For a harsh confinement of the thick and slimy stupidity of our rulers (gouvernants)

For a harsh confinement of the thick and slimy stupidity of our rulers (gouvernants)

For a harsh confinement of the thick and slimy stupidity of our rulers (gouvernants) [1]
Article by Alain Brossat and Alain Naze.

What is the difference between confinement and other operative modes of government of the living, or in other words, other ways of handling populations? Confinement is a hybrid operation: it is an authoritative command (if you do not submit, you are liable to penalties, up to imprisonment), but it presents itself as a safeguard and protective measure, and not as a punishment (precisely different from imprisonment in that respect). Confinement belongs to the general horizon of the defence of life, in the forms of health, of a body’s integrity, of a population’s care enacted by the State and the government. But confinement, unlike hospitalization, does not involve a medical component. It consists in addressing a collective and compelling order to the population: lock yourselves at home, stay inside as much as possible, respect some sanitary rules. Regarding other matters, you are on your own. In that sense, it is important to make a difference between confinement and quarantine: people under quarantine, isolated because they could propagate the epidemic, are under medical supervision. To go out of quarantine, one must be checked individually to be sure not to be contagious anymore. The quarantine is what Foucault called the “anatomo-politique”: it is one by one, each person being considered at a time. The confinement is by contrast an elementary biopolitics: a mechanism of global security operating on the scale of a population [2].

We have noticed that in the present epidemic, the later (late is a euphemism) rulers are in their responses to the propagation of the virus in the countries they govern, the more they resort to confinement in an authoritarian fashion. Their minds were elsewhere. Bureaucracy has greatly hindered the diagnosis of the severity of the phenomenon and the implementation of the first measures. This is the reason why, in China, the population’s confinement (in Hubei province first and then in other places) took at once the shape of “war”, of a military campaign, in the most authoritarian fashion: the regime of the absolute exception.

In Italy, France, Spain, the confinement has also been all the more compelling in that the political and sanitary authorities lost more than a month in setting up a strategy to contain the epidemic. And so, the confining operation is the admission of failure and clear incompetence in front of this kind of disaster or crisis. As said over and again, the earlier and more proficient handling of the epidemic in Taiwan and South Korea averted confining their populations. However, quarantines are systematic and frequent. But be warned: there is a difference when dealing with this kind of phenomenon in countries of 23 million, 51 million and 1.5 billion people, even if the epidemic in China did not hit the whole country with the same intensity. The vigorous warlike method used there for the confinement cannot be evaluated without taking this order of magnitude into consideration. It is also the limit of the Taiwanese exemplary model in the epidemic crisis. It cannot be used in reverse as a model to evaluate China. If you want to compare the Chinese handling of the epidemic, you must compare it with India (on this point, see below).

The confinement is also a hybrid operation, because it is simultaneously an operation of separation and assimilation of a mass. It consists in applying a homogeneous and compact apparatus to an entire population, without going into much detail (except for the maintained mobility of workers required for the continuity of activities, those labelled as essentials), without taking into consideration specificities (age, regions, social conditions, etc.). From this angle, the confinement is a rough biopolitical operation: its application is directed on human beings, taken as a block of living in one country, one State, without any distinction. This way of taking the population as a block, without distinction or disjunction, by ordering folks, omnes et singulatim, to stay at home, differs from all the other common governing gestures meant to divide, separate, oppose and prioritize (as is the function of State racism for example, according to Foucault). The homogeneity of the confining gesture sometimes even looks like dark magic – the homeless people are requested by cops to make themselves invisible, that is, to make as if they were confined.

We can add another observation. The confinement looks like administrative detention. So it implies the possibility of sending people to camps, whatever type of camp it is. But it also involves measures of “house arrest,” much like the ones which were applied to the so-called “Islamist movement” after the attacks of November 2015, as well as the detention of “irregular” foreigners. These cases illustrate the implementation of a politico-administrative mode of decision as a kind of injunction falling from the sky. The prefectoral machinery is put to work, the police follow its orders, and the Parliament, like a rump, is vaguely hobbling behind. And so, we find here some mechanisms of the sovereign power affixed a biopolitical gesture.

That being said, we should not forget that, unlike the procedure of incarceration, confinement never goes through a legal process and we can always find a handful of legal experts to confirm that it is not decidedly unconstitutional… Here is the singularity of this apparatus and the operation which sets it up: to lock up a chicken thief, one must go through legal procedures. But to confine a population of 65 million people, a presidential discourse is enough – and this for an indefinite period of time.

This is the “Agambian” side of the thing, what we could call the transposition of the “paradigm of the camp” to the noxious atmosphere of the epidemic, even if we can already hear the disapproving screams provoked by such a reference. The “paradigm of the camp” should not be explored with regard to cruelty, extreme violence or terror, but as the expression of a decree in which the sovereign and the administrative are intertwined. It is not the implementation of a legal procedure resulting in the removal of an individual or a mass of people in order to put them away and lock them up. As soon as the operation of sidelining or subtraction is not enacted as the effect of the law, of its application through regulated forms, then in fact, we are definitely facing a direct hold and seizure operated on the living, on the people as individual bodies or living mass, as “life”. The difference and opposition is clear with the way a citizen, a legal subject, appears before the law and is subjected to different constraints according to the legal framework of “rule of law”.

