Kiara Barrow and Rebecca Panovka, the editors of The Drift, sat down for a Zoom interview with political scientist Wendy Brown to discuss the contemporary crises around COVID-19 for the magazine’s inaugural issue. The introduction to the interview is included below. For the rest of their fascinating conversation, go check out The Drift.

There are limits to the utility of theory in a crisis. So far, COVID-19 has not exactly occasioned a mass embrace of the mountains of leftist ideas—both theoretical and practical—that have been prepared for such a moment; instead, we’ve witnessed a hardening of the preexisting order, in which the old injustices have only become more grotesque. 

Meanwhile, the intellectual class has tweeted, blogged, and otherwise emerged from the proverbial woodwork to declare (with varying levels of ridiculousness) that the present situation confirms their ideas. The Drift video-chatted with one theorist whose work actually does hold up in the coronavirus crisis—and can even help us make sense of it.

Wendy Brown, a political theorist and professor at UC Berkeley, is a trenchant critic of contemporary liberal democracy. Over the past decade, she has written extensively on the political and psychological formations produced by globalization and neoliberalism—two of the factors that have rendered societies like our own so acutely vulnerable to a pandemic.

Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (2010) argued that the post-Cold War proliferation of border walls reflects a pervasive anxiety about the decline of national sovereignty in the face of increased globalization. It anticipated not only Trump’s nativist border wall project, but the widespread walling that is taking place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—from travel bans and nationalistic rhetoric to social distancing and quarantine measures. In Undoing the Demos (2015), Brown examined neoliberalism as a mode of reasoning and governance through which everything becomes economized or marketized, hollowing out our democracy and molding the psychic landscape in which it becomes conceivable to sacrifice COVID-19 patients at the altar of the stock market. Written in response to Trump’s election, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism (2019) looks at recent far-right political movements as a result of neoliberal policies—a framework that is eerily reflected in the current protests to reopen the American economy. 

Over Zoom (what else?), we asked Brown how she’s thinking about the pandemic, the global response, and where we go from here.

Read the interview, “A Worldwide Mutual Pact,” at The Drift.