Who counts?

In a political moment when death tolls from COVID-19 are fading into media background noise as ‘freedom’ has been restored, who counts?

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s famous condemnation of government as a very idea – customarily excerpted in introductions to anarchism far and wide – contains a reflection on counting, and who gets to do it.

“To be GOVERNED is to be kept in sight, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right, nor the wisdom, nor the virtue to do so…. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorised, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished.”

The act of counting, the ‘numbering’ of people, is an essential feature of government as Proudhon notes. As he argues, it is an act where people are dehumanised, stripped of their individuality, rendered interchangeable with one another, and thus expendable. Proudhon knew how the numbering of the state was used from bitter experience; his brother, a ‘numbered’ individual ‘enrolled’ in the French Army, died in service and it was from this point that Proudhon traced his political radicalism. Though many today – though not many anarchists – don’t reflect too hard on the origins of the census, for instance, or the purposes to which it can be put, the visceral nature of Proudhon’s passage has an impact on everyone who reads it, because it begs the questions of who gets to decide who is numbered, and who is not, and what questions of value and worth go into these decisions when numbering strips the individual of human dignity? Even as he excoriated government’s right to count however, Proudhon failed to live up to the egalitarianism this implied, being both an anti-Semite and a misogynist. But, to paraphrase an anarchist saying, his injunction against counting would protect us from a government of Proudhons as much as a government of anyone else.

In eras of conflict, censuses and government statistics and demographic information have informed call-up registers and conscription, classified who is able and who is unable to fight. As anarchists know, the state’s eternal justification in the mind of political theorists – that it exists to provide security for its people – is in this act of counting truly the reverse, as the nameless numbered serve instead to provide security for the state, as in turn the state secures the rights of capital and property. The COVID moment the world is enduring is characterised by the ubiquity of numbers, generated by states and their agencies, chief amongst them the numbers of the dead, the infected, the chronically ill. Here the question becomes not merely who is counted, but who is not. Numbers themselves of course don’t tell the full story. The caveat which has accompanied reports of fatalities in the UK (and elsewhere) since the beginning of the pandemic differentiates between two numbers: the number of deaths first, and the number with ‘underlying health conditions’. The gap between these two numbers from the outset the government – and many amongst the public – sought to see as the ‘real’ number, taking as read that those with underlying health conditions lives were worth less, reflecting the pervasive eugenic assumptions that sit at the very heart of our politics and which exclude disabled and chronically ill people outside of pandemics as well as during them.

In an era of neoliberal capitalism where even wellbeing – the neoliberal meaning of the word a travesty of Kropotkin’s cry of ‘well-being for all!’ – is quantified, it is unsurprising that the favoured approach to research on the part of government in the social sciences is quantitative. This is data; these are facts. As the humanities and any domain of critical inquiry in any area of education are increasingly vilified by the government, the reason lies at least in part due to their refusal to abandon the subjective, the individual, the qualitative, the human, who is unique and cannot ever be reduced to a number without losing something essential to them. ‘Facts alone are wanted’, said Dickens’ Mr Gradgrind, but of course what is wanted are the ‘correct’ facts that align with power, which legitimate the state’s intentions, and which are not decided by the people as a whole. Numbers do lie, particularly when they are made to, and particularly when those who decides who counts and who doesn’t value some lives more than others.

As someone with an underlying health condition (kidney disease) who has spent the pandemic knowing that I count in one sense – in that second number of ‘underlying health conditions’ which can be wished away if it appears in a death toll – the cruel reality of counting and not counting has been brought home to me on a personal level. I count in that sense because I can be regarded as expendable. I don’t count in the other, meaningful sense of being a human with a life to live the same as anyone else. That’s an indication of my privilege, really. Such realities of counting and not counting are not alien to the vast majority of the world’s population, such as the families of people murdered by Western intervention overseas for instance, for whom the ‘body counts’ the Ministry of Defence was so fond of in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Libya and Syria, were only estimates, or the refugees (dehumanised as ‘migrants’) who drown in the Channel or the Mediterranean attempting to reach safety.
These are contemporary examples, happening now. But the horror of the Nazi state’s counting of people under the Nuremberg Race Laws which facilitated the Holocaust remains the ultimate warning of what such counting and not counting can lead to. Jews counted only in terms of being numbered for extermination; they, alongside Roma people, gays, Poles and Slavs, the disabled, and Afro-Germans, were considered by the Nazis less than human. To the Nazis they did not count as humans. The numbers we know now today are the six million Jews murdered in the camps with thousands of others with them. We remember the numbers tattooed on the arms of survivors of the camps, as the Nazi state attempted (and failed) to strip people of their humanity.

I wanted to write this short reflection on numbers for two reasons. One because it reflects the essence of the state – an inhuman entity which seeks to reduce humanity simply to resources for it to consume. As Kropotkin put it at the end of The State: Its Historic Role, the choice was between

Either the State for ever, crushing individual and local life, taking over in all fields of human activity, bringing with it all its wars and domestic struggles for power, its palace revolution which only replace one tyrant by another, and inevitably at the end of this development there is…death!

Or the destruction of States, and new life starting again in thousands of centres on the principle of the lively initiative of the individual and groups and that of free agreement.
(I am grateful to Ruth Kinna for flagging up this passage on the excellent ABC with Danny and Jim podcast)

During the pandemic many of us have been reminded starkly of the politics of numbers, of who gets to choose who counts and who doesn’t, and for what purpose. But as is often said in public discussions of the pandemic on the left, the eugenicist framing of the pandemic – where those deemed vulnerable don’t count, and where the state does as little as possible to protect its people, prioritising instead the survival of capital – foreshadows what will increasingly happen with climate breakdown. Freedom has recently featured some pieces on Extinction Rebellion, who at time of writing are again engaged in a wave of protests in the UK. As neonationalism takes deep root in Britain’s political institutions, anyone not from these islands will not count – save of course those from rich countries with whom Britain shares common interests in capitalist terms. They will not count despite the fact that Britain historically is responsible for a huge proportion of the emissions that threaten their homelands. The COVID-19 pandemic has not been an exception from the ‘normal’ behaviour of the state and its approach to counting; if anything, living through what John Preston and Rhiannon Firth call the ‘viracene’ only shows it in starker relief. As Jose Peirats once said, ‘the state is a virus that can take hold in all of us’. With the struggles of the now and the future before us, one way we can resist that virus is in our refusal to let it decide who counts.


Image by Thad Zajdowicz (Public Domain).