Permanent Pandemic, by Justin E. H. Smith

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June 2022 Issue [Essay]

Permanent Pandemic

Will COVID controls keep controlling us?

Illustrations by Matthew Richardson


Permanent Pandemic

Will COVID controls keep controlling us?

In January 2022 I came down with mild symptoms of something or other. I was already triple-vaxxed, with a French vaccine passport (“pass vaccinal”) on my iPhone to prove it, and like a true pioneer I had already suffered through a bout of COVID-19 long before, in March 2020. So I was basically unworried, but still I made an appointment for a PCR test in order to comply with my workplace protocols and to ease the concerns of my spouse. The soonest slot I could find was at the Pharmacie de Stalingrad in the nineteenth arrondissement. It stands just across from the Boucherie Stalingrad on the Avenue de Flandre, a dismal strip of brutalist apartment blocks, vape stores, and barber shops serving the neighborhood’s immigrant communities.

Inside the pharmacy, an older Muslim woman was nearly in tears. She couldn’t figure out how to complete, on her phone, the form required to receive the test. I pulled up the form on my own phone and saw the logo of the Ministry of Solidarity and Health. Like all government documents here, it featured the slogan: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. The pharmacy claimed that it could not provide a paper version of the form. She complained that old people should not be required to navigate online labyrinths on screens too small for their aching fingers and fading eyes just to comply with the rules. And in that officious, dismissive, yet technically polite way in which French petty clerks help to maintain the structures that somewhat call into question the force of the trinity of words in the Republic’s motto, the pharmacist barely looked up as he said: “Yes, Madame. You are absolutely right.”

She wandered out, untested, presumably unable to provide the documentation necessary for whatever official business she had hoped to finish next. I regretted not having volunteered to assist her, but my thumbs are fat and screen-averse, and my glasses were fogged up from the hot breath beneath my mask, and I could barely make sense of the questions myself.

Not quite a digital native, I am old enough to feel that this plight of ours—filling out onscreen forms, recovering lost passwords, scanning QR codes, downloading each new version of our government-approved coronavirus tracker or vaccine passport, always waiting for the little buzz of some notification or authorization or other—represents more than just an onerous imposition. It has been a foretaste of a new mode of existence. If I am going to have any hope of thriving under future conditions, I will need to get used to all this. And yet, though some of my coevals associate the following sentiment with petulant and self-absorbed Zoomers, I confess that I am tired. I feel as though the past few years have broken me.

By early March of this year, infection rates were—for the time being—declining again in the United States and Europe, and little by little, things were returning to “normal,” at least epidemiologically speaking. U.S. states largely dropped their public mask mandates, and France began to phase out its health passes. Then a major land war broke out in Europe, and the same cultural stratum that had been vigorously enforcing COVID hygiene rules just a few weeks before moved on, as if overnight, to what seemed like an ex nihilo enthusiasm for the liberal Atlanticist order. The world lurched on to the next big thing. Yet it remains a world transformed—and even now the full significance of this transformation has yet to be drawn out.

When I search for something to blame, the term that comes most easily to me is “the regime.” It is the regime that broke me. Does this sound like the loose talk of an academic theory-head, content to point at a cloud and act as though it’s other people’s problem if they do not see the same shape? I think, if you stick with me, we can come to see the same shape together.

When I say the regime, I do not mean the French government or the U.S. government or any particular government or organization. I mean the global order that has emerged over the past, say, fifteen years, for which COVID-19 served more as the great leap forward than as the revolution itself. The new regime is as much a technological regime as it is a pandemic regime. It has as much to do with apps and trackers, and governmental and corporate interests in controlling them, as it does with viruses and aerosols and nasal swabs. Fluids and microbes combined with touchscreens and lithium batteries to form a vast apparatus of control, which will almost certainly survive beyond the end date of any epidemiological rationale for the state of exception that began in early 2020.

