Blog | Policing and Possibility in the Time of Pandemic | By Tara Ruttenberg

When crises like coronavirus come around, people like me get excited. Not because we’re insensitive to the real suffering of people, but rather because so much space opens up for us to reimagine life as we know it in revolutionary ways that support collective survival beyond destructive realities like global capitalism and neocolonialism. And when you thrive in the transgressive world of critical ideas, particularly related to community economies and alternatives to economic development, crises like these are a piñata of possibility.

They are, however, also wrought with a disturbing underlying paradox, especially in today’s ultra-connected world where power is dispersed among us in such a way that when the panic pandemic strikes, we so easily shame one another into a fear-based conformity, few questions asked. This sort of social policing in the name of survival, while it may prevent the spread of the virus, is a temperature gauge for our collective willingness to consent to and participate in global totalitarian control, with grave consequences for our ability to dissent or organize toward meaningful systemic change. This, of course, in a time where individual financial stability has been pulled like a rug from beneath the feet of so many of us living modern lives reliant on income for survival. In times like these, our resilience depends on our ability to support one another, while policing each other strips us of the trust we need to survive well together. What follows is a plea for us to stop shaming and bullying each other into conformity and to start asking important questions about power, privilege, policing and possibility in the time of pandemic. Staying home doesn’t have to mean sacrificing our civil liberties; but if we continue with this self-policing shame game, we miss out on important apertures for meaningful socioeconomic transformation while participating in the degrading of our civil rights and basic freedoms. And the prognosis for that kind of post-apocalyptic world is much bleaker than most of us could possibly imagine.

Here in the surf town of Santa Teresa, Costa Rica where I live as a long-term foreign resident, the tourism-based economy has already and will continue to be affected in significant ways , representing a microcosm mirroring the broader socioeconomic implications of far-reaching disciplinary measures imposed by governments and individualized by billions of people across the globe in effort to contain the virus. Still, as the fear pandemic spreads in parallel with the virus itself, many have grown aware that our global slowing of production and consumption is not all bad news. In fact, as environmentalists are quick to celebrate, it may be the best thing life on Earth has experienced in the centuries since industrialization. There are actual dolphins in the famously polluted canals of Venice. Global carbon emissions have been drastically reduced literally overnight. People in the industrialized cities of China can actually breathe clean air. Similarly, the way many governments are responding to the imminent impacts of economic shutdown with socialist measures to take care of people are inspiringly unprecedented. Homeless people are lawfully taking residence in hotel rooms and unpeopled homes. Evictions have been prohibited. Universal basic income is being considered as a solution to economic hardship in a post-work society. Mutual aid is in effect across sectors to strengthen community support to vulnerable populations. While I by no means seek to minimize the significance of the deaths and hardship (past, present and future) experienced among us, when we dare put those realities in perspective with the undeniable life-enhancing outcomes we are also seeing, suffice it to say this pandemic does have its upsides.      

And here in Santa Teresa, I’ll be the first to admit that the less-crowded local surf lineup is a very welcome benefit of this global coronavirus chaos. Plenty of waves shared among friends keeping acceptable distance in the water. Fewer beginners getting in the way. Rarely anyone dropping in on anyone unless it’s a playful party wave. Like an early-onset rainy season when most people leave (only with full sunshine, perfect offshore winds and back-to-back early South swell on the horizon), the few remaining short-term tourists in the water are the ones willing to brave border closures to live every last drop of their endless summer dream. Some have hunkered down here to wait out the quarantine period by extending their trip indefinitely. With beach closures immanent and the airport now closed through mid-April, as the last of the short-term visitors trickle out – slowly and then quickly, like the rivers nearly drained from a long high season of providing fresh water to the growing demand in an already overdeveloped area – long-term foreign residents like me celebrate the slower pace, environmental benefits, and unpeopled landscapes we moved here for in the first place, however many years ago.

