Month: April 2020

The Idea of Immunity

In these anxious-making days, the thing that’s making me most anxious is the actions, or rather inactions, of our government. There are a few keys things that needed to be done to deal with the current situation. Testing. Social distancing. Protective equipment. Ventilators. Making sure people are fed and watered. And what we’ve got is an unfolding omnishambles of delay, prevarication, Brexit over breathing, and possible social Darwinianism, covered over with a load of bumf that’s somehow supposed to make us feel better about the fact that a modern technically advanced society is incapable of performing basic medical tests or getting a bunch of protective clothing from point A to point B in a vaguely timely manner.

I know in a state of crisis people want to be able to trust the people in charge. I want to be able to trust the people in charge. But being told it’s our patriotic duty to feel reassured by people who are not even remotely reassuring will do the very opposite of reassuring us. It will just make us feel more freaked out that we’re sharing a time-space continuum with people who tune in to the daily briefing and see something other than the latest instalment of ‘Blag Your Way Through a Pandemic.’ I hear the government’s latest spin is to waste a ton of time and money sending us all a letter from Boris. Unless it explains how they ‘lost’ an email from the EU, contains the blueprints of Dyson’s ventilator and a schedule for its production, or is printed on bog-roll grade paper, I wish they’d save their breath. And focus on the job in hand. Which is saving ours.

The only small comfort here is that we’re not in the States. Which is pretty cold comfort, given that some 320 million people are, and their well-being is currently in the hands of a narcissistic toddler who’s thinks his coronavirus briefings (I use that phrase advisedly) are a reality TV show that should be judged on its ratings, rather than as an exercise in informing the public how the government is going to stop them dying. That his job is to stop people dying doesn’t yet seem to have penetrated Trump’s impervious sovereign skull. And I’m less than convinced that Boris is doing anything more than merely miming understanding, prompted by the collective gasp of horror that greeted the initial ‘herd immunity’ strategy concocted by the chief sociopath-in-waiting. (Yes yes, they did their sums wrong, by mistake, even though Twitter calculated the catastrophe on the back of an envelope within hours).

That the two most dismal and recklessly dismissive strategies have come from the two most devoutly neoliberal nations isn’t, one suspects, an accident. Nor is it accidental that both countries are currently presided over by populist demagogues who have spent the last however many years convincing their people that the universal panacea for their problems is encircling the nation with actual or imagined walls. It’s been widely noted that there’s a significant overlap between the ‘it’s just the flu you bunch of panicking pussies we never closed the pubs for Fritz in the Blitz’ types, and the devotees of the Brexit/MAGA cult. In some sense this is counter-intuitive, given our tendency to think contagion in military metaphors, you’d imagine those most exercised by invading ‘foreign’ foes would be first in line to do battle with the marauding ‘Chinese virus.’ But they’re not. In fact, they were first in line to pretend the ‘Chinese virus’ is NBD, and the last on the uptake – even as our frontline defences start failing for lack of adequate protection – that it really is. So, what’s going on here?

What’s going on here, I think, has a lot to do with the fantasies of invulnerability that impel the sovereigntist imagination, and how those fantasies intertwine with ideas of immunity. The sovereign imaginary is all about inscribing space – with borders, with walls – and then keeping the outside out. It is a fortress mentality. A dream of impregnable immunity. An ideal of rugged self-sustaining individualism. Trump’s America or BoJo’s Britain have no need of foreign (muck) masks or foreign (muck) machines. We’re perfectly able to make our own tests without the help of external agencies thank you very much. (Hoho). We need no assistance from foreign bodies and no foreign bodies will breach our borders. Except, of course, they will. There’s a tragic irony that having flogged the lie that the country could be cured of its ills by expelling foreigners, the government finds itself confronted by an invading ailment that has no respect for borders, whether of the body or the body politic. We have, painfully, purified ourselves, and all to no avail. What could the sovereign fantasist do but retreat into denial?

Indeed, as we’ve seen from the endless wrangling over Brexit, trying to perfectly excise a state from its networks of inter-relation and dependency, is, basically, impossible. (Hello Irish border). Just as a body cannot be sustained without breathing in air, even when it may contain contaminants. What the virus has done is make manifest the life-sustaining necessity of our material interconnections, amplifying and dramatizing the vulnerability that haunts those relations, even in everyday circumstances. Now we have, collectively, self-isolated, trying to stop the virus being exchanged, materially, between us, it is unnerving, unheimlich, to find everything that enters from the outside turned into a potential source of danger. People are disinfecting groceries and washing bars of chocolate in the sink.

In our isolation, what becomes suddenly and starkly visible is all the life-sustaining labour that usually goes unnoticed and undervalued, much of which involves material exchange and transportation. Food distribution. Stacking shelves. Water and gas supply. Delivering post. Sewerage and rubbish collection. All the material ins and outs across the thresholds of our homes and the borders of our bodies – the mucous membranes that mark, now more than ever, our vulnerability, but keep us all alive. It’s been said, and will be said again, that we must learn our lessons here. The invisible work we hold in such low esteem is, literally, vital, and we should value it as such. The virus could enter us from animals only because we’re also animals. And like all animals, we’re materially dependent – on water, air, nutrients and the Earth.

