Triumph or failure? A biopolitical view on the COVID-19 crisis responseBy
The COVID-19 pandemic created a heated debate about freedom and responsibility, care and control. On the one side, we see critics who warn that the special measures introduced herald the end of individual freedoms and democracy. On the other side, there are equally vocal groups who demand even more stringent surveillance to maintain public health and safety. The emotional tenor of the debate has led to shouting matches, mutual accusations and a general crisis of faith in public institutions. Now, in the third year of the pandemic, we have the luxury of looking back at the discussion to ask whether the pandemic was a triumph or failure in terms of state power over biological life that it has been touted to be. This blog post tries to tease apart the slippery concept of biopolitics, to ask whether it has the potential to help develop imaginaries to counter the current political impasse.
Power over life: what are we talking about
The COVID-19 crisis and the related public health measures across the world have cemented the sense that our citizenship is increasingly biological. We have been following health guidelines about masks and social distancing as well as undergoing testing and vaccination, presented to us as a form of civic duty. COVID-19 certificates provided by health agencies have become as vital for crossing national borders as passports issued by states. It is therefore not surprising that one of the widely used theoretical concepts of the pandemic years has been “biopolitics,” usually in tandem with notions of surveillance and state of exception. There has been emotional debate on surveillance, discipline and control during the COVID-19 crisis, perhaps best exemplified by Giorgio Agamben’s pessimistic and controversial writings and equally emotional responses from other thinkers. Several blog posts here, especially those by Gerardo Nicoletta and Galvão Debelle dos Santos, return to the important question of reconfiguring the political under these exceptional conditions and the polarization of political discourse. I, however, want to turn to the broader interrogation of the notions of power and life inherent in the notion of biopolitics.
Although other writers wrote about biopolitics already in the early 20th century, the notion has been first and foremost associated with the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault. The term makes its first appearance already in The Will to Knowledge, the first volume of The History of Sexuality (published in French in 1976, in English in 1978). There, the notions of biopower and biopolitics are discussed very briefly. Foucault returns to the ideas in his late-life lectures at the Collège de France in 1975-1979. Foucault is interested in how power shifts from being merely repressive to something that “exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations.” Under this understanding of power the body starts to be viewed as a machine that could be disciplined and integrated “into systems of efficient and economic controls.” This applies to individual bodies as well as to the population as a whole. Indeed, modern states seek to protect populations at the level of biology, through health care, different types of benefits and the control of reproduction and mortality. Thus power develops a new dimension. Our bodies, our health, fertility, life expectancy and, in general, our biology come to the attention of and become a matter of concern for the state. Our bodies, as if, no longer just belong to us but to the state. Foucault, indeed, explicitly writes about the “nationalization of the biological” (étatisation du biologique).
Biopolitics as the new normal
For Foucault, biopolitics does not operate under states of exception when normal rules are suspended but in banal everyday circumstances, in a way that we accept as common sense. In fact, we have in many ways completely normalized biopolitical surveillance in the 21st century. Most of us carry biometric passports, many of us choose to wear monitoring devices like FitBits and we routinely consent to sharing our private (health) data in the context of what Shoshana Zuboff has called surveillance capitalism. It is no longer the state that watches over us, but corporations that seek to monetize our bodies. This is what many commentators seem to have overlooked in the context of COVID-19. As Daniele Lorenzini reminds us, “we already are docile, obedient biopolitical subjects.” The crisis came at a time when we had already accepted a level of transparent citizenship. I believe that it is this very normalization of biopolitical control that we need to first think about if we want to understand what has happened in our societies in the past three years.
For example, Estonia has prided itself on its technological prowess and different forms of e-governance that have been assertively developed since the 1990s. As a result, most government services are available online and people routinely use their digital ID cards and electronic signatures for many transactions: we write student recommendations, we bank, we vote. This also pertains to health records that have been digitized since 2008 and are accessible to both health care professionals and patients. There is a national patient portal where all test results, vaccinations and prescriptions go and different documents are generated. The doctor you see for the first time will know about the measles you had when you were 12. Prescriptions can be issued without going to a doctor and picked up in any pharmacy across the country. The state also uses this system to gather national statistics and to monitor health trends. This system was up and running long before COVID-19 and there has never been any public resistance to this biopolitical tool because of its convenience. It has been fully normalized and integrated into daily life. Similar things can be said about other examples of “biopolitics of biometrics” or, for that matter, the use of cell phones in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and China. We had consented to different kinds of biopolitical control voluntarily long before the present pandemic.
