From dystopia to utopia: some thoughts on the confinement in France

I don’t think we’re ever going to get to utopia again by going forward.” – Ursula K. Le Guin, 1982

For many people in the world, in the last three months, things have become normal that until very recently would have seemed like science fiction. That several states have seriously considered digital “Immunity Passports” which would give you access to spaces and resources based on your good health; that “coughing at a copper” can get you a jail sentence in the UK; that that in Wuhan, China, to buy over-the-counter cold medicine you have to first give your temperature and ID to the pharmacist, make it feel like we’re living in a future where we’ve already lost. Police harassment of homeless people has increased enormously, people in dozens of countries have to justify their presence in the streets, and Nation States are taking part in bizarre geopolitical bartering, espionage and sabotage in order to secure more protective masks. It feels like a good time to use the word dystopia. In science fiction, dystopias and utopias are used to show us either what is lacking in our time, or what a potentially disastrous path we are on. They work together, dystopias and utopias, to show us two very different sides of the same coin.

In France, the confinement started on the 17th of March and was swift, powerful and well implemented. On a Monday evening, at 8pm they told us that by midday the following day it would be in place, with conditions for leaving the house not dissimilar to the UK, but with a system of policing and of fines, an obligation to carry a paper (and later digital) justification of your presence in the streets. By Wednesday 18th March, the first offence fine had climbed to 135 euros, the BAC (plain-clothes city cops) had descended on the beaches, the parks had closed and outside life had ground down to a halt. Confinement was one choice in many. Herd immunity would be too risky for the French state; they wouldn’t pay for full testing (or didn’t think about it in time, reluctant to look outside of Europe for strategies) and so confinement was the landscape we found ourselves in. Since then, many of us have spent a lot of time discussing the politically soundest and most mentally and emotionally sustainable ways to “do” the confinement – how to take care of others and their health but with a sceptical eye on the repressive measures of the state, and this has really shone a light on the tensions in all of us between our individualism and our desire for collective well-being. Most of us who are used to thinking with bottom-up anti-authoritarian politics seem to broadly agree that the confinement is a good idea and have the energy to take it seriously with regards the health of others – if not because the State tells us to, but because we think its right. That said, many of us are also juggling our own feelings of guilt, of self-doubt, about the ways in which we do or don’t do enough – either to stand up to the repressive parts of the confinement or to stand in solidarity with our neighbours.

The confinement, be it strongly enforced like in Italy, China, France etc, or broadly expected like in the United States and the UK, forces us to ask questions of ourself. Questions like: what constitutes my household? Who are the people I need to see to survive on a daily basis (with all the colours and shades of surviving)? Where can I afford to be? And, maybe on a deeper level, how do I relate to society, and to something as collective as the physical health of my society? In a list of priorities which motivate actions, where are my individual needs and where is the health of a larger community? There is a mainstream discourse here which says that people breaking the confinement to go sunbathing or to sneak out and drink a beer with a friend are the ones worsening this crisis, making it last so long. This critique is misplaced because if healthcare was more equal, if there was more protection in place for elderly and immune-compromised people, the risks would be reduced: if our society was less unequal, and people were under less financial pressure, staying at home would be less of a big deal. The problem should be set down at the door of power. But. These acts of individualism do pose some interesting questions for anarchists – namely in our dream society, free of the police and free of a state, would people continue to act like this?

In a utopian society, where there is no state and no police, how would we respond to something like a flu pandemic? Surely we would confine ourselves? We would understand that even if we were in good health, our continuing to live our normal lifestyles has the potential to endanger people who are not or people who are more vulnerable and so we would stay at home and dig deep into whatever post-capitalist version of Netflix we had, our piles of books or, maybe more universally, our piles of rice or pasta? Evidently, not everyone wants to do this, and evidently not everyone has done this. For many people in France, the police—and the threat of fines/cautions/violence—is what is keeping us either in our homes, or at least sneaking around our cities. In a utopia, maybe it would be simply our own desires to take care of one another and of ourselves?

In the last weeks, the libertarian right in the US are protesting the confinement, chanting “END THE VIRUS, NOT THE ECONOMY” in the faces of health worker counterprotesters at intersections. The grain of libertarianism that makes something as counter-productive as this possible is the grain which says no-state-should-ever-tell-me-what-to-do. We have this grain in anarchist movements too and I have heard a quiet voice here talking about the confinement in those terms – that it is a form of repression, and that the State has no right to tell us who to see and when and how. The State does not have our best interests at heart, this much is obviously true. Clearly they want only capital and to reinforce their power, and clearly the cops want only to protect that – but is their effort to make us stay in our homes a form of repression? The violence and cruelty which they are doing it (and with which they do everything) are worthy subjects of our focus and our rage as is the fact that the confinement for them has justified an acceleration of the violence already being done to homeless people, to people working in the black economy, to sex workers and to many others. But is the fact that they, in the pay of the State, don’t want us to go to the beach, or play pétanque in a public park, a form of repression? I think not.

