State capacity for decisive action in an emergency does not necessitate the suppression of democracy

This is an important reflection by Mike Davis in The Monster Enters about the connection too often drawn between Chinese authoritarianism and the effectiveness of their anti-Covid action*. It’s one which comes readily because, as Alex de Waal has put it, “The infection-control state is Max Weber’s military–bureaucratic state on steroids, requiring uniform sanitary habits throughout the population” (loc 466). As de Waal observers in the same piece:

Unsurprisingly, the potential for assuming war-time emergency powers and deploying security technologies is attractive to many political leaders precisely because of their dual usage. President Donald Trump has decided to describe himself as a “wartime president.” He is following French president Emmanuel Macron who declared “war” on the virus. In Italy it is more of a police operation. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has passed a law allowing him to rule by decree indefinitely and is blaming the pandemic on immigrants and refugees. In China the lockdown is enforced by a combination of high-tech surveillance and old-fashioned Communist Party neighborhood mobilization—a “grid reaction.” In Israel the government is proposing to deploy tracking technologies designed to follow terrorists against people believed to be infected with coronavirus. The Economist has coined the word “coronopticon” for such all-pervasive surveillance.

The point Davis is making on loc 490 – 504 of his book is how easily the effectiveness of the Chinese state’s action might be misread, as well as how this could reinforce the aforementioned authoritarian turns:

In recognizing China’s achievements, however, we should avoid learning the wrong lesson: state capacity for decisive action in an emergency does not necessitate the suppression of democracy. Despite what many talking heads are claiming, putting a million Uighurs in reeducation camps was not a precondition for quelling the coronavirus in Hubei, nor has the Big Brother practice of surveilling all the jaywalkers in Chinese cities and scoring their “social credit” proved essential to the success of the national quarantine. Certainly the Communist Party’s pervasive presence in daily life—90.6 million members organized into thousands of workplace and neighborhood committees—was a decisive factor in the total mobilization against COVID, but this mainly confirms the critical importance of grassroots organization and preparedness, not the necessity of a police state. Repression, although used viciously against the original heroic whistleblowers in Wuhan—now “disappeared”—has otherwise played little role in China’s success.

It’s helpful to distinguish between the ubiquity of organised networked within society and the organisation of those networks as part of the Communist party. For example we could imagine a flourishing civil society of comparable size and distribution (the party members are about 7% of the Chinese population, if I’m estimating correctly) even if their coordination would be immensely different in practice. In fact as Davis points out in a discussion of SARS on loc 1026 that the tendencies of authoritarian regimes can actively hinder effective public health responses to pandemics:

China’s “official secrets” law had prevented Guangdong officials from briefing other local health authorities about the disease, so when the first cases appeared in Beijing in early March, local doctors were clueless. When the WHO team flew to Beijing, they were initially blocked from inspecting the military hospitals where most of the victims were being treated. Although officials continued to assert that the epidemic was contained, on April 16 the WHO took the unprecedented step of chastising the Chinese government for “inadequate reporting” of SARS cases.6

While Thailand’s regime during the bird flu outbreak was not authoritarian in the same sense, the manner of the cover-up and the way in which it expressed the interests of a livestock industry which dominated the government alongside the telecoms industry should give pause for thought As Davis summarises this on loc 1361:

In fact, as the Bangkok press later reported, the government had been colluding with CP and the other giant poultry producers to conceal the epidemic by paying contract farmers with infected flocks to keep quiet; official deceit gave the big exporters several months to process and sell diseased inventory, as well as to disinfect their plants and institute isolation procedures in their battery warehouses. Small producers, however, were left alone to bear the brunt of the epidemic’s human and economic costs.

There’s a risk of descending into a proto-Popperianism here and valorising “open societies” but there does seem to be inherent public health risks flowing from corruption, fear of being found out and/or a lack of public scrutiny. The problem is that these characteristics are found as readily in putatively open societies as allegedly closed ones, at least under what Colin Crouch describes as post-democratic conditions.

The thought I’ve often come back to it is the inherently limited capacity of states which have been deliberately starved, with the rationale of seeking to ‘drown it in a bathtub’ having become common sense amongst much of their political elite. In part this is a matter of chopping away at redundancy in the name of efficiency, even if the ensuing lack of resilience has caused (smaller scale) disasters in the past which reveal the idiocy of this approach. This was supercharged by austerity politics, as he observes of American healthcare on loc 383:

Across the country, the 2008 recession had been a bloodbath for local health departments, trimming their workforces by a quarter and closing a dozen major public-health laboratories. The loss of experienced public health nurses in particular has come back to haunt many localities. Fiscal austerity also became a pretext for reducing or eliminating states’ own emergency medical stockpiles.

But the more subtle difficulty is whether such a state can even retain the capacity to scale rapidly in a crisis? Can it still adequately perform labour intensive operations necessary during a pandemic? I guess the vaccine roll out could be seen as a natural experiment with the potential to test this intuition.

I agree with Mike Davis that we urgently “need to be debating democratic models of effective response to present and future plagues, ones that mobilize popular courage, put science in command, and use the resources of a comprehensive system of universal health coverage and public medicine” because otherwise “we cede leadership in this age of constant emergency to our tyrants” (loc 504). However I wonder if things can be unpicked as neatly as he suggests and there are inherent difficulties which liberal democracies face in responding to pandemics. For example he observes on loc 1017 in a discussion of SARS that “China and Singapore were both authoritarian states with the capacity to impose effective, militarized quarantines”. This is something Alex de Waal recognises as a tendency towards centralisation in pandemic response:

Health administration, with its requirements of a unified census, border controls, and the machinery of case notification—issuing certificates of good health—required and justified a centralized bureaucracy. Infectious disease reporting and control was not a matter that could be left to the discretion of cities or baronies; unless all parts of the body politic conformed to the same central protocol, the health of the whole would be vulnerable to the deficiencies of its weakest part.

Alex de Waal in Thinking in a Pandemic loc 352-366

*Though as he points out later in the book, this effectiveness is in sharp contrast to responses to past pandemics. From loc 1410-1426:

Chinese officials managed to be even more arrogant and egregious in their attempt to save face than their Indonesian counterpart. In the first week of February they grudgingly doled out in bits and pieces the admission that H5N1 was raging in no fewer than twelve provinces and cities, including Guanxi, Guangdong, and even metropolitan Shanghai. Ten days later, Chen Kaizhi, a top official in Guangzhou, demonstrated the stunning scientific ignorance of senior bureaucrats like himself in a speech to the Guangdong People’s Congress: “This disease is hundreds of years old and it can be prevented and treated. Vaccines are effective. No humans have been infected, so why this uproar?” Chen went on to contrast the hysteria of Hong Kong health officials, the WHO and other “outsiders” with traditional folk wisdom. “In the past when life was hard, we hoped for a disease among our chickens so that we got to eat chicken. When a chicken at home dropped its head, we said, ‘good, now we get to eat chicken.’ Now we are so advanced that people are not allowed to eat diseased chicken.”31 Chen, of course, ignored the fact that, thanks to the cover-ups in Guangdong and elsewhere, thousands of people had consumed diseased chicken products. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong media that had earlier reported suspected cases in the PRC or now dared to criticize the ignorance of officials like Chen were threatened with legal action under the same infamous mainland statute that had been used to suppress reportage of SARS a year earlier.

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