Arise from your slumber: coronavirus and the modern State

Has the Covid-19 pandemic ended globalisation as we know it? Some think it has. 

Typically globalisation means a massive increase of movement of people and things across national borders. However, globalisation is Janus-faced. The growth of movement has always been accompanied by the expanding surveillance of movement by the states.

National borders are like filters. In one respect, globalisation means the increased volume of traffic through the “filters.” However, the filters also screen out what the states do not want—such as terrorists, objects of biohazard, and now, Covid-19. The increase of traffic across borders and the state’s surveillance of the traffic are two sides of the same coin. 

Surveillance on the people’s movement, however, is not new. In the time of World War I, carrying a passport when travelling overseas became mandatory as part of the process of the growth of modern nation states and the making of the global network of the states. Before the 20th century, passports had been used but not in a globally standardised fashion. Indeed, passports, if required, were not necessarily issued by the state; even local authorities, ecclesiastical or secular, could issue them to either nationals or foreigners. 

The eminent historian A.J.P. Taylor opened his classic English History 1914-1945: “Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country forever without a passport or any sort of official permission. . . . For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police.” 

Our global movement has been under state surveillance since the introduction of modern passports a century ago. We no longer question the legitimacy of the state’s surveillance by the medium of the passport. But it remains paradoxical that the freedom of movement is warranted by the state’s surveillance.

The American sociologist John C. Torpey argued the state monopolises the legitimate power to regulate the freedom of movement. Precisely because of this, lockdown and closure of national borders are possible. No other organisations can achieve this. Current economic crises, such as rapidly increasing unemployment and bankruptcies, are due ultimately to these restrictions on movement. Clearly, the regular operation of economic activities is predicated upon the freedom of movement, which is granted by the state. 

Some commentators have argued the advent of global capitalism marked the end of the historical role of the modern nation state and would lead to the emergence of a “borderless” world. The pandemic has fatally undermined this line of argument.

Global corporations and billionaires around the world have remained reticent since the breakout of this pandemic. The only agents that are combating the virus are the states. Many states, including the US and the UK, have jettisoned the economic doctrines of neoliberalism and their equivalent political ideas: atomistic individualism and the minimal state. This volte-face is epitomised by Boris Johnson’s recent anti-Thatcherite remark: “There is such a thing as society.”

The European Union has returned, on one level, to a cluster of the nations of what Karl Polanyi called “crustacean type.” The current crisis has demonstrated clearly that the modern states still remain the only public authority that can fight an “invisible enemy”; neither international organisations nor global corporations can match them.  

Indeed, the modern states emerged and grew in one respect through their war on “invisible enemies.” Modern European states in the 16th and 17th centuries enhanced their public authority through their fight against demons and those who formed a pact with them: witches. To combat demons’ supernatural power, the budding modern states had recourse to divine power: the divine right of kings. Witches who exercised demonic powers could only be countered by the king who was backed by divine power. The war on demons—witch-hunts—contributed to the empowerment of the modern state. 

The coronavirus is the “demon” of 2020. Just like in the time of witch-hunts, the states will likely enhance their power in the age of pandemics. Once we get through lockdown, states around the globe will be required to respond much more quickly and efficiently to pandemics. States will have to design comprehensive emergency plans to minimise economic damage.

On the other hand, as long as saving lives remains imperative, the state will claim the necessity to regulate the freedom of movement as the situation requires. The need for collecting data about potential viral contraction using technologies such as Bluetooth and drones will pave the way to the growth of the surveillance state. It will be challenging to negotiate the demand for precaution against future pandemics with the freedom from the state’s surveillance. 

It is wrong to think the pandemic has endangered the state. On the contrary, Covid-19 has reawakened what the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes called “Leviathan.”

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