The last great regime change happened after September 11, 2001, when terrorism and the pretext of its prevention began to reshape the contours of our public life. Of course, terrorism really does happen, yet the complex system of shoe removal, carry-on liquid rules, and all the other practices of twenty-first-century air travel long ago took on a reality of its own, sustaining itself quite apart from its efficacy in deterring attacks in the form of a massive jobs program for TSA agents and a gold mine of new entrepreneurial opportunities for vendors of travel-size toothpaste and antacids. The new regime might appropriately be imagined as an echo of the state of emergency that became permanent after 9/11, but now extended to the entirety of our social lives, rather than simply airports and other targets of potential terrorist interest.

To some extent, this is just how history works. Wars in particular have been effective in generating new technologies that find civilian applications after some sort of peace is struck, and in triggering cultural resets, with new moral sensibilities that outlive the moment in which they were, or seemed to be, needed. Interstate highways, the internet, and the extremely expensive research that has led to profound breakthroughs in theoretical physics emerged largely as byproducts of military efforts.

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These developments, we may agree, have done some good and some harm; most of us do not think anything but an apocalypse could return us to the form of life that existed before our present suite of technological and scientific achievements. And in the case of COVID-regime technologies, we might congratulate ourselves for having ushered them in not for military application—at least not immediately—but for something close to a globally collaborative battle against a non-human threat, like the one posed by the aliens we always sort of hoped would invade and help us get our priorities straight in the Cold War era.

So when I say the new regime broke me, it is important to stress that I do not mean to say it has broken the world. Life goes on, in a form we are only just starting to discern—and this is far from the first time someone has outlived his own historical era. My era was the one in which computers existed, but still held out the promise of helping us more than controlling or surveilling us. My era was the one in which vaccines for the viruses of past pandemics existed, and the threat of future pandemics existed, but public health had not yet become a cudgel through which unprecedented technocratic social controls were installed. My era was the era of freedom and democracy, by which I do not mean that these always or even usually prevailed, but that it still made sense to hold them up as transcendent ideals regulating how decisions were made, and a person could still denounce with righteous force any attempt to skirt these ideals.

People will continue to find ways to thrive, and my declaration of attachment to the ancien régime will assuredly turn out to be only one of its countless, almost subaudible swan songs. “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” said Mother Jones. A looser interpretation of this conjunctive command might justify a division of labor: the old will eulogize all that’s been lost, while the young, lacking memory, will begin to draft visions of what should come next.

Illustrations by Matthew Richardson

Under the new regime, a significant portion of the decisions that, until recently, would have been considered subject to democratic procedure have instead been turned over to experts, or purported experts, who rely for the implementation of their decisions on private companies, particularly tech and pharmaceutical companies, which, in needing to turn profits for shareholders, have their own reasons for hoping that whatever crisis they have been given the task of managing does not end.

Once again, in an important sense, much of this is not new: it’s just capitalism doing its thing. What has seemed unprecedented is the eagerness with which self-styled progressives have rushed to the support of the new regime, and have sought to marginalize dissenting voices as belonging to fringe conspiracy theorists and unscrupulous reactionaries. Meanwhile, those pockets of resistance—places where we find at least some inchoate commitment to the principle of popular will as a counterbalance to elite expertise, and where unease about technological overreach may be honestly expressed—are often also, as progressives have rightly but superciliously noted, hot spots of bonkers conspiracism.

This may be as much a consequence of their marginalization as a reason for it. What “cannot” be said will still be said, but it will be said by the sort of person prepared to convey in speaking not just the content of an idea, but the disregard for the social costs of coming across as an outsider. And so the worry about elite hegemony gets expressed as a rumor of Anthony Fauci’s “reptilian” origins, and the concern about technological overreach comes through as a fantasy about Bill Gates’s insertion of microchips into each dose of the vaccine. Meanwhile we are being tracked, by chips in our phones if not in our shoulders, and Fauci’s long record of mistakes should invite any lucid thinker to question his suitability for the role of supreme authority in matters of health.

Dissenters risk being labeled not only conspiracy theorists, but eugenicists or even advocates of genocide, should they venture any reflection on the costs and benefits of public health policy other than what we might call “COVID maximalism”: the view that we must keep social-distancing restrictions in place wherever there is any risk of harm to the elderly or immunocompromised, no matter what other risks such restrictions cause, whack-a-mole-like, to pop up in turn. But as anyone who is familiar with the literature in medical ethics, or who served on hospital ethics boards before the pandemic, can tell you: there has always been prioritization and triage, and this is not necessarily a reflection of injustice, though of course it can be that.

