Changing Course in the Crisis

Alex Demirović on the current “crisis of de-normalization” and the chances for transformative action.

The rapid spread of the coronavirus, and the large number of deaths it has caused, suggest that these are conditions requiring serious reflection. For weeks now, news coverage and talk shows have emphasized the gravity of the situation, speaking of states of emergency and states of exception, of crises of security and order. Melanie Brinkmann from the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research has referred to a war that must be won. President Macron also makes use of military terminology: "The enemy is here and he is invisible. But we will win the war." And the Democratic candidate for the US presidency, Joe Biden, asks that the virus be viewed as a hostile attack, that the military be deployed, and that people stand together as in times of war. Military aid is being offered, medical troops are being mobilized, military hospitals are being set up, soldiers are to replace civilian truck drivers. War means that decisions about life and death determine the course of politics. Critique and controversial deliberation are suspended while a few can profit from the situation.

Starting in China, the virus has already spread to many countries. Meanwhile, the European Union has become an epicentre. The authorities here are following a different strategy for combatting the virus than in China or South Korea. Historical experience suggests that rapid action can significantly reduce the spread, the severity of the disease, and the number of casualties. Initially, affected EU member states were rather reluctant to intervene deeply in social life, but soon enough the alert levels were raised and extensive measures were taken. Nobody expects that this will immediately reduce the rate of new infections. It is a question of deceleration, in order to flatten the curve and win time. This is necessary so that those affected can receive medical care, in other words, so that there are enough isolation wards, medical staff, respirators, and other medical supplies. This result is by no means guaranteed. The neo-liberal restructuring of the healthcare system, the reorganization of hospitals towards profit and lucrative medical specializations, and the cuts in staffing and their constant overloading are taking their toll. The examples of Spain, where one third of hospital beds are reserved for cosmetic surgery, the US, and Italy demonstrate as much. In the US, testing possibilities so far are too few and too expensive, whereas in the northern Italian city of Bergamo, doctors have to practice triage in view of scarce resources — that is, they have to make painfully difficult ethical decisions about whom they can help and whom to let die. Ethical conflicts also arise elsewhere. For instance, Germany wanted to prevent the export of large quantities of protective masks or respiratory equipment. Trump, who for weeks praised the US healthcare system and believed that the US would remain unaffected by the pandemic, surprisingly declared a national emergency and had the borders closed to ward off the "Chinese virus". It was reported that he is trying to gain influence over German companies researching vaccines; Chinese companies are attempting to do the same thing. These are examples of escalating attempts to find solutions which are not transnational, but surprisingly national in scope, i.e., border closures for travellers who are now stuck, quarantine for those coming in from abroad. Politics is certainly divided. Some (Trump, Salvini) could still claim for a while that their own countries were only being infected from the outside, and in so doing disregard the real implications. Identitarian images of an immune national community, a healthy body politic, require national borders to be radically closed and the flow of traffic to be suspended. Others, like Health Minister Spahn, who falsely claimed that there were enough hospital beds, plead for European solutions that transcend national borders, a European Robert Koch Institute for example. Nevertheless, the measures taken in the EU have been national in scope, and vary accordingly. Mike Davis rightly points out that what is needed is a global health infrastructure.

Infrastructural Communism Would Make a Difference

The current pandemic highlights once again the scandals of the commodification and economic restructuring of the healthcare system, of austerity politics and the exploitation of medical staff, of the two-tier health and private insurance system. Appropriate measures would involve every individual having full access to healthcare with equal rights, and without any need for insurance whatsoever. Private supplementary insurance should be abolished. Wolfgang Streek’s proposal for an "infrastructural communism" ought to be taken seriously in and after this "emergency". Capitalist forms of crisis management put human lives at risk. To avoid this, a different type of social wealth must be generated and used differently.

