Vulnerability as Ideology

Part One: The Virtue of Permanent Emergency

In a series of three articles, Peter Ramsay argues that the concept of vulnerability provides an organising ideology for contemporary capitalist society, serving to present the interests of the powerful in maintaining the political and economic status quo as the interests of all. 

In Part One, below, he sets out how vulnerability and identification with the vulnerable form the content of contemporary middle class virtue, and how that works as an official ideology to legitimise the status quo with its politics of permanent emergency. 

In Part Two, he explains why vulnerability became a key aspect of the ruling ideology of authoritarian liberalism in recent times notwithstanding its evident irrationality, and how this ideology has frustrated the development of any political alternative to it by converting politics into culture war. 

In Part Three, he argues that the new ideology is the consequence of liberalism’s historic decay and that only an assertion of democracy against liberalism can reverse the dystopian implications of this decay.

In early March 2022, there was a dramatic flip in mainstream liberal opinion, from its extreme sensitivity to the health risks of Covid-19 to vociferous demands to escalate the war in Ukraine through establishing no-fly zones and expanding arms shipments. Such interventions ran a significant risk of igniting World War III. It seems that those who demanded the utmost caution about Covid are also the most likely to support a war between the West and Russia.  

Superficially, the volte face is astonishing. But you don’t have to look very deep to see that the bien pensant response to the Covid-19 pandemic and to the Ukraine war are in other respects very similar. As political theorist Arta Moeini put it: ‘the parallels are eerie and striking’. 

Just as the threat of Covid receded, the chattering classes rapidly found a replacement threat in the form of Vladimir Putin. Where Putin and his cronies took the place of Covid, needing to be quarantined with sanctions, Russians generally came to take the place formerly occupied by the unvaccinated. Just as the unvaccinated were to be subjected to restrictions on their civil liberties until they reassured us that they, too, were doing their duty in the fight against the virus, so sanctions against individual Russian businessmen, artists, and athletes were required unless they agreed to condemn Putin. Ordinary Ukrainian citizens signing up to fight the Russians naturally fitted into the heroic role of the health workers of the early pandemic months (because both groups did indeed demonstrate significant courage). The authoritarian censoriousness that for the past two years has sought to silence anyone who dissented from the Covid lockdown strategy was matched by the denunciation as Putin stooges of any Western commentators who sought to contextualise the Ukraine war, or to suggest anything other than total support for Ukraine. 

These similarities of form are indicators that the professional middle classes are in each case engaged in their customary practice of virtue-signalling. The virtuous have added the Ukrainian flag to the mask emoji in their Twitter profiles. ‘I support the current thing’, as Elon Musk satirically tweeted. But, while the practice of virtue-signalling may be easily identifiable, what exactly is the moral content of the virtue that is being signalled when someone calls for lockdowns, vaccine passes and mask wearing, on the one hand, and sanctions, no-fly zones and anti-tank missile supplies for Ukraine, on the other?

We get a clue from a still more significant parallel between the two virtue-signalling campaigns: the gulf between the actual risks presented by Covid or by Putin’s aggression, and the way those risks are represented. From early on in the pandemic, it was clear that Covid is a highly discriminating virus presenting a much higher risk of serious disease or death to those with co-morbidities such as chronic illness or great age. Its impact on younger or otherwise healthy people has been small. The bien pensant liberal reaction nevertheless has been to represent Covid as a universal threat and to stoke fear of the disease among young people.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has also been presented as an existential threat to Eastern Europe, to the entire ‘European project’ and even to Western civilisation itself. The comparisons of Putin with Hitler and the mutterings about appeasement have been relentless. But the situations are quite different. Hitler’s Germany was one of the most industrialised countries in the world, with a highly efficient bureaucracy, the best armed and most disciplined military in the world, and with a significant part of the population mobilised to fever pitch behind an energetic imperialist ideology. Putin, for all his Russian nationalism and his nuclear weapons, leads a state that does not come anywhere close to this. It is the rump of a larger failed state that itself emerged from a defeated empire. Its economy is dominated by primary goods exporting. Its bureaucracy and armed forces are sclerotic; its population for the most part politically passive. It is not hard to see that Putin’s invasion is an attempt to prevent Ukraine joining NATO (a policy that any Russian leader might well pursue given that Ukraine’s NATO membership would bring the anti-Russian alliance into the most important country that borders Russia). Putin might dream of ultimately reintegrating Ukraine or its Eastern regions with Russia, as they were in the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire before that. However, he has never enjoyed anything close to the military capacity to occupy Ukraine, let alone to push further into Eastern Europe. Russia’s military progress in Ukraine was never impressive and has now faltered. In any case, Putin’s aim seems only ever to have been to do enough damage to Ukraine to force it into accepting neutrality between Russia and NATO. 

