Life, biology and the politics of lockdown: a biblical view

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Life, biology and the politics of lockdown: a biblical view

Wednesday, 12 August 2020  | Yarkov Halik

You want humanity to be born from processes that are purely material? Humanity is not some kind of explosion, egoist in the original egoism of being itself. It is the voice of God which reverberates in being. I would maintain the revolutionary character of the apparition of the human. In the discovery of the human, there is awakening of thought and contemplation. But this is the possibility of hearing behind being someone to whom one can give. This is the moment of human awakening in being

- Emmanuel Levinas[1]

With both a State of Emergency and a State of Disaster already declared in Victoria due to the Coronavirus, the entire Melbourne metropolitan area has now been placed under the harsh regime of a Stage Four Lockdown. How did it come to this? Some argue it’s just a matter of simple necessity, the only possible response to an unprecedented situation. Anyway, hasn’t ‘locking down’ towns, cites, regions, even entire nations, already demonstrated its effectiveness in other parts of the world?

I’m not disputing the medical wisdom followed by the Andrews State Government with this latest round of drastic measures. Rather, I want to consider their broader rationale. Most importantly, what do these measures say about our conception of human life and society? Apart from being a medical response to this virus, I believe they reflect a certain philosophy of government that’s been with us for quite some time now. I’m referring to the idea of regulation.

The ideology of regulatory governance makes politics a matter of techno-administrative competence. Moreover, it would have us believe all social problems can be solved by controlling and managing the behaviour of populations. And so, every aspect of human life in society comes to be regarded either as an opportunity or a pretext to govern by way of coercion. However, if one extrapolates this approach a little further, it becomes clear that such coercive measures don’t just regulate, they define. That is, insofar as the population is regarded as ‘material’ to be regulated, the reality of society becomes a function of a regulatory process. This enables us to think more deeply about the nature of the current lockdown, which is, I’d suggest, completely congruent with this regulatory ethos of governance.

The bottom line of the lockdown is that every person is confined to their own home, forbidden to go into the public realm except to buy food (as other forms of retailing have been closed down), to access medical services and supplies, and to exercise. So what’s the common denominator here? Put simply, physical and physiological survival. Confinement, then, is meant to restrict people to furnishing for themselves those basic provisions required in order to allow biological life to continue. This survival mandate is also apparent in some of the terminology of Stage Four. For instance, any activity except that which contributes to maintaining an ‘essential service’ is proscribed. But essential for what? Again, the answer is all those activities required to sustain biological life-processes.

Then, of course, the problem arises as to how one distinguishes between essential and non-essential. Due to the complexity of modern societies, it’s by no means self-evident. No wonder the State Government has been forced to do a lot of work since imposing these new restrictions to establish the precise line of this demarcation. Nevertheless, I want to suggest that, strictly speaking, to draw this line with any real consistency is impossible. And this in itself alerts us to the sense in which the lockdown means to act upon the totality of the life of human beings, in all its multifarious dimensions, essential and non-essential. This presupposes, in turn, a biological conception of the human being as a living animal, whose raison d’étre is the conatus essendi - that is, an egoistic striving and effort to ‘remain in being’, the modality of being that works to preserve itself at all costs.[2] Here we are at the furthest possible remove from the Monotheist vision of humanity, for which the being of the other person is dearer to me than anything else, even my own being.

We must try, then, to get away from thinking of this lockdown in terms of the usual categories invoked by discourses of civil liberty, i.e., as a series of negative measures restricting personal freedom. Rather, what’s important is that human existence is now wholly defined in terms of biological life-functions, whilst politics becomes the ‘calculated management of life’.[3] Thus the lockdown, a ‘choke-hold’ on life, is but one pole of a bio-political schema whose other side is the idea that the role of government is to enhance human life, to make it prosper. Politics encompasses the totality of living being, from the most positive to the most negative aspects.[4] In contrast, what would be the place of government in the scheme of biblical humanity? That’s a big question, but one gets a sense of the answer in this passage of Pirke Avot, a compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims from Jewish Rabbinic
tradition: ‘Love work, loathe mastery over others, and avoid intimacy with the government’. The role of government is to uphold those laws that prevent society from descending into hell, not to meddle in the life process.

For bio-politics, life is a spectrum from living to dying, the interval between birth and death (and here one recalls the moniker of state social welfare administrations in European countries after WW2 - Daseinsversorge: literally the ‘cradle to grave’ state[5]). But then, what about qualitative degrees of life? Here the difficulties are legion. For instance, how should one define the difference between full and bare life? Here I’m reminded of a Nazi propaganda film produced by the Third Reich’s Health Ministry in 1939, whose purpose was to persuade the German public of the merits of involuntary euthanasia for persons with incurable mental illnesses or physical deformities. The title of the film, Dasein Ohne Leben - Psychiatrie und Menschlichkeit (Existence Without Life - Psychiatry and Humanity’) suggests that those who live with such conditions merely exist.[6] These people have no ‘quality of life’, as one says nowadays, so why should they want to continue to live in such a way? Moreover, given the drain on public resources they represent, why should they even be allowed to live?