There is a considerable arsenal of public and health policy instruments, in all areas of social life, being deployed to combat the corona virus. These include hygiene recommendations, the closure of kindergartens, schools and universities, border closure for foreigners, suspension of mass events, closure of clubs, restaurants, museums, and the calls to reduce use of public transportation and to carry out as many professional activities as possible from home. The German “black zero", still untouchable only a few weeks ago, no longer applies. People are being called upon to restrict their activities out of solidarity with others and to reduce their social contacts. Our individual behaviour has to change to prevent the virus from spreading.

Where, until recently, self-optimization, employability, competitiveness, and consumerism used to be the virtues expected of individuals, now suddenly solidarity, self-discipline, and voluntary renunciation based on compassion for the vulnerability of others have become the ethical goal of the state’s pedagogical efforts. Strict state controls or surveillance, like in China or South Korea, are (still) not common in Germany. But authoritarian instruments are already being used by various EU states: parliaments no longer meet (in full); freedom of religion, occupation, trade, movement, or assembly are suspended; going outside is restricted or blocked; militarily- or police-enforced lock-downs are in place for entire cities and regions; borders are being closed off (and in the process, the right to asylum suspended); the monitoring and control of people’s mobility are being decreed. In China, South Korea or Israel, individuals are being tracked by monitoring their smartphones, by creating movement profiles, and issuing recommendations about risky places. It is indeed astonishing to observe the rate at which democratic and civil liberties are being abandoned in favour of the promise of security.[1]

New Experts Are Controlling the Situation

It is obvious that political leaders are overwhelmed. They have to make decisions under great time pressure, which they can only make on the basis of advice from experts: virologists, epidemiologists, physicians. These advisory bodies represent new actors on the political stage, replacing the usual consulting firms, law firms, and lobbying associations with close business ties. Reliable and trusted knowledge is not (yet) available. Even epidemiologists can only cite past experience. A new apparatus of power-knowledge is coming into being, in which new and by no means self-evident criteria are acquiring validity. Whatever the measures chosen, their consequences will have a substantial impact on the capitalist economy. Companies and stock markets are suffering huge losses, supply chains are weakened or breaking down entirely, consumption is falling drastically, and retailers and freelancers have to reckon with considerable slumps. Insolvencies, bankruptcies, and unemployment are the consequence. Politicians committed to capitalism and its power structures would like to play the disease down and preferably continue with "business as usual". The consequences of a state of emergency were and still are unpredictable.

Rational Panic?

In society, too, there is an understandable thirst for normality as the pandemic feels so unreal. It always used to be others who were at risk: poorer countries, the elderly, individuals with pre-existing conditions. Only slowly are the consequences of the virus beginning to sink into the consciousness of the general public. It is all about scenarios and expectations: should we assume that it will not be that serious, or at least no worse than the flu pandemic? Interestingly, reference to the casualty rate of the flu is being used to downplay the seriousness of coronavirus infection, rather than to ask why such a deadly normality is acceptable. Are we supposed to trivialize in order to avoid panic? Should we just allow for a total number of perhaps 20,000 or more deaths, especially among the elderly, who are no longer urgently needed for the long-term maintenance of the economy? Or is it necessary to act quickly, comprehensively and decisively? Would not panic then be the perfectly rational reaction, urging people to act more quickly? It would then also be important to consider the consequences: panic buying and the resulting supply shortages; the increase in domestic violence occurring when people spend more time in their homes; the increase in road accidents and injuries (that cannot be attended to) when people move around in cars more often. The new protective measures target the body. The psychological consequences of weeks and months spent in quarantine, depression and the increase in suicides, are not given much consideration (or only in relation to children). One has a hard time telling what is right: irrational, panic-promoting moods and behaviours on the one hand, irrational precautions and control measures on the other. In light of all this, it is only logical to fear the rise of a far-reaching security system and the formation of a medical-hygienic-police control apparatus. The current crisis could become a determining factor in the emergence and expansion of more comprehensive control mechanisms in the future.

