issues reveals itself to be untested and ill-equipped when faced with something of this scale, the right soils itself. It fails to see the irony of how it once treated the wrong kind of nonconformist. But that’s because what the right seems to be turning away from isn’t conformity, so much as it rejects any potential retooling of society.

At the start of the pandemic, the media rippled with radical suggestions along these lines, wondering aloud about the future of work and whether the pandemic might finally disrupt our previous complacency regarding an unnecessary and ecologically-damaging drive to always be productive. As Foucault notes, biomedical control was implemented precisely to retain societal productivity but now that level of control is unfit for purpose, and so productivity takes a hit. Business as usual is interrupted. The left starts to think about new ways of organising themselves once this is all over. It is clear that, if we want to “take back control”, we have to change how we understand control to be implemented. We appear to be on the brink of a new transition. Foucault wrote at length on these transitions in the twentieth century and Deleuze produced a posthumous capstone for his thought on the societies of control. But we are likely entering a new era, and the right is ill-equipped to weather the storm. It misunderstands the Foucauldian project at hand and how, “rather than asking ideal subjects what part of themselves or their power they have surrendered in order to let themselves become subjects” — as the average Covid-libertarian loves to do — “we have to look at how relations of subjugation can manufacture subjects.”

We have already discussed this regarding how masks normalise hiding your face, undermining surveillance and thereby forcing surveillance systems to adapt. But what if we could get one step ahead, fundamentally transforming work relations? Not by relinquishing certain rights for the sake of the virus, as some have naively advocated, but using it to enforce the implementation of new rights previously maligned.

Instead, the right, as it is wont to do, starts screaming about the wrong issues. Rather than adapt and open up a previously closed system to new possibilities, they attempt to retreat to an earlier form of “disciplinary” society that hasn’t exists for decades, demonstrating their own lack of imagination. It is in this sense, as argued last time, that the right’s sense of freedom is anemic. They invert the argument, protesting new disease control measures precisely because they are keeping us from our familiar subjugations, only to have the gall to ask others why they are so willing to embrace these new impositions.

Precisely because it shows that the world they’re clinging onto is over. We should be getting ready for what comes next.

Polemics aside, I’m not wholly unsympathetic to the anxieties produced by this situation. For many, the virus has produced a very difficult situation. I lost my job at the start of the pandemic and have had to wholly reorganise my life and even move city to account for the change in financial circumstances. But as far as my working life goes, I’m better off than I was before the pandemic. In no longer being under the thumb of poor office management, I’m fully in control of my own schedule and working hours, and I look forward to being even more better-off (mentally at least) afterward this is all over. That’s not the same for everyone, of course, and things are made all the more difficult by the state’s reluctance to offer up adequate financial support. (If you’re a libertarian, I suppose that’s by-the-by.) Nevertheless, I see a better future ahead for all, but only if we learn from the lessons of the pandemic. That takes some courage, though, and plenty of imagination.

I think what terrifies so many — state and subject alike — about coronavirus is the considerable possibility that this kind of pandemic is the “new normal”. We may get Covid-19 under control, but we are already seeing new variants emerge. The response to this is obviously not to just keeping going as we have been, hiding away in our homes forever in case of any new virus. There will be a time that transmission rates are low enough that returning to a more public life makes sense. But, in the long-term, society as a whole will need to adapt to the presence of new coronaviruses, and how it adapts and in favour of what form of life remains an open question.

Rather than pondering this question with hope for a better future, the right seems to be insisting on a conservative self-harm that preserves suddenly outdated forms of social organising, despite the impact on the population and, therefore, on the economy they hold so dear. In the process, they fail to see how the exercising of their “freedoms” negatively impacts the freedoms of others. They fail to adapt. It is in that sense that my previous post still stands — and largely unscathed too, I think.

Covid libertarianism is nothing more than a conservatism unwilling to adapt to new risks. They don’t want this crisis to be over; they only wish that it never started. They are fighting for the return of old forms of control, rather than seeing how present restrictions challenge them fundamentally and open up new possibilities for change if approached in the right way. But they’re not smart enough for that.

The right looks backwards and focuses on minor impositions, whilst the left focuses on what freedoms it might gain once this is over. That’s a truly molecular politics, in more ways than one.

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