Therefore, it is not necessary for the confinement to be enacted with force, to be implemented manu militari, in order to constitute a purely biopolitical mode of seizure of bodies with respect to the principle of its enforcement [3]. It is not necessary to reach the actual reduction of this collective life to the desolated condition of naked life to argue that such mode of seizure is completely foreign to the spirit of the democratic regime (we are not speaking here as outraged democrats, that we are not, but as philosophers: to respect democratic normativity is the least thing we can request from a democratic regime). We will have to come back to this point. The funny thing, if we dare to say so, is that this biopolitical seizure of bodies through confinement is combined with a sort of demand of consent addressed to the people who are seized – you are going to submit yourselves to it because you are convinced that it is the only reasonable way out of the crisis, aren’t you?

The hybrid feature is emphasized : bodies are seized, but the seizing gesture (and its necessary use of force) is combined with a mere “window-dressing” demand of consent – you agree that your seizure is necessary, aren’t you ?

Furthermore, the difference between confinement and administrative detention is clear enough to be seen by the naked eye : there are no police raids, the cops do not come early in the morning to take you to transit camp. No, it is the governmental, sanitary and media communication which comes to your home and urges you to play along with the confinement game. Our sanitary civic-mindedness and our citizen’s discernment are called upon. For the operation to produce the intended effects and to be considered a success, the active consent of the population is required – each one of us must return home, in an orderly fashion, and respect instructions. Of course, police are patrolling, a deluge of fines is falling on people’s heads, and sometimes even jail sentences. So the pressure of the armed wing of the State is perceived, but the crucial mechanism to arrange is the participation of the population, its consent.

This is the “Foucault” side of the thing. The exercise of power as an action aiming at altering conduct (attitude and behaviour), the conduct of conducts, aiming here the production of a collective epidemic subjectivity, implies the enactment by the governed people themselves of the supposedly saving gestures. We find once again the hybrid characteristic of the confinement – between the authoritarian gesture (which places it ipso facto under a regime of exception) and the participating, consensual, inducing action. The population is not included in the process of decision-making, but at least in its implementation.

In that sense, the confinement can clearly be distinguished from the gesture which once consisted in isolating a whole population by tightly enclosing a city within its walls, in the space where the plague was lurking. We must keep in mind this difference, even in the case of Wuhan and Hubei’s region where confinement has been conducted as a Blitzkrieg. The gesture by which the gates of a contaminated city are closed follows a double regime. On the one hand, as noticed by Foucault in his famous conference on biopolitics held in Rio de Janeiro in 1974, we see a proto-biopolitical apparatus emerging with the closure of cities because of the epidemic plague : the purpose is to limit damages and thus to save lives. But on the other hand, the rationality which ordains this saving is still exercised in the traditional framework of sovereign power : by sealing the city, the sovereign exercises his right of life and death on the population of the city hit by the plague. The sovereign power pulls no punches. It is violent and associated with a form of terror, for it sends to death a portion of the enclosed population. It exposes people to contamination. The sovereign right of death is here vividly illustrated. Foucault insists on the fact that the measures imposed on the population must be obeyed, on “penalty of death”. The keys of houses are collected ; nobody can go outside ; a city governor is appointed, like a roman dictator but in the conditions of an epidemic situation. The health of the population is under surveillance to try to contain the scourge and so to give a maximum of chance to “life” in conditions where no efficient remedy is known against the disease. This is the proto-biopolitical dimension of this operation. But on the other hand, it could only be realized with means contained within the diagram characterizing sovereign power.

By contrast, with the current confinement, our governing people seem to suddenly remember, as they are forced out of their sleep, that they not only have a responsibility regarding the governed people’s lives, but also that these lasts are not only living material, that they are subjectivities, that they are subjects and eventually citizens as the democratic doxa calls them… So in these hectic times, they remember that the governed people cannot be treated like a passive flock and that their lives must still be protected against the epidemic havoc. For this, rulers have to get their subjectivities on board. Therefore, they call upon their capacity of judgment as citizens, but in the most ambiguous mode: you see yourselves, you do not have any choice – you do not want to die, so follow the orders, confine yourselves…

The good old “there is no alternative” resurfaces… We can say, of course, that in the implementation of the confinement, something essential to the traditional sovereign power is back in force. But this sovereign gesture is necessarily hybridized by the biopolitical regime or biopolitical modality. What makes its return is not only the specter of the exception but also, somehow, the State care. With the epidemic disaster, the rulers remember that they do not only have to take care of markets, but also, at least a bit, of populations…

