Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    Essays

The COVID Regime and the Liberal Subject

The Rise of the Hygiene Maximalists

Matthew B. Crawford

Masked statue of Atlas by Lee Lawrie and Rene Paul Chambellan, Rockefeller Center, New York; Patti McConville/Alamy Stock Photos.

Throughout history, there have been crises that could be resolved only by suspending the normal rule of law and constitutional principles. In such instances, a “state of exception” is declared until the emergency passes––it could be a foreign invasion, an earthquake, or a plague, for example. During this period, the legislative function is typically relocated from a parliamentary body to the executive; in effect, the basic charter of government and, in particular, the separation of powers is suspended. During the COVID pandemic in the United States, for example, lockdown restrictions and vaccine and masking mandates have not been enacted by state or federal legislatures, but by executive action or lower-level bureaucratic rule-making.

Italian political theorist Giorgio Agamben points out that, in fact, the “state of exception” has almost become the rule rather than the exception in Western liberal democracies over the last century. The language of war is invoked to pursue ordinary domestic politics. In the last forty years in the United States we have had the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on COVID-19, the war on disinformation, the war on domestic extremism.

A variation on this theme is the utility of moral panics for enabling top-down projects of social transformation, typically by administrative fiat. Victimological dramas provide a mood of permanent moral emergency, justifying an ever deeper penetration of society by bureaucratic authority in both the public and private sectors (the latter incudes human resources departments and university administrations, for example).

Once this pattern of government by emergency snaps into focus, one can’t help but experience a gestalt shift. The self-image of the liberal West––as based on the rule of law and representative government––is out of date and in need of revision. Our society’s response to COVID-19 brought this anachronism to mass awareness.

On the one hand, the emergency accelerated what had previously been a slow-motion desertion of liberal principles of government. On the other hand, COVID culture—most notably, the withdrawal of the face and the sequestering of children, based on scanty and ambiguous empirical evidence, and more broadly the re-imagining of fellow citizens as disease vectors—made visible the usually subterranean core of the liberal project, which is not merely political but anthropological: to remake man. That project can come to fruition, it seems, only with a highly illiberal form of government, paradoxically enough. If we can understand this, it might explain why our embrace of extralegal governance has met so little resistance. It seems the anthropological project is a more powerful commitment for us than allegiance to the forms and procedures of constitutional government.

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