Lehuedé, Filimonov, & Higgins: Dissent & Democracy in Covid-19

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A formula for the Covid-19 democratic deficit: Security, Technocracy, and Algorithmic Technology.

Near the beginning of the lockdown period, PI Council member Arundhati wrote that Covid-19 ‘is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next’. But whose voices will count in the world to come? The question is not trivial. A thin and procedure-oriented model of democracy that focuses exclusively on infrequent elections is likely to reproduce the conditions that brought us here. Only a program of radical democratisation — one that creates space for dissenting voices and redistributes volume to marginalised groups — will be sufficient to guide us through the portal and to a new, better normal.

Unfortunately, the democratic arrangements that have taken shape since the arrival of the pandemic have served to deepen the democratic deficit, not fill it. In particular, three mechanisms—the securitisation of the discussion, the privileging of technocratic forms of governance and an opaque use of algorithmic technologies—are already engendering exclusion and the delegitimisation of dissenting voices. Among other problems, these three mechanisms run the risk of making existing racial, class-based, religious, gendered and sexual hierarchies determine whose voices count and whose do not. It is important to note that, even though these discourses and measures have been justified as an exception during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are reasons to suspect that they are giving rise to a ‘new democratic normal’ that might remain in place for longer than expected.

As we explain, each mechanism has a particular role in impoverishing the public debate. First, a securitisation of the debate creates an exceptional atmosphere that justifies previously unacceptable discourses and policies. Second, a privileging of technocratic forms of governance delegitimises politics as a vehicle for discussion in a way that excludes the voice of ordinary citizens. And, finally, the employment of algorithmic technologies helps to sediment exclusions by inscribing them into hardware and software solutions. When working together, these three mechanisms make up what we call the Covid-19 democratic deficit.

Securitisation: Obscuring Inequalities and Bracketing Off Dissent

The deployment of war discourse by political authorities has been one of the most pervasive strategies for ensuring a democratic deficit. The United Kingdom constitutes a perfect illustration of this, but similar approaches have been seen in India, France, the US and Russia, among others. On March 17th, Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on national television to declare an all-out war on the coronavirus, framing the virus as a ‘deadly enemy’ of both British life and the economy requiring a ‘wartime’ mode of governance. Only six weeks earlier, Johnson had insisted that the biggest threat to Britain posed by the coronavirus was the threat of overreaction – an unjustified global “panic” with ruinous economic consequences. But by March 23rd, pubs, shops and schools had been shuttered, borders across Europe had been sealed, and the Government was unveiling an indefinite lockdown of British society enforceable by a new suite of expanded police powers. The old British adage of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ had given way to a complete reconfiguration of daily life within the space of a few weeks. “No Prime Minister wants to enact measures like this,” Johnson told the nation. “But in this fight, we can be in no doubt that each and every one of us is directly enlisted.”

Declaring war is a deliberate securitising move with ambivalent political consequences. On the one hand, there is a sense of urgency and exceptionalism that comes pre-packaged with language of national security which, in the case of the coronavirus pandemic, may have helped lay the groundwork for widespread acceptance of emergency lockdown measures. And so, perhaps securitisation in this instance has saved lives: by one estimate, as many as 20,000 deaths might have been prevented in the United Kingdom had the Government’s lockdown measures been announced just one week earlier. However, it should not be taken for granted that securitisation is the only way to spur decisive action in the defence of (some) human life, nor should it be forgotten that creating states of political exception often carries lingering, chronic consequences for democratic communities. Much like the War on Terror and the War on Drugs, the War on COVID-19 conjures an imaginary of society under threat predicated on multiple forms of omission – of certain voices from debate, of certain subjectivities from the social whole, of certain lives from grief, and of certain political consequences from serious consideration.