One more thing. When the epidemic grew in Wuhan and China, it provoked the ruthless response of the authorities through sanitary surveillance of the population, tracking of infected persons, monitoring of movements so that confinement and quarantine instructions were respected – using electronic resources at disposal, the smartphone being in such circumstances like an electronic bracelet, and the cameras ensuring the checking of urban spaces and roads, Chinese society making then one more step in the era of the society of surveillance and control. When this alliance of powers, combining sanitary war measures and the use of surveillance technologies, was running in full capacity, for a good cause (the fight against the epidemic), what was said about it in the West? Freedom-destroying measures, violations of the individual rights, 1984 at the scale of a country of 1,5 billion people, etc. And then, when the pandemic reached the north of Italy, followed by a surge in the whole Europe, what did we see? Our rulers, wearing all their stripes of democratic principles and liberal values, started hobbling behind China, clearly following the same direction when it comes to the implementation of the most up-to-date technologies of surveillance and control against the epidemic – QR codes, facial recognition, tracking of movements on smartphones, etc.

It means something simple and of the utmost importance: during the epidemic hardship, as a moment of truth, the dividing line drawn by Western propaganda in the context of the new Cold War between liberal democracies and Chinese like police dictatorial regime seems more blurred than ever. The prompt confinement of billions of individuals on the whole planet, whatever the political regime in place, rubbed out the line of division. In times of life-threatening danger, its normative value and its supposedly moral dimension are thoroughly erased to leave room for the urgent obligation imposed to all governments to face the catastrophe and try to contain it by exceptional means which are not only damaging public freedoms but also, everywhere, undermining the very principles on which States, regimes and governments are built.

The vertical dimension of power has undoubtedly been an advantage in China when, after a first damaging setback, it was time to put everything in array against the epidemic. But we also observed at the peak of the crisis a collective shout out coming from the bed-rock of the population, especially in the regions which were the most affected by the virus. The intensity and magnitude of this shout out is unheard of and it shows, from the perspective of the relations between governing and governed people, that things in China are not quite like the caricatures widespread in Western “Orwellian” narratives. The virus is certainly not doing politics, but in China, it became potentially political during this epidemic of critical outspokenness which has somehow redoubled the first epidemic. A discursive epidemic arose in conjunction with the viral epidemic. The Western medias could of course then feed themselves on it, suggesting that it was a manifestation of a general movement of popular resistance against the police regime, as if the condition for the containment of the epidemic in China had been the submission of the population to a pure and simple regime of terror, one more “anti-totalitarian” nonsense.

The so-called freedom-destroying handling of the epidemic in China is a smokescreen whose function is to wipe out the traces of the procedures which have supported the implementation of the confinement and what surrounds it in Western countries : a proper dictatorial procedure. As noticed by Dominique Rousseau, an emeritus professor of public law of the University Sorbonne-Panthéon, the state of emergency has been set up in France “in a lawless state” where “only the pure violence of the sovereign” is in action (Libération, 13/04/2020). In other words, the retroactive establishment of this state of emergency, which is the condition for the effective confinement of the population, occured in the most radical state of suspension of the law, in a juridical and constitutional weightlessness. The law professor adds that it is “the whole legislative domain defined by the article 34 of the Constitution which has been “given” to the Prime Minister” [4] The use of the term “given” is in that context very charming and expressive. This procedure is certainly dictatorial, in the specific sense of the “sovereign dictatorship” coined by Carl Schmitt, differentiated from the “commissioner dictatorship”: “the commissioner dictator is the commissioner of absolute action from a constituted power; as for the sovereign dictatorship, it is the commission of absolute action from a constituting power” [5]. It means that, with regard to the “dictatorship of commissioner” (what Schmitt associates to Rousseau’s description of the dictature in the chapter IV of the Social Contract), “the mighty power of the dictator is based on the authorization by a constitutional organ, that is already constituted” [6]; while a “sovereign dictatorship”, by contrast, “does not suspend an existing Constitution by referring to a right grounded by this Constitution, it seeks on the contrary to establish the state of things which would make possible a new Constitution considered then as the true Constitution” [7]. We do not say that the current executive power intends to create a new Constitution, but we notice that the way it resorted to the state of emergency leads it to operate an actual suspension of the Constitution (without having the authorization to do so), so that it can free itself from it. We may observe in passing that, if the result is not a new Constitution, much of the measures taken in similar fashion during the state of emergency of the Valls Government ended up in a change of the Constitution – nonconstitutional measures outlining, a posteriori, the horizon of a new Constitution, or at least its replacement. Since the current suspension of constitutional provisions of the rule of law have not been stated by any constituted organ, we must say that the executive power, in this occasion, acted according to its constituting power. It is an aberration from the point of view of the democratic norm.

