A scene from the dystopian political thriller V for Vendetta shows the masked protagonist ‘V’ taking over television networks to address the British public in a counterfactual timeline where Britain has become a fascist state. The movie showcases neither simmering public discontent nor any forms of active resistance. In other words, it is a docile populace accustomed to authoritarian measures in a world where restrictions on freedom have become normalized and are accepted as part of the contract with the state. ‘V’ literally calls on the people to rise up against the state and in the course of his three-minute monologue on national television, he states:
And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you and in your panic, you turned to the now High Chancellor Adam Sutler. He promised you order. He promised you peace. And all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent.
The loss of lives and the carnage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic – not to mention the scrambled response of global leaders to it – inspired me to revisit the above scene from V for Vendetta. Today, death tolls are exponentially rising against the backdrop of austerity cuts to public health infrastructures and, following China’s lead, global leaders have resorted to imposing national lockdowns and curfews to contain the pandemic. With a drastic dip in symptoms being reported in China, their government’s early success at halting the virus through a series of extreme lockdown measures, aided by surveillance technology, is being hailed as a model to be followed. Many countries have now initiated lockdown measures, including the UK, while the Indian government called for a day of national curfew and then a subsequent lockdown. Concerns have been raised relating to mass surveillance powers, detentions and clauses that could be extended to prohibiting strikes and industrial action in the UK’s Coronavirus Bill, published on 19th March 2020.1
Muslims globally have already been subject to cultures of control and disciplining due to the ‘war on terror’, and now, with the rise of this disease, such actions are being extended beyond the Muslim in the name of containing the virus. The Chinese perfected the art of surveillance, isolation and confinement against the Uighurs, and there was an international outcry from human rights groups when the New York Times released leaked documents revealing China’s mass surveillance program. These modes of battle-tested disciplinary measures that China used to contain the Muslim is now being hailed as a model to be followed.
Social distancing and isolation are critical to halting the spread of the virus and states have it in their right to enforce such precautionary measures. The problem lies in the fact that the leadership entrusted with such legislation caters to the far right and, in this post 9/11 world order, ‘temporary measures’ tend to normalize and become permanent. The state demanded blind obedience and the forsaking of rights for guaranteeing protection from the perils of war and terror and the same state has now become the guarantor of health in demanding the same. ‘V’ lists war, terror and disease as factors leading to total compliance and domestication.
This normalization is achieved by the antagonistic language games being developed by political actors in attempts to come to terms with, resolve and/or manipulate the present crisis. The term ‘lockdown’ is predominantly used by prison movement activists to describe the repressive confinement of human beings as punishment for deviating from normative behaviours.2 Although prisons and jails are the most visible locations for lockdown, the currency of the term encourages us to think how such concepts travel. In discussions on the travelling of ideas, Bourdieu quipped that it is usually the very worst ideas or concepts that travel at the cost of the best. Such concepts carry a tangible potential that not only enhances itself but alters drastically the fields into which they travel. By enhancing this potential, these concepts do not only merely modify the existing state of affairs but also extend into the future as well. When ideas traverse social fields, they gain authority or what Said termed dogmatic orthodoxy.3 The ability of these concepts to reconfigure and gain acceptance is another measure of the hegemonic weight rendered onto them. Apart from gaining new meanings, the transfer of these concepts is set to lose certain meanings or downplay certain parts of them. For example, the Indian government announced a much-celebrated ‘day of curfew’ to stop the virus. This deployment of ‘curfew’, however to the domain of public health strengthens the Indian state’s narrative of Kashmir, leading to the abandonment of the issues of mass incarceration and the total curfew imposed upon Muslims there. The same holds true for the Palestinians in Gaza, and these concepts are set to recast adversely the life of countless refugees globally. The transitory virus threat legitimizes the technologies of control for the foreseeable future against the permanent Muslim with global compliance. We are being told that the virus is here to stay; hence this normalization is an indicator of what to expect in a post-COVID-19 world.
The Arab spring had earlier shown that it is only a matter of time before people see through the veil of authoritarianism. But learning from past experiences, technologies and cultures of control are made more subtle, and this requires changes in traditional modes of resistance and creating awareness. The way forward is in the constant contestation and de-stabilization of these new orthodoxies. The need is for the proliferation of alternative ways of thinking, ideas and language requiring a concerted effort acknowledging the shifting frontiers of a dystopian world as in the words of V “ideas are bulletproof.”
 Sudbury, Julia. Global Lockdown: Race, Gender and the Prison-Industrial Complex, Routledge, New York, 2013.
 Said, Edward. Travelling Theory Reconsidered in Nigel C. Gibson (ed.) Rethinking Fanon: The Continuing Dialogue, 1999.