New Political Philosophy for the Post-Pandemic World
* Article: MASK UP! THE WORST IS YET TO COME…. Adam Arvidsson, March 2022
See also: Covid and the Politics of Risk
"The covid pandemic has transformed masks from politically innocent devices for personal protection to objects of intense controversy and politicization. For many, to wear or not to wear a mask has become a political statement and a matter of personal identity. In the US, Trump and his supporters have ostensibly refused to wear masks in public, while the liberal left has equally ostensibly insisted on never being seen without them. In Italy, Anti Vax protesters march with naked faces, while local governors introduce mask mandates to attempt to supress their public protests. The mask has become an object that, in the manner of Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory, distinguishes the supporters of the official approach to the Covid pandemic from its detractors. But what are their politics, what are the politics of the mask?
One way to investigate this topic is through the recent (and unlikely) clash between Californian design guru Benjamin Bratton and the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. In his recent pamphlet The Return of the Real - an attempt to articulate a new political philosophy for the post-pandemic world- Bratton takes issue with a number of online posts that Agamben wrote during the pandemic year of 2020. (1)
In these the Italian philosopher depicted the anti-covid emergency measures- lockdowns, social distancing, ‘smart’ working, online teaching and, of course, mask mandates- not as necessary measures to quell a developing health emergency, but as parts of a new paradigm of social governance imposed on the global population with the pandemic as a mere excuse. In these measures Agamben saw a new version of biopolitics - a term that has been central to his work for a long time - that aimed at transforming the convivial life - to use a term from Ivan Illich whom Agamben often draws on - of human beings acting as citizens, workers, lovers or subjects in general, into the ‘naked life’ of faceless patients subjected to a medical emergency. Such naked life, isolated in the home or in front of the computer screen, rendered anonymous in public by the mask, was then to be reconnected via computers, algorithms and other forms of digital devices into a new, posthuman social body. In brief masks are part of ‘the great reset’, a term borrowed from the World Economic Forum’s Klaus Schwaab, and used by many of Agamben’s new no-vax supporters (but not by Agamben himself, to my knowledge), to denote a similar top-down plan for post-pandemic global restructuring.
To Bratton instead, such a post-humanist perspective is precisely what we need to embrace. He suggests that the pandemic has taught us that we need to understand ourselves not primarily as singular individuals (made in the image of the divine, Agamben would say), but as parts of a global ‘bio-commons’ that encompasses humans, as well as other species, including micro-organisms, viruses and other relevant actors. Along with this we need to develop a new positive biopolitics based on an ‘epidemiological view of society’ whereby social processes are organized through data-based surveillance of biological or even ‘biochemical’ processes that unfold at a level different form that of the individual. ‘The epidemiological view should shift our sense of subjectivity away from private individuation and towards public transmissibility. Emphasis shifts from personal experience and toward responsibilities couched in the underlying biological and chemical realities that bind us’. From this point of view, the mask is not simply a device for a (desirable?) process of de-individualization: it is also a commitment to a new kind of biopolitical solidarity. Wearing a mask is part of what Bratton calls a new ‘ethics of the object’: it entails understanding oneself, not primarily as a singular individual, nor as a member of an exclusive collectively kept together by its ‘allegiance to a set of symbolic obligations’ but as a vessel for the flows of data and biochemical matter that make up the ‘immunological commons. ‘The mask keeps you and others safe but also communicates solidarity with the immunological commons, just as its absence signals a refusal of it'. (2)
Why make such a fuss about masks, one might ask. Why not simply mask up and wait for the emergency to pass? Such a pragmatic stance is not an option for either Agamben or Bratton. Both see masks as part of a wide-ranging social transformation whereby the post-pandemic world will be radically different from what we are used to. For both, masks will be here to stay, as part of new norms of civic conduct (just like after AIDS, condoms became comme il faut in bed). Indeed Bratton’s and Agamben’s views of what is actually going on, or ‘the Real’ to use a term from the title of Bratton’s book, overlap a lot, they just have different opinions of it. So what do they want? In virtue of what viewpoint, what ‘political unconscious’ to use Frederic Jameson’s term do their points of view differ so?
Indeed, none of them reveals his position. It is up to us to reconstruct it, by a combination of some sociological patchwork, with hints and traces that can be found in their texts. This will undoubtedly do (symbolic) violence to them as individuals (or as objects of the immunological commons), it will turn them into strawmen, but such simplification might bring some clarity, and at any rate we have little choice in the matter.
