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the COVID-19 crisis has brought the question of the role of the state back into sharp focus. Under neoliberalism, the state is reduced to an almost Robert-Nozick-style minimum, its role simply to steward the economy (almost exclusively through fiscal policy and free trade negotiations alone). The neoliberal state is a dialectical negation of the big welfare state, making the state nothing but the administrator of a smooth expansion of profits.

But this administrative regularity, ironically enough, created the conditions for an expansion of state apparatus and control. The expansion of state intervention in the name of safety and security differed from the welfare state version because, as per neoliberal orthodoxy, it was market-based. Citizens under the neoliberal state essentially traded tax-dollars for services (which is why the “taxpayer” holds such semiological weight in neoliberal society). Unfortunately, like so much else under neoliberalism (money, for example), the services themselves are often fictitious, existing nowhere but in the rhetorical figures of government spokespeople and corporate PR officers (and belied by the state and settler violence meted out to Black and Indigenous people on a daily basis). And in any event, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed the fundamental inadequacy of the model: both in terms of government spending and in terms of the unconscionable differential effects on oppressed populations. The gender- and race-differentiated effects of lockdown, not to mention the social and mental health effects, are also not amenable to a transactional market-based model. Indeed, they directly expose the inhumanity of such models.

So far, so Foucault. The idea of government as service-provider is at the heart of Foucault’s concept of governmentality. The society of discipline gives way to the (free-market, alienated) society of governmentality. Think about mask wearing. In societies of discipline, the state would not have shied away from fully mandating masks, with severe (and often physical) penalties for those who did not comply. Under neoliberalism, however, the government stops short of a full-mandate, relying on the transactional idea of trading mask wearing for safety which any “rational choice actor” ought to reasonably opt for. When that fails, they rely on a vague and futile version of social conformity and pressure (“we’re all friends and neighbours, we need to look out for each other”). Almost fifty years of the neoliberal erosion of social relationships in favour of market relations, the implanting of alienation, isolation, and anomie as a way of life, has come back to bite them: social relationality can no longer be counted on to do the right thing independent of any individual desire.

Indeed, the government has taken the place of this social relationality; expanded to fill the void with its services, regulations, and technical administration. Hence the idea of the government cancelling hallowe’en. Hallowe’en isn’t a government service, but a social practice. It is not in the government’s purview to either enable it or to cancel it. But we have become so accustomed to thinking in those terms, witnessing the return of the big state despite neoliberal dismantling of social services. In this sense, the administrative state is a kind of “return of the repressed” for neoliberalism, a symptom of its underlying contradictions.

Something needs to be done, obviously. There must be a response to the pandemic, but it is significant that we look to the government to provide that response. Someone on Twitter tweeted that it was “literally the government’s job” to impose mandates and penalties on people to control the pandemic. To argue for less state intervention risks arguing for the right-wing minimal state and no social services. So it looks like we are in a bind: the only alternative to state intervention and control in all aspects of our lives (why should the state have anything to do with Hallowe’en?) is right-wing austerity and minimal-state fascism.

But the expansion of the state is of very recent vintage, dating back pretty much only to the Second World War. The double bind of neoliberalism: enormous state control or right-wing libertarianism obscures the fact that there is a third option. We don’t have to be full-blown anarchists to recognize the possibility of self-directed social organization. It’s a hard sell, looking back over fifty years of the erosion of society in the form of neighbourhoods, solidarity, etc, but the possibility still exists.

Yesterday, for example, thousands of Alberta health workers walked off the jobs in illegal wildcat strikes. My understanding is that this strike was not only illegal (good - we need more illegal strikes) but possibly also against the direction of union leadership. If that is the case, then these wildcat strikes were truly the expression of collective discontent, collective organizing, collective decisionmaking.

In the 1960s in Italy, an “extraparliamentary” left movement arose that did not look to any of the “traditional” institutions of left-organization (parliament, parties, or unions) but looked instead to an autonomous self-organization of people to forge their own path.

We can have a more widespread version of that, but the possibility is hidden by the (illusory) double-bind mentioned above. And it is true that one of the reasons we have needed a big state - both the welfare state and the neoliberal administrative state - is that, cut off as the vast majority of us are from the land, from the means of production, and from each other, it is literally impossible for us to survive without some form of state administration and redistribution.

But this only makes it all the more critical for seizing the means of production to be the foundation of a programme of social justice. We have to be able to support ourselves without relying on commodity exchange and consumption (i.e. trading our labour-power for food) or on precarious, corrupt state redistribution programmes. The ability of capitalism to make alternatives invisible or undesirable is extremely powerful, but we should not let that obscure the fact of new horizons of opportunity that don’t rely on the shell-game protection racket of choosing between capital itself or the capitalist state.

One objection to the self-directed anarchist, anarcho-communist, or “libertarian socialist” model is economies of scale: only the apparatus of a fully modern nation state with its technocratic governmental bureaucracies and systems can, it is argued, address widespread external shocks to the system (whether that be virus or economic crisis or something else). But we are witnessing, under COVID the dishonesty of that argument. The incompetent cruelty (cruelty does not have to be efficient) of, say, the Johnson and Trump governments, is a warning for the future of capitalist government.

Might we need to rein in our desires? Definitely. Will our social forms need to shrink to, say, municipal or neighbourhood size? Likely [1]. But such transformations only appear undesirable because we are inured to the capitalist logic of expansion and unfettered desire. I’ve been reading Ursula K. LeGuin lately, and it always seems as though - as with so much good science fiction - her work is an attempt to keep a utopian door open to horizons of other possibilities, to help us work through our fears of unknown futures to show us the ways in which such futures could be OK. In this sense, “Always Coming Home” is perhaps the most appropriate science fiction novel of our time.

In a world where “utopia” has become another of the words capitalism makes us afraid of (as opposed to the lean, worldy, efficient pragmatism of, say, John Gault or Elon Musk), Fredric Jameson (another devotee of science fiction) reminds us that it is always possible - even good - to “witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world”. Only right now we don’t have to imagine.

[1] There is a risk here of an eco-fascist interpretation of this which would argue for the sacrifice of disabled people or people in the capitalist periphery to make this work. To be clear: I’m not advocating that and I don’t think it would be in some perverse sense “necessary”.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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