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.


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.