Preamble: The challenges of bringing a critical theoretical perspective to current developments in local, national and international politics are immense. There is a tendency to be overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily case counts and the on-the-ground adaptations of “travel bans” and “social distancing”. To step back, to gain some perspective on developments, requires a sharing and questioning of taken-for-granted assumptions and views. And so I am grateful to Jennifer Bonham for co-authoring this current Research Hub entry. Jennifer is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography, Environment and Population, University of Adelaide. She and I have written together on Foucault’s concept “discursive practices” (Bacchi and Bonham 2014) and have collaborated on the development of PIA (Poststructural Interview Analysis) (Bacchi and Bonham 2016). Jennifer’s most recent book is entitled Cycling Futures (Bonham and Johnson 2015). It is available as a free download from the University of Adelaide Press website (https://www.adelaide.edu.au/press/).
Commentary contrasting responses to the HIV epidemic of the 1980s and the COVID-19 pandemic today is perhaps inevitable. Australia’s terrifying public advertising campaign saw the Grim Reaper knock down people of all ages, walks of life and genders like so many ten pins in a bowling alley (Padula 2006). Medical researchers understood HIV was transmitted via blood and blood products and anyone who contracted the disease would die. HIV was understood to be prevalent among gay men and drug users but the advertising campaign targeted the entire population. Every single Australian was deemed to be at risk so everyone needed to take care. While one reading of the ad was that the Grim Reaper became associated with gay men it is unclear whether this was a pervasive interpretation.
Fast forward to 2020 with many of us watching in disbelief as news footage emerged of people collapsing in Wuhan’s streets. Hospitals were overwhelmed, entire populations were locked down and confined to their apartments, temperatures were taken of people venturing into public places and “suspected” COVID-19 sufferers were hunted down, bundled into vans and taken to hastily erected “hospitals”. But Wuhan was a world away and despite the early blocking of flights from China, there was no sense of urgency in the statements from Australian authorities (politicians in all levels of government, departmental heads, or health officials) or the media reports covering the growing epidemic. Posters began appearing on protocols around coughing, washing hands, touching one’s face and greeting others (no hugging or shaking hands) but it seemed this would be enough. Information on how the virus spread focused on droplets associated with coughing and sneezing and there weren’t any real people in these advertisements – they were line drawings. The virulence of the disease, ease of surface spreading or the role of ordinary people touching ordinary objects like the door handle, keyboard or bench top did not begin appearing in the traditional media until April 2020 – several weeks after the 100 cases milestone.
Our goal is not to make a detailed analysis of responses to the HIV epidemic and COVID-19. Our purpose is to draw on Luigi Pellizzoni’s Ontological Politics in a Disposable World (2015) to recommend a line of inquiry that foregrounds an emerging mode of governing. Pellizzoni’s book critically examines the links between intellectual shifts in the biophysical sciences, the ontological turn in the social sciences and the rise of neo-liberalism. Beginning in the 1970s, each of these domains has moved away from concepts, or goals, of stasis, and increasingly constituted existence in terms of flux and flows. In this context, interventions by scientists, managers, economists and other authorities are not (or should not be) concerned with ensuring stability but they are manipulations toward producing something new. The uncertainties inherent in the flux and flow of existence together with the uncertainties of our manipulations have become opportunities to be celebrated. Pellizzoni questions the implications of hailing this uncertainty:
“Burdened with imperfect foresight, we take a chance, hoping to be excused from moral blame [let alone liability, added by Pellizzoni], if it can be demonstrated we did not have sufficient knowledge of the future consequences of actions at the time: that these could not have been ‘reasonably foreseen'”. (Owen et al 2013 cited in Pellizzoni, 2015, p. 24)
On the face of it, this new approach to intervening in the world, aligns with the Australian government’s response to COVID-19 and might be seen as an example of “governing through experimenting”.
State experiments are nothing new but, as Bulkeley and Broto (2012) and Jones and Whitehead (2018) argue, they are becoming more widely used. Not-withstanding their critiques of such experimentation, the examples they provide describe controlled and limited experiments. In contrast to these authors, we are using the phrase “governing through experimenting” to refer to authorities trialling novel interventions and, crucially, embracing the uncertainty of their outcomes. Regardless of those outcomes, the experiment provides an opportunity for the production of new knowledge (Pellizzoni, 2015, p. 29).
