The Politics of Care: Rethinking Collective Being in the Wake of COVID-19

September 2020

Text originally written for Workers’ University / Front Slobode Tuzla, Bosnia, funded by Rosa Luxemburg Society

[All photographs taken by Nina Power in lockdown in Madrid & London between March-September 2020]

Introduction: The Social Framework

In the light of the global pandemic of 2020 and the various governmental and collective responses to it, we are better able to discuss certain material realities that were previously obscured by the everyday machinations of global capitalism. The pandemic and the question of health, risk and responsibility, and where any of these things really lie, came into unadorned focus during the many months of the spread of the disease and the various political reactions, from the state on down, to it.

The virus poses questions about who cares, how this work is remunerated (if it is remunerated), and what we value more broadly individually and collectively. Now is a good a time as any to think carefully about ‘the politics of care’ so that we might be better able to make more central this most obscured, but utterly necessary, area of thought and being, particularly in its collective dimensions.

In this text, I will discuss several major questions in relation to this theme. The first being the relationship between the individual, the collective and the state. This question will necessarily be posed at several levels. Different states of course opted for different strategies at different points of the on-going crisis: some countries became mini-fiefdoms, closing borders, imposing curfews; others did not behave in such a draconian way (Sweden being the most obvious example). One interesting thing to note from the outset was the way in which countries – whether they had been parts of federations or super-states such as the European Union – generally reverted back to national entities, one way or another. What I want to argue overall is that, beyond disputes over statistics and details regarding what strategy is ‘better’, the virus presents all of us with the opportunity to rethink the values that concern us politically, and that the pandemic poses questions of the political meaning of living collectively that existed before and beyond the virus itself.

The pandemic, in the first place, brought the question of what it means to live and die in the modern world into focus, and it was the pandemic that put into stark relief certain material realities about the shared world we inhabit, and gives us pause and reason to reconfigure both what we see and how we see it, with a view to living (and dying) better together in the future.

Viruses obviously pose some serious questions at the level of their own being: they do not respect borders, they are invisible, they are contagious, they affect different people differently, they bring into focus life and death in ways that ‘normal’ life in global capitalism does not. The pandemic and the different responses to it at different levels: state, collective and individual, tell us something about how people conceive of risk, threat, health, but they also tell us about stranger and more psychoanalytic elements of existence – how we think about life and death as a whole, whether we tend towards caution (or even neuroses or paranoia) or whether we are on the side of a more feckless attitude towards life. The ways in which these tendencies have played out politically have been seriously interesting: the left/right split on the question of how practices around the virus should be carried out (or not) have not been necessarily obvious.

My main focus here is the ‘collective’, a seemingly neutral word I am deploying here for the purposes of constructing a middle-entity between the individuals that we feel ourselves to be (we are always and at the same time in relation to others, but nevertheless we are also addressed, as adults, by states as individual entities responsible for e.g. wearing masks, obeying distancing rules, trying to stay abreast of changes in what is permitted) and the state (for the purposes of this text, that entity which commands us and is capable of punishing us whether we knowingly or unknowingly disobey its laws).

The collective is the body that captures the way in which we live together in relations of stretched proximity. The collective is the mediated zone in which we relate to one another, while also at the same time being mediated in turn by capitalism. It relates to how and where and if we work, and, more importantly in some ways, how we conceive of the world as a social place at all.

I want to say, in the first place, that the virus exposed the extent to which we are dependent all the time on each other in several fundamental ways: firstly, in relation to the way in which we care about each other in the broadest possible sense of this word, which is to say, we are concerned with each other both negatively and positively – it is not possible, no matter how much we stay at home, to avoid being in a world with others. Secondly, it was everybody whose work related to care in this broadest sense – that is to say, all those designated key or critical workers – the terms used by the United Kingdom government to describe those workers who were understood, in the face of COVID-19, to do work that could not not be done, that is to say work deemed necessary from the standpoint of the state: this included ‘doctors, nurses, midwives, paramedics, social workers, care workers, and other frontline health and social care staff including volunteers; the support and specialist staff required to maintain the UK’s health and social care sector; those working as part of the health and social care supply chain, including producers and distributors of medicines and medical and personal protective equipment.’[1]

Critical workers also included those involved in childcare, support and teaching staff, social workers and specialist education professionals. In key public services, these workers included those essential to the running of the justice system, religious staff, charities and workers delivering key frontline services, those responsible for the management of the deceased, journalists and those in public service broadcasting. In local and national government, critical workers included those administrative occupations essential to the effective delivery of the coronavirus (COVID-19) response and those delivering essential public services, such as the payment of benefits, including in government agencies and ‘arm’s length’ bodies. Everyone involved in food production, processing, distribution, sale and delivery, and the provision of other key goods were counted, as were police and support staff, Ministry of Defence civilians, contractor and armed forces personnel, fire and rescue service employees (including support staff) National Crime Agency staff and those maintaining border security, prison and probation staff and other national security roles.