Under the COVID regime, such commonplace truths have taken on a political charge. To say that there are real harms, harms worth including in our calculations, when children and teenagers are isolated from one another is to position yourself on one side of a binarized debate, and it is not the side anyone wants to be on if he or she has an interest in remaining, as the French say, fréquentable.

The result is that those who represent rationality and good, sober, pro-science problem-solving have found themselves digging their heels into the dark soil of dogma alongside those who have irrationally defied the advice of medical experts. For the COVID maximalist, it is as if there is no such thing as an objectively hard choice, an existential either/or that must be decided by will rather than by the supposedly unambiguous dictates of numerical data. And even if they have read their David Hume, the maximalists will insist that society’s moral priorities—in resolving, say, a conflict between the interests of teenagers and of the elderly—can be set straightforwardly by looking at the data: that, in other words, an ought can be derived from an is.

Yet the new oughts we have been called on to obey consistently prove difficult to pin down. As the historian of science Lorraine Daston observed, the early months of COVID brought a new expression to many officials’ lips: “There is no rule book.” By this they meant that we were underprepared for a global pandemic, that there was no manual to tell us what to do to combat a virus with this particular rate of spread or mortality.

But the absence of such a manual did not mean that there were to be no rules at all, and in fact what we experienced beginning in March 2020 is what Daston calls “rule vertigo”: a proliferation of ever-shifting rules—disinfect your groceries, double-mask; don’t wear a mask, wear a mask; stand two meters apart, stand 1.5 meters apart—such that no one with episodic memory greater than a cow’s could possibly invest much credence in any given week’s batch of fresh instructions. “Follow it, but don’t believe it” became the real rule for most of us prudent citizens who just wanted to go about our lives in whatever diminished form was still possible. “Do not follow it, for it cannot be believed” was the reactive rule for the loud minority that positioned itself against the hegemony of the experts and their new technologies.

When I received my January test results (negative; I only had some other virus beneath the concern of public health), I could not enter this information into my pass vaccinal until I downloaded the newest version of the app, which seemed to be different from the previous version primarily in that it had further honed some of the Bluetooth-dependent elements by which my proximity to others who had recently been tested was tracked and recorded. So I sat on a bench on the Quai de la Loire, trying to get my phone to recognize my thumbprint, but my thumb was cold and the phone kept rejecting it. This is the real rule book of the COVID regime, I thought: not a particular distance to keep from others or a particular make of mask, but the monotony of digital updating, which is also a way of reaffirming our consent to be monitored. Today the best way to keep citizens in line is not by codifying what they must do, but by requiring them to update, refresh, and reset the parameters of the devices through which they are now more effectively ruled than they ever could be under the authority of any timeless and unalterable document such as a constitution.

The vertigo, one fears, is the rule: the new techno-epidemiological regime has accomplished more or less stable chaos, where individuals are expected to continue demonstrating their compliance even as the question—compliance with what?—remains in flux. This, we are now beginning to see, is the part that might well become permanent. No matter what happens with the virus—whether or not it keeps evolving in ways that legitimate new drastic measures—the technologies it has ushered in are largely here to stay. These technologies will continue to have applications in industry, commerce, dating, and other affective strategizing; some might even hold out the promise of “fun.” But the principal application will be in the domain of what Michel Foucault called “governmentality”: the set of techniques and strategies, preferably deployed in the form of under-the-radar nudges, by which a population is caused to do what those in power want.

A January headline in the New York Times told us that in china, covid-era controls may outlast the virus. China was indeed at the vanguard, as legal protections of liberal freedoms and individual privacy as we know them in Western countries are virtually non-existent there. But anyone who can see beyond his own nose will find no comforting reason to suppose that the potential for surveillance and social control will be limited to authoritarian contexts.