The methods of control that the state and the police will develop and get good at using this period are powerful and frightening and yes, could and probably will be used against us in an unknown future. But would we respond in the same way at that moment? If they introduced this type of curfew or confinement in response to an upswell of political energy or movement, we would be resisting it in every way we knew how – from breaking curfew deliberately, to trying to outwit the cops, to thinking about strategies to organise against it. This quiet voice is talking about the confinement in those terms – that it’s useful to be thinking about how to outwit the cops to go eat an ice-cream with friends or to have a game of football somewhere. Not useful, like useful-for-mental-health, but useful politically. By all means, people should break confinement in the ways in which they need or want to in order to feel okay, but taking a position that it’s somehow anti-authoritarian to do so feels like an attempt to dress it up as a moral decision, rather than the gratification of a need. It’s almost as if the fact that the state wants us to stay at home—habituated as we are to a position of constant opposition—makes it a more bitter pill to swallow. I think most of us have an analysis that it’s good in and of itself to stand up to authority. But is this individualist position really about standing up to authority, for anything other than individual gratification, and what can it mean if that individual gratification has the possibility to alter the lives of others in a negative way? Is it patriarchal and is it ableist to imagine a fuck-everything anti-authoritarianism which relies on a certain kind of action that not everyone can access? The fact that one of the five conditions under which we have the right to go out is to support vulnerable people, makes this even more evident; what we are often being blocked from doing here is leisure, and does our leisure harm the State or does it risk to harm our neighbour?

All of these concerns, coupled with the social weight of living in confinement, mean that unfortunately, a global pandemic is the perfect time for seeds of paranoia and anxiety to germinate and grow in the darkness. On a personal level, the fear of falling ill, the fear of making other people fall ill and even the fear that the decisions we take about our body can affect the bodies of others, are all a head-fuck for people trying to think about autonomy and consent. There are police controls out on the streets, but the feeling that they’ve gotten inside people’s heads is strong: the feeling that we are doing something bad by being outside, that they could catch us, feel as prohibitive as the controls themselves for some people. People are paranoid, distrustful of strangers. On a more grandiose level, there is a very real fear of another ten years of austerity which could very well be our inheritance from this period. Or even the fear that this is a capitalist plot to kill the elderly, the poor, the immune-compromised. In fact, the problem, at its base, is not a capitalist plan to kill us all with a flu, but rather the sickness of a society under capitalism: it’s unwillingness to take care of its most vulnerable and it’s unwillingness to make sacrifices for strangers.

Clearly, both the left and the right have a chance to push for the things they want, to fill the huge chasms left by confinement with projects and structures which will last beyond the pandemic and into the landscape we will inherit from it (one which is difficult to imagine in this current political moment). The list of possibilities for both sides is enormous. Mutual aid groups have sprung up in thousands of neighbourhoods around the world, incarcerated people are digging their heels in and protesting in a swell of movement which has seen several countries agree to release select prisoners, and even just at the level of le quartier, el barrio, the street, people are finding themselves talking through windows, across halls and across the streets with their neighbours. It seems as good a moment as any for people to think about their connectedness, about what they have in common rather than what they have apart.

But what does it mean that so many states have seen in this period how fast and easily they can impose lock-downs, who will obey, who will not and, maybe more frighteningly, which technology worked and which didn’t? Will we have the ability to understand when their motivations shift? Following and responding to this will be one of many tasks for anarchists in the months to come, along with questioning a return to “normal life” and all it could bring with it.

In a more utopian future, our relationship to the natural environment, to disease and to each-other would be so fundamentally different that it’s hard to imagine how we would respond to something like the Coronavirus. To take one example: the “herd immunity” strategy which seems close to eugenicist in a society as unequal as France, could seem like a great idea in a society where older people were less isolated, where health care was more equal and where immune-compromised people were not so likely to live in poverty and isolation? It takes a lot to even imagine something like this. For capitalism, a society which combats illness like this would seem like a step backwards, but maybe as Leguin says, forwards is not always the way to go.

In cities, we are saturated with information, saturated with proposals to fill our time, as if it wasn’t already so full of anxieties about rent, about money, about the time itself. There’s something to be said for the strange suspension of life which so many workers are experiencing. We can only hope that it’s conducive to acts of vibrant imagination, to ways of imagining how we could better regulate our own societies, better take care of each other if we were not bogged down by the massive weight of capitalism. “The exercise of imagination,” writes Leguin, “is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.” Because imagining how this could have been otherwise, is also the key to keeping our rage focused where it should be.

L Munro


Image by Ohconfucius