Understanding the Coronavirus Pandemic with Foucault? by Philipp Sarasin

Here is a section from one of the best theoretical analyses I have read on the coronavirus so far. Read the full article here.

4. SOME CONCLUSIONS WITH REGARD TO CORONA

It is clear that Foucault did not speak of real pandemics but that he used infectious diseases as models of thought in order to organize forms of power according to ideal-typical patterns. We are in a different situation: we live in the midst of a pandemic and are subject to, or observe through the media, different modes of appearance of power and government. So what can the three models that Foucault developed teach us?

First: There are transitions and overlaps between the different forms. The complete lockdown of Wuhan rigorously follows the plague model, and every curfew ultimately does so, too. The models show that curfews are necessary when that statistical knowledge cannot be gained that makes possible the liberal smallpox model.

Only when systematic tests supply massive amounts of data about infected and non-infected people, like for example in South Korea or Singapore, is it possible for governments to restrict themselves to isolating the infected and recommend caution for the rest of the population, without however having to impose a lockdown. It is possible to say this without irony or malice: that public life goes on and the economy continues to function in South Korea or Singapore is precisely the liberal promise of the smallpox model.

Second: the plague model remains a threat, even a danger. This includes, for instance, that in Morocco the corona-related curfew is imposed with tanks in the streets and harsh military measures, that in Israel prominent voices warn of a “coup” executed by Netanyahu under the pretext of the fight against Covid-19, that Victor Orbán in Hungary is planning a transition to government by decree, or that in the United States Attorney General Barr is seeking permission to hold prisoners indefinitely without trial. But it also includes that the storage and evaluation of movement data of everyone carrying a mobile phone is unlikely to easily be relegated to a purely technical possibility after this crisis. The liberal smallpox model fundamentally and always requires that the power of the state be monitored with suspicion.

Third: The smallpox model of power describes, more or less but nevertheless fairly accurately, the form of government in times of a pandemic that the European governments adopt, despite all differences and many national egotisms. The strategy to #flattenthecurve means to reckon with the pathogen and to know that it cannot be eradicated, but to “extend” its distribution over time in such a way that the health system can handle it. And the strategy of prohibiting gatherings of several people does not amount to discipline—for what purpose?—but rather is something like a narrow but well-justified and understandable framework the state sets for individual behavior. In general, the call to observe rules of “social distancing” belongs without doubt in the sphere of liberal techniques of government, which are fundamentally based on individual freedom and must respect this freedom. To take care of oneself, to protect oneself, but also, as can widely be observed at the moment, to find forms of neighborly or solidary organization are techniques of the self that fill the liberal contours of the smallpox model with the concrete material of social self-organization.

Fourth: … but the leprosy model is lurking in the background. It emerges in the idea that appears here and there that one should let old people die “to save the economy”—or it becomes factual reality when retirement and nursing homes are abandoned and their inmates die locked up and alone, as is reportedly the case in Spain.

Postscript on techniques of the self

In his lectures on the history of governmentality in which he developed the smallpox model and spoke at length about neoliberalism, Foucault did not use the concept of techniques of the self. Even if there is an internal connection between his quite positive evaluation of (neo-)liberalism and his concept of techniques of the self, which he examined in the 1980s by using the example of antiquity, it is by no means the case that Foucault regarded techniques of the self as a form of power wrapped in the cover of liberality, as is often asserted today (indeed, he explicitly rejected precisely this interpretation in his lectures). The opposite is the case: the “relationship of self to self” and thus the possibility to conduct oneself in a particular way that is, precisely, notdetermined by power was, for him, the basis of the subject’s freedom. Consequently, as Foucault said in 1982 in his lecture, “there is no first or final point of resistance to political power other than in the relationship one has to oneself.”[14] Today he might add: and resistance to the virus. Or simply: take care.

This essay was first published in German in Geschichte der Gegenwart and has been translated for the foucaultblog by Verena Erlenbusch-Anderson.

3 pandemic predictions from Lucretius How being afraid of death is making some people less ethical

3 pandemic predictions Lucretius

3 pandemic predictions from Lucretius

How being afraid of death is making some people less ethical

The global spread of the coronavirus has forced us to confront our own mortality, and fears about illness and death weigh heavily on the minds of many.