Once again, the problem is not a practical one (should we resort to vigorous exceptional measures or not?), it is theoretical. The issue is to understand how do regimes which define themselves as democratic and liberal (recognizing then, by law, the capacity of autonomy of its subjects) and in opposition to “totalitarian”, “authoritarian”, “dictatorial” or “tyrannical” regimes, face a life-threatening danger, what is called in German (by Schmitt among others) the Ernstfall?
The Ernstfall is a danger we must battle with, setting all other matters aside. It constitutes in itself a situation of exception, and necessarily calls for the use of exceptional means. It is in that respect that the first interventions of Agamben on the epidemic were really dreadful. Even though he has worked for a long time on Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, the state of exception and all these issues, his first move was to casually sweep aside the difficulty, while the life-threatening danger was clearly shaping the present and its actual configuration. It would have been an invention of a governmental deceiving and evil demon eager to advance its project, the state of exception being considered as the obsession of our rulers. We see here a typical illustration of the fetishism of signs, that is signs exercising their power at the expense of the ability (Leninist ability if we dare to say so) to grasp and analyze the singularity of a “concrete situation”. Agamben is lost in the fog of discourses on power and loses sight of the existing and real epidemic. He claimed that this is some kind of discursive foam, and so a typical form of diversion. In short, Agamben suffers from a “slight bewilderment”, like Don Quichotte (Eric Auerbach, Mimesis)…[8]

We must then take a look at the crucial issue that Agamben evades : how do “our” democracies face the sanitary Ernstfall? Are they prepared to do so? And why does their way of handling things differ from the one of liberal non-democracies such as China?

The problem can be stated like this: in a democracy or a republic, the passage from the “normal” state of things (in which life goes on and the relation governing/governed are in principles placed under the rule of law) to a different regime (the one where exceptional means are set up in order to face the life-threatening danger) should be explicitly stated rather than surreptitious introduced. Why should it be so ? For the simple reason that, according to the primordial conditions of this kind of political regime (democracy), there will always be a people in the political sense, as a collective body and spirit which is irreducible to the population understood as what rulers govern, protect and take in charge like pastors, or more or less competent shepherds. Under this kind of political regime, the passage from a normal to an exceptional state of things cannot be done behind people’s back. Or else, if it does so (what happened in France), it means that this democracy or republic is smoke and mirrors, that it is a sham. If we come back to Rousseau and to Carl Schmitt’s reading of his work, the constituted power must submit to the constituting power. This last, and only this last, is not subject to the Constitution: “The people, as the holder of the constituting power, cannot subject itself, and in all times, it has the right to give himself the Constitution he wants. […] All the organs acting with the authority of the State cannot modify this Constitution which specifies their competences” [9].

Contrary to democrats whose mantras furnish the dictionary of received ideas in political science and philosophy in our societies, we do not think that the operation which matters the most in this kind of configuration is to keep up democratic appearances. Indeed, to keep up these appearances is an operation which features the lie constitutive of liberal democracies – the false universal as veil thrown over specific particular interests. Dominique Rousseau strongly underlined the fact that there is a contradiction in pretending to face the Ernstfall while keeping up the decorum of democratic institutions. This operation, which consists in smuggling the state of exception, generates in fact the downfall of the rule of law. This last is then confused with the dictatorial law and loses its specific consistency, its capacity to maintain itself and assert its singularity, whereas other political regimes can do so.

Yet, this lack of distinction, or rather the establishment of a surreptitious and insidious continuity between rule of law and dictatorship, is precisely what prospers in police and market democracy. After review, the confinement of the population turns out to be an exacerbation of features which have already been revealed during recent episodes : in particular the Yellow Vest mobilization with the setting up during this episode of a medium intensity state of police exception. We saw then once again the insidious, surreptitious, and apparently irreversible establishment of a continuum between a rule of law referring to democratic normativity and what is supposed to constitute its perfect adversary, the state of police understood as Police, authoritarian State, in which law is actually what the executive power say it is. In France, it is shown by the manner the State Council, which is supposed to investigate and judge cases relative to the so-called administrative measures, has given free rein to the executive power in most cases. Some jurists were concerned about it, but it remains like water off a duck’s back.

The reality of the exercise of power by the “democrats” governing us is made of this permanent accommodation of the rule of law (more and more reduced to the legitimizing fiction of the dominant order) to the conditions of a state of exception which is meant to be indefinitely perpetuated through modulated forms. As an example, the police is creating files with the names of persistent offenders of confinement. These files will not magically vanish after the confinement. The names registered in these files will certainly become names of individuals “known to the police”, as the news media like to say when a person has to account for an offense or any infraction, an indication which is always registered by judges as aggravating circumstances. The pattern of continuity between democratic rule of law and its opposite – let’s say dictatorship – is the worst involution of the government of the living. And as a matter of fact, it is an outstanding feature of our present time.

But we cannot only observe it without confronting the issue of the vital threat and of the way we should face it. It would mean to remain stuck in democratic whining, precisely Agamben’s shortcoming inasmuch as his elegiac complaint about the rampant state of exception leads him to enact the foreclosure of the real through a grotesque (philosophical) gesture, while the vital threat is undoubtedly here.

