Were we to appreciate mistrust as an inclination, a cognitive tendency, or a structured disposition (in other words, habitus) towards eluding depredation - not simply as a rational calculation based on 'misinformation' - then its capacity as a mediator in a determinative web of human rights abuses that stretch back in time and link the DRC to distant continents could rise to the level of common sense.
—Eugene Richardon, "On the coloniality of global public health"
There is a powerful and unpleasant lesson for the present moment that can be drawn from Richardson's analysis of local attitudes toward "aid" during the Ebola crisis. This is not to cheapen the murderous and exploitative history of (neo)colonialism in Africa—the parallel I wish to draw is not in degree, but in mechanism.
In popular discourse there exists a category of "liberal elites." These are the people for whom the economy has worked the last 40 years. They live in cities because they can afford to. Many of them are "technocrats," in the sense that they exercise decision-making power that impacts others and that sees itself as unbiased, professional, and technical. Many of them are intellectual workers, who produce justifications for the decisions of the technocrats. Since they live in cities, they share the liberal cultural dispositions that are particular to cities.
The cracks in the technocratic hegemony machine have only gotten wider. In the 90s, economists sold the US on international free trade deals, and everyone who worked in manufacturing got screwed. In the 00s, climate change experts urged action while neglecting to offer anything but the vaguest possible ideas about what to do with coal miners when their industry ceased to exist. In 2008 Americans were assured that, for reasons inscrutiably technical, their own survival depended on a mass transfer of wealth to the handful of people that had crashed the economy. And now in 2020, another gang of professionals is calling the shots, and suggesting that everyone simply make peace with the inevitable collapse of the economy.
As an employee of a global health organization, I am a member of that gang. We are a class of people who hardly noticed the crash of 2008. We therefore lack the experience to know that, in this age where Capital enjoys absolute dominance over Labor, the burden of a crashing economy is borne entirely by the most precaratized.
As Alex Hochuli tweets,
No one is going to be held to account for their disastrous handling of Covid, because the only options presented are [1.] obey the govt while it destroys the economy or [2.] big shrug and other people die... I think it's natural that people default to the latter, given the options. Certain economic ruin or possibility of illness? No brainer for all but the comfortably-off.
To remix Richardson, then, we might write—
Were we to appreciate mistrust as an inclination, a cognitive tendency, or a structured disposition (in other words, habitus) towards eluding depredation - not simply as a rational calculation based on 'misinformation' - then its capacity as a mediator in a determinative web of economic exploitation that stretches back in time and links the extraurban US to distant metropoles could rise to the level of common sense.
What might we learn from this experience? Perhaps that a healthy popular response to a pandemic depends on the existence of popular economic solidarity. For this time though, our colleagues across campus have foreclosed on that possibility.