Ideasroom

Survival of the fittest and other cruel logic

Donald Trump and Boris Johnson's response to coronavirus has revealed some disturbing attitudes towards segments of the population 

As New Zealand enters a period of indeterminate lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, we (and I mean us as a global population) have learned a lot about the importance of experts and scientists, and of frontline public services.

It has also revealed that our emergency workers exceed the police, medics and firefighters, and include warehouse workers, refuse collectors, shelf-stackers and checkout operators who continue to put themselves in harm’s way. We’ve also learned their relatively low wages don’t match their social importance. In fact, we’ve learned of the importance of the labour force as a whole and its contribution to our economy, despite being constantly told it is only the corporate bosses and financiers who are the real “wealth creators”.

We’ve also learned there is no such thing as the economy, just economics, and that our economy can and must operate differently in a crisis. As a consequence it has renewed hope that we really do have the capacity to respond to the approaching threat of climate change should we find the political will.

However, we’ve also learned that valuing life is not a straightforward and universally accepted moral position, and that in some instances people are prepared to take a more instrumental and transactional view about value and worth. While the vast majority of people have accepted the need for social distancing, and, from what I have seen, practise it with diligence and care, Donald Trump is making declarations that this is a very temporary situation and he wants everyone in the US back to work by Easter.

As people attempt to explain to him that this will inevitably cost many lives, he replies that the cost in terms of collapsing markets is the greater concern. People try to veil the ugliness of this attitude by referring to the number of US citizens killed by cars every year, for example. People die, the argument goes, so why should we stop everything just to stop what happens anyway.

Beneath this, though, is a very disturbing attitude towards a significant segment of the population, summed up in this now-deleted tweet by a US attorney replying to Trump’s call to go back to work. "The fundamental problem", he wrote, "is whether we are going to tank the entire economy to save 2.5 percent of the population which is (1) generally expensive to maintain, and (2) not productive".

This sets out a very cruel logic, and one made even more cruel by the fact that if left to run its course in such a class-ridden and unequal society as the US, it would disproportionately affect the poor and the already vulnerable, whose risk is made even worse by having neither access to healthcare nor the privilege of being able to sit out the pandemic in relative comfort and safety. This is, of course, exactly who the author of the tweet is willing to sacrifice. In fact, the suggestion is it’s not really a sacrifice at all, but an efficiency gain.

Letting the disease run its course was the initial British response when PM Boris Johnson announced the aim for tackling the coronavirus was to achieve ‘herd immunity’. Most of us would have been unfamiliar with this concept even though it is fairly routine in epidemiology. The issue, though, is that ‘herd immunity’ is normally achieved through the use of a vaccine. When at least 90 percent of the population (in the case of measles) is inoculated, the disease is restricted because those who are vaccinated shield those who aren’t. Not everyone is immune, but we’ve achieved ‘herd immunity’.

Without the vaccine, it’s a case of exposing everyone (or at least 60 percent was the British estimate for coronavirus) and seeing who dies. Continuing the herd metaphor, it’s effectively a cull. We could say this is simply another gaffe from a gaffe-prone politician, but I don’t believe it was.

Johnson is a vociferous advocate of philosophical aristocracy, by which I mean not simply a believer in necessary social hierarchy, but that those who are at the top are there because they are inherently, even genetically superior. He is also known as an enthusiastic social Darwinist who believes society should be organised to flush out the weak. The importance of competition in a capitalist system for him is precisely because only the fittest succeed.

In his 2013 Margaret Thatcher Memorial Lecture, he argued that the "violent economic centrifuge" or capitalism accentuates inequalities amongst people "who are already very far from equal in raw ability" before going on to propose that people are also inherently unequal in "spiritual worth". This aristocratic ethos also encourages an interest in eugenics, shared by a number of his advisers. From this perspective, the idea he should propose a cull as a means of disease prevention becomes rather chilling.

Over the course of the last five years, the rise of the alt-right—with whom Johnson has a connection via Steve Bannon—has been alarming. One of their aims has been to shift the ‘Overton Window’, or the frame of acceptable speech. In particular, they want eugenics put back on the agenda because it helps re-establish the pseudo race science they are so fond of. Hence, one other thing we should learn from this pandemic is just how effective this project has become.

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