Yet, this did not mean that this biopolitical apparatus was capable of controlling people and containing the pandemic. Although Estonia seemed to be more prepared for the pandemic than most European countries, in terms of biopolitical systems, it had the doubtful honor of having the EU’s highest COVID-19 infection rates in early November 2021. Instead of a biopolitical success story, we see something more like a biopolitical failure as the biopolitical tools available were not deployed, despite their availability. The state did not surveil citizens to check whether or not they had been vaccinated or obeyed self-isolation rules. Instead it relied on persuasion, while calls for stricter measures came not from the government but the medical professions. One can but speculate whether this reluctance stemmed from a strong emphasis on individualism or the lingering memories of totalitarianism that made government over-reach less politically palatable than in many Western European countries. What is clear, however, is that the ability to gather biostatistical data does not guarantee biopolitical success, if such success is equated with control of the population. No Western country has effectively used the biopolitical tools available in today’s surveillance capitalism. Benjamin Bratton has argued that we need to stop putting surveillance against a simplified picture of individual freedom if we want to achieve a reasonable post-pandemic biopolitics. Maybe we need to begin by looking at the internal tensions of the term “biopolitics” itself. I will do so drawing especially on Italian thinkers dealing with the affirmative turn in philosophy/affirmative biopolitics.
From vulnerability to agency
Lorenzini reminds of the simplifications rife in the rote repetition of the formula “making live and letting die” since “biopolitics does not really consist in a clear-cut opposition of life and death, but is better understood as an effort to differentially organize the gray area between them.” The pandemic has been one long gray area that has not so much revealed a stark contrast of control and freedom or life and death as the stark differences in our ability to shield our vulnerability. Those whose voices have been the strongest in the protest against COVID-19 restrictions are not necessarily those who are most vulnerable, like the underpaid workers who have kept our societies humming while middle-class people have been able to self-isolate and work remotely in the comfort of our homes. Those who have been let die during the pandemic have tended to come from marginalized communities. The politics of death has become all too apparent, as some deaths are deemed to be acceptable to keep the economy going. The biopolitically normative, healthy and productive body has been juxtaposed to what Judith Butler has called ungrievable subjects, be it prisoners or refugees. Vulnerabilities that existed before have been exacerbated. Paul Preciado therefore argues that in order to move on, we need “a parliament of (vulnerable) bodies living on planet Earth.” For him, the first step is the acceptance of this shared vulnerability, not denying it. The next step, perhaps, can be thinking beyond surveillance, towards the agency we can have even in the context of states of exception (for a more detailed discussion, see Elena Dück’s blogpost on securitization).
The discussion of biopolitics has, in fact, overwhelmingly dwelled on the second part of the word, “politics,” and underappreciated the first part, “bio”. Life need not yield to control as fully as dire discussions of biopolitics suggest. We need strategies for seeing and imagining capabilities, not just critiques of power, in the context of present political impasse. Like Lorenzini, I also want to see the generative aspect of life that would give us “faith in our capacity to build a future.” The capabilities are expressed not just in protest but also different instances of self-sufferance, manifested in simple actions like voluntary self-isolation, social bubbles or networks of support. These actions were not necessarily and not only taken out of fear or duty, but as a conscious choice of social care that also can be seen as reaction to biopolitical indifference in countries where public health systems were failing. These actions are instances of self-responsibilization where individual conduct, not social action, is a guarantee of social resilience. This is, of course, in tune with neoliberal governmentality, rather than Agamben’s stark vision of the expanded powers of sovereign states. Yet, despite its neoliberal inflection, this form of conduct shows the possibility of individual agency and ethical choice (for a discussion of responsibilization see Gerardo Nicoletta’s post).
