Of what (anti)political form is covidism the name?

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To open this contribution, I will ask: what (anti)political form is covidism? ( Covidism is the way governments deal with the epidemic). 

With this in mind, Kairos interviewed three special witnesses — special because they came from the former GDR, Ceausescu’s Romania and Pinochet’s Chile. The question was whether they saw any resemblance between their country of origin and the covidist West. 

Kairos asks me for a philosophical contextualization of the three testimonies. Let’s say from the outset that the words of Maria, Anke and Jorge are very revealing, and it is out of the question for me to propose a contextualization « from above »: I see it rather as a « sideways » illumination, as a proposal of interpretation that can be discussed and enriched. This proposal is presented in the form of a small lexicon (whose entries come directly or indirectly from the three witnesses). 

QUESTIONING, THINKING: people, say Maria and Anke, do not think anymore, do not question themselves, do not question the decisions of the rulers. Certainly, demonstrations take place (against the authoritarian imposition of the mask and/or the vaccination), but globally the population behaves as if it had given up questioning the substance of things (origins of covid, liberticidal treatment). I emphasize the « as if » to be careful. A few months before the rise of the May 1968 movement, a minister declared, « France is calm. » Caution, then. But it is true that for the moment the « spirit of free examination » (Durkheim) does not seem to blow strongly on our fellow citizens. We should not be too surprised: we have long been subjected to two bludgeons, that of state biopower and that of the psychopower of multinationals, a double bludgeoning that is difficult to resist in the individualistic enculturation of every day. Biopower and psychopower.

Let us say in a minimal way: if there is a socio-political form organized around the ritualized collective questioning, thus around the decisional debate (which is neither a decision without debate, nor a decorative debate without decision), it is indeed the democracy. From this point of view it is increasingly difficult to say that Western countries are democracies Democracy?

DEMOCRACY ? Maria speaks of « authoritarian democracy » (we know the almost infinite series of synonyms: « democrature », « illiberal democracy », etc.). I would tend to avoid all these terms or locutions that mislead the reflection. We can begin by trying to understand why the users of these expressions maintain the word democracy: unless I am mistaken, they say by this word that there is still some tolerance in Europe. In Hungary or France, you can criticize the government without being put in a camp. The problem is that tolerance in itself is far from sufficient to characterize a democracy. Example: in the USSR, after the 20th Party Congress (1956), a period of tolerance (called « thaw ») began: people began to speak, a large number of previously banned writers and poets were published. Is this enough to make the USSR of 1960 a democracy? No, of course not: the Party, holder of the Marxist science of history, keeps the upper hand on power. 

It is likely that the liberal tradition (at least since Constant and Tocqueville) has largely contributed to essentializing or naturalizing democracy. The axiom would be this: as soon as the West is a little tolerant and superficially pluralist, it is democratic. Whatever happens, its essence or nature is immutably democratic. The French government may have flouted the « No » vote in the 2005 referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, but the essence of France remains « democratic. As this essence seems indestructible, we are often tempted to respect it: so go for « democracy ». But as we feel that there is something wrong, we add an adjective. This is how « democracy » becomes « authoritarian » or « dictatorial ». This process is dangerous: it maintains the confusion and incites a certain number of people to say to themselves that « if this is democracy » (the explosion of inequalities, the destruction of nature, the contempt of the powerful towards the populations), they might as well have a « good dictatorship ». 

The current task of true democrats is to make it clear that the West has not been democratic for two centuries: it can be said to be vaguely liberal or tolerant or pluralist. But in strict terms, it is not democratic. The more time passes, the more the « historical bricolage » called ( I say « tinkering » because in fact various social movements have contributed to shaping and humanizing a « regime » that Dickens and Zola have shown to be neither very humane nor very democratic). Anti-democratic tendencies are particularly blatant in our ultra-liberal era, but let us remember that they were present from the beginning in the form of the sovereign state, its states of exception and its states of emergency. That the oligarchs of the triad State-economy-technoscience have their mouths full of « democracy », that imprecise thinkers repeat the word after them, is a given. But that’s no reason to join the chorus of novlangue. To my knowledge, only one philosopher — Cornelius Castoriadis — has had the honest precision to characterize our type of society not as a democracy, but as a « liberal oligarchy. And if we can make the adjectives « liberal » and « tolerant » synonymous, we can easily agree that in the ultraliberal age the Western (world?) oligarchies are less and less tolerant. The covid moment is the latest evidence of this. 