There are already significant differences in the social controls democracies are willing to exercise in the name of public health. In France, a health pass was required to move about in public from July 2021 until March 2022 (in principle, the QR codes could be carried in one’s wallet, on paper, but I have never seen anyone furnish such a document). At first, in order to enter the majority of public spaces, one used the pass to show that one had been vaccinated or had obtained a negative PCR test within the past three days. In January, the French parliament, with President Emmanuel Macron’s strong support, pushed through an even stricter version of the pass that narrowed the range of acceptable proof still further.

If this was easier to do in France than the United States, the difference may lie more in the latter country’s decentralized legislative power than in the French citizenry’s docile nature. There was, in fact, quite a showdown between the authorities and a significant segment of the populace, and the parliamentary vote strengthened an already active anti-vax movement. This movement had evolved in part from the populist Yellow Vest protests, burgeoning for a few years now, while also having different and fully sui generis components of its pedigree. Macron was willing to face them down, and said openly that he wished to “piss off” (emmerder) the unvaccinated by making it impossible for them to lead normal public lives. The unvaccinated responded by saying that, in any case, it was impossible to lead a normal life under the new COVID regime and therefore preferable to move to the margins.

The government’s measures effectively created a new fringe. I know a good number of people, basically apolitical before the pandemic, who retreated into their private lives, their Facebook groups, their anger. There were suddenly few places they could go without the pass, so they withdrew from the political body into a new sort of belonging and a new, unexpected form of outsidership: a global, digital community of the hyper-wary and the preterite, sharing more in common with American anti-vax YouTubers than with French concitoyens who chose the path of compliance.

Europe, of course, has much stronger data-protection laws than the United States, and we have no good reason to think, for the moment, that the public health aims of state-mandated tracking technologies are going to have their purview widened for the purposes of general surveillance—at least not right away, and not without a fight. Yet, again, it would take a stunning level of naïveté to suppose that technologies of social control used overtly for such purposes in authoritarian regimes might not evolve toward analogous, if better euphemized, purposes in what’s left of the liberal democracies.

Even tyrants would be foolish to pass down an iron law when a low-key change of norms would lead to the same results. And there is no question that changes of norms in Western countries since the beginning of the pandemic have given rise to a form of life plainly convergent with the Chinese model. Again, it might take more time to get there, and when we arrive, we might find that a subset of people are still enjoying themselves in a way they take to be an expression of freedom. But all this is spin, and what is occurring in both cases, the liberal-democratic and the overtly authoritarian alike, is the same: a transition to digitally and algorithmically calculated social credit, and the demise of most forms of community life outside the lens of the state and its corporate subcontractors.

In this respect, Amazon, Netflix, Zoom, and similar platforms have been central to the functioning of the COVID regime in countries that may or may not have their own equivalent to the pass vaccinal, not least in the United States. Together they have made the domestic space into a site of work, of shopping, of moviegoing: activities once pursued in a sort of community with others, in offices, malls, and theaters—even if imperfect, even if often resented. The explosion of telework, online shopping, and streaming does not just enable us to bring all these previously public endeavors “home with us”; it also transforms the nature of the home, and in at least some respects exposes it to the standards of control and monitoring we might once have reasonably expected to face only when we stepped out the door.

From the point of view of those who profit from this arrangement, it doesn’t matter whether we are enjoying ourselves or not; it doesn’t even matter whether we’re asleep or awake while streaming our content. All that matters is that it is streamed, and that we are at home streaming it rather than stepping into the cineplex on a whim, paying in cash to pass a few hours in front of the big screen. In our new atomized arrangement, Netflix and other similar companies know not just how many people have seen a given piece of entertainment, but also who saw what (or at least who clicked “play”). In short, even if you are not leaving your house and scanning your QR codes at cafés and museums, you are still furnishing data about yourself near-constantly. There are no immediate signs that this data is going to be used for anything other than inane microtargeted advertising, but once the technological structure is in place to make social credit scoring possible, it does not seem far-fetched to imagine a world where our standing as citizens is determined, say, by the eco-rating of our online purchases. Already, we are learning not only that social-media activity can be monetized, but that even when a person does not directly cash in on the clout they have acquired online, their presence there is itself still the basis of a newly emerging economy, is itself money, of a kind that is particularly well adapted for those who wish to “earn at home.”