Everyone involved in air, water, road and rail passenger and freight transport was a critical worker, as were, finally, those in utilities, communication and financial services, namely, staff needed for essential financial services provision (including but not limited to workers in banks, building societies and financial market infrastructure), the oil, gas, electricity and water sectors (including sewerage), information technology and data infrastructure sector and primary industry supplies to continue during the coronavirus (COVID-19) response, key staff working in the civil nuclear, chemicals, telecommunications (including but not limited to network operations, field engineering, call centre staff, IT and data infrastructure, 999 and 111 critical services), postal services and delivery, payments providers and, last but not least, those working in waste disposal sectors.

As can be seen from the extensive list of ‘critical’ workers, the infrastructural role played by vast numbers of workers reveals the extent to which we are all dependent on the work of those whose remit could broadly be defined as ‘care’. These were workers who could not hide from the virus at home, on pain of losing their employment. While contemporary capitalism often presents itself as a virtual, financial nexus of abstract movement, this long list of key workers demonstrates that our collective being is held together by a whole series of eminently material and mutual relationships.

We can broadly characterise those involved in critical work as involved in the following areas: health, protection, law, education, religion, frontline services, food, travel, energy and utilities, communications, postage and waste. What is not included in the very broad list are all the non-frontline services relating to finance or the information economy, the very things the current system often chooses as the images to most promote its idea of itself. When things are real, when things get serious, no one needs a hedge-fund manager.    

Death in the Midst of Modernity

When walking about during the early stages of the pandemic, I saw a sign on a funeral parlour which read: ‘Funeral Professionals: The Forgotten Key Workers’. ‘Those responsible for the management of the deceased’ were indeed included in the government’s list, but this plaintive sign is indicative of a far deeper situation regarding the status and significance of death in today’s world. Capitalist ‘normality’ attempts to cover-over the reality of human finitude, even as it tries to render it statistical, numerical. The reality of death today is everywhere denied, even as it is used to frighten populations into behaving in particular ways.

We know that it is extremely hard to rationally calculate risk, and that virtually everyone struggles to make effective decisions in the face of competing desires. The fear of death is, at the same time, one of the most powerful political forces, as every political thinker from Thomas Hobbes onwards has recognised. How people feel individually in the face of the global pandemic and the reminder of our collective mortality is extremely revealing at the level of how this affects how people behave. Some have internalised or over-conformed to government rules, others have ignored them or openly rebelled, and many have acted inconsistently, for example, not wearing masks around people they know, or attending protests for particular causes while otherwise isolating at home.

The pandemic exposes our psychological tendencies and tells us a great deal about how we calculate risk, and reveals to us what it is that we value. Everyone has had to try to balance the relationship between their individual desires, their concern for people they know, concern for people they don’t, their general appreciation of risk and the laws, rules and guidelines as they currently exist: if the UK experience is anything to go by, these will be an asymmetrically-enforced confusing combination of ever-changing demands. Take protest, for example: those organising and attending Black Lives Matter protests were not prosecuted or cautioned, whereas some of those who organised anti-lockdown protests were. A balanced society would defend everybody’s right to protest, or, where protest was restricted, apply the rules equally.

One of the interesting things revealed in what was sometimes a hypocritical application of the rules to oneself was the way in which it pointed to underlying values held by different people at different moments: it was alright to worry about yourself and others at one time, but also alright at another to go out onto the streets to protest in the name of a worthy cause (the one you supported, naturally). The question of risk and desire, usually in the background of everyday life became posed at the collective level in relation to how much people were willing to take care of themselves and others while balancing other values that hover somewhere between life and death: what do you stand for when the question of death becomes centre-stage?

