Quarantine and Punish

Biopower in the Pandemic (and beyond)

“Biopower” is a piece of academic jargon arcane enough to not quite sound like a word to the layman. It was coined by a notoriously abstruse theorist named Michel Foucault, who is famous for being the theoretical fountainhead of the contemporary left. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers us a concise explanation of the concept:

Foucault contrasts [biopower] to what he calls sovereign power: a form of power that was historically founded on violence—the right to kill…

...the West has undergone a profound transformation in its mechanisms of power since the seventeenth century. Deductive and violent sovereign power has been gradually complemented and partly replaced by biopower, a form of power that exerts a positive influence on life, “that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations.” This era of biopower is marked by the explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the control of populations: techniques that, for example, coordinate medical care, normalize behavior, rationalize mechanisms of insurance, and rethink urban planning.

This might still sound like gobbledygook, but the dense postmodern verbiage conceals what is really a very simple concept. When the state enforces regulations, it often does so in a regulatory way, not “Do this or I’ll hit you with a stick” but “Do this for your own good.” The state is a gardener, society is a garden, and you, dear reader, are a rose. The well-intentioned gardener may prune you, and it may sting, but it’s for your own good. Biopower improves you, and there are authorities in place who get to define “improve.” Biopower, generally speaking, has an ostensibly scientific justification: the government asks that you do such-and-such because the experts say so. It goes hand-in-hand with technocracy. If that made your skin crawl, then that’s a good sign: you understand biopower now.

The point of this article is to look at the uses of biopower to push through unrelated or ineffective measures in the context of the pandemic, and then find ways that those abuses can continue long after the pandemic is over. Not an examination of biopower, per se, but of the more corrosive uses thereof.

One caveat: while I am being very critical of the applications of biopower here, there are legitimate uses of expert opinion, of course. Doctors tell you to wear sunscreen because UV radiation really does cause skin cancer. Computer security experts tell you to update your OS because updates really do patch security holes and protect your data. And there is a blurry line between legitimate use of expert opinion and fearmongering. Yes, cigarettes cause cancer, but do cigarette packs in the UK really need to have “smoking kills” in a giant, scary, black font? Is that a bit manipulative?

With that caveat out of the way, I want to focus on the unambiguously corrosive uses of biopower in the pandemic. I define a corrosive use of biopower as a bringing-to-bear of the state regulatory apparatus having the following characteristics:

  1. Somehow misleading. This can include blatant falsehoods, taking facts out of context, cherry-picking examples, or presenting statistics in a way that obscures the whole picture.

  2. Emotionally manipulative, meaning that it elicits an emotional response for the direct purpose of controlling behavior. Just being rhetorically effective isn’t enough. It must elicit an emotion, and do so in order to make you act a certain way.

  3. Finally, poor or ulterior motives, meaning that the whole maneuver must be based on a faulty understanding of the problems at hand, or be based on a completely unrelated motive for which the present issue is a stalking-horse.

What we saw during the pandemic, I conjecture, was the various governments of the world in a state of panic that caused them to clamp down. In autocracies like China, this was no problem, since the Chinese state takes the enactment of violent crackdowns (let alone pandemic lockdowns) as its prerogative. Liberal democracies, however, are in trouble in these situations, because they need a pretext to convince their populations that lockdowns are necessary.

Enter biopower. The easiest way to convince a group of Western liberal-democratic people to accept a lockdown is through fear. In the UK, the threat of the virus was deliberately exaggerated to engineer public consent to draconian lockdowns, as well as to provide a pretext for the extension of state power more generally. A report from the Telegraph has it,

Members of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviour (SPI-B) expressed regret about the tactics in a new book about the role of psychology in the Government’s Covid-19 response….

SPI-B warned in March last year that ministers needed to increase “the perceived level of personal threat” from Covid-19 because “a substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened”...

One [SPI-B member] warned that “people use the pandemic to grab power and drive through things that wouldn’t happen otherwise”…

...the Government has been accused of feeding the public a non-stop diet of bad news, such as deaths and hospitalisations, without ever putting the figures in context with news of how many people have recovered, or whether daily death tolls are above or below seasonal averages.

The above fits all three of my criteria for a corrosive use of biopower. Misleading use of statistics (about deaths and hospitalizations), emotionally manipulative (persuading people to accept a lockdown by eliciting fear), and ulterior motives, self-admittedly by one of the SPI-B members.

This isn’t limited to the UK, of course. Another English-speaking democracy with a strong liberal tradition has had a similar problem. In December of 2020, the New York Times reported

In the pandemic’s early days, Dr. Fauci tended to cite the same 60 to 70 percent estimate that most experts did. About a month ago, he began saying “70, 75 percent” in television interviews. And last week, in an interview with CNBC News, he said “75, 80, 85 percent” and “75 to 80-plus percent.” In a telephone interview the next day, Dr. Fauci acknowledged that he had slowly but deliberately been moving the goal posts. (sic) He is doing so, he said, partly based on new science, and partly on his gut feeling that the country is finally ready to hear what he really thinks…

“We need to have some humility here,” he added. “We really don’t know what the real number is. I think the real range is somewhere between 70 to 90 percent. But, I’m not going to say 90 percent.”

Again, all three criteria are satisfied. It is misleading to intentionally lowball one’s estimate in order to induce the public to accept it. It is manipulative to ratchet the numbers up slowly to avoid engendering a response. And finally, the experts here are admitting that they don’t actually know what they need to know in order to set those numbers at the right level. So the numbers are set high enough to ensure the indefinite prolongation of security measures, with or without a working knowledge of what would actually create herd immunity. One could argue that this is justifiable, that we should set the bar as high as possible until we know we can lower it. But that should have been a public discussion, and there is no guarantee that doing so will actually work.

The most glaring example has been the effect on freedom of speech. The two singular examples above are good paradigm cases for how wealthy Western countries have used the pandemic to extend state power. More broadly, however, governments around the world have found the pandemic to be a useful pretext for introducing censorship and speech controls. Human Rights Watch notes,

At least 83 governments worldwide have used the Covid-19 pandemic to justify violating the exercise of free speech and peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities have... enacted vague laws criminalizing speech that they claim threatens public health…

Human Rights Watch reviewed national government responses around the world to the Covid-19 pandemic and found that unlawful interference with free speech has been one of the most common forms of overreach…

...in Hong Kong, the authorities cited Covid-19-related restrictions in October to ban pro-democracy gatherings and arrested and fined those ignoring the ban.

HRW’s reporting focuses mostly on developing nations in places like Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. The wrong response is to look at this and say, “Well, isn’t that what you expect in the developing world?” The right response is to see this as a world-wide tilt toward disciplinary power, where liberal democracies and dictatorships differ only in degree. Importantly, the two constants here are the enactment of speech controls and an ostensible concern for public health. 

Biopower is not, strictly speaking, “bad”. As Foucault observed, governments have been moving away from sovereign power and toward softer regulatory power for centuries now. What is worrying is the capability of biopower to hide the devil in the details: repression, censorship, and limitations on freedom of speech can all be concealed or justified by appeal to public health. 

More worryingly, there is no guarantee that these abuses will abate with the end of the pandemic. It is plausible that matters of “public health” will continually be brought up as justification for repressive state action. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development has already aired the idea of “climate lockdowns,” with a stated intention of avoiding them that one is tempted to read as ironic. The American Public Health Association has a page on racism and health. Harvard has declared racism to be a “public health crisis,” cementing social justice concerns as action items for public health and justifying additional regulation. Covid variants, the threat of future pandemics, climate emergencies, and internalized systems of oppression will all be implicated as threats to public health — and then justify the extension of state power.