Notes on Freedom

We need to live by Plan A again

The sizeable Tory rebellion in votes on ‘Plan B’ shows that something is cracking in corona politics.

Since the first lockdown, almost two years ago, social life has been assigned a merely provisional status. There is nothing in life that cannot not be cancelled at a moment’s notice – not schools, holidays, dentistry, demonstrations, Christmas, religious worship. Nothing is sacrosanct, nothing has a prior claim to existence.

Lockdowns asserted the state’s primacy over society; they declared social life to be ‘non-essential’. They often occurred with little warning, when people were in the middle of their holidays, or having lunch in a restaurant, and suddenly there was an announcement that at 12pm tomorrow all this would end. The process out of lockdown was a process of reintroducing life but now in a different form – no longer with a self-subsisting authority, but with the status of something provisional, depending on the state for permission to resume. The parts of social life were reintroduced like the sections of an orchestra, each with their own specific set of restrictions by which they must abide in order to exist.

And still, two years later, leaders want to carry on like this. They want to carry on turning social life on and off again, up and down. They take away then bring back masks. They have plans B and C, and no doubt through the entire alphabet, and they leak the contents of their considerations, so that we are aware that the future is entirely uncertain. We may arrange to see our family at Christmas, but we cannot be sure that it will happen; we cannot be sure if we can travel or not, or if we will be able to enter a pub in the New Year.

We are supposed to take our seats as spectators watching this endless serial of regulations, engaging in the prognostication and speculation about what the next rule will be. There is no certainty: when they say they will not do something this often means that they will do it. We are supposed to wait for the latest plans and then obediently follow them. We are supposed to put our lives on hold, to develop our own plan A, B, and C, and D, our own worst case scenarios, depending upon ‘what they decide to do’.

And yet something is cracking. Nearly two years on, people are tiring of it, we are wearying of the dreary show that has become what passes for politics. Nearly half of all Tory backbenchers rebelled on vaccine passports; they did not defeat plan B but they left it limp and without authority. The new mandates on facemasks on UK public transport are being very patchily obeyed. MPs now insist that parliament gets to vote on any new restrictions, rather than the usual method of publishing a statutory instrument the night beforehand.

It is the same in other countries. In France, for the first time since the start of the pandemic, many schools are ignoring the new rules on children wearing masks outside during breaktime. The children tuck their masks under their chins and the teachers say nothing.

Something is cracking – people are becoming restive, and many others are just switching off, they aren’t playing along anymore.

Politicians’ plans B and C can blow around in the wind, like useless bits of paper. They no longer have any gravity or compelling force.

We are starting to feel a different compelling force: to end this tiresome and pointless rigmarole, which turns us into the playthings of ministers and puts our lives indefinitely on hold. We need to live by our plan A again.

The European Union’s heart of darkness

The head of the European Union has said that the organisation should ‘lead the discussion’ on ‘mandatory vaccination’.

The first element is genial and sociable: it is a ‘discussion’ about ‘a common approach’. And yet the substance of the issue is brutal: it is the forced injection, against their will, of millions of Europeans.

Behind this statement lies the nature of the political arrangement that exists in the EU.

It is in and through the EU that national political elites affected a retreat from their publics, entering into an elite bureaucratic sphere of common policymaking. In this sphere, policy becomes a question of the administration of populations from above. The question is not what is wanted by people, or what is right, but what is expedient. This intra-elite world becomes the new source of pressure, censure and approval for national leaders, rather than their own publics.

Yet at the same time, there is a faux civic clothing that has been developed to cover the arrangement. Brussels is bristling with rights and civic organisations: there are constant conferences about ‘a soul for Europe’, about building bridges between people, human rights, respect for personal autonomy, understanding differences and diversity. This fine talk is rather like the monarchical trappings that clothed the modern British constitutional state and obfuscate the real operations of power. It is a dressing, a cover, used to disguise the new political arrangement; it serves to give the cold hearted machinations a civic air and democratic trapping.

So nobody should be surprised that those fine-talking European rights organisations are now silent. It is no surprise that those who talked of rights, and dialogue, and the dignity of people, are now silent as Austrians, Germans and Greeks have their Nuremberg rights violated, as the unvaccinated are consigned to their homes and there is a development of new grades of citizen status according to people’s precise medical situation.

The civic robes have been cast off, and the dark heart of the EU political arrangement is being revealed.

Here we see that it is not populism that leads to barbarism – it is elitism, and the elite management of people as if they were things, as if they were objects. The creation of independent bureaucracies turns people into things, their bodies become inert objects to be used and directed by policy. The political elites order people to be vaccinated, then discuss a fund to compensate those who are injured by the vaccination.

