Contingency and the Neoliberal Biopolitical Regime of Permissiveness in the COVID-19 Pandemic by Mark Horvath and Adam Lovasz
LOCKDOWN THEORY #36
What is the role of the nonhuman in strategies of governance that attempt to regulate life? Can a mode of power be imagined which is capable of instrumentalizing chance? Power and contingency are intimately connected modalities. Biopolitics in general is a modern phenomenon, and is inseparable from the history of what has become known as neoliberalism. Therefore, our investigation is also dedicated to unpacking the significance of the neoliberal political tradition. Without the agonistic, self-restricting neoliberal mode of power, there could be no all-encompassing regulation of life. Neoliberal biopolitics is characterized above all by permisiveness. It is about letting processes take their course. The concept of biopower specifically is first mentioned by Foucault in a March 17, 1976 lecture. The role of the sovereign in traditional regimes of sovereignty is based on “the right to kill.” Even if the ruler does not manufacture subjects directly, he nonetheless has the right to take their lives away. Sovereignty traditionally pertains to the absolute right of power “to take life or let live.” From the age of eighteenth century rationalism onwards, however, a new form of power emerges, which can be summarized as “the power to ‘make’ live and ‘let’ die.”
The considerations outlined above can be applied unproblematically to the nonhuman dimension. At one point in the 1976 lecture, Foucault mentions two examples which are highly relevant to our contemporary situation. The first is the permanent possibility of thermonuclear conflict. This would constitute a mode of biopower in overdrive, so extreme that instead of the management of life, it would be “the power to kill life itself.” The second possibility relates even more acutely to the COVID-19 pandemic: this is the accidental escape of biopower from any human framework. An artificial virus - a bioweapon - shows the possibility of a “biopower” which is “beyond all human sovereignty.” Because the virus does not essentially respond directly to interventions, it also shows the fluidity of the human dimension. Although the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 is, to all intents and purposes, an agent of natural origin, its spontaneity represents an interesting problem. Present day world-society must accept the invasions of non-human agents. Although it is still uncertain as to whether neoliberal governmentality can indeed overcome the pandemic, it appears that the idea of unpermeability has suffered a blow. A crack has emerged in the self-immunizing global Human Security System. World society today must adapt to the pervasive presence of coronavirus. Neoliberal biopower is a form of management which is open to flows, for its entire raison d’être is predicated upon creating and maintaining an ecology of unhindered movement. Neoliberalism is an ecological form of intervetion, aiming for population-level modifications of behavior, and not the disciplining of the individual. Life is economized, becoming an element in the management of risk. To live is to manage contingency. Striving for maximal proliferation, the virus, like any other economic agent, is a profit-maximizing machine. Searching for hospitable endogeneous environments, the virus also avoids soap and disinfectants. The coronavirus constitutes a social and economic agent.
Acceptance of the autonomy of the virus as a non-human actant is what differentiates neoliberal discourses from those we may call “nonliberal.” Neoliberalism, which we take as being synonymous with the herd-immunity approach, is permissive when it comes to flows, whereas nonliberal methods of disease prevention attempt to slow down processes of infection. It is not just a case of analyzing government responses to the situation, but also of interpreting the virus itself. Our goal is to outline what a permissive posthuman neoliberal biopolitics would look like. It can even be maintained with some degree of plausibility that the virus resists all attempts at thematization and interpretation. As a reality in itself, the virus contains an excess which makes it inaccessible to the epistemology of power. The unpredictability of death from infection introduces new difficulties into the programming and engineering of society.
