What Is the Anti-Mandate Ideology?
Slavoj Žižek may tie himself too tightly to his own schema.
In April 2021, mainstream news outlets published a claim typically unheard in establishment corridors. The country of Vietnam “defied the experts” — the collective of medical and scientific authorities generally called the “global health community” — and applied a stringent travel ban in its territory to counter the novel coronavirus. It worked.
The story points out an interesting political dimension to the scenario. As a member state of the World Health Organization, Vietnam was theoretically bound to a set of WHO laws called the International Health Regulations 2005 (IHR), a “legally binding set of rules designed to lower the world’s risk from infectious disease threats.”
The closing of Vietnam’s borders in response to news about Covid-19 contradicted those rules directly, as the news site STAT reports:
… the IHR are meant to protect countries from being penalized for their openness, to remove the financial incentive to hide an outbreak. Unless the WHO recommends travel restrictions — which it has not done since the spring of 2003, during the SARS outbreak — other countries are supposed to refrain from imposing travel bans or trade restrictions on nations that are grappling with disease outbreaks.
The point of tension is this: Vietnamese who opposed or contravened the country’s travel restrictions — to return home from abroad, for example — would stand in opposition to the mandates of their home country. But the mandates they oppose also happen to be invalid and illegal under international law. The actions of the citizen, against the country, threaten the cohesion of the national community. The actions of the country against the citizen threaten the cohesion of the international community, which the country has officially joined. International dictates should have overridden the “right” of a country to act unilaterally toward national health. Now, Vietnam’s defiance of these dictates and the advice of experts is something the experts now credit for an extremely low death toll during the pandemic’s first year, just 35 persons.
A fascinating aspect of this situation is that it directly inverts a scenario Slavoj Žižek has posited when it comes to other forms of Covid restrictions: those of mandatory vaccination, vaccine passports, and the like. Installing restrictions can be a form of defying the experts for the sake of public health, but it’s also possible to conceive of defying the experts with arguments against restrictions, often through appeal to “liberal” concepts of human rights. The problem for Žižek is that some freedoms, such as choosing to be vaccinated or not, amount to a “formal kind of freedom” that threatens social cohesion: in the “concrete” world, “abstract freedom changes into its opposite, since it narrows our actual exercise of freedom.”
I’m sympathetic to these arguments and don’t advise flouting or cheating restrictions imposed by authorities for the sake of public health. I take issue with Žižek, though, where he seems to imply that protests against mandatory vaccination and passports are necessarily a protest against authority as such — especially in the senses related to social cohesion and what he calls the “big Other” of “neutral expertise in its different forms.”
In “Les Non-Dupes Errent,” Žižek references his crucial theoretical concept of the big Other, the shared “space of public values,” to explain the stakes of political action derived from Covid-skeptic theories. These theories, he says, each purport to unearth a Truth about Covid, the vaccines, etc.; a Truth somehow concealed by official narratives (and the truths they contain).
There is now a public domain — a big Other — in which such darker Truths are aired and trusted alongside, if not more than, official narratives. But, as Žižek argues elsewhere, this is the very form of public understanding through which the current form of predominant social authority is actually reproduced, rather than undermined. The ideological trap we are in, Žižek writes, “does not count on our trust in the public order and its values, but on our very distrust — its underlying message is: ‘Don’t trust those in power, you are manipulated, and here is the way you can avoid being duped!’”
Žižek’s advice in this scenario is understandable: believe the institutional/official narrative behind Covid mandates and rules, and do not resist such things based on counter-theories that posit a malevolent power behind the ostensibly beneficent purpose. That’s fine, but it’s possible to oppose vaccine mandates without positing an underlying conspiracy.
My position is that the conflict between nested layers of scientific and institutional authority, exactly as we saw in the case of Vietnam, is still playing out. At the time when Joe Biden announced his vaccine mandates, now being contested by the courts, they came in contradiction to the advice of WHO.
The organization notes in its brief “COVID-19 and mandatory vaccination: ethical considerations and caveats,” published in April, that WHO “does not presently support the direction of mandates for COVID-19 vaccination …”
It has also stated (my emphasis) that “national authorities and conveyance operators should not require COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of international travel.”
While I’m not aware of anything that suggests WHO’s guidance on vax mandates has legal force, America’s recent reentry into WHO officially accepts the text of the latter’s constitution. It reads,
The objective of the World Health Organization (hereinafter called the Organization) shall be the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health.
In order to achieve its objective, the functions of the Organization shall be: (a) to act as the directing and co-ordinating authority on international health work… (emphasis mine)
The U.S. Department of State likewise acknowledges WHO as the “leading authority for health within the United Nations,” responsible for “providing leadership on global health matters” and for “setting norms and standards.”
Can we not view national vaccination mandates — against the express recommendations of WHO — as undermining official acceptance of WHO’s international expertise and authority?
White House press secretary Jen Psaki claimed that a ban on travel to the U.S. from certain African countries — again, in direct violation of international regulations — “was a recommendation of the health and medical experts.” Nevertheless, this ban clearly can be construed as a case of defying the experts (WHO) and international law in defense of national rights. Local experts such as Anthony Fauci defended the ban as “necessary,” even as the U.N.’s Secretary General described it as “travel apartheid.” Calling on Biden to follow WHO guidance, and to repeal his bans and vaccine mandates, would put the U.S. in a position of encouraging international solidarity and of further ratifying the authority of bodies that represent the international community.