Modern societies do not place death in the centre of their considerations. The endless promise of consumer capitalism posits an implicit image of an eternal life that consists of more consumption. Most modern governments do not have a relation to death, beyond a statistical one, because they exemplify no values beyond those of managing whichever version of national capitalism they happen to be in charge of. Death is kept out of collective concern for the most part. In the British handling of the pandemic, what became centred in the government rhetoric was the need, above all, to ‘protect the NHS (National Health Service’. All of the commands,  guidelines, rules and laws that related to contagion prevention (washing hands, wearing a mask, keeping distance between individuals and groups of individuals) were pitched by the British government at the level of ‘saving’ (lives, the NHS). While restrictions on funerals were being imposed (along with other rules about other kinds of gatherings – weddings, parties, sports, and so on), the onus was, rhetorically at least, on maximising life, even if, in practice, care homes for the elderly, in particular, were left unprotected, particularly at the beginning of the crisis. Those closest to death in terms of age were abandoned to their fate.

Philosopher Giorgio Agamben wrote several short pieces discussing the pandemic and  various government responses to it. He was widely criticised for appearing to downplay the severity of the virus, but his pieces asked some serious questions about life and death that very few others were prepared to pose, caught up as many were, and are, in the desire to be safe at all costs. Agamben was keen to stress the centrality and importance of the rituals of burial to humanity as a whole: ‘How could we have accepted, solely in the name of a risk that it was not possible to specify, that persons who are dear to us and human beings in general should not only die alone, but — something that had never happened before in history, from Antigone to today — that their cadavers should be burned without a funeral?’[2]

While Agamben overlooks various points in history and particular circumstances in which burial taken place without a funeral, he nevertheless points to a tendency in contemporary life which has only become more pronounced in the context of the pandemic: the sidelining of death. Continuing his polemic, he writes:

This was able to happen … because we have split the unity of our vital experience, which is always inseparably bodily and spiritual, into a purely biological entity on one hand and an affective and cultural life on the other. Ivan Illich demonstrated, and David Cayley has recalled it here recently, the responsibility of modern medicine in this split, which is taken for granted but is actually the greatest of abstractions. I know very well that this abstraction was actualized in modern science through apparatuses of reanimation, which can maintain a body in a state of pure vegetative life. But if this condition is extended beyond the spatial and temporal confines that are proper to it, as we are today seeking to do, and it becomes a sort of principle of social behavior, we fall into contradictions from which there is no way out.[3]

Contemporary life, for Agamben, is divided between biology and culture, rather than expressive of an integrated spiritual, psychic and physiological whole. The state, and its medical aspect, attempts to deal with the biological aspect of human existence, and culture, the rest. Perhaps we can see something of Agamben’s point in the way in which culture has become increasingly detached from political life (while also being the battlefield for political fights, many of which are increasingly detached from material and economic questions), while the state assumes responsibility for ‘health’.

Agamben draws upon the work of Patrick Zylberman, who coins the phrase ‘health terror’, which Agamben, in another piece about the pandemic paraphrases in the following way:

At issue is nothing less than the creation of a sort of “health terror” as an instrument for governing what are called “worst case scenarios.” It is according to this logic of the worst that already in 2005 the World Health Organization announced “2 to 150 million deaths from bird flu approaching,” suggesting a political strategy that states were not yet ready to accept at the time. Zylberman shows that the apparatus being suggested was articulated in three points: 1) the construction, on the basis of a possible risk, of a fictitious scenario in which data are presented in such a way as to promote behaviors that allow for governing an extreme situation; 2) the adoption of the logic of the worst as a regime of political rationality; 3) the total organization of the body of citizens in a way that strengthens maximum adherence to institutions of government, producing a sort of superlative good citizenship in which imposed obligations are presented as evidence of altruism and the citizen no longer has a right to health (health safety) but becomes juridically obliged to health (biosecurity).[4]

It is on this final point that I wish to pursue Agamben and Zylberman’s suspicions. How are bodies of citizens today being organised in the on-going wake of the pandemic, and, more precisely, the measures taken by states to ‘handle’ the crisis? There is no doubt that states are keen to encourage ‘adherence’ or loyalty to the institutions that deal with biological life and death (‘Clap for the NHS’ was encouraged during the first few weeks of lockdown in the UK, for example). There is also no doubt that increasing measures to punish people for breaking the pandemic rules (not wearing a mask, having meetings of more than a few people, and so on) are punished, not only by fines and policing but also, more subtly, by citizen-policing.