While these rose-colored lenses point to the (often obscured) reality of the shared neocolonial settler privilege that affords us these simple paradise pleasures in most uncertain times, the hardship will affect the local community across the labor force along a spectrum of vulnerability, exposing the darker sides of this once sleepy surf town’s boom-and-bust dependence on international tourism, and its associated codependence on the health of the global capitalist economy. What’s more, the reality we’re experiencing here in Santa Teresa, is just one among many examples of Costa Rica’s wider dependence on an otherwise thriving (read: $3.5 million USD per year) tourism industry. Where a high-volume approach to tourism is common practice locally, nationally and globally in neoliberal economies driven by economic growth fueled primarily by tourism income, which in Costa Rica is also directly responsible for 8.8% of national employment, such an abrupt halt to the influx of travelers is bound to have significant consequences – like a family’s faucet dripping its last drop at the height of the dry season in places like Guanacaste, the country’s northwestern province, where water is regularly siphoned away from local residents to water golf courses and world class resorts.

In Santa Teresa, tourist amenities like restaurants and shops have been slower to close their doors than in most parts of the country, coveting their bottom line despite growing social pressure to the contrary. But their time is drying up, too. Town is eerily quiet as restaurants begin to offer take-out only or close indefinitely, both a response to the lessening tourist demand as people leave, as well as to what is perceived as collective responsibility in containing pandemic. While #StayTheFuckHome, our trending response in this experience, might ultimately save lives, the way it is employed has also become a temperature gauge for just how willing we are to participate in global totalitarianism, because any alternative has become unthinkable given the truth-creating narrative surrounding the gravity of the virus in its potential to overwhelm the health system. Not staying home as you’re told has been equated with inciting personal responsibility for killing others down the line as the virus spirals out of control because of your selfishness. My point here is not that this narrative isn’t true. My point is that this narrative creates truth in the same way that it creates a self-policing reality, regardless of whether or not it is true. It’s not a truth-creating narrative about solidarity, agency and responsibility toward collective wellbeing. It’s fear-based conformity to a T. And in that way, it’s a very easy sell, and collective shame-policing to keep people isolated and obedient has become our modus operandi in a matter of days. With totalitarian power dispersed among us as individuals and disciplined through shame, we take to surveilling ourselves for fear of social backlash and ostracization. As illuminated by French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault’s discussion of panopticism as a form of disciplinary governance, overt control via top-down surveillance becomes increasingly unnecessary when we’re all keeping one another in line, like prisoners being watched from the panopticon whose design is intended to see into all prison cells while the policing observer is obscured to the extent that the inmates may never know if they are being watched at any given time.


While we take the necessary precautions and self-quarantine, we might also start questioning ourselves as to why we are so quick to conform to the panopticon power game when it means relinquishing our own agency in upholding the most basic of civil liberties, particularly in a world where the Western-modern paradigm on health and science is but one cosmovision among a sea of multiple others. What happens when there are multiple co-existing narratives and multiple co-existing philosophies on health and survival in the time of pandemic? Are they simply overlooked into oblivion because ‘the stakes are too high?’ As this experience is showing us, the reality-making politics of modernity’s hegemonic cultural power are alive and well, and it concerns me that so few of us are willing to question them, at least not publicly (for fear of shaming and potential future witch hunts), anyway. As a result, we slowly relinquish the agency of our subjecthood in exchange for living as obedient objects of disciplinary modes of global, national, local, interpersonal and self-governance. And that’s a horizon for our shared humanity deserving of widespread fear.   

Still, strange contradictions lurk on, pointing to important moments of postcapitalist possibility, particularly here in Santa Teresa, an epicenter for international tourism and neocolonial social dynamics that expose both the hope for solidarity, as well as the persistent disconnects among capitalist economic practices and our deep human need to care for one another as our greatest strategy for collective survival. For example, many (predominantly foreign) owners of tourist businesses like hotels and tour operators have taken to firing their local employees or giving month-long unpaid vacation as the business’ revenue stream dries to an immediate halt, while simultaneously assuring the community via social media that as long as there is food on their table, no one in town will go hungry. An interesting paradox, at best. The idea of sharing resources via a community-run food bank has been initiated to prepare for the worst, with financially well-off community members offering to support the most financially vulnerable – undoubtedly the Central American migrant workers and area locals who depend on tourism for their immediate needs and those of their families, with little to no savings in the bank. Yet the question remains of how to get them the food they need and how to know who needs it with social distancing more severe now with COVID-19 self-quarantine, than it was previously as an existing outcome of class positions and social inequality in the capitalist-dominated tourism economy here, and most everywhere. And interestingly enough, those we identify here as ‘most vulnerable’ might actually be the most resilient in their capacity to live under dire circumstances, since they have most likely done it before and might have recourse to existing support systems of solidarity; whereas those of us who, as a result of our modern privileged lifestyles, rely nearly entirely on money to meet the majority of our needs and wants, may feel the financial burden much more significantly. This could point toward an interesting inversion of the concept of economic vulnerability, moving the conversation beyond capitalocentrism in recognition of the ways we practice economy as a strategy for greater collective resistance in a post-coronavirus era of surviving well together.  

