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Coronavirus as a dispositive

Coronavirus has become the ultimate global biopolitical dispositive. Once the pandemic is overcome in health terms, the mechanisms of control will be difficult to reverse. Español

Keymer Ávila
4 May 2020
Medical workers are busy in an intensive care unit for patients with coronavirus infection in the hospital in Moscow, Russia, May 2, 2020
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Sputnik via Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

The pandemic is real in biological and health terms. It is also an ideological and media phenomenon. No space in public opinion, debates, or conversations is virus-free. Hypochondria and obsessive cleaning are also undeclared pandemics. Social media these days is flooded with specialists in hand washing, new rules of greeting etiquette, and facemasks design. The middle and upper classes romanticize quarantine. Remote work is the latest trend, while humble people who live hand to mouth are invisible or perceived as unruly and unconscious beings, deserving of exemplary discipline.

At this point nobody can discuss the dimensions of the pandemic: at the time of writing these lines, there are more 116 thousand deaths and 1.8 million confirmed cases. A situation that puts on the table the importance of the public health system throughout the world. Neither will I address the debate on its origins, nor the tensions within some governments more concerned with the progress of the economy than the health and life of their fellow citizens (they decide who lives and who dies). Along these lines, I want to share some initial concerns about the underlying and at the same time transversal security logic of the attempts to contain COVID-19. I am referring to how the pandemic can be politically instrumentalized.

The plague’s medical and political narrative is also about discipline

In mid-January, we discussed Foucault’s panopticism (1975) in my criminology class, just as we do every year. On this occasion, one of my students told me the following week that every time he watches the news about the coronavirus, he cannot help relating it to the metaphor used by the French philosopher: the transfer of the architectural model of the panopticon to a society permeated by disciplinary mechanisms, explained by the measures to control the plague.

Indeed, the description of what was done at the end of the 18th century when the plague was declared in the city remains intact to this day: spatial divisions, the prohibition to leave home during quarantine, taking turns to go out in case of extreme need, avoiding encounters with other people.

Surveillance intensifies and everything is kept under record, strict military and police controls ensure confinement: “if he moves, his risks contagion, punishment, or his life; moving leads to death, and anything that moves is killed.” Valid phrases in times when the most lethal security forces are those watching over your health. It is the clearest expression of the deadly side of biopolitics: you can even kill “legitimately” those who pose a biological threat.

The fear of the plague or contagion makes desperate people in search of their own survival surrender without any resistance to controls and surveillance.

Fear makes the discipline dispositive work. The fear of the plague or contagion makes desperate people in search of their own survival surrender without any resistance to controls and surveillance. Docility increases as medical and scientific evidence ratify the threat.

It is no longer a city or a country, but the entire world where a plague has been declared. We see how this becomes – as never before – the perfect “power laboratory” to put into practice all the disciplinary and control dispositive, with cutting-edge technology. Whenever these resources are not available, government informants or the simple use of force will take their place. It is the most perfect crystallization of the global disciplinary society, which intensifies and extends with the speed of our world’s current flow of communication.

So then, despite being convinced that we have advanced a lot in knowledge and as a society, we all end up reduced to pure biological life (nuda vida). The risk of contagion demands swift obedience from the people and gives maximum authority to governments. The crowd, the mass, “cancels out for the benefit of a collection of separate individualities.” This way the possibilities of grass-roots organization diminish, as well as revolts or street resistance. The only solution is confinement or social distance.

Coronavirus as a dispositive

The term dispositive is decisive in Foucault’s work, meaning “an absolutely heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions; In short, the said as much as the unsaid (…) The dispositive itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements ”. It is a sort of “structure that at a certain historical moment had the essential function of responding to an emergency”, it has “an essential strategic function”. It is in synthesis: “a set of strategies, power relations that condition certain types of knowledge and are conditioned by them” (Foucault, 1977).

In this sense, the coronavirus becomes the security and control dispositive of these times. It is much more powerful, efficient, democratic, expansive, and global, than the fight against terrorism at the beginning of this century (post 9/11), and the war against drug trafficking or insurgency of the last one.

With exceptionality as rule, other models are implemented, new power mechanisms are intensified over the daily life of people.

Now it is about health and life itself. This evil has no face, ideology, settlements, focal point, or borders, and has the power to make any of us a dangerous subject that everyone must avoid. This invisible enemy is not outside, it is within us. It also has evidence, and all the medical-scientific knowledge that supports and legitimizes it, which gives certain grounds for justified fear. Panic is a solid basis for us to give up all our rights to the old and worn out Leviathan to protect us from this new absolute evil.

Under this context, again – but now on a different scale – you will need full powers to deal with this threat. It would be justified: exceptional times warrant exceptional measures in all areas, especially in the regulatory, technological, and security sectors. However, let us not lose sight of the fact that lower capacity in the scientific and health sectors leads to greater involvement of the police, the military, and the propaganda apparatus. However, efforts will always be made to confuse the former with the latter.

And so, the state of exception (Agamben, 2005), where rights are suspended, the curfew is imposed and become globally legitimate, is not hidden. It is exhibited as a synonym of good government, to convey that “something is being done.” With exceptionality as rule, other models are implemented, new power mechanisms are intensified over the daily life of people. In the name of life, all the exceptional controls and powers are reinforced and expanded, with the consent and full collaboration of the citizenry.

Unity has been achieved against a common, pervasive, and invisible enemy that threatens us all. Coronavirus has become the ultimate global biopolitical dispositive. Once the pandemic is overcome in health terms, the mechanisms of control will be difficult to reverse. They may remain among us much longer than the virus serving as a pretext.

Translation: Hearts of Venezuela

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