Two dimensions of the pandemic have been obscured in particular by the language of war in ways that entail consequences for meaningful democracy – its historical basis, and its likely afterlives. The way we tend to imagine war (for example, in education) is deceptively contained in time and space – wars break out on particular days in particular places, and wars come to an end, even if months or years later. By imagining the struggle against COVID-19 as a war, we put pressure on our capacity to narrate continuity between the current and pre-existing social crises. The disproportionate infection and mortality of Black people, migrants, the elderly and frontline workers in low-paid and precarious jobs make clear that the conditions of vulnerability to the virus pre-date the virus itself. Viewed as a crisis of human life, COVID-19 is as much, if not more, an extension of the triple crises of racial injustice, colonial extraction and the dismantling of social care infrastructure within a globalised neoliberal economic order, than it is a bounded and recent historical event. But acknowledging it as such doesn’t sit comfortably within a securitised imaginary, which rationalises urgent action on the basis of historical exceptionalism. Attempts to connect the violence of the virus to the marketisation of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) or the global movement for Black lives have thus been widely dismissed as cynical attempts to politicise and unprecedented crisis of public health – the implication being, of course, that the virus has no political precedent.

Looking ahead, the securitisation of COVID-19 is also obscuring the uneven political afterlives that the crisis and its management will entail for different types of subjects. War conjures an image of a unified, homogenous community of national subjects all threatened by the same sinister force and all wanting the same interventions for their security. However, the struggle against COVID-19 is not singular, nor will the longer-term consequences of the strategies deployed by governments to manage the virus in the UK and elsewhere be evenly beneficial to all citizens. Expanded police powers to detain individuals and disperse groups willdisproportionately affect people of colour (especially young Black men); school closures will disproportionately affect women; work-from-home instructions will disproportionately burden people in low-paid and/or precarious jobs with health risks or economic hardship (or both). And none of these effects will be temporary – they will echo in the lives of these subjects, forming the historical basis of socio-economic consequences to come.

Many such measures have been instrumental in minimising the mortality of the virus in the UK and elsewhere, and so our intention certainly isn’t to argue against (all) of them. But when framed in the language of warfare, the uneven consequences of these measures become harder to discuss and harder still to mitigate with thoughtful public policy. Security threats are, by definition, existential threats – in an imaginary of COVID-19 framed by security, citizenship is homogenised as bare life in need only of urgent protection from death. Democratic decision-making finds itself under pressure in such an imaginary, in which there is little space (or indeed, time) for heterogeneity of need. In this way, the war metaphor has been a key for the establishment of the COVID-19 democratic deficit, narrowing down the opportunities of foregrounding difference and dissent. With the wartime citizen reconfigured as a subject with indiscriminate and self-evident needs demanding equally self-evident forms of protection, politics risks becoming a closed field of foregone conclusions.

Technocracy: The Expert Apparatus versus Ordinary Citizens

One of the key political dichotomies of the past few years – at least since the shocking election of Donald Trump – is that between populism and science: juxtaposing the supposedly irrational and erratic populist politics was the respectable and cold-blooded expertise. In the new unpredictable world, science has been presented as the ultimate source of truth; at the marches for science in 2017, people all over the world celebrated its contribution to a better world. Three years on, the dichotomy proves artificial: democratic politics and the scientific establishment may never have been true allies. Along with securitisation, responses based on scientism have been detrimental to an inclusive and democratic response to the pandemic.

Sweden’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis has attracted a lot of international attention, and with good reason. Its reliance on scientific technocracy has led to some truly disastrous outcomes and a powerful counter-evidence to the popular belief (advocated, inter alia, by Francis Fukuyama) that a higher trust in government makes for a more efficient response to the pandemic. In Sweden, the traditionally high level of trust in the state is coupled with a bureaucratically organised governance – “small ministries, big authorities”, as Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde proudly explained in her recent controversial interview. In practice, this means that significant decision-making power rests in the hands of unelected officials – in the case of COVID-19 crisis, the Public Health Agency. Meanwhile, Sweden’s democratically elected government has avoided direct accountability, instead relying on advice from public health agency’s bureaucrats: “The government and myself are following the recommendations provided by expert authorities”, Sweden’s health minister Lena Hallengren proclaimed; her immediate boss, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, has only given a handful of public appearances since the beginning of the crisis. The willingness to rely on the bureaucratic establishment was all the more surprising given that the ‘expert authorities’ recommendations have often contradicted those of the WHO and Sweden’s own neighbours. The Public Health Agency has famously advised against imposing a lockdown, but also raised eyebrows by suggesting, for instance, that wearing masks in public does not fit Sweden’s coronavirus strategy. Despite the title of the organisation, the public has never been presented with models sufficiently explaining the laissez-faire approach; what’s worse, it gravely underestimated the risks of the virus and miscalculated the efficiency of the chosen strategy. The dissenting voices – such as that of Dagens Nyheter’s editor-in-chief Peter Wolodarski, who as early as in March demanded the government to assume a political responsibility for handling the epidemic – were met with strong criticisms. People like Wolodarski, the popular Svenska Dagbladet newspaper argued, were undermining science and playing into the hands of populists. It may come as little surprise that the Swedish media have predominantly remained neutral in their coverage of the pandemic crisis and hardly ever questioned the decisions of the bureaucratic establishment.