Yet the people of Europe are not inert bodies. We are not yet things. European citizens are burning police cars in Rotterdam, taking over Christmas markets in Luxembourg, blocking roads in the French department of Guadalupe, blocking ports in Turin. French towns and cities have had weekly demonstrations since the ‘pass sanitaire’ was imposed in August: every single Saturday, in almost every town, every city.

The French leader of ‘Les Patriotes’, Florian Philippot, is calling for the rebellion against the vaccine pass to be a rebellion against the ‘new oligarchy’, and the EU – towards a world that is ‘more just, more beautiful, more radiant, where the people are respected in their sovereignty, where the people of France can again stand on their feet’.

Philippot leading a demonstration in front of the Austrian embassy.

This points towards a new French revolution, which could lead not only France but also the European continent into a rupture and total disruption of the intra-elite ‘discussion’ – in order to reinstate people as the authors of their own bodies, and the policies of their nation.

Coronavirus decides that masks must be worn on ski lifts

The French government ruled that, should covid cases exceed 200 per 100,000, then vaccine passports and masks would be applied on ski lifts. All ski resort employees must be vaccinated, or carry out a laboratory covid test every day. In the run-up to the start of the Pyrenees ski season, nobody knew when or whether the 200 figure would be reached. The government spokesman said that he thought it would, but everyone was watching and waiting, and ski resorts until the last minute said that passes would be ‘possible’. In the end, covid cases reached 230 by last Thursday, and so the Pyrenees ski season began two days later with passes and masks.

Here is a new mode of government. The government creates a benchmark, an index, to which a coercive policy is tied. Then they stand back and wait. When the index is reached, the policy is enacted. Nobody seems to have authored the policy; once the index is created, it seems to exist as a natural condition. It then seems that the policy is enacted by the virus itself.

Of course, requiring people to be vaccinated or wear masks on an open-air ski lift will have no effect on the circulation of the virus. The policy is an – almost arbitrary – restriction, a bureaucratic talisman. It is linked to an equally arbitrary benchmark of covid cases. And so the relationship in the enactment of a policy is between an arbitrary number, and an arbitrary restriction.

Policy occurs, decisions are made, without reference to the people, or what people want. The public figures only as a covid statistic – as cases per 100,000, or an R number – and politicians relate not to the public but to this number. Moreover, politicians eclipse even their own wills: they say that they do not want to restrict skiing, but it appears that cases are rising and they have no choice, that rising cases will trigger the restrictions. And then 200 cases are passed, and they raise their hands and say the restriction must be imposed.

Policy appears as an autonomic phenomenon. Politicians create quantitative mechanisms in order that coercion can be triggered automatically. It appears as if coronavirus is really governing the country. Policy becomes something like the rain or the wind, a natural phenomenon that cannot be reasoned or argued with, or like the remorseless working out of a mathematical formula.

Vaccine passports and the control bureaucracy

Is there any longer any genuine public health response to the pandemic? Every supposed public health technique – tests, masks, and now vaccines – has changed in meaning, and is now pursued primarily as a symbol of bureaucratic compliance.

Masks were spurned at the start of the pandemic – they became de rigeur only when they assumed the meaning of compliance with an official standard for conduct, and a willingness to distance oneself from others.

Meanwhile, the British government persists in testing all secondary children twice a week, regardless of the questionable usefulness of mass asymptomatic testing in general as well as the particular tests being used.

Now, most dramatically, we see the same thing with vaccination – which began as a targeted public health intervention for the most at-risk groups, and has morphed into a de facto qualification for citizenship, with the imposition of increasingly harsh vaccine mandates and passports.

Vaccine mandates are occurring at the very moment when it has become clear that vaccines do not prevent transmission – when highly vaccinated countries such as Israel lead the world for infections, and when vaccinated people are testing positive at similar rates as the unvaccinated.

Yet Italy last week mandated vaccines for all workers, condemning the unvaccinated to joblessness. San Fransisco will require 5-11 year olds to be vaccinated in order to visit public venues such as cinemas or restaurants. France has changed its vaccine passport regime to require a third dose from certain groups, a step already taken by Israel for whom two doses now counts as ‘unvaccinated’.

It is very possible that this forced vaccination of younger age groups will yield more injuries and deaths than they would have suffered at the hands of covid. The logic here is not medical but political.

The vaccine passport becomes the mandate for citizenship: it is a safe citizen card, a sign that someone is safe to interact with others. In Ontario, public health officials recommended excluding unvaccinated family members from Thanskgiving gatherings, or requiring them to have tests and wear masks.

The belief is that, without measures such as vaccine passports, society cannot function, that it is only because of these controls that cafes can stay open and schools can receive their students. In Lithuania (which requires a vaccine passport for people to go to any public facility aside from small grocery stores and pharmacies) the vaccine pass is called the ‘opportunity pass’. In other countries, it is the ‘green pass’. This is the pass that gives freedom, that gives opportunity, that allows life to go ahead.

