A statement by SödrⒶ Klubben on the COVID-19 pandemic and its management by the Swedish state: against the democratic virus of digital control.
To begin; this is not a text to deny the existence of the corona virus or its mortality. The COVID-19 pandemic is an undeniable fact and we do not side with any conspiracy theories. Our point of departure is that of grief for the many victims and of solidarity with those who have suffered and continue to suffer from COVID-19 and from its management by state authorities. This is a political attempt to analyze the current situation and give our take on how the Swedish government and other state governments manage the pandemic and take advantage of the situation to advance severe anti-social biopolitical laws and regulations, when societies are in a state of shock. Within the same context, we have observed an obvious switch in state governance that involves the proliferation of big data analytics and the algorithmic management of among other things, the public sector. In line with the digitalization of the police, the healthcare system and other sectors of public administration, the pandemic, its statistics, and the involvement of private actors, such as tech-giants, have been subject to opaque, non-transparent and peculiar statistics that raise significant issues regarding data privacy, personal integrity, protection of sensitive information, the interplay between the public and the private sectors, and scientific authority. What exactly is the role of big tech corporations such as Google and Palantir in the global fight against COVID19? The turn of governments to big tech signifies the emergence of a new crisis management paradigm that involves the establishment of a privately owned, digital surveillance apparatus that tracks, traces, and stores our every move.
To curb the COVID-19 outbreak, countries around the world have imposed wide-ranging restrictions on public life. People have been forced to stay at home, accept curfews and avoid any unnecessary travel to slow the spread of the virus. The COVID-19 outbreak has also served as a pretext for dubious restrictions and controversial lawmaking in countries across Europe, including Sweden. While sophisticated algorithmic models have been employed to manage the COVID-19 crisis, we see also the enactment of laws that target society. As the godfather of neo-liberalism Milton Friedman has stated “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable”. This statement seems also to be the raison d’état of contemporary governance on a global scale. Economic crises, national catastrophes, pandemics and so on have been the chronic excuses for promoting and implementing laws and measures against society, against the labor force, against you.
Towards a new paradigm of governance: surveillance democracies
It is obvious to us that the state-capitalist complex goes through a profound paradigm change. The good old neoliberal New Public Management (NPM), which set the political tone and was adopted by all forces across the parliamentary spectrum for over three decades now, does not sufficiently serve the needs of the ruling classes any longer. On its way to a more totalitarian and absolutist regime, modern capitalism has turned to new biopolitical policy and governance tools that go beyond the imagination of even the most hardcore market fetishists. Some call it New Public Analytics (NPA); others call it Surveillance Capitalism. We call it surveillance democracies.
NPM was invented by neoliberal politicians in the late 1980s to bring ‘economic rationalization’ to the public sector. The focus of these policies was to integrate corporate practices and management in running the state. Based on abstract and dogmatic reform programs that aimed to severely privatize public goods, several governments, including the Swedish (both from the ‘red’ and blue blocks), sold out key sectors of the public sector and/or imposed a private sector managerial logic in public administration. Railways, power and water supplies, communication, healthcare, and education were some of the sectors that were exposed to the NPM virus. At the same time, during the last decade we have observed the gradual automation and digitalization of public services, as a method of quantifying and thus measuring the performance of the public sector as well as raising the interoperability of several services in the public sector (see for example the project StandIN in the Swedish healthcare sector).
These software technologies and calculative models have never been subject to public scrutiny and have been presented as neutral and objective evaluators of public servants and services, even though if you scratch the surface you will find hardcore ideological biases and right-wing values inscribed in their architecture. Several examples from the Swedish healthcare system, education, and law enforcement (project QlikView) constitute live proof of the phenomenon. Systems that rely on machine learning and real time surveillance (for example smart video surveillance to identify ‘suspicious’ behavior in public space), predictive analytics, chatbots, analysis of systems and so on. A NPA paradigm is the new game in town, and it is here to stay.
“With the help of QlikView, the police of Skåne becomes the first in the world to develop applications that analyse communicative behaviours in the smartphone. Concerning criminal behavior, the conversational activity is generally large before the crime is committed and very low shortly after. This means that the police, with the help of QlikView, can focus on the analysis itself instead of searching for the information“. (2012, QlikTech International AB)
The new paradigm, accompanied by several software programs, methods to gather and analyze big data, algorithmic models, and policy instruments informed by analysis of this huge set of data, is established to construct decision-making practices and policy with significant effects on people, objects, and the environment. These methods are presented as the only solution to provide optimal and objective outcomes, while claiming to be politically neutral. For us, these models bear the ideologies of automation, dataism, false smartness, individualization, privatization and effectivization. These ideologies have a specific political orientation and impact on human lives.