The world is now well-aware of the tragic developments in Sweden that has lost over 5,800 lives to the virus this year (compared to about 300 deaths in neighbouring Norway and Finland) and topped the global ranks of highest COVID-19 deaths per capita in May. Although Sweden’s case is extreme, it is symptomatic in terms of democratic participation in the age of COVID-19. If, by all indications, the virus is here to stay, we need to address the democratic deficit produced by the response to the pandemic – and not only in the Nordics. Despite Germany’s relatively successful handling of the crisis, similar patterns of depoliticisation were also seen there. Popular discontent with the technocratic response to the crisis – often coupled with poor communication and weak social protections for the working class – formed part of the basis for protest movements in countries as distant and disparate as the US, India, and Russia. The ridicule of the protesters’ message in mainstream media has often missed the key point: those citizens speak out, often desperately, against their own powerlessness in the face of intensifying economic hardship and inadequate state support.

Sweden’s case shows us that the old dilemma between democratic transparency and technocratic efficiency is no longer valid: unaccountable experts can make profound miscalculations and yet dodge responsibility. Treating scientific expertise uncritically would do, and has historically done, a profound disservice to democratic citizenship. To recall one of the most grotesque examples, an uncritical orientation towards scientific claims to truth and knowledge enabled the widespread misrecognition of power and violence at the core of the European eugenics movement, which was first founded at an institute in Sweden. The central question is how we can delicately overcome this democratic deficit in a way where scientific knowledge would be supported by spaces where citizens can have a say on the decisions that dramatically shape their daily lives.

Algorithmic Technologies: Exclusion by Design

A third and final mechanism related to the democratic deficit in the context of the pandemic has to do with the prominent role that data, algorithms and mobile apps have had in the discussion. Without a doubt, quantitative methods and technology in general are fundamental for orienting the health, economic and social policy responses to the virus and, when correctly applied, can even help save lives. However, as in the case of technocracy discussed above, these technologies and the politico-economic arrangements associated with them can have profound consequences for democratic dialogue. The question that arises, then, is what type of democratic infrastructure is emerging from this shift. Given the number of initiatives relying on data and algorithmic technologies, a general account is provided here with references to different cases across the planet.

It is difficult to ignore the fact that the conversation about the scope and responses to the pandemic is highly datafied. Infection and mortality rates, contact tracing and the distribution of benefits rely on quantitative information. Unfortunately, in many cases this information has not been approached with sufficient critical distance. Despite some specific disagreements, the debate has taken place by drawing on a faith in numbers that, accompanied with the treatment of quantitative information as a spectacle, portrays data as the best and only means to assess what is going on and the type of measures required. However, datasets always involve exclusions and can be managed and visualised in ways that are detrimental to marginalised communities. Furthermore, the centrality of data also makes it necessary to wonder who is able to participate in a conversation of this nature. Little is asked about the capacity of the population and even journalists to understand what these numbers mean and to counter claims made by authorities, an aspect that becomes even more concerning when considering the uneven distribution of this form of literacy across society. Lastly, in some cases quantitative data can also be used as a proxy for voice, when measures are legitimised on the basis of repurposed information in a way that bypasses the richer character of qualitative debate. The quantification of the debate, then, is not a neutral phenomenon. Instead, it is one that in its current form constitutes one of the driving forces underpinning the current democratic deficit.

Equally critical is the fact that in most cases the apps and technical infrastructures that have become a fundamental piece of the response to the COVID-19 are not subject to public accountability because they respond to the interests of economically and politically powerful transnational companies. These companies are taking advantage of the current situation in order to gain control of services that were previously provided by the state, which is the rationale behind Apple and Google’s offer to develop tracing apps for free. The systematic defunding of the state over the last decades has impeded the state to develop in-house solutions. Countries such as the United Kingdom have ended up relying on these companies even if originally they did not plan to. This form of concealed privatisation is worrying because it leaves societies further away from the ideal of democratic control of key areas of social life, such as public health. Furthermore, it implies succumbing to the lobby of companies with monopolistic and anti-competitive ethos that do not guarantee the accountability and transparency required by the current circumstances.

A third point is that the opacity of algorithmic-fueled technological systems is impinging upon the capacity of the public to criticise, negotiate and even reject measures and decisions taken by the state. In Colombia, for example, the government merged already existing databases in order to target its funding transfers during the COVID-19 crisis. The lack of public accountability over the data and algorithms employed implied that the broad public was not able to interrogate the criteria employed and potential exclusions. Furthermore, criticism and requests for further transparency were explicitly dismissed by the government. This problem extends to the very infrastructure of public debate. A big part of the discussion has been held on social media platforms such as Facebook, TikTok or Twitter that, according to the evidence, are complicit in systemic state and corporate mass surveillance. New measures introduced or to be introduced in the context of the pandemic, such as the ‘ciberpatrullaje’ in Argentina, can worsen the situation.

Information technologies constitute part of the infrastructure underpinning the debate and responses to the COVID-19. But it is not a neutral one. As of today, the quantification of the debate, the seizing of the state by big tech companies and the use of obscure data and algorithmic technologies are fundamental elements of the democratic deficit. In some cases the way these methods and systems work is difficult to understand. This complexity is not an accident but a choice that grants them immunity to democratic critique and ensures exclusion-by-design.

Conclusions

Will the pandemic engender a new form of communism? Will it imply the arrival of a new mode of exercising sovereignty? The answers to these questions are still open, and only a radical and inclusive type of democracy will make it possible for marginalised voices to speak up and counter the elite’s attempt to narrow down the field of what is subject to discussion. In this regard, the observations we have made here indicate that there are reasons to be worried. The securitisation of the debate through discourse, the implementation of scientific-technocratic forms of governance at the expense of citizens’ participation and the prominence of data and algorithmic technologies all work in different ways. Yet, the outcome is similar – the delegitimisation and exclusion of voices in a way that reproduces racial, gender, sexual and class hierarchies. If the pandemic is a portal that will make societies transition into a new world, there are reasons to believe that this new world is being shaped by the powerful and not by ordinary people, less still those who belong to marginalised groups.

Despite the above, there are also reasons to be optimistic. The pandemic has laid bare that people are willing to stand up even under the harshest conditions, as the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and protests by healthcare and platform workers in Latin America are but an example. Furthermore, state abandonment has motivated some communities to organise autonomous care collectives, which in some cases target marginalised groups. In Chile, the long period of lockdown has taken some communities to set up ‘common pots’ (ollas comunes), a solidarity practice that has its roots in the resistance against Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Digital technologies have also been repurposed by groups employing corporate-owned networks to organise and promote communal initiatives. In Russia, people banned from gathering on the streets during lockdown launched spontaneous digital protestsagainst their own economic precarity, posting comments such as “We want to eat!!! no work!!!" next to governmental buildings on digital maps. In at least one case, they succeeded in bringing the attention of local authorities to their grievances. These examples suggest that, even though our diagnosis is mainly a pessimistic one, the current crisis has given rise to new and creative grassroots initiatives that challenge the deepening inequalities and the COVID-19 democratic deficit. In our view, only a radical type of democracy, especially sensitive to the voices of marginalised communities and dissenting groups, would make it possible for these initiatives to flourish and acquire centrality in the public debate rather than remain invisibilised or portrayed as exceptions.

Sebastián Lehuedé is a PhD Candidate at the London School of Economics

Kirill Filimonov is a PhD Candidate at Uppsala University

Kat Higgins is a PhD Candidate at the London School of Economics

Photo: LeoLondon / Flickr

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Authors
Sebastián Lehuedé, Kirill Filimonov and Kat Higgins
Published
14.09.2020
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