Covid Libertarianism:
Notes on Althusser and a Spanner in the Works of Ideological Reproduction

An irony in three parts:

The UK Home Office recently released a video advising the public that all “gatherings” are currently illegal. Parties, raves, baby showers, etc. It’s all against the law.

What’s disturbing about the video is its strange suspension between reality and fantasy. It very obviously apes the anti-piracy adverts that generations were forced to watch at the insertion of any VHS or DVD into a home media player. Whereas the original advert proceeds along a succession of obviously-staged scenarios, showing various hypothetical crimes, it feels perverse how, in this new serious-parody, the title cards and drum’n’bass soundtrack are instead interspersed between clips from police body-cam footage. There’s something very sinister about this to me — a lot more sinister than the otherwise cold, familiar gaze of an all-seeing CCTV camera that has happened to catch a crime in its vicinity. The way that this otherwise automated content-gather has been replaced by police officers storming into private houses feeling like a horrifically mundane expansion of the surveillance state. Body-cams are, as a result, in equal parts necessary for our safety from the police and for our further humiliation at their hands. This is to say that, yes, those people hanging out at a baby shower under quarantine are idiots, but that doesn’t diminish the horror of a police presence at a baby shower to me. That fact remains unnerving all on its own.

But that’s not the only concerning thing about this advert. In fact, it feels like a sort of condensed series of tensions and ironies all collapsed together. A further, perhaps more innocuous thought I had, for instance, was: I wonder how many of those currently lured in by raves and parties under lockdown are even old enough to remember the original advert being referenced?

Before I’d even finished having this thought, in swept another blast from the past, as FACT — the anti-piracy organisation — suggested the Home Office might be tempted to ape another advert in their future law-and-order campaigns: their own.

Where to start… First question: Does the Home Office’s advert infringe on intellectual property at all? It is certainly surreal to see an advert created for the purposes of imposing copyright and intellectual property law to be parodied for another purpose… But if that wasn’t all, as one Twitter user pointed out, FACT’s own tongue-in-cheek reply utilises an unofficial upload of their own content… It’s almost as if the law itself is irrelevant; all that matters is the proliferation of the message, even if that message is decisively against the proliferation of other forms of media…

A few others highlighted this strange disconnect between the advert’s content and its expression. For instance, Michael Oswell tweeted: “Bewildering that they’re overtly referencing the most mocked youth-oriented PSA of the last 30 years? Which completely failed?” However, as someone else pointed out in their replies, the UK government has form in this regard:

It’s a deliberate comms strategy designed to have the video shared widely out of mockery. This is becoming more and more popular and was used a lot in the 2019 GE, for example writing ‘Get Brexit Done’ in comic sans. It doesn’t matter if it’s mocked, it gets the message through

Originally tweeted by big ike (@isaacsbits) on February 18, 2021.

As I was thinking about all of this, I was reminded of Louis Althusser’s On the Reproduction of Capital. I must confess I only read this recently. Althusser’s reputation for dry, rock-hard Marxism precedes him, but On the Reproduction of Capital goes to great lengths to slowly unpack its argument, and is pretty readable and tractable as a result.

However, much of his argument feels further complicated by the political uncertainties and contradictions made by the pandemic. I briefly nodded to this on Twitter, adding that I couldn’t really be arsed to unpack a load of Althusser for the sake of talking about and further spreading an insidious PSA from the consistently problematic UK Home Office.

But I’m here to tell you, reader, that I have changed my mind…

Althusser begins his thesis by defining a “mode of production”, adding an additional — but no less essential — caveat, that any mode of production must include the potential for its own reproduction. He writes that, whilst we typically understand a mode of production to be a way “to wrest from [nature] the goods required for subsistence (hunting, gathering, fishing, extraction of minerals, and so on)”, or, alternatively, as a way to “make it produce (agriculture, animal husbandry)”, we must take care not to confuse either of these forms of labour-power for “a state of mind, a behavioural style, or a mood.” This is perhaps to say that, whilst we may understand hunting and gathering or animal husbandry as things that all human societies do — capitalist or otherwise — they only become modes of production when they are put into the service of a capitalist economy. In other words, any generalised activity that ensures our own survival only becomes a mode of production when it is ideologically instantiated under capitalism. Work is not a “mood” in and of itself, but must be combined with one — capitalist ideology — for it to be useful to a wider system. In this sense, modes of production are instead “a set of labour processes that together form a system constituting the production processes of a particular mode of production.” He continues:

