The virus lurks on car door handles, on doorknobs and the floor, on the breath of others or in a friend’s hug, on onions in the supermarket, and on the hands of the valet who parks your car. If you venture outside, everything and everyone is a threat. So, it is better to stay home, safely locked away with your previously disinfected computer which connects you to a world that is innocuous because its virtual and therefore “virtually” harmless. What makes you sick lurks outside your door. The fear of what we know to be real, but which only materializes in suspicion, is enough to keep us locked away. This individual sensation of anguish in the face of a threat leads to voluntary confinement and that is the success of social control. Fear is used as a disciplinary device.
The strategies used to make bodies docile for the purpose of social control is what the philosopher and historian Michel Foucault called discipline. In the context of COVID-19, there are those who do not initially choose self-discipline since there is an even higher level of discipline: mass deaths in foreign climes. But those who have yet to discipline themselves will do so once these deaths increase or occur closer to home. China and Korea didn’t wait for the next stage and went directly to surveillance through apps. In the end we have the shocking images of deserted New York or Venice which show that discipline has been successful: nobody goes out anymore. We resist discipline – as Foucault pointed out in the case of school and the army – but in the end we confine ourselves to the home as an institution of isolation for biopolitical purposes.
The implications of discipline have been analyzed by various old, white, colonial European philosophers, who speak of the authoritarian control of the epidemic used to curtail individual freedoms and maintain exceptionality within democratic regimes. There are other deluded philosophers who believe it is time to take back the community and reverse capitalist individualism. There are some with more solid views than others, but it seems to me they are stuck in the analysis of control and that is no longer adequate since discipline for self-regulation and confinement is productive beyond the state of exception per se. Long-term goals have been set and are being met already.
Returning to Foucault, it seems to me that self-enclosure is a technology for disciplining bodies for the governmentality of mobility, permitting the same rhythm of consumption and growth for the productive and market sectors that sustain current neoliberalism (mining extractivism for the digital industry and bio-work for the production of big data) without continued damage to the planet, which is now a source of natural resources rather than life itself. The objective is not to stop economic production or consumption, but rather human mobility, to change lifestyles, as Mexican philosopher Sayak Valencia pointed out in her analysis of the live regime.
We face the disciplining of bodies as part of a global biopolitics to change the working model and limit the mobility of the elite. The mobility of the most precarious, economic and forced migrants, has already been managed for some time, leading them to death in what I have called the necropolitical apparatus of production and administration of forced migration. This refers to the set of policies of death that force people to leave their countries for the benefit of extractive capitalism, eventually dying on the way or being disposed of in spaces characterized by legal limbo.
The global middle classes are not going to be treated that way. They can be left to die, but they will not be directed to scenarios of death like forced migrants who drown in the Mediterranean or are swallowed by the jungles of the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama. For the middle classes there is self-enclosure to guarantee immobility. The anatomo-politics – as Michel Foucault named the techniques of disciplining bodies to make them docile and manipulable – of self-enclosure serves to curtail the mobility of the middle classes that travel for reasons of tourism, business, academic conferences, and trade relations. This segment of the population has the income to afford international flights and extreme experiences in the most remote places. But these same people are -we are- those who can work from the refuge of home using a virtual platform.
We know from Foucault that in governmentality there is no necessary intention in the cause, or at least there is no direct intention, it is always the management of behaviors: inhibiting, procuring, annulling, reversing, manipulating, controlling or assuring the actions of the other leading to self-care, self-regulation, or, in this case, self-imposed immobility. The important thing about behavior management is productivity, the benefits it brings and who benefits from them. At this point in quarantine we are already beginning to see that not only virtual tours to famous museums or online courses for yoga or quantum physics are offered, but platforms that facilitate meetings for offices, businesses, politicians, high school and college students.
While only a few months ago few people knew about the Zoom platform, today everyone uses it. In the near future there will be others that will come to replace it, but for analytical purposes let us say that Zoom establishes the production model we are being disciplined for. We are facing a change in the importance of the transition from Fordism to Toyotaism. The goal of this change is to immobilize us sufficiently to control human mobility -the human virus that has destroyed the planet- without bringing production and consumption to a halt. A microeconomy of self-enclosure is already in place: zoomism.
Fordism, as we know, was the model of mass industrial production that replaced Taylorism and guaranteed full employment and universal or employment-linked social security, as occurred in Mexico among other countries. Toyotaism, which replaced Fordism, established piece-rate, hourly work without compulsory social security. Zoomism would be the mode of production for self-enclosure, which also increases added value since the operating costs of corporate offices are transferred to workers: electricity, the internet, water and even coffee. Without the need for time to travel to work or even to venture outside, we become more productive. The current quarantine disciplines us to immobility, to seclude our bodies and project our professional avatars through digital platforms, reformulating the perception of time and space of globalization. David Harvey conceptualized this as the compression of space and time through information technology, as well as through low-cost flights that increased and changed tourism, business and work. We will progress from a relative perception of global space-time as something compressed, to a perception and experience of space-time in absolute terms: a materially immobile present and space that moves only virtually.
Zooming, of course, has a major class component, just as the spread of COVID-19 did initially – being spread throughout the world by tourists and elite travelers. This virus was propagated by expats and foreigners, not by forced migrants. For the latter, the necropolitical device of production and administration of forced migration is still in place and will instrumentalize COVID-19 as it has administered other diseases and dangers. For them, it is business as usual. Change comes with the disciplining of the middle classes to introduce zoomism, which has various social control objectives, of which the following are just a sample:
- To stop, via self-regulation, trips that contribute to global warming and spread viruses, while giving the planet a chance to breathe without decreasing current rates of production and consumption. We have already seen that the quarantine standstill has reduced carbon emissions in China. Immobility stops people, not the industries that sustain neoliberal capitalism.
- Many will be excluded, as Toyotaism once left millions unemployed. Middle-class people who live from day to day and without a job that can be done virtually will be the new losers of neoliberalism. Small businesses will also go bankrupt, but that will open up opportunities for transnational industrial and service conglomerates.
- At the same time, as in Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, self-enclosure and self-control will be used to eliminate community and resistance, starting with the global feminist movement, which until a few months ago had achieved an influence and hegemony never before seen at a global level, from Chile to India and running through Mexico. What was gained in recent years has been lost during quarantine.
- Furthermore, and still on the subject of gender, women will be returned to the home. The anguish of the epidemic does not end in women’s bodies, but continues in the bodies of our children, and/or the people we care for: partners, mothers, fathers, neighbors, friends, and relatives. Women who do not return to the home via zoomism will be confined by a fear of exposing their children or those they care for. The public space we had gained will be lost again and we will become full-time mothers and caregivers.
- Women, as well as others engaged in social movements such as the environmental movement, will have to restrict themselves to cyber activism, which we thought we had already overcome. However, digitally litigating injustices remains a strategy of social movements and it is good that it is increasing because there is no doubt that political marches and rallies on health issues will be banned.
In short, we are facing an epochal shift, perhaps on the scale of the economic restructuring that led to neoliberalism. Social control in the face of the pandemic, as Naomi Klein demonstrates, provides diverse opportunities to be faced from self-enclosure, and quite possibly via Zoom.
Ariadna Estévez holds a PhD in Human Rights (University of Sussex, UK). She is a full-time researcher (tenured professor) at the Centre for Research on North America (CISAN) of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).She is co-coordinator of the Research in Progress Seminar on Critical Legal Studies and Migration, at UNAM’s Institute of Legal Research (CISAN-IIJ). Currently she is writing the book “Making people disposable: the necropolitical production and management of forced migration” (Lexington Books/UNAM, upcoming).