This latter kind of behaviour can take the form of subtle disapproval, reporting others, social media attempts to draw dissenting voices out, and so on. The relation between authority and freedom, and the location of freedom becomes displaces politically onto the state, and onto the state in the heart of the population, so that a generalised surveillance and punishment is taken upon the whole social body precisely, as Agamben says, in the name of an altruism that speaks for others (much of the rhetoric around the virus has been pitched at the level of protecting the elderly and the sick – this is not to say, of course, that vulnerable people should not be protected, or that we do not all have a collective responsibility for the health of the body politic). The problem comes, though, as Agamben and Zylberman argue, that when sentiments such as altruism and the desire for a collective good become weaponised by the state, then we are in dangerous territory: the pandemic, real or imagined, as in the WHO scenario, can easily become the lever for a whole set of imposed obligations that extent far beyond the reach of the particular health crisis itself. By doing the work of the state in the name of fellow-feeling, and punishing those we don’t believe are behaving with the same type of spirit, we end up becoming mini-state agents, and turning a temporary state of affairs into a permanent one.

The pandemic, and the response to it, appears to be on-going. In its latest announcement, the  British government gave a vague indication that the new rules would be in place for at least six months. The spectre of the army was also raised by the Prime Minister, as well as greater police powers granted, and new possible fines and roles for Covid inspectors. Public places are now already filled with instructions about distancing, arrows, direction signs, disinfectant, spacing, and so on. It is hard to imagine these things, physical or legal, being taken down any time soon. So we all have to live with high levels of uncertainty combined with high levels of regulation. Life carries on, but in the name of a new kind of citizenry, or rather, a tightening up of certain tendencies present in political life pre-pandemic.

Death is to be avoided at all costs, but to be alive is to risk one’s life. To restrict people’s freedoms in the name of ‘health’ opens the door to a whole raft of potentially extremely repressive apparatus. It is obviously much easier to invoke the fear of death in a population than it is to rationally explain relative risks, and the death of the other, and the fear that you might cause the death of someone else, is obviously one of the most dreadful things most people can imagine. Altruism and the common good, even though these are in many ways pre-political, anthropological and ethical modes of being and behaving, can be easily captured by the state in moments of ‘health terror’. How, in the wake of the spectre of death being more prominently raised from out of a context of the generalised occlusion and denial of death, can we rethink collectivity in a way that does not allow itself to be recaptured by the state, and for the state to then instrumentalise its citizens in the name of a health that does not belong to them?

A Different Collective?

The co- and inter-dependence of everyone on everyone else was, as I suggested above, brought into clear focus by the pandemic. The fear of contagion and the memento mori of the virus itself, even before state responses, serves to remind all of us that while we are encouraged to imagine ourselves free, autonomous, rational, individual adults, we are always, and at the same time, in relation to many others who actively ensure that our lives remain reproducible, whether that be as a consequence of the actions and behaviours of those closest to us, or whether it be via those paid or employed to provide us with the necessary provisions and care to continue our existence.

We have seen too, with some concern and caution, how ‘health’ can potentially be used by the state to usher in all kinds of state-compliant behaviour. But we can ask, what is health outside of the state? Who does our health, individual and collective, really belong to? We understand that we are dependent on each other, even or especially, through the mediation of global consumer capital: that is to say, the vast majority of us do not individually or small-scale collectively, produce the means of our own subsistence. We must work to earn money to pay rent, buy food, and so on. Some employment directly feeds into the maintenance of human life and health, much does not. Again the pandemic reveals to us exactly where these fault-lines lie, and a core part of thinking about a collective future that recognises care, vulnerability and dependency, would be to understand how this work is recognised, and not recognised, socially and economically. How many people had to take care of someone else? How many people were left alone to suffer? What extra-state provisions are in place for those who need support? In many places, community networks were set up, more-or-less spontaneously, to provide food and support to those who lacked these types of support. There was and is an enormous amount of goodwill to others under the name of ‘community’, a small-scale image of a collective of a variety of people, not all of whom are not to each other. Even though successive governments have worn away at the social fabric, and even though global capitalism tries to pitch us an idea of ourselves as individuated, rapacious, consuming beings before we are community-minded, collective, compassionate beings, many do not accept this latter image. In a crisis situation, people tend to want to help each other if they can.