Bratton calls Agamben a traditionalist, or indeed an exponent of ‘poststructuralist medievalism’, someone who seeks to ‘defend and revive a pre-Darwinian’ concept of the human body, defined not as part of the immunological commons, but as that mystical divine resemblance that enables human beings to experience genuine ‘likeness and diversity, distance and proximity’ . (3)
And the epithet fits quite well. Agamben is an old man to start with, 79 this year, and an old Italian university professor at that: someone who has been shaped by a career in one of the most traditional intellectual establishments in the world. He is also man of letters, in the classical sense of the term, someone who has dedicated most of his life to finding the first traces of modernity in early Christianity, classical Antiquity and even ancient Judaism. The man habitually quotes Cicero, Pre-Darwinian, indeed! But he has also come to speak for a broader traditionalist position.
The pandemic has turned Agamben into a public figure in Italy. Along with less internationally known names like Massimo Cacciari and Ugo Mattei, Agamben has become a public spokesperson for the movement protesting the persistence of emergency measures and, most importantly, the introduction of a ‘Green pass’ for people who have completed the vaccination cycle. The composition of the protest movement, referred to as ‘no vax’ by official media, is varied: there is a notable presence of the extreme right, of right-wing Catholics, ‘anti-gender’ activists, neo-bourbonian Southern separatists as well as crackpot conspiracy theorists, but as the legitimacy of prolonged emergency measures wanes, these are joined by a wide range of people with other convictions that are closer to the mainstream. There also seems to be a process of consolidation of a common ‘no vax’ ideology. The more extreme positions, like the Q-anon style conspiracy theories that marked the movements early activists, are now accompanied by more down to earth analyses. Indeed, in the last months the ‘no vax’ area has seen a flourishing of conferences, workshops and online talks as well as books and blogposts, often featuring completely new and hitherto unknown movement intellectuals. A common theme to many of these is the famous ‘great reset’ sponsored by the WEF. Lock-downs, mask mandates, vaccines are a preparation for, or the beginning of the imposition of a new social order organized around a second (or fourth?) generation of digital technologies based on 5G networks, that will allow an unprecedented ubiquitous surveillance as well as providing a social model where digital giants like Facebook and Microsoft can increase their power and profits at the expense of small-scale entrepreneurs and family businesses. In this new digital society of atomized individuals, each at home in front of their computer screen, or worse, immersed in Zuckerberg’s metaverse, all established communal or cultural identities dissolve, and people are free, indeed encouraged to choose what they want to identify with, in terms of gender, sex as well as other aspects. Thus, the ‘3V Movement’, an organized outgrowth of the ‘no vax’ area with the ambition to become a political party is against masks, green passes and vaccines, as well as 5G networks, digital cash and the ‘DDL Zan’: a (failed) parliamentary motion to strengthen legal sanctions against hate-speech motivated by sex and gender, which has become an important public symbol for the kind of gender fluidity that they resist. But once again, resist in the name of what?
While the no vax movement is a complex multitude, its core component is made up of the social strata that has the least to gain from 5G and the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. Post-Fordist restructuring, in Italy as well as in most of the West, the ‘Third industrial revolution’ to use WEF-speak, has created a multitude of small businesses engaged in things like logistics, distribution, outsourced industrial production, corporate and personal services, food and hospitality. These people have been most exposed to the economic consequences of the lock-downs (both the ‘hard’ one in the spring of 2020 and the ‘soft’ ones in the fall of 20 and the spring of 21) and are most exposed to competition from digital giants. Their mom-and-pop stores risk being taken over by Amazon, delivery services with ghost kitchens outcompete small restaurants, and smart working puts an end to the service economy that supported small scale urban enterprises. These new industrious strata outside of the digital economy proper have provided the backbone of support for Trump and related movements in the US; as well as the German Querdenken and earlier, the French Gillets Jaunes. With some poetic freedom, we can claim that the ideal typical make-up of an Italian no-vaxxer looks like a small business owner, maybe a taxi driver, someone with a tobacco store or neighbourhood bar, someone with a used car dealership or a cleaning service, primarily located to the North East of Italy, where most of the industrial economy is concentrated. There they live in small to middle-sized towns- the kinds of places where you find most of industrial production nowadays- where life unfolds among local networks of long-term friends, daily chats over the aperitivo in the main square, some volunteering in the pro-loco association that organizes the annual sagra, and a deeply felt commitment to local traditions and identities, a commitment which has grown in strength as dreams of social mobility or even migration have been undone by the post ’08 slump. There, as in the US Midwest the future has been replaced by the present which presents itself as a natural form of life that needs to be safeguarded from the technocratic attacks initiated by the pandemic. Manuel Castells old idea of a political cleavage between those included in and those excluded from the new digital ‘space of flows’ has been half forgotten as almost universal internet connectivity made it seem a thing of the past. Now it is coming back as no vax ideology is evolving towards a generalized resistance against digital modernization in the name of a present that needs to be protected. Like the Luddites in early 19th century England it is not simply an anti-technological movement - no vaxxers are happy to use smartphones, Telegram and Facebook- it is just against those technologies that threaten a supposedly natural way of life, like 5G masts, that are now being burned down from the Veneto to Punjab. (4)
This does sound very traditional, even conservative and reactionary: ‘reactionary modernism’ a term Jeffrey Herf used to describe how the Nazis embraced new technologies in order to preserve traditional Kultur, comes to mind. But what’s the alternative?
