In 1976, Michel Foucault noted a growing politicisation of life starting at the end of the eighteenth century, which radically transformed the modern experience of politics. Power is no longer the power of a sovereign over the life and death of his subjects, consisting in his right to subtract their property, rights, possessions and, ultimately, their life. Rather, modern power consists in a set of operations put in place in order to optimise, enhance and manage the biological life of populations, and its main object of exercise comes to be the living body of individuals and populations in its biological processes and mechanics: “propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that cause those to vary” (WK 139). It is precisely this new form of power that Foucault characterizes as biopower, which integrates “life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations”: for millennia, Foucault explains, “man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man,” however, “is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being into question” (WK 143).
Perhaps no other event in the last seventy years has made it clearer, and at a global scale, that our politics is fundamentally concerned with biological life than the current Covid-19 pandemic. Since the beginnings of the pandemic, we have seen national states and political collectivities acting in coordination to respond to the spread of the virus, implementing policies that drastically changed our ways of life in an unforeseen manner. From lockdowns to curfews, from Test & Trace to travel bans, different technologies were deployed in the name of life and to protect the life of populations, now exposed in its precarity and vulnerability to death and disease at a global scale. Political and economic debates were suddenly flooded with epidemiological, biological and medical discourses. While states and civil society put in place a whole series of measures and efforts to protect biological life, new terrains of debate started emerging, which opposed expert opinions (and their advice on policy and political choices) and negationist or populist responses to the emergency of the pandemic.
In these debates we also witnessed the intensification of a particular tension in modern political experience: the tension between biopolitical and securitarian measures and democratic self-government. This tension constitutes one of the main dilemmas we face today when confronting the current global health crisis: on the one hand, governments and societies become concerned with their biological security, developing strategies to flatten the curve of contagion, protecting populations from sickness and death. On the other, if these measures seem unavoidable given the urgency that the crisis constitutes, especially for the most vulnerable sectors of the population, many see in these very measures a growing risk of loss or decrease of political freedom and democratic participation.
Biopolitics & Democracy aims to foster public and collective reflection on the challenges democracies and democratic rights face in a time of pandemic. Is striving to protect the biological security of the population compatible with the full exercise of democratic participation? Focusing on the notion of democracy broadly construed, we aim to raise awareness about ideas and practices of democratic agency and participation, asking how they could face the challenges presented by the pandemic. We believe that it is crucial to confront these issues in the context of the current global health crisis. Our main goal is to constitute a space for debating and thus shedding light upon the dilemma we currently face between coordinated state responses to the pandemic and democratic life and participation. How can we collectively think of forms of life-protection while at the same time cultivating democracy?
In addition, we believe that this endeavor implies a second task: that of creating a (virtual) space to encourage the exercise of collective imagination of new possibilities for the future after the pandemic. In dialogue with artists, activists and intellectuals, we would like to kindle public debate regarding the ways of reconstructing or rethinking collective and democratic life. How can we imagine the world – and which world can we imagine – after the pandemic? What are the forms of association, collective action and solidarity already emerging amidst the crisis?
Federico Testa & Daniele Lorenzini
Daniele Lorenzini (University of Warwick)
Carolina Rito (Coventry University)
Federico Testa (University of Bristol)
- The Biopolitics & Democracy project is funded by an ESRC Impact Acceleration Account grant and by the Centre Michel Foucault
- To read more about our partners and collaborators click here