Coronavirus and the Neoliberalism of Fear

[Inbar Peled] Saturday, April 4, 2020

In the wake of the pandemic, democracies worldwide are witnessing the rise of emergency politics. What started with the closure of borders to prevent the spread of the virus, is now creeping into the very infrastructure of domestic legislation. The decision of Hungary’s parliament to grant Prime Minister Viktor Orban the right to rule indefinitely by decree is one (admittedly extreme) example. Will other democracies follow? In Israel, currently subsumed by a constitutional crisis, these questions are ever more pressing. The state’s newly-introduced emergency regulations were extended last week (31/3) until the end of April.

It was just several weeks ago, on March 11, that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced the first of a series of restrictions on public gatherings. “This crisis is different than others, even from terror attacks and wars”, Netanyahu said. “There we were talking about an external threat, and here we have a threat that requires us to change our way of living from within.”

The metaphors of threats and enemies were repeated a few days later, when Netanyahu announced the introduction of “anti-terrorism tools” in the battle against the virus. The country’s  Attorney-General rubber-stamped the emergency regulations, which include the mass surveillance, by the state’s secret service, of citizens confirmed as carrying the coronavirus – and, in addition, anyone who had been in contact with them.

The Israeli Civil Rights Association, which strenuously opposes this unprecedented action, has challenged the legality of the emergency legislation in the Supreme Court. The Court upheld the regulations – subject, however, to appropriate parliamentary scrutiny. This review by Israel’s Knesset was halted for several days in the wake of the ongoing constitutional deadlock. That crisis, arising at the intersection of a third inconclusive general election in a year and the pending criminal trial of Netanyahu, culminated with an unexpected twist – opposition leader Benjamin Gantz replaced the previous Knesset speaker, the first step toward establishing an emergency unity government with Netanyahu, hitherto his implacable foe. The regulations were consequently approved.

What had proven impossible in the aftermath of the previous two elections has been made possible by the Corona crisis. Thus far, the current state of emergency has also led to the postponement of Netanyahu’s trial – originally scheduled to open the same week that the regulations were announced.

The kinds of harms to democracy provoked by this crisis in contexts like that of Israel connects to what can be called the “neoliberalism of fear”. We are starting to see, worldwide, the conflation of neoliberal reasoning with emergency regulations, and their combined emergence as a governing technique.

Individual societies are absorbing the Coronavirus crisis into political discourse and culture in their own specific ways. One commonality, though, is that many national leaders have adopted the rhetoric of national unity against a mutual enemy to advance social distancing and other dictates to the public.

Returning to the example of Israeli discourse, the pandemic has been portrayed as an external, force majeure-like crisis (i.e., one that the country could not have prepared against. As often is the case, such focus on enemies is paired with a focus on the “us” to be protected. The Israeli government’s manifesto for the age of Corona closely aligns with a rhetorical focus on the institution of family, principally a call for citizens to protect their mothers and grandparents.

Presented in this way, it was easier to advocate for “flattening the curve” and the underlying assumption – that the likely shortage of hospital beds warranted phasing hospital admissions as widely as possible. A benign and even welcome goal, our first reaction might be. But, the issue is what else follows in this discourse’s wake.

This crisis meets Israel at the all-time peak of its neoliberal policies – a collapsing health system, eviscerated welfare policies, widening societal gaps. In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein exposes the reciprocity between security and economics in neoliberalism: with every crisis, the neoliberal state responds with policies which enrich the wealthy minority, at the expense of an increasingly policed poor and middle classes.

The Coronavirus crisis is no exception. In its aftermath, the public will likely pay with deep unemployment and economic depression, while the conglomerates enjoy the benefits of tax cuts.

Yet, the neoliberalism of fear seems to run deeper than its economic motivations and consequences. It also connects, one senses, to deep-seated understandings of self and society, which can be given freer rein in times of crisis and as embedded legacies after a crisis.

Consider the U.K government’s version of neoliberalism – at least when British prime minister Boris Johnson and his advisors felt that the crisis had created an opportunity to allow their ideological instincts drive policy. Johnson’s initial (but veiled) policy appears to have been to allow for the spread of the virus, in order for the public to develop “herd immunity”. He was forced to backtrack in the face of a stiff backlash against what seemed to be a willingness to sacrifice the ill and elderly, whilst protecting economic interests.

Both Netanyahu’s Israel and Johnson’s U.K demand of their citizens what political theorist Wendy Brown describes as the “shared sacrifice” that neoliberal societies require of their citizens, be this unanticipated job losses, cuts to pay or welfare benefits, the erosion of civil rights, even loss of life. As Brown shows in her book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, responding to the call to sacrifice is what creates the community.

Such calls to sacrifice give rise to a series of questions. What is it that we are willing to sacrifice, and who are we trying to save? What is the nature of a given community, as constituted by these health policies? According to Brown, the all-encompassing nature of neoliberalism as reasoning – with its reduction of humans to homo economicus – allows it to undo “basic elements of democracy”. When we note the record of neoliberal aficionados to exploit crises for transformative structural change (only days ago, the Trump administration sought to gut existing environmental protections, as a supposed response to Corona), we have every reason to be vigilant.

What is concerning about the current reincarnation of the neoliberalism of fear is how quickly we have become habituated to those aspects of the pandemic script that serve to justify the erosion of civil rights on the grounds of public safety. It may be, however, that this habituation is actually evidence that this script is not as new as one may think. External threat, the paralysis of democratic institutions, the closure of borders (including, in Canada, to refugee claimants), and mass surveillance – these are all familiar, albeit in other contexts.

Most importantly, the “common enemy” frame does not encourage us to look beyond our differences. Much to the contrary, it cultivates suspicion and fear. It enables us to forget the greater societal structure of inequality against which this pandemic emerged and to ignore everything we have learned over the decades about how crises have been exploited to deepen such structures.

Inbar Peled | Toronto | April 4, 2020

The writer is a doctoral student at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University.

Published by pzumbansen

law professor.

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