Thinking Through Covid-19 Responses With Foucault – An Initial Overview

Matthew G. Hannah, Jan Simon Hutta and Christoph Schemann (Department of Geography, University of Bayreuth;

This intervention originally appeared as the second half of a longer essay intended as a basis for discussion in a Masters seminar at our university (original essay available here). It has been revised and updated for publication on The first part of the longer essay is an extended overview of Foucault’s analyses of power relations. As this background is not included in what follows, readers lacking a basic familiarity with the concepts of “sovereignty”, “discipline”, “biopower”, “biopolitics” and “governmentality” as these have been understood in the literature building on Foucault’s work are encouraged to consult Part I of the original version (or any of the numerous excellent book-length overviews of Foucault’s thoughts on power relations such as Dean 1999; Deleuze 2006; Elden 2017; Lemke 2019).

Over the last months, there has been a true explosion of critical scholarly contributions aimed at making sense of the political responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only is the multiplicity of interventions and contributions that have been made at a global scale increasingly hard to track, writing during a pandemic also risks illuminating pre-established theoretical frameworks more than the unfolding events themselves. This is especially true where theorists use the pandemic as “raw material for metaphysical speculation”, as Warwick Anderson (2020) has pointed out with respect to authors such as Giorgio Agamben and Slavoj Žižek. It is our conviction that some of the ideas of Michel Foucault, whose methodology has always been oriented towards differentiated empirical and historical analysis rather than abstract theorization, can avoid this danger while illustrating possibilities for making detailed sense of ongoing events.

This essay does not argue that a Foucault-inspired approach is capable of providing a comprehensive account of the current situation or the political responses taken. Much less does it provide a guide to “what is to be done”, which it might be better “to hear from the people most affected” (Ecks 2020) rather than deduce from analysis. Instead, drawing on Foucault’s writings and debates in their wake, in this essay we seek to exemplify some of the issues and questions that a Foucauldian approach brings into stronger relief. While other authors have discussed elements of Foucauldian theories (e.g. Ricco 2020; Sarasin 2020) there have to our knowledge so far been few more sustained and detailed engagements. Our discussion is most strongly informed by the German context, though we also cite examples from other contexts.

Seen through a Foucauldian lens, the current situation is clearly one example of a constellation in which elements of sovereignty, discipline, biopower and biopolitics, and governmentality are combined in uneven – as well as geographically situated and rapidly shifting – ways. We can begin with the basic rationality of biopower, and with Foucault’s “triangle” of sovereignty, discipline and governmentality that he introduced in his famous 1978 lecture (Foucault 2007). If biopower[1] addresses the well-being of a population and is structured by decisions about “making live” and “letting die” (Foucault 1978), most state responses to the SARS-CoV-2 virus have been justified in biopolitical terms by a “re-biologization” of the population, and a perceived overarching imperative to keep as many people alive as possible.[2] Some of the most prominent means used to pursue this general end have been the familiar tools of state sovereignty (Foucault 1977): orders and decrees forbidding certain activities, requiring others, and the passing (or suspending) of laws in order to ensure that these measures are legally and constitutionally legitimate or adequately funded. Police, national guards and in some cases even the military (and paramilitary units) have been called upon to enforce restrictions.[3] These sovereign tools are being deployed in a broadly biopolitical sense, that is, for making (rather than letting) live.

The disciplinary character of some of these measures is likewise fairly clear, especially in the case of (total or partial) quarantine (Foucault 1977). Disciplinary power functions at its core on the basis of awareness of one’s own visibility to authorities. Many states have not imposed the kind of total lockdown that would take the form of a strict stay-at-home curfew with no exceptions (for an overview, see Hale et al. 2020). However, even the partial restrictions typical in Europe as of this writing already imply heightened surveillance and put in place the foreground-background structure at the heart of disciplinary power: dramatic reductions in public activity produce a background against which those who are still present in public stand out more clearly and can be required to justify their presence. To the extent that the comprehensive checks now mostly confined to international border crossings are also implemented within the Schengen region (BMI 2020) as well as at selected points within state territories – now in many countries surveilled with the help of helicopters and drones (Wadewitz 2020) – the level of visibility will increase.

Another issue closely connected with disciplinary power is the discussion (prominent in mid/late April in Germany) about which age groups of children and youth should be allowed to return to school when. One point of agreement seems to be that very young children are not capable of maintaining social distancing within day-care settings (inFranken 2020). This points directly to the fact that the disciplining of bodies is a long and gradual process accompanying us throughout our childhood and teenage years. The ability to control one’s bodily movements and orientation in space, and the disposition to obey requests from authority figures to do so, are preconditions for the performance of “social distancing”, and are only acquired through long conditioning in schools and other disciplinary institutions (Foucault 1977).

A further telltale sign that the logic of discipline informs some anti-coronavirus measures is the rhetoric some politicians and commentators have used (for example in Germany, where we live) to the effect that whether quarantine measures are tightened will depend on how well the public obeys the measures already in place. The notion, sometimes formulated explicitly, that “We are watching you!” is a classic example of seeking to transfer all responsibility for punishments or restrictions onto those under surveillance. We are to accept the idea that if measures are tightened further, it is not because state leaders have made decisions themselves, but rather because of the bad decisions we have made. In the process, a distinction between “normal” members of society and those engaging in “abnormal”, dangerous behavior is constructed (more on this below).