The only way out of this aporia is to say something simple: to face a life-threatening danger, we must use exceptional means. The implementation of these means obviously implies the suspension of the regime of political life at work between rulers and ruled during times of “open non-crisis”. The only beneficial gesture, which means grounded on the respect of the governed people, is the one which maintains a strong reference to the general will, and which displays such a decision of suspension. The legislator is the people, according to Rousseau, as it is the holder of the constituting power. Then, the act of suspension of the Constitution is indicative of the helplessness of law (of the legislator) in front of the lawless power (the dictator). In these conditions, it is not the people who decide, but the State, through the dictator: “the legislator is outside the State but within the law, the dictator outside the law but within the State” [10]. The effectiveness of the dictator would rely on such access to the State, access to which the sovereign people by law would be deprived. To expressly assert it would be for the person who assumes the role of dictator a way to acknowledge that he has then a de facto sovereignty. This is the model of the Roman dictatorship : in the name of public safety and in front of a vital danger threatening the integrity of the common body and its institution (the Republic), this last must be suspended and full authority given to a “dictator” so that he (in the Roman world, it is naturally gendered) has access to all the means to organize the resistance. According to Carl Schmitt, the purpose, which only seems paradoxical, is to save the Constitution by the use of the dictatorship of commissioner (it is not sovereign, so it does not have constituting power), for example against an external military threat. In our case, we extend the domain of intervention to vital justifications. It is not excessive if we consider that if the people disappear because they die, then there will not be a Constitution anymore. And it is not because this notion of life-threatening danger seems quite unspecified (here the evaluation of the actual danger of a virus relatively to the survival of a population) that the idea to resort to an assumed form of dictatorship in case of life-threatening danger must be abandoned. Of course, any power could abuse it, but we are considering the cases where danger is real. Anyway, it is not the form “dictatorship” which is at stake. The use made in France of exceptional measures which were intially justified by the struggle against “terrorism” to prevent ecological protests shows that “dictatorship” as a political form is not the main issue…

We claim that this mechanism of the Roman dictatorship remains largely the horizon in which we should continue to think about the problem of the “vital danger”.

It is infinitely better to suspend the rule of law by saying it and to justify the decision in relation to the tyranny of circumstances than to make it in an insidious fashion, and therefore undermine or even destroy any kind of democratic normativity. If democracy is the whistled confinement, the shelved Constitution, and the State council bending and bowing, then what is actually the difference between democracy and dictatorship? The open and declared suspension of the rule of law maintains the integrity of democracy. It is of course grounded on the condition of its announced return, when the danger for life will be away. But we do not share in that respect the naive political perspective of Jürgen Habermas [11]. We propose to refer only to the dictatorship of the commissioner as a mandate, limited in its content (essentially technical) and its length, the dictator being eventually revoked if he/she exceeds his remit and the limits imposed for its action [12].

The democratic stupidity, or the democratic pseudo-common sense, characterizing our present time, is what prevents the perception of the salutary and vital obligation, in certain circumstances, to make abstraction of the democratic normativity and to differ from it. Let’s take a simple example (without confusing obviously the current fight against the pandemic with a true “war” which supposes an enemy endowed with malicious intentions): if De Gaulle had managed to uphold a residual sovereignty of the French Republic on part of the territory after the defeat in June 1940 (let’s say, to pretend, in the Bearn or in Corsica – we exclude the colonial territories which would require a different approach), then would it not have been completely legitimate to establish some kind of Public Safety Government (a legacy of the French Revolution)? In short, we imagine in this imaginary example a dictature endowed with full powers to organize the defense and to continue, despite everything, the all-out war against the Nazis. Would the emergency be then to organize municipal elections in this republican part of the territory? When the threat is approaching, is the ploughman Cincinnatus appointed dictator in order to organize agricultural shows or in order to save the Republic?

However, that being said, we must consider another aporia, not less formidable than the last: the condition for the model of the Roman dictatorship “to work” is that “the dictator” (which can be all kind of things like the sovereign of Hobbes: a man, a woman, a collective, a committee…) must be approved by a one or several institutions endowed with the capacity to suspend the rule of law. Moreover, there must be a high probability regarding the ability of this “dictator” to embody the general will in the fight against the vital danger.

It shows clearly that this model is opposed to the current process through which the rulers auto-approve their suspensive power. This is not the dictatorship in the Roman sense, quite the opposite. It is the Bonapartism which has slowly crept in the mores of what is often called illiberal democracies (Orban is not the black sheep of European democracies, it is rather the scout, as demonstrated by the paradigm of migration politics – he was the first to close borders, the others followed…). The rampant Bonapartism of police and market democracies is what sets up the regime of the “permanent coup” (François Mitterrand) when our rulers inject some state of exception within the mechanisms of the so-called rule of law. We saw it happening during the sequence of the Yellow Vest.

