In March 2020, Britain embarked on a novel and experimental policy in order to respond to a pandemic respiratory virus. This was the policy that was dubbed lockdown, a collection of measures consisting of unprecedented interventions to radically reduce the number of daily contacts that people had.
It had no basis in numerous previous pandemic plans. The government effectively suspended Parliament and governed by emergency rule. We were, the Prime Minister told us, facing the biggest threat to our country since World War Two. This was done with the support of much of the party in power, the opposition and virtually the entire legacy media. Public figures on the left were generally supportive. Indeed the response of many progressives in the UK was largely confined to arguing for more extensive measures.
Despite the unprecedented nature of the specific response to Covid-19, the broader trajectory of the response can be understood as a consequence of long-term trends, a consolidation of a mode of technocratic governance in which authority and legitimacy are derived from sources above and beyond the citizens.
In this particular context, the issue concerns science and medical necessity as a consequence of Covid-19. Framed as an objective necessity based on science, this is an ideological narrative used to enforce a non-democratic mode of rule. The framework however of establishing an external source of authority and legitimacy derived from argued incontrovertible expertise that must direct policy is one that is in essence hollow and may be filled with another emergency.
Government messaging in the early spring of 2020 focused on the fact that for much of the population Covid-19 was mild but that it presented higher risks for certain demographics, in particular depending on age and health and that precautions should be taken accordingly. The message changed dramatically on March 23rd and the public was ordered to ‘Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives.’
To support this unprecedented policy, the British government launched a number of hard-hitting advertising campaigns stressing that Covid-19 posed a significant threat to all and the importance of individual behaviour. Adverts were framed in emotive terms, young people were urged ‘don’t kill granny.’ Meanwhile campaigns encouraged people to ‘clap for carers’ and draw rainbows to symbolize the NHS.
Regular press conferences were held in which the policies being pursued by the government were presented by the Prime Minister, Chief Medical Officer, Chief Scientific Advisor and other officials. The news, print and television focused almost entirely on graphs, charts and models illustrating the number of deaths, hospital admissions and positive cases that were occurring (albeit with debate at points on how to define cause of death). Alternative public health approaches, for example most famously the Great Barrington Declaration, which suggested priority should be a focus on those most vulnerable, was dismissed as an approach that would result in mass death. Previous pandemic plans which had not included lockdown were ignored, for example the 2005 UK Influenza Pandemic Contingency Plan. The 2011 UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy explicitly rejected the idea of a general lockdown.
There were then two main aspects to the policies that the Government chose to enact in response to Covid-19. Policy choices were presented as a science lead and incontrovertible set of policies to which there was no alternative. Legitimacy for these policy choices was framed in a technocratic way and legitimated thus; The Science Tells Us This Must Be Done. Furthermore, the main focus was on individual behaviour, with each citizen made responsible for not spreading an airborne respiratory virus. These policies occluded all alternative analysis or solutions, for example questions of healthcare infrastructure.
The Changing State
The technocratic focus on outside justifications and the individual can be understood in the context of long-term trends in the British state. In particular, this is often understood as a neo-liberal shift, a retreat of the state ceding all to the market. However, this is to misunderstand the historical shift from the post-war consensus state to the neo-liberal or regulatory state (it has been described in many ways). In this shift, the state neither disappears nor shrinks, but its role and relationship with citizens change. Primarily, this is a political project that has at its heart the removal of the demos from policy making.
In Britain, in the context of rising unemployment and inflation and the transferring of manufacturing away from Europe, the 1979 Thatcher government was part of a political shift that attempted to manage what has been called a crisis of ‘overloaded democracy,’ in which mass demands on the state were seen by political elites to be imperilling stability.
The post-war consensus state, which had been premised on the management of (limited) conflict of interests between social classes mediated through different political parties, social institutions such as unions and the provision of certain social goods, began to be wound down and a new relationship between the state and citizens initiated. The British state of the 80s and even more so of the 90s was one in which technocratic and non-political arguments were used to legitimate policy choices.
The provision of public services and infrastructure was steadily pushed out of the democratic realm beginning with the Conservative Party’s policy called the Private Finance Initiative. This policy was expanded by New Labour, which also shifted key areas of policy into the technocratic realm.
Most famously for example, removing the discretion of governments to choose inflation rates and making the central bank independent. Political parties were ostensibly framing themselves as governing for ‘all the people’ and pursuing ‘best practice;’ ‘what matters is what works’ as the 1997 New Labour manifesto phrased it. The ‘politics of de-politicisation’ (Burnham, 2001) does not remove the state but obfuscates the role of the state in relation to decision-making, keeping itself at ‘arms-length’ from policy via outsourcing or quangos and so on. In addition to framing policy decisions as technical decisions taken by neutral bodies, the arms-length state loses capacity and knowledge.
The British health service is one key example of a central national service that has been changed from a centrally run system to a highly complicated system of devolved organisations, arms-length bodies and private providers of services and infrastructure. The accompanying narrowing of public contestation, falling away of class institutions such as unions and the shrinking of political parties into the post-representative centre and resultant falling voter turnout, also led to performative changes to the Constitution. In lieu of representation and contestation, managerial criteria such as transparency and efficiency were promoted.
Over the course of the last three decades successive British governments have increasingly sought to normalise a mode of governing in which legitimacy is derived from supposedly neutral objectives, arrived at technocratically, ‘what works.’ The policies that the British government chose to enact in response to Covid are far less novel when placed in recent political and social context.
Whilst it is understandable that lockdown was eagerly embraced by a technocratic and decapacitated political class, there is an interesting question to be considered as to why so many on the left supported emergency rule. In particular in Britain many commentators and political figures on the left had spent the post-Brexit era calling the Conservative Party fascists and Nazis. It was startling then to see the extent to which many on the left fully supported the Government’s emergency rule and making it a criminal offence to leave one’s house. Criticism tended to be along the lines that the Government was not being strict enough.
A charitable explanation is that the lockdown-supporting left has misunderstood the neo-liberal shift as a shrinking of the state as opposed to understanding it as a project of pushing out the demos from policy-making. Many on the left took the collective punishment to mean a return of social action and solidarity, imagining that lockdown as a society-wide policy signalled a return to some kind of post-war consensus type of state. In fact, I would argue lockdown represents the apotheosis of the depoliticised technocratic state in which social transformation is abandoned for management of individuals.
The Parasitic Leviathan
Early modern political theory attempted to grapple with the way in which authority and legitimacy could be justified in a post-Monarchical age. Once we chop off the divinely appointed King’s head, where can it come from? The answer was found within us, within society. Of course, what constituted ‘us’ changed as capitalist society developed from its early modern form to the high point of the post-war period in which in some parts of the world incorporated the working classes, within very specific limits, into governing. That world has now passed and the political classes in late modern capitalist societies are moving into a different way of legitimating their authority.
The policy choices made in response to Covid have been that the British state has used Covid in order to consolidate a new form of governing, a post-demos state. One in which authority and legitimacy are derived not from the citizens but from sources that are framed as external to the body politic, in this case that of scientific authority presented as an irrefutable source.
The ways in which the government has chosen to respond to Covid becomes much more understandable when placed in the context of trends in governing. The consolidation of a non-democratic form of governance that relies on external sources of authority should be a matter of concern to all. A state that functions via emergency rule based on authority that does not derive from citizens is a dangerous one. It is a hollow state that can only function with external justifications and is no longer a democratic state.