This disavowal of official responsibility for decisions made is also underwritten by a hallmark of both disciplinary power and various forms of biopolitics: the rule of experts, which in the context of Covid-19 largely means epidemiologists and virologists.[4] These experts have frequently been invoked as unquestioned authorities whose advice the government is “merely following” despite the fact that the experts themselves have routinely emphasized the limits of their own knowledge, and as the pandemic has unfolded it has increasingly become “clear that the expertise does not exist” (Ecks 2020). For Roberto Esposito (2020) this turn to the experts is part of a long-running and perpetual “process of medicalization of politics” and a more recent “politicization of medicine, invested with tasks of social control that do not belong to it – which explains the extremely heterogeneous assessments virologists are making on the nature and gravity of the coronavirus”.

With reference to Foucault, this is a point at which discipline is articulated with some of the features of governmentality. In liberal and neoliberal governmentality (Foucault 2007, 2008a; Lemke 2001), expert statements about limitations on knowledge, for example, regarding outcomes of market competition, have historically supported the principle of “economy of government” (Foucault 2007), of minimal intervention in socio-economic processes. However, especially in states of exception, there has arguably been an embrace in the last few decades of the “precautionary principle”, whereby risks are no longer to be redistributed but rather to be avoided in the first place (Ewald 2002; Massumi 2015). Many experts in the current crisis thus cite the limits of their own knowledge as a reason not for refraining from action but, on the contrary, for quarantine and the closing of borders. In the face of uncertainty and conflicting projections from experts, however, it is difficult to know where the precautionary principle becomes a “trans-precautionary” actionism motivated by an urge to “do something”. In this vein, some state leaders may decide to impose ever-stricter measures not only because the experts say they should but also because of an emerging dynamic of international comparison. Most national publics are aware not only of what their own governments are doing but also of what governments elsewhere are doing. This has tended to heighten pressure upon decision-makers not to be seen as lagging behind or taking the threat less seriously than it is being taken elsewhere. For example, the fact the presidents of the USA and Brazil as well as the British prime minister have all – to varying degrees – between late March and early April 2020 backed away from vocal anti-lockdown stances can in part be attributed to the overwhelming international consensus regarding the need to take distancing measures.

Pulling in the other direction, a liberal commitment to “freedom” (cf. Rose 1999) has conditioned the somewhat limited deployment of disciplinary measures in Europe, which corresponds to Foucault’s (2007) characterization of the “apparatuses of security” as safeguarding the fundamental processes of self-regulation. For instance, German politicians and experts alike have repeatedly rejected harsher control regulations, on the one hand, by appealing to subjects’ own reasonable behavior and, on the other, by highlighting the importance of maintaining as much continuation of “normal life” as possible (more on this below).

To summarize this initial survey, a biopolitical imperative for the protection of human life is being reasserted, through unusually interventionist means of discipline and sovereign power (partial quarantines and emergency decrees), resulting in a partial (and tension-ridden) curtailment of socio-economic freedoms enjoyed by 21st century neoliberal subjects, and in a fairly comprehensive suspension of democratic involvement in political decision-making. We could characterize this general constellation in terms of “authoritarian governmentality” (Dean 1999) or as a “state of exception” (Agamben 2005, 2020). Both of these concepts, but especially the latter, were deployed in debates around the Global War on Terror initiated by the George W. Bush administration in the US in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001 (Agamben 2005; cf. Minca 2015). Other scholars have productively explored the articulation of “softer” forms of power with sovereignty in the construction of terrorist or biological threats in different but related ways (e.g. Braun 2007; Cooper 2006; Hannah 2010). Some of the more exciting scholarship in recent years has been aimed precisely at exploring other articulations and combinations in other settings (Biolsi 2018; Collier 2009; Parsons and Salter 2008).

Helpful as the concepts of authoritarian governmentality and state of exception may be, however, they focus somewhat one-sidedly upon the policies and practices of states and other authorities. In our view, a more appropriate umbrella term for the various suites of measures taken against the spread of the virus and of Covid-19 in contexts such as Europe and North America is Foucault’s notion of the “security pact”. In late 1977, the West German government under Helmut Schmidt imposed a wide-ranging series of controls upon the population (and the media) in its escalating conflict with the extremist Red Army Faction (the “Baader-Meinhof Gang”). Foucault watched these developments closely. With the concept of the “security pact”, Foucault sought to explain how a population normally governed in a liberal way can effectively agree to the suspension of its own rights and freedoms in order to allow the state to address an urgent threat to social order (Foucault 2003a, 2003b; Hannah 2012; Lemke 2019). Clearly, the cultivation of fear and anxiety are important here (for valuable analyses of the role of these and other affects in power relations, see Anderson 2010, 2011). The notion of the security pact has the advantage of acknowledging more clearly the fact that emergency measures such as those we now see in Europe and North America (or New Zealand, Australia, Japan and South Korea) are taken within a context still fundamentally shaped by the liberal “play of interests” (Foucault 2007), in which some kind of democratic legitimation remains a clear necessity.

In our initial survey, some tensions and contradictions within and between different kinds of power relations in the various specific versions of the security pact in different countries have already emerged. In the remaining sections we would like to briefly sketch some further important issues raised by the current pandemic: issues around circulation, immunity and capital; groupings; and freedom, resistance and democracy.

