The Biopolitics of the Crisis

19 Mar 2020

(PONARS Eurasia Commentary) The coronavirus pandemic seems to strongly confirm the growing tension between two types of global politics: territorial (geopolitics) and people-centric (biopolitics). The crisis has sharpened the deep conflict between traditional nation-state-based territoriality—with borders, checkpoints and other elements of security infrastructure—and the expanded space of the biopolitical agenda that is emerging beyond national jurisdictions. 

It is unmistakably apparent that viruses do not respect national borders. What deserves some attention is that the current global state of emergency, which is being largely administered by sovereign governments, has paradoxically unveiled the futility of the whole idea of sovereignty when it comes to exceptional circumstances. Discussions on this are not new, and there were plenty of voices in academia who, for decades, were skeptical about the ability of national governments to protect their citizens from terrorism, or properly take care of millions of refugees and internally displaced persons. 

This growing feeling of existential anxiety and insecurity has boosted the popularity of the concept of bare life, which was coined by the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben and replicated by his multiple followers. The idea of bareness in the biopolitical context signifies a sense of unprotected life beyond legal and institutional arrangements, a physical existence always endangered by forces beyond our control from natural catastrophes to wars. Another one of Agamben’s favorite concepts is homo sacer, which metaphorically constructs a figure of a defenseless outcast whose life does not count much and whose potential death won’t be considered as something exceptional or unusual. And, finally, this biopolitical chain is complemented by the metaphor of the camp, as an exemplification of the permanent Ausnahmezustand, the global state of exception.

I always had the impression that Agamben goes too far with his gloomy predictions, claiming, for example, that we are all homines sacri, or real or potential “killable” human beings whose physical existence can’t be guaranteed by any laws, norms, or institutions. 

On the one hand, the coronavirus panic and its still-unknown, long-term repercussions give reason to take the concepts of bare life and the camp away from the realm of purely academic debate to the real life of millions of people. Indeed, over February–March 2020, we clearly saw how easily our normal lives, with their routine habits, pleasures, rules, and rights, were transformed into a constant concern about the very physicality of bare life with its focus on health care, medicine, nutrition, and alimentation. 

On the other hand, the lucidly exposed precariousness of bare lives is paralleled by the symmetrical vulnerability, if not evanescence, of sovereign power, and this is what is missing in Agamben’s theorizing. In times of crises, the real power belongs to practitioners on the ground such as medical doctors, health workers, epidemiologists, virus experts, volunteers, producers of medical equipment, etc. And it became evident that the bearers of sovereignty—presidents and prime ministers—are not immune from the virus just like any of us.  

What we can learn from the institutional perspective about the long-term effects of the pandemic is why many international organizations, from the EU to the WHO, failed to properly and timely respond to the deadly challenge. Biopolitical scholarship can offer something in this respect. Better than other disciplines, it grasps the crux of the “new normal”—a world in which lines of distinctions will be less and less defined by geopolitical considerations, and more and more by policies of protection and care-taking, both symbolic and practical. It is a world that would increasingly blur the lines between our individual bodies and the collective bodies of our communities and nations. In this world, the minds of the population will be even more heavily exposed to manipulations by the multifarious flows of information with different level of trustworthiness and credibility that will definitely further expand our “old” understanding of hybrid threats. 

In addition, of course, the current crisis will be a major shaper in the ongoing debate on the transformation of the liberal international order. Obviously, there will be many voices—from right-wing forces or from Putin’s Russia—who will keep (mis)representing the current crisis as a failure of the liberal order, while praising authoritarian regimes for better tackling situations of emergency. 

The political instrumentalization of the crisis is inevitable, yet what makes more sense from an academic perspective is to remember that practices of biopolitical control and regulation have always been part of liberal society. In the meantime, it also makes sense to re-actualize, from today’s perspective, what French political philosopher Michel Foucault dubbed “responsibilization”the individual practices of ruling our bodies and managing our corporeal lives—something that is to remain a key element of a liberal polity.