Between State of Exception and Collective Rationality

For Giorgio Agamben, this is not something that is just now taking shape, but a development that has already taken place.[2] He regards the measures taken by the Italian government to be in line with the politics of the state of exception, the diagnosis and critique of which he has long since made. In his view, the state of exception is being deployed as a technique of government. Entire regions and municipalities are being militarized and social life restricted in the name of public safety and hygiene. He considers these emergency measures to be exaggerated, drawing on figures from the Italian Research Council according to which about 80 to 90 percent of cases of the new coronavirus show only mild symptoms, about 10 to 15 percent develop pneumonia, and only 4 percent require intensive care. In the responses to his article, it is argued that for the sake of public safety we are relinquishing without hesitation our desire for freedom.

The real infection rate in Italy and the number of deaths speak against Agamben’s analysis. People’s practices also suggest a different attitude, namely, caution. Fear is not only the product of prevailing politics. Many evidently share the opinion that it makes sense to respect appeals for a certain degree of (self-)isolation and social distancing in order to protect oneself and others. We are seeing here, once again, the liberal dialectic between freedom and security at play: freedom is sacrificed for the security of the body politic. There is a moment of freedom even in the collectively agreed-upon wish for safety. The materiality of the virus creates an objectivity before which right-wing propaganda disgraces itself with its demagogic tricks. Meanwhile, the left’s critique of power also faces a biopolitical challenge because the materiality of the virus cannot be denied, even if mistrust in the practices of established power and knowledge is justified. It is unfortunate that, in this crisis, people have to place their trust in the same political and economic actors to solve the crisis who have contributed so much to its emergence and who remain committed to their own narrow interests. They are as unwilling to change anything about the central capitalist institutions—the ownership of the means of production, the stock exchanges, the banks—as they would be during war-time. Although production and consumption are being severely restricted, money remains the "real commonwealth" (Marx): it must be paid. Macron, who is now talking about a war against the virus, is the one waging war against his own population by having the police mutilate people who protest against his Blackrock-authored pension reform. Spahn meanwhile perpetuates a healthcare model geared to bolster the profits of hospital enterprises, the medical technology industry, and private insurance companies. Although it is hardly ever possible to prepare adequately for a pandemic of this scale, the fact that it is so vitally necessary to flatten the curve is also the result of cuts made in the healthcare sector. These are the same politicians who let people rot by the thousands on the EU’s borders, who equate democratic anti-fascists with right-wing killers, who talk about self-isolation but lack the empathy to comprehend that there are many people who lack shelter or the basic conditions for protecting themselves. Workers, like hospital workers demanding that their risky working conditions, and their concerns for their families and themselves, be taken seriously by being granted hazard pay, childcare, better crisis prevention, an expansion of the workforce and, above all, adequate protective gear, have every right to go on strike to demand that their working conditions and safety standards be improved.

Not So Much Biopower…

It would be self-evident to invoke Michel Foucault’s concept of biopower since it deals with the power to make life. Classical sovereign power is about defending itself from an attack. When war is waged, it grants the sovereign the right to decide about life and death, "take life or let live", as Foucault (1977, 165) put it. This is the type of power Donald Trump seems to want to exercise. Disciplinary power, on the other hand, aims at the individual body, at the rigid disciplining and supervision of its movements. This is the model that was practiced in China. In contrast, biopolitical power is characterized by being concerned with life. This new power aims to "make life or let die" (ibid.). Death is circumvented, something to be avoided, pushed onto the outer margins of power.

Foucault expands on this dimension of biopolitics in a lecture on the question of security and the security apparatus (2004). What characterizes biopower is that it is not a norm that opposes or tries to mould the practices of individuals, but rather strives to flexibly unfold within the medium of reality itself. Unlike other forms of power, biopower does not seek to avert the disaster of a famine, an epidemic, or an oversupply of goods. Such a rearrangement of social coexistence would not only be unrealistic, it would also imply considerable rigidity. Rather, the originality of biopower lies in the fact that it already anticipates such events and tries to make them predictable by calculating normative averages and variation coefficients. To do this, it creates its own object, the "population", which can serve as the basis of probability and risk calculations by analyzing birth or mortality rates, rates of accidental deaths, invalidity or vulnerability to viral diseases. The exercise of power rests on certain normality tests and distributions. Predictable deviations are studied so as to better understand how to intervene effectively, not to exclude and prevent events from happening, but to bring deviations back in line with normal distributions. The scope of power lies in its renewing itself through the control of statistical regularities and the emergence of new crises.