In his book Benjamin Bratton stresses how we need to develop a new positive and constructive biopolitics by means of which the immunological commons are managed on a global scale; how this needs to happen by embracing data-based surveillance, along with a post-Darwinian worldview borrowed from the biosciences, and by tossing away the sort of Eurocentric humanism that Agamben represents. But why would we want to do that? Bratton is silent on what such a ‘positive biopolitics’ would achieve, apart from keeping each other ‘safe’. Safety seems to be the only reason why we would wear masks and give up our personal data to the immunological commons with a (hidden) smile. In this Bratton’s position mirrors the kind of imperative that marks a broad spectrum of mainstream political common sense, from official responses to the pandemic, to contemporary Anglo-Saxon campus politics.
The point of masks and lockdowns is to keep us safe from contagion; the point of campus politics is to keep students safe from opinions that might contradict their basic convictions.
True, Bratton stresses how a positive biopolitics needs to be democratic and participatory and throughout the book he refers to the plight of several vulnerable groups. But these look like mere gestures, there is never any consideration of how Bratton’s bio-commons would be used in the interest of any marginalized groups, much less people in general. There is no politics in his book, in the sense that there is no mention of struggle or conflict: just political correctness whereby the marginalized or vulnerable are to be protected or included. Indeed ‘safety’ is a very slippery goal. As Foucault pointed out once, there is really no end to it.
And Bratton’s vision is indeed highly compatible with the ‘great reset’ nightmare of a data-fied global surveillance state run by the likes of Facebook and Microsoft, where safety is invoked to maintain a permanent state of exception and to censor those who contradict the main view by uttering ‘unsafe’ opinions.
But Bratton’s vision also seems impossible to realize. Not all of humanity lives in ways that are compatible with the kinds of ‘positive biopolitics’ that he envisions. And those who do are dependent on those who don’t. In Italy’s ‘first wave’ high rates of infection and death in Lombardia and Emilia Romagna correlates with the fact that those regions are the location for most large distribution centers where workers toiled along to keep the smart-working middle classes supplied with hand sanitizer and toilet paper. India’s massive second wave is partially explained by the fact that the Modhi government’s ham-fisted lockdown forced millions of migrant workers- the nightwatchmen, maids, cleaners and cab drivers who keep the middle classes comfy- to return to their villages, sometimes on foot, thereby accelerating the spread of the virus. In short until we reach a fully automated luxury society (never mind communism) the people who can adopt the kind of safety measures that Bratton wants to see as a permanent feature of a future bio-politics depend on a multitude of other people who cannot. Indeed Bratton’s book reads like a sadder and grimmer version of the Californian ideology that illuminated his colleagues some decades ago (Bratton is Professor of Design at the University of California, San Diego): the worldview of a privileged knowledge worker elite who can afford to lock down in comfy homes, secure in their moral right to look down on the mask-less proles that serve them. Its political correctness expresses the experience of someone who already lives in what Marx called ‘the communism of capital’: where the fundamental contradictions have been solved and abundant venture capital is there for your taking. Indeed, what is ‘safety’ if not the supreme principle of a cybernetic governance oriented to the perpetuation of a post-historical status quo.
Agamben’s and Bratton’s views represent high-theoretical versions of the two, increasingly polarized worldviews that mark responses to the pandemic: to mask-up and stay safe, or to see it all as an exaggeration, or even a conspiracy, and at any rate as a threat to established, natural forms of life.
But is there any alternative to these extremes? Are their ways in which we can we live together, as Alain Tourraine asked in his last book, reflecting on the challenges posed by 1990s globalization; challenges that are set to become ever more serious in the coming decades? Ordinary people seem to live through the pandemic in a condition of increasing perplexity. They are stuck in the information overload that, already in the 1960s, Italian ethnographer Ernesto De Martino associated with the cultural apocalypse induced by the devastating modernization of the ancient ‘peasant civilization’ that still prevailed in the Italian countryside.