A democracy understood in a minimal sense implies that the citizens, in the municipalities where they live, regularly assemble within civic or political bodies (assemblies, committees, councils) to deliberate on the affairs of the city: no democracy without an active ritual presence of demos at the most basic level: the neighborhood, the municipality. That not all citizens participate in these assemblies is not a problem: historical experience shows that about a third of active citizens (possibly in rotation) is enough to keep democracy alive, to ensure a presence. I insist on this last word: because without presence (first) there is no representation (second). In other words, without the primary presence, « representation » turns into usurpation, or even a permanent coup. Only presence makes representation a living delegation that acts on a mandate from the citizens, in contrast to usurping parliamentary groups that abuse the « blank check » that the voters give them every five years. 

We know that Aristotle and, two millennia later, Montesquieu and Rousseau made election the sign of aristocracy (democracy being characterized according to them by the drawing of lots). Let us admit that on the scale of our large and vast societies the election can become one of the marks of the democracy; it is then imperative that it is placed under the sign of the precise mandate that the first presence of the demos gives to the second representation of the delegates. Liberals often contrast direct democracy (supposedly dangerous because the people are deemed unreasonable) with representative or indirect democracy (supposedly beneficial because the representatives are supposedly wise). The current ecological and health disaster actually shows how little wisdom representatives have had for at least a century. For this reason, some people think that representation should be ended. For my part, I do not oppose direct presence and indirect representation. Violence can come from anywhere: from below and from above. That’s why I think both — presence and representation — can each stem the violence of the other: each can be the other’s counter-power. Again, I repeat, there must be a presence of the demos and that it does not give blank checks to its delegates. 

Without these two conditions appear the two plagues noted by Maria: 1/ the distance grows between the oligarchy and the population, and thus distrust settles in, 2/ the oligarchy can only impose its power by police violence (against the Yellow Vests), by coercion (confinement and sanitary pass), and by the violence of propaganda, which, Maria rightly says,  » disrupts people’s emotional environment « . I would add that this emotional disturbance paralyzes the ability to think and act. Hence the resigned obedience. Not that a society can do without obedience, but it cannot stand for long if people feel that they are obeying perverse and malevolent oligarchs, worthy of more distrust than trust. 

Let’s recap provisionally: we live today not in a democracy, but in a tolerant oligarchy. Historical clarification: since the collapse of the USSR, the oligarchy is less and less tolerant. 

WHAT OLIGARCHY? Here the testimony of Jorge is decisive:  » In 2021, he says, it is complicated (…) to categorize the current political regime of Belgium and other European countries. If you talk about dictatorship, people immediately think of the words guns, kidnapping, torture, etc. The term totalitarianism is more appropriate, in my opinion. A totalitarianism is not necessarily bloody, especially since the current means of communication and mass surveillance are much more efficient than physical violence « .

I think Jorge is right: contemporary oligarchies are totalitarian — if only in the sense that our psychosocial life is totally colonized by objective forces (the state, capital, technoscience) that turn us into objects. There is no part of our life that escapes these three forces, allied or separated. As soon as you step outside, the state is everywhere (it watches you with millions of cameras provided by capital and technoscience). When you think you are safe in your private intimacy (including in your bed), the State enters your home through capital and technoscience: 4G, 5G, the Linky electricity meter, your cell phone, your connected computer, television with its uninterrupted flow of propaganda and vulgarity from the media, the government, the economy and advertising. 

Jorge’s testimony is in fact surprisingly close to the analysis proposed in 1964 by Marcuse:  » In the way it has organized its technological base, contemporary industrial society tends towards totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is not only a terrorist political standardization, it is also a non-terrorist economic-technical standardization that functions by manipulating needs in the name of a false general interest.  »

One could further refine the analysis in light of covidism. In order to format-anesthetize the population, a hard totalitarianism (fascism, bolshevism, Nazism, Maoism) needs terror. To anaesthetize the population, a flexible totalitarianism (a tolerant totalitarian oligarchy) needs techno-consumerist addiction, supported by advertising propaganda; and when the contradictions of this productivism-consumerism provoke social and natural imbalances (pandemics, revolts, ecological disturbances, migrations), it needs fear (a degree immediately inferior to terror) to spread lethargy. The private and state media, without the need to consult each other, spread such propaganda out of fear that the population feels encouraged to keep to themselves and remain silent. In this observation, there is no conspiracy, no functionalism of the worst kind: in general, the oligarchs of the State, of capital, of techno-science or of the media do not seek to do harm. Disciplining the people may well be a strategy (since the work of the Trilateral Commission in the 1970s), but the oligarchy disciplines the people for their « good, » not to harm them. On the other hand, as soon as the strategy is put in place, it escapes the strategists in the very movement of its expansion. Without even realizing it, the strategists then begin to « freely obey » the mindless machine, the headless running duck. This means that any shock apparently fortuitous (hurricane, epidemic), but in reality caused by the machine, produces a windfall effect: it allows to reinforce the totalitarian tendency to phobology(phobos : fear). Maria sees this clearly when she says that governments are using  » public health as an excuse to impose new regulations . Anke sees this as well when she notes that  » fear has been created  » and that the medical association has stubbornly hunted down any therapeutic dissent. Jorge generalizes the observation by pointing out that the same archaic scapegoating mechanism played out under Pinochet and during the pandemic. 