What can we make of this tendency? How, once again, can we prevent this desire for a collective, social existence from being captured by the state and repurposed for surveillance and controlling ends? When Agamben remarks upon the way in which modern life splits the subject into a biological and cultural entity, and not an integrated whole, we see something of the possibility of re-imagining a collective body that strives to overcome this opposition. When we are talking about ‘life’ rather than ‘health’, where the latter functions as a strangely bloodless abstraction that belongs to the state, we come to understand something different about the collective body. We might feel at times that our existence, particularly in the face of multi-faceted dread, real fear of death, massive shifts and changes in what is permitted and what is possible, concerns about our economic well-being, and so on, has become more a matter of survival than a matter of thriving or living. Yet, nonetheless, apart from all the other revelations the pandemic permits about what enables the on-going existence of our shared being, it also poses the larger question of what we  collectively value, and what is valuable about our lives together.

What are we no longer allowed to do, and how have our freedoms been restricted in the name of the pandemic? What does contemporary technology allow us to do, and is it in any way a compensation for what we have to put on hold or perhaps even give up? Many aspects of in-person life have been heavily curtailed. Social, cultural and sporting life is minimised if not almost completely suspended. Important rituals are no longer possible or highly circumscribed. In places, curfews are in place. We are taught increasingly to be wary of others as ‘vectors’ of disease, to regard each other as obstacles to a greater ‘health’. There is an increasingly impersonal, dehumanising aspect to contemporary life under lockdown, even in the face of initiatives to vivify community-minded forces and sentiment. More of life is conducted online (those not online be damned). Education is in many ways on the verge of a kind of collapse, as in-person modes of learning, from the dialogue to the seminar to the lecture, are all folded into one on-line mode of being together, which cannot possibly replicate the dynamics of social understanding. Online modalities of being, which seem to encourage black-and-white thinking, denunciation, and antagonism between people who are or might otherwise be friends, render apparent how different life in person is, whether we are talking about random encounters with strangers in the world or more intimate relations. The possibilities for dialogue seem to be diminishing, at least the kind we used to know.

So what hope for a different way of thinking about our collective being that neither cedes responsibility for our lives wholly to the state nor descends into a wholly individualistic and alienated online technologically-dominated way of life? I think we should not conflate ‘life’ and ‘health’ in the name of the latter, nor do I think ‘health’ should be the property only of the state. We have our ways of living and being together that have nothing to do with what the state imagines are the correct modes of behaviour, which shift and change all the time in any case according to political exigencies. There are higher and greater values that must flourish despite the reduction of movement and the capture of our energy in the form of anxiety and even paranoia and terror. By looking after ourselves in the first place we are better able to look after the others, and this has nothing to do with the state. We might disagree with the state’s measures. We might find them too oppressive, or maybe we feel that they do not go far enough. We might resist the rules, or forget them from time-to-time in the name of other, non-political values. We might oppose them in the name precisely of a different kind of politics.

There is no doubt it is hard to know who to trust: are we minded to trust government experts, politicians, newspapers, internet sources, our own minds and/or each other? We calculate what appears to make the most sense, and what sacrifices we are prepared to make to keep our own lives, and those of others, liveable, but we are far from knowing whether we are doing the ‘right thing’ most of the time. If we too closely and unthinking follow the instructions of our governments, we find ourselves state agents. If we oppose the rules too strongly, we find ourselves, ostracised, fined and imprisoned. There is as yet no easy way to test on a large-scale. And even if there were, even more serious concerns about freedom and the ostracisation and punishment of ‘marked’ others would immediately become a serious issue. In the meantime, we must cling on to the ideas of a non-state social or collective being, and come to an understanding of our own relation to death, life and value. We need each other more than we need to fear each other.

The covid pandemic and the varying national state responses to it tell us something vital about the politics of care: in sum, care is a broad and expansive category, covering nearly all of our social being, even where the economy and governments seek to obscure and/or monopolise care, consciously or otherwise. Health is not the same as life. Death is inevitable, and also belongs to everyone. What we value has a meaning only in relation to others, upon whom recognition depends. How we do more than merely survive during and after the pandemic, and the measures taken, is up to all of us. We cannot let everything be decided for us, no matter how afraid we might be.



[3] Ibid.


Published by Nina Power

Writer, Philosopher

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