Circulation, Immunity and Capital

Foucault’s (1978) notion of biopower as aimed at “making live” points to the fact that the life of the population, its economic activity, health, family structures, hygiene, nutrition, demographic characteristics, etc., have come to be seen as positive targets of state activity (for example, built urban infrastructure, social welfare programmes of all kinds). According to Foucault (2007), central among the goals of such activity is the maintenance of healthy or beneficial forms of circulation (goods, money, fresh air) and the suppression of damaging forms (e.g. harmful drugs or transmissible diseases). Regarding the current Covid-19 crisis, one of the key biopolitical aims of state measures is to shut down the detrimental circulation of the virus by shutting down the circulation of its human carriers, or at least limiting contact between units of human circulation by banning contact across households even in public or common spaces. But human interfaces and relays of circulation cannot be shut down completely. For one thing, physical movement itself generally contributes to the health of human bodies. The mobility needs of the millions of dogs living as companion species must also be taken into account (Haraway 2008; cats can generally be left to their own devices, fish left in their tanks, etc.). Secondly, the movement of goods and money remains necessary, both in general and especially in order to keep partially immobilized human – and pet – life alive. The division between benign and dangerous circulations of goods cannot be complete due to the necessity of human beings in transport and distribution. This already points to a tension within the basic biopolitical logic of the cultivation of human life: to “make live” rather than “let die”, it may be seen as necessary to make the specific form of life temporarily less healthy or fulfilling for some groups. Being “made to live” at the price of quality of life is perhaps most poignantly illustrated by the situation of many elderly and infirm people housed in institutions now forbidding visits by family and friends.

In his lecture course of 1975-1976, published in English as Society Must Be Defended (Foucault 2003c; see Philo 2007), Foucault explores the ways in which early modern political thought constructed the problem of the internal enemy, and argues, for example, that the modern discourses surrounding “class struggle” partake of the same logic as eugenic discourses and practices aimed at neutralizing quasi-biological threats posed by “racialized” groups, that is, groups constructed as biologically different from the main body of a population. In other words, the thematic field of biopower and biopolitics also involves questions of immunity and auto-immunity. Therefore, the problem of circulation can also be described as an (auto-)immune problem.

The concept of immunity has been given a central place in an account of biopower advanced by Roberto Esposito (2008, 2010, 2011). In Esposito’s semantics of immunization, negation and protection of life do not exclude each other but are intrinsically tied together. To protect life, political actors must exercise an “inclusive exclusion” of some life-negating threats. Hence, for Espostio an important biopolitical technique of immunization is vaccination, a measure also mentioned by Foucault (2007) in his discussion of smallpox in the age of liberalism. For Esposito, to vaccinate a society means to intensify and strengthen life via the controlled intrusion of a certain dose of the objectonable pathogen, minor enough to not erupt as full-blown disease in the body, but nevertheless sufficient to ward off further infections and preempt pathogenicity as far as possible with a newly strenghtened immune defense. Yet immunization also always carries the danger that it can develop harmful dynamics, expressing itself in deadly, “thanatopolitical” measures (Esposito 2008: 110-145), where the life-protective power of immunization turns radically upon its own body and collapses into something like an “autoimmune illness” (2008: 116) or autoimmune “paroxysm” (2008: 117), which Esposito sees as having been most clearly demonstrated in Nazism.

In the continuing absence of a vaccine to protect the population against the Covid-19 pathogen, the “internal enemy” cannot be eliminated because it only exists in “personal union” with the population to be protected. Social distancing and careful hygiene measures acquire their central importance from the fact that ongoing circulation of human bodies is simultaneously dangerous and necessary. The contradictory biopolitical valence of individual bodies is perhaps most intensely experienced in visits to doctors and hospitals or in check-out lines at supermarkets. At these critical points, we place ourselves and potentially also others in immediate danger in order to acquire the means to survive. In a sense, these points of public proximity between bodies can be seen as occupying a paradigmatic place similar to the place occupied by sexual practices in Foucault’s (1978) studies: a particularly important hinge point between personal and demographic well-being.

The issue of circulation also raises fundamental questions about the ends of biopower. Foucault started from the assumption – which we have not called into question until now – that the ends of biopower are human populations and the individuals making them up. The first sense in which this assumption can be questioned has to to with the circulation of capital; the second with what might be called the “ethics of biopolitical valuation”. In Germany as elsewhere, shortly after the imposition of restrictions, calls began to emerge to loosen these restrictions for the sake of the health of the economy. Lurking behind these calls is the possibility that, especially under neoliberal forms of governance, the real priority of biopower is increasingly the cultivation of capital, not of human life per se (Mada Masr 2020).

We are accustomed to the idea that neoliberalism has starved and marginalized social safety nets, health and education systems, and other infrastructures for the support of human life. At the same time, though, neoliberalized regimes at all scales have demonstrably coddled and supported packets of capital in various different forms (corporations, as in “corporate welfare”, but also investment funds and the holdings of wealthy individuals) to an extent never dreamed of by the human beneficiaries of Keynesian welfarism in the immediate postwar decades. Through deregulation, tax loopholes, abatements and holidays, international trade and finance regimes and massive rescue packages of capitals “too big to fail” – all undergirded by the expansion of corporate human rights – states (and their human populations) have repeatedly enacted massive and extravagant programmes to “make capital live” rather than “let it die” (Dyer-Witheford 2008; Hannah 2011). At the very least, capital has become ever more prominent in the “play of interests” characteristic of liberal governmentality.

