In recent weeks, the critical response to right-wing readings of desirable action or inaction in the context of COVID-19 has repeatedly been framed on social media in terms of eugenics. In some ways, the identification of eugenic pandemic discourse is a helpful framing which indicates immediately that the conscious management of the distribution of life and death remains racialised and ableist in this extraordinary contemporary context. Yet, in another sense, the reduction of right-wing thinking on population governance to ‘eugenics’ is not entirely accurate and collapses a range of active influences with specific genealogies under the eugenics term.
Eugenics itself is primarily concerned with the management of racial futures by means of, as Michelle Murphy (2017: 3) puts it, “encouraging or preventing the heredity of desirable and undesirable traits”. This is a racist pseudoscience which categorises individuals according to their position on an evolutionary hierarchy which ascribes more value to able, white persons and marks people of colour and the disabled for eugenic deselection.
The charge of eugenic intent has come as a response to a range of particularly contemptible interventions from both small- and large-C conservatives which have taken specific aim at older members of our society. Back on March 3, for example, Jeremy Warner published the following words in his Telegraph column: “from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents”. On March 22, The Sunday Times published claims that Downing Street advisor Dominic Cummings articulated the British government’s plan in the following terms: “herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.”
This claim was denied by Downing Street, and the government also strenuously denied that herd immunity had ever been the strategy. And yet, Jeremy Hunt admitted on Newsnight on March 31 that the Conservative government had indeed changed its plan of action “a couple of weeks ago from the herd immunity strategy to the suppression strategy” – an admission that mass transmission with its inevitably high elderly and vulnerable death rate was indeed the original intention. Toby Young, self-described advocate of ‘progressive eugenics’ joined them too on March 31 by arguing that “the cost of the economic bailout Rishi Sunack (sic) has proposed is too high. Spending that kind of money to extend the lives of a few hundred thousand mostly elderly people with underlying health problems by one or two years is a mistake.”
All of these interventions are incomprehensibly cold-blooded. Strictly speaking, however, there is no direct eugenic motivation for the ‘culling’ of the elderly through inaction and negligence in pandemic governance. The generation whose lives are so callously offered up as disposable here are well beyond reproductive years, so allowing them to die has no immediate implications for the UK’s genetic ‘stock’ in eugenic terms. Instead we need to consider distinct, but related, genealogies of thought on population governance to gain a more accurate insight into the mindset of conservatives like Young, Cummings and Warner.
Back in 1798, Thomas Malthus wrote that the population, left unchecked, would always increase exponentially, while food supply could only increase arithmetically, so population levels among the poor always need to be controlled, lest ‘natural checks’ – such as famine – affect even the propertied classes (see Mass 1976). His population and food production calculations were incontrovertibly wrong, and yet Malthusian thought remains a good solid part of the bedrock of the Conservative worldview. Malthus argued for the minimal support granted by the poor laws to be abolished, claiming that provisions only encourage the poor to reproduce, to the detriment, ultimately, of the English landed aristocracy. It is this contempt for the existence of poorer sections of society and objection to welfare as an enabling mechanism for the breeding of ‘shirkers’ and single mothers (especially in post-financial crisis terms) which underpins the kind of right-wing ideology which has been responsible for an estimated 120,000 austerity deaths over the past ten years.
Young and like-minded Conservatives clearly share the same concern as Malthus for the interests of the most privileged landed elites in our society. However, their apparent willingness to sacrifice the older generation does not correspond to the Malthusian will to limit the population of the poorest to benefit the wealthiest. It is true that COVID-19 will hit the poorest of the elders among us the hardest as they have less access to healthcare in an overburdened system, and lack both adequate space for isolation and the resources to gain the support they need. But wealthy and privileged older people are also mortally at risk from the virus, not excluding the older relatives of those who speak so casually of ‘culling elderly dependents’.
If racist eugenics and anti-poor Malthusianism don’t fully explain these Conservative interventions, perhaps we need to further explore other influences on right-wing demographic thought in the present. Back in the 1920s, Raymond Pearl developed an approach to population calculation which, despite his original training at the Galton Laboratory at UCL, he distinguished from the dominant eugenic thinking of the time. Dispensing with the central concern for hereditary ‘racial’ traits, his approach presented ‘population’ and ‘economy’ as experimental objects which could be adjusted in relation to one another by means of state technologies. Those rigid Malthusian rules of production and population, in other words, were recast as adjustable through governance. This shift in the means of calculation represented what Michelle Murphy (2017) calls the economisation of life which “names the practices that differentially value and govern life in terms of their ability to foster the macroeconomy of the nation-state”.
