Only five years ago, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change (2015) signaled to the global economy an urgent need to pay attention to the world of human life. In early March 2020, the spread of the new coronavirus was declared by the World Health Organization as a global pandemic. Dozens of countries have declared closures to curb its spread.
Already in the throes of crisis, the world economy has retreated from neo-mercantilism in the form of rapid movement of labor, goods, capital and services – thus rushing down the path of disaster. The situation was blatantly manifested in the abandonment by governments of welfare-oriented social policies; an even greater marginalization of migrants and refugees; the destitution of low-wage working populations suffering from food insecurity; a massive reduction in the organized workforce; and, more importantly, an acute crisis in public health systems in a world already grappling with neoliberal public health management.
The public health crisis has only worsened the economic crisis. Incomes of wage earners have fallen, government spending on social services has fallen and, by all accounts, corporate sector profits have increased. In India, too, we have seen the government’s Covid-19 responses in the form of bailouts organized for large corporations far beyond relief efforts for vulnerable sections of the population – migrant workers, the elderly, the masses. slums and out-of-work groups of workers.
There were no conditions attached to aid to businesses, while that offered to states, small and medium-sized enterprises and others was tied to the loan market. The virus strangely resembled a neoliberal virus, echoing the prophetic words of Samir Amin. The crisis thus turned out to be of unprecedented magnitude, impacting production (as well as the reproduction of working lives) and combining structural inequalities, cyclical instabilities and unprecedented upheaval in life.
The moment was, and remains, that of a public health emergency in a context of massive political and economic disorder. The question is therefore that of life itself. Perhaps the question of life was never articulated in the post-war era so acutely as it is today.
In this crippled state of public services under neoliberal regimes, people are realizing that there is much more value in universal public services than what they pay in taxes, especially in times of severe health crisis. The deficit hysteria calling for even more privatizations and a reduction in public services and employment highlights the serious effects of the Covid-19 crisis.
In this environment, marked by a specific pattern of investment in capital and deployment of power that sucks the blood of a disaster-stricken population, the biopolitics from above are reinforced. Bio-capital and bio-power arise from the crises of life. As a result, old patterns of investing and deploying power are declining, as evidenced by the increase in the number of declining industries (including traditional banks) and the ineffectiveness of established political institutions, such as parliament and the liberal parties, to respond to this crisis of life, and their detachment from it. The left also, within the framework of this scenario, finds itself demobilized.
Yet the crisis of life produces, and must produce, political responses. Biopolitics from below is not so much about the ‘below’ as against the ‘above’, and about multiple scales – local, community, state, national, as well as occupation-centric. These multiple scales testify to the need for a new public power …
As Covid-19 ravages the country and neoliberals turn an epidemiological crisis into a pandemic of fear, there is a widespread desire among the lower strata of society for a major shift in the ideas and policies that guide their lives, and equally widespread signs of collective action to protect human lives.
At the same time, there is a mad race among governments to take advantage of the situation and promote neoliberal changes that they would otherwise have needed time to initiate. In this context, a return to a pre-Covid-19 economic and social ideology may be possible, but it will be difficult. In 2020, more than a hundred years after the Bombay plague, the country is in a similar situation.
While entire populations are at risk, the structural inability of the postcolonial neoliberal regime to ensure the security of life is evident. The shock of Covid-19 is simply too great for the old order to return; even with the restoration of commerce, the resumption of supply lines, the launch of a large-scale paid labor program, and the expansion of NREGA, such a return may not be possible.
At best, we could see the adoption of some form of neo-Keynesianism on a global scale, based on injecting new money into the market by specifically allowing the unemployed lower classes to spend. But it will be short-lived, because such policies will not be able to address the issue of life. The biopolitics from below revolves around this question.
If, as previously stated, the world witnesses a neo-Malthusian scenario in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, what will be the response to this resurgence of neo-Malthusianism in world politics? The question is important if we are to consider a new life policy and the importance of care in such a transformed policy. This calls for a new type of public power which values care as the guiding principle of the organization of society, which will be treated as a common good.
We must ask ourselves the following questions: what kind of power will keep a society that emerges as the commons? What kind of power will nurture a world of care, which would involve protection and a consequent standard of accountability – precisely the principles that have been at the heart of the notion of “self-care,” a notion manipulated by modern bourgeois democracies? What will be the new policies and new modes of recreating, strengthening and broadening the social foundations of care and protection?
The more we think about these questions, the more we will see that it is about imagining autonomy in a different way, one that learns stories of battling disease and war in the past, and yet is imbued with a new imagination of a state that manages things differently; ensures the protection of its people; and takes responsibility for the safety, security and well-being of its people – in short, a new combination of autonomy, history and politics.
Contrary to what the media tell us, the response to the epidemic is not uniform.
The poor and migrants, the elderly and vulnerable, the assembly worker in a factory that produces ventilators and the mechanic in a small store making test kits; labor in transport, sanitation and waste reprocessing; or the vigilant guardians of a village and a slum; and medical workers like nurses – all collectively contribute to the early figuration of a caring society. Trust will be an important element in protecting society as a common resource.
While this is a rough sketch of a new type of general power that can be summoned in a post-epidemic scenario, I think it provides a starting point for reconstructing and characterizing what is specific to this new imaginary of a care society; as well as the other conflicts it will trigger, and the confrontations it will have to endure. In a sense, the imagination of a benevolent power and society can be based on a counter-history of crises and states.
Biopolitics from below is a form of politics that encourages us to think about new ways to protect life. It is not a question of new stakes in life, but of the way in which stakes hitherto considered as belonging to the high world of politics and governance are transformed into stakes of life. Biopolitics from below is concerned with the truth of life and death.
Extracted with permission from Pandemic and the politics of life, Ranabir Samaddar, Unlimited Women.