Covid disobedience and the autoimmune self-destruction of liberal individualism

Covid disobedience and the autoimmune self-destruction of liberal individualism

Chris Griffin

Self-isolation and physical distancing have quickly generated new norms of social responsibility. Public discourse is increasingly dominated by morally-loaded statements of civic duty: everyone must stay at home, wash their hands, and only buy what they need. People who ignore these instructions risk severe judgment. They’re likely to be condemned as selfish, reckless “covidiots”, especially on social media. However, as Benjamin Weil has pointed out, for many, including low-income workers, sex workers, and members of other marginalised groups, working from home may be unsafe or just impossible. These people face public opprobrium as well as the heightened risk of disproportionate police harassment.

But there are others who do have the option to stay at home yet choose not to. The covidiots that I want to consider in this article are the recalcitrant free spirits who seem to imagine themselves at the vanguard of a new form of civil disobedience. Brazenly flouting government advice, a conspicuous few simply refuse to cease gathering, partying, and surfing. News outlets have been eagerly covering these transgressions, reporting on American students enjoying their traditional Spring Break revelries, Australians packing out Byron Bay, Parisians playing pétanque, and so on.

Far from being isolated incidents of ignorance or selfishness, these acts are symptomatic of our culture. “As Americans, we typically do what we want. It’s kind of that attitude we’ve always had.” This is the view of Katie Williams, who rose to prominence after posting a tweet in defiance of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s plea for Americans to stop socialising. “I think if we’re going to start pressuring people that they have to stay home, or publicly shaming them like pariahs, I think we’re just starting to lose a little bit of our sense of country and our sense of rights.” Like many Americans, Williams considers the protection of individual liberty and the rejection of state paternalism to be values fundamental to the US. But as we now see with a fresh clarity, these principles inform the behaviour of liberals around the world.

Just as the virus attacks our biological bodies, the individualism which it brings to the fore attacks the social body. Because their refusal to isolate themselves helps to spread the virus, causing death and disruption that could have been avoided, corona-refuseniks only succeed in further limiting the freedoms they wish to protect, as authorities adopt increasingly draconian methods to contain the chaos. There is something alarmingly self-destructive about all this. Rather than fighting off the virus, society seems to be attacking itself.

It’s a dysfunction that Jacques Derrida might have called “autoimmunity”. Derrida used this term to describe any self-defence mechanism that malfunctions, unintentionally attacking the entity that it is supposed to protect. In an interview held shortly after 9/11, Derrida explains how the atrocity exposed layers of autoimmunity within the social and political institutions of the US. An obvious example is the well-known fact that al-Qaeda was formed of mujahideen fighters trained by the CIA during the Soviet-Afghan War. The American security apparatus, acting within the context of the Cold War to protect the interests of the US, thus unwittingly enabled an attack on the very “homeland” it exists to defend.

More recently, Derrida’s idea has been employed by J. Hillis Miller to diagnose the subprime mortgage crisis that caused the financial crash of 2008. Miller argues that the packaging of risky investments with safer ones was an attempt at immunisation that spectacularly backfired. Traders believed they could reduce the toxicity of their investments using financial instruments designed to eliminate risk “just as immune system antibodies neutralize foreign antigens that have invaded the human body”. As we now know, they were wrong. As soon as the housing bubble burst, the financial antibodies themselves turned toxic, attacking the institutions that created them and crashing the US economy.

Every form of community is at risk of autoimmunity, according to Derrida, and he refers to etymology to show the connection. Both “community” and “immune” are derived from the Latin word munus, which refers to the obligation owed by members of a group. We might think of specific duties that citizens are expected to perform in return for rights – military service, for example. But communities will always waive certain obligations for certain people. We know that exemption from military service, to continue the example, has often been granted to members of the clergy. The Latin term for someone who is exempt from such obligations is immunis. In English, “immune” originally meant “exempt from taxation”, before being adopted as medical terminology in the 19th century.

