Politics of Life vs. Politics of Death

Zeynep GambettiCovid-19

Critics have recently begun to compare the Covid-19 crisis either to 9/11 or to the 2008 financial meltdown.1 This is highly misleading, in my view. The Covid-19 crisis is impossible to fully control by political fiat or to overcome by injecting money into the system. The sovereign right over life and death has been usurped by a virus, which is neither dead nor alive. Political decrees won’t be enough to stop the virus from killing, although they can slow down its spread. Nor are bailouts sufficient to revive economies devastated by the very lockdowns mandated by political authorities, since production lines cannot be reactivated without risking contamination. Perhaps for the first time since the dismantlement of the welfare state (et encore, since that was but a palliative that curbed the radicalization of working class demands), lawmaking and moneymaking pull in opposite directions. Political and economic imperatives have ceased to coincide: it’s either pandemic control or the economy.

This incongruity might indeed be the surest sign that the pandemic is “transcendent” in a highly peculiar way. Covid-19 could be likened to the blow of Fortuna, to those forces that Machiavelli’s Prince cannot foresee and cannot fully control. When Fortuna strikes, the Prince needs to resort to enormous ingeniosity and virtuosity (virtù) to succeed in turning this blow into an opportunity. However, the transcendent singularity of the Prince, the sovereign par excellence, has since given way to a multiplicity of immanent forms of government.2 Today, the latter is inextricably linked to the anthropocene, a planetary condition that involves too many unknowns, too much interconnectedness, setting off chain reactions that even the best algorithms and pandemic modeling cannot reliably predict. One is even tempted to say that the pandemic makes us truly global, revealing consumption-based or financialized globalization as counterfeit. And so, modern-day Princes are no longer able to count on their shrewdness. The virus does not strike this life or that life but the very form of life that we have constructed in this late capitalist era.

What we are experiencing is actually a pandemic foretold, but it is experienced as a shock, as being caught unawares, mainly because monetized and digitalized societies across the globe were, until now, functioning in a short-sighted, presentist mode, both incapable and unwilling to heed numerous warnings as to their own suicidal thrust. This is not a war between human beings and nature. It is a reckoning of human beings with their own mode of being. Our production and consumption patterns, crowded existence in megalopolises, and incessant movement across the globe have had a devastating impact on the climate and on natural habitats. Our misplaced faith in technical progress, retreat from the ideal of welfare, and abandonment of alternatives to the market are causing otherwise avoidable deaths all over the globe.

What the pandemic reveals is that we urgently need a politics of life, not a politics of death. This is what takes governments by surprise. The language of war used in the struggle against the coronavirus points to how unprepared political authorities are in confronting this “invisible enemy.” They are now hard pressed to alter their repertoire of killing and letting die. No, this is not a war. The struggle against Covid-19 demands that we switch to a politics of care, of giving and protecting life. But neither political nor economic power holders speak that language. They find themselves at a loss: none of their ready-made repertoires meet the requirements of the situation.

Slavoj Zizek and many others warn us that this is a juncture at which we may (yet again) be forced to choose between communism and barbarism.3 Although sovereign control over the forces of Fortuna is near impossible, governments can be expected to resort to the more visible and extreme forms of the proto-fascist practices of letting die that they have indulged in since the 1980s. They will recite the formula “Stay at home!” while concealing that two thirds of the population are forced to confront the virus and are made to work to keep the other third comfortably at home. Political and economic discourses will continue concealing the fact that life is not produced by CEOs, celebrities, pundits or the like, but by an unacknowledged and unjustly remunerated mass of workers who feed all others, cure them, provide them with vital public services such as electricity, water, gas, internet, transportation, supermarkets, fields and facilities where food is produced, computers, medicine, news, and all other products and services that make life (at home) livable. Governments will stealthily remove “expendable” portions of the population (the elderly, the poor, the homeless, the racially othered, and even the mentally and physically disabled, as in Israel) from priority lists in ICUs while pretending to represent a national front in the war against the invisible enemy. The decision concerning which portions of the population are to be exposed, when, and to what extent is a political decision, not a medical one. That decision is colored by the particular history and nature of the government in power, by the specificities of the population, the economic situation, the state of the health system, the biases and unavowed aims of the establishment, the degree of institutional transparency, the availability of independent media outlets, and so forth.

The pandemic will undoubtedly provide new and unforeseen opportunities for strengthening our would-be fascist leaders, none of whom dons a black shirt or holds enormous rallies to consummate the assault on democratic institutions. Nor do they need to. Seemingly vital regulations will be largely sufficient to clear the way for a blatant politics of euthanasia. Letting die need not be accompanied by hate speech, but by the language of health, necessity, and urgency. Edgy forms of nationalism are already at work; countries attempt to steal masks and vaccines from each other. Conspiracy theories and phantasmagoria related to the spread of the virus also abound. Countries turn their backs on each other by closing borders, but we know that borders are not exclusively “at the border,” as Robin Celikates has solemnly shown: “particular categories of people, such as irregularized migrants, never really cross the border or manage to leave it behind.”4 Such categories can be expected to proliferate even further within political communities.

Nevertheless, the virus has also revealed that Fortuna has a thousand unpredictable faces. Biopolitical threats are resistant to full control, even when the political executive monopolizes decision-making and thereby summons back its juridico-political power. Curbing rights alone cannot cure people or restart the economy. Nor will the frantic gesticulating at the borders seal off biopolitical “enemies.” We have good reason to believe that environmental disasters or other anthropocentric twists and turns of Fortuna will be even less responsive to border regimes than pandemics.

