Benign neglect, special liberty and COVID-19

18th May 2020


  • Professor James Treadwell, Professor in Criminology at Staffordshire University
  • Dr Adam Lynes, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Birmingham City University
  • Craig Kelly, Lecturer in Criminology at Birmingham City University

The growing crisis generated by the global Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic poses both considerable challenges to health and criminal justice systems, and serious questions with regard to the current significant power and disparity within the global political economy.  This is our early attempt to make some sense in a rapidly changing world.  

COVID-19 has already claimed lives in prisons in England (BBC News, 2020), been linked to riots in prisons in Italy, and has led to lockdowns and policing across the world little seen by many previously in western liberal democracies.  Charting all incidence where criminology may be useful is beyond the scope of this blog, so we wish to use just two concepts now to describe the early unfolding in the UK. 

In much of the media, stories of selfish and stupid behaviour have focused on individuals or people unwilling to consider the wider good, including people licking toilets as part of a mindless #Coronachallenge, having BBQ’s and house parties, and panic buying.  Baltimore Mayor, Jack Young, recently urged residents to not shoot each other, following seven Baltimore residents being shot in one evening (CBS Baltimore, 2020). Young urged the residents to quell the prevalence of violent altercations which take up much-needed hospital beds.  In Philadelphia the police department has begun to detain offenders suspected of a litany of crimes (burglary, vandalism, shoplifting, drug offenses and car theft) to ascertain their identity before releasing them (Melamed & Newall, 2020). This ‘catch and release’ approach is underpinned with the end goal of executing warrants for those suspected criminal undertakers once the crisis subsides. Again, this raises critical questions around the utility of the criminal justice system more widely.  But while it might not all be business as usual in criminal justice, the message from on high and political leaders has been little other than to get back to normal capitalist business as usual, as quickly as possible, to avert economic catastrophe.

Critical Ultra-Realist criminologists often use a concept they term ‘Special Liberty’ (Hall, 2012), which describes the cultural norm that operates as a form of subjective permission to allow business operators to inflict multiple harms of varying magnitude on human beings and their environments, justifying their actions, and therefore defining themselves, as essential to the continuation of progress and prosperity.  That concept works just as well when explaining a street drug dealer’s willingness to enact violence, as it does the CEO’s to ignore harms, and during this pandemic we have already seen plenty of both individual and business forms of special liberty.

In business this has involved recent transgressions illuminating the precarious nature of millions of employees and small business owners within the contemporary land of corporate ‘giants’. For instance, a series of banks have recently come under mounting criticism for insisting personal guarantees to issue government-backed emergency loans to small business owners. This, in effect, means that much of the risk attached to said loans is placed on the (often small) business owner. With such loans, banks could seize personal property if the owner is unable to pay back the loan within these unprecedented times. This is not the only incident whereby powerful corporations have seized upon this unparalleled moment in recent memory in order to increase profits. Amazon, GameStop, Sports Direct, and Weatherspoon’s have all disavowed the safety and well-being of their employees in order to exercise their special liberty in the perpetual pursuit of profit (Evelyn, 2020; Gilbert, 2020; Sweney & Goodley, 2020; Davies, 2020). So too, we have even witnessed the so-called billionaire philanthropists fail to demonstrate such charitable gestures to their employees, with CEOs of certain companies asking their employees to take weeks of unpaid leave – renouncing the lived realities and economic precariousness of many such individuals. At a more individual level, there is a prevalence of people licking items in supermarkets, on train carriages and even public toilets for the entertainment of others on the internet. Such attempts to gain fame provide the starkest demonstration of individuals excising their special liberty by becoming criminal undertakers during the crisis, in the pursuit of economic and cultural capital.

Another concept associated with Ultra Realism is that of ‘fetishistic disavowal’, a psychosocial perspective associated with Žižek (2010), which describes how people can elect to repress into our subconscious those truths and realities that are too traumatic to face; indeed, as criminologist Steve Hall (2012:93) states, in so doing:

“We can continue to live and act as if we don’t know. To deny depth and reduce values to a surface role, allowing the obscene real to continue to impoverish the lives of the vulnerable is beyond cynicism; it is political and intellectual cowardice”.

We may not go back to normal and lockdown may last, business as usual may not be possible, or we might not want to go back. Perhaps we should remember that ‘back’ was not perfect.  Do we want to go back to business as usual, where the neoliberal logic of selfish individualism and the competitive logic of business can be served, operating throughout the social structure, from corporate boardrooms to violent estates.  Do we want to go back to the austerity that undeniably makes the western response to this crisis?  Indeed, should we remember what led us here?

At the moment, a reduced (but much applauded) group of clapped NHS and public sector staff are struggling with COVID-19 on the frontline every day, as are police, paramedics, prison officers and health staff.  They often lack adequate PPE kit, because austerity meant budgetary cuts to public services after 2008 to pay for the crimes of bankers (Davies, 2020).  Shall we pay for the current crisis in the same way?  

Might we add to the lexicon of Ultra-Realism the language of benign neglect?  That term was reportedly coined in 1969 by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, adviser to US President Richard Nixon, who recommended this policy with respect to the issue of US racial strife, when he wrote a memorandum concerning the course the new President should adopt toward race relations in the wake of the civil rights activism of the 1960s (Kihss, 1970). Borrowing the Earl of Durham's 1839 suggestion for the British attitude toward Canada, Moynihan recommended that the new administration pursue a policy of "benign neglect".  Essentially, benign neglect is the attitude or policy of ignoring an often delicate or undesirable situation that one is held to be responsible for dealing with.  The terminology when used in politics or public policy describes a policy or strategy of deliberately taking no action concerning an issue, challenging situation, or other problem in the belief that this course will ultimately result in the best outcome possible.  That is exactly the embodiment right now of the political right in the UK and US – fetishistic disavowal and yet more benign neglect.

The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the worst lies of neoliberalism – individual sovereignty against collective good – and yet just as some politicians stalled to act in the face of the pandemic, now they wish to return afterwards, to take no action beyond the short term, but to go back as soon as they can to the old ways of austerity for the poor, and liberty for the rich. 

We cannot go back.

This crisis must change things.