Neoliberal Logic and Covid-19 in Japan

by Critical Asia

by Satofumi Kawamura, Dec. 2020】

So far, it seems that the Japanese government’s policy of preventing the infection of Covid-19 has not been pursued in the way of high “techno-medical despotism”, as what the philosopher Giorgio Agamben criticized about the quarantine policy European governments took. It has not taken the strong lockdown, and has not regulated or limited people’s behavior so strictly, although these kinds of policies have been adopted by almost all European countries. It also has not resorted to the digital technology that can keep the surveillance of people’s movements and thereby trace or predict how the virus infects. Although the former prime minister Shinzo Abe argued for the necessity of the amendment of the constitution in order to implement strict policies such as lockdown, his focus is mainly not on the necessity of the policy itself, but on his long-cherished ambition to change the postwar “democratic” constitution to a more authoritarian one. In other words, the administrative executives have seemed to have no intention to seriously consider the possibility of taking “techno-medical despotic” policies, and they have implied that all they can do is not to give commands, but to ask people’s favor. Faced with such a situation, the right and neoliberal camps that had supported the Abe administration were frustrated by its quarantine policies, and began to criticize them. For the right camp, the administration’s policy seemed really lukewarm, and what was needed were stricter lockdowns and border and immigration control in international airports. In contrast, for the neoliberal camp, the administration seemed too cowardly, and they argued that it was not necessary to adopt any special quarantine policies that would inhibit the freedom of the market activities.

Why has the Japanese government not adopted “techno-medical despotism”? The main reason is obvious: it has hesitated to disrupt their neoliberal policies, including the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, that was fortified by the Abe cabinet through the financial maneuver that was aimed at lowering Japanese yen’s value and the rate of interest. For the neoliberal politico-economic idea, the main principle is, as Foucault argues, to maintain the immanent social order that is generated through the interplay between individuals, and the market is regarded as the only site that ensures such an interplay. Thus, neoliberal regimes such as the Abe administration exercise the power that enhances the economic freedom of individuals and thereby utilizes the potential of individuals’ activities, or what is called “the bared activity” by the philosopher Brian Massumi. This type of neoliberal power would sharply contradict with Agamben’s bio-political sovereign power that operates by removing any kind of freedom from individuals. The “techno-medical despotism” is the mode of power exercised by the sovereignty that summons individuals and makes them follow the order constructed according to the knowledge based on techno-medical sciences. This power necessitates one option as the only possibility. The neoliberal Japanese government has seemed reluctant to exercise the sovereign power, but inevitably adopted a techno-medical approach and used the data gained from the approach in order not to enforce but to convince people to behave more modestly. In other words, it has seemed to oscillate between two poles: neoliberal governmentality and techno-medical sovereignty. For the camp of right wings, their central demand for the government was to exercise its sovereign power that should have been able to control people more strongly, and this would mean that they were eager to follow the policy facilitated by China which has been the target of their attack and criticism.  

The core of the techno-medical approach of Japanese government is statistics. Particularly when the threat of explosive spread of the infection was expected in this spring, the cluster containment and management task force of the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare referred to a mathematical model of an epidemiological analysis on the infection, and thereby tried to convince people to stay home as the only effective way to prevent the further spread. However, even in this occasion, they did not argue for the necessity of thorough control of people’s activities through surveillance of them and collection of big data via digital media networks. Now the COVID-19 Contact-Confirming Application called “COCOA” has been provided for users of smart phones by the government, but it depends on the users whether the application is installed or not, and the task force basically used the data of the infection rate reported by fax(!) from the public healthcare institutions, such as hospitals and local health authorities. Interestingly, there were even some disagreements between the task force and the core members of the government, and the core members often emphasized that the task force’s suggestions were from their own angle and were different from the official idea of the government. Thus, the pandemic of Covid-19 caused the disharmony among both the Abe administration, and their strong sympathizers consisting of neoliberalists and right wings. The disharmony also gave the impression that because the government could not make good communications with the professional task force, it was inept and irresponsible. As a result, the administration that had succeeded to gain popular support longer than ever before diminished the approval rating for themselves rapidly, and Abe could not avoid resigning from his position finally.

The political theorist Maruyama Masao argued that the characteristic of Japanese society was “the system of irresponsibility”, and this system was sustained by the pre-modern feudalistic elements lurking in people’s mentality in Japan. According to Maruyama, modern Japan failed to nurture the modern individual subject who can make decisions on his/her own responsibility, and any decisions in Japanese society or politics were made under the name of the emperor or Kokutai that was regarded as the embodiment of the ultimate value or “truth”. So, the individual who actually made a decision always argued that he decided instead of the emperor by considering the Emperor’s intention, and this meant that he did not admit any kind of his own responsibility. Even the Emperor was thought not to make any decision by himself, because his decisions were also made under the name of his ancestorial emperors whose lineage originated in the goddess Amaterasu. Thus, Maruyama emphasized that in Japanese society where any decision was made according to the “politics of truth”, there was no modern individual subjects who can decided on his/her own responsibility.

The recent disharmony between the task force and the government may seem to be a recurrence of the system of irresponsibility. The main concern of the government has been how to avoid criticisms, and it has often negated the responsibility of the policy making that would significantly affect people’s life. However, this present system of irresponsibility is different from the one Maruyama discussed. First, today’s irresponsible system of the Japanese government does not operate according to truth. As the government denied the statistical model suggested by the task force, it is not clear what the ground of its policies is. Second, the irresponsible system does not nullify the subjectivities of individuals, but rather counts on people’s spontaneous actions decided by themselves. The government expects the people to judge any information or recommendation relating to Covid-19 by themselves, and regards each individual as the subject that can act on his/her own responsibility. In other words, the government has wanted to attribute any responsibilities to individuals, and tried to prepare the excuse that any results of countermeasures for Covid-19 are outcomes of the actions taken by each individual at his/her own risk. This logic of self-responsibility should be basically neoliberal.

However, the more serious problem is whether people are still really subjects or not, in the sense different from Maruyama’a idea. The forefront form of neoliberal governmentality is underpinned by the technology of digital media platforms that facilitate free communications between individuals and collect data through the communications. Then, the platforms statistically analyze the information of the tendency of people and utilize the information in order to lead individuals to follow the tendency. In this neoliberal technology, people become the objects. Meanwhile, the techno-medical approach is also based on statistics. The “techno-medical despotism” is despotism as far as it exercises sovereign power in order to enforce people to follow the order underpinned by statistics. However, there is the techno-medical approach that is not so much despotic as regulative and utilizes the statistics in order to lead individuals to follow the instruction based on the statistics. COCOA may be a good example of such an approach. Here, people become objects too. Thus, neoliberal governmentality and techno-medical despotism are different in terms of subjectivity, but, thanks to the advancement of the digital technology, both of them would come to converge in the same horizon: objectivation. In this mechanism, each individual is divided into attributes as data, and the meanings and values of the data are generated as information through the communication in the network. As a result, each individual is agitated by the information, and the affect becomes the motive of each individual action. In this sense, if the Japanese government recognizes people not as subjects but as objects of technological control, the government would adopt the techno-medical approach more willingly. Or, the stupidity of the Japanese government might be found in the point that it does not clearly understand the “objectivity” of people. Thus, techno-neoliberalism and techno-medical despotism share the principle in their kernel, and China may embody this fact most drastically.

Satofumi Kawamura, Kanto Gakuin University, Japan

You may also like

Leave a Comment