Foucault And The Politics Of Coronavirus Pandemic – OpEd


As the coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, relentlessly continues it mayhem around the world, on the intellectual side it has also provoked fresh conversations on the (geo) politics and the related ramifications in terms of redrawing the private/public sphere lines, the empowerment of (local) governments on individuals, the new pattern of “social distancing,” the possibilities of a new round of “de-globalization,” and the like. 

From China to Iran, Italy, South Korea, Singapore, etc., millions of people are placed under either mandatory or “voluntary” self-isolation and entire towns and cities are experiencing the harsh reality of life under quarantine — to the point that some particularly in Europe have invoked comparison with the great plague of the 1300s that wiped out thirty to sixty percent of the continent’s population.

Chances are, however, that due to the advances in medical technology, prospects for a vaccine, preventive efforts such as quarantine and “self-isolation,” and so on, the gloomy forecasts such as the one reflected in a new Harvard study will not be realized and this pandemic will not exact millions of lives as feared by such studies. 

With a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the seemingly runaway train of COVID-19, it remains to be seen what future has in store for us during the crucial next couple of months. But, if China is any clue, its apparent success in combating the epidemic, touted by the country’s leader,  the pandemic has a decent chance of being contained sooner or later, particularly if the vaccine is produced; regarding the latter, estimates vary from several months to a year and a half.   

Meanwhile, it is instructive to put the insights of French philosopher Michel Foucault into practice by examining the global politics of COVID-19 from a Foucauldian perspective.  As is well-known, Foucault studied the great plague’s effects in terms of population control, centralization of power, de-individualization of citizens and their new ‘scientific’ compartmentalization, resulting in certain side-effects with respect to “panopticist” prison control and, with it, a new mode of surveillance reflecting a new modality of operationalization of power.   

In his essay on “Panopticism,” Foucault wrote that “the plague is met by order.” Similarly, we may say that the corona pandemic is creating a “new order.” 

What are the chief characteristics of this “new order?” At this stage we are too close to the unfolding drama to draw firm conclusions, but perhaps the following provisional conclusions fill the answer.

First, while there are great disparities in terms of national strategies to combat COVID-19, on the whole the emphasis placed on freedom of movement by new restrictions on travel, closed borders, locked down towns and cities, and the like, reveal an exponential growth of government control over private lives, reflected in more and more draconian’ orders by governments at national and local levels declaring states of emergency — that obviate the normal legal channels for decision-making and are inherently anti-democratic irrespective of their medical rationalization. 

Hence, the authoritarian curve in global politics is on upswing as a result of covid-19 while the democracy curve is on the down swing, generally speaking.

Second, countries such as Iran that initially opted for a consultative and or persuasive method instead of the (China-style) draconian approach have not been particularly successful in tackling the expansive disease, thus making the adjustments that show a greater centralization of decision-making, e.g., with the Supreme Leader’s choice of President Rouhani to lead the national effort.  Such variations in anti-virus tactics and strategy pale, however, in comparison with the growing authoritarian streak in the global struggle against the pandemic. 

Third, from a Foucauldian perspective, the coronavirus context is to some extent contradictory, as in some cases such as US it has led to greater local autonomy as local governors in various sub-national states exert a prominent role in designing the state-level response, compared to the federal government, which has come under public criticism for its sub-optimal response. 

A new federalism, featuring enhanced local power decision-making runs in tandem with the “anti-globalization” side-effect of the pandemic, which will in all likelihood weaken the ties of “complex interdependence” in the months and years to come. 

Complementing Trump’s mantra of “America first,” the virus’ impact in terms of prioritizing national and sub-national strategies in place of greater global and even regional cooperation, has probably set into motion a new dynamic that will be difficult if not impossible to reverse. 

With respect to US, which has been wary of ‘rising China,’ the virus was initially seen as a useful means to undermine China’s assertive power and weaken its bargaining power vis-a-vis US hegemony. But now that China is bringing the disease under control and US is starting to bear the growing scars of the virus on its mighty economy, the table is starting to turn and much depends on the scope and length of the epidemic in US, i.e., a major breakout will scar US probably more than China, thus rebalancing the global distribution of power. 

Coinciding with a new oil price crisis after the failed recent OPEC meeting, this epidemic in US is creating a ‘perfect storm’ that may well drive out of business US’ shale oil industry and thus turn the US into an oil importer again. Should this happen, US’ interest in Middle East oil will spike again, impacting the Pentagon calculations.

Again, from a Foucauldian point of view, this can be analyzed in terms of the disciplinary power of hegemonic US with respect to “challengers” such as Iran and China, a power that relies heavily on the instrument of sanctions.  But then again, as inferred from the above, there is a “pandemic trap” that operates on both sides of the isle, so to speak, in turn requiring a great deal of political skill at national level to make the necessary adjustments at a fluid context by constantly changing their repertoire of tactics and strategy.  Those who successfully escape this trap are the eventual winners and, vice versa, those who fail inevitably face the dire consequences of marginalization and control from the without. 

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Editor's Note: Federal authorities in 2021 charged this contributor with operating as an unregistered agent of the Iranian government. Eurasia Review is leaving the article on the site as a matter of public record while updating his author page and the article to include this new information for context. Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D. is an Iranian-American political scientist and author specializing in Iran’s foreign and nuclear affairs, and author of several books.

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