According to WHO calculations, the SARS-CoV2 pandemic counts, as of 6 March 2021, about 115 million confirmed cases of the Covid-19 disease and approximately 2.5 million deaths globally. Twelve months after the pandemic was declared, on this unsettling anniversary, and despite a generalised feeling that everything has changed dramatically, I claim that SARS-CoV2 has brought, politically speaking, nothing particularly novel. Population-level regulations, the coagulation of several disciplines (statistics, demography, medicine, epidemiology) and their implication to local and global governmentalities, panoptical surveillance, the intensification of bordering practices and the differential vulnerability of regions and social segments observed during the pandemic are political phenomena that have been captured and analysed for at least five decades. The most salient characteristics of our biopolitical present have been already extensively theorised in the writings of Michel Foucault and the strand of academic research that followed a Foucauldian perspective for half a century.
True, the management of this pandemic had it all: biopower, necropolitics, discipline, panopticism, the nationalisation of the biological, racism, border intensification. Citizens have been markedly governed, not as subjects of law but as living, biological beings with morbidity and mortality rates. Nothing new in all this though. Old and recently produced technologies of surveillance have been deployed to track our movement, to store and transmit our biometric readings, to provide evidence for ensuing disciplinary measures. Nothing radically new in this either. Mobility was restricted, nationalism has once again established itself at the biological level, while globally observed differential exposure to health and social risks along racial and gendered lines confirmed the view that biopolitics is deeply rooted into and further produces variant vulnerabilities. But then again, we have observed all that too in the past. So why has the SARS-CoV2 pandemic been regarded as such an iconic instance of biopolitical and thanatopolitical governmentalities?
The answer itself may be simple, but its implications are far more complex than they may seem at first. Our ‘intense biopolitical moment’ is felt as ‘intense’ because – unlike other, older instances of biopolitical management – it affects us all. It does not affect us all equally, but still we are all subjected to it in very concrete ways.
What is different about the biopolitics of the present pandemic is that it did not respect –so to speak– conventional lines of privilege and social hierarchy. It attacked, taken-for-granted-privilege and our sense of self-entitlement in a catholic manner, causing the kind of shock that someone with good eyesight may feel when they are suddenly blindfolded and asked to experience the world as a visually impaired person for a day.
In the past year, infinitely more people have discovered what it is like to be subjected to enforced immobility, disciplinary surveillance and detention-like quarantine (conditions that migrants have been experiencing for years in far worse infrastructures than the average home). Infinitely more people realised that ‘home’ is not safe for all (a condition that abused women around the world have been experiencing, again, since time immemorial). Infinitely more people felt precarity, insecurity, the loss of income, the collapsing of the ability to make stable ‘future plans’ (the latter ability being the definition of ‘middle-class’ par excellence). Substantially more people realised the gaps and holes of impoverished national health-care systems that rigid neoliberal financialisation has caused and, what is more, they also realised that the venerated private health sector is not actually willing or capable of covering their needs at critical times. People around the globe were suddenly confronted with the existence of what were for them ‘extraordinary’ dilemmas: in the absence of beds in an intensive care unit, who gets to be admitted and whose chances are deemed so low as to be left out? And yet, dilemmas like these are ordinary scenarios in the developing world (where children have been dying for lack of mosquito nets). In the so-called developed world as well, certain medical diagnostic tests are deemed too expensive to be administered to senior citizens by health-care systems that have been so financially strained that are forced to choose who to prioritise in life-saving preventive medical procedures. The Greek example of the Troika-supported decision that mammograms must stop being offered to women over seventy is a case in point.
The pandemic has laid privilege asymmetries bare and yet, not bare enough for everyone to fully understand that National Health Systems’ workers were not the only ones who deserved to be applauded in the current circumstances. Those of us who had food on the table during the pandemic, often – still – forgot that it was a privilege supported by low-paid workers in the food and food distribution industries, who were frequently forced to go to work and put their lives at risk. We still owe much more than a round of applause to all those low-paid workers in sanitation, in production and distribution chains that made our biological and social survival possible. We haven’t yet conceptualised the extent to which our societies are organised around the politics of radical alterity; namely, around the principle that the health, safety, security, welfare, mobility, the life itself of some of us, is based on the impoverishment of health, on the insecurity, on the precarity, the immobility and the death of others.
