What does the ultra-rapid extension of this pandemic reveal to us about the current state of the biopolitical management of bodies? And what does the treatment by governments of the current health crisis highlight about the articulation between the management of the State and the supposed free course of the markets?

Listening to President Emmanuel Macron on Monday, March 16, saying that the State was going to inject several millions of euros through a subsidized freeze on companies, in anticipation of the plan for the eventual relaunch of the economy, one could ask what has happened. Suddenly everything has changed. As one journalist emphasized: “the Welfare State is not a problem but rather a model to defend, financing is no longer a question of ‘costs and benefits’, and the millions that could not be found for Health suddenly appeared”[1].

Recall what happened in 2008 with the “sub-prime” crises: The US government and the European Central Bank had to inject millions of dollars and euros into the market to avoid the debacle of various banks, as had happened to Lehman Brothers. Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics wrote with a certain irony in the New York Times: “The state is a problem, but sometimes it can be a solution…”. This was the Keynesian moment that the Western economies were experiencing, which the journalist we quoted evokes in the form of one of the rules of neoliberalism: “In times of crisis there are no neoliberals.” Ideology seems to be suspended. The state saves the markets when they fail, in order to allow them to continue to function again afterwards.

The same Government that sought to reduce spending on Health (as in Education) is today singing the glories of the French health system, of its doctors, nurses and scientific researchers, when yesterday it left them exposed to the savage competition of social Darwinism and the law of the survival of the fittest. Moments of crisis like the present one make evident to what degree the markets (of the Health and food, difficult to regulate by the State, except for an intervention by direct decree as in this moment) have need of the State, which functions as life insurance for the market, demonstrating the limits of the system.

In fact, in recent days it has constantly been pointed out how much in countries like the USA and England, which have neglected to the maximum the question of the health of their citizens, the paucity of treatment for the coronavirus will lead to thousands of deaths. Among the poor, of course. One article explained how the America of the rich and famous, clients of the LifeSpan Clinic, have easy access to testing, and the basketball players of the Brooklyn Nets were all tested, even though none had any symptoms of the disease, while millions of Americans without means will not be able to pay for the test. We are all equal under the virus, yes, but not in the same way if you have the financial means …

One of the fundamental principles of neoliberalism is that the subject is responsible for himself: the absence of the State in the management of the health crisis is already beginning to be felt in Anglo-Saxon countries. Mariam Martínez puts it this way in the El País of 22nd March: «The maximum exponents of Western populism are trying to show that their countries belong to a different culture, clinging to the mistaken belief that they will do better this way: one with Brexit and its amazing strategy to control the virus outside of Eurasian influences; the other breaking the transatlantic bond on which the West was built after the Second World War and trying to isolate his country from any contact with a plagued Europe and the “Chinese virus”«. For how long will this treatment of the crisis continue to become the only model of the (non) intervention of the State in the event of a major health crisis, once there is nothing left to save at the level of Health because a good part of the sector has already been privatized?

The limits of confinement

In his College de France course entitled “Abnormal”, Foucault took the city under quarantine during the plague as the model for the positive exercise of power, which he will generalize with the term “Biopolitics”. He opposed the positive inclusion of the population during quarantine to the exclusion imposed by the city during the Middle Ages on leprosy patients, who had to wander outside the limits of conglomerations. Foucault saw in quarantine the “marvellous moment” in which power is fully exercised: the city divided according to a grid of neighbourhoods and streets, with inspectors who passed daily at precise times when each inhabitant of a house had to look out to the window to establish whether there were any sick subjects on the property. This model will give rise to the norm as a positive “technology” of power, which entails making citizens live and not letting them die. A few centuries later, confinement appears as a form of treatment of the virus, but with certain limits that have appeared this week.

Nine hundred million people, at the time of writing, are confined to their homes. Confinement, although it is a measure that allows regulating the sanitary treatment of those who will have the virus, that is, in the end almost the entire population, is not enough to limit the spread of the virus. Dr. Didier Raoult, immunologist at the University Hospital of Marseille, has been warning about the limits of confinement for several weeks now and has pointed out that it is not enough to isolate yourself, it is necessary to separate the people who carry the virus from those who are not in order to limit exponential contagion. For this, it is necessary to test as many of the population as possible and separate even members of the same family.

This is precisely the treatment that Germany has carried out, with the initially surprising results that have given rise to what is called the “German paradox”. With 16,662 cases of coronavirus registered on March 21, which places Germany in the fourth place in the world after China, Italy and Spain, only 46 deaths, which lags far behind the countries with the fewest deaths, such as South Korea. South (8,652 cases, 94 deaths) or Great Britain (4,014 cases, 177 deaths). The fatality rate for Coronavirus, which is obtained by dividing the number of deaths by the number of registered cases, would at the moment be 0.3% in Germany against 3.6% in France, 4% in China, or 8.5 in Italy. The cause of this low rate would be the fact that Germany carried out tests from the beginning in a generalized way, which allowed the separation of individuals affected by the virus, and capable of transmitting it, from those who are not. Which introduces, we could say, a certain order and a certain logic in this real of the epidemic that is not without some laws, which are none other than the laws of contagion, allowing for the treatment of this real while we wait for a vaccine that will not appear for a while…


Translated by Roger Litten

Published by ZADIG-ESPAÑA on March 23rd. Available here.

[1] Romanic Godin. Mediapart. “Emmanuel Macron: saint-Paul de l’Etat providence”. Available here.