Biopolitics and Coronavirus, or Don't Forget Foucault (How Could We?)

An excerpt from the essay “Biopolitics and Coronavirus, or Don’t Forget Foucault” by Felipe Demetri:

“What the coronavirus epidemic shows us is more the strength of Michel Foucault’s explanatory scheme than the current necro-thanatopolitical strain of interpretations. We all know that Foucault saw biopower as a series of events, from theoretical ones to concrete practices, which formed the basis of a new relationship between national states and the biological element of human life. No longer the exclusion of political life and the plundering of goods and rights that would characterize the Old Regime, but instead new techniques organized around the better extraction of the living forces. Thus, biopower is a descriptive index of the moment when States began to exercise the management of spheres of social life that today seem obvious to us, such as health care, birth and mortality rates, etc. Foucault does not suggest that this would be due to humanist concern of the State; it is, in fact, about meeting the demands of capitalism. Bruno Cava synthesized well in his recent text: the concept of biopolitics does not necessarily describe a “good” or “bad” situation: Foucault is limited to pointing out precisely the limits of our situation.

Faced with the coronavirus, the majority of States have exercised strong sanitary and population control in order to prevent its spread; strictly speaking, actions are being taken to prevent a greater death toll. Such biopolitics places us in the domain of how Foucault conceived the population management techniques, focused (primarily, but not exclusively) to better condition the living forces. It is increasingly evident, however, that even drastic actions have not been enough to contain the spread of the virus, and a sense of collective responsibility is growing towards those who cannot protect themselves: those who can’t work at home, those who are in unfavorable sanitary conditions, the elderly etc. This makes evident another mistake in Agamben’s reading of the current situation: the act of many of voluntarily isolating themselves and avoiding social contact would not be the breaking of sociability, but rather a version of solidarity based on a common vulnerability. Here, a parallel with the HIV pandemic is possible, in which the organization of social movements gave rise to a “biopolitics from below”, as suggested by Sotiris, who pressured the State to guarantee better access to health. The State, then, as one of the actors in a complex field of forces: is it not precisely what Foucault suggested when he removed the sovereignty of the State from the privileged scope of analysis?

In terms of biopower between life and death, what the Foucaultian lens gives us are two ways of seeing the phenomena of the management of bodies and populations: first, to identify the actions of social powers that differentiate those who must die from those who must live; the most vulnerable from the least vulnerable. In fact, it is when Agamben moves in this direction, on how (sovereign) power operates in the case of the decision on life and death, that we see the greatest points of progress in his work; however, this reading is eclipsed – partly by its readers and also partly by the author himself – by the precedence of a generalist mentality, which would limit us to see every situation as a State of Exception and all life at permanent risk.

Second, the essential originality that Foucault emphasizes several times when describing biopower is that, now, social powers no longer act exclusively in individual bodies (the sphere of discipline), but in the very “social body” of a given nation: to think about life and death, we must think about phenomena at the populational level. It is in this sense that, modernly, every death policy has overwhelming effects – it is important to remember that Foucault himself has coined the term “thanatopolitics” -, and every life enhancement policy has an equally broad scope, although, as has been observed many times, differential. That is why it has been a constant political struggle to increasingly expand the scope of life-affirming policies: to conquer more accessible medicines, health and personality rights, to depathologize trans and homosexual identities, etc. All of these political struggles, in the strict sense, are biopolitical.

This does not mean underestimating places, or as Agamben calls them, the camps in which violent sovereign power is exercised; in this sense, Achille Mbembe’s analysis is also vigorous. In countries like Brazil, different temporalities and different power regimes operate simultaneously; just look, for example, at the differences in life expectancy by neighborhood in a large Brazilian city. But we cannot give in to the temptation to generalize the thanatopolitical diagnosis, to see in each new sanitary measure as an expression totalitarianism and exception; the power of the Foucaultian view lies in diffracting the lines of force of the social powers, identifying precisely where the erasure of life operates, the elimination of the useless and the underprivileged. It is in this sense, for example, that Judith Butler has advanced with her work about (social) grief, that is, the occasion when the pain of loss is mobilized: with the advancement of the coronavirus, which lives are not being mourned?

Finally, it is necessary to entertain a certain irony that permeates this debate. In a world increasingly saturated with fake news, it is possible that the initiative to minimize the coronavirus came from a correct intuition: the spread of hyperbolic news can corroborate with misinformation, or increase an undesired “climate of hysteria”. However, it is more and more clear that those working for disinformation are, in fact, those who insist on a certain “climate of normality”, as we saw in the recent public demonstrations in support of the Bolsonaro government, in which thousands of people ignored safety recommendations and went to the streets. We are in a situation where the (lack of) information is, in itself, a matter of biopolitics.”

The entire essay by Demetri can be found at NAKED PUNCH here:

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