But there’s a risk that fear for our own life will outweigh fear for the collective to the extent that, however unwittingly, we start to act in a way that causes harm to the collective – the global phenomenon of panic-buying is an obvious example.

As early as the first century BC, Roman philosopher Lucretius predicted that humanity’s fear of death could drive us to irrational beliefs and actions that would harm society. And as COVID-19 sweeps across the globe, three of his key predictions are coming true.

Prediction one: being afraid of death corrupts our subjective experience of life.

Lucretius made the case that people aren’t afraid of death unless there’s an immediate danger of dying; it’s when illness or danger strike that we get scared and strive to understand what comes after death.

The goal then becomes alleviating these fears. Some people do so by imagining that they have immaterial souls that shed their bodies or that there is a benevolent God, Lucretius writes. Others might imagine an eternal afterlife, or an immortal soul that is more important than the body and the material world.

But such beliefs carry an ethical danger that people may become preoccupied with something that literally does not matter at all. This fear and anxiety, Lucretius says, stains everything in life. It ‘leaves no pleasure clear and pure’ and it could even lead to ‘a great hatred of life’.

The question of the existence of God aside, the scientific evidence does suggest that anxiety about death isn’t good for us; studies show that this type of worrying can lower a person’s immune system and make it more vulnerable to infections(which, needless to say, is not ideal during a pandemic).

Prediction two: being afraid of death deepens social divisions and puts certain groups at greater risk.

In addition to staining one’s own experience of life, Lucretius predicted that the fear of death could escalate social divisions, because when people are afraid of dying they might think that withdrawing from others will help keep danger, disease and death away.

And while Lucretius wouldn’t have been opposed to social distancing if everyone was able to do it, this isn’t what’s actually happening around the world. Due to many factors, the gig economy being a notable one in the bunch, the sad reality is that the wealthy are able to distance themselves while the poor are being made increasingly vulnerable to death.

This phenomenon is well-documented in terror management studies; the fear of death results in a desire to escape, at the expense of disadvantaged groups. In China for example, rural migrant workers were blocked from quarantined cities, kicked out of apartments and turned away by factory owners, as authorities tried to control the spread of the coronavirus.

In the US, poorer workers do not have the luxury to work from home when schools close, and cannot afford to take sick days or see a doctor, which makes them more vulnerable than those who can afford to isolate themselves.

There is evidence of increased social divisions on the basis of race as well as class; Asian Americans are experiencing increased discrimination, with even schoolchildren becoming the targets of racist comments, and fewer people are going to Chinese restaurants out of fear of being infected.

Prediction three: being afraid of death inspires some people to accumulate wealth or political power at the expense of the community.

Lucretius predicted that some people will take advantage of social crises like plagues and wars to try and gain political power to secure a legacy for themselves after death. He wrote that this ‘blind burning after elected office coerces wretched people to go beyond the boundaries of what is right’ by sacrificing the good of the people for political position.

As well as political power, Lucretius warned that those who fear death may also think they can extend or preserve their life by ‘rising to the level of the greatest wealth’. Although, of course, the belief that the accumulation of power and wealth will secure their life is false.

You can look to President Trump as a manifestation of this prediction. By downplaying the spread of the coronavirus in America, Trump protected his electoral campaign as well as the US stock market (and by extension, his own wealth). In doing so, he placed political position and wealth above public health—just as Lucretius predicted.

There are politicians who learned about the virus early on and sold their stock while downplaying the danger to Americans. Now corporations are seeking tax-payer bailouts for economic damages related to the impact of the virus in what Naomi Klein is calling ‘Coronavirus Capitalism’.  

Advice from Lucretius on how to avoid these predictions:

According to Lucretius, being afraid of dying is irrational because once people die they will not be sad, judged by gods, or pity their family; they will not be anything at all. ‘Death is nothing to us’ he says.

Now, not fearing death is easier said than done. That is why, for Lucretius, it is the most important ethical challenge of our life. Instead of worrying about what may happen after death, Lucretius advises people to focus on keeping their bodies healthy and helping others do the same.

We need courageous caring, not fear.

 You can find out more about Lucretius’ ethics in Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion by Thomas Nail, published this month by Edinburgh University Press.

Published here at The Institute of Art and Ideas