Lithuanian economics minister visits cafes to promote the ‘opportunity pass’

Under coronavirus, the state becomes an industry producing bureaucratic controls, which are given the status of a prophylaxis. These are its public service, the thing it does to protect public health and wellbeing. These restrictions mediate life and we relate to others only through them. We can approach other people only when wearing a mask, go to school only after being tested, go to a cafe only after swiping our QR code.

Vaccines, masks and tests function as bureaucratic insignia, a talisman of safety, without which we cannot participate in civic life; without which, it is believed, that life could not be possible.

When covid cases rise there must be a concomitant increase in bureaucratic controls. The French government claims that it would dearly love to remove the vaccine passport, but it cannot, because covid cases are too high and it is simply not possible. No doubt when covid cases rise further over the winter then it will introduce further controls. There is a ceaseless choreography of rules, which are imposed, amended, lifted then reimposed.

Of course, all this is a bureaucratic mythology. If vaccine passports were removed tomorrow, nothing would happen. The belief that they allow society to function is like the Aztec belief that their rituals were essential to allow the sun to come up every morning.

It is the political meaning of vaccination that explains the extreme stigmatisation of the unvaccinated, who are described in Italy as rats, subhuman, criminals, who should be ‘purged’. Lithuanian politicians said that they ‘at war’ and must ‘fight the virus that is the anti-vaxxers‘. The true danger posed by the unvaccinated is not a medical one but a danger of their being outside the system, of having resisted the imperative of bureaucratic compliance. States become obsessed with getting to that last 10% or 20% of people who do not want to be vaccinated. These 10% niggle. They seem to be the problem at the root of everything; they are the cause of the persistence of the pandemic, the cause of rising cases.

There is a separate legal status for the unvaccinated, who are excluded from all or part of public life. If admitted, they are subject to different legal rules or separation from the vaccinated. This segregation will be evident in the Hamburg Christmas market, where a fence will divide the unvaccinated from the vaccinated. In one area, vaccinated citizens can eat, drink mulled wine and mingle without masks; in another area, unvaccinated citizens can shop but must wear a mask and socially distance, and are not allowed to consume food or drink.

It is telling that natural immunity is often not recognised by vaccine mandates. What is at stake is not the medical protection itself, but the meaning of vaccination as a bureaucratic procedure undergone. The immunity developed naturally may be more potent in medical terms, but it is worthless as political value, and so it is either not recognised at all by vaccine passports or grudgingly admitted for a limited period and then eclipsed.

Where the QR code state is heading is probably not conscious, but events point towards the abolition of civil society and spontaneity, and people’s participation and relation only through bureaucratic mechanisms, which will be continually changing in standards and requirements. One day the standard is two doses, then three; tomorrow it may be something else. What is certain is that the requirements will not stay still; there will be a continual disruption of life and the imposition of new requirements for civic participation.

It may seem that those with vaccine passports have retained their freedoms, since they are able to sit in cafes. In fact, as the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben notes, it is the registered bearers of the green pass who are less free, since they are the swiped and monitored; they have joined the QR code civic realm on the terms of the state.

With the vaccine passport, cafes in France are not the same. There is a bad feel about them; the QR code signs on the tables give them the stench of collaboration.

By contrast, the weekly demonstrations against the vaccine passport have become informal societies, with people having picnics and drinking in the street, playing music and dancing. Only here, in clandestine sociality, is there an element of genuine freedom – and a memory of what social life should look like, and what should be defended in the battle ahead.

The weaponisation of vaccination

The vital public health measure of vaccination is being transformed into a project of the extension of state control, with measures such as covid passports and mandatory vaccination.

The Israeli minister of health was caught confiding to the minister of the interior that ‘there is no medical or epidemiological justification for the Covid passport, it is only intended to pressure the unvaccinated to vaccinate’. France – the European country with the harshest covid pass laws – shows how this ‘pressure to vaccinate’ is driven by a political rather than a medical impulse.

The vaccination pass is a mobilisation of state power, an extension of discipline and policing over the free life of civil society. This rides roughshod over individual liberty, unions, scientific committees and medical logic alike.

Currently, all over-12s in France must present a vaccine passport (‘pass sanitaire’) in order to access restaurants, museums, long-distance trains, and outdoor and indoor sports facilities. All civil society bodies take on a policing function. Covid pass checks are installed at the entrance of open-air horse riding facilities, in bars, at the entrance of swimming pools. The sports instructor checks your covid pass at the start of every class or term. The riding school asks you to ‘prepare your health certificate’ before you are allowed to walk into the open field where the horses are held. The cafe asks you to scan your QR code before sitting down at a table.