Making capital live means, as legions of scholars from Adam Smith onwards have demonstrated, promoting its free circulation in ever new rounds of investment. As the “sufferings” of capital intensify in the current crisis, we can expect a shift in crisis policy toward a more open assertion that if the biopolitical interests of capital and those of human life increasingly clash, the interests of capital “must” be given precedence. Even more than in the US president’s initial response to the pandemic, such privileging of capital over the population has been pronounced in the statements of Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro – which have, however, also been met by serious pushback within the government and among state governors, bringing into relief how difficult it is for a president to maintain and enact a politics that openly does not care for the population (Meyer and Bustamante 2020; Richmond 2020). In such pro-capital positions it is not difficult to hear echoes of Esposito’s above-mentioned discussion of the danger of immunization measures getting out of control and resulting in “thanatopolitical” auto-immune over-reactions. From the perspective of capital, the cure could be worse than the illness.

However, the premise that the needs of capital and of human populations are so strongly in tension with each other has also come under critical scrutiny. On the one hand, the interests of capital can be seen to converge with the interests of humans in recovering a good quality of life. Indeed, from the human-interest perspective, some health experts have already been arguing that “lockdown might cost more lives than it will save”, as Ecks (2020) has noted.[5] (It is important to keep in mind that this convergence is differential: capital tends to serve some humans more than others, and the privileged tend to dominate the liberal play of interests.) On the other hand, some interventions suggest that the long-run economic benefits of keeping the death toll to a minimum through restrictive measures will outweigh the short-term shock of global recession or depression.

However this issue is couched, it will bring with it debate about the second issue, the “ethics of biopolitical valuation”. To the extent that the health and well-being of a human population and the individuals making it up continue to be important “ends” of biopower, how exactly are these ends understood? The term “ends” could conjure up the Kantian ethical principle that human beings are never to be evaluated as “means” but as singular “ends in themselves”. A contrasting ethical perspective is that of utilitarianism, whereby the good of a population would be understood as the greatest good for the greatest number of people. At its most extreme, utilitarian thinking can inform Malthusian willingness to let “weak” segments of a population die – a position attributed by Sandro Mezzadra (2020) to the (initial) responses of the Brazilian, British and US governments. The rationality of biopower could be interpreted according to either of these ways of valuing a population. Whereas quasi-Kantian biopower would insist on the incomparable and singular value of, and the necessity of preserving, every human being, utilitarian biopower would be more willing to trade off the interests, or even the lives, of some in order to maximize the benefit to the majority.

We can see an interesting example of the tensions involved in this shift in the pursuit by some governments of a policy of “herd immunity”. Letting the virus take its course in order to develop widespread immunity as quickly as possible illustrates some of Esposito’s (2008) ideas about immunization very well, and constitutes a capital-friendly policy, but may cost thousands of lives in a short period of time. Thus most governments seem for the moment to be sticking with a Kantian rather than a utilitarian approach. One fear is that of being confronted with the hard ethical choices of triage in cases where hospitals are overwhelmed by acutely ill sufferers of Covid-19. Put differently, if Kantian biopolitics is not pursued strictly enough to keep infection rates under some kind of control, more countries may be forced into the utilitarian universe of calculations about which human lives should be saved at the expense of others.

Groupings – Nation, Ethnicity, Class, and the Family

As this last point makes clear, problems of circulation and immunity are necessarily connected to shifting “dividing practices” that configure and reconfigure groupings of human beings within the population. If the tension between valuing humans and valuing capital has intensified divisions among more or less vulnerable groups, the segmentation of the population into sub-groups as part of the biopolitical measures taken in response to Covid-19 has actualized a series of further divisions related to nationalism, race and ethnicity, class, age and the family.

Generally speaking, the exceptional character of the pandemic has been responded to with a re-affirmation of national sovereignty, correlating with an emphasis on each nation-state’s population as primary target of protective measures. This emphasis on the nation-state as the primary scale for attributing risks and interventions has directed particular attention to the protection of national borders – despite these being “especially ill-equipped to … address global phenomena such as global warming, environmental degradation, or pandemics” (Billé 2020). For instance, even after an uncontrolled spread of Covid-19 had already been reported across Germany, the government’s early measures focused largely on protecting the borders to neighbouring countries (see Koch et al. 2020). Simultaneously, resettlement programmes regarding war refugees were suspended (Spiegel 2020). And while German citizens dwelling abroad were brought back to Germany, undocumented migrants continued to be deported to other countries – including to various African countries that in contrast to Germany had not yet registered significant numbers of SARS-CoV-2 infections (Halasz et al. 2020).

This accentuated division between “national citizens” and “foreigners” is in danger of leading to the kind of racialized split between those worth living and those who must die, which Foucault (1978) identified as a recurrent feature in modern biopower and which Achille Mbembe (2003) elaborated with his notion of “necropolitics”. This is signalled by the broad reflex toward rejection or expulsion of racialized Others who are deemed “outsiders” (El-Tayeb 2011), already evident in right-wing authoritarian movements in many countries, which has dovetailed with a spate of uncoordinated decisions over the past few weeks to close international borders. That such decisions are not necessarily beneficial in a biopolitical sense can be seen, for example, in the dangers posed to national agricultural systems by the temporary blockage of the seasonal immigration of migrant farm workers. Meanwhile, far-right activists have been mobilizing on social media and in neighbourhoods (Ulrich 2020) and were suspected by a German federal agency of exploiting the exceptional situation to launch racist attacks (Jansen 2020).

