The concept of ‘hero’ is a cheap social token thrown at the most exploited victims of neoliberalism. Their exploitation takes place within modern democracy, which has thusly transformed into a neoliberal fantasy (Dean 2009). The neoliberal fantasy dives into ontopolitics (Dormeau 2019) and fuels on the control of our psychological well-being and the so-called happycracy (Cabanas and Illouz 2018). The coronavirus crisis has little to do with individual health; it exposes ways in which healthcare systems have been thoroughly and gradually damaged by decades of neoliberal policies. Yet, many responses to the coronavirus crisis are expressed through digital devices of controlling individual bodies and their various imprints such as surveillance applications (Kamel Boulos and Geraghty 2020; Calvo, Deterding, and Ryan 2020).
Not all victims are transformed into heroes. Some workers, especially those in the field of culture, are seen as being less essential than others. (Culture should not be equated with entertainment, which distracts citizens from social and economic issues, and which thrives during the lockdown.) Those seen as essential victims (such as nurses) are recognized through a discursive token of heroes, and those seen as less essential victims (such as cultural workers) remain abandoned. This creates a hierarchy of victims.
Neoliberal societies are modern offspring of colonial capitalism (Blaut 1989). Through ontopolitics, neoliberalism continues to colonize various aspects of our daily lives, such as our will to have a successful career, our desire to remain healthy, and our struggle for happiness.
I posit the idea that each individual intrinsically owns a self-alienating and self-consenting part; this part makes them permeable and potentially reactive to every ‘stimuli-reaction’ scheme on which they are deliberately drawing. Thus the main strength of neoliberalism might not be to submit individuals via self-optimizing orders that have been internalized by people, but rather to build tailor-made frames: individuals voluntarily submit themselves to said frames by making themselves cognitively and affectively available for the reception of each and every stimulus of their context. (Dormeau 2019: 142).Footnote 1
Labelling some of its own victims as heroes, neoliberalism recolonizes professions that it has abandoned. In the context of ubiquitous war talk, this can be explained through the concept of état de siege which is central to colonial capitalism (Prakash 1996).
This conception of colonial capitalism allows us to see a unifying principle between the racialization, domination, and exploitation of people and the alienation, domination, and exploitation of resources. It invites us to understand the observed similarity in the patterns of ecological and colonial crisis as the product of a unified logic of capitalist exploitation that makes them obey a similar tempo and follow similar trajectories. (Hage 2016: 47)
In order to fight potential colonization by the virus, capitalist societies recolonize their democratic roots using the political force of lockdown, imposing the idea that survival of capitalist economy is far more important than democracy. ‘It is not merely a question of failed borders and failed governmentality, but a question of the inability to make sense of and negotiate a relation with ungovernable beastly “entities”, human and nonhuman, that the era of permanent overcolonization has thrown at the Western world.’ (Hage 2016: 48) Hage’s pre-Covid-19 analysis refers to crises linked to international migrations and ecological threats, yet the principle remains. Neoliberal democracies are now facing an ungovernable threat which, according to Hage, represents the return of Gaia: even a tiny virus, at the border between organic and inorganic matter, can threaten the whole humankind.
A fantasy that the humankind can dominate and exploit nature without consequences is at the core of Western colonial capitalism and neoliberal democracy (Tabb 1974). In order to prevent transformation of the Covid-19 health crisis into a social crisis, political elites recolonize their own population by unifying them against a common enemy, using ‘us vs. them’ war rhetoric and glorifying ‘useful’ heroes. While this symbolic strategy works quite well in the face of adversity, the health crisis is dialectically intertwined with global capitalist and colonialist exploitation reflexes (Crook, Short, and South 2018), and shows that postcolonialism, in terms of democratic policies, has yet to happen (Porr and Matthews 2017).
Covid-19 is an emergence of nature in the face of capitalist colonialism, triggering global feelings of besiegement and war-like political responses. But in the coronavirus pandemic, there is no war, there are no heroes, and there is no enemy. These discursive representations are merely powerful (Ng and Bradac 1993), socially constructed (Van Leeuwen 2009), and mediated social rapports (Kopytowska 2015). Neoliberal democracies now engage in language games (Wagener 2020) which allow them follow the same doxa (Sarfati 2011) while wearing seemingly different masks (Wagener 2018, 2019). In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the rhetoric of war and heroes allows the system (Meunier 2003) to remain unchanged.