Despite the possibilities emergent in these times of paradox, there is no doubt that we – as communities, as nations, as diverse worlds within a world – will feel the squeeze of tourism’s overnight disappearance, and the contraction of the global capitalist economy, no telling for how long. There is also no doubt that privilege will be the primary arbiter of the extent to which we feel that squeeze in our everyday lives. Still, while privilege in neocolonial/capitalist tourism scenarios (and global socioeconomic life in general) is a significant factor, it is not the only factor. And our shared resilience as multiple, overlapping communities depends on our ability to see beyond class-based power dynamics and static economic constructs and into more diverse landscapes of support, solidarity and care. As a horizon for postcapitalist practice, we can cultivate realities where local wellbeing depends on the strength of the fabric of our diverse community economies, if we’re willing to unlearn our way out of stuck socioeconomic patterns and become anew in meaningfully transformative ways.

image: @jademadoe
image: @jademadoe

Building our collective resilience means finding ways to organize around our community assets, resources, people’s skills and local institutions to strengthen our interdependence as a community and create from the strengths, possibilities and dreams that already exist among us, rather than relying on the boom-and-bust seasonal income from tourists and the increasingly vulnerable global economy to keep us alive. From there, we can identify the ways we engage with our local economy beyond the limited mindset of the exchange of goods and services for money in capitalist-run businesses, the labor from which might help put food on people’s tables, but ultimately exacerbate social inequality (which statistically leads to more violence and crime), marginalizing locals and perpetuating neocolonial class politics among the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. In places like Santa Teresa, and around the world, this means engaging with alternative modes of property use/ownership and practices of ‘commoning’ private property for shared use; participating in diverse production and consumption modalities, like trade/barter, gifting, sharing; supporting networks of care and mutual aid among us; creating worker and producer cooperatives, starting community-run farms and fishing collectives; strengthening associations of independent contractors (like surf instructors, for example); and putting together a user-fund to support the development of meaningful community projects for the benefit of all, just to name a few.  

These are the types of possibilities (and actual existing realities!) that give me hope as we navigate these uncertain times, together. They will, however, require great responsibility in supporting one another as we move toward economies of care based on matching needs with skills and assets. My hope is that we expend our energies in these slowing times on seeking inroads to collective social organization aligned with diverse community economies beyond a globally failing capitalism, without falling into the fear-driven hysteria of shaming one another into relinquishing our rights, agency and freedoms as humans living the world we wish to create into being. May we pause for long enough in the panic pandemonium to consider the many life and health philosophies beyond the Western-modern paradigm whose realities are unheard, disrespected and trampled into a colonizing acquiescence by making the current call to order the only socially acceptable response to the threat of pandemic. And if we are to believe in a world where many worlds can and do coexist, might we ask ourselves: how can we live in integrity with our subjective versions of truth without stepping on the toes of other versions of truth that make this wild world worth living?

As power, privilege, policing and possibility in the time of pandemic beckon our will to do and be differently, if there is a path forward beyond a fear-based acquiescence to totalitarianism and a business-as-usual outcome after the chaos finally settles, I believe wholeheartedly that this is it.    

Tara Ruttenberg is a PhD candidate in SDC conducting participatory action research on decolonizing sustainable surf tourism. |


Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism.” In Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by A. Sheridan, 195-228. Vintage Books, 1995.

Gibson-Graham, J.K. (2006). A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. .

Gibson-Graham, J.K., Cameron, J., & Healy, S. Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.