Therefore, those in charge are obviously the last persons we should trust when it comes to running a dictatorship congruent with the common interest in periods of resistance against a life-threatening danger. On the contrary, we should start by dismissing them so that a collective dictatorship can be established (a committee of public safety), as long as this last provides enough reasons to believe that it can effectively embody the collective interests and that it has the ability and the sufficient energy to avert the danger. Of course, this is the point where things become extremely complex, even if Lenin’s thoughts (among others) on the dictatorship of the proletariat could still inspire us and clarify things on such matters. Obviously, what needs to be avoided like in the present pandemic situation is to rely on a dictatorship of experts (here health experts). Indeed, if on the one hand the decisions taken by something like a committee of public safety have certainly a technical dimension, on the other hand the transition from knowledge to action remains ambiguous. They require the views of health nonprofessionals.

One thing is certain. According to the Roman model, once the danger is gone, Cincinnatus goes back to his plough and the republican institutions recover their full legitimacy. Whereas in the present configuration, it is the persons who failed the test of the confrontation to the vital danger and who have sent thousands of fellows to death, who will stay put and start drawing electoral drafts on the hardships. The late micro Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (Macron the twice small Napoleon) of today tries to appear humble. I learned a lot from these circumstances which are painful for us all, he says. Trust me, reelect me for five years… Stand again for another turn of police and market democratic screw… A noxious “democratic” continuity…

So if the prospect of an actual popular dictatorship required by the exceptional circumstances is held up, then the natural lure would be to say: let’s come back to the people, all the people, and nothing but the people. That is what a certain number of texts were advocating in France when the scandalous carelessness of public powers became more and more striking, when the epidemic wave was on the verge of overwhelming the country : let’s organize ourselves against the epidemics, let’s strengthen our solidarity, let’s pull together, knowing that the people in charge are leaving us behind and are unable to insure our security. This idea of popular self-organization in front of the vital danger can not but be compelling. However, there is a major defect in it : in a context such as an industrial or nuclear catastrophe or a so-called natural disaster, we cannot apply the pattern of the self-initiative and self-organization formed through popular movements in which struggling people are confronted to abusive governments, class enemies, a dominating group which became intolerable – let’s say the Yellow Vest model. Indeed, the chance to succeed in the fight against the life-threatening danger represented by the epidemic in the presented time is conditioned by the access to the means at the disposal of the State. Popular self-organization cannot really produce its own hospitals, emergency services, tests, medical monitoring and its sanitary logistic, that is its own alternative biopolitics. What it can do is strengthen the solidarity which has been regularly under attack in recent times. It can tackle rumors and spread some safe-guarding gestures, not much more.

Once again, the problem seems almost intractable: we would need to conquer State means by driving out the failing rulers, in a time when conditions for a popular uprising are not met. People are disoriented, scared, depressed by the epidemics – and confined… This is where we find the reference to the dictatorship of the proletariat useful, even though today the political myth of the proletariat is dead : as a result of an uprising, the driving forces of the people seize State means in order to establish a dictatorship which is meant to be the provisionary tool of an historical bifurcation. However, we know very well how the model of the Roman dictatorship is quickly becoming muddy. Cincinnatus does not return to his plough, he makes himself the new Caesar. What follows is known. This is the third aporia

Meanwhile, people who do not rise up are growing impatient. They see the evidence of the rulers criminal mismanagement accumulating in front of their very eyes day by day (right now, on the 17th of April 2020, pharmacies do not have the authorization to freely sell masks, they are forbidden by public authorities – Le Monde 16/04/2020). They cannot even find comfort in the thought that, when it is over, those who have abandoned them in front of the disaster, like the French military staff in June 1940, will be held accountable. They already know that it will not be the case, that everything will be lost in the intricacies of parliamentary inquiries, in commissions, and in the political calculations of opposition parties They know that diversion tactics will prosper– they have already begun with Macron, who follows closely Trump [13], stirring suspicions about China and its handling of the epidemic (things have been concealed, hidden…). Why not daring? So an enemy is reinvented, for this “war” against the virus. For example, the professor Luc Montagnier contributes by his notoriety to such kind of operations [14] when he claims, without any kind of evidence, that he is convinced that the virus escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan where there was research for a vaccine against the HIV…

In short, the criminal dimension of our rulers’ failure will not be accounted for, neither politically, nor judicially. Frustrations will persist and be exacerbated. Recession blackmailing will probably be in full swing and the remobilization of labor forces made through the use of more authoritarian means. The confinement, in the narrative of the governing people and of the major bosses’ organization, will be depicted as a long holiday offered by the epidemic to the workers. Time to get back to work, lazy bums, and to restart production, to help companies adjust their bank accounts… One more run…

In other words, we will enter another modality of the exception, not the one of the stopped time, the confined temporality, but of the full mobilization (Ernst Jünger) against the forecasted recession. The fists clenched in their pockets, people will not be ready to forget the hecatomb in nursing homes and all the other things which happened. Few would not have mourned somebody in their surrounding environment, followed by the suffering and the anger attached to it. These deaths could have been avoided. One of us is living in Taiwan, he knows that [15].