In short, the propaganda of fear no longer needs orchestration: it feeds itself. When covidist Macron seeks to frighten the French («  We are at war  »), he himself is already a victim of phobological propaganda, of systemic fear, which only ricochets off him. Liberal-totalitarianism cannot do without the automation of fear, of the machine to tetanize: fear of foreign influxes (xenophobia), fear of climate disruption (eco-anxiety), fear of disease (pathophobia).

I would be tempted to formulate the following hypothesis: on the long trajectory of the history of the industrial West, the hard totalitarianisms of the 20th century were accidents. This means that the « normal » course of our historical trajectory is the one that brings about the (dis)social form that we know today: the flexible and globalized totalitarian oligarchy. This hypothesis is similar to the one proposed by the sociologist Matthieu Amiech in a recent article:  » The ruling classes […] take advantage of a health problem […]. to promote a new social organization. The essential feature of this society in the making is the over-integration of individuals, achieved through fear and permanent connection to computer networks. The leaders expect that the submission of the populations […] is thus better assured, particularly in view of the next episodes of panic caused by the consequences of global warming.(1)  »

BIOPOWER AND PSYCHOPOWER. We know that the first word comes from Foucault, and the second from Bernard Stiegler. In reality, we can agree with Bernard Legros, essayist and contributor to Kairos : there is today a psycho-biopower. Is this concept contradictory (mind on one side, body on the other)? If it is not contradictory, what is its interest? 

In the phenomenon of biopower, there is an aspect that Foucault does not address but that Walter Benjamin perceived well before him — namely, that oligarchies reduce psychosocial life to sub-life or biological survival (the « naked life » according to Benjamin). The problem for the oligarchies is that even when we reduce the human being to his biological health (and to his power to produce-consume), there is still a force — the spirit — that goes beyond or overflows the body. Yes, the mind « leaks » (like a faucet) — it leaks because it comes from a bottomless hole called imagination (that which Kant called « transcendental », Fichte « productive », and Castoriadis « instituting »). In other words, spirit is the force that comes from the abyss of imagination and goes towards a work of imagination. For the totalitarian oligarchy, the question is therefore the following: what to do with this spirit, knowing that at any moment it can set the body against biopower? Answer (which can be added to Stiegler’s analysis): the mind must be neutralized, that is to say, it must be prevented from fleeing from the biological body, it must be cut off from the imagination from which it comes and towards which it spontaneously goes. It is necessary to manufacture a mind without imagination (endowed only with an industrial imagination that does not imagine to finish with the industrial society). 

Why does the imagining mind flee from the body? Because the imagination is psychosocial and the psychosocial is not only in the body: it is a common energy which, like language, crosses the bodies by arousing the psyche (the spirit), i.e. the faculty to feel-think-speak-act. When we understand this, we understand what the televisual, digital, computer psycho-power does: it prevents the mind from going beyond the body, it reduces the psycho-social to the psycho-corporal. 

The psycho-biopower is therefore not a contradictory concept: in order to treat the health of bodies, the biopower must also treat the mind as if it were a full, hyper-dense body, without any hole of imagination. This is why psychiatric biopower abuses chemical substances. Psychiatric chemistry is one of the two great weapons of biopower against the imagining mind. The other weapon is psycho-power which, together with some other industrial factors, causes the disorders of the mind that psychiatric chemistry has to cure. Ideal complementarity of the two sides of the psycho-biopower: to provoke the evils and to treat them biomedically, without treating them psychosocially. 

Where is the interest of the concept of psycho-biopower? In the fact of saying the double barbarism, the one that amputates the body of the psychosocial spirit and the one that, in front of the spirit always too present, amputates it of the psychosocial imagination that nourishes it. Thus the psycho-biopower undoes the social link under the appearance of favoring it in the « social networks », called social, dissocial. 

Marc Weinstein, Philology and philosophical anthropology University of Aix-Marseille 

Antoine Demant
Notes et références
  1. Ceci n’est pas une crise sanitaire, brochure édité par la Lenteur, Matthieu Amiech.
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