The birth of demography as a discipline in the late colonial era marked the fashioning of a ‘science’ out of various strands of influence which today are sometimes separately identifiable and sometimes collapsed together. Demographic ‘science’ was aimed not only at documenting the distribution of populations according to age and ‘race’, but also providing the evidence base for policies intended to engineer optimum birth and death rates across the British Empire (see Ittmann 2013). Beyond the economisation of life identified by Murphy, this foundational period in the development of demographic technologies invested the discipline with an enduring concern with the racial balance of power in demographic terms. An obsession with falling white birth rates and ‘rising tides’ in terms of population growth among people of colour has lingered on since the 1920s and 30s and been rejuvenated in the context of fascist resurgence today. But how does all of this relate to the sudden offering of the elders in our society as sacrificial objects by Conservatives in the COVID-19 context?
As the inheritors of colonial demographic science in the present, right-wing political demography is fundamentally troubled by ‘aging populations’ in Western countries. In one sense, this is because they measure ‘great power’ status partly in terms of how economically and militarily active a given population potentially is. Aging populations, from this perspective, bring a “slowdown of states’ economic growth at the same time that governments face pressure to pay for massive new expenditures for elder care” affecting relative power in a hierarchical world system (Haas 2012: 50). The calculation of big power politics, to those of this mindset, rests on the economisation of life.
More prominently, however, right-wing demographers and those they influence are troubled by responses to the economic costs of what they see as an unproductive and draining generation in terms of health and social care. For those who accept the premise that a large elderly population (relative to other age groups) is a drain on economic resources, the most logical and simple corrective they posit is to relax immigration restrictions in order to expand the working age population. Consider, for example, the IMF urging governments to accept more ‘migrant workers’ to offset aging populations. But Johnson’s Conservative government is a Brexit government, let’s not forget. And Brexit is overwhelmingly an anti-immigration project. Just a few short weeks ago, before COVID-19 hit, Home Secretary Priti Patel was working overtime to demonise ‘low-skilled workers’ in order to make immigration restrictions even tighter than they already were. Those same members of our society, as Dalia Gebrial points out, were suddenly rebranded as ‘key workers’ overnight and honoured with weekly street applause, if not the necessary protective equipment to keep them safe.
I want to argue here that the ‘aging population’ and the immigrant workers formerly known as ‘low-skilled’ are intimately linked within the right-wing economisation of life. Conservative ambivalence towards the older generation is explained by the fact that pensioners are both the faithful Tory voter base and yet simultaneously perceived as a ‘resource drain’ in the right-wing imagination – a resource drain which justifies increased immigrant labour, which in turn tips the racial balance of power away from white dominance. When Young, Warner and others offer up the aging population as disposable, the immigrant population is the unspoken secondary casualty. Not quite eugenic pandemic governance, but still centrally concerned with the engineering of racial futures. This calculative quid pro quo has a lengthy history; the only difference in the COVID-19 context is that they actually said the quiet part out loud by publicly entertaining an elderly cull.
The aging population versus immigrant population, then. As Murphy (2017: 135) says: “To materialize people as the managerial noun of population is to expose them to designations of being living forms of waste available for destruction.” Our task in the present is, more than ever, one of rejecting the terms of this debate. This means rejecting the ‘aging population’ deaths today in the name of ‘the economy’ as much as rejecting the continuous designation and degrading of the ‘immigrant population’. It also means rejecting the manufactured artificial scarcity which conjures away the tax havens, the unpaid corporate taxes, and the billionaire wealth from economic calculation and then asks you to choose between the death of elders in the COVID-19 present or the austerity deaths of the poorest tomorrow when the lockdown bill is due.
Ittmann, K. (2013). Problem of Great Importance: Population, Race, and Power in the British Empire. Univ of California Press.
Mass, B. (1976). Population Target: The Political Economy of Population Control in Latin America. Charters Publishing Co.
Murphy, M. (2017). The Economization of Life. Duke University Press.
Lisa Tilley is Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck University of London.