Quarantine – perhaps we should say the first quarantine – has lifted here, and children have gone back to school. This is of course a matter of tremendous individual good fortune, which I am grateful for, while also wanting to snapshot the alien mindset of this moment into text before new consensus realities congeal and solidify. Perhaps the moment has already gone; the text is here nevertheless.
Governments did act during the crisis according to a different idea of the state. The nascent ideology was only partially realized, but does stand in contrast to what we might call financial neoliberalism. They acted as if the state was an extension of its hospital system, that the health of their people was the most precious asset to defend, and they used networked computing infrastructure as means to that end. They acted as Platform Biostates.
Declaring the death of neoliberalism has of course been a recurring hobby of many political professionals and dilettantes. Declaring COVID-19 the end of capitalism or even just liberalism seems very wishful thinking. But the specific financial neoliberalism that defined public policy from 1970 to 2020 seems intellectually over. This saw the state providing gardeners to cultivate and harvest taxes from markets that were desirable and pervasive. Nowadays even a lively True Neoliberalism Has Never Been Tried book like Radical Markets isn’t much about using money any more, but introducing tokens to voting or immigration to create markets which do not trade in everyday currency.
The basic causal model of financial neoliberalism was that the health of the state was downstream of the free market, free trading economy, and that the health and prosperity of people is downstream of the state and the market economy. Of course there is some truth to this, or neoliberals wouldn’t have been as effective as they were in creating wealth and gaining power for their nations, from China, to Germany, to Chile, to New Zealand. Financial neoliberalism was also so successful because it is a partial ideology. It dictates how to organize markets and where the state should switch from mover to referee, but it also mixes with Chinese Communism, army juntas, social democracy, or corporate liberalism.
The Platform Biostate is also a partial ideology, but the causal model is different. The power of the state is downstream of the health of its citizens. Money and employment are a means for optimizing that dependency.
Sketching some features of the platform biostate, more descriptively than normatively:
Baseline medical welfare. The state looks after the base health of all of its residents. This is both an ideological commitment to care and a herd management technique. Keeping a persistently unhealthy group roaming around the community makes everyone much more vulnerable to communicable disease, so people in the community have to be fed well and have basic medical needs attended to.
Prestige Epidemiology. The science of disease management is the premier technical field. Other fields don’t go away, or stop providing insight, but they are politically secondary. John Hopkins’ COVID-19 dashboard is more urgently read than the New York Times, and the money-conscious watch an infection curve for signs of flattening, not (just) a zigzagging stock chart. Health is the lead department, rather than the Treasury or a Ministry of the Interior. The flawed WHO is more important than the flawed WTO. Oxbridge changes its major to Politics, Philosophy and Epidemiology. Economists already recognize this shift, and have been stunned at attempts to fix a virus with monetary and fiscal policy (consider Paul Romer‘s calls for massively expanded state-funded testing in the US). Economists also expect epidemiologists to be part of a public policy conversation they are not yet used to.
External biosecurity. The platform biostate is a hospital system with a navy attached. It knows which people, animals, and plants cross its borders, and it imposes controls on those it wants to exclude. The Platform Biostate wears a mask. This doesn’t make it a hermit kingdom, necessarily, but one with good information about what is near its borders, able to open or close the borders quickly and effectively, and practised at filtering according to current health criteria. And yes, one prone to overgeneralizing the idea to memes, race, or other criteria less biologically grounded.
Internal biosecurity. Threats to community health inside the border can be detected and acted upon quickly. Isolation, testing and tracking are deployed specifically to maintain community health. Alcohol breath testing, mobile health apps, and the prison system state anticipate this. The tracking may be very explicitly individual tracking by a central system, or it may be distributed, but responsive to emerging threats. The social obligation to isolate when sick is a widely held value and backed by law and the police.
Asynchronous delivery / Remote synchrony. Logistics networks end at the house and the office again. Meeting is online by default, remote by default, virtualized by default, a routine piece of greenscreen theatre. Offices themselves fragment and partition. Automated supply chains are bioshock buffers.
Ecosystem complicity. Food, water and air – how casually we let them flow through us; how futile our pretence of the mind’s separation from them. So many more now know what it is like to be breathing death on people, and not able to see the effects until a fortnight later. Without doubting the human capacity for doublethink, everyone did just get an intuition crash course on the diseased exhalations of fossil fuel power.
Why now? What changed?
Well, meandering failure of the old thing, certainly. Epidemiology was an obviously relevant alternative idea lying around, and with some existing institutional forms, which is always important in a crisis. The platform elements of this form of governance – dashboards, rapid publication, gene-based tests, big data, smartphones – are also relatively new in institutional time. So in one sense we may care about COVID-19 because it is now cheaper to care about it and states may act as platform biostates because there are now technological platforms to use. Another common explanation is a shift of political consciousness – a sudden surge of social-mindedness. Perhaps. I doubt the wellspring of human sentiment has grown so very quickly without some other structural attractor.
