Can Europe Make It?

‘Personal sovereignty’ in pandemics: or, why do today’s ‘sovereignists’ reject state sovereignty?

Calls for the rejection of face masks, for example, bring together a disparate set of European political actors – all re-claiming ‘personal sovereignty’.

Luiza Bialasiewicz Hanna L. Muehlenhoff
30 June 2020
Founder and owner of natural food-producer Rapunzel-Naturkost AG, 2004.
Founder and owner of longstanding natural food-producer Rapunzel-Naturkost AG, 2004.
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C3721 Rolf Schultes/PA. All rights reserved.

From the AfD and Pegida in Germany, to the FPÖ and Identitarian groups in Austria, to a range of far-right groups in Italy and Poland, over the past months self-declared right-wing ‘sovereignist’ movements have been forcefully contesting the attempts of state officials to enforce any sort of limitations on individual behavior or mobility in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As Richard Seymour wrote in the New Statesman recently, “it is not the obvious position for authoritarian, anti-immigrant nationalists to take. The pandemic demands unprecedented restrictions, border controls and surveillance. It offers popularity to any government that takes control of the situation”.

Yet in their protests against the “sanitary dictatorship” of the state [i], far- and populist-right groups have been joined by other political forces that could be characterized as more of the populist-left variety – from some gilet jaunes in France, to the gilet arancioni in Italy (loosely connected to fringes of the Five Star Movement). Indeed, opposition to the sovereign powers of states in attempting to govern the spread of the pandemic has created the most unlikely of coalitions: from anarchists and natural health proponents, to anti-vaxxers and right-nativists, all mobilizing around a purported defense of personal and bodily freedoms.

The independent self

Although such groups range greatly in ideological orientation, their coalescing around this particular issue brings to the fore an important political shift: a shift from the collective to the individual as the site for the protection and claiming of rights.

This is an important shift to note in this Covid-moment, when it is precisely the well-being of the collective ‘we’ that is at stake. What unites these disparate movements, in fact, are claims to ‘personal sovereignty’, ‘bodily autonomy’ and ‘bodily rights’, invoked as a locus around which to contest the ‘pandemic-powers’ of the state.

While these notions may appear, at first sight, to be inconsistent with the far-right’s positioning as the self-appointed guardians of national ‘we’, they are actually fully consistent with the regimes of “affective citizenship” [ii] sustaining contemporary far-right and right-populist politics, but also with wider neoliberal understandings of the independent and responsible ‘self’ that permeate our politics and societies more broadly. This is what accounts for the, at first glance, unlikely political coalitions coming together in opposition to the powers of the state.

You are what you eat

The responsibilization of the individual, coupled with a rejection of state intervention and belief in conspiracy theories, is indeed a key part of the discourses of many New Age and natural health proponents. As Delaney (2020) remarked in the Australian context, “deeply embedded and perhaps central in the connection between the wellness industry and conspiracy is the notion of sovereignty over our bodies.

For believers, the sovereign body is the body in a “pure” state, not reliant on chemicals to heal, and trusted to fire up its own immune response when confronted with a virus – even a novel one like Covid-19”. In the EU context, one striking example is offered by the founder and CEO of the organic food producer Rapunzel, one of the largest on the European natural foods market, who has publicly described viruses as a ‘part of the earth’s biological life’, contributing to the development of the latter, as too of the human anatomy and psyche.

In his words, healthy food is far more important than masks and social distancing measures. Such prescriptions for re-claiming sovereignty over individual health have gone hand in hand with the stoking of anti-vaccination sentiments, in Germany as too in other national contexts. The focus on individual agency and responsibility comes, indeed, with the denial of public health as a collective good (and responsibility).

The focus on individual agency and responsibility comes, indeed, with the denial of public health as a collective good (and responsibility).

People like Us

In the case of the far- and populist right, the discursive shift from reclaiming ‘popular sovereignty’ to assuring ‘personal sovereignty’ is only seemingly new. Right-wing affective mobilization in recent years has been strongly premised on the promise of new forms of popular solidarity, promising to reclaim ‘abandoned communities’ and ‘people left behind’ from the assault of national elites and globalizing forces.