We want to pose questions and warn the public. What happens when NPA takes over governance? What kind of policies and laws does the state enact to allow for data gathering and the automation of the central government? How is this translated into surveillance? What happens to our privacy? What is the new model of capitalist exploitation? In a world of freely accessible and widespread corporate social media, where we daily produce billions of pieces of data free of charge for our exploiters, how can we protect our labor, our data, our lives? How does data and statistics get produced? How have they proliferated during the pandemic?
Since the very start of the pandemic, everyone has been able to follow the absolute number of deaths steadily increasing. Several attempts have been made by epidemiologists, biologists, statisticians, and other scientists to anticipate the number of deaths in Sweden because of COVID-19 and the methods being followed for collecting this data. Never has the focus on deaths been so apparent in the media and, followingly, fixed in people’s minds. But lately a debate regarding how to confirm if COVID-19 was the cause of death is on the rise as well as what counts as deaths during the pandemic. Moreover, we have rarely evidenced any causal relation between the number of deaths and the size of the population, which makes it hard or even impossible to understand the severity. As it looks like, what counts as deaths differ among countries, and among authorities, making it hard to compare numbers. This does not change the fact that the Swedish Public Health Authority does count, and display, all people dying with COVID-19 rather than because of COVID-19.
Data visualizations and data fetishism, like charts and graphs, are now part of our daily lives. The World Health Organization, centers for disease control and prevention, the epidemiologists, politicians and of course the mass media use data visualization techniques to show the rise of COVID-19 death rates or COVID-19 cases in different regions/countries. But also, as they say, to inform the public about the impact of the virus. But does any of the above-mentioned authorities use data visualizations to inform and help the public to understand the complicated statistics of the pandemic? Not all figures that show COVID-19 cases, death rates or high-risk zones are created with compatible and comparable methodologies. Simulating the spread of the virus and introducing draconian measures like huge fines, partial lockdowns and curfews in the name of public health protection, daily updated graphs illustrating the rising COVID-19 death rates in different countries and following reported increases in the number of deaths, do not only traumatize us but also scares us to the extent that we feel no other possibility than to accept, and even call for, measures that we never otherwise would.
The whole thing reminds us of Michel Foucault stating that “a stupid despot may constrain his slaves with iron chains; but a true politician binds them even more strongly by the chain of their own ideas…”. This kind of information and data storm numbs us and creates the absolute social inertia. This constitutes the perfect soleil for planting anti-social laws that even the most totalitarian states would never dream of. The way that these datas are gathered, presented, illustrated, and used has played a vital role in enabling governments to impose lockdowns. Numbers, statistics, and data at the service of authoritarian regimes, such as modern digitalized democracies, create the perfect alibis for surveillance democracy and a suffocating public living in apathy.
Corona lawmaking: society under attack
We can all agree that the main discussion topic during 2020 revolved around the corona pandemic and how it has haulted life as we know it. However, this has not prevented governments across Europe to implement laws. And what laws have they been! Hungary passed a corona law that let the fascist Orbán rule by decree. The coronavirus legislation gave no time limit for the state of emergency. The bill introduced prison terms for intentionally spreading misinformation that hinders the government response to the pandemic and it is unclear if the government will withdraw the measures when the pandemic is over. In the middle of the first wave of the pandemic, the Polish government enacted the “Stop Abortion” bill. In Greece, with law changes adopted in March, May, and September 2020, the government introduced strict and intrusive registration and reporting requirements for NGOs working in the areas of asylum, migration, and social inclusion, raising concerns about disproportionate interference with the rights to privacy, data, and freedom of association. In July 2020, the Greek government passed a junta inspired law regulating demonstrations that raised concerns about undue interference with the right to peaceful assembly. In February 2021, the ruling centre-right New Democracy party passed a law that aims to “reform” the education system, by creating a special university police force empowered to guard campuses and arrest those considered troublemakers as well as a “disciplinary council” able to suspend or expel students. The new ‘epidemic law’ (epidemilov) in Denmark which was passed in the spring gives the government extended powers to intervene in society to fight the pandemic. One of the criticisms warn that the new law can force businesses and organisations to hand over information about staff and members to authorities, such as information regarding individuals’ movements, clearly promoting a culture of surveillance. In France, the government attempted to enact a bill that would make it an offence to show the face or identity of any cop on duty “with the aim of damaging their physical or psychological integrity”. The offence would carry a prison sentence of up to one year and a maximum fine of €45,000. And the story goes on… “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change”. Remember that in most of these places, there is limited to no ability just now to protest because of the pandemic.