…As Interlaced Techniques of Power

At first sight, one might get the impression that the current situation represents an instance of biopower. In my opinion, this is not the case, or only to a limited degree, because to a certain extent this form of the exercise of power has failed. Indeed, the question was also raised by Agamben; why is the response to the present pandemic so different from the response to recent flu epidemics, which have also been responsible for a great many deaths? It is claimed that the current virus is more dangerous, more contagious, and deadlier than the flu virus. But these are presumptions. The more likely answer is that the coronavirus is considered more dangerous because its risk is not yet calculable, and does not conform to well-established expectations of risk distribution. In other words, it calls into question the existing security dispositif by de-normalizing it. All the calculations, which neo-liberal risk management tools were supposed to predict, e.g., the ratio of specific diseases (heart and circulation, diabetes) and operations (knee, hip) among certain population groups, have failed. The coronavirus was expected to disproportionately affect specific risk groups — those with pre-existing conditions or past a certain age. However, it is becoming apparent, in fact, that everyone could be affected. Following Foucault’s analysis of power, this is not just a matter of biopolitics. Rather, biopower is interlaced with techniques of power intended to exclude, contain, and discipline: newly built hospitals, isolation wards, self-quarantine, distancing and separation from each other in apartments, houses, urban districts. As it seems, global society is heading towards a complex entanglement of techniques of power, propped up by digitalized control mechanisms.

Foucault’s terms can help us grasp the force and power of rationalization that a pathogen can unleash onto social processes, meaning, the power(ful) effects virological and epidemiological knowledge can exert on everyday and political action. Nevertheless, we can also recognize a frequently raised weakness in Michel Foucault’s analysis, already pointed out by Panagiotis Sotiris. Foucault fails to provide a framework for analyzing and assessing the extent to which the measures taken against the spread of the disease might in fact be rational, and what the purpose of a critique of power might be.

The coronavirus crisis is now the fourth crisis of de-normalization to occur in rapid succession. The first I have in mind here is the financial crisis of 2008, which politicians and economists considered to be entirely improbable. They had trusted the risk calculation models of the banking and insurance industries. Allegedly, due to the global distribution of risk, a crisis like the one in 2008 could not even occur. The movements of flight and migration that have left so many injured and dead in the Mediterranean and on Europe’s southern borders, reducing migrants to bare life without any protection or perspective, and systematically fading them out of everyday life in Europe despite their being a consequence of the actions carried out in the centres of European capitalism, represent a second crisis of de-normalization. A further instance concerns recent developments in climate change. Increasing attempts are being made to normalize storms, heavy rain and floods, drought, forest and bush fires, and to present these as events that conform to normal probability distributions. This calls for radical action because the emission of climate-damaging gases represents probably a much greater danger for humanity than the current threat posed by the coronavirus. The strategies currently being deployed to cope with the pandemic are a forewarning of how overburdened state institutions and businesses will become in the future. But the interventions needed to slow down climate change would deeply impact the ability of capital to reproduce itself, which is why the interventions that are chosen are often so ineffectual. Since the pandemic is caused by pathogens liberated by the capitalist dynamic of accumulation disrupting the metabolism with nature, there is evidence that this outbreak will be followed by more to come. The question will be how many such “wars” and "states of emergency", lasting for weeks and months, can a democratic society withstand. A fundamental question will therefore have to be posed. Can the management of future crises be left to those who, immediately after this crisis, will reinstate the hegemony of capital accumulation and assert their control over the "reconstruction" process; to those who will exploit the crisis for their own profit motives? Must not the freedom and autonomy of the many be defended against the market freedom of the few? Pandemics bring with them infections, illness, and death. Decisions are being made with the intent of keeping their numbers down, in view of which considerable restrictions, interventions, controls, and the creation of new power apparatuses are accepted. But societies will face the question of whether greater sacrifices cannot instead be better avoided by standing up to defend their freedoms and reorganize their social relations. This is a bitter choice posed by the reality that only a few have the power to rule and appropriate the entire social wealth.