A labour process is a series of systematically regulated operations performed by the agents of that labour process, who ‘work on’ an object of labour (raw material, unprocessed material, domesticated animals, land, and so on), using, to that end, instruments of labour (more or less sophisticated tools, and then machines, and so on) in such a way as to ‘transform’ the object of labour into, on the one hand, products capable of satisfying immediate human needs (food, clothing, shelter, and so on) and, on the other hand, instruments of labour for the purpose of ensuring that this labour process can continue to be carried on in future.

Such is my mind under lockdown, I’m left thinking about Minecraft. When I go out mining, I do so to gather resources so that I can build houses and go out on adventures, mostly for their own sake. But all the time I’m constantly on the look out for, amongst other things, diamonds. Diamonds aren’t valuable in the same sense they’re valuable in the real world. They’re valuable because they signify the top level at which you can reproduce the Minecraft labour process. This is to say that 90% of the diamonds I find are used to make diamond pickaxes. I mine diamonds so that I can continue to mine harder, better, faster, stronger.

Minecraft aside — help me, I haven’t been outside in so long — why is Althusser going into such painstaking detail about why and for what purpose we use our labour to extract resources? Because in laying things out like this, it becomes all the more obvious that this process, whereby labour is undertaken to ensure that the labour itself can continue, isn’t just materially necessary but ideologically necessary for capitalism’s continuation. After all, for a long time now, it has arguably been a lot less necessary for us to work as much as we do.

For Althusser, this ideological instantiation works in two ways. On the one hand, it is constituted by “production-exploitation” —

proletarians and other wage-workers must, just to survive, take jobs in the production that exploits them, since none of the means of production are in their hands. That is why they show up ‘all by themselves’ at the personnel office and, after they have been given work, set out ‘all by themselves’ to take their jobs on the day-shift or night-shift.

But, on the other hand, the wage-labourer is also set to work by “the bourgeois ideology of ‘work’.” This ideology, essentially, ensures and maintains the split between those who go to work and those who provide the opportunity to do so. This relation is constituted by the bourgeoisie, who supposedly adhere to a kind of capitalist contract, which Althusser breaks down into a series of short principles: “labour is paid for at its value”; respect for one’s labour contract; and the proliferation of different job opportunities so that every person can find their place. This illusion of a fair deal, though rarely enforced, “does a great deal more to make workers ‘go’ than repression does”, so Althusser argues. In fact, this is why trade unions become a necessary part of the class struggle. It is their job to uphold the bourgeoisie to their own contract and, at the same time, build class consciousness around how much extra work must be done to ensure this is the case. This is to say that the role of a trade union in the class struggle is to ensure that the bourgeoisie upholds its side of the deal and, cunningly, in the process, raise consciousness around how reluctant they are to do this, thereby undermining the capitalist system on the bourgeoisie’s own terms.

But if that was all that was needed to overthrow the system, we’d have likely done so a long time ago. And so, the reproduction of the means of production acquires another layer. It is not enough to ensure that work leads to more work, but that the ideological imperative to work is reproduced as well. This necessitates the existence of what Althusser calls “ideological state apparatuses”. The necessity to work does not proliferate on its own basis, but rather must be supported by a wider superstructure. We know what this is made up of already — primarily, school, but also “the church or other apparatuses such as the army … to say nothing of the political parties” themselves. For Althusser, it is precisely through the reproduction of this superstructure that the base necessity of work is maintained — or, as he puts it, “it is in the forms and under the forms of ideological subjection that the reproduction of the qualification of labour-power is ensured.” As such, when we say that school prepares our children for the world of work, this is true at the level of ideology as well as at the level of self-fulfilment — and that the two can become so blurred is precisely the desired result.