Covid-19 is the first real test that the neoliberal system of governmentality is being subjected to. Governments and corporations have been developing rationalities destructive to life for several decades now. Far removed from the principles upholding life, politics has been put to the service of economic forces that deplete our natural resources, livelihoods, artifacts, intellectual and emotional energies, creativity and spontaneity. This has been accompanied by wars, military coups, austerity measures, massive layoffs, the muzzling of unions and popular protests, and all manner of repressive practices that allow the market economy and financial capital to appear as the only rule-makers on a global scale. As soon as it became clear that the virus was not merely “a little flu,” however, the daily political refrain of compliance to the laws of the market has piped down. Voluntary action has been rediscovered as the hidden kernel of politics. Even in countries reciting the neoliberal mantra of downsizing the state and reducing budgetary allocations to health and social security, a huge amount of public money appeared out of nowhere. This is proof enough that markets are not self-perpetuating. It lays bare the fact that the so-called immanent laws of the economy depend on a transcendent moment – politics – as their condition of possibility.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also revealed that much of what today’s power holders and influencers deem indispensible might be largely redundant. Having to scale down needs and expectations in order to self isolate performs an eye-opening function, an Augenblick. Capitalist societies produce desires whose satisfaction is necessarily mediated by the market. The initial consumption frenzy that was triggered by the prospect of lockdown in the EU and the US is a perfect expression of the anxiety felt by the late capitalist subject for whom the surest indication of individual power is the capacity to buy and possess. But a couple of weeks of lockdown triggered awakenings, ushering in both “new age” (make your own bread, grow your own veggies) and socialist imaginaries (and so it was about use, not exchange, value and about class struggle after all). If nothing else, many realized that toilet paper could be more desirable than a new pair of designer shoes.

Another fact laid bare by the pandemic is that many invisible jobs (garbage collectors, dock workers, truck drivers, for instance)—and not just healthcare workers and scientists—are indispensable for collective life and hygiene. The coronavirus might indeed compel us to think of so-called “menial tasks” as unique and priceless, and to accept that markets are terribly bad judges of value.

Even though coronavirus statistics continue to depersonalize (through daily body counts and metrics across the globe), they also function as a double-edged sword for decision-makers. While no one paid any attention to statistics on, say, death by poverty before the pandemic, numbers now sit in the middle of our lives, this time creating an equivocation in the biopolitical uses of the stately art of knowledge. Besides the state acquiring information on its citizens (which it surely continues to do via new means of surveillance), statistics also allows citizens to survey the state: the higher the deaths, the more severely are governmental actions judged. Transnational comparisons abound, forcing governments to emulate each other in saving lives. Concealing deaths or getting away with negligence proves to be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

But more importantly, a contradiction inhabits the coronavirus-induced focus on life. On the one hand, politics and media circulate discourses that construct a “we,” a community of mutual concern, each for all and all for each in what seems like a perfectly anti-Hobbesian twist. On the other hand, the unacknowledged proximity to death for those forced to continue working triggers uncanny dissonances. The “we” is revealed to be divided, fragmented. Although the power to self-isolate becomes a new marker of class, the language of life and care clumsily deployed by the political establishment also open up new sites of class struggle.

Last but not least, the risk and insecurity caused by the virus impairs neoliberal capitalism’s own risk-generating mechanisms based on constant motion and short-termism. The slowing down of time, the pause in frantic production and consumption, the re-evaluation of priorities and values essential for life, and concerns over the potential duration of the pandemic are fostering a new form of long-termism. The indefiniteness of the pandemic does not seem likely to increase the level of governmental arbitrariness, but rather to decrease it. We are all compelled to think and plan anew the next couple of years. Time expands as much as it slows down.

Hence, the pandemic might provide a chance for us to pull the Benjaminian emergency brake that disrupts the immanent forces of neoliberal socialization and puts an end to the perpetual motion and production of superfluousness that breed new types of fascism. Only then can we escape the barbarism that otherwise awaits us.

About the Author

Zeynep Gambetti

Zeynep Gambetti is an independent scholar who was formerly an associate professor of political theory at Bogazici University. Her research interests include nineteenth and twentieth century continental thought, critical theory, theories of collective agency, ethics and public space. She has published extensively on the Kurdish movement in Turkey, with a particular emphasis on space as a vector of relationality. Inspired primarily by Arendt, Marx and Foucault, her theoretical work focuses on contemporary forms of violence and resistance. Among her publications are Rhetorics of Insecurity: Belonging and Violence in the Neoliberal Era (co-edited with Marcial Godoy-Anativia) and Vulnerability in Resistance: Politics, Feminism, Theory (co-edited with Judith Butler and Leticia Sabsay).

  1. Cf. Gissou Nia, “Like after 9/11, governments could use coronavirus to permanently roll back our civil liberties,” https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/911-coronavirus-death-toll-us-trump-government-civil-liberties-a9458676.html and Cass Mudde, “Will the coronavirus ‘kill populism’? Don’t count on it,” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/27/coronavirus-populism-trump-politics-response for the opposite position. []
  2. Michel Foucault. Security, Territory, Population. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-78. Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007: 91-93. []
  3. Cf. Slavoj Žižek in conversation with Renata Ávila, “Communism or Barbarism, it’s that simple,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXC1n8OexRU&t=1868s []
  4. Robin Celikates, “Borders in Times of Pandemic,” Critical Times. In the Midst. April 9, 2020, https://ctjournal.org/2020/04/09/borders-in-times-of-pandemic-2/ []

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