On the politics of pandemic

Raihan Rahman | Published: 00:00, May 03,2020

Raihan Rahman, On Politics of Pandemic


Pandemic is political and COVID-19 has appeared not only as a public health hazard but also brought economically and politically conditioned crises. The increasing privatisation, reduction of government spending and tireless corruption has made the public health sector incompetent for the current battle. The health sector has been made a foraging ground for the profiteering vultures. The utmost sincerity with which the medical professionals are now serving the people by risking their own lives cannot hide the decay of the healthcare system under neoliberal capitalism, writes Raihan Rahman

EVERYTHING is political. Even a pandemic. Especially, a pandemic. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has appeared as not just a public health hazard, but brought with it an array of crisis which are economically and politically conditioned. Moreover, political economy and the new modes of power in the post-corona world will be hugely overdetermined by multiple dimensions of this pandemic.

Some thinkers have already foreboded a bleak future ahead accompanied by a crisis of capitalism and new biopolitical regime. A debate has been going on concerning the biopolitics that how the mechanism and the apparatus of power will take lessons from this pandemic to reconfigure itself and solidify its control over the people.

Michel Foucault, the celebrated philosopher of power/knowledge, identifies biopower and biopolitics as a controlling mechanism not addressed to bodies of the individual but to man-as-species. It deals with the population as a whole. It does not discipline the body and consciousness of the individual (which again, is the function of another mode of power – disciplinary power) but regularises a sect of people.

In Foucault’s own words, ‘It is a matter of taking control of life and the biological processes of man-as-species and of ensuring that they are not disciplined but regularised.’ The weapons at the disposition of this mechanism are sickness and medicine, health policies, biotechnology and the game of capital associated with them.

The recent debate was instigated by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, back in late February when the assault of coronavirus in Europe was still ‘moderate’. In an article in Il Manifesto, Agamben questioned the necessity and legitimacy of the ‘state of exception’ that condemns people to a prisonlike situation by restricting free movements for a disease that requires only a handful of cases to have intensive treatment.

He called this emergency measure ‘frantic, irrational, and absolutely unwarranted’. He suspected this move to be the continuation of the growing tendency to establish the state of exception as a normal governing paradigm that will facilitate the governments to solidify its power. Besides, this pandemic and the subsequent state of exception offers a flawless pretext to convert the state of fear that has been diffused in individual consciousness into states of collective panic.

In a response, French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, echoing Walter Benjamin, says that the exception has already become a rule of this world and Agamben misses this point precisely. He calls this emergency as ‘viral exception’ where the governments are mere sad executors. Nancy thinks that pointing fingers at the governments indicates more of a manoeuvre of diversion than a political reflection. For him, the whole civilisation is under question, not the state of emergency helplessly enacted. 

Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito who specialises in biopolitics joins the debate. He critics Nancy’s aversion to the biopolitical paradigm and reminds us that biopolitics cannot be avoided as at the centre of any conflict, there exists the relationship between biological life and politics — be it the deployment of biotech in the area of life and death or managing the immigrants.

His concern lies in the politicisation of medicine which will be aggravated in the post-corona future. The signs of such politics are already before us as it is still unclear how a fair distribution of vaccine will be done once it is developed. However, Esposito finds this ongoing state of exception perceived as a threat to democracy overly exaggerated. He sees it not as a dramatic totalitarian grip but a decomposition of public powers.

Later, to clarify his position in response to widespread criticism, Agamben has kept writing small pieces. What he finds depressing is that now people believe in nothing but bare life. The fear of losing life eclipses normal living conditions, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political beliefs.

Agamben comments that bare life and the fear of losing it does not unite people but makes them blind and more alienated. This fear has made them sacrifice every dimension not only social and political but even human and emotional and thus reducing themselves to a purely biological condition. Who could be the better suited than such humans in the forthcoming biopolitical-totalitarian regime? This is what concerns Agamben more, the future, not just the present.

Now, to prevent a pandemic against which no vaccine or medicine has not yet developed, has there been any option but to ensure the prevention of contagion by declaring this ‘state of exception’? Probably Nancy was not wrong. Maybe the death toll is pushing us to abandon Agamben for now and agree with Nancy that in this overwhelming circumstances, the governments are just the sad executors. However, that does not hide the failure of the governments in handling the ongoing crisis.

The governments are clearly failing to protect the people, especially those who are economically most vulnerable. And this failing has exposed again the fault lines of the system that dominates the world, the system so valiantly followed and guarded by the states, so devoutly revered by them — capitalism and its current neoliberal phase.