This dependence is the last thing the sovereign fantasist wants to deal with.  Where do our basic material needs, our animal frailty, our porosity to penetration by tiny, lethal particles fit inside a dream of impregnable immunity? It makes sense that on encountering such stark evidence of our material exposure, the Trumpian or Brexiteering mind would snap shut like a trap and opt for denial. Because to plan, effectively, for what was about to happen, demands confronting the basic animal vulnerability that sovereign fantasies – and their drive towards perfect, immortal immunity – are impelled to disavow. Of course, there are obvious economic reasons why our governments held off suspending movement and material exchange until it was unavoidable, but had the danger been confronted earlier, such measures might have been more avoidable, and, moreover, delaying lockdown is really no excuse for making such a mess of your planning and procurement homework. The other thing to note here is that the economic devastation that follows from suspending material contact between people gives the lie to the individualist ideal shared by both sovereign fantasists and neoliberalism. Individual economic activity and wealth accumulation happens only inside collectives, and although our economies have taken increasing leave of material reality, it turns out that when people stop moving around and interacting with each other stuff still grinds to a shuddering halt.

It’s worth remembering here that ‘immunity’ is originally a political, rather than a biological, concept. The Latin ‘immunis’ means ‘exempt from public duties or paying taxes,’ a negation of ‘munia,’ ‘public duties or functions’ which stems from a Proto-Indo-European root *mei, ‘to change, go, move’ with a wide range of derivates which relate to the movement or exchange of goods, services and obligations between people. As well as words to do with change, such as ‘mutable’ and ‘transmute,’ *mei, is also then the root of ‘municipal,’ ‘common,’ ‘community,’ ‘commute,’ and ‘communicate.’ This is the sense in which, as Roberto Eposito suggests in Immunitas, ‘immunity’ exists in tension with ‘community.’ The immune individual is exempt from the obligations that arise from being-in-community, despite the fact that their existence still depends, necessarily, on that community. It is here, of course, that we encounter the enraging spectacle of people who exploit community need, community labour, and community infrastructure to amass great wealth – and who, under current political regimes, pay very little tax – suddenly demanding that the community bails them out when it transpires (who knew?) that without communal movement and exchange, they have no business. (Sell your island Richard. *Blank stare*)

This tension between immunitary and community ideals has something to tell us, I think, about why our government, when it belatedly decided to act, went straight from ‘nothing to see here’ to ‘herd immunity’ – neatly trying to step over the vital bit in the middle where we’re exposed to a serious material threat that has to be directly confronted to safeguard life (unless you’re, y’know, a eugenicist).  It’s because the virus is ‘novel,’ and hence, that none of us have immunity, that it’s a danger. And, as I’m arguing here, by turning everyday, life-sustaining, material contact into an intolerable risk, the virus then dramatizes and makes visible both the inherent vulnerability, and the necessity, of that contact. Of course it’s right that we hope to return to everyday interaction – which will likely depend on developing a vaccine that confers immunity without exposing the most vulnerable to the brunt of the infection – but what interests me here is how concerned our leaders are to return to this state of immunity without confronting what its disruption will have exposed. Our frontline health workers are risking their lives by subjecting themselves to godknowswhat kind of viral load, without proper protection, and without the tests they need to know whether they’re infected or not. While, instead of decisively focusing its efforts on procuring and distributing this equipment, the government is obsessing about antibody tests, and seems rather more worried about how to get us out of lockdown than dealing with the crisis we’re in right now.

What they want, of course, is to return us to a state where the vulnerability of our material interrelation falls back within normal limits and can once again be invisibilised. It’s uncomfortable to be reminded that all those people you ignored and belittled are actually ‘key workers’ far more important than anyone sitting in an office pulling in a 100K. Or that falling victim to vulnerability is an existential possibility for us all, and not some sign of moral failing. Perhaps we’ll learn from the prospect of food rotting in the fields because there’s no one – no foreigners – to pick and pack it, but the transparent urge to return to ‘business as usual’ suggests likely not. In defiance of all material facts about the course of the pandemic – already running wild because of Trump’s denial – the President’s absurd ‘back-to-business’ schedule fell, symbolically, on Easter Sunday. In Western culture, the Resurrection is the archetype of the immunitary drive, the desire for life to finally transcend the material entanglements that make us mortal. Perhaps Trump abandoning that fantasy should give us hope, perhaps someone finally made him understand his salvation story entailed mass sacrificial murder, as dreams of transcending death so often do. Immunity is never, in fact, impregnability, but rather, the toleration of vulnerability that comes from our exposure, once attenuated. As many have said, SARS-CoV-2 is a warning shot across the bows, perhaps even the final memo from the warming planet that still, somehow, sustains us. We are material, communal, animal. Our survival as a species depends on us confronting that.