“Herd Immunity” Was Originally About Vaccination. Now It Is Neoliberal Violence.

Recent weeks have seen right-wing governments, notably Trump’s administration, embrace the deeply problematic notion of “herd immunity.” These efforts are fortified now by a mysterious “minority report” — purportedly from dissident public health experts — known as The Great Barrington Declaration. Yet the validity of the document is being questioned, as many of the names appearing on it look to be based on jokes. Angela Mitropoulos is a political theorist and academic based in Sydney, Australia, and the author of Pandemonium: Proliferating Borders of Capital and the Pandemic Swerve (2020) and Contract and Contagion (2012). In this interview with cultural theorist Max Haiven (editor of the VAGABONDS book series in which Pandemonium appeared), Mitropoulos discusses the origins and politics of the “herd immunity” argument.

Max Haiven: First of all, what is going on? Second, can you outline for us the arguments you made about the origins and politics of this “herd immunity” argument in your recent book, Pandemonium: Proliferating Borders of Capital and the Pandemic Swerve?

Angela Mitropoulos: The first thing that is happening is intentional signal distortion, an attempt to muddy the waters around life-and-death concepts and policies. This, in itself, is instructive. There is no credible concept of “herd immunity” in the absence of a vaccine: the term was only ever intended to describe the usually very high threshold percentage of a population that needed to be vaccinated to reliably eliminate the threat of a disease. This idea is a very recent invention, and a very dangerous one, especially when borrowed for political purposes to let a virus run loose without any vaccine.

There is at present an orchestrated media campaign for governments to adopt a policy to actively facilitate the spread of the virus. Such a policy would in itself be unethical. Moreover, it would allow the far right to redescribe the deaths that will predictably occur as a result of this eugenicist approach as if they were the consequence of a natural disaster. We already know that the virus will disproportionately and lethally affect racialized and marginalized people, whom the far right would be glad to see eliminated. Whether the right parses such deaths and illness as a result of the “invisible hand” of the market or God’s divine will, either way, it is intent on describing them as inevitable and non-mournable.

The so-called Great Barrington Declaration is presumably intended to cut through opposition to this approach on the grounds that pomposity is authoritative and can stand in for evidence. The origins of the Declaration are the American Institute for Economic Research, a right-wing “think-tank,” and outlets such as Spiked, which recycles far right positions by repackaging them with left-wing phrases. These are groups which have been financially and organizationally linked to the Koch brothers — the billionaires who have, in the past decades, funded some of the most notorious far right initiatives.

The principal goal of the Declaration is, to be blunt, a “culling of the herd,” a cleansing of the population through death. Presumably this is intended so as to make workers more productive and less of a burden on welfare and health care in the future. It involves empty claims about protecting the vulnerable throughout this, though that term is ambiguous to say the least. Their notion of vulnerability also ignores the way that systems of exploitation and inequality create vulnerabilities: Debt, privatized health care and poverty are the sources of vulnerability.

At the same time, the Declaration rests on another arch-conservative assumption: the (white), middle-class nuclear family, which is assumed to be the norm in projections around epidemiology, economics and the availability of care. But all credible epidemiologists already know that Black and Brown families in the U.S. tend to be intergenerational households, and we can reliably predict that this will lead to much higher risks of exposure, severity and mortality if the virus is left to run amok.

In Pandemonium, I argue that this distorted idea of herd immunity has emerged at the intersection between neoliberalism and fascism over the course of almost a century. It is important to be clear: There is no such thing as a “natural” route to herd immunity. In the absence of a vaccine, the idea of herd immunity is profoundly terrible. The concept of “allowing people to die” in the name of the market presupposes the neoliberal idea of a “natural economic order.” The often unstated goal of emerging from the pandemic with a “stronger, more productive working class” is burnished by the fascist veneration of the übermensch, productive work and sacrifice as the destiny of the working class in a so-called “free” society (or, “work makes freedom” notoriously inscribed above the entry gate to Auschwitz).

As noted, the original concept of herd immunity was developed to determine what percentage of a population needed to be vaccinated to create immunity to a disease throughout a population. But as early as January, parts of the U.K. government decided to unlink the concept of “herd immunity” from its connection to a vaccination program. There was a great deal of opposition to this because the immediate, predictable result of this approach was a remarkably high rate of deaths in that country. In the U.S., which has a private and federalized health care model as opposed to the U.K.’s national and public one, a eugenicist herd immunity-inspired policy has been mixed with other approaches. In either case, the result has been hundreds of thousands of predictable and preventable deaths.

To what should we attribute the kind of common-sense enthusiasm for the idea of herd immunity?

We are all exhausted by 2020. We would all love an exit strategy, and herd immunity offers a door. To many people, it sounds about right, but then the details get complicated, and we are all exhausted. Much as I would like a door to appear, for now, we know what works: masks, handwashing, physical distancing, accurate contact tracking and tracing through health agencies (not police).

And we also have to remember that there are many diseases for which we never developed any herd immunity. In those cases, successes came from changing how we do things, like handwashing, not from facilitating the spread of a disease on the chance that it might not kill us or anyone we care about.

And here, I think, we must face some very difficult questions. We need to, for instance, attend to racism as it is expressed in mortality rates. We need to contend with the economic ramifications, personal and collective, of what happens when people die. We begin to confront what each of us truly believes the lives of people are worth, and whether, say, Black lives, in fact, matter. We are confronted with the value of life; not the ostensible life to which so-called pro-lifers refer most often, but actual living persons.

While the herd-immunity approach is fairly consistently expressed by right-wing tendencies, Pandemonium is also critical of liberal and even some left-wing approaches to the pandemic, especially where those are entangled with calls to fortify borders or focus narrowly on the fate of the “national economy.” Can you discuss how you see that political spectrum today, three months since the book’s publication? And what prospects are there for a better response?

The “Great Bonkers Declaration” and similar far right approaches thrive and gain traction to the extent that the discourse around dealing with the pandemic has been fixated on policing populations seen as threats, rather than what should be the focus: interrupting the transmission of the virus. Liberal positions have also been guilty of fixating on lockdowns, quarantine and curfews, which I critique at length in Pandemonium. But I also trace the history of “herd immunity” to its neoliberal and fascist origins through the history of population theory.

The point of convergence between both the policies of quarantine (confining whole populations) and the distorted idea of “herd immunity” is that they placed the onus on self-regulating households and individuals to calculate and manage largely unknown risks. In both cases, these approaches allow the powers that be to render the resulting deaths in the neoliberal language of “personal responsibility” and the moral economics of failure and sin. But I have never assumed that neoliberalism means the absence of borders or authoritarian governance, or that “globalization” has meant something other than a globalized geopolitical nationalism.

That said, I think there are immense dangers from this pandemic, and from the dominant responses to it. At the same time, we are in the midst of one of the largest, most sustained movements against them in many of our lifetimes. To assert, in this very moment, that Black Lives Matter, makes it possible to see the connections between active police violence and the presumably indifferent violence of health policy which have, for instance, led to much higher rates of mortality among Black and other racialized people in the U.S. and the U.K. When these connections are made, we see the most care extended, from the wearing of masks to a much broader rethinking of care as power and love at a distance. The courage is certainly present, in these movements and perspectives, to make a new world.