Erik Larsen // The gnarled cherry trees are beginning to bud in the city that George Eastman’s Kodak empire built. It’s a crisp April morning in Rochester, New York. With the exception of writing from a makeshift bedroom office, my day loosely resembles spring days of years past. But if Covid-19’s silent emergency has yet to shock my body, it continues to shock my mind; by order of the governor, all schools are shuttered, and all non-essential businesses closed. My colleagues in bioethics work day and night developing equitable protocols for rationing ventilators. Conservative politicians and commentators propose the willing sacrifice of millions of elderly Americans for the health of the national economy. We anxiously sense the arrival of new forms of life—new relationships between selves, bodies, institutions, and nation states. Indeed, as I gaze out a closed window at the budding vitality of cherry trees, I question if we have entered, or will soon enter, a new dynamic in the relationship between power and life. Has the Coronavirus pandemic transformed the relationship between citizens, living bodies, and the powers that govern us?
For many of us, the answer to this question is a resounding yes. The degree of state control we now experience over our bodily movements and activities would have been unimaginable just one month ago. Basic individual rights once deemed more essential than the health of individuals and populations have suddenly been nullified to secure the health of individuals and populations. As political power acts upon us more as living bodies than as legal persons, many of us struggle anxiously to understand its limits and expectations, even if extreme restrictions are prudent and temporary. Although racial and sexual minorities, and women, may confront government’s fraught relationship to their bodies and rights on a daily basis, the sudden application of restrictive power to all bodies seems the stuff of history or fiction. At the same time, many also wonder why state and federal governments have failed to further restrict basic norms and rights in the name of vital security. Indeed, if suspending the right to basic forms of mobility and activity aims to protect life, one might question glaring inconsistencies between emergency restrictions and the norms of everyday security we accepted prior to Covid-19. State biopolitics and its thorny modern history confront us anew.
And yet, when Michel Foucault theorized biopolitics in the 1970s, he contrasted this distinctly modern political form with government’s long history of emergency response to outbreaks: “At the end of the eighteenth century, it was not epidemics that were the issue, but something else—what might broadly be called endemics, or in other words, the form, nature, extensions, duration, and intensity of the illnesses prevalent in a population” (“Society” 243). Prior to the eighteenth century, governments responded to epidemics with temporary biopolitical measures; by quarantining towns, authorities governed their subjects as contagious bodies first, and eternal souls or legal subjects second. Not until this relationship became permanent, until the state began to recognize its subjects primarily as biological entities, and thus as bodies in need of novel forms of protection, control, and development, did biopolitics emerge as a distinctive and pervasive political technology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Lemke 36). Perhaps because it coincided roughly with the rise of nationalized capitalism and European national militarism, both of which demanded masses of laboring and fighting bodies, biopower seeks less to control individuals than to manipulate the life of groups or “populations” (Foucault, “Right of Death” 45; Cohen 17-19). The developing science of modern biology augmented this focus on group vitality by describing life as a series of processes—reproduction, nutrition, growth, etc.—that implicate the “health” and survival of individuals with the lives around them (Lemke 48). To monitor and manipulate the life of populations, biopower employs specialized forms of measurement, such as statistical analysis and empirically gathered demographic data, to “improve” these life processes; fertility, mortality, environmental conditions, and “endemic” illnesses are the constant focus of biopower. Although epidemics threaten the population in extreme ways, eliciting what may appear as entirely novel forms of governance, they also expose how biopower structures and shapes our lives in the status quo. Foucault’s description of biopower as pervading the everyday life of modern peoples raises a question about our present emergency: is the troubling arithmetic of life and death, of rights and bodies, manifest in American pandemic governance the exception, or biopower’s “endemic” rule?
To begin, at least, to sketch one response to this massive question, we need to inquire into biopower’s complex but integral relationship with death. When I introduce Foucault’s theory of biopolitics to medical students, at least a few seem incredulous about his critical approach. When the description of biopolitics sounds like a well-intentioned public health project—the elimination of endemic illnesses, for example—one might wonder why it should be framed in terms of nefarious control. By comparing biopower with the death-dealing sovereign power preceding it, Foucault may have contributed to this misprision. Sovereign power sought to maintain social order by utilizing its right to cause death directly, or to “take life and let live” (“Society” 241). Oppositely, biopower seeks to govern by supporting and strengthening life; thus, biopolitical regimes “make live and let die” while, at least in theory, eschewing direct violence against their citizens (241). Although Foucault describes Nazism as the “extraordinary” union of bio and sovereign power, the relationship of fascist genocide to liberal public health measures designed to eliminate illness may still appear farfetched (260).
However, as Foucault argues, these measures “improve” life only in order to enforce the state’s norms, to accomplish its (re)productivist and militaristic ends, and to secure hierarchies of power within the population. Under biopower, the lives and rights of individual citizens, who appear to government as a mere collection of life processes, are manipulated, limited, and often sacrificed for national “health.” Biopower distinguishes between fit populations, between “proper” forms of life, and those who threaten their exemplary vitality—the biologically unfit or endemically unhealthy. The former become the object of state protection and investment, while biopower denies the latter healthcare, material support, and political representation (Foucault, “Society” 256). Perhaps to preserve the illusion of its ubiquitous and benevolent support for all citizens, biopower deals death indirectly; those it allows to die thus appear as “natural” deaths or as the agents of their own irresponsible demise. Race emerges in this context as biopower’s means to divide, support, and exclude different groups within the national population. Through state racism, biopower introduces “a break into the domain of life that is under power’s control,” and thereby determines “what must live and what must die” (254).