Then as now such perplexity is resolved by a growing recourse to magic and conspiracy theories. Indeed perhaps what the pandemic has really made evident is the crisis of the prevailing imaginary; our inability of imagining an alternative to either the masked world of eternal safety or the unmasked condition of denial. Bratton’s book has one important insight.
A politics for the Anthropocene cannot be based only on a humanist ontology of the individual. It needs to be oriented towards a different ontological level, the level of biochemical, or even planetary processes, of which human beings are mere objects.
But does this mean that we have to give up the conviviality embodied in the singularity of the unmasked face?
Is it even a good idea? To Bratton unmediated sociality has become something dangerous that we should keep ourselves ‘safe from’, but perhaps we simply need to accept that life will become riskier as we progress into the Anthropocene? Political scientist Yascha Mounk has suggested something similar in relation to the highly contagious albeit milder- or so it seems- ‘Omicron’ coronavirus variety that is spreading rapidly at the time of writing. The pandemic might end by us accepting slightly higher levels of risk in order to resume our social lives without the interference of masks or social distancing. (5)
If we extrapolate that perspective further in to the Anthropocene, then perhaps death, disease and suffering - the evils that modernity has tried to purge, and that Silicon Valley barons now dream of eradicating completely - will come closer to us again, and we will have to learn to live with this in new ways? This is a terrible idea by contemporary progressive standards, but perhaps one that is necessary to accept: Even bona fide radical thinkers like Donna Haraway suggest that we will have to accept the reality of a coming population decline, just that, in all likelihood, it won’t only be a matter of just ‘making kin, not babies’. Indeed, many people already confront the Covid pandemic in ways that are far riskier than those of the masked-up middle classes: The migrants and bazaari traders who make up the growing globalization form below; the precarious service and delivery workers who find new ways of gaming the platforms that rule them and articulate new solidarities along the way; the sex workers and the homeless who have few ways of protecting themselves and that might anyway have more important concerns. As a homeless man in Naples, whom we interviewed at the height of the ’20 lockdown told us: ‘we sleep in garbage containers, what the f**k do you think we care about Covid’. This is not to say that we should simply give up and embrace the apocalypse. But maybe we need to develop new ways of politicizing risk that are grounded in concrete experience of material conditions. Both Bratton’s and Agamben’s positions remain aloof and above all exclusionary, far from the ordinary lives of most people. Can we find new materialist approaches to risk, new ways of ‘risking together’ to use Australian economists Dick Bryan and Mike Rafferty’s expression, which are able to treat risk as a political and above all conflictual matter, beyond romantic humanism as well as abstract ideals of ‘safety’?" (6)
1 Bratton, B. The Revenge of the Real, London; Verso,. 2021, Agamben’s posts are available in his column hosted on the website of the Italian publishing house Qoudlibet, https://www.quodlibet.it/una-voce-giorgio-agamben. To my knowledge they have not yet been translated into English, with the exception of Agamben, G. ‘ A question.’ trans. Adam Kotsko, An und für sich, 15, 2020.
2 Bratton, pp. 33-34
3 Bratton, p. 118; Agamben, G. ‘Un paese senza volto’, Quodlibet, Oct 8, 2020, https://www.quodlibet.it/giorgioagamben-un-paese-senza-volto
4 There is not yet much published research on the Italian no-vax movement. The ideal type above represents the results of a survey performed by the market research company IPSOS for the Italian daily, Corriere della sera, , Stefanoni, F. ‘Covid, chi sono i No vax: commercianti e disoccupati, elettori di Lega e FdI. Ecco l’identikit’, Corriere della sera, August, 21, 2021. For similar results see also Lello, E. ‘Populismo anti-scientifico o nodi irrisolti della biomedicina? Prospettive a confronto intorno al movimento free vax.’ Rassegna Italiana di Sociologia 61(3), 2020, pp. 479-508, On Trunp supporters see Villareal, N. ‘Small business’ class war could finish off American dynamism’ Palladium Magazine, Dec 21, 2020, https://palladiummag.com/2020/12/21/small-business-class-war-could-finish-offamerican-dynamism/; on Querdenken: Nachtwey, O, Schäfer, R. & N. Frei, ‘Politische Soziologie der Corona-Proteste’, SocArXiv, Dec 17, 2020, https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/zyp3f/
5 Mounk, Y. ‘Omicron is the beginning of the end’, The Atlantic, Dec 22, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/12/omicron-end-of-pandemic/621089/
6 Bryan, D. &M. Rafferty, Risking Together: How Finance is Dominating Everyday Life in Australia. Sydney; Sydney University Press, 2018