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Britain’s ‘Herd Immunity’ Disaster Was Neoliberalism in Action

As Britain passes 100,000 deaths, Boris Johnson says his government did everything it could. But make no mistake: the Covid catastrophe is a consequence of putting profits before public health.

Since the 1980s, we have been governed by the political and economic logic of neoliberalism. Today, neoliberalism is associated with draconian austerity policies, giant corporations, and privatised institutions that continuously increase poverty and inequality to the detriment of labour movements and collective struggles. It’s a powerful ideology and cultural politics which undermines democratic practice and alternative political imaginaries.

The central irony of neoliberalism is that it creates illusions of freedom and social mobility, while consolidating and deepening structural inequalities and hierarchies. Its belief in the ‘natural laws’ of the market justifies the prioritisation of profit and exchange value over people and life. It individualises structural failings, making people blame themselves if they are poor, precarious, or unemployed.

In reality, there are ‘vulnerable people’ or populations under this system – but vulnerability as a condition is structurally (re)produced by systems of exploitation. Neoliberalism does not only facilitate the establishment and preservation of hierarchies; it relies on it.

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the dynamics of exploitation underlying that vulnerability – in this case, to a deadly virus. Herd immunity is a case in point, demonstrating that neoliberalism is not only about fostering life, but also about administering death. I am no public health expert or epidemiologist, but as a critical social theorist, I wish to reflect on the social and political implications of enforcing strategies that value life only on the basis of market needs.

Subjective Necessity

Around one in five people on the planet have lived under some form of lockdown in the last twelve months. The economic consequences of this, combined with a sense of epidemiological fatalism, led some governments, including in Britain, to decide on a herd immunity strategy. Avoid  implementing a full lockdown or the support measures to allow people to adhere to it, the argument goes; only at-risk populations need to be put into quarantine while the virus keeps infecting communities, until the population as a whole attains a supposed relative immunity.

The Westminster government claims to have since distanced itself from this strategy, although that claim is disputed both by medical professionals and by the country’s death toll. Other countries like Sweden, Brazil, Turkey, and the USA persisted openly.

Why calmly accept that citizens will die in droves? Like the market, neoliberalism assumes pandemics are best defeated by lack of regulation. The ‘weaker’ or more vulnerable members of society are designated disposable and thus sacrificed. As Vito Laterza and Louis Philippe Romer have written, ‘the very concrete profits of capitalists and the privileges of the upper-middle classes [are] given the power of life and death over [the market’s] subjects.’

The UK has now suffered 100,000 deaths – the fifth highest number of recorded deaths anywhere in the world. The reason for this failure, apparent to anyone, is the systemic neglect key to the neoliberal ideology. Even before the outbreak, Conservative governments, blinkered to even the most obvious failings of the Thatcherite doctrine, have spent the past decade implementing policies that privilege profit over social interests, which decimated the state’s ability to deal with crisis when it arises.

Herd immunity is a faster and more intense reimagining of structural violences that have long been endemic to the ideology: the abuse of people with disabilities, the profits to be made from physical and emotional exploitation, the consignment of some to cold, hunger, or homelessness, forever.

We’re told that the only way to avoid the virus is to follow voluntary behavioural guidelines—wash your hands, self-isolate when necessary, maintain a social distance—just as we’re told that the only route out of poverty is hard work. A social problem is turned into an individual matter, thereby allowing the governments to blame the failure of the public health crisis on the public. If you get Covid-19, it is your fault; if you sleep on the street, it is your fault.

What might seem like laissez-faire policy is in fact a calculated and deliberate act against the vulnerable. In the crudest terms, herd immunity removes vulnerable populations so that more productive economic subjects can continue with profit creation.

In this sense, the coronavirus pandemic offers us an opportunity to reveal the dynamics of exploitation underlying our neoliberal present – as well as a chance to expose its falsehoods and shortcomings. A meaningful pandemic response, our death toll proves, is one that is not subject exclusively to the demands of capital.

That means creating alternative social and political paths directed beyond the constant drive for wealth. One way of doing so is to re-evaluate the role of the highest-paid jobs in neoliberal societies, which exist only to funnel profit into the pockets of a few, and provide no social good – or worse, do harm. The pandemic has made clear which jobs are truly essential: those of doctors, nurses, teachers, carers, waste collectors, and postal workers, among others. Another is to recognise and condemn the complete incompatibility of for-profit companies with public healthcare provision. But these are only micro measures; for change, we need to look at the macro picture.

Building Something New

Herd immunity is the logical consequence of a political paradigm which reduces the value of life to a single monetary metric. We are now seeing the consequence of this decades-long model play out before us – and we must therefore not lose sight of the crisis as an opportunity to open up political possibilities and allow for new beginnings. The fundamental goal is contesting the hegemony of neoliberal ideas – the most important of which is the belief that ‘the economy begins and ends with the market’.

But theory itself is not sufficient. We all know that alternatives to neoliberal theory are to be found in institutions, from local schools to international solidarity networks. Only in this way can societies, as Simon Mair writes, ‘ensure material support to produce non-market values’.

An effective response requires that alternative economies prioritise non-monetary value forms: life and health. Reciprocal and non-hierarchical mutual-aid networks of people based on the idea of solidarity rather than charity grew rapidly in response to the pandemic and have been effective in delivering medicines and food to communities most vulnerable to Covid-19; as Britain struggles through its rising death toll, it should not lose sight of this achievement. They managed to fill the gaps that open up where neoliberal economies by necessity fail.

As readers and activists demanding change are well aware, attempting to create both the cultural and institutional shifts that are mentioned above requires a confrontation with power. Academic theoretical work and radical collective action on the ground must operate hand-in-hand, because what we need is not to reform the neoliberal mode of production – but to get out of it altogether.