While Foucault described only the most insidious motivations for medical intervention in the lives of populations, his theory exposes how American “endemic” biopolitics remain consistent with its “pandemic” variety: those already “allowed to die” in American life perish rapidly and en masse because the state has long exposed them to conditions leading to poor health. Unsurprisingly, the difference between who lives and dies in this context often depends upon racial division. Yesterday, morbidity reports emerged indicating that African Americans in New York City are twice as likely to die from Covid-19 as Caucasians; similar probabilities were found for the city’s Latinx population (Katersky and Torres). Although I oversimplify by attributing these differences entirely to biopower, the high degree to which the racial division of populations contributes to health disparities in America should hardly require illustration. With this said, many factors shape disease etiology and outcomes in different populations, and not all states and cities appear equally affected along racial lines. Understanding these differences is critical public health work, but without recognizing the direct link between biopower’s methods and aims, its “support” for life at the expense of racialized others, we may fail to glimpse the view of endemic biopower afforded by the pandemic. Indeed, we may lose sight of biopolitics altogether as we identify the Coronavirus as the power governing life—as the biopower determining “what must live and what must die.” Of course, the virus is a very real agent of life and death, and one operating according to a non-human logic. It infects and kills any that it can, both those biopower attempts to “make live” and those it “lets die.” And yet, it kills the latter group in alarming numbers. Rather than classifying the virus as the only lethal actor governing our emergency, we should recognize how it operates along the lethal divisions long established by American biopower. The novel Coronavirus is both a non-human actor, and the agent accelerating the otherwise incremental and diffuse work of death in America.
To many, this assessment of American biopower will appear cynical at best, and paranoid at worst. Indeed, a sincere and bright student once remarked to me that Foucault struck her as a conspiracy theorist. His formulations of biopower may warrant initial skepticism, for they often simplify the fraught and contested space of biopolitical control for the sake of theoretical clarity and unity. I have similarly described our present and past as dominated by a single form of power, when reality presents us with groups struggling and often successfully contesting biopower. As I write, physicians work exhaustedly in local hospitals to preserve the lives of all Covid-19 patients; they also labor within a healthcare system that frequently reinforces biopolitical norms.
A critic might also reject the perhaps antiquated and totalizing view of state power informing my account. While direct state control over populations, and state racism, persist in the United States, neoliberal governance makes limits on state control over economic and vital matters its cardinal virtue. Indeed, Foucault’s initial formulations of biopower describe more statist forms of governance indicative of nineteenth and early twentieth-century European politics. Perhaps sensing that his earlier account failed to address the emerging neoliberal paradigm, Foucault expanded and revised his theory of biopower in lectures given between 1977-79. Rather than directly and violently reshaping life, neoliberal governance attempts to limit its control over social and economic life, in as much as these domains are now regarded as “naturally” self-ordered systems (Foucault, “Biopolitics” 17). In this perspective, the market, unimpeded by governmental control, becomes the most vital and thus most efficacious governor of individual and mass life.
The biopolitics of neoliberal governance appears live and well in economic rhetoric today; we speak endlessly and anxiously of the “health” of the economy, and describe ourselves as giving it stimulus “injections,” when it requires assistance. Many politicians and citizens are more terrified of state interference in the economy than of millions of preventable deaths. While one might attribute this response to shameless greed, Foucault’s account suggests that neoliberal views contain a sincere biopolitical faith: the market is what naturally organizes and supports life, and thus must be “made to live,” even at the expense of “allowing” many citizens to die. Within this governing logic, one can see how calls to reopen the economy, even at great cost in lives, represents an ethos consistent with pre-emergency neoliberal governance. In a country where millions go without health insurance, and thousands suffer and gradually die from its lack, our pandemic calculus of market life and human death hardly departs from the status quo. As with the example of state racism, the biopolitics of our pandemic reveal “endemic” American biopower at work, but under accelerating conditions.
Although terms now identified with biomedicine and disease, pandemic and endemic share a political connotation. Both derive from the Greek demos, or people—also the root of democracy. As the response to Covid-19 exposes the twin regimes of American biopower—state racism and neoliberal governance—discussion of a novel biopolitical future will, hopefully, silence our cries for normalcy.
Cohen, Ed. A Body Worth Defending: Immunity, Biopolitics, and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body. Duke UP, 2009.
Foucault, Michel. “Society Must Be Defended.” Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976.Translated by David Macey. Picador, 1997.
—. The Birth of Biopolitics. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979. Translated by Graham Burchell. Picador, 2008.
—. “Right of Death and Power over Life.” Biopolitics, A Reader. Edited by Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze, Duke UP, 2013, 41-60.
Katersky, Ellen and Ella Torres. “Black people in NYC twice as likely to die from COVID as White People: Data.” ABC, April 17. 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/US/black-people-nyc-die-covid-white-people-data/story?id=70208362. Accessed 18 April 2020.
Lemke, Thomas. Biopolitics: An Advanced Introduction. NYU Press, 2011.