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The manufacture of our dressage

Art, lockdown and liberties in Sweden... and more widely in Europe

par Frédéric Gies
24 mai 2021

Once and for all, the closing of theaters due to the ban of public events and gatherings of more than eight people in Sweden is a political choice, not a public health measure. To believe that the closing of theaters is an efficient public health measure is nothing more and nothing less than turning the necessary work of addressing the current health crisis into a fight against windmills.

Anyone who is neither a politician in power, nor a leader in a governmental agency can tell that there is absolutely no logic in term of public health to have bars, restaurants, shopping malls and art galleries opened while theaters are closed ; while theaters staffs, artists and spectators are compelled to go digital as the promise of a new, safer world ; while universities, teachers and students struggle between IRL classes that became optional and the parody of a learning environment, which remote education is. Justifying that difference of treatment by a difference of status in the law is a bad excuse.

The current pandemic law shows us perfectly that exceptional laws can be implemented anytime, even the most absurd, inefficient ones or the ones that tend to breach fundamental rights that are supposedly protected, constitutionally.

But let us not defend the use of exceptional laws. Let’s not defend any kind of state-of-exception. Let us go over the divide between the essential and the non-essential. Let us go over the opposition between conspiracy theories of all kinds and the defense of the current health policies as the only responsible answer to this crisis.

This is not about defending individual, personal freedom. This is about claiming back the possibility of a democratic debate, the possibility of political agency and autonomy, in times when democracy is reduced – quoting the philosopher Isabelle Stengers, to the “art of administrating a herd”.

This is about addressing the political and cultural disaster that goes hand in hand with the health crisis we are enduring. As the HIV/AIDS crisis showed us in the last four decades, a health crisis is always a political one. This new virus is not the cause of this health and political crisis. It is a symptom of it.

Back at the beginning of the pandemic, when public events were limited to fifty people, theaters closed, although a strict ban of performances hadn’t been enacted. This can be understood, on one hand, as a cautionary measure taken by the venues and the staffs running them, as we didn’t know much about the new virus yet. It was also for sure a response to the injunction to working from home, which basically made artistic work and its public presentation impossible, if followed. For the bigger, state-funded venues, it was also a consequence of their direct supervision from higher authorities. The direct dependence on higher authorities is also what led to the immediate closure of universities.

In the rest of society, the ones who could work from home did and the ones who couldn’t, didn’t. Bars, restaurants, streets and public transports remained mostly empty. Social distancing became the rule and the choreography of our lives, that is to say the way we move individually and collectively, changed drastically, with our environment becoming invaded by all kinds of reminders of the commonly named protective measures.

The so-called “Swedish soft touch” was pointed at as the “Swedish experiment” in the international press, which completely missed out how much it resembled a stricter lockdown for many of us and that breaching the restrictions imposed on public events could be punished by fines and jail sentences. We were told to follow the measures in order to not put strain on the health care system. Similarly to many countries, a visiting ban at care homes for older people has been implemented. The most fragile to the virus died alone.

What have we learned since then ? We know that the virus doesn’t affect everyone the same way. We know that the combination of age and a variety of chronic illnesses characterizes the vulnerability to the virus. We know that persons of color and specific professions are over represented in the victims of the virus. We know that socioeconomic and environmental factors are at the origin of chronic illnesses and of the vulnerability to the virus.

These facts, which came to the surface not only in Sweden, led Richard Horton, the editor-in chief of The Lancet, to argue that Covid-19 is not a pandemic but a syndemic : “A syndemic is not merely a comorbidity. Syndemics are characterised by biological and social interactions between conditions and states, interactions that increase a person’s susceptibility to harm or worsen their health outcomes.”

In the case of Covid-19 : “Two categories of disease are interacting within specific populations—infection with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and an array of non-communicable diseases (NCDs). These conditions are clustering within social groups according to patterns of inequality deeply embedded in our societies. The aggregation of these diseases on a background of social and economic disparity exacerbates the adverse effects of each separate disease.

So far, this knowledge hasn’t been integrated at all in the governmental responses to this crisis, except in the form of a weak mea-culpa. That kind of weak mea-culpa is never followed by any kind of concrete political action, except an endless list of plans and steps for making all of us pass from the status of battery-raised to free-range chicken.

As Richard Horton points out in the same article quoted above, not even a vaccine will free us from Covid-19 if these social disparities are not addressed. The governmental responses, “driven mostly by epidemic modellers and infectious disease specialists, who understandably frame the present health emergency in centuries-old terms of plague”, are missing that point. The argument that we cannot expect vaccines to be the only exit door from this crisis makes even more sense at the light of the delays in the vaccination schedules and of the refusal from the pharmaceutical industry to share their formulas and move towards generic vaccines.

Something we knew already at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis is that the health care system, in our rich and developed countries, had been thoroughly sabotaged by decades of new public management and neoliberalism. This sabotage took the shape of cutting down the number of hospital beds (the Swedish statistics are overwhelmingly shocking) and of an ever-growing strain put on healthcare workers.