Already Foucault’s first formulation of biopolitics shows the capacity for resistance, although Foucault remains tantalizingly enigmatic on the affirmative aspect of biopolitics, with but a short reference to “bodies and pleasures”. This question returns to Foucault’ work in his late-life ethical turn and attention to the care of the self as a possible resistance to the biopolitical molding of neoliberal subjects. Sergei Prozorov also traces the affirmative element in Foucault’s search for the transformation of the world through the power of one’s life. This brings together politics and life in order to show “people that they are much freer than they feel.” Prozorov thinks that this affirmative look at biopolitics was forged through Foucault’s engagement with Eastern-European dissidents whose life demonstrated the possibility of resistance. During the pandemic, speaking truth to power was not just expressed in anti-mask protests but perhaps more potently in different campaigns to turn our attention to, for example, the care gap in marginalized communities or the underpayment of frontline workers. We were also freer than we felt, perhaps, to reach out to neighbors and to develop new networks of connection when the states blundered to present a decisive face when confronting the crisis, imposing and changing rules without a rational explanation. In this dialogue between Foucault’s early and late engagement with biopolitics, we can see a reminder of our agency, be it expressed in speaking truth to power or non-violent resistance.
It is this potential for a generative biopolitics that is harnessed by Italian thinkers who have received much less attention than Agamben and feminist authors who also have been cited regrettably infrequently in the present crisis. Michael Hardt, in his review of Foucault, argues that “biopolitics is the realm, in which we have the freedom to make another life for ourselves, and through that life transform the world”. This creativity was not curbed during the pandemic, as could be seen in creative uses of constricted domestic spaces and also different forms of subversive humor that flourished on social media (see Iveta Žákovská’s contribution on humor in times of Covid-19). Foucault’s own phrasing was more cautious, yet this reading is entirely possible, if we view the emergence of new modes of subjectivity as an example of affirmation. Another important intervention is to think beyond the individual. For example, for Roberto Esposito the key is in recovering a sense of community, not as a concept based on immunity to the threatening other but on exposure to the other. We should not think of isolation but contact, as we all experienced during the lockdown measures.
The other aspect that should not be forgotten is the very notion of vulnerability. It tends to not appear enough in the biopolitical debates that pit freedom against control. Yet perhaps we should not fear vulnerability, however scary it is in precaritized neoliberal societies. Judith Butler makes us think about vulnerability as an “aspect of the political modality of the body”. It dispossesses us in a way by opening us up to others. This prompts Butler to ask
“If we can become lost in another, or if our tactile, motile, haptic, visual, olfactory or auditory capacities comport us beyond ourselves, that is because the body does not stay in its own place, and because dispossession of this kind characterizes bodily sense more generally. When being dispossessed in sociality is regarded as a constitutive function of what it means to live and persist, what difference does that make to the idea of politics itself?”
Butler thus reminds us that being alive to our bodily existence helps us realize that we are interdependent and in different everyday actions open to others, whether we want this or not. During the pandemic, the more privileged among us sought to minimize the interdependence and openness by almost obsessive isolation and different hygiene regimes. Yet we breathe the same air and inhabit the same social spaces. Even the wealthy consume the food grown and prepared by others. We are always already relational, connected to others and dependent on social norms. This should not be suppressed but explored to find ways of existing in communities and, Butler believes, this would force us to rethink our politics. This was all too clear during the pandemic, but the porousness created fear and even panic. Yet this openness to others also creates a space where we can attempt to think of politics less as a zero-sum game and more as a space of generative interdependence. These words sound naïve in the present moment when walls are once again being erected between nation states, but without finding this space of common humanity, we will be unprepared for the next biopolitical crises.
Perhaps, in the context of COVID-19, we should think about biological citizenship less through the paradigm of immunity of the autonomous subject but through the acceptance of relationality and interdependence, with human and nonhuman others. The more biopolitical control there potentially is in surveillance capitalism and contemporary biological state the more we need to think about the practices that are available to us as individuals enmeshed in these interdependencies. Gilles Deleuze, among others, asks, “is not life this capacity to resist force?” As Foucault reminds us, we might be freer than we feel. This is what we need to keep in mind during the present pandemic which has revealed our shared vulnerability and interdependence. Biopolitics is based on harnessing the force of biopower, not just on the level of the population but also that of the individual. If we fail to remember it, we will never be able to break out of the present biopolitical impasse.