Sweden does not constitute an exception, even if the fetishists of the Swedish exceptionalism would claim that. While thousands of people have been laid off, the Swedish government took the opportunity to initiate negotiations for renewing the Employment Protection Act (LAS), one of the pillars of the Swedish social-democratic model. The new reform will make it easier for employers to fire employees on close to no grounds at all. For example, “difficulty to cooperate”, “late arrivals” and “drug and alcohol abuse” are now excuse for being fired. Apart from the fact that these new grounds are far more subjective than before, the above can actually be caused by the pandemic itself: “difficulty to cooperate” by those who fight for a safe and sustainable environment to work in, late arrival by those who could not make it to work due to cancelled/full public transport, and “abuse of drugs or alcohol” by those who are facing long periods of isolation or mental health issues. On top of that, the new “pandemic law” passed by the Swedish parliament in January 2021, has given the government a whole new set of tools to take control over our private lives. They can, with short notice and without any effort, close public spaces, restrict mobility and shut down businesses. We can easily speculate that they will not shut down anything that may have substantial negative impact on tax income, and probably not any of the businesses owned/managed by their capitalist friends (such as LKAB, Volvo, IKEA etc).
Before pandemic law became part of the governmental arsenal, they actually had the population itself involved in a life size blame-game experiment, policing and pointing fingers on each other. This is called social automation deluxe, turning one social group against the other. Every other person has become a self-appointed epidemiologist and knows exactly what others should or should not do, what is accepted and what is not accepted, and so on. This must stop. It is vital right now to make a break with the logic of the state, the logic of confinement, surveillance, and datafied control. It is about time to build the struggle in community, which has been undermined by this process. Community means a self-organized horizontal coalition of workers, activists, tenants, students, pensioners, migrants, queers, freaks, pariahs, leading to a series of actions that place our desires at the heart of action, invisible to their surveillance apparatus. State and capital will not fall off on their own. Giving up would mean that there is no alternative to the dystopian present that the state and capital want to establish upon us. We do not want to manage the misery of a life in front of a screen, a life as a number in their data bases. We choose life, instead of survival. We need to cause and support rage where it occurs. Not the false rage of conspiracy theorists and nationalist fairy tales. We need to stay faithful to the prospect of a world social revolution that puts an end once and for all to this artificial idiocy imposed by our rulers.
Inspired by our comrades in Berlin, we have to:
*KEEP OUR FREE SPACES OPEN AND ACTIVE as meeting places and info-points, make them as open, safe and alive as possible by breaking the mechanism of social isolation, while respecting our individual needs and taking care of each other.
*SELF-MANAGEMENT OF SPACES AND BODIES choosing together how to create community atmospheres where everyone can feel comfortable and welcome;
*FACILITATE ACCESS to our free spaces for vulnerable groups;
*DEVELOPING AND EMPOWERING SELF-ORGANIZED PROJECTS in order to break our daily dependence on state services, such as urban and guerrilla gardening, free redistribution of recycled food and goods, libertarian schools etc.;
*OPENING OUR PLACES TO OTHER GROUPS who are in need of money, community meals, building practices of solidarity;
*INCREASE THE USE OF ALTERNATIVE COMMUNICATION TOOLS. Gatorna.info;
*ORGANIZING POLITICAL TRAINING IN YOUR GROUP. Each group or project can organize its own internal political self-training. Study and debate together about past and present historical experiences and political theories, in order to apply them to today’s world on a general scale. In the current historical phase, only the reappropriation of certain theories and practices can help us to have a radical revolutionary perspective;
*ORGANISE AND MEET EACH OTHER ON THE STREETS to be politically active and to break isolation…
STAY ACTIVE AND HEALTHY, ORGANIZE, RESIST
THERE IS NO GOOD HEALTH, WITHOUT FREEDOM