Our healthcare system was already in crisis before this crisis and the origin of this initial crisis is to be found in the neoliberal politics that redefined healthcare by substituting a logic of stock by a logic of flux, as the philosopher Barbara Stiegler describes in her book De la démocracie en Pandémie (Of democracy in Pandemic) [1].

At the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, it became immediately clear that the healthcare system would collapse. This imminent collapse justified the injunction to not put strain on the healthcare system and the healthcare workers. That injunction seems rather ironic considering the disastrous public health politics that were implemented during the last decades, by one government after the other.

Isabelle Stengers, a former scientist who moved to the field of the philosophy of science and production of knowledge, in an interview conducted by L’atelier des droits sociaux, puts into perspective the measures taken in rich, developed countries and the threat of a healthcare system collapse. She argues that the awareness that “public order would be devastated if the healthcare system was overwhelmed” led to the isolation and the invisibilization of the most vulnerable to the virus (the elderly), that is to say of the ones who “threatened to manufacture the scandal of a healthcare system that collapses”. The arsenal of coercive measures and the isolation of the vulnerable is thus to be understood as “an indifference to all that is not the upkeep of public order”.

As numbers of deaths and infections decreased at the beginning of the summer, theaters started opening again or at least started planning their re-opening. What became evident through practice is that theaters, their staff and artists were very skilled at implementing sanitary protocols, beyond the scope of the rules issued by authorities. Spectators willingly participated in these new choreographies that allowed them to be spectators again. Physical distance was possible, not at the expense of social contact.

Theaters didn’t become what is called “clusters” in the Covid-19 newspeak. What happened by then is an example of what collective care and collective intelligence can achieve, as long as it is given room.

Unfortunately, the political power and the experts who are currently choreographing all gestures of our everyday life are masters at cutting themselves from this collective intelligence and from the kind of solidarities that incubate in it – something that Isabelle Stengers also points at.

By the end of October, just when the Swedish government had planned to allow bigger public events and gatherings, the second wave started to hit the country. The government performed a drastic U-turn and by November engaged in the implementation of an ever-growing list of new measures, stricter than the ones in place so far. These measures are typical of the so-called “Swedish soft touch”, which consists for example in implementing a curfew without calling it as such.

This undercover, “soft” curfew is the consequence of the ban of alcohol sales after 8pm, which has been followed by the closure of bars and restaurants at 8:30pm. These measures include the current ban on public events and gatherings of more than eight people. Theaters are closed since then. Taking a look at what this ban encompasses is very informative. Public gatherings include demonstrations, all that concerns freedom of assembly and the expression of opinions, lectures and speeches (for teaching or public and civic education) and religious practice. It also includes : theatrical and cinema performances, concerts and other gatherings for the performance of artistic work, and circus performances.

Interestingly enough, the Swedish lawmakers didn’t put dance performances in this category but in the public events category, which includes : competitions and exhibitions in sports and aviation, fairground, amusements and parades, markets and fairs and other events not regarded as public gatherings. They probably missed centuries of documented dance history and believe that dance cannot be an art. They also probably think that dance, sports, amusement parks and undefined public gatherings are not relating to politics.

In relation to dance, it is interesting to put this in perspective with the ban of spontaneous dancing in bars and restaurants in Sweden, a ban inherited from the 30s and that is the object of discussion in the parliament for a decade, without it being completely ditched yet, in spite of the fact that a bill, which abolished it, was voted in 2016. In the meanwhile, we are blamed and called lazy by our elected political leaders.

At the end, what is happening in Sweden is not much softer than what is happening in other countries. It reveals the same fundamental political issues. In her book mentioned above, Barbara Stiegler, who is an academic specialized in both neoliberalism and questions related to health, care and ethics, takes stock of these issues in the most convincing way, with France as an example.

Starting her book by quoting Richard Horton’s claim that covid-19 is not a pandemic but a syndemic, she argues that “if we don’t live a pandemic, we indeed live, however, in Pandemic (…) a new mental continent, departing from Asia to cover Europe, then imposing itself in America (…) in which “the pandemic” is not anymore an object of discussion in our democracies, but where democracy itself, in Pandemic, became a questionable object.”

She highlights how governments “chose the repression of citizens over education and prevention” and how the socioeconomic disparities that the virus reveals are worsened by governmental measures. In this new continent, in which the fear and illusion that we are all equally susceptible to die has been injected in us, “gatherings, public spaces or universities are labelled a priori as infectious clusters, whereas high-schools, public transports and supermarkets are reputably secured”.

As she dissects the lexicon of the language of this new continent (lockdown, quarantine, clusters, contact tracing, relapse…), she shows how it replaces concepts that were central to healthcare : “The informed consent of the patient, inherited from Nuremberg code, the respect of autonomy and the construction of a health democracy, conquered through hard struggles thanks to the HIV crisis, brutally appear, in Pandemic, as obsolete and out of context.”