Under lockdown, the desired result has come under considerable strain. School’s out, many are working from home, and the government has generally been woefully incompetent. There is a lot of fallout from this, but perhaps the most egregious example can been seen in the average Covid libertarian’s attempts to fight for false freedoms — last discussed here.

It should come as no surprise, for example, that one of the central concerns of the Covid libertarians is that they can’t send their kids to school. The reasons for this seem confused, and that’s because they are. For the Covid libertarian, repression is to be combatted at all costs. That is, it must be eradicated absolutely. But their understanding of repression is so one-dimensional that they only become useful idiots for a more familiar pre-Covid form of repression instead. As such, when I hear Covid deniers going on about schools and going back to work and going round their friends’ houses, all I hear is: These new repressive measures mean that we cannot repress ourselves in the ways we are otherwise used to, through work, school, and appeals to law and order.

Whereas Althusser, in his book, is talking about workplace dynamics, we can surely imagine his analysis applying just as well to the ways that lockdown measures disrupt the more familiar political-legal hierarchy. For instance, when talking about ideology and repression, he explains that their essential relation means, “for the workers, reproduction of labour-power’s submission to the dominant ideology and, for the agents of exploitation and repression, reproduction of its capacity to handle the dominant ideology properly”. That is what we see when conservatives — whether small-c or big-C — rail against lockdown’s changes to day-to-day life. They don’t care about social freedom for all. What scares those in power is their own inability to handle the dominant ideology with their regular ease. Similarly, what scares the self-repressing contingent that supports them is the fact that the dominant ideology they have otherwise bought into — often literally — is not functioning as it should. What they are protesting, then, is not repressive state apparatuses as such, but the ways that their extension, under such extreme circumstances, has impacted even their own, usually shielded, interests.

This may bring us, tangentially, back to the Home Office video, ironically reproducing a video about copyright infringement in order to tell you not to “gather”. It is yet another example of the dominant ideology being mishandled, due to Covid’s broader disruption to business as usual. As such, rather than being a fun way to assert authority, it only exacerbates the social relation under strain, whereby the rules do not apply in the same way to those who impose them.

But, again, the application of the rule of law is, arguably, secondary. The memefication of Repressive State Apparatuses shows that, in these strange times — not necessarily restricted to the coronavirus pandemic — the message is less important than what the medium otherwise represents: the reproduction of a mode of (ideological) production in trying times. And this is the primary role of Ideological State Apparatuses: “the daily, uninterrupted reproduction of the relations of the production in the ‘consciousness’, that is, the material comportment of the agents of the various functions of capitalist social reproduction.”

That the government ironically reproduces an advert about the laws surrounding the illegal reproduction of media isn’t, then, all that ironic at all. It demonstrates how the rules have changed, or even how they have been inverted.

Let’s think about it this way: Covid-19 produces what Althusser parodically calls a “conflict of duties”, which usually contains within itself a “crisis of conscience.” These conflicts and crises arise when te “subjection-effects” of business-as-usual can no longer be adequately “‘combined’ in each subject’s own acts, which are inscribed in practices, regulated by rituals, and so on.”

And so, whilst many of us are no doubt feeling the mental strain of almost a year under lockdown in the UK, we also recognise how other forms of “subjection-effect” have been displaced and even eroded. We may not be entirely free to do as we please, but we have certainly been freed from most of the usual practices and rituals of capitalist realism. This is not to deny the impact of these conflicting repressions. It is rather to suggest that we might be better off thinking about these conflicts in depth rather than just rejecting any and all of them outright. We should think through each dissonance and the reasons for its appearing, rather than fire mindlessly at any and all Covid inconveniences.

Althusser ponders this kind of vigilance himself, albeit in his own workaday context. He writes:

How are familial, moral, religious, political, or other duties to be reconciled when ‘certain’ circumstances present themselves? One has to make a choice and, even when one does not make a choice (consciously, after the ‘crisis of conscience’ that is one of the sacred rituals to be observed in such cases), the choice makes itself.