Covid was and is a serious health risk for the old and chronically ill; Putin’s invasion has led to immense loss of life and destruction in Ukraine; but neither are the universal existential threat that they have been made out to be. It is this misrepresentation that lies at the heart of the virtue that is being signalled by the professional middle classes (PMC) in each case, for it allows them to get a piece of the moral action at low cost to themselves. Their virtue lies in their claim to be aware of or, better, to identify with the vulnerable in each case. For almost three decades, the ruling ideology has been that we are all universally vulnerable to various risks and in need of protection from them by state institutions. AIDS, crime, terrorism, climate change have all been constructed as existential risks to all. Other more specific risks have also been the subject of relentless public concern, particularly the risks posed by various isms and phobias: racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia and so on. Where these risks are borne by only part of the population, everyone else is thought to be vulnerable to being a source of the risk, vulnerable to the lack of awareness and unconscious biases that arise from their supposed privilege. In the risks most associated with lifestyle such as health risks and climate change we are simultaneously vulnerable to being both victim and perpetrator.

In the worldview of the metropolitan middle classes, to bear the burden of these risks and to share one’s experience of them is valour, and to be aware of them and to identify with the burden of those at particular risk of them has become a virtue. When members of the PMC signal their virtue, this is what they are signalling – that they too are vulnerable, or at least that they are aware of others’ vulnerability, that they have educated themselves, and that they are therefore good people. The constant movement and connection between demonstrable particular vulnerabilities and alleged universal vulnerabilities is a crucial aspect of this virtue. 

Identification with the vulnerable is not the whole of the PMC’s virtue. As Catherine Liu has argued, merit is an important part of the virtue the PMC needs to ‘hoard’ for itself in order to ensure its place in a purportedly meritocratic social system.  But vulnerability is at least as important a virtue, and it plays at least as important a role as meritocracy in the ideological reproduction of the existing social order.

A quarter of a century ago, Diana Spencer, former wife of the heir to the British throne, briefly became the patron saint of this new ideology. Her identification with the suffering of AIDS victims, her own very public sharing of the trauma of her failed marriage, followed by her poignant death at a young age symbolised the ideology’s elements. Her funeral inaugurated the new order of vulnerability. Not for nothing did Tony Blair proclaim her ‘The People’s Princess’. His formulation summarised the specifically ideological aspect of the new order because Spencer’s tragic virtue was that of a rich, glamorous and well-connected woman. An ideology is an outlook that presents the interests of a powerful part of society as the universal interest, so that the whole of society will tend to see the interests of that part of society which the ideology primarily serves as their own interests. 

For an ideology to do this practical political work of organising social life around the interests of the powerful, it must be partially true. It has to have some purchase in enough people’s actual lives so that its claims are credible.  Most of the risks listed above that we are exhorted to be aware of are real enough (and even the remoter catastrophic risks that have been associated with climate change are at least plausible). And, in its most general formulation, the idea that human beings are ‘vulnerable subjects’— and that therefore it is virtuous to be or to identify as vulnerable—is grounded in what is perhaps the most important truth of human existence. We are all going to die. We are all ultimately vulnerable to death, and we know it. Moreover, some risk of some harm is a universal characteristic of human conduct, posed by virtually everything we do. The market system, in particular, is a relentless producer of a more everyday insecurity about the prospects of all its participants, but especially those that lack sufficient property to cushion them from its uncertain effects. 

