Almost a year has passed since Jennifer Bonham and I reflected on the early interventions of the Morrison Government in Australia to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic (Research Hub entry 30 April 2020). There we expressed disquiet at the way in which certain populations were treated as “ciphers in a scientific experiment”. Our specific example was the decision to allow child care centres to continue to operate despite the “risks” facing staff and the children in their care. The comment of one child care worker that “They are treating my childcare centre like a petri dish” sparked our concerns. Morrison’s mantra of “No guarantees” signalled, in our view, an experimental ethic we found troubling (Melbourne Age, Saturday 4 April 2020, p. 6).
I thought it time to consider to what extent our thoughts on “governing through experimenting” may or may not remain relevant a year into the pandemic. The argument I develop below is that over this time experimenting has become increasingly normalized as a mode of governing. That is, it has been generated as a legitimate way to govern, as a kind of “truth” of governing. This entry explains how this has happened and considers how to reflect critically on this development.
This topic is usefully approached through applying a governmentality perspective. Such a perspective encourages us to step back from the immediate focus on “crisis management” (Curtis 2020) – how to “manage” the pandemic, how to reduce the number of “cases”, how to “flatten curves”, how to get people to “socially distance” – to reflect on the broader issues of how governing is taking place and our location within these governing stratagems. Approaching the question of governing during COVID-19 from a governmentality perspective means attending to the specific practices involved in that governing and how these constitute a certain “mode of governing”, a certain rationality or rationale that Bonham and I characterize as “experimenting”, and how these practices produce us as particular kinds of subjects.
As discussed in the earlier entry (30 April 2020) it is necessary to put these reflections within a broader frame of reference – to consider how experimenting has become increasingly legitimized and recognized as a form of government intervention but, even more than this, to consider how experimenting could be used to describe just about any policy. On the former point Sabel and Zeitlin (2008) describe how “experimentalist governance” has become a popular system of governance in the EU and the US. The latter for example saw the development of formal policy experiments to test the effectiveness of various welfare-to-work and job training schemes, as well as education initiatives (John 2013). The recent “trials” of a Cashless Welfare Card in Australia indicate something approximating this “experimentalist” mode of governing, though there is no explicit description of the program in such terms (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-12-10/cashless-welfare-card-expansion-parliament-two-years/12962684).
The broader claim – that all policy is experimentation – reflects on the guiding premise in evidence-based approaches that efforts to “improve” society need to consider “what works”. Elsewhere I (2020) have described how this way of thinking about policy fits a “problem-solving” logic where interventions are tested to assess effectiveness in “fixing” pre-set and taken-for-granted “problems”. We can recognize here the scientific model of setting and evaluating hypotheses. As a critical intervention I highlight the need to question the existence of pre-set “problems” and to show how these are actually products of specific policy formulations (Bacchi 2009; Bacchi and Goodwin 2016).
If all policy, as argued here, is experimenting, what is different about the COVID-19 situation? Why is it useful to draw attention to the ways in which governing becomes experimenting in this specific case? First, in the current situation, there are no overt claims that experimenting is going on. So, we are not talking about the kind of “experimentalist governance” described by Sabel and Zeitlen (2008). In fact, to the contrary, there are increasing attempts to assert a more authoritative approach to governing. We now hear about how governments are dealing with “an evolving situation”, how they must in certain instances “hold their nerve” (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-12-22/nsw-premier-gladys-berejiklian-faces-test-coronavirus-christmas/13006984)and how they are getting to know the virus better (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al, 2020: 8). In relation to COVID-19 interventions the Morrison mantra “no guarantees” (see above) hasn’t been heard in months and is unlikely to be used again. My suggestion here is that the impression that governments are simply trying out different policy interventions until something works would not sit comfortably with the assumed character of government decision-making as well-informed and authoritative.
At the same time an experimental approach, while not described as such, becomes understandable given the “uncertainty” of the “evolving” situation. COVID-19 is characterized as a “crisis”, an “emergency”, driven by “uncertainty”. Hence, specific intrusive policy interventions (think of mandatory mask-wearing, curfews, etc.) are described as out of character, as something that will go away when the crisis abates. In these “crisis” conditions “citizens” are asked to allow the government a certain leeway. As Sjölander-Lindqvist et al. (2020: 10) point out: “it is important to build individual willingness to engage in preventive or emergency behaviours proposed by an authoritative agent (Jasanoff 2007; Cairns et al., 2013)”.
O’Malley (2004) usefully reminds us that “uncertainty” and “risk” are constructs rather than natural states of things. He describes these “neo-liberal concepts” as complementary techniques for governing diverse aspects of life. Pellizzoni (2011) agrees. Pre-COVID he made the case that uncertainty has become a way of governing, a technology of governing: “Uncertainty, thus, is seen no more as a circumscribed situation on which to build a few strategic decisions, but as an empowering everyday condition”. Describing the orientation as neoliberal, he notes: “proper calculations of risk are seen as an exception, while reasoned bets over unpredictable futures are regarded as the rule”. The invoking of “uncertainty” also works paradoxically to “reinforce the authority of expertise” (Demeritt 2001: 327), clearly illustrated in the current reliance on the (often contradictory) messages of epidemiologists.