Life as mere existence is ‘dead life’ - death which ‘lives’. In short, this is no life at all. Of course, it begs the question as to what it means to be not merely but fully alive. Presumably the latter is life in excess of bare subsistence. Yet what is this excess? Being fully alive. The obvious vicious circle of such reasoning makes one wonder whether it’s really possible to draw such a line between life and mere existence. The source of the dilemma, I’d suggest, lies with the idea of a human essence whose primordial ‘right to be’ exceeds all substantive definitions. But if something can be counted as infinitely valuable, it can also, by the same token, be counted as infinitely non-valuable (and this is where the suicide bomber comes into their own).

Here we get a sense of the danger that arises when our humanity is reduced to adherence to the biological materiality of our being. Because then personal individuality, removed from every juridico-political form, is necessarily exposed to what both saves and annihilates, fosters and suppresses to the point of extinction.[7] Again, when no limits can be set to the being of the human, no limits can be set to their non-being either. This is why the call for universal human rights is only the flip side of violent political terrorism.

One more thing is worth noting in this respect. And this is the irony that COVID-19 virus is itself a biological life-process. So in effect, the lockdown, suppressing the daily existence of individuals by reducing it to the level of subsistence, means to suppress and hopefully eliminate another, ‘rival’ form of life. But aren’t they the same life? The dilemma here recalls the strict definition of cancer: living cells that strive for ‘immortality’ by ceaselessly regenerating and multiplying, so leading to the death of the organism. It also reminds me of the environmental debate over CO2 emissions.

Nearly every possible human activity produces CO2. In which case, such emissions are a by-product of the very existence of our species. We are ‘guilty’, in effect, simply by virtue of the sheer fact we’re alive. Limiting CO2 means throttling human life at its very well-springs. The same applies to this pandemic, insofar as just going about one’s daily routine fosters the contagion. Here’s further evidence that we’re now in a properly bio-political epoch, in which the sole focus of politics is the totality of the living being of the human. So the categories of bio-politics are not just a function of the current COVID-19 situation. They’re deeply imbedded in nearly every aspect of politics nowadays. For instance, why else would governments spend such huge amounts of money on campaigns to encourage people to quit smoking? The same could be said for nearly every public health initiative (i.e., skin cancer, nutrition, obesity etc.).

Perhaps it’s no accident, then, that the COVID-19 crisis has come at this moment, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, at a time when bio-politics has fully come of age. Likewise, from this viewpoint, it can also be seen why measures to ‘slow the spread’ by proscribing various human activities are a fait accompli. Because henceforth, it’s not possible to conceive of society, and the individuals of which it’s comprised, in any other way than as figurations of a life-process which, again, is understood as something to be both disciplined and set free, suppressed and intensified, curtailed and fostered, limited and liberated. But what’s the alternative to this antinomy? To recognise that, regardless of the political status quo, I’m personally responsible for the other’s life; that their life comes before mine.

Yarkov Halik is a former architect and teacher. He was last seen in the vicinity of Clayton, Victoria.

[1] Jill Robbins [ed.], Is it Righteous to Be? Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas, 2001, 107.

[2] The conatus is a symptom of the ‘persistence and insistence of beings in the guise of individuals jealous for their part’ (Emmanuel Levinas, In The Time of Nations, 1988, 110, italics in original).

[3] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 1976, 140; ‘Bio-politics deals with the population, with the population as a political problem, as a problem that is at once scientific and political, as a biological problem and as power’s problem’ (Foucault, ‘Society Must be Defended’. Lectures at The College De France, 1975-76, 242-243, 245).

[4] In this sense, the regulatory machine does not merely control life, it actually produces it.

[5] As Carl Schmitt noted, the legitimacy of the post-WW2 welfare state was ‘based on the guarantee of a comfortable living standard with a high level of consumption’ (The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum, 1950, 337; also 339).

[6] Adolf Hitler himself had juxtaposed in exactly this way ‘mere existence’ and ‘vital life’ according to an explicit hierarchy of values: ‘From a dead mechanism which only lays claim to existence for its own sake, there must be formed a living organism with the exclusive aim of serving a higher ideal’. Needless to say, the rhetoric of ‘living vitality’ infects every kind of contemporary petit-bourgeois philosophy, from the obsession with healthy eating and regimes of self-care to assertiveness training.

[7] In Foucault’s formulation, bio-politics replaces ‘the ancient right to take life or let live ... by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death ... Now it is over life, throughout its unfolding, that power establishes its dominion’ (The History of Sexuality, 138). And so, the ‘old power of death that symbolised sovereign power was now carefully supplanted by the administration of bodies and the calculated management of life’ (The History of Sexuality, 139-140). Cf. Robert Esposito’s remarks on this passage: ‘The opposition couldn’t be plainer: whereas in the sovereign regime, life is nothing but the residue or remainder left over, saved from the right of taking life, in bio-politics, life encamps at the centre of a scenario of which death constitutes the external limit or the necessary contour’ (Bios. Bio-politics and Philosophy, 2008, 34). Likewise, Foucault remarks how, for modern thought, ‘Life is no longer that which can be distinguished in a more or less certain fashion from the mechanical; it is that in which all the possible distinctions between living beings have their basis’ (The Order of Things, 1970, 269).

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