 These writings are gathered in Agamben, G. (2021). Where are we now? The epidemic as politics. Translated by V. Dani. Rowman & Littlefield. Most famous responses were, perhaps, by Jean-Luc Nancy and Roberto Esposito, but many others have followed.
 For a history of the term, see Lemke, T. (2011). Biopolitics. An advanced introduction. New York University Press.
 Foucault, M. (1998). The will to knowledge: The history of sexuality. Vol. 1. Translated by R. Hurley. Penguin, 137.
 Foucault, M. (1998). The will to knowledge: The history of sexuality. Vol. 1. Translated by R. Hurley. Penguin, 139.
 Foucault, M. (1998). The will to knowledge: The history of sexuality. Vol. 1. Translated by R. Hurley. Penguin, 139.
 Foucault, M. (2003).“Society must be defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–1976. Translated by D. Macey. Picador, 240. I am using the modification of translation suggested by Lorenzini, D. (2021). Biopolitics in the time of coronavirus. Critical Inquiry, 47, s40-s45, s41 to show how strongly Foucault stresses the link between biological life and the concerns of the state.
 Zuboff, S. (2018). The age of surveillance capitalism. Public Affairs.
 Lorenzini, D. (2021). Biopolitics in the time of coronavirus. Critical Inquiry, 47, s40-s45, s42.
 Ajana, B. (2013). Governing through biometrics. Palgrave Macmillan.
 Makarychev, A., Romashko, T. (2021). Precarious sovereignty in a post-liberal Europe: The COVID-19 emergency in Estonia and Finland. Chinese Political. Science Review, 6, 63–85. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41111-020-00165-y . The authors point to the vulnerability of sovereignty revealed during the pandemic.
 Bratton, B. (2021). The revenge of the real. Politics for a post-pandemic world. Verso.
 Lorenzini, D. (2021). Biopolitics in the time of coronavirus. Critical Inquiry, 47, s40-s45, s43.
 Butler, J. (2010). Frames of war: When is life grievable? Verso.
 Preciado, Paul, 2020. Learning from the virus. Artforum May/June. https://www.artforum.com/print/202005/paul-b-preciado-82823.
 Lorenzini, D. (2021). Biopolitics in the time of coronavirus. Critical Inquiry, 47, s40-s45, S45.
 Foucault, M. (1998). The will to knowledge: The history of sexuality. Vol. 1. Translated by R. Hurley. Penguin, 157.
 Prozorov, S. (2017). Foucault’s affirmative biopolitics: Cynic parrhesia and the biopower of the powerless. Political Theory, 46(6), 801–823. Cf. Foucault, M. (2011). The courage of the truth. (The government of self and others II). Lectures at the Collège de France 1983–1984. Translated by Graham Burchell. Palgrave Macmillan.
 Foucault, M. (1988). Technologies of the self: A seminar with Michel Foucault. University of Massachusetts Press, 10.
 Hardt, M. (2010). Militant life. New Left Review, 64, 159.
 Cf. Hardt, M.; Negri, A. (2000). Empire. Harvard University Press.
 Esposito, R. (2008). Bios: Biopolitics and philosophy. Translated by T. C. Campbell. University of Minnesota Press, 164-194.
 Butler, J. (2015). Notes towards a performative theory of assembly. Harvard University Press, 211.
 Butler, J. (2015). Notes towards a performative theory of assembly. Harvard University Press, 149.
 This is argued in Latour, B. (2021). After lockdown: A metamorposis. Translated by J. Rose. Polity.
 Deleuze, G. (1990). Expressionism in philosophy: Spinoza. Translated by M. Joughin. Zone, 77.
How to cite this blog post:
Marling, Raili (2022), “Triumph or failure? A biopolitical view on the COVID-19 crisis response”, Crisis Discourse Blog (CriDis), URL = https://www.crisis-discourse.net/en/2022/06/triumph-or-failure-a-biopolitical-view-on-the-covid-19-crisis-response/.