Harnessing De-Normalization for Transformation

All the mentioned de-normalization processes have momentarily inspired transformative action only to return to well-established habits of normalization in service to the power and profit interests of a small fraction of the population. All efforts to harness the dynamism of these crises in order to bring about changes that could produce a different version of normality, different notions of justice that would guarantee the sustainability, subsistence and, broadly speaking, the welfare of all, have repeatedly failed in recent decades. The momentum was not used, time was lost, destruction has been accepted, and human lives have been put at risk. Without wanting to gamble with the real misfortune wrought by the coronavirus, the outbreak does give us the opportunity to hope once again, and to make another attempt at transformative change. Astonishing measures have already been taken, which prove that it is possible to interfere deeply with the capitalist "machinery" and reduce production and consumption levels. Marx once wrote in a letter to Kugelmann that: "a nation which ceased to work, I will not say for a year, but even for a few weeks, would perish." Capitalist centres are slowly approaching such a real-life experiment. It seems that Marx is being refuted not in principle, but in terms of the timeline. All of this is only possible because of the enormous wealth society has accumulated. Everything that has been said about the need to recalibrate growth according to a logic of well-being, the need to overcome the compulsion to accumulate, or the imperative for democratic, sustainable, and self-sufficient economic circuits is now being confirmed. Much of what we consume, or about the way we work and live, is not necessary (on this scale). The expansion of productive capabilities has long made possible conditions of productivity that could reduce the exploitation of nature and the disruption of metabolic cycles, allow new forms of welfare to be developed, and for nature and people to be protected, preserved, or restored. The present situation would be an opportunity to critically review production and consumption patterns, to subject them to democratic revision and pursue systemic transformation.

In the current crisis, solidarity is key, and people are demonstrating it through self-organised neighbourhood initiatives, mutual aid, in strikes for unemployment insurance, for higher wages and better safety regulations at work (in the USA, Spain, Italy, France), through to inventive digital initiatives on an unprecedented scale. It is possible that the media and the political elites will try to destroy this solidarity, as they did once before, after the summer of migration, when so many stood up in support of the refugees. We must therefore defend these practices of solidarity. They may include: neighbourly support and self-organized childcare; new education and discussion formats; the swift training of emergency medical personnel with long-term employment prospects; the conversion of production and the suspension of stock markets that reflect economic processes in a totally distorted way and threaten to bankrupt entire economies; public support for the unemployed, companies or the self-employed without banks being able to benefit from it; a moratorium on payment obligations (like rents, household bills), where appropriate; an unconditional basic income; a progressive solidarity tax for the rich and super-rich (and, following from this, the introduction of capital controls); and a reorientation of ECB policy.

Above all, we need to pay attention to new developments currently emerging in the organization of the social. How we get out of this crisis will have an impact on the future. Authoritarian strategies and institutionalizations, once put into place, could endure without the knowledge of those involved, or indeed with the full intention of powerful actors. These are developments that could escape the public’s attention because their attention is being distracted.

But current developments also create unexpected horizons for the demand for transformation. After the standards of so many social processes have been debased to such an extent, there is finally an opportunity to advocate for a mode of social production and consumption calibrated to the needs of the people, that is based on their full participation and decision-making authority, which is crisis-avoiding and crisis-resistant, and that does not give rise to fears that it will bolster the power of those who benefit from exploiting crises, to the detriment of the many.

Alex Demirović


Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction, New York: Vintage Books, 1990[1978].

Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France, 77-78, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

[1] René Schlott, Virusbekämpfung und die sozialen Folgen, Süddeutsche Zeigung, 17 March 2020; see also: TAZ, 18 March 2020.

[2] See also: Sebastian Lotzer, "Das Coronavirus und der Ausnahmezustand".

Originally published at the website of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung

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The Left Reflects on the Global Pandemic: Alex Demirović