A second and related sense in which groupings are reconfigured concerns relations of privilege and underprivilege defined in terms of exposure and vulnerability to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Most jobs that place people at the critical juncture points of the circulation of goods and the medical care of the population (storage and transport workers, supermarket and filling station workers, nurses, elder-care and domestic workers, postal carriers) are considered relatively unskilled and are poorly paid. The number of the workers exposed to the virus is further augmented by many governments’ decisions to continue many branches of production. Moreover, despite some variation across sectors, these groups of workers tend to be composed disproportionately of women, migrants and people of color. In the case of African Americans, the risks of disproportionate exposure are compounded by the higher rates of hypertension, diabetes and other medical conditions often suffered by economically, politically and culturally marginalized groups (Bouie 2020). Thus an intersectional dynamic of economic underprivilege for these groups is often intensified at a biopolitical level. The same applies to those earning their income in a range of so-called “informal” kinds of work in what Chatterjee (2004) aptly calls “most of the world”. Particularly exposed to the virus have been the “approximately 1.8 billion people worldwide [who] live in homelessness and grossly inadequate housing” (OHCHR 2020).

Another change evident in quarantine practices is the suppression of elective or recreational groupings. This lays the groundwork for identifying unauthorized elective groupings (youth “hanging out” in public space, or people getting together for “corona parties”) as scapegoats. The escalation of fines, jail time and other punishments recommended or already enacted against such groups positions them as dangerous outsiders posing an autoimmune problem to be combated with more intrusive sovereign and disciplinary measures. Once again, communities that are subject to racial othering are among the privileged targets of such measures, as has become clear in the case of the Spanish Roma (Gay y Blasco and Rodriguez Camacho 2020).

On the other side of dividing practices, at least two “positive” groupings are typically constructed in public discourse. The first of these is composed of “the vulnerable”, a grouping worthy of protective care, both through policies and decrees banning or minimizing contact with them, and as an ethical point of orientation in public appeals to comply with the restrictions declared in the state of emergency. The second positive group was composed of those who have survived Covid-19. In the early weeks of the restrictions in Europe, it was assumed that these individuals, being immune afterwards, could enhance the (economic) life of the community. Calls also emerged to mobilize this group in a more directly biopolitical way, in “front-line” situations of direct contact with the infected (e.g. Eichenberger et al. 2020).

More recent reporting, however, calls the assumption that survivors have (lasting) immunity into question (Isaac and Croft 2020). This lends the logic of immunization identified by Esposito another level of ambivalence. If having had Covid-19 does confer immunity, the growing number of survivors circulating once again throughout the social body would constitute a healthy process of immunization in Esposito’s sense. If it does not, these circulating bodies could still contribute to a more self-destructive development in the continued absence of a pharmaceutical vaccine. Even leaving this issue aside, it is highly problematic to suggest, as some prominent economists have recently done, that people who could be issued “immunity certificates” allowing them to resume normal life, and to be deployed as resources. This argument can be seen as an intensification of the economic imperialist “human capital” discourse originating in Chicago School neoliberalism of the 1970s and 1980s, and it implies the creation of a large class of excluded persons not authorized to resume normal lives (Frankfurter Rundschau 2020).

Populations in some disciplinary institutions, such as the prison or refugee camps, are situated at the intersection of contradictory biopolitical categorizations, sometimes treated as negative “risks to society” and in other situations as positive “vulnerable populations”. On the one hand, instead of re-locating people to emptied hotels, refugee camps across Europe have in the vast majority of cases been sealed, often accompanied with their sensationalist depiction as potential coronavirus hot spots. And when individuals were tested positive for the virus, migrants were often left stranded – and confined – without sufficient protection (Network Refugees4Refugees 2020), while militarized interventions in some cases simultaneously staged scenarios of a national security threat (Marx21 2020). Moreover, states such as Italy and Malta suspended rescue operations in the Mediterranean, leaving increasing numbers of people to die, often in plain sight of those that had received emergency calls (Röhn 2020). Likewise, prison inmates have been subjected to new restrictions, including for instance the suspension of visits or exercise in the yard (Kampf and Pinkert 2020).

On the other hand, some countries and regions have suspended detention for some of the detainees, though in some cases – as in France – only after mutinies had already occurred in the face of inadequate conditions (Der Standard 2020). In other cases, protests and mutiny were violently put down, as in Bogotá, where at least 23 dead inmates were reported in late March 2020 (Dießelmann 2020).

The final grouping to mention is the family. In a sense, the current restrictions in many countries amount to a forced recentering of social relations and decision-making toward family or household units. This shift can easily place women in a multiply disadvantaged position, given the persistence of patriarchal social relations that structure the home and the family. Domestic violence, which disproportionately threatens the well-being – and the very lives – of women, has been reported to increase with the combination of increased stress and experiences of loss-of-control and the increased opportunity afforded to potential abusers by continuous co-presence (Langowski and Piontek 2020). Additionally, children remaining at home due to school closings can be expected to intensify demands on women, who still assume a disproportionate share of care work in all countries. Indeed, anecdotal evidence is emerging at the time of this writing that submissions of papers to scholarly journals by women academics have decreased markedly relative to submissions by men since the onset of corona measures (Kitchener 2020). Incidents of child abuse are likewise assumed to be increasing, despite the fact that reported cases have been dropping, which is presumably due to children’s intensified dependency on those exercising parental authority (Fannrich-Lautenschläger 2020).

But the family has also acquired renewed significance in another sense. The instrument of contact restrictions aims first of all at the creation of “redundant circles”, which means that people should be in close contact only with the same small number of people, wherever possible. Or, as German epidemiologist Alexander Kekulé has repeatedly put it, “You should only be in close contact with those with whom you wish to share the virus” (MDR 2020). While – both in theory and in practice – redundant circles assume a range of different forms, including for instance shared housing arrangements, close (temporarily exclusive) friendships, support networks of informal workers and homeless people or polyamorous networks that span two or three apartments, political discourse has tended to foreground one form in particular: the “household”, often narrated in terms of the model of the bourgeois heterosexual nuclear family.