The vaccinated person is treated as safe, and the unvaccinated person as risky. This distinction is made not on public health grounds, since vaccinated and unvaccinated transmit the delta variant at similar rates, but because the unvaccinated person stands as the figure that has resisted state authority. The unvaccinated becomes the dissident, the person who refused to roll over. A young French woman who tried to enter a shopping centre without a covid pass was set upon and beaten by a group of armed police. She was beaten not because she is a public health risk, but because she represents a threat to public order.

The push for 100% vaccination has become a project of incorporating the whole population, whether it is in their interests to be vaccinated or not.

It is this political impulse that lies behind the hasty extension of vaccination to younger age groups, who stand to benefit little from the vaccine and could suffer from short-term or future side effects. Macron apparently made the decision to extend vaccines to 12-15 year olds suddenly one morning, when he was told by his scientific advisory committee that he had ‘free rein’ to decide whether to vaccinate the young, partly in order to ‘avoid the slowing down of vaccination’. A more reflective scientific ethics advisory committee complained that it has not been given time to make its recommendations, and criticised the ‘hasty’ decision; it judged that the benefits of the vaccine to adolescents were ‘very limited’ and the existing safety data to be too slim to judge its suitability for this age group.

Yet now, this age group is forced to take the vaccine. Sports clubs must check the health passes of 12- and 13-year olds before they are allowed to practice their designated sport. They are given a choice between vaccination or resigning their hobby, between vaccination or never going to a restaurant or the swimming pool. They are forced to accept a medical procedure that is unlikely to benefit them and could cause them harm.

A state that is this cavalier about the health and welfare of its young is one that is sacrificing its future for the political imperatives of the present. The focusing on the young could even be a perverse form of state socialisation, incorporating the young into Macron’s project of ‘exceptional mobilisation’ (which may explain why the pass sanitaire was first applied in nightclubs, long before it was applied in retirement homes or hospitals). Macron has announced his intention to extend vaccines to the under-12s as soon as his scientists give him the green light, which judging by their general helpfulness in this regard may not be long.

There is also a project of state disciplining of public sector employees, with a direct vaccination mandate for 2.7 million ‘carers’, who were ordered to receive at least one dose by 15 September or lose their jobs, and the second dose by 15 October.

This amounts to a perverse act of self-sabotage of the health service – a blind and wilful disorganisation – which has little or no effect on covid transmission and will do much to limit the quality of care. 13% of ambulance staff do not want to be vaccinated, while doctors who do not want to be vaccinated are closing their doors.

This includes a doctor of 30 years, who said she had anti-bodies from a previous episode of covid and that it was against medical practice to vaccinate someone who had antibodies from a previous infection. The non-recognition of natural immunity – which is stronger than that conferred by vaccination – shows that this is not about her personal health status, but about her compliance with a state imposition. Tellingly, a local politician said that her refusal to be vaccinated was ‘political act’, and that she had a ‘political position because she is a territorial representative’ – reducing her status from medical professional to apparatchik. The doctor said in response, ‘the state wants to impose it upon me, but I say to the state, it’s not you who practices medicine, it’s me’.

The closing of her surgery leaves 1500 people without a doctor, a scene that is repeated in several surgeries across France. A mother with an autistic child told me that she was about to lose her son’s local autism expert, while hospital staff in Pau (south-west France) who did not want to comply with the vaccine mandate burned their diplomas and uniforms as they resigned from the profession they had practiced for many years, saying ‘these diplomas are not worth anything anymore’.

Ambulance staff in Strasbourg lined up in a ceremony of dismissal, taking off their helmets and walking away from their frontline roles. Outside Marseilles hospital, female healthcare workers were manhandled by riot police. Such is the political impetus behind vaccination that the French state sends military police to attack the nurses who stood at covid patients’ bedsides.

Scientists who do not fit with the 100% vaccination view are sidelined or retired, including Didier Raoult, one of the world authorities on infectious disease, who is being pushed out of his post leading research and treatment of covid patients at Marseilles University Hospital. He had voiced unorthodox opinions on the claimed effectiveness of current vaccines and the wisdom of mass vaccination of the young. It is perverse in the extreme that France’s primary infectious disease expert is being pushed into retirement in the middle of a pandemic, because his views – developed through his treatment of covid patients and study of the epidemiological data – do not fit with the ‘institutional message’.

Even the police are being pressured, with one former police captain objecting to obligatory vaccination for police officers and calling Macron an ‘enemy of the French people‘. The head of a policing union was summoned by police authorities for his opposition to the pass sanitaire, which he called ‘liberticide’, and said that the police have ‘better things to do than to control the vaccine passports of people who want to drink a coffee at a pavement cafe’.

It is ironic and tragic that vaccination – a measure carried out for the benefits of the recipient and society at large – is being transformed into a question of submission of people to state authority, and the extension of state control throughout social life. This corrupts the rational public health use of vaccines, just as surely as it strangles civic freedoms and liberties.

%d bloggers like this: