Population management can be humanist or antihuman.
Contrast 21st century children’s experience to late 20th century children’s experience. 21st century children in the West have been hit by crisis wave after crisis wave. In the late 20th century US, the world I grew up in had one chronic crisis, and it was, in our experience, simple bullshit. Sure, some people (comms & cops) in particular places (DC) built jobs and job networks on the back of the perma-crisis. But for most of us, the experience was annoying and laborious, but we had control. Even as children we were required to constantly labor over the private, internal work of holding the discursive construction of that “crisis” at bay. “I hope the Russians love their children too,” Sting steadied us. For most of us, our problem was to avoid manipulation. The Red Menace would never disrupt us working-class people in the core.
The initiation of the first crisis, a real disruption to working people’s lives, was misconstrued at the time as a private crisis. But I was there, sitting next to it on the bus, joking with it and listening with it to its beloved Jon Bon Jovi tapes. In high school, my best friend and, really, my partner, the shooting guard to my point guard, was a refugee from the state repression of the Hormel strike. Her large Catholic family had been blown apart by the state sending in the troops to put them all down, at the beginning of the dismantling of American labor organization. She was the last child, the one child who could fit in the trailer by the river her parents were reduced to when they lost their manufacturing careers. As a 1980s teenager I didn’t probe into my friend’s trauma, and at the time I didn’t understand this was the initiation of the mass crisis cycle in the West. All I felt was really lucky to have such a great friend show up in town at the beginning of my high school years.
Forged in Crisis: The Archipelago of the Hyperreal & the Barbarity
For most people in the West, however, the crises started a few years later with AIDS. AIDS initiated what was to become a fatefully, geographically-split experience of mass crisis. AIDS anointed and launched a new archipelago of disrupted life. With every subsequent crisis, the archipelago drifted away, increasingly alienated from vast socio-geographic blocs of private experience only disrupted secondarily, by its tethering–as a population–to the Archipelago of the Hyperreal. Experiencing suffering, death, and disruption, the moral, social-psychological community life of the metropole was reforged within the passion of a thousand suns. People in cities with high AIDS rates lived through a collective experience that pressed their faces together into the matters and terrors of life and death. They became for themselves a hyperreal people managing with moral conviction the advent of a new population imaginary. Their positionality gave them sanctified knowledge of what was truly important in this world. And they knew also that there were mobs, barbarians in the distance who had not been baptised by this fire, this crisis, this confrontation with the underlying reality. They knew that it was their sacred moral duty as the hyperreal people to impress upon the inchoate mob its new identity as a population, a duty sacralized by technocrats, not just economists with their iffy idealist models, but now also public health authorities, prophets of the hyperreal.
Convinced they were part of the AIDS epidemic, the population nodes marched dutifully, in mortal terror, to the testing centers, where, in not too long, they encountered eye-rolling technicians and were sent home, confused and officially pronounced HIV-negative. It wasn’t quite an experience of relief. It wasn’t an experience of togetherness. We were never supposed to talk about it: It wasn’t just a sub-real experience. It was also an immoral experience. We were reduced from humans to disease nodes; but we weren’t subsequently restored to humanity: Then we were nothing. Humanity had moved on to the hyperreal.
Antihuman Population Welfare Coalition
Within the Archipelago of the Hyperreal, leftists embraced a new coalition, positive that the combination of moral fervor and technocratic power would combine to bring the mob to heel at the throne of the real, stark life and death. It would finally subjugate the individualist and racist Western mob to a population framework. A hierarchical coalition of the rational and moral–liberals, left-liberals, and in their orbit, communists–would politically advance when the mob was disciplined to the exigencies and morality of technocratic population management.
Once we were historical materialists. Great humanists roamed the Earth. Democratic Enlightenment ideas about who we are and how we should live were shared from the global adventures of the motley crew, as described beautifully in the works of Herman Melville and later, historians Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh. These Enlightenment humanist notions were embedded in Marxist philosophy at its Greek materialist roots, and they infused socialist and communist population-welfare ideas. It’s why, as late as the early 1980s, much of core working class (excluding African-Americans, who were still deprived of assets and exposed to policing) was still protected from the disruptive crises that capitalist allies bombarded developing countries with. For the protected core working class, crisis was mainly a discursive social construction, struggling to prepare the way for the global end of Enlightenment materialist socialism, and its replacement with a global antihuman population management regime befitting expropriative capitalism. The great project of our financialized era was certainly not the progressive symbolic and material advancement of the motley crew, but the “equitable” restoration of the antihuman imaginary, subhuman status to the entirety of the globe’s working class. If conservative political parties did this directly, like a boss, liberal political parties accomplished it thoroughly, through metropole managerial meritocracy and technocratic population management. The US slavers’ South, idealist Britain, surveillance China, and modern-slavery Saudi Arabia were at the helm, steering right social thinking and institutional and policy development.
In the neoliberal Late Monopoly Capitalist era, ideas about who we are and how we should live seeped out sideways from a deep well of antihuman population-management ideas. Capitalist economists crafted population-welfare models in their basements. Their morality was to blackbox what it is that humans are, centering the welfare of a marginal peoples, the capitalists, as expressed in economic growth indicators. Public health authorities fretted with them over population pyramids, arguing that population welfare would decline if the pyramids were not pyramid in shape. Even the humanities and social sciences were steered by linguistic philosophy into arguments for the moral centrality of certain positional knowledges, against understanding comparatively and scientifically the range and possibility of humanity. [TBD: Discuss Lyotard here.] The motivated democratic Enlightenment curiosity in the range of human expression and human limitations was nearly wiped out.
Redistributed Capitalist Crisis, Hyperreal Moralism, & Antihuman Population Welfare
We turned the corner to the 21st century bracing for the crisis rollout. Y2K, which was to disrupt us all, failed to materialize. But the planes hit New York City’s Twin Towers not much later, on 9/11, and again the Archipelago of the Hyperreal recoiled and bunkered from the barbarians. The experience was the hyperreal crisis of humanity; it required the imposition of (antihuman) population solutions like securitized travel and borders and military disruption of the more democratic oil countries; and all who failed to submit to the slate-wiping gravity and necessity of our hyperreal mortality were abjected as monsters.
Wall Street crashed in 2007-2008. The experience was the hyperreal crisis of humanity; it required the imposition of antihuman population solutions like Quantitative Easing and carceralism for the advancement of economic, political, and social inequality; and all who failed to submit to the slate-wiping gravity and necessity of our hyperreal crisis were abjected as monsters.
In 2020, population health experts registered a new flu epidemic, Coronavirus, COVID19, ripping through some populations, flooding medical systems, and ending the lives of people with fragile health, including especially aged men. The population health technocrats turned to our institutional hierarchies, and with astonishing, breathtaking speed, together they reduced humans to population nodes, disease vectors.
The experience was the hyperreal crisis of humanity. It required the imposition of antihuman population solutions like the gendered discounting of labor (“Inessential” feminized work enclosed in home arrest), universal, mandatory immobilization and isolation, the shut down of all our institutions accommodating human requirements for sociability and bodily movement. All who failed to submit to the slate-clearing gravity and necessity of our hyperreal crisis were abjected as monsters.
Surely, the universal reconceptualization of humans as population disease-vector nodes–requiring total institutional reformulation to obliterate humane approaches to population health, such as maintaining rather than shuttering childrens’ and community sports and social infrastructure–was the only way to secure health.
Surely, as an emergency strategy, this antihumanism in service of population welfare is a temporary modification.
Surely, all who fail to submit to the slate-clearing gravity and necessity of our hyperreal crisis must be pilloried and abjected as monsters.
Reproducing The New Crusades
“Pragmatically” Setting Aside The Idea of Humane Population Welfare: Generalized Crisis, Socio-Geographic Alienation & Capillary Regulation Reproduce Mass Dehumanization
While certainly much of the hinterlands complies with, internalizes, enforces, and moralizes the inhumane population welfare measures, what the barbarian multitude out here has also learned to do throughout the ratcheting crises is to undertake the stressful work of balancing: We struggle to balance cooperating with the increasing imposition of inhumane population welfare policy and infrastructure with carving out and maintaining ideas and practices that allow us to continue to express ourselves as humans. So for example, in the current imposition of immobilization and isolation, we try to figure out private ways to live healthily, to move and socialize, like humans.
We struggle to figure out how to balance living as healthy humans with cooperating with the notion that we need to be immobilized and isolated as disease vectors. This struggle is not the hyperreal of immediate life and death. But in its own lesser reality, it is terrible and depleting work. We are subjected to self-appointed inhumane population welfare bullying if pieces of our monstrously-cruel observations about statistical logic or ideas about humane population welfare drift into the public sphere or unwelcoming private spheres. We weep in disappointment, frustration and anger, and we lose sleep–not just for ourselves, but for others caught in antihuman population management–because we remain secretly human, though we are now only recognized as disease vectors.
We must acknowledge that it is obviously an extremely-compelling moral argument, that everyone collectively submit to (inhumane) population welfare logic and institutionalization. It is clearly even morally persuasive to suggest that in particular the barbarians, with their subreal experience of merely accommodating crises without passion, need to be cut down to disease-node size, require discipline and silencing. These conceptualizations have the virtue of resonating with political parties’ antidemocratic populism theories. But their real power depends on a wild assumption we are asked to embrace: That the “emergency” dehumanization will at some, reasonable point cease, and the “normal” will return. What is the evidence for accepting this assumption? Who can point to inhumane population welfare policy that has been rolled back after the previous crises?
It is the increasing scale of dehumanization that is reproducing crises, epidemiological, social, political, and economic. Because we’ve selected almost all of them for their competence in the various tasks of bulk dehumanization, there are precious few to no responsible, on-message “Adults in the Room” who can or will switch the tracks. Humane population welfare is off-brand, off-message, and not in the budget.
Could We Imagine Population as Human?
Marginal, remnant messaging suggests that even the prioritized beneficiaries of antihuman population welfare policy might be better served with a more humane population imaginary. The critique of elder isolation, the centerpiece of a brave recent movement toward humane population welfare within Anglo societies, is reduced to a lone, ghostly protest whisper on the edges of the emergency antihuman population welfare mobilization. It is the only intimation that we could imagine an alternative and humane population welfare. The humane population imaginary no longer has much of a social coalition behind it.
What kind of society, what kind of social welfare would we be making, if we instead recognized–in say, a democratic-developmentalist Epicurean materialist sense such as inspired Marx–that humans have a characteristic range of capacities and have limitations, and that our ideas, policies, institutions, and practices of population welfare could and should be oriented humanely to these, even in an emergency?
It is outrageous, unthinkable to suggest in this neoliberalized era of crisis, population management, and institutional reform–let alone in the midst of this crisis– that moral and technocratic authorities, and hyperreal people, go so far as to consider antihuman population welfare measures as themselves a monstrosity, in which perspective people struggling to balance the statistical social good and our own human expression and development flips morally, becomes a moral good instead of a sign of evil. We are no longer Melville’s motley crew. We have been made into a drastically-divided, hierarchical world: the Hyperreal Men cohered in crisis and the barbarians.
Anti-Enlightenment and anti-Marxist Cold War messaging lied. Capitalism’s victory did not vanquish population management. On the contrary, it produced waves of disruptive crisis and the global excretion of unfettered antihuman population management. We need to recover the ideas that recognize the human in population.
Agamben on public health and bare life: http://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers/
Sotiris’ Foucauldian response to Agamben: http://criticallegalthinking.com/2020/03/14/against-agamben-is-a-democratic-biopolitics-possible/
Oleg Komlik sees formal national-level cultural differences which obscure lived regional experiential differences. The relevant factors for understanding Coronavirus response from a national-cultural framework include: “the state’s realization of its role and degree of responsibility towards society, the extent of citizens’ trust in the state’s institutions, the tension between individualistic and communal values, the social and civic motives versus business and economic interests.” A national-cultural perspective obscures how individualistic and communal values are identical in some regions in the geography of capitalism, but require work to balance in others.
Relief in dark times:
Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite
Ezra Furman’s Restless Year