For instance, when in March 2020 the injunction to “stay at home” proliferated in UK public discourse, what was evoked was typically “an organisation of domestic space, one that mandates a private garden, a home office, a playroom, a kitchen with storage, a garage with flatbed freezer, and a separate bedroom for each child” (Fitzgerald 2020). As Des Fitzgerald further points out, the presupposition of “home” spaces that embody a normative middle-class family lifestyle negated a range of other ways of structuring life and intimacy – including by populations living in forms of precarity – while also tying into the racist discourses around who is legitimately “at home” in Britain that have surged in the context of Brexit. In this context, the medical advice to “stay at home” turned into the morally laden imperative to “stay the fuck at home” (ibid.).

In the German context the use of the term “households” in the legal texts of emergency decrees still tended to give way to narrower references to “families” in politicians’ talks and media reports. Likewise, a Q&A guide to the measures taken by the state of Bavaria specified a range of examples in ways that revealed a heterosexist bias, for instance using only the female form where situations of parents taking care of children are addressed (Bayerisches Innenministerium 2020).

Apart from forming an obvious reference for biopolitical measures in contexts where the nuclear family is a privileged institution organizing private sociability, the family also seems to fulfill here a particular function in rendering biopolitics effective – akin to their role in relation to disciplinary power (Donzelot 1979; Foucault 1977). While contemporary families have to a certain degree diversified in relation to the sovereign model of patriarchal authority as Foucault described it in the 18th and 19th centuries, state authorities still count on the family as the mediator of the daily control exerted over, and care extended to, children, elderly relatives, returned patients or ex-detainees – not least wherever social conservatism and free-market neoliberalism conjoin (Cooper 2017). The state’s assumptions around these routinized exercises of control and care might in part explain why “the family” has assumed such discursive prominence.

In this context it is worth considering to what extent political responses to the Covid-19 epidemic might lead to an unprecedented, longer-lasting reaffirmation of the bourgeois nuclear family as the privileged micro-component of social life. This new centrality can be seen as an additional dimension of what Don Mitchell (2005) diagnosed as the “SUV model of citizenship”: the “shell” around the family unit symbolized by the SUV controls not only political and economic but explicitly biological and affective exchange among family units as well as in relation to other groups and individuals. Building on Foucault in conjunction with feminist scholarship, we can thus think of the renewed importance of family units as a form of seemingly “non-modern” government – that is, government of the oikos through non-chosen relations based on intimate personal knowledge, duty, tradition, and often hierarchy. Thus the family persists not as “the anachronistic … residue” of a former system, but rather as “an increasingly essential component” (Foucault 2008b: 80) of biopower, being tasked with a larger role in the self-immunization of the population.

Freedom, Resistance and Democracy

A final theme it is important to examine more closely is the pervasive issue of individual freedom. One of Foucault’s (2007) crucial insights in his writings and lectures on governmentality is that “freedom”[6] is politically relevant not merely in the generic sense of an ever-present ability to act otherwise, but also always as a specific construct associated with different kinds of social power relations. Specific constructions of “freedom” have traversed many different responses to the spread of the virus, and it is worth examining some of the details.

To start with a disciplinary technique, the partial character of quarantine is explained on the one hand by invoking “freedom” as something to be protected. Limited quarantine is often linked in the official pronouncements of politicians to “rights”, thus suggesting the relevance of democratic citizenship. However, the freedom to be protected is more accurately seen as a construction connected to the liberal rationality of governmentality, not the more familiar liberal rationality of citizenship. This is particularly clear in the case of the German governments’ recommended rules for reduced contact (Die Bundesregierung 2020a), where only those “freedoms” which contribute to the productivity and well-being of the population (traveling to work, consumption, physical exercise) are invoked. The privileged role of the economy is also apparent in cases such as the Bavarian emergency measures, which forbid people outside the household/partnership to perform childcare in private homes except in cases of commercial private childcare (Bayerisches Innenministerium 2020).

There is little acknowledgment from politicians or those in charge of institutions (at least at the time of this writing) of the need to protect democratic “freedoms” of participation in decision-making. Quite the opposite: freedom of assembly is constructed as a biopolitical danger, and the setting up of technologically supported virtual substitutes or enhancements for public interaction have thus far been restricted to production, consumption and volunteering, not public debate or participation. The polyvocal “play of interests” that according to Foucault (2007) characterises liberal governmentality has thus been radically narrowed down, as parliaments have reduced the numbers of seats, civic participation processes have been suspended (e.g. Deutschlandfunk 2020), and demonstrations have been banned (GFF 2020).

German states have passed divergent laws, some now permitting public assemblies under certain restrictions. Moreover, in mid April, the German Federal Constitutional Court struck down a generic ban of demonstrations (Al Jazeera 2020). Still, various politicians have publicly dismissed the legitimacy of exercising the right to assembly. In the prevailing “economy of government”, democratic debate is treated here at least implicitly as a luxury for normal times, when many decisions are less urgent. Through interesting combinations of the imageries of war and of family, dissenting or questioning voices are stigmatized as unpatriotic or dangerous. The Minister of the Interior of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia went as far as questioning the constitutional right to freedom of assembly itself (Ministerium des Innerndes Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen 2020).