There is nothing ‘extraordinary’ in Covid-19, other than that we came to get a rare, short taste of the ‘ordinary’ life of others, and we didn’t like it. So, we are now looking forward to a ‘return to normality’, where normality is –let us not fool ourselves about that– a condition where the enriched bios of some, continues to be privileged and prioritised over other people’s impoverished zoes. To use the same metaphor as above, getting about as visually impaired felt intolerable even for what is comparably a short-while. Saturated with the anxiety the cloth on our eyes has caused for (metaphorically) a day, some of us still don’t seem to care enough for the fact that others have to go through this for life.
Counter-cultures of Resistance
The thing with biopolitics, as we all know, is that it is an inseparable aspect of subjectivation. We become political subjects at the same time as we become bio-political subjects. It is thus no accident that neoliberalist ideas about ‘heard-immunity’ –namely, the potential sacrifice of the lives of some of the most vulnerable in favour of the economy, or else of the enriched bios of others– found traction in many social segments. It is also no accident that many of us have fallen for the discourse of ‘care’ and accepted, even welcomed, almost uncritically, the affective face of the biopolitical state impersonated in the tears of epidemiologists on Greek national television.
Even if we remain acutely aware of the full set of the consequences of our biopolitical moment however, resisting them seems in the current clime almost impossible. Not only because certain acts of resistance –such as taking to the streets– seem a lot more difficult at present, but also, because almost any act in the here and now risks perpetuating the politics of differential vulnerability somewhere else and sometime later.
Engaging in anti-biopolitical activism seems nowadays more complicated than ever before; a field dangereuse, especially because of how delicate the balance can be between protesting against the biopolitical implications of pandemic management and being seen as denying the pandemic itself. To complicate matters further, not all kinds of anti-biopolitical resistance entail positive visions of citizenship. Political dystopias, in the present and in the past have been always felt, understood and resisted differently by different strands of people and with disparate consequences.
In previous research I have discussed how various Greek actors articulated their discontent with differential vulnerability and asymmetrical power structures on a global (geo)political scale. These articulations were sometimes offered to me in simplistic aetiological narratives that incorporated historical events, but also often took the form of ‘conspiracy theories’ whose plot typically relied on banal nationalism in order to describe and discursively resist the country’s cryptocolonial predicament.
This motif of political commentary continued throughout the years of the financial meltdown. History was worked and reworked in the discourses of many of my respondents with elements of banal nationalism, deployed to explain why – for example – the Germans hated us, or why the Europeans wanted to bring the oil-and-resources-rich Greece on its knees. There was also a new element in these discussions that I started hearing more and more frequently: prophesies. The prophetic words of Holy Fathers and reverent figures of Greek Orthodox Christianity like St. Paisios, St. Porfyrios and Kosmas Aitolos started featuring increasingly in the narratives of my respondents.
Prophesies were always discussed in Greece. But they were never prominent in the commentaries of so many. They started gaining ground during the later years of the crisis, when statements of Paisios like “you will have a government but you will not have one and many people will plunge into poverty” seemed to fit the picture of the country’s povertisation and political subjection.
In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic however, prophesies seem to be acquiring a central role in formulating an idiosyncratic narrative of resistance to biopolitical governmentalities. Consider these extracts from a book that was written in 1999 by the nuns of Souroti, a nunnery affiliated with St. Paisios. The book contains Paisios’s sermons and prophetic admonitions as these were shared with visitors and his spiritual children. The translation is mine.
"Things move forward according to the plan. In the US the micro-chipped dogs emit a signal and this is how they can find them. They will soon do this to people as well… Then an illness emerges, for which the vaccine will become obligatory. This will be the prelude to accepting the seal of the Antichrist. Whoever does not accept it will not be able to sell or buy or take on a loan, become employed etc… The Antichrist will impose himself on the world through a world-wide economic dictatorship… through an economic system that will control the global economy and only the sealed ones will be able to engage in trade… Everything will be controlled through powerful computers. Peoples’ [bodies] will be confessing [data] on the click of a button. See what kind of dictatorship the Antichrist has designed? Some Europeans resist it for reasons of democracy – because they do not want this dictatorship. But we – the Orthodox – we resist this because we don’t want the Antichrist, and of course we also don’t want the dictatorship… This dictatorship will be imposed insidiously. Cash will disappear. They will force people to trade only in plastic money. Gradually all our information will be stored in computers. The global dictatorship will be able to follow every move we make and everything we say. They will never openly force anyone to be sealed, but they will make the lives of people who are not, miserable. It will be almost impossible to survive and this is how many people will be forced to accept this new regime of Antichrist’s global dictatorship."