Barbara Stiegler also shows how the healthcare system has been dismantled by neoliberal management and that the arsenal of coercive measures didn’t protect the most vulnerable at all. She suggests that the plan for exiting this crisis should include “an environmental approach of health questions”, “a health and social system that supports the patients” and that such a politics “would have supported more than ever all the vital activities of the whole population : work, education, research, culture, social life and politics in general, without which any social organization can only self-destruct in more or less long term.”

Barbara Stiegler also excavates the theoretical foundations of neoliberalism and their practical implementation in techniques of governance. She demonstrates how the governmental responses to this crisis find their origins in the neoliberal governance project and its evolutionary sources : we have to adapt to a new environment and for this we need policies designed by experts, implemented by a strong state that manufactures our consent. As we are supposedly full of cognitive biases, which make us inapt to this new environment and to move towards a better future, we need to be put on the right track by the state and its experts.

For this, our behaviors and our consent are manufactured through different techniques, in a soft way or in a more authoritarian way, as we see today. These techniques include manipulative techniques of incitation coming from behavioral economy, as well as coercive measures. The question of the manufacturing of our consent is pregnant in a specific way in Sweden. Besides the repressive measures in place such as the ban of public and private gatherings of more than eight people, many of the measures that are enacted are recommendations. In the official texts, it is explained to us that recommendations are something we are not obliged to follow.

Yet, we must absolutely follow them. Whereas we are not running the risk of a fine if not following them, they are not optional. In that sense, public health is reduced to our individual choices and responsibility. But our choice is actually not a choice, as there is only one option to choose from. In a typical neoliberal fashion, we are tricked into becoming ourselves the agents of the so-called “new normal”. This reduction of public health to individual choices is particularly alarming in a country where around half of the households are single person households, who are told to meet only one or two persons outside of their homes.

So what are we consenting to ?

We are consenting to the definition of art, culture and democratic debate as non-essential.

We are consenting to the closure of all spaces where we collectively reflect on and make sense with our experiences, where we elaborate -sometimes in conflictual ways, our present and future together.

We are consenting to the digitalization of healthcare and education, which was already a project of the Silicon Valley before Covid-19, as Naomi Klein points at in many recent articles and interviews.

We are consenting to live art becoming the next market of the Silicon Valley.
With every zoom class, we are committing to the neoliberal conception of education, which is, in Barabara Stiegler’s words, “emptied from all collective content, in order to be reduced to a consumption of contents and to a capitalization by individuals and their families of a “competences wallet” or a “training capital” allowing everyone to adapt to a competitive and uncertain environment.”

We are consenting to live art becoming “contents” we even don’t watch till the end but on which digital platforms capitalize, at each of our clicks.

We are consenting to capitalist surveillance and to a digital dystopia, in which QR codes will control the movements of us all as potential Covid-criminals.

We are consenting to the pairing up of governmental authorities with tech companies such as Palantir, for which our privacy is the least of their concerns.

We are consenting to have no democratic control on the technologies we are using.

We are consenting to the shopping mall as our only horizon.

We are consenting to a pharmaceutical industry that puts profit before our health and before the equal access to treatments.

We are consenting to the discriminations and inequalities that constitute the core of this crisis.

We are consenting to billionaires becoming richer while the vulnerable to Covid-19 die alone.

We are consenting to the destruction of ecosystems, which in return pay us back with new viruses.

We are consenting to the loss of all that is collective, including the collective elaboration of knowledge.

We are consenting to our silencing.

We are consenting to our isolation.

We are consenting to the manufacture of our dressage.

We are consenting to a present and to a future no one wants to live.

In today’s horsemanship and horse riding practice, the word “whip” is not used anymore, but has been replaced by the word “motivation stick”. This semantic shift resonates with the continuum between the more authoritarian techniques of governance and the more incentive, but nevertheless manipulative techniques, which a new virus is bluntly revealing before our eyes. Interestingly enough, in Sweden, the now world famous state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, gave us a perfect summary of what these techniques of governance consist in, in an interview on Sverige Radio : “The whole time, it’s a balance between how much you ‘scare people’ and how much you use ‘carrots’ and tell people we’re doing a good job (…)” A few days before -a regional infectious diseases doctor, gave us a good example of how to scare us, stating publicly that we must “enter a personal lockdown” and “consider all human as a potential risk.”

We are afraid we have to prove him wrong : not all humans are a potential risk but some are a real threat to our lives, regardless of carrying a virus or not. The ones who construct us as potential enemies, the ones who infantilize, control, manipulate and gaslight us, the ones in power who make public health an individual responsibility instead of looking at their shortcomings, as well as the ones who steal all wealth are the risk. Let us tell them that horses are not fooled by semantic shifts. Let us, we the horses, tell them that a society that defines art, culture and assembly as non essential is a moribund society. And let us tell them : you cannot fool horses.


Frederic Gies est danseur et chorégraphe. Nous reproduisons ce texte, bientôt à paraître en français, avec son amicale autorisation.


[1Barbara Stiegler, ‘De la démocracie en Pandémie’, Tracts Gallimard, 2021