The virus is an uncontrollable posthuman excess of sovereignty which threatens to undo the body politic through large-scale alienation. It allows us to interrogate power in a new way, while decentering the human subject in the process. The COVID-19 pandemic is still surrounded by mystery. To mention just one example among many unsolved issues, medical professionals do not know exactly through what mechanisms the virus kills its host. Doctors are uncertain as to whether the virus itself is to blame, or the exaggerated immune system response is what actually kills patients. This uncertainty extends to the process of diagnosis, as well as the policy response. Death connects with the unknown, introducing an inescapable agnotology. On the one hand, death is impossible to thematize as a transition from the profane to the sacred, at least not in modern or postmodern secularized societies where the plausibility of religion has declined. The end of life is a transition to nothing in particular, a transformation which nonetheless must be managed. This nothingness is also mediated by the chronic ontological instability of the virus itself. We connect to the broader theoretical movement which has been characterized by Richard Grusin as the “nonhuman turn.” According to our view, while nonhuman alterity is capable of integration into the workings of neoliberalism, not even the permissive regime can fully exhaust the alterity of the virus in itself.
What does “alterity” mean? Our use of the term relates to the undecipherable, the uncontrollable, in a word, the contingent, ungovernable element. Alterity is an agency insinuating itself into human structures of governance, producing problems not easily resolvable in the context of liberal democracy. Externality becomes frighteningly internal. Alterity is therefore a horrifying opening onto contingency. In horror, the inanimate and unresponsive becomes frighteningly animated. As John Ó Maoilearca explains, horror is the experience which arises when “objects think for themselves in us.” The virus underlines this point in a frighteningly literal manner. Uncertainty reigns supreme, and beshadows the horizon of governance. According to Slavoj Žižek, “the situation is too serious to lose time with panic.” To say the least, the Slovenian philosopher does not mince words. Either we follow a brutal individualist utilitarianism or adopt a new, reformed form of global communism. We can be forgiven for seeing Žižek as a rusty, broken red clock. More communism is always the answer, no matter what the problem happens to be.
Against the Žižekian view, we would call attention to the heterogeneity of alternatives. The assumption that there ever is a dualistic alternative is an inherently Manichean position. But reality is more complicated than the Left vs Right (i.e., Opposition vs Government, or “Permanent Opposition” vs “System”). Binary coding only gets you so far. The rejection of the predominant status quo becomes a tiresome, conservative convention after a while, as evidenced by the theoretical inflexibility displayed by Giorgio Agamben’s lamentably predictable response to the crisis. Like Žižek, we know in advance what Agamben will say. The pandemic and the governmental reponses are examples of biopolitics, which the Italian philosopher seems to associate with a conspiracy of governance against the populace. This is not much more than a rather schematic use of Foucault’s insights at best, a paranoid conspiracy theory at worst. An emphasis on the nonhuman nature of the virus can, following Graham Harman and the OOO/Speculative Realist movement, conceive the way objects withdraw from contact, be it human access or other objects. Such a recognition is already present in Foucault, who explicitly addresses two cases when objects (nuclear weapons and bioweapons) escape human control. A renewal of politics must take the autonomy of real things into account, without undermining them into manifestations of an evil infrastructural “power that be.” An object is always more than the sum of circumstances from which it originated. Therefore, the virus too is a novel reality, something in addition to a wet-market in Wuhan Province or the networks of global travel which made its spread possible. The alterity of obejcts demands a politics which is open to the contingent and the chaotic, for the coronavirus itself is a naturecultural hybrid. Bizzarrely, the vaccine also necessitates a hybrid technology, as pharmaceutical companies use the cruelly extracted blue blood of horseshoe crabs to test for contaminants in medicinal ingredients. One hybrid can only be treated through the mobilization of new hybrid agencies, penetrating binaries, forking them into a variety of directions.
Jean-Luc Nancy, describing various computer models of infection, speaks of a “viral state of exception,” implying that alterity cannot be separated from other phenomena, especially not the media of communication. Spectral phenomena haunt the media which construct the state of exception through enabling the flow of information regarding the rate of infection, the number of deaths and the tempo of recoveries. The media amplifies the COVID-19 pandemic through creating virulent panic reactions, emphasizing the sense of danger. Nobody is safe, not even the children. Nancy emphasizes that contemporary biopower must respond not only to the endogeneous economic, health and institutional effects, but also the danger posed by the chaos of communication. Can a mode of governance be imagined which is capable of integrating chance?