As I shall argue in Parts Two and Three, this is only a partial truth about human life under capitalism. The official ideology systematically obscures and misrepresents our political agency. Before that, however, we need to explore its truth a bit further to understand the way it works and how it helps to explain contemporary politics. The first thing to note is that the proximity of actual vulnerability to harmful outcomes is, at any one time, very unevenly distributed, and the Western PMC are among the least vulnerable people in the world. They are, therefore, very keen to show their support to whomsoever they decide is particularly vulnerable at a particular moment or better still to understand themselves to be vulnerable to the same risks. This desire to be virtuous by identifying with or as the vulnerable drives their reaction rather than any sober or consciously political assessment of actual risks or threats. This is not to say that the sense of personal vulnerability or of their responsibility towards the vulnerable is cynical. Members of the PMC are genuinely among the most fearful for reasons I will consider more in Part Two. But the huge gap between the gravity of the immediate risks that members of the PMC actually face and how they must understand those risks in order to feel their virtue explains the often unhinged and authoritarian character of their reactions.

The practical political work done by the ideology of vulnerability is the same as that of any ruling political ideology. It institutionalises a worldview that legitimises the governing class and the way that class uses its control of the state’s power. In the first place, the signalling of this virtue serves as a sign of a person’s worthiness to enter the professional middle classes who espouse it. A young person who wants to get on in the circles of influence that surround state institutions will think twice before signing the Great Barrington Declaration or questioning the need for giving greater support to Ukraine. Just as imperial patriotism once did, the requirement to be aware of and identify with the current vulnerability, ensures a high degree of ideological conformity among the metropolitan middle classes. The ideology creates a code of right-thinking that ensures that civil servants, journalists, academics, think-tankers, leaders of NGOs and professional associations, and all the rest, do what they are paid to do: that is, they propagate the line that rationalises the latest state policies in terms of protecting whomsoever it is decreed is vulnerable to the existential threat de jour.  

The significance of this propaganda work is that the official ideology of vulnerability as virtue is particularly beneficial for our actual rulers. Most of the politically popular risks of recent years have been posed to us by those who live around us: criminals in general, terrorists and paedophiles in particular, migrants, racists, transphobes and so on. The threat of climate change, while superficially external, implicitly resides in the consumption patterns of everyone: heating our homes, driving our cars, eating our meat, etc. The threat of Covid perfected this politics of ubiquitous vulnerability to each other since everybody was represented as an immediate risk to everyone else. And notably Covid was accompanied by the elite campaign to target ‘white privilege’, in which the threat that all white people are alleged to pose to black people is constructed as an existential condition of ‘whiteness’. By sustaining a climate of suspicion and diffidence among ordinary citizens towards each other, these campaigns serve to reorganise political life around demands for greater protection from each other. Indeed, among the PMC itself, the virtuous thing to do is to recognise the threat that they themselves represent to others and ostentatiously to adjust their behaviour accordingly: policing their own speech for microaggressions, staying away from public engagements, keeping their children out of school and masking them if they must go to school, consuming only locally produced recycled vegan produce, and so on. The result is that such political mobilisations in the population as do occur tend to be highly moralistic in tone, and concern the threat posed by other ordinary people rather than the limitations of the underlying social and political system itself. 

Whatever the levels of frustration and cynicism with the political class, as long as citizens see each other as the problem rather than the solution to their problems, the governing class will be safe from challenge. In this way it is specifically ideological work that is done by the promotion of vulnerability: the interests of the governing class in the division of the majority of the population against itself reappears as the interests of all in state protection. 

Where domestic policies of fear and vulnerability keep the population afraid and divided, a foreign policy grounded in the same rationale of protecting the vulnerable plays the specific ideological role of providing Western elites’ with a sense of moral purpose, and then representing their particular need as the interests of a fictional global community. Since the Yugoslav civil wars and their aftermath, Western military intervention is always to protect the vulnerable from a dictator or a genocidal campaign of terror. The evil dictator of Iraq had to be overthrown to provide poor downtrodden Iraqis with democracy. When the vulnerability of Iraqis and Kurds proved to be insufficient politically to motivate the disastrous invasion of Iraq, the case had to be ‘sexed-up’ with the claim that all of Europe was vulnerable to Saddam’s mythical WMD. With the invasion of Afghanistan, the dimension of vulnerability worked the other way. Initially motivated as necessary to protect the West against Al-Qaeda terrorism, it gradually transformed itself into a campaign to save the people of Afghanistan from Islamist oppression. Barely had that forever war ended in defeat and withdrawal after decades of violence but the rush to declare war in Ukraine to save the vulnerable Ukrainians from the evil Putin began, and was sexed-up with the historically illiterate comparisons to 1939.