The capacity to monitor our motions outside the home existed before the pandemic, as part of the bargain we made for the little miracles we now carry in our pockets. But that we must be monitored—not just as a side effect of carrying smartphones, but as an end in itself—has been the work of the COVID regime, and one of the features of the regime that will almost surely outlive the virus. Yet the starkest transformation is one that we likely would have had trouble anticipating before 2020: the commandment to stay at home, which unbelievably transformed into a norm of the permanent pandemic.

Are you still uncertain as to who counts as a COVID maximalist? They are the people who post and boast about all the prophylactic layers they don before leaving the house, about how many antigen tests their families use per week; the people who shame others on social media for letting their masks slip beneath their noses. The maximalists typically belong to a distinct social class (my own, incidentally) in which it is financially possible to stay at home and “work” (i.e., manipulate the windows on our laptops in various prescribed ways) at a distance from our employers.

When we “work” like this, we are, of course, relying on the labor of a vast mass of people who are unable to obey the moral (or moralizing) commandments that the maximalists like to pretend are universal. The maximalists denounce red-state families going to Chili’s for a special night out, taking off their masks with carefree delight when the Awesome Blossom arrives, but do not stop to think for a second before ordering Indian food on Uber Eats. Or if they do acknowledge the delivery drivers and bikers, it is in a register that could easily be mistaken for regret that these people exist at all. The state, the tech companies, and the volunteer forces these entities have in the maximalists would like to see everyone at home, streaming content all the time. This includes the delivery people, whose enduring presence on the streets often seems more a logistical problem than a human one, likely to be solved soon enough by drones.

Substantive criticism of the COVID maximalists has come from a new current of right-wing Foucauldian thinkers, who correctly highlight the ways in which the power of the professional classes is being maintained through the aggressive monitoring of other people’s bodies and breath, even as it relies on the labor of people who lack the freedom to decide where their own bodies go or what air they breathe. These theorists have done much to bring Foucault’s notion of “biopolitics” into widespread use since the beginning of the pandemic, and their analyses have been illuminating. But they have not fully appreciated the role of new automatisms, which, to some extent, suggest the most useful focus of analysis in the present moment.

Those who have been left out of the new order—who still work in jobs that require them to get close to other bodies; who live in communities where the bonds are too strong to keep their bodies apart, even when the state pressures them to do so (even when the setting of their commensality is a Chili’s)—are thus, ironically, the dead-enders of a true biopolitics, while the COVID maximalists might rather be described as the enforcers of an antibiological politics: a vision of society where no decision is made without the mediation of technology, and where the exchange of particulate matter between strangers has been largely suppressed.

The insight that politics is principally concerned with living bodies rather than abstractions is fundamental to the philosophical genealogy of biopolitics. While the term was coined more than a century ago by the Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellén on the model of the somewhat older “geopolitics,” its most familiar expression appears in a series of lectures Foucault delivered at the Collège de France in 1975 and 1976, published under the title Society Must Be Defended. Foucault uses the term as a near-synonym of “biopower,” which, in his sense, may be most succinctly defined as the regulation of human life at the population level through the exercise of power over individual human bodies. The notion was subsequently taken up by revolutionary thinkers such as Antonio Negri, who wished to emphasize the power of the masses and to conceive such power as being grounded at least partially in their actual bodily weight and their ability to move this weight in a revolutionary direction. Later still, the term would be watered down and overused, frequently seeming to describe any exercise of state power whatsoever. This dilution and expansion caused some of us to wonder: What else could politics possibly be about, if not the regulation of a particular class of living beings?

Illustrations by Matthew Richardson

That the political is always biopolitical, in at least this general sense, may be a fact that recedes from view in those rare moments when things are functioning smoothly. At such times, the various documents that governments make us fill out and sign, or fill out on our behalf when we are born, married, arrested, or dead; the various licenses we get renewed; and the accreditations we collect come to appear as ends in themselves rather than as part of a vast apparatus that limits what we can do with our own bodies.