Following Agamben, many contemporary thinkers have emphasized the concept of biopolitics in relation to the pandemic. Sergio Benvenuto, while emphasizing the uncertainty surrounding the death rate of the virus, also highlights the economic collapse caused by lockdowns. Benvenuto shows that panic is a pervasive ecological category, affecting entire populations. Along with panic comes alienation on an unprecedented scale. The good citizen acts in a panic-stricken manner. The threat must be stopped before it is present. As Benvenuto reminds us, however, preventive governance is faced with a “biopolitical decision,” and most of the relevant choices are being made by the World Health Organization rather than local or national bodies. The most basic activities become regulated in a way without precedent in living memory, at least in those states which remained liberal democratic through the twentieth century. These strategies of isolation are supposedly required to prevent the dissolution of the body politic. Various international organizations have brought biopolitical decisions which were then swiftly internalized. The nonhuman agency and the speed of viral proliferation shows that the fear of the unknown is not entirely unfounded, resulting in the creation of a territory in which the human dimension is being ever further eroded, to the benefit of the nonhuman.
Rocco Ronchi draws on different themes, in particular the postmodern, when writing about the coronavirus. Against biopolitical homogenization enacted by quarantine and lockdown, the virus represents a heterogeneity. The immaterial ambiguity of the virus, its double status as mediated representation and materialized agency, as well as the speed of its flows, makes it resemble accelerated global capital flows. Today the comparison between viral media content and COVID-19 is one which lends itself. But such a comparison is also “too straightforward,” and fails to account for the very real ontological difference between the media and biological phenomena. Any real theoretization of alterity is excluded from the outset if we seek to reduce material processes to similes for communication. More is at stake here.
The contingent is already there at the moment of decision. Two divergent policy responses can be seen. On the one hand, we have restriction, the modern, nonliberal, bio-authoritarian approach. This is the logic of the lockdown. The second approach, the stratagem of herd-immunity, is a radically permissive mode of neoliberal biopolitics. This corresponds to the avoidance of economic closure at all costs. The goal is to allow infection of most of the population, building up collective immunity while also preventing damage to the economy. As Sweden’s chief epidemologist, Anders Tegnell, notes, “ we can’t kill all our services. And unemployed people are a great threat to public health.” From a Foucauldian viewpoint, this semantics is interesting because of its juxtaposition of the lumpenproletariat and the virus. Neoliberal biopolitics is guided by the view that risks must be balanced against one another. This leads to an instrumentalization of contingency in managing divergent risks. Only Sweden ended up following this path. Sweden reported far more deaths per capita than neighbouring Norway, but GDP kept on growing, outperforming other European economies. The herd immunity paradigm has resulted in a successful sacrifice of humans for economic gain. Already, certain neoliberal outlets are touting the Swedish model as a successful solution to the crisis which ought to be applied globally. Flows must never be halted, because this results in inefficiencies.
On our part we reject the idea that the radical alterity of coronavirus can indeed be integrated into any mode of biopolitics. Herd immunity as a stratagem presents us with an opening which can be exploited. Reacting to Nancy, Roberto Esposito shows that the former overemphasizes the role of technological mediation in the pandemic. Esposito speaks of a technocultural situation in which virality is already there prior to the differentiation of culture and life. The concept of the viral has infected various disciplines and language games, but this also obscures the real divergences between the sectors and territories of society. Biopolitics is itself an infectious discourse. Biopolitics is capable of modifying ever deeper layers of reality, but also of implementing new modes of permissiveness. Far from being a mere instrument of government, “the exception” is “becoming the rule in a world where technical interconnections of all kinds” permeate social reality. According to Esposito, Agamben’s mistake is to reduce emergent hybridity to a product of governance. It is precisely its way of letting things happen that makes neoliberal biopolitics difficult to theorize. No longer can politics go on as a separate functional system. If life is deformed by technology, while politics is medicalized, then medicine too is being politicized.