With Ukraine, the ideology of vulnerability, partly institutionalised in the doctrine of ‘responsibility to protect’ is visibly failing as a way to cohere international order. Only a handful of Western allies outside of Europe and North America have joined in the sanctions against Russia. But it speaks to the continuing grip of vulnerability as an ideology within the West that the mainstream of the Western PMC still finds it very hard to resist the lure of making war in other peoples’ countries  in order to save the vulnerable from evil. It does not seem to matter how many times these interventions prove to be disastrous for the peoples of the countries concerned. What this tells us is that the West’s need to protect the vulnerable is not a consequence of their vulnerability, but a condition of Western elites’ own sense of virtue.

The beauty of understanding the way ideology works is that, as Moeini comments of the seamless shift from Covid-mania to Ukraine-mania, it is not a conspiracy theory, ideology requires ‘no hidden monolithic cabal deciding affairs’. The way it works is through a ‘dispersed global holier-than-thou Class protecting its interests while signalling virtue to the in-group’. The members and aspirant members of the professional middle class are incentivised to signal their awareness of, and identification with, the favoured vulnerability of the day because this demonstrates their ideological fitness for membership of that class. In the process, they traffic in the apologetics required to keep a creaky elite’s political show on the road.

The neoliberal decades have been characterised by a political ‘normality’ in which ordinary citizens at home have been represented as constantly at risk from each other, and the benighted peoples of still less fortunate lands as at risk from their own rulers or former rulers. The anxieties that used to accompany states of emergency have become the background condition of normal domestic politics. ‘Forever wars’ have become a permanent condition abroad. In those years, normality acquired the quality of permanent emergency. However, in recent years, as populist political rebellions have roiled the West, the political stakes have been raised at home and liberal elites have found, in Covid and Ukraine, threats that have allowed them to bring the politics of emergency from the background to the foreground, taking sweeping measures in the domestic or international spheres to contain allegedly dire and immediate existential threats. Naked claims of emergency are becoming our normality. 

These recent emergencies have revealed another striking advantage of the PMC’s promotion of vulnerability as virtue. It has allowed the governing class to conduct policy, both international and domestic, in the most spectacularly negligent or even reckless fashion, and not only to get away with it, but even to turn their lazy complacency to political advantage when the trouble starts. Each round of incompetence or futility is followed by another, but each time government succeeds in manufacturing threats and vulnerabilities that ensure both a sense of urgent emergency—requiring that we all need to pull together—and that the influential voices of the virtuous chattering classes will do the required apologetic work, waving shrouds and seeking to cancel anyone who dissents as a denier or a fascist—just as in earlier times they might once have shouted traitor or communist.

Another way in which the Covid and Ukraine emergencies are related is the fact that both were highly predictable and indeed predicted, and yet both appeared to catch Western authorities on the hop and found them scrambling to improvise responses. An epidemic of respiratory disease had been at the top of the UK’s national risk register for a decade before Covid struck. And yet the epidemic found British authorities almost completely unprepared for it in terms of hospital capacity or epidemic control infrastructure. Similarly, conflict between Russia and Ukraine had been more or less continuous since 2014. In 2008 NATO had offered membership to Ukraine in the full knowledge that Russian governments had for almost two decades made it clear that NATO membership for Ukraine was something that they would not tolerate. Russia had already acted militarily to prevent Georgia joining, as it had promised to do. In 2014 an elected pro-Russian leader in Ukraine was overthrown in a Western-backed coup and Russia responded by annexing Crimea and backing separatists in the east of the country. When Ukraine incorporated achieving NATO membership into its constitution, further conflict was almost inevitable. As late as January 2022, as Russian forces were building on Ukraine’s borders, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated that NATO was open to Ukrainian membership, knowingly antagonising the Russians without any intention of fulfilling the promise to Ukraine. 