Like politicians and health officials across most of the world, the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and the Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, appear on the nightly news to talk about “flattening the curve”. We couldn’t “let the virus rip”, although this idea was endorsed in some quarters (e.g. the UK), but we could “flatten the curve”. In fact, ALL we could do was try to flatten the curve. As an exercise in “problem-solving”, “flattening the curve” was not a matter of politics but a matter of technical expertise (Bacchi Problem Solving ojps_2019123016255521). This strategy aimed at dampening the daily count of people contracting the disease in order to reduce the demands on the health care systems and minimise the death toll. As the Prime Minister stated a number of times “there will be deaths” and the acceptability of these deaths was supported with the analogy of war. Indeed, the certainty of deaths was the only thing we could count on in a moment of uncertainty where “there are no guarantees” and the “virus writes its own rules” (Melbourne Age, Saturday 4 April 2020, p. 6). We had to understand it wasn’t possible to eradicate the virus – until New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, offered New Zealanders an alternative. Her Government’s goal was precisely that, to eradicate the disease. Most recently (7.30 Report, ABC, 16 April 2020) Morrison speculated that Australia might yet achieve “eradication” as a “by-product” of its current approach to suppression. Experimenting, it seems, is a useful intervention.
The significance of this motif of governing is clear in the parallel development in the world of finance and management. In Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making for an unknowable future (2020) John Kay and Mervyn King celebrate the human instinct to adapt to an environment that people understand only imperfectly. As Pat O’Malley (2004: 3-5 in Pellizzoni 2015:63) identifies, this outlook reflects “an extensive and immensely influential managerial literature appearing since the 1980s” that “celebrates uncertainty as the technique of entrepreneurial creativity … the fluid art of the possible”.
In this task environment, “proper calculations of risk are seen as the exception, while reasoned bets on unpredictable futures are regarded as the rule” (Pellizzoni 2015: 63) – with “betting on the future” a hallmark of decision-making by the Morrison government at the moment.
In this motif of governing, flux and flows are productive of innovation. The more unstable and unpredictable the world, the more manageable (Pellizzoni 2011), “as long as the market, as a blind mechanism of co-ordination, ensures ex-post the overall soundness of choices” (Pellizzoni 2015: 66-67). Here we would emphasize the insistence by Morrison that “lives and livelihoods” are inextricably linked.
In this motif of governing, “scenarios and expectations play a growing role in policy-making” (Pellizzoni 2015: 63). And so, the focus in Australian planning for COVID-19 is on modelling and curves. The wonders of mathematics and science are hauled out to give sense to an “unprecedented” “crisis”, all the while heralding that there are “no guarantees”. People become ciphers in a scientific experiment. As one childcare worker noted when reflecting on the Morrison decision to provide childcare free – commonly perceived to be a progressive intervention – “they are treating my childcare centre like a petri dish”.
We are not suggesting here that a version of the Grim Reaper would have been preferable to the regime of measurement and “guesstimates” currently shaping Australian lives. Rather, we are suggesting the need to step back from the kinds of questions COVID-19 commonly provokes – for example, do authoritarian or democratic governments “handle” the crisis better? Or how are we to explain the turn to the “left” of Australian conservatives (the Liberal Party)? Instead, we suggest that a broader shift in governance styles needs to be traced, a shift towards a mode of “governing through disorder” (Pellizzoni 2011) and an “entrepreneurial desire for uncertainty as an engine of enterprise” (Ericson 2005: 659).
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Bonham, J. and Johnson, M. (eds) 2015. Cycling Futures. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.
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Kay, J. and King, M. 2020. Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making for an unknowable future. NY: W. W. Norton and co.
Padula, M. 2006. “The AIDS Grim Reaper Campaign”. The Australia and New Zealand School of Government, 2006-90.1. Case Program. https://www.anzsog.edu.au/preview-documents/case-study-level-1/192-aids-grim-reaper-campaign-the-a-2006-90-1/file
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Pellizzoni, L. 2011. Governing through disorder: Neoliberal environmental governance and social theory. Global Environmental Change, 21(3): 795-803.
Pellizzoni, L. 2015. Ontological Politics in a Disposable World: The New Mastery of Nature.Surrey: Ashgate.