It would be difficult to question the characterization of current world COVID-19 experiences as “crisis”. Still, Cordero (2016: 129) provides a timely caution. He notes: “For if there is something true about crisis, it is precisely that in such moments of distress truth becomes a political problem and therefore an open site of struggles”. I see the question of “truth” as relevant at two levels: first, in asserting the existence of crisis, and second, in producing ways of understanding the “crisis”. Here, I am particularly interested in how an understanding of COVID-19 as crisis encourages experimenting as a mode of governing.
It may appear that by questioning experimentation I am positing the need for a firmer, more authoritarian style of rule. Such is not my intention especially as, in the case of COVID-19, questions about which experiments to undertake are precisely to do with which forms of authoritarian intervention are justified (restrictions on movement, tracking devices, electronic bracelets on quarantined subjects, prison, curfews, etc.). The logics of experimentation and authoritarianism are not opposed to each other; they are in effect complementary. As Petersen (1996: 56) noted, some time ago,
“In a context of uncertainty, all manner of interventions, which at other times or in other circumstances might be considered intrusive, oppressive, discriminatory or paternalistic, can be justified as being for the protection of the ‘at risk’ individual and ultimately of benefit to ‘society’ as a whole; for example, forms of public surveillance and mass screening.”
In line with a governmentality approach, this Research Hub entry aims neither at endorsing nor condemning specific courses of action; rather, the point of the exercise is to highlight the array of interventions as governing techniques and to subject them to critical interrogation. To this end, it is important to see what they include within, and exclude from, their terms of reference, to examine their underlying presuppositions and to consider how subjects are constituted within them (see WPR questions in Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20). On the last point O’Malley (2004) elaborates:
“These analyses would include examining the diverse ways in which risk and uncertainty might shape the kinds of subjects we are to be made into, the practices through which we will be expected to govern ourselves, and the ways we will be expected to imagine the world and prepare for the future”.
As an example, I think it worth exploring the emergence and development of tracking devices, specifically the widespread use of QR [Quick Response] codes in South Australia (and increasingly in other parts of Australia) (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-12-01/what-you-need-to-know-about-covid-qr-codes-in-south-australia/12937756). Almost overnight South Australians have faced the obligation to scan a kind of bar code that conveys their whereabouts to SA Health. This scanning practice occurs at numerous types of venue, including shops selling food and apparel, gymnasiums, hairdressers (and the list goes on).
Public officials have asserted that information will be discarded after 28 days but there has been little public discussion about privacy considerations or about the need for legislation to protect privacy (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-11-03/privacy-concerns-with-qr-code-contact-tracing-in-south-australia/12844050). Public health officials have suggested that QR codes be retained post-pandemic (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-02-01/thought-bubble-to-retain-qr-codes-draw-fire-in-south-australia/13108786); however, the Police Commission, Grant Stevens, rejected the notion (https://indaily.com.au/news/2021/02/01/qr-codes-are-for-covid-only-stevens-rejects-spurriers-extension-call/).
How are subjects constituted within this practice? Sjölander-Lindqvist et al. (2020: 9) point out that the full range of approaches to controlling COVID-19 include an aspect of “responsibilization” – the implication that citizen subjects are responsible for the outcomes of the pandemic. Such is the case with QR codes. While customers are instructed to “check in” using the SA Government QR app, the public has been encouraged to take on this task as a kind of civic duty. They have responded enthusiastically. I am reminded of Bigo’s (2010: 20) study of the uptake of “regulated mobility” in “smart borders”:
“Not only do large groups of those travelling accept new technologies of surveillance and strong intrusive techniques concerning their privacy, but so also are such groups happy, considering themselves more safe and more free now that they can move with ease and safety” (my emphases)”.
Likewise in Sweden, Larsson (2020: 1) shows how crisis management interventions promoted by the Swedish government produce “a new type of resilient neoliberal subject who is willing to accept uncertainty and shoulder greater individual responsibility for her own security”.
QR codes, I suggest, offer an experimental mode for contact tracing . At the same time, they indicate a willingness to experiment with authoritarian oversight of citizen behaviours. In my view they are a perfect illustration of how experimenting has become normalized, how it has become acceptable to govern through experimenting.
But surely, I’ve been asked, isn’t such an approach required in these times of crisis and change? I am not disputing the need for such interventions. Rather I am suggesting that a range of important questions goes unasked in their all too enthusiastic adoption. Schroth (2016) makes the important point that experiments reduce the “enigmatic world” to what are deemed to be manageable proportions. Illustrating how this happens, the focus on experimental interventions (such as QR codes) to “control the spread” of the virus produces a tendency to concentrate on what Waleed Aly (2020) calls “the symptoms” of a crisis. We are encouraged to see such “technologies” as “solving” (albeit in a piecemeal fashion) the “problem” of contagion. There is no space in this reactive approach to consider how we have got here – how pandemics, for example, are an increasing likelihood due to a range of practices such as deforestation (Zimmer 2011). In this post-hoc mode of thought, experimenting, as it is practised in current responses to COVID-19 – and one could consider including “climate change” (Lidskog et al. 2020) –, amounts to tinkering, to fiddling while Rome burns.
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