The increasing privatisation, reduction of government spending and tireless corruption has made the public health sector incompetent for the current battle. The health sector has been made a foraging ground for the profiteering vultures. The utmost sincerity with which the medical professionals are now serving the people by risking their own lives cannot hide the decay of the healthcare system under neoliberal capitalism.

Besides, in this economic impasse, the governments are further failing to ensure the basic needs of the underclass that are indispensable for survival. The life of the underclass is always a life conditioned by precariousness. And this pandemic has pushed them further to the edge. The people who live on daily wage and minimum wage are suffering the most as this emergency has made them jobless. And the governments are failing to provide them the necessary support.

The forecast of an impending recession has already instigated the governments to declare bail-out packages for the capitalist class. While facing lay-offs, the working class is confronting the hardest dilemma of making a real choice: hunger or virus? For food, they now have to rely more on charitable organisations than the government who lives on their taxes.

Now, there has been some optimism hovering around that this pandemic will end the existing world-order and from its ashes, a better world will rise like a phoenix. In mainstream and social media alike, some have gone too far to claim that this pandemic will end capitalism. Even Slavoj Žižek hopes that this pandemic is showing signs of a resurgence of communism, although not the old school one.

Žižek anticipates that this pandemic will exacerbate the dominant mode of politics of today’s world — incompetent western barbarism and efficient eastern totalitarianism — and a highly reformed communism will spring from that ruin. He argues that a new normal will evolve where the existing market mechanisms will be transformed and new kind of government and global organisation will come forth who will control and regulate the economy to replace capitalism.

It is obvious that capitalism will suffer a severe blow but it will not be replaced by a socialist or communist system automatically. The beneficiaries of capitalism who control not only the economy and politics but also the ideological apparatus are not going to give up their power easily. Capitalism will not go away unless it is overthrown. But is there any viable leftist movement acting on an either national or global level to pull out such a feat? The left so far looks clueless to capitalise on the crisis of capitalism. Unless the left can offer a really solid alternative and fight to establish that alternative as the dominant system, capitalism will not end, no matter what crisis awaits it. Rather it will lead to a more dystopian future where the one per cent will keep on exploiting the 99 per cent more ruthlessly.

Capitalism in its prime is the worst example of an exploitative system, think of it when it goes worse. More bailout and incentives for the big corporations from the public funds while the people will keep on facing layoffs and pay-cuts. And to prevent people from storming the streets, the governments will invest more on surveillance and repressive state apparatus.

Without a clear roadmap and viable unity on the left, there is hardly any hope for the future even if this pandemic signals a deeper crisis of capitalism. However, a new crisis prepares new grounds for resistance, espouses new material forces. Looking from the present, the future may seem bleak but that does not mean the future will actually turn out so.

The COVID-19 crisis also exposes the repercussions of climate change — a crisis created by capitalism’s relentless exploitation of nature. The increasing deforestation for the sake of accumulation and the destruction of the ecosystem due to global warming have made contact between wild animals and humans more frequent. Moreover, the insatiable desire for consumption and the sadistic human tendency of conquering nature has further disrupted the balance between nature and human.

Many experts agree that the exposure to new pathogens and diseases are going to be a regular phenomenon in the coming days, thanks to capitalism-induced climate change. Epidemiologist Rob Wallace locates both the origin and spread of COVID-19 in the  circuits of capital. He explains — ‘the origin of SARS-CoV-2 and other recent novel viruses has been the more intensive agribusiness penetration into natural systems, creating rifts in ecosystems and in/between species that allow for the emergence of potential global pandemics. 

Capitalism now has to be understood as a world-ecology, a way of organising nature. And the metabolic rift it is causing between nature and humans is now pushing the civilisation to the brink of a cascade of crisis. French philosopher Bruno Latour warns that this COVID-19 pandemic is just the dress rehearsal for the many next crises that the climate change is going to bring.

The post-corona world looks a bit dismal and dystopian. The imminent crisis of capitalism and the looming regime of biopolitics will hardly leave any respite for optimism. Although Agamben sounds a little paranoid in this overwhelming contemporary context, the accrued history of power and capital reminds us that Agamben is not totally wrong. Unless we acquire a critical awareness of what is going on in this time of pandemic and in the name of it, a depressing future awaits us. And this critical awareness must trigger collective actions.

Raihan Rahman is a young writer and critic.


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