The wrong inflicted to the collective will most certainly not be righted. The general cover-up through the debriefing addressed to the population will thrive – for this, you can trust that the media will do their job. And so rage and frustration will persist without change. By default, the first occasion for the people to hand in the bill to the abusive, incompetent and criminal rulers will be the 2022 presidential election. Marine le Pen (the president of the extreme-right party) lies in wait for it. She knows that the virus, even if it is not doing politics as such, is political: it is running for her…

There is a major political lesson of the epidemic and all the propaganda will certainly strive to render it inaudible as it is actually aligning itself to the Trumpist tactics of fusses and diversions: the Chinese regime, with all its specificities, was much better when it came to rise to the challenge and pass the test of the COVID-19 sanitary Ernstfall in comparison to Western democracies (the management of the epidemic in Japan is highly erratic, as evidenced days after days by the high-quality newspaper Asahi Shinbun), not to mention the country which is actually comparable in terms of demographic volumes, India, the “most populated democracy of the world”.

In India, the rushed confinement’s order of Modi’s government has deliberately sent on the roads hundreds of thousands of precarious workers, inner migrants who were forced to go back to their villages located thousands of kilometers away. By ignoring for a long time the worrying signals about the coming of an overwhelming epidemic, it exposed them to all dangers (sanitary among others), to many hardships, and for many simply to death. The characteristic of this scribbling biopolitics set up by Modi’s nationalist government (Hindu supremacist) in a context where the memory of pogroms against the Muslim community are still vivid, is that it cannot be differentiated from a than to politics targeting the plebeians, the poor people. The next step will probably be to make the Muslims responsible for the epidemic – the accusations have actually already started. This is what is happening in “the most populated democracy of the world” and what it suggests in “comparatist” terms. In front of hardships such as the one we are going through, what are the respective chances of the ordinary living human being in China and in India? So what do we learn from the point of view of a pragmatic of political regimes and forms of government of the living, when the scum of the pan-democratic rhetoric has vanished?

We should completely renounce the hope that in the topographies in which we have to inhabit, by force, the epidemic hardship will instruct, amend, uplift our rulers, and prompt them to reorient their general policies, or modify their relations to the governed people. If this major crisis is indeed an experience for them, it will only be followed by an unchanged relaunching of the main destructive choices (growth, strategy of tension against China…). As to us, the governed people, new turns of the screw are expected – this kind of nameless fascism which has become the amniotic fluid of domination in today’s police and market democracies.

From this angle, the experience we made of our rulers, of their attitude and ability (and inability), during the epidemic, converge with and strengthen the one we made during recent episodes such as the Yellow Vest or the mobilization against the reform of the retirement system: we do not have anything to expect from them and therefore anything to demand to this species, that is the governing species, “la cour et la ville” if we use an expression used during the absolute monarchy; we have nothing to ask, whatever tone we might use, because we are at war against them like they are at war against us. It is with this attitude that we must confront them. It does not mean to take up arms tomorrow, but at least to know the kind of relationship ongoing between them and us. We did not choose it, but the worst would be not to be willing to know about it. We do not truly share a common world with them. They manage very well to keep breathing in the best conditions, while the air we breathe becomes unbreathable, poisonous. It becomes clearer and clearer that the class struggle is bound to convert in a fight to death between two species: those who have the right (the possibility) to “freely” breathe, and those who cannot breathe anymore, or do so risking their lives.

Foucault said once, if we remember correctly, that we must genuinely stop being Hegelian. In the present context, this invitation takes on particular importance. We live in the “dialectic” time when the present, burdened with gravity, scourges, disfiguring hideousness, is still harboring all sorts of powers and sufficient promises to feed the hope of a better future – a future which is conceivable and considered with certainty as the best for the optimistic party… By contrast, what characterizes our present is the way the close future, which is relentlessly forecasted, disqualifies this hope, denounces it as a lie, an illusion (as stability and sustainability). The way we know all sorts of things about the close future, with a quite well-established knowledge, is dismissing the present in which we live, and so takes us away from it, preventing us from genuinely inhabiting it.
And yet, it is in this removed present, as it exiles us from our own condition, that we have to wage the war we were talking about. It is a war we are almost sure to lose, but it must then be waged with the utmost determination, so that we save through it some chances for the joy, the rebellious thoughts, of a life without master(s).