We can already see how this might shed some light on the behaviour of corona-rebels. While they may not believe that they’re literally biologically immune to the virus, they do consider themselves likely to escape the pandemic unscathed. But they also seem to think that they have no obligation to protect their communities by limiting the spread of Covid-19. Imagining themselves excused from the rules that bind the rest of us, like ambassadors with diplomatic immunity, covidiots grant themselves special dispensation from the responsibility of containing coronavirus.

What makes them think they have the right? Well, for some, like Katie Williams, quoted above, that’s the whole point: they have the right to do whatever they want, and by defying the lockdown they’re acting in defence of freedom. Alas, these emancipatory efforts are thwarted by autoimmunity. As I’ve already suggested, publicly breaking the rules only leads to a greater loss of liberty: the police must be seen to be maintaining discipline, so they become heavy-handed, and the authorities roll out more repressive measures to halt the virus that disobedience helped to spread.

Needless to say, civil disobedience is sometimes necessary. But I want to argue that covid disobedience is a form of direct action that we should oppose because it contributes to oppression rather than countering it. Covidiots convert a biological advantage – their ability to survive the disease – into a social privilege. In short, covid immunity is a form of privilege in which low-risk libertarians exempt themselves from the obligation of protecting the vulnerable in order to defend their right to individual freedom.

This can be seen as an example of how privilege not only deploys but productively reinscribes structural inequality. Covidiots assert their right to self-defence (from loss of liberty) in a way that directly dispossesses others of the right to self-defence (from loss of life). Immunity upholds a status quo in which, as Elsa Dorlin puts it, “the very possibility of defending oneself is the exclusive privilege of a dominant minority”.

When we act in a way that reinforces inequality by devaluing some lives or rendering them precarious, then we subscribe to the individualism that undergirds liberal institutions. This ideological commitment works to sustain systemic injustice by presenting the alternative as a path to totalitarianism – if not simply an impossible dream. What I’m suggesting is that individualism is actually part of the immune system of liberal institutions. It acts as a self-defence mechanism for the differential allocation and concentration of power and wealth by producing subjects who perceive themselves as liberated, self-sufficient individuals who are entitled or even morally bound to put their own interests first. And this makes it susceptible to autoimmunity. As Judith Butler argues in her new book, self-sufficiency is a myth; the truth is that we’re interdependent. We find ourselves in a world that must constantly sustain and support us with breathable air, clean water, and the innumerable other social and material infrastructures that we need to survive – not to mention the emotional bonds of love and friendship that give meaning to our lives.

The pandemic has debunked the myth of self-sufficiency. We’re seeing for the first time how fragile and vital the threads that connect us really are. The minority of libertarians who’ve chosen to close their eyes to this and reaffirm their faith in individualism now precipitate a crisis of autoimmunity. By neglecting to curb the spread of the virus, they’ve unwittingly forced the hand of the neoliberal establishment, compelling authorities to suspend the “inalienable” rights that they claim to cherish. Most tellingly, administrations now find themselves expanding the welfare state, cancelling healthcare debts, ending homelessness… generally reorganising society in precisely the ways that they had previously claimed were impossible.

Of course, these changes are intended to be temporary. But perhaps we can use this moment to argue for a new egalitarianism that values rather than disavows interdependency while also opposing the threats that lie ahead. Inevitably, some governments are already using the pandemic as an excuse to increase surveillance of citizens; many have also passed emergency laws that could be abused. The Hungarian government is taking the opportunity to ramp up its oppression of trans people. And who amongst us doesn’t already suspect that the economic impact of the pandemic will ultimately be used as the pretext for yet further privatisation of our public services? Civil disobedience may be necessary to resist these acts of violence. We should be careful, I think, to distinguish our objections from the libertarian protests of the covidiots. To bolster their cause would be to undermine our own – an autoimmunity risk that we must beware.


Chris Griffin is a PhD student at the University of Brighton.