But the collective, ‘popular’, solidarity imagined by such movements has always been a limited, exclusive solidarity, based on welfare chauvinism and nativism, and “promising hope and empathy only within a group of similar people”.[iii] In their claims for recognition and rights, the far and populist-right have always appealed to an exclusive collectivity, delimiting who deserved concern, protection and care; who should, and who should not, have the right to claim the national space of collective rights.

What is more, while right-populist forms of affective mobilization may have explicitly appealed to imaginaries of ‘strong’ states and ‘strong’ rights, they have always been firmly a part – and product – of the neoliberal state and neoliberal conceptions of citizenship, as numerous commentators have argued.[iv] In this sense, far-right strategies of affective mobilization have always fallen firmly within the forms of individualized, entrepreneurial citizenship characteristic of neoliberalism. This is what brings them together in this moment with other political forces born of late neoliberalism, ranging from radical-ecologists, to wellness fanatics, and left-populists.

Masculinist subjectivities

As Birgit Sauer writes about right-populist movements, it is precisely “neoliberal strategies of self-entrepreneurship, of competition and insecurity [that] have created [their] masculinist affective subjectivities – entitled to compensate for fear and shame by anger and irresponsibility for others. Hence, the affective strategy of the radical right is successful because affect mobilization has been part of neoliberal subjectivation for a long time.”[v]

In this sense, today’s protests against Covid-19 measures and the discursive shift from popular to individual sovereignty are simply an evolution of an existing political logic driving the far- and populist right, but also European politics more broadly. The right to care simply for one-self, or for a limited numbers of selves; the right to be selectively responsible; the right to ‘bad’ emotions – these are all facets of a neoliberal affective economy.

The right to care simply for one-self, or for a limited numbers of selves; the right to be selectively responsible; the right to ‘bad’ emotions – these are all facets of a neoliberal affective economy.

Ironically, it is the ‘right’ to their own bodily autonomy which allows the protesters to reject (neoliberal) governments’ appeals to individual responsibility to keep distance and wear masks for the sake of a collective. As Anne-Marie Fortier writes, there is a distinct “political cultural economy of affect; a logic to how, through formal and informal institutional arrangements, some feelings are validated while others are not. And this (in)validation attaches itself to bodies: fear, for example, is seen as legitimately felt by some bodies (real or abstract, such as the state) while it attaches itself to other bodies that are deemed to be fearsome”.[vi]

Denying care

So, too, responsibility and care. In the neoliberal economy of affect, care can – and is – measured and validated as legitimate or not. Care for the self, and for other selves like you, is differentially assessed: as Fortier notes, affective citizenship is “unevenly distributed across gendered, racialised, sexualised, classed bodies – some citizens feel safer than others; some citizens are deemed safer than others” – and some more worthy of making safe, of protecting.

It is here that we can perceive how discourses of personal sovereignty, autonomy and care may bring together quite different political forces – differentiated in their economies of who is to be cared for, yet sharing the very same logic of neoliberal individuation. Whether imagining the hand of ‘globalist elites’ or of ‘Big Pharma’ behind the state controls necessitated in confronting the pandemic, far-right groups and wellness advocates agree on ‘what is to be done’: to reclaim (violently, if needed) control over one’s own body and space, thus denying it to others.



Notes and references.

[i] As Italian protesters have been referring to the anti-Covid-19 measures of the state.

[ii] To use Anne-Marie Fortier’s term (2010): 'Proximity by design? Affective citizenship and the management of unease', Citizenship Studies, 14:1, 17-30.

[iii] See Birgit Sauer (2020) 'Authoritarian Ring-Wing Populism As Masculinist Identity Politics: The Role of Affects.' In Right Wing Populism and Gender (G. Dietze and Julia Roth, eds.) Bielefeld: Transcript, 33.

[iv] Including Chantal Mouffe and Nadia Urbinati: see their comments on the IWM blog on Covid-19 and Political Populism

[v] Sauer (2020, 33).

[vi] Anne-Marie Fortier (2016) 'Afterword: acts of affective citizenship? Possibilities and limitations', Citizenship Studies, 20:8, 1038-1044.

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