On the other hand, freedom as the more general possibility of acting in different ways, is widely acknowledged as the flipside of the limited character of state resources, capacities and knowledge. In this second sense, the population possesses a de facto freedom that fills all the spaces not controlled by authorities – especially where the latter suffer from insufficiencies or cuts in public spending. Thus, states appeal strenuously and repeatedly to individuals to exercise this freedom responsibly: to obey curfews, to refrain from hoarding consumer goods or organizing “corona parties”. Freedom is to be exercised in line with the goals of biopower, that is, in solidarity with other members of the population (i.e. those members constructed as worthy of solidarity). This is, among other things, an historical departure from the long hegemony of neoliberal constructions of freedom, whereby we should also act as enterprises in simply pursuing our own interests. A new form of responsibly exercised freedom in the current situation – and an interesting hybrid of disciplinary and liberal-governmental logics – is the widespread practice of “self-quarantine”.

“Irresponsible” exercises of freedom in hoarding raise the issue of affect and emotion. As mentioned earlier, the logic of the security pact between state and population – and the liberal art of governing more generally – relies centrally on the cultivation of fear and anxiety in combination with instrumental reason. Yet promoting anxiety while trying to steer it only in helpful directions (social distancing, hygiene measures) and not in unhelpful directions (hoarding, losing trust in the government) is extremely difficult.

The cultivation of fear and anxiety also may not be sustainable in the long run. Should Covid-19 be perceived as being “under control” as infection rates go down, which is how some have interpreted the partial relaxation of measures in Germany at the time of this writing (Die Bundesregierung 2020b), this would obviously tend to relax fears. If its results continue to be as deadly as they have already turned out to be in many places, it is still likely that in the long run, the new, terrible features of everyday life would gradually become routinized and incorporated into the everyday experiences of the population. If, finally, the measures taken up to this point do not prevent a drastic worsening of the situation, with overwhelmed health systems and hundreds of thousands of deaths, the decisions already taken by states up to this point would lose credibility in retrospect. In all three scenarios, it is likely that general acceptance of the curtailment of democratic freedoms – especially participation in decision-making – an acceptance central to the security pact would evaporate, either slowly or quickly. The emergency decisions of political and institutional authorities are already being questioned in many settings (RNZOnline 2020) (including the German university system in which we work), and this kind of debate can only be expected to increase. Alternatively, authoritarian “solutions” might gain traction, as German sociologist Wilhelm Heitmeyer has argued (Bangel 2020).

It is clear in all of this that discipline, biopower and governmentality cannot be understood as transparent and internally consistent logics, especially when combined in concrete contexts. Rather, they denote messy and tension-ridden projects that often generate effects which contradict declared aims. Tensions we have identified above include those between preserving and limiting circulation, between the interests of capital and of human beings, between different ways of valuing human life biopolitically, between calls for unity and structures and practices that divide populations into positively and negatively valued groups, and between the liberal preservation and the sovereign or disciplinary limitation of freedoms. As such, it should not be surprising that, in a Foucauldian understanding, these complex constellations of power routinely provide openings for various forms of resistance.

In every “state of exception” called out by modern authorities, resistance and questioning of authoritative decisions is – at least in the initial stages – stigmatized by authorities in strong terms as dangerous to the well-being of the population, as “divisive” at a time when “we must all act together”, or worse, as “treasonous” or “unpatriotic”. However the Covid-19 crisis plays out, we are already witnessing increasingly open and widespread struggles both over the exact limits of state impositions and over the degree of democratic participation in decision-making. For Foucault, discipline, biopower and biopolitics, and governmentality in all their diverse forms are in a sense constantly provoked by and in “dialogue” with actual or imagined forms of resistance and struggle. As Deleuze and Guattari (2004a, 2004b) have argued so persuasively, ordering schemes and regimentations are in many ways traversed by all sorts of social and material dynamics that tend to overspill or disrupt these schemes, while also prompting new orders. More deliberate and conscious forms of resistance and struggle have also perpetually haunted and been called out or co-constructed by the sorts of power relations Foucault outlined.[7] Fundamentally, resistance across many of the forms of power he analyses is a matter of refusal to be governed in a particular way, by a particular set of authorities, in a particular situation (Foucault 1982). Though he acknowledged the historical importance of the grand and long-familiar phenomena of “revolt” and “revolution”, he generally sought to focus upon other forms of struggle and resistance not narrated in terms of binary oppositions and seemingly stable social categories. He was interested in the contingent and relational constitution of political discourses, practices and subjectivities.

In the current context, one instructive example of the intimate interplay of power and resistance in this latter sense surrounds the exact meaning of curfews and limitations on personal mobility. To take Germany again as an example, the initial orders at the state and then the federal levels foresaw people still being allowed to leave their houses, but only to go to work, to shop for groceries and other necessary goods, or to engage in physical exercise (including walking dogs) (Zeit Online 2020). Subsequently, however, reports of people sunbathing in parks provoked authorities (including the Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn) to specify that recreating outside does not include being stationary. This was then again re-qualified locally, such that Berlin’s senate, for instance, in a revised legislation enacted on 21 April 2020, exempted “rest periods” of an unspecified duration from the prohibition to be stationary (Der Regierende Bürgermeister von Berlin 2020).