Althusser uses the example of the contraceptive pill, and how it set various ideological standpoints in conflict with one another in the 1960s. It constituted a crisis of conscience for many in France, he suggests, particularly those faced with conflicting positions within their relevant familial and religious ideologies. Under lockdown, we see a far more damning crisis produced instead, where the tabloid press demonises those getting onto packed trains and buses in the capital, wholly eliding the conflicts of duty in play.

This is to say that going to work is, in itself, framed as a choice for the worker, and the worker who goes to work has made the wrong choice at the level of state politics. But the reality is that, for vast swathes of the working class, the choice makes itself — or rather, bosses make the choice that the government incorrectly gives to workers. Why does the government make space for this blatant oversight in their messaging? Precisely because the ideological subjection of the reproduction of labour-power must remain in place.

But must it really? In truth, the whole operation is thrown into crisis. This is not a localised conflict of duties but an absolute conflict of duties. There is no choice — related to familial, moral, religious, political or other duties — that is not in conflict with another choice to be made elsewhere. And this is surely why the British government has been so inept at handling the crisis.

This doesn’t apply everywhere, of course. There are many nation-states that are, more or less, back to normal. Coronavirus has not, then, disrupted the entire global system in the same ways. In fact, what has been most humiliated is the very outdated state infrastructure that the UK has previously exported to the world; now held up by that other floundering ideological power, the United States.

I wonder if this, in part, answers the question raised by Clare Hymer on Novara Media the other day, in her brilliant report on the rise and fall of the school-striking climate protesters:

For the best part of [2019], the youth strikers had the wind at their backs. Together with Extinction Rebellion (XR), monthly strikes forced climate breakdown onto the news agenda with a level of success not achieved by any movement previously. In September 2019, as part of a global week of action, 300,000 people participated in more than 200 events nationwide in what was the biggest climate protest the UK had ever seen.

The youth strikers’ message was clear — they wouldn’t stop striking until their demands were met. But two years on from the UK’s first strike, the movement appears to have all but fizzled out. While Covid-19 was certainly a factor — at least until Black Lives Matter broke the seal on mid-pandemic protest — youth strikers from around the country have spoken to Novara Media about tensions that fractured the movement from within. What really happened to the UK youth strikes?

Why was it Black Lives Matter that broke the seal rather than the climate crisis? Perhaps it is down to the fact that BLM can be easily connected to historical precedents. There is, of course, as Hymer points out, plenty of precedence for climate protest in the UK. However, whilst it is a movement that begins in the present, it is otherwise, by its very nature, future-oriented. BLM instead attacks a system of injustice and inequality that is foundational to classic Repressive State Apparatuses. And when the system as a whole is already floundering in the face of a new viral threat, it is arguably much easier to point out historical incompetence in the context of present incompetence. BLM’s attacks of Britain’s ideological firmament were, in their own way, shocking — as in, unexpected . But, considering how the country was barely functioning in every other sense, they were also inevitable. Coronavirus threw the entire system into the air; the government is lucky it was only a few statues that came crashing down with it.

Nevertheless, that momentum hasn’t dissipated, because the crisis hasn’t either. We remain trapped within conflicts of duty and crises of conscience, in which just about every imposition made by the establishment upon its subjects is either in conflict with itself or what uncommon-sense suggests must otherwise be done. As such, there remains a fissure between the general moral duty of staving off the infection rate as best we can as localised communities, and the utter incompetence of the government to make the case for that same choice as a political duty as well. Whereas the Covid libertarian set conflates all conflicts of duty onto one another, ensuring a rejection of one is a rejection of all, and therefore ensuring they are wholly impotent in their negativity, the more strategically-minded political subject should consider where the gaps in these duties lie, and prize them further apart to find the spaces of action still available to us that are lurking underneath.

The proliferating ironies of the UK Home Office are always — always — an easy place to start.

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