'Lockdown Australia and 'the production of deviance'', by Ultan Banan. Ruminations on politics.

Lockdown Australia and 'the production of deviance'

If you’ve been following global news recently then you can’t fail to have seen the pictures from a lockdown protest in Melbourne that showed police officers knock a 70-year-old woman to the ground and spray her point-blank with pepper spray or some equally toxic variant. Two police officers, to be exact. A week later at a rally for construction workers who were protesting the vaccine mandate, the police seemed remarkably unwilling to meet the protestors face to face, until a confrontation between workers and union representative forced them to move in. They did so using armoured vehicles, counter-terrorism officers, tear gas and rubber bullets. Were police actions on both occasions heavy-handed, or a justified response to civil disorder?

It’s impossible to take a reading on the political and social temperature of a country from a few isolated events, but the incidents certainly seem indicative of things having reached boiling point on the streets of Australia’s major cities. But is it an entirely grassroots response? In an article for Counterpunch a week ago, Ben Debney asked if Australia’s lockdown was being manipulated by right-wing corporate lobbies, representatives of those institutions that would benefit most from the lifting of all lockdown measures and the restoration of the economy to its full (pre-pandemic) capacity. This is something I can neither confirm nor deny, but his suppositions are worthy of consideration. With only a cursory glance, the parallel goals of the two camps (anti-lockdown protestors and the corporations) seem self-evident enough: people want an end to restrictions and to get back to normal life, and the suits want to get the economic wheels rolling again. The lockdowns, as they stand, represent a serious constraint on the capacity of the corporations to maintain the free-market economy; the social costs aren’t of concern to them, merely the bottom line. Essentially, back to normal means back to business. I am not challenging any of this but merely repeating Debney’s assertions.

The production of deviance

What I found interesting about the piece is how it was framed. Debney asks whether the anti-lockdown movement arose from the construction of a ‘moral panic, or episodes of hysteria characterised by preoccupations with more or less spurious existential threats’. Who Debney suggests might be responsible for said ‘panic’ you may gather from the previous paragraph, but I think it would be misleading to suggest that the panic is solely the result of some external and nefarious jiggery-pokery. As with most (if not all) social movements, they arise from genuine social or societal threats and concerns and are then hijacked by those interests with which they have some form of common goal. Take the outbreak of the war on Syria, for example, which appeared to start as street-level protests in support of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, but was soon expertly hijacked by Western intelligence agencies. Or more recently, the BLM movement, which, after it had gained momentum, was overrun by a whole assortment of anarchists, socialists, and even out-and-out vandals, pillagers and looters.

But what if we reverse Debney’s logic to ask an equally pertinent question: What of the concerns of millions worldwide that government responses to the pandemic also constitute the construction of ‘episodes of hysteria characterised by preoccupations with more or less spurious existential threats’? Because, looking back on it, isn’t that how it felt? Weren’t we all somehow convinced that the world was in grave peril, that we were quite possibly on the brink of a mass extinction? Speaking for myself, I was afraid for a while. Then later, after it had begun to die down, I began to wonder why we got so worked up about the flu.

The construction of such narratives, Debney states, is dependent on ‘the production of deviance’. In the case of the anti-lockdown protests, the deviance is suspicion and revolt against mainstream media and the nanny state. And in the case of government response to the pandemic? The virus, of course. The ultimate bogeyman, a gremlin of unprecedented proportions. In regards to the application of meaning, however, the question is: to whom is the pandemic ‘deviant’? As Debney correctly asserts, the meaning of ‘deviance’ (or any political narrative) is ‘characteristically subjective and depends on who has the power to impose their interpretation of what or who is deviant’. So now we have a whole soup of differently interpreted meanings in which to wade through: the governments say the virus is deviant and must be contained with lockdowns, distancing and vaccinations; the people say the governments and media are deviant because they’re forcing an impossible, unliveable mandate upon them. Now the people protest! Suddenly (for the government) the people are deviant for resisting. Deviance must be suppressed! Deviance must be eradicated! See the impossible cycle into which we are flung?

What follows is a whole rigmarole of shouting and finger-pointing and very little self-reflection. It’s easy to point the finger. And yes, I do believe that people have legitimate grievances that need to be aired. In the Western sphere, however, there is little to no self-examination on the part of governments to see if indeed their actions are not contributing to this vicious cycle, a tendency only reinforced by a complicit mainstream media. A quick search (in the Western media) on government responses to the virus shows a lot of finger-pointing at other ‘regimes’ and how the pandemic may be contributing to authoritarianism (see here and here, for example) in countries like Hungary, Russia, Egypt, Uganda and the Philippines, but very little reflection on the response of Western governments, countries like France, the US and Italy, where vaccine mandates and passports are already impinging in untold ways on everyday life. Yet these measures are real (living in Italy, I speak from experience).

The threat of totalitarianism

Perhaps you believe that our governments are benign. Maybe you are convinced that, essentially, they still have our best interests at heart. And maybe you are right. Yet can we deny the possibility that there are shadowy elements in governments around the world that see only opportunity in the crisis? Who, in search of increasing control, are perhaps looking at what China has done with electronic IDs and the social credit system and rubbing their clammy hands in glee at the thought of it, at the pure and frightening totality of the system? To go back to Australia, in Oz they have now introduced electronic contact-tracing systems, implemented the closure of borders, imposed overseas travel bans and mandatory quarantine, placed restrictions on movement and gatherings. And now that all of this infrastructure is in place, do you believe that it will simply be dismantled when the crisis comes to an end? (If it ever does. An outcome, incidentally, which the pharmaceutical industry is going all out to prevent.)

Make up your own mind. Most of the world is in one of several camps at the moment anyway, each with their own set of grievances, each with their own proscribed definitions of ‘morality’ and ‘power’ and ‘threat’. ‘Anti-this’, ‘anti-that’. The list is endless. Oh, and ‘deviance’. It’s around every corner, hiding in every corporate cheque book and every government mandate, and in every anti-vaxxer group on Facebook and in every worker’s union. Even in the virus itself. Deviance is everywhere, and everywhere one group is pitted against the rest, all fighting the other’s own brand of deviancy.

It is my curse (or perhaps my blessing?) that I’m rather fond of ‘deviance’. It’s a word that has always elicited a conniving grin in me, a feeling of camaraderie, a feeling that deviance is somehow a kin, a friend. I like deviance. I consider it healthy, even necessary. My only regret is that, being a lonely blogger and not having the power to assign my own meaning to the word, my own particular conception of what constitutes ‘deviance’ is meaningless and empty. However, there is power in numbers. So what else remains but to close rank with your particular stripe of deviant and dig your heels in? It’ll come to a head, and sooner or later, one or the other group will prevail. When the tear gas clears, we’ll find out which.     

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 ‘Lockdown Australia and ‘the production of deviance”, by Ultan Banan. Please note: flash fiction, nonfiction and all other content is the sole work of Black Tarn. Ask before republishing.

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