It’s like that Wizard of Oz moment, when the curtain gets pulled back, and we are confronted with the reality, that systems of social administration and political governance appear to be in want: and political leadership has failed in its primary role, to protect the health of the people. Such is the Potemkin-like nature of many globalised societies now, it’s taken a pandemic to see through this façade, of mediocre management and amateur political leadership driving the global polity. And as the virus flows through this sea of humanity, people are comparing state responses, to see how well their government and its systems perform. In an age of social media, this pandemic is like no other, and the world watches, in real time, how the virus spreads, and how governments respond.
Thankfully, and given its global impact, one of the first decisions good political leadership took was to rely on science rather than rhetoric to deal with the virus. Winning this ontological debate, on how we know what we know about the virus we are dealing with, enabled many states to make epidemiological plans on how to tackle it. While some, like South Korea, implemented authoritarian methods, of test and trace strategies, others, like Sweden, the USA the Netherlands and the UK, adapted a more liberal approach. But with the publication of the Imperial College Report, a medical model appeared to predominate in the UK.
This ontological turn, is now being viewed as a transformational event, in an as yet unquantifiable way. Noticeably, as this scientific approach evolves, the UK is having to implement major ideological and systematic change as it pivots away from an ‘acceptable level’ of viral violence, to maintain its legitimacy. What had started as a ‘herd immunity’ strategy, and ‘nudge’ approach to social change, quickly gave way to the provision of Universal Credit, and an increase in state agency to protect the population and preserve the economy as it went into lockdown.
Yet, such change is evidence of state failure, and as the population logically processes this harsh reality, it pivots away from the politics of austerity to reveal a new sense of hope, that a new raison d’état is emerging, to transform the mentality of government from ‘fight the virus and support the economy’ to fight the virus and support the people. Such a transformational event is manifest as the population comes to terms with the everyday reality, of protecting itself, from a pandemic. And as social distancing becomes the new ‘norm’ the population is now having to re-evaluate its mentality of government, of how people, and communities, relate to each other, and to the systems of state designed to protect and preserve the people.
With a growing experience of having to live through a pandemic, sometimes with only the dispersal of £94.00 a week, to cover the productive consumption of basic human needs, for the next three months, people are now beginning to re-evaluate how best to care for themselves and others, in this state of emergency. And with this ontological turn, as the population attempts to cross this paradigm, of eradicating viral violence, a deeper discussion emerges, on what ethical value system can best guide the population across this process of social transformation.
In pivoting hope, away from the clutches of economy, this epidemiological turn inevitably focuses the gaze on a deeper philosophical discussion, about population health, from the quarantined area up. As people face a three-month lockdown, how this debate evolves will ultimately decide if this point of transformation delivers a healthier society or a sick one, with further pandemics inevitably to follow. In a sense, this pivot now exposes the struggle between geopolitics and biopolitics, which have been ongoing since the introduction of public health medicine, back in the nineteenth century.
While many will be familiar with the idea of geopolitics, few will know it was first enunciated by the Swedish theorist Rudolf Kjellén, in 1905. Somewhat intuitively, Kjellén also enunciated the concept of biopolitics, the politics of life, which he viewed as a means to govern, administrate and deliver a democratic society, to produce a healthy population and a state predicated on social well-being. While states struggle to deal with the virus, their tool of choice in how to logically explain and systematically deal with the politics of life through a pandemic, will greatly determine whether their economies grow, or fall, in the on-coming post-liberal, post-viral, global political age. So, in this struggle with the virus, a state’s choice, of the geopolitical path or the biopolitical one, is of critical importance.
Increasingly, states will have to choose between the ‘bare life’ theories of Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben or the ‘social care’ theories of French philosopher Michel Foucault. Agamben argues, left to their own devices, states will provide minimal social security and maximum disciplinary powers. In contrast, Foucault argues, if a population becomes aware of its power, it can radically transform a state through the everyday administration of social care so people can better take control of life or death issues. In support, the Italian theorist, Roberto Esposito suggests, Foucault’s aim for social care offers new opportunities to immunise communities from a raft of pandemics, from the economic to the medical.
If a biopolitical choice is made, Foucault noted, this will create a ‘rupture’ in state power, and a community’s ‘freedom and resistance’ will inevitably become ‘the necessary precondition for the exercise of power’. In so doing, ‘innovation’ will come to the fore and more people will look to themselves for solutions. As the failures in UK state reason have demonstrated, people are already looking to the World Health Organisation’s epidemiological studies, to unearth a vast array of analysis and methodology on how to explain, engage, immune, secure, conflict manage, and inoculate, a population.
In so doing, and by promoting Public Health medicine as a preventative methodology, more communities will ultimately move towards the production of biopolitical labour for self-preservation. As this pandemic deepens, and wider philosophical debates emerge, on Public Health medicine, this biopolitical debate will increasingly come to the fore, to examine, assess and explain a cure for state failure. Now, as the raison d’état transforms, and the ontology of science predominates, this paradigm shift towards a deeper interest in the politics of life, will either shift states towards the delivery of a scared life or a bare life: and on such metrics, nation-states will be judged by their post-pandemic polities.
Seán Brennan Ph.D. is an independent researcher.