Prophesies like this, currently enjoy unprecedented popularity in Greece. This is of course still confined to specific circles that are nevertheless expanding beyond the ‘cult’, over-religious, extra-conservative groups that entertained such beliefs ten years ago. The eschatological character of Paisios’s prophetic admonitions and the relative precision with which they seem to have sketched the future are major attraction points –understandably, it seems.
In my fieldwork experience, prophesies gain ground every day as the organising seed of a certain narrative of resistance to the biopolitical regime of the pandemic. They provide discursive tools to social actors who wish to dispute the notion of the securitised body and to formulate a more generalised critique towards neoliberal citizenship and its technologies of population management. Prophesies become key discursive tools in new ‘conspiracist scenarios’ about the pandemic, the ‘New World Order’, ‘global governance’ systems and an emerging ‘global dictatorship’ that appears to be promising the reduction of health risk in return for our continuous subjection.
Prophesies are means of gazing at the present through a vision of the future that presents itself as both near and unavoidable. This view of the future-as-already-known is explicitly anti-modern. Anti-modern though, is not to be confused with un-modern. As I was arguing back in 2010, conspiracist political scenarios should not be regarded as indicative of some flawed, primitive logic. They should be analysed as political aetiologies that attempt to explain the world and to resist neoliberal asymmetrical power structures, neo-colonial extractive relations between nations and the erosion of democracy and the social contract. The circulation of prophetic, eschatological discourses at present, signals a deep and profound dissatisfaction with the biopolitisation of citizenship, the normalisation of surveillance, the accelerated financialisation of economic life through fictive cash and an increased suspicion over the efficacy of vaccinations that is connected to the loss of trust to institutions, state agents and even civil society. The latter –loss of trust– is not entirely unrelated to how ‘institutions’ (a euphemism for the Troika) used the financial crisis in Greece as a pretext for imposing so-called ‘structural adjustments’, another euphemism for forcing the Greek people to accept a radical neoliberal agenda supported by the EU and the IMF.
It is also true however that, more often than not, the circulation of conspiratorial political aetiologies and prophesies about the sinister plans of the Antichrist against the pious, create a fertile breeding ground for neonationalist ideas and for ultra-right wing politicoreligious radicalisation. They are discourses of resistance, but the kind of resistance that does not always support what we would cast as inclusive visions of citizenship. The popularity of prophesies serves to demonstrate, not only that we are not experiencing the pandemic in common ways, but also that –despite our common disaffection with our intense biopolitical moment- we do not resist to it from the same perspective.
Europe is experiencing in recent years an upsurge of right-wing political radicalisation and Greece poses no exception. There is an analytical strand that explains this phenomenon almost exclusively in terms of the determination of certain social segments to retain their privileges (white, male, heteronormative, middle-class, Christian) vis-a-vis social struggles in favour of an open, fair, multicultural, truly democratic society. Without dismissing this view, I argue that a more holistic picture emerges if we include in the analysis equally important connections between neonationalism and the growing dissatisfaction of a debilitated lumpen proletariat that is crushed daily by neoliberalisation, the loss of welfare state, the erosion of democracy and the blatant power asymmetries at play in local and global levels. Prophesies portraying the workings of neoliberal biopower as the attainment of the Antichrist are this lumpen proletariat’s narratives of discontent, resistance and promised vindication. They also have a palliative role which allows disenfranchised subjects a glimpse of hope that the world as we know it, is approaching to an end.
Dr. Elisabeth Kirtsoglou is Associate Professor of Anthropology in Durham University and Deputy Director of the Durham Global Security Institute. She has published extensively on the political anthropology of Greece. She has recently (2020) edited a volume on chronopolitics and chronocracy, nomadic temporality and anticipatory nostalgia as a postcolonial condition. Full texts can be accessed here:
For full texts on my previous work on conspiracy theories as political aetiology see: https://www.academia.edu/1201622/2010_Intimacies_of_Anti_Globalisation_Imagining_Unhappy_Others_as_Oneself_in_Greece