[1] The term gouvernant in French will here often be translated as ruler, in spite of the fact that it does not render perfectly the logic of the analysis in terms of governmentality, and its relation to the crucial distinction gouvernant/gouverné.
[2] Mechanisms of the regime of sovereignty are undeniably still at work, producing their own power effects, like “house arrest” constraining bodies in a restricted space. We are grateful to Philippe Hauser for his remarks and comments which are integrated into this text, even though we will not mention his insightful contributions each time.
[3] Even if it can also sometimes be enforced with all the means at the disposal of sovereign violence, for example in Morocco or Senegal, as Philippe Hauser reminded us.
[4] The article 34 sets the domains in which the action of the executive branch must specifically pass through a law, that is through Parliament – in this suspension of law, it is therefore the Prime Minister which decides, without going through the institution dedicated to national representation.
[5] Carl Schmitt, La dictature, translated from German by Mira Köller and Dominique Séglard, Editions du Seuil, 2000, p.218 (translated from the french translation).
[6] Ibid., p.199.
[7] Ibid., p.208.
[8] What bothers us is not so much the fact that at first Agamben talked crap, it can happen to anybody, but rather the way he followed up on his blunder, organizing his remedial communication in media outlets where he is “at home”. He does not acknowledge, not even implicitly, that he talked bollocks… This is the true presumptuous attitude of the philosopher, and this is what can be qualified as intolerable. In terms of communication, the lesson to be learned from it is clear : the world is divided between those who are ”at home” in a certain number of media, and those who do not have such privilege. Agamben is « at home » in Lundimatin (but also a little in Le Monde apparently), like Robert Hersant was in France-Antilles and Edwy Plénel is in Mediapart… On this point, Philippe Hauser considers that we do injustice to Agamben, as an article of the National Council of the Italian Research, dating from the 20th of February 2020 would have explained his first thoughts: “Agamben is only referring to an article of the Consiglio delle Richerche. It the this council which states non c’è un ‘epidemia di SARS-CoV2 in Italia, adding immediately after : Il quadro potrebbe cambiare ovviamente nei prossimi giorni ma il nostro sistema sanitario è in stato di massima allerta e capace di gestire efficacemente anche la eventuale comparsa si altri piccoli focolai come quello attuale” (Philippe Hauser, private communication). Noted. But still, we should remark that in this occasion, Giorgio Agamben has been careless when he relied on the authority of the CNR, without questioning. Maybe it was because this article was going in a direction which suited the philosopher: show that the emergency was not requiring exceptional decisions, and that the governmental choice to implement a restriction of individual liberties was based on a sanitary pretence in order to establish the order of the sovereign exception.
[9] Carl Schmitt, op.cit., p.211.
[10] Ibid., p.196.
[11] As an answer to the question of the risk “to transform the state of exception into a democratic rule”, Habermas seems to profess an unwavering belief in the “democratic” leader when it comes to the respect of the Constitution. He maintains the border (largely hypothetical) with the so-called “illiberal democracies”: “The restriction of a number of important rights and freedoms must naturally remain exceptional and for a fixed term. But this exception, as I tried to show, is required by the primary protection of the fundamental right to life and to physical integrity. In France and in Germany, there is no reason to doubt the loyalty of the leaders to the Constitution. The fact that the President of Hungary, Viktor Orban, takes advantage of the sanitary crisis to permanently silence his opposition can be explained by the long term evolution of Hungary towards an authoritarian regime, to which the European Council and, mostly, the European Christian Democrats have observed with, let’s say, magnanimity” (Jürgen Habermas, in Nicolas Truong, “Jürgen Habermas: In this crisis, we must act with the explicit knowledge of our non-knowledge”, Le Monde, 10th of April 2020 – we underline).
[12] Carl Schmitt mentions the Chapter 35 of Machiavelli’s Discourses on the first ten books of Titus Livy and his conception of the “dictator” who was not to confuse with the “Prince”, the only sovereign: “The dictator cannot change the law in place, cannot abolish the Constitution, cannot shed the organization of public powers and cannot make new laws. According to Machiavelli, regular authorities are maintained, as a kind of control. This is the reason why dictatorship is conformed to the Republic, whereas the decemvirs have put this last in danger precisely because of their unlimited power to legislate” – Carl Scmitt, op.cit., p.71.
[13] The epidemic revealed the “Neronian” feature of Trump. Each of his daily press briefings is an opportunity to indulge us with a new Paean inspired by Rome’s burning. But as Chomsky said in a recent interview, his Rome is the planet…
[14] His reputation has already been dented by his careless talk on vaccines (supposedly dangerous), or on the modes of diffusion of the HIV (according to him, African people would be especially sensitive to HIV because of their immune weakness which would be related to their… nutrition) – Damien Mascret, “The slow scientific sinking of the Professor Luc Montagnier”, Le Figaro, 17/11/2017.
[15] With this in mind, there is a sham in the Taiwanese “exemplarity” in these circumstances. The epidemic is for the Taiwanese rulers mostly an opportunity to claim their singularity as a regime. It is the government and the State the most unconditionally stuck to Trump and his gang, on the whole planet. When even the most traditional and faithful allies of the USA have a hard time following this sociopath (Chomsky) and his gang’s recantations, Taiwanese authorities are more than ever ready to link their political destiny (taking with them the whole island destiny in the same time) to this team, the hope being to create a de facto setting up of an American protectorate in the Chinese sea. It prompts us to temper the praises addressed to Taiwanese authorities for the wise and expert management of the epidemic crisis.

*Header image “Covid-19 Quarantine Day 8” by Eric Fox is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.

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