In both cases then, governments knew the crisis was coming and did nothing effective to head it off or mitigate it. The only difference was that where in the case of Covid the lack of preparation for what was probably unavoidable was negligent, in the case of Ukraine, Western elites were at the very least reckless since they knew their own stances were making war more likely.  However, in both cases, they quickly made the most of a newly vulnerable population and connected its vulnerability, however vaguely, to a new existential threat to all. In this way Western political elites could ensure that the most influential and well-connected opinion formers would fall into line behind the authoritarian politics of the new emergency. Just as we all had to be locked up to ‘save the NHS’ in 2020, now we must all praise Voldomyr Zelensky and pass the ammunition to save Western democracy. The ideology of vulnerability supports a protection-racket politics in which rulers are complicit in manufacturing threats that they then insist we are vulnerable to and in need of protection from. 

If Ukraine and Covid are recent examples that are identified particularly with authoritarian liberals, they are only reproducing a pattern first pioneered by conservatives. Protection-racket politics were trailed by the wars on terror, drugs and crime. The USA notoriously armed and funded the jihadis who fought the USSR in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the Bosnian Serbs in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. And then in the 2000s the Americans had to go to war with their former clients when the jihadis turned their fire on the Western ‘Crusaders’. And it is hardly a secret that the War on Drugs and the War on Crime, that are supposedly intended to protect a vulnerable public from these twin evils, have only fuelled the economically marginalised and anomic social conditions among poorer sections of Western societies in which drug use and organised crime has thrived, reproducing the appearance of the very vulnerability they claim to protect us from.

There is, of course, something arbitrary and irrational in the selection of the particular vulnerability of the day. The threat of death from Covid simply precluded almost all public discussion in the political mainstream of the death, disease and loss of opportunities that would be caused by lockdown policies. What was particularly taboo was any reckoning with the balance between the fact that those dying of Covid were overwhelmingly already very old and the vast potential toll of lockdown in years of healthy life and opportunities generally lost to younger people from missed medical treatment, lost education, or mental health difficulties. Nor has there been any public reckoning over the vast transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest. No assessment of the proportionality of lockdown was attempted; to even suggest that such an exercise was needed was to attract the taint of callous indifference to Covid deaths. Panic and unreason ran riot, with the most vulnerable old people being herded together in care homes to protect the rather less vulnerable in the NHS. The most advantaged middle classes obsessed over the risks, working from home leaving poorer citizens out doing the essential work, supplying their needs and running precisely the risks that the PMC believed themselves to be hiding from.

In March 2022 the Ukrainian flag became an icon overnight, but few liberals would know what the Yemeni flag even looks like, although the vulnerability of Yemen’s population to the Saudi Arabian dictatorship’s war-making over the past seven years has resulted in nearly 400,000 fatalities. Moreover, the immediate vulnerability of the Ukrainian population to the Russian invasion, and the vaguer purported threat to democracy, rendered all talk of negotiation or de-escalation with Putin tantamount to appeasement of Hitler, while in the same moment calls for a dangerous escalation of the war in the form of a no-fly zone or for increased arms supplies to guarantee a forever war that would wreck Ukraine and ruin Russia became a marker of virtue itself.

The official ideology of vulnerability can be sustained notwithstanding its incoherence and irrationality because, in the West at least, there is no alternative to it. There is no articulated political critique of vulnerability as virtue, no alternative ideology through which to imagine what would be a legitimate use of state power. The fact of human vulnerability has only been able to get this irrational grip on people’s imagination because of the decay of all the political ideologies through which Western societies have been ruled since the French Revolution: of liberalism, socialism and conservatism. The competition between these ideologies once provided alternative ways of understanding the distribution of vulnerability, and alternative ways to live with it, mitigate it or even overcome it. The decay of these ideological forms for our understanding of the state has left us with only vulnerability as a means to organise our thoughts about state power, and as a result with only a politics of permanent emergency. 

In Part Two, I will explore why there has been no alternative to the authoritarian liberal ideology of vulnerability by looking at how the ideology came into being and how, in the process, it converted all politics into the ‘life’ politics of the contemporary culture war in which competing claims of vulnerability fight it out.

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