Governing through insecurity: what COVID 19 tells us about precarity under (neo)liberalism

COVID 19 not only highlights the hierarchy of precarity experienced by the population; but demonstrates the ways through which neoliberal discourses of ‘strong’ versus ‘weak’ are used to mask structural inequalities and to justify state (in)action in the face of a global pandemic  

The outbreak of COVID 19 highlights systemic social and economic insecurities within British society; exposing a ‘hierarchy of precarity’ within the population. This hierarchy has emerged as precarity has moved from the margins to the centre of neoliberal society; pushing ever greater proportions of the population to live with ‘the unforeseeable, with contingency’ (Lorey 2015). It structures individuals’ exposure to COVID 19 due to the nature of work undertaken (cleaners, carers, logistics, transport workers), the degree of social and economic protection offered by the state (disproportionately impacting on migrants, the imprisoned, the homeless and the unemployed the most) and by the effects of pre-established inequalities (impacting on health and income). Crucially, the hierarchy is shaped by axes of inequality related to class, race and gender, as discussed by Ellie Gore in Part 2 of this series.

This blog explores the ways through which precarity shapes individual and state responses to the outbreak of COVID 19; reflecting on how neoliberal discourses around ‘strength’ and ‘weakness’ are drawn upon in order to mask the ‘hierarchy of precarity’ established under contemporary British capitalism. In doing so, I am particularly interested in how experiences of being materially secure (without precarity) has grounded such discourses; allowing those at the top of the hierarchy (i.e. the least precarious) to perceive and experience the threat of COVID 19 in remarkably different ways to those at the bottom. The characterisation of risk and exposure through ideas of ‘strength’ and ‘weakness’ (as opposed to wealth and poverty) harkens back to Victorian conceptions of class in the nineteenth century which associated class position with moral standing and fortitude. These binary constructs conceal the growing inequalities within society and obscure the temporal dimensions to precaritisation; which occur along a continuum. 

One way through which we can understand the impact of precarity is through individuals’ experiences of time. I begin with the body of Boris Johnson. Socially and structurally dislocated from the immediate pressures of the everyday; Johnson is seemingly able to span multiple temporalities. On the one hand, Johnson exists in and through the past and can often be found mumbling quotations from Churchill, Kipling and Petrarch (sometimes in politically insensitive and culturally offensive ways). Yet, he is simultaneously fixated on a ‘bold’ vision of Britain’s buccaneering future, in which optimism and bravado are seen as key facets to bear against the  ‘gloomsters and the doomsters’. Contrast this with the everyday experiences of the precarious where time is synonymous with insecurity. Day-to-day life is shaped by questions of survival; such as how many hours work will be available over the coming week and whether there is enough money to afford the basic groceries needed. While time for Johnson is security and certainty, time for the precarious is a menacing force.

These life experiences shape perceptions of risk in the face of COVID 19. In the initial weeks of the outbreak, both Johnson and his colleagues appeared unable to either comprehend the existential danger posed by the virus, nor able to understand that overcoming the virus is not simply a test of their own virility.  Johnson not only shook hands with people knowingly infected with COVID 19 but broadcast the fact he had done so. Johnson’s appearance of ‘acting with immunity’ directly contravened public health advice and seemingly uncovered a belief that the virus would be suppressed by his conviction alone. This attitude is directly linked to Johnson’s wider disregard for the sick; as seen in a friends’ recollection that Johnson ‘seemed to regard being ill as a form of moral weakness’. 

Contrast this with life under COVID in Newham, East London. Here, people are living in fear of the virus due to its rapid spread amongst the local population when compared to national data. It is one of the poorest and most ethnically diverse areas of the country, with 78% of residents from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. Daily life is now marred by death and loss; with pre-existing health inequalities increasing risk. The sickness experienced in this locality illustrates the hierarchy of precarity at play; in which vulnerability to the virus is inextricably linked to the institutional racism and inequalities that have shaped British society to date. Far from ‘moral weakness’, this community is playing a key role in securing the lives of others during lockdown as many are ‘key workers’ (often without access to PPE; making them even more precarious).

Of course, no amount of wealth can shield individuals from sickness altogether and yet when Johnson (unsurprisingly) contracted COVID 19, his ‘strength’ was cited as key to his recovery; with Secretary of State Dominic Raab telling a press conference that Johnson would pull through becausehe is a fighter’. These comments appear insensitive and divisive; raising difficult questions about how Raab perceives those who have succumbed to the virus. Are NHS workers who have died therefore ‘weak’? Or are their deaths in fact linked to the fact they weren’t provided PPE to protect them?

By seemingly recategorising the hierarchy of precarity along an axis of strength to weakness; vulnerability to the virus is reconfigured as a question of fortitude (and not structural position). By depoliticising the impacts, the initial fringe position of the government to let the virus rip through the population (falsely discussed as the concept of ‘herd immunity’) is justified. Cast in these terms, death and illness is seen as inevitable for those who are ‘weak’ and simply cannot be saved (with the ‘weak’ becoming a synonym for the precarious). This policy reflects Johnson’s own individualised conception of risk; in which his own structural immunity is masquerading as moral fortitude. The government’s apparent resignation to this constructed ‘inevitability’ of the ‘weak’ dying can be seen in Johnson’s comments: ‘I must level with you, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.’ Rather than offer protection through collectivist measures (i.e. state interventions to secure the population), the initial response to the outbreak of COVID 19 reflects this profoundly individualist outlook. Is this not the very epitome of what Lorey (2015) calls ‘governing through insecurity’?

As evidence emerges of the disproportionate impact of COVID on poorer communities, the counter-narrative offered to justify this uneven distribution also plays with ideas of strength and weakness. Perhaps the most troubling example is the move to discuss the impact on BAME communities as down to biology; rather than structural inequality (therefore positioning susceptibility as innate ‘weakness’ within the population). Heightened exposure to the illness is therefore positioned as an indicator of a biological pre-disposition rather than a symptom of a deeper political culture of exclusion. This is biological racism; and its political project is to mask the ways through which contemporary capitalism continues to flourish based on precaritisation and the (re)production of inequality within society.

By replacing questions of political economy with those of “science”, discussions of strength and weakness have been used to justify state (in)action in the face of a grave existential threat, and reinforces the idea that the neoliberal state is constructing a society that is increasingly competitive, highly hierarchical and has come to value what Seymour (2014) has called a ‘casual sadism toward the (socially constructed) weak’. It is vital to push back against these false binaries and the very real hierarchies they seek to legitimate and conceal; and to continue emphasising the structural inequalities that have rendered populations vulnerable. The COVID pandemic must be seen as an opportunity to call for radical reform and to prioritise the welfare and safety of the most (and not the least) precarious.