The redundancy of the term was intended by Foucault precisely to bring our attention back to what the precision engineering of the modern state almost made us forget. Yet in its final pre-pandemic echoes, the ideas descended from biopolitics had degraded from mere redundancy into an in-your-face pessimism about society’s inherent inability to recognize the dignity of a significant portion of its members. Thus Ta-Nehisi Coates popularized speaking of “black bodies” as the loci of suffering under racist regimes, and waves of social-media users who were unfamiliar with the theoretical background of his word choice came to enjoy the frisson of this talk of bodies rather than people. The astringent function of earlier discussion of biopolitics had culminated in the pessimism of what the Cameroonian theorist Achille Mbembe calls “necropolitics,” where power manifests itself not through the regulation of living bodies, but through the active production of corpses.

Principled theorists and rhetoricians such as Mbembe and Coates, as well as the discoursers that followed them online, were concerned with only a segment of society: whether this was the intended outcome or not, black and brown people were “bodies,” while white people were, well, people. Today, by contrast, even if there are compelling reasons not to say “all lives matter,” or to engage in similar leveling and equalizing talk, since the pandemic descended it has become impossible not to see that all bodies are political, and conversely, that all politics is concerned with the regulation of bodies.

But if politics is so interested in bodies, then it should be obvious that this is only because that’s where the people are. As Foucault recognized, much of the magic of the modern state lies in its ability to manage the person while somehow seeming to circumvent the body altogether—thus, for example, his famous argument about the passage from gruesome spectacles of public execution in the early modern period to “correctional institutions” by the nineteenth century, where corporal punishment was in principle disallowed, and the worst you could do to a prisoner was make him sit alone in a cell and contemplate his misdeeds. But the magician must constantly update his tricks as the audience catches on, and new crises reveal the mechanisms behind the prestidigitation.

Our previous vaccination regimen, against rubella and mumps and the like, had been so successfully streamlined that when we needed to prove our compliance, generally in infancy, it seemed political rather than biopolitical, and had more to do with paperwork than living bodies. New requirements, even those imposed on us when we are no longer infants, can sometimes go smoothly, too. Victorians put up tremendous resistance against their vaccination regime, while, by contrast, my own American mother, born in 1945, has fond memories of how civic-mindedly, even patriotically, all the schoolkids lined up for their polio shots—a memory that seems to be stored not far in her mind’s catalogue from the one of huddling under a desk during a nuclear-attack drill.

A strong state can conjure a sense of shared civic responsibility from the top down, which makes it easier to incorporate significant adjustments to what happens with a citizen’s body and when, such as the administering of more jabs later in life. Even if postwar America was in constant existential peril—as the nuclear drills made clear—as long as it continued to exist, it did so in a way that trickled confidence in its operations downward, which made new vaccinations seem routine, and the biopolitical merely political.

Why have the current adjustments met with greater resistance? It clearly has something to do with the digital technologies that the pandemic encouraged. While bureaucracy has always been impersonal, today when we meet an impassable obstacle—a lost password, for example—we know that no human agent can help us resolve it. Increasingly, fundamental decisions about transport logistics, health care, and even electoral politics are made algorithmically, while the human beings found at various nodes within the digital networks are transitioning into a new existence that reduces them, at best, to a natural resource the system is charged with managing, and, at worst, to its biofuel, extracted in raw form as attention and converted into clicks or simply “eyeballs.” It is significant, then, that at the same moment that the virus arrived and made the universality of biopolitics seem more plausible than when Foucault first insisted on it, politics was finally becoming significantly less biopolitical than it ever had been, as a considerable portion of the responsibility for maintaining society had been outsourced to machines.

These machines remain as stupid as machines always have been; the much-vaunted “singularity,” where the machines rise up and take over the planet as a result of incipient self-awareness, is nowhere in the sights of any serious thinker or prognosticator. Yet if we consider this singularity simply as a transition to a largely algorithmic model of social management, then we have already begun the shift. It has been with the double blow of the internet evolving and mutating over the course of the 2010s, together with the pandemic that arrived at the end of that decade, that the transition to a postbiopolitical order, an order in which human beings are no longer the “for which” of politics (to speak with Aristotle), has appeared on the horizon—a future in which the emergency is over, but the technologies we developed to control it still control us.