In effect, thousands of Germans have been defining necessary forms of recreation in their own way, to include not just physical but mental and emotional health, for which being outside as such may be necessary, so long as social distancing is still practiced. This interpretation is fully understandable especially in the case of city-dwellers who may not have even a balcony on which to sun themselves, much less a garden in which to get some movement – not to mention those without stable homes. This situation highlights the importance of negotiations – also taking place in many other countries – around the way people’s basic, inherent freedom is shaped in relation to officially sanctioned forms of freedom, and associated issues of whose knowledge forms the legitimate basis for decisions about self-government. In the governmentality literature, such issues are often discussed in terms of the emergence of spontaneous or more coordinated forms of “counter-governmentality”, forms of self-government at odds with the orderings imposed from above (e.g. Appadurai 2001). Under Covid-19, besides individual ways of subverting official regulations, such forms of counter-governmentality have also included new collective practices, including creative forms of public protest such as forming a 900-meter queue in front of a bakery while holding banners (Fritsche 2020).

New forms of self-organization have already taken shape at the level of neighbourhoods – often organized via chat groups of the messenger app Telegram (Solidarisch gegen Corona 2020) – and virtual spaces in the compilation and distribution of information through various online platforms (e.g. Corona Monitor 2020). In these forms of non-state organization, the terms “solidarity”, “care” and “vulnerability” have also figured prominently. For instance, online neighborhood initiatives and NGOs have summoned and coordinated the distribution of food and services to homeless people and vulnerable groups (SR3 2020). Even though some of these networks have emanated from the same constituencies that have been critical of state responses, the discussions surrounding these solidarity activities have frequently re-emphasized the importance of measures relating to a reduction of contacts, as in the Berlin-based Telegram group “CORONA – NEWS – Solidarisch gegen Corona” (which one of us has been following from its inception in mid March 2020). And although some leftist critics such as Agamben (2020) have denounced what they see as a straightforward aggravation of a deeply demonic force of biopower, others have called for acknowledging the democratic promise inherent in the care for the vulnerable (Hark 2020; Mezzadra 2020). Alongside recurrent mistrust of biopolitical measures, there has also been a call for enacting a kind of “biopolitics from below” (Sotiris 2020).

Such enactments have been particularly pronounced in some contexts with previous experiences of epidemics, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a more than two-year Ebola epidemic had just subsided when Covid-19 arrived. As a team of researchers notes, “Head teachers decided to close their schools even before the government officially declared that all public spaces should be closed down and most NGOs in Goma bought masks and distributed them to their staff a week before the state of emergency and the closure of the borders on 24 March” (Morisho et al. 2020). These authors further point out that for government measures to meet trust among citizens, issues such as transparency, accountability and the involvement of local communities are key.

Concluding Thoughts

The issues of freedom, democratic participation and counter-governmentality will likely become more prominent the closer societies come to being able to “return to normality”: the question is, which normality? In light of the ecological crisis, to take the most obvious example, but also in view of increasing awareness of the human costs of the accelerated form of neoliberalized global capitalism that reigned up until the virus became a global issue, it already seems clear that the long-dominant principle according to which “there is no alternative” has definitively lost whatever remaining shred of credibility it may have had. Different ends are imaginable for biopower: the support of planetary life need not be limited to human beings, and human well-being need not be chained slavishly to the demands of capital circulation. And, given all the complexities and contradictions involved in the current state of exception, it is also clear that there is no single, inevitable or mandatory constellation of means, no exclusively legitimate way in which social power relations must be organized.

Foucault was famously and rightly critical of the idea that social life could ever be organized in a way that dispensed with power relations altogether. Instead, two questions are always paramount: Which forms of social power relations, in which articulations, are preferable?; and, secondly, How and by whom should decisions about social power relations be made? Even in situations like the current one, where some version of the security pact is in force, there are no necessarily or automatically valid answers to these questions. Sovereignty, discipline, biopower and biopolitics, and liberal governmentality are neither the only nor always the most important forms of power shaping our lives. However, understanding how they work, and seeing how the current crisis has shifted the ways in which they are articulated, may be helpful more generally in supporting reflective involvement in present and future decisions about how life during and after the coronavirus crisis should be shaped.


[1] The terms “biopower” and “biopolitics” are not always used in strictly distinct ways (Rabinow and Rose 2006), but it is helpful to think of “biopower” as referring to this basic underlying rationality of cultivating the life of the population, and of “biopolitics” as a term for the diverse range of different specific measures and techniques that have been drawn upon in many different settings to pursue this larger project.

[2] We disagree with Philip Sarasin’s (2020) assertion that the categories of biopower and biopolitics are not of much use in analyzing the present situation. In our view, Sarasin’s perspective on the power relations shaping modern “liberal” societies is too narrow, and fails adequately to acknowledge the logic of the “security pact” (see below) in liberal settings.

[3] Regarding the mobilization of the military see for instance for Denmark and and for Germany. Poland is among the states that have reportedly called upon paramilitary units

[4] The German government has repeatedly legitimated its responses by drawing on a narrow circle involving in particular the Robert Koch Institute and the head of the Institute of Virology at Berlin’s Charité university hospital Christian Drosten.

[5] Kreilinger and Zeller (2020) argue that already in January and February capital was consistently privileged over human lives by a number of European states and the European Union.

[6] For detailed and insightful treatments of the issue of freedom in Foucualt – though with divergent emphases – see Nikolas Rose (1999, 2001) and Sergei Prozorov (2007).

[7] Foucault himself was involved in movements and conflicts around prison conditions, rights of asylum, anti-psychiatry, the oppression of sexual minorities, and – controversially – in connection with the Iranian Revolution in 1978-1979 (Afary and Anderson 2005).


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