Take a world with a wide difference in wealth and income between elites and most people, particularly the 0.1% and the remainder, but also where a top 10% of technically skilled managers and technocrats do quite well: our world of the elephant and Loch Ness monster graphs. This is also an era of dynastic capital, as Piketty has shown. Merit paths are important but so too is ensuring boomer-accumulated capital is stewarded in an orderly way to maintain the next generation’s place in society. As a purely instrumental matter, if you are a member of this 10 or 0.1%, crime, poverty, schooling, clean food, water and air can be protected against in a fairly individualized or family-level fashion. You can get bodyguards, you can live in a compound, you can have air-conditioning and an armoured limousine. It’s not a marvelous way to live, in my opinion, but it’s livable enough. Pandemic, though, is particularly hard to deal with this way; there are essentially three solutions if you’re trying to preserve dynastic capital.
- Hygienic fortress. The normal compound solution isn’t enough for a contagious pandemic, especially one with an asymptomatic period. You need very strict lockdowns with all your servants and a biosecure epidermis. This is affordable for the 0.1% but not the 10%. For both classes it is in tension with the need to maintain a professional and social network to stay rich. You can’t go to restaurants or fly across the ocean. This era of capitalism works by assembling profit constructs from globally separated opportunities; people need to socially work a cosmopolitan network to navigate and construct that. You can do this online, and reach opportunities you previously couldn’t, but you can’t exploit all the senses for social advantage online; you can’t read body language as well, or catch people in the break of a three day conference. How do you decide when to let people into the fortress? – do they spend two weeks in the citadel hotel? It’s also inaccessible, in our current urban infrastructure, to the technocrats that actually manage the world, rather than owning it.
- High fertility backup kin. The traditional farmer and landed aristocrat insurance against catastrophe is diversification through redundancy. Have plenty of kids, over multiple generations, and so have plenty of aunts and cousins as well, so that when war or disease does sweep through some of you survive. This is in tension with the multi-decade trend of urbanization and drops in fertility rates. The tendency is to have only a few kids, then hothouse-parent them into a career that will keep dynastic fortunes alive for the next generation (and your geriatric care). Perhaps it will flip the trend and people will start popping out more kids again, but even if it does, it will take decades, and there will have to be some default political worldview in the meantime.
- Rawlsian contract. If you still want to leave the house and be near strangers, you are faced with a veil of disease ignorance. Especially with contagious diseases with asymptomatic periods, you don’t know whether you will be in the diseased or the healthy role after twelve days, when the veil is lifted. Rawls’ solution of distributive justice then applies – make sure that no-one is ever too sick or uncared for, and you reduce the risk of your own misery or death when the outcome is finally revealed.
Essentially the third solution, familiar in shape due to the historical welfare state, is what rich governments tried to implement in the first half of 2020. Some did it quite well, due to fortunate timing, advantages of population size and geography, or previous experience in biosecurity. For others – like the US or UK – it seemed like the levers of administrative government were no longer connected to any wires underneath. Those states (and sub-national states, like California) that did function, and treated population health as causing wealth, are already in a more powerful position than six months ago. They kept capable people able to work, protected their families, and limited their distress.
Optimizing for overall population and ecosystem health as a generator of power will still create losers (like all state power). A hospital is very good at treating sickness. It is also a bureaucracy that can be indifferent to people in need and make stupid mistakes. Medicine remains very fixated on treatment and on big centralized buildings of sickness control, all put under tension by the needs of keeping a population healthy rather than reacting only to sick people queuing for doctors. The epidemiological view of people as a population – a herd – also leans a manager towards the idea that a herd might be culled for the greater good.
The platform biostate is a partial ideology: it can be combined with luxury airport quarantine stratification by passport and frequent disease flyer status, or drone-delivered Universal Basic Mask provision, or ideological hygiene death squads, if you try hard enough. It could have a neoliberal variant too: it’s pretty technocratic. Still, I am sympathetic to centreing the state on health, and think it’s perfectly compatible with liberal democracy, which I remain fond of. Financial neoliberalism was pretty good at creating wealth, markets and inequality. The platform biostate could be pretty good at cleaning up industrial toxins, governing by health dashboard and nagging like a harridan when individuals choose fun today over health a decade from now. Some Leviathans may rot; others may send the corpses to pathology for some bloodwork and an updated infection model.
((This piece owes something to Benjamin Bratton’s 18 Lessons of Quarantine Urbanism, which has a wider scope.))