Puzzlingly, what none of the thinkers mentioned above really emphasize is the manner in which permissiveness gains a posthuman opening in the herd immunity approach. There is a mode of biopolitics which resigns from both control and discipline. In reaction to the George Floyd riots and protests, the council of Minneapolis proposed to disband the local police force altogether. Contingency, in the form of crime or infection, is to be allowed as part of the normal functioning of society. Permissiveness is very much the name of the game when it comes to biopolitics in the twenty first century. Closure is recognized as an inherent form of structural racism. Safety is outmoded. Breaking down closure requires a recognition and acceptance of alterity. While we cannot speak even for marginalized and oppressed humans, let alone viruses lacking a language of their own, we can nonetheless advocate as best we can for the right of other beings to be. Levi R. Bryant has written of the need for a fragmented mode of thought recognizing the irreducibility of the coronavirus to any perspective. Not only is death present, from packaging to door-knobs and the surface of textile fabrics, but also the virus itself, as distinct from any profile or aspect. In Bryant’s view, the pandemic has rendered the world in general an inaccessible, foreign, uncanny place, while also illuminating the richness of reality. Bruce Clarke has characterized authentic posthumanism in terms of a “nonhumanism” which actually goes beyond the human element as such. The nonhuman type of radical posthumanism therefore incorporates any scenario which envisions the elimination of the human altogether.
True “post”-humanism must envision the end of the human in general, otherwise it would not leave the cage of anthropological determinations. David Roden writes of a “speculative posthumanism,” which can be used productively to theorize completely alien agencies such as viruses, while opening up social thought to the prospect of anthropo-extinction. Roden advocates for a genuinely post-human posthumanism, which, through the instrument of philosophically grounded speculation, gives us a representation of nonhuman agents. Claire Colebrook’s “ethics of extinction,” as well as Patricia MacCormack’s “ahuman theory” also give us novel ways of thinking about the end of the Human Security System. Human abolition could very well represent the next stage in the elaboration of an emancipatory politics of openness. If we are to transcend closure, the right of the contingent to evade capture and instrumentalization must also be affirmed. Instead of viral eliminativism, a politics, or even post-politics of permissiveness and loving acceptance is required, without the sentimentalism that accompanies many all-too-human ethical affirmations.
 Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–1976 (New York: Picador, 2003), 240.
 Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended,” 241.
 Ibid., 253.
 Ibid., 254.
 Gordon Hull, “Biopolitics Is Not (Primarily) About Life,” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 27.2 (2013): 329.
 Heidi Ledford, “How Does COVID-19 Kill? Uncertainty Is Hampering Doctors’ Ability to Choose Treatments,” Nature 580 (2020): 311–312.
 Interestingly, in India, some have taken to praying to the virus, personifying it as “Corona Devi.” This represents a starkly different economy from Western rationality.
 Richard Grusin (Ed.), The Nonhuman Turn (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
 John Ó Maoilearca, “Spirit in the Materialist World. On the Structure of Regard,” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 19.1 (2014): 23.
 Slavoj Žižek, “Global Communism or the Jungle Law, Coronavirus Forces Us to Decide,” Russia Today (March 10, 2020). https://www.rt.com/op-ed/482780-coronavirus-communism-jungle-law-choice.
 We do not wish to engage more extensively here with the considerable debate Agamben’s blog post generated. Neither do we seek to entirety discount Agamben’s claims altogether. For a translation of the original text cf. Giorgio Agamben, “The Coronavirus and the State of Exception,” trans. Julius Gavroche, Autonomies (March 3, 2020). https://autonomies.org/2020/03/giorgio-agamben-the-coronaviris-and-the-state-of-exception. For a defense of Agamben’s train of thought, see Babette Babich, “Retrieving Agamben’s Questions,” Babette Babich’s Website (April 30, 2020). https://babettebabich.uk/2020/04/30/retrieving-agambens-questions.
 Graham Harman, “Strange Realism: On Behalf of Objects.” The Humanities Review 12:1 (2015): 7.