This becomes especially true in light of statements from WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Not only has Dr. Tedros called for a moratorium on booster shots in all populations except for the immunocompromised, he has called for vaccines to be diverted from high-income areas to the middle- and low-income countries which have received just 0.4 percent of global vaccines.
“No more vaccines should go to countries that have already vaccinated more than 40% of their population, until COVAX has the vaccines it needs to help other countries get there too,” Tedros announced at a media briefing. This puts mandatory vaccines flatly against multiple WHO recommendations. Why should rich countries mandate vaccination, using coercion to vaccinate certain groups against their will, when the head of the world’s premier health authority has called for redistribution of the very doses being mandated? Far from being the sole “official” position, national mandates in the world’s wealthiest places defy the experts, since WHO takes direction from the science of pandemic management (unless we think conspiratorially). Notice that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have abandoned any national target for Covid-19 herd immunity through vaccination, even as areas add mandates and vaccine passports that lower vaccine stock for the world’s poor.
Žižek, I think, moves too quickly when he frames pandemic politics as a conflict between “partisans of anti-pandemic measures and those who resist them.” Here he seems to side with George Monbiot, who argues “leftwingers” have been “lured to the far right by conspiracy theories.” But when Monbiot insists that the “themes of resisting power and regaining control of our lives have been cynically repurposed,” we end up cutting corners when we don’t ask whose power? Regaining control from whom? It’s more than possible to conceive of a “right/left anti-vax position” — asserting individual right over shadowy control — along with a “left/right anti-mandate position” rooted in the very same reasons that WHO has imposed rules and recommendations now shirked by local officials. Why should we ignore the balance that international authorities have struck between medical autonomy, vaccine equity, and the pursuit of global health? Likely, it’s the national and local authorities who have the most incentive to place dogma and politics ahead of so-called neutral science: precisely what Žižek accuses the anti-restriction “partisans” of doing.
With all of this in mind, I want to return a final time to Žižek’s concept of the big Other.
Both anti-vax and anti-mandate individuals might support the same formal political position, but the two can have very different relationships to the big Other of “neutral expertise … [of] state apparatuses, legal order, science.”
We’ve seen how in one case, the individual might generally distrust the big Other of neutral expertise. (For Žižek, this person really credits a different, “obscene” form of big Other.) But what about the other case? Some individuals trust the big Other of experts, but they feel moved to protest when this or that official figure seems to lack the same trust. Žižek himself writes about “obscene” master figures, and in parts of the U.S., there are protests against ruling officials who have banned Covid restrictions, such as mask and vaccine mandates.
Should we view demonstrations against bans as general distrust of the state and the rule of law? To the contrary, if the partisans of the bans took their cues from the national administration, it could be argued that state action would become more cohesive, and the rule of law more efficient. Sometimes, reduction of ideological conflict to simple binaries can become counterproductive; I want to emphasize this point in the following way —
Superficially, ban protesters trust neutral expertise in the form of science, and they distrust it in the forms of state rule and legal order, but this seems like a bad way to understand their politics, compared to “naive” trust in their self-defined political purpose. In fact, when we distrust them in this instance, we can actually lead ourselves toward a type of conspiratorial thinking: “the protesters really want the national order/rule of law destroyed; fear of the pandemic has become their only God” and so on. This is the way many anti-restriction partisans think they have avoided being duped. But we can also become mistrustful restriction partisans when we think that all opposition to restrictions comes from anti-scientific conspiracy thinking (“fear of the establishment has become their only God…”). I’d argue that the status quo is fueled by both instances of broad distrust.
Recently, we have seen not only the example Žižek points out — of people “not duped by the liberal establishment” who “ended up voting for Donald Trump” — but also the example of folks, who feared being duped by the “Putin-controlled” Trump, advocating illegal warfare and hawkishness that would violate international agreements. (It was supposedly “Putin’s wish” to keep the U.S. out of war with Russia and Syria.) In America today, majorities of adults in the major political categories believe that the “biggest threat to America’s way of life” is “other people in America and domestic enemies.” It’s important to note that this happens not because groups have openly declared a wish to end America’s way of life, but because the typical American believes others have been duped into ending it, no matter what their outwardly stated intent/rationale.
I think it’s often the case that people simply never hear the intents and rationales of the “other side,” or they’re quick to construct an entire side based on small sets of examples. Worst is when we dismiss intents and rationales, when we hear them, as lies; and when we dismiss official narratives based on our presuppositions. I agree with Žižek when he argues we should not base our politics on our thoughts of conspiracy — but we also do the work of the establishment, status quo, etc. when we think conspiratorially about the public, something the mainstream press nearly openly encourages us to do. After all, these people in the public have political influence; they’re not barred, in a democracy, from claiming spots in the establishment themselves.
We must do the careful work, then, of separating formal politics from the conspiracy theories that can fuel it, in order to avoid becoming conspiracists ourselves. There’s a real difference between distrusting someone who says, “I oppose vaccines because they’re a plot to wrest control over our bodies,” and distrusting someone who says, “I oppose mandatory vaccines because they don’t seem like the scientific best way to control the pandemic, and secondarily, I fear the precedent could be misused or exploited later.” Believing these two are really the same thing is a form of conspiratorial thinking. If I think in the same way as the WHO Director-General, I do not think I’m promoting a conspiracy. I oppose Žižek’s schema only when and where it implies that I am.
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