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COVID crisis states: The authoritarianism pandemic

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A New Jersey National Guard airman provides traffic control at a COVID-19 testing site in Holmdel, N.J., March 23, 2020. Image: The National Guard/Flickr

Many have rightly come to acknowledge during the COVID-19 pandemic that capitalism is the crisis. COVID-19 highlights a political economy of exploitation and accumulation that makes working-class, poor and Indigenous people and communities precarious -- that depends on this precarity to sustain an unequal system of ownership and control, profit and privilege. Under COVID-19, states have reinforced this crisis in terms of an already existing politics that prioritizes profits over human needs, imposing policies that protect landlords, and housing profits over tenants and homeless people, and owners of industry over the workers who actually produce value.

As I have examined in detail in my book Crisis States, capitalist states actually institute and manage crises as mechanisms to deepen precarity for working-class, poor, and Indigenous people and communities, and to extend authoritarian control, regulation and punishment against these communities. Crisis states are using the context of COVID-19 to make a range of moves that are more explicitly authoritarian, exerting controls over communities struggling to get by. These moves suggest enhanced state powers that could form the new post-COVID normal.

COVID crisis state authoritarianism 

Capitalist states have long used crises to advance authoritarian governance practices. These crisis states expand surveillance, criminalization and punishment against working-class, poor and racialized communities. They also shift public resources to capital in the form of bailouts and other financial supports. We might note with regard to this last matter the proposed multi-billion dollar bailout from the Trudeau government to the oil and gas sector, using crisis to deliver massive payouts to planet-destroying industries. Notably, this crisis state governance emerges in so-called liberal democracies. 

Authoritarianism keeps moving with COVID-19, from ecofascism to mainstream militarism. We have been subjected to the spectacle of Sean Penn advocating on CNN the U.S. military take control of the COVID-19 response. In what can only be described as a rambling soliloquy, Penn waxed that "there is no greater humanitarian force on the planet than the United States military." He said this while simultaneously discounting worries of a police state. Celebrities like Penn appealing for the COVID-19 response to be turned over to the U.S. military, allows familiar, "non-political," figures to put a more innocent, reassuring, less obvious, face on calls for authoritarianism. And, incredibly, Penn justified his views on military humanism on his observations of the U.S. colonial military adventures in Haiti, showing the colonial gap in liberal perspectives. This is not merely the ramblings of a celebrity. National Guard and military mobilizations have been taking place in multiple states over the course of the first month of the COVID response in the U.S.

Perhaps more ominously were developments in Hungary, in which the Hungarian parliament passed a bill that gives autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orbán unlimited power indefinitely. The bill includes among its features: Rule by decree of the PM; suspension of parliament; state of emergency declaration with no time limit; a penalty of up to five years for spreading "fake news" (as defined by the PM) directed at journalists and advocates critical of the government; and a punishment of up to eight years in prison for leaving quarantine.

Not to be outdone, United Conservative Party (UCP) Premier of Alberta Jason Kenney followed up by taking a page out of the Orbán authoritarian playbook. On April 2, the UCP government quickly passed Bill 10, the Alberta Public Health (Emergency Powers) Amendment Act, 2020, which gives government ministers extraordinarily broad powers to create and enforce new laws, without consultation, debate or approval by the province's legislative assembly. In addition, Bill 10 increases the maximum penalties for violating the Public Health Act from $2,000 to $100,000 for a first offence and from $5,000 to $500,000 for subsequent offences.

All of this can be done simply through ministerial order. As critics warn, "A cabinet minister can now decide unilaterally, without consultation, to impose additional laws on the citizens of Alberta, if she or he is personally of the view that doing so is in the public interest." And the Bill allows new laws to be made retroactive to the beginning of the public health emergency.

The Bill itself was imposed with minimal consultation. According to the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, Bill 10 pushed through the legislative assembly in under 48 hours, and only 21 of 87 elected MLAs were even present to vote on final reading,

On April 16, the Manitoba Conservative government passed the Emergency Measures Amendment Act (Bill 54). The act gives the provincial cabinet extensive powers that, according to the Winnipeg Free Press, are "largely undefined," under a state of emergency. Cabinet could make "any order" that it alone considers necessary "to prevent, reduce, or mitigate serious harm or substantial damage to persons or property or the effects of fiscal or economic disruption." Penalties under the act are increased to a maximum of $100,000 or one year in prison for individuals. As with other such legislation one might ponder how provisions against economic disruption might be wielded against striking workers or Indigenous land defenders.

During the same sitting the Manitoba government also passed Bill 59, the Public Health Amendment Act. Bill 59 greatly extends policing powers, including powers to arrest and detain, enter private residences, and seize and destroy property. It also broadens enforcement powers to people deputized on a "trust us" basis by the government. This comes as police in Waterloo, Ontario, can now gain access to medical records during stops to see if someone has tested positive for COVID-19. Both Manitoba acts were passed in a single meeting of government designed to allow for quick passage with obviously limited discussion or debate.

These and other more dramatic moves to authoritarianism have been complemented by more "everyday" actions by government to expand repressive measures to criminalize working-class, poor, Black and Indigenous people trying to get by in the crisis. In some jurisdictions police have been empowered to punish people supposedly not distancing properly, or if they cannot prove the essential nature of their trip to the grocery store. On March 23, the Trudeau government floated the idea of using smartphone data to surveill and track the movements of people to see if they are complying with calls to shelter in place.

We know how this plays out in a racist social system, and indeed it is playing out on racialized and class bases. Given the powers of police discretion, and its disproportionately punitive character in encounters with poor, homeless, Black and Indigenous people, we do not have to guess the outcomes. 

Indeed, some of this is being tracked by new projects focused on how forces across Canada are "Policing The Pandemic." Additionally, police continue to exert lethal force against people experiencing personal crisis and trauma in a time of heightened anxieties. There have been at least 10 police killings of civilians since March 8, representing more than half of the known cases of police killings this year. At least five involved people experiencing some type of health distress. 

Conclusion

Note that this is not about people listening to health-care and medical practitioners, and acting to safeguard loved ones and neighbours through such acts as physical distancing or sheltering in place. Far rightists and Trump supporters who have taken to the streets to oppose these "tyrannies" are not fighting authoritarianism, they are promoting an authoritarianism of the market that will cost mostly working-class people their lives.

These crisis-state practices and the authoritarianism they represent, within so-called liberal democracies, can be understood as part of the crossroads before us -- the stark pathways of socialism or barbarism, as I discussed in a recent article for rabble.ca. As always, the path of capitalist-state crisis, authoritarianism (added to by calls for ecofascism and exterminism, as highlighted in my previous article) can only be shut down by organized resistance. There is no guarantee that the current contradictions alone will lead to something better.

Capitalism remains the crisis: One that destroys the planet to extract resources for accumulation of wealth for a few, while wrecking and poisoning Indigenous peoples' lands and turning the necessities of life into commodities for sale -- while forcing people to sell themselves on a labour market to survive and discarding them if they cannot. That is the "normal" we must not return to.

Jeff Shantz is a longtime union member, currently with Local 5 of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators (FPSE, B.C. Federation of Labour). He is a founding organizer with Anti-Police Power Surrey ([email protected]), a grassroots community group in Surrey (Unceded Coast Salish territories). He teaches on corporate crime and community advocacy at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. His publications include Manufacturing Phobias: The Political Production of Fear in Theory and Practice (University of Toronto Press), and the Crisis and Resistance trilogy (Punctum Books).

Image: The National Guard/Flickr

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