 Alex Fox, “The Race for a Coronavirus Vaccine Runs on Horseshow Crab Blood,” Smithsonian Magazine (June 8, 2020). https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/race-coronavirus-vaccine-runs-horseshoe-crab-blood-180975048.
 Jean-Luc Nancy, “Viral Exception,” trans. Emma Catherine Gainsforth, European Journal of Psychoanalysis (February 27, 2020). https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers.
 Sergio Benvenuto, “Welcome to Seclusion,” trans. Emma Catherine Gainsforth, European Journal of Psychoanalysis (March 2, 2020). https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers.
 Benvenuto, “Welcome to Seclusion.”
 Ibid. This can also be said to apply to the broadly beneficial ecological effects of the subtraction of human agency from the scene. The less humans are travelling, the more carbon dioxide emissions go down.
 Rocco Ronchi, “The Virtues of the Virus,” trans. Emma Catherine Gainsforth, European Journal of Psychoanalysis (March 14, 2020). https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers.
 Samuel Lovett, “Coronavirus: Scientist Leading Sweden’s COVID-19 Response Says UK Lockdown Has Gone Too Far. Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell ‘Sceptical’ of British Containment Measures and Insists Swedish Strategy ‘Beating’ COVID-19,” The Independent (April 5, 2020). https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/coronavirus-uk-lockdown-sweden-scientist-response-gone-too-far-a9448026.html.
 Michael Dillon, “Governing Through Contingency. The Security of Biopolitical Governance,” Political Geography 26.1 (2007): 41–47.
 Jon Miltimore, “Sweden Sees Economic Growth in 1st Quarter Despite Global Pandemic,” Foundation for Economic Education (May 30, 2020). https://fee.org/articles/sweden-sees-economic-growth-in-1st-quarter-despite-global-pandemic.
 Nils Karlson, Charlotta Stern and Daniel B. Klein, “Sweden’s Coronavirus Strategy Will Soon Be the World’s,” Foreign Affairs (May 12, 2020). https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/sweden/2020-05-12/swedens-coronavirus-strategy-will-soon-be-worlds.
 Roberto Esposito, “Cured to the Bitter End,” trans. Emma Catherine Gainsforth, European Journal of Psychoanalysis (February 28, 2020). https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers.
 Esposito, “Cured to the Bitter End.”
 Oliver Milman, “Minneapolis Pledges to Dismantle Its Police Department – How Will It Work?,” The Guardian (June 8, 2020). https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/08/minneapolis-city-council-police-department-dismantle.
 Levi R. Bryant, “A World Is Ending,” Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture (April 3, 2020). https://identitiesjournal.edu.mk/index.php/IJPGC/announcement/view/21.
 Bruce Clarke, Posthuman Metamorphosis: Narrative and Systems (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).
 David Roden, Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human (London and New York: Routledge, 2015).
 Claire Colebrook, Sex After Life: Essays on Extinction, Vol. 2 (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Open Humanities Press, 2015); Patricia MacCormack, The Ahuman Manifesto: Activism for the End of the Anthropocene (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2020).
Mark Horvath is a philosopher and researcher who lives in Budapest. He is, along with Adam Lovasz, co-founder and co-editor of Absentology, a Facebook page dedicated to philosophy and weird science, and Poli-p, a Hungarian posthumanist collective. His areas of interest include posthumanism, digital studies, speculative realism, pessimism, nihilism, finitude, and the anthropocene. He has presented at many Hungarian and international conferences, and published in some journals. He has published ten books, including two monographs in English.
Adam Lovasz is an Australian-born philosopher based in Hungary. Currently Lovasz is a PhD student enrolled in the Ethics and Political Philosophy Program at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. His interests include continental philosophy, embodiment, phenomenology, posthumanism and speculative realism. He is author and co-author of numerous books, most recently the first Hungarian-language textbook on Speculative Realism and New Realism. Adam is also co-founder (with Mark Horvath) of Absentology, a center for collaboration and interdisciplinary philosophical inquiry.