Politics in Times of Death

Politics in Times of Death


The way the pandemic has been handled across the globe, especially by authoritarian populist regimes, gives us very valuable clues into what politics and democracy will look like after Covid-19 has subsided. The United States under Donald Trump was in denial of the pandemic for close to six months and demonstrated its indifference to the growing causalities, most of whom were African-Americans. Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro followed a similar path of denial, which has resulted in a growing number of infections, chiefly among the elderly. One of his aides reportedly even said that the concentration of deaths among the old will reduce Brazil’s pension deficit.

India under Narendra Modi demonstrated a similar stoic indifference to the migrant crisis, turning it into a low-key spectacle. It neither prepared more medical facilities during the lockdown nor allotted more resources to states, but simply passed the buck to state governments after having announced a lockdown without consultation. State governments too, one after the other, refused to take responsibility for the growing number of cases, be it the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi or the KCR-led government in Telangana, which finally said that to protect oneself is an individual’s responsibility, as there is only so much a government can or be expected to do. This has been the general trend worldwide, barring a few honourable exceptions such as New Zealand and Scandinavian countries which have much smaller populations.

States are reconfiguring the social contract from guaranteeing freedom and security to governance without guarantees. The pandemic and the highly contagious nature of the Novel Coronavirus have created a new pitch for life without guarantees; and life under a constant source of threat which we have to reconcile and live with. We are witnessing the possibility of a surveillance state which does not guarantee security to life or liberty, for the “right to life” can not be assured in a world where even more frequent pandemic outbreaks are expected, coupled with the devastating consequences of irreversible climate change. The difference between the natural and social worlds is collapsing. As ecological changes and pandemics make everybody vulnerable—irrespective of caste, social status, class and gender—social hierarchies will seem irrelevant and therefore inequalities will appear to be more of a given; as “natural” as pandemics.

It is true that both social location and power were, in a sense, flattened when high-end ministers, even prime ministers—like Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom—ended up in ICUs just like the man on the street has. This holds the potential to inaugurate a new kind of politics of minimalism in which life is no longer about mobility but preserving what one has and, above all, survival. Politics in such a world would be more about staying alive rather than rights, freedom and equality.

Such an emergent politics is captured by a new category of resilience described by Brad Evans and Julian Reid in their 2014 book, Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously. Resilience, the authors say, is not about overcoming or resolving a crisis but about the ways and means of coming to terms with it. So, the ongoing pandemic is preparing a new frame to look at civic crisis, economic emergency and political conflicts as “given” and permanent—things one has to live with rather than fight against.

Evans and Reid argue that resilience teaches us to “live in a terrifying yet normal state of affairs that suspends us in petrified awe.” In today’s context, resilience is the new ideology of the power of both capital and state. One does not speak of eradicating poverty but of how the poor can be made resilient to this “given” reality. In other words, people need to be resilient to the virus by improving their immunity; it is not about the ability to kill the virus—for viruses do not die, they can at best become dormant.

“The resilient subject is therefore the surest embodiment of neo-liberal thinking as it conforms to its guiding principles without questioning the political stakes of vulnerability,” as Evans and Reid write.

In other words, politics today is more about death than life and more about survival than utopia. And tomorrow it will be about the legitimate politicisation of death, as we already witnessed in the recent migrant crisis and the earlier discourse about illegal immigrants. Such discourses revolve around choosing who is to be kept alive and who is to become dispensable, a part of the “surplus population”. We can expect politics to no longer be about welfare and well being but survival through legitimate exclusion. Its justification could be that limited resources leave us no option but to combine consumption with exclusion.

The political practices that lie dormant in liberal democracies, contained by constitutionalism, are finding a new legitimacy today. Trust, for instance, was considered central to democracies, but today caution, social distance and mutual suspicion are legitimate survival strategies. Trust is about risk and not dignity, suspicion is about survival and not exclusion. “Othering” is not a political category but a necessary social practice that is also natural. In this order of things xenophobic violence would also be more of a natural outbreak, like the pandemic, rather than a self-conscious political strategy.

The very foundational aspects of democracy and modern collectives seem to be under unselfconscious stress and they are undergoing certain “natural” mutations. Meaning and spiritual dimensions of life are closer to coming to terms with death than art and aesthetics. In this new-age nihilism, subversion, which is a guiding principle of nihilism and existentialism, has become the philosophy of state and capital. In other words, resilience has to be understood nihilistically. Evans and Reid argue that “Nihilism is not only a debasement of the self. It encourages the subject to accept a political will to nothingness. By actively encouraging a self-inflicting lethal exposure, it turns political ambitions into a neutralizing embrace.” (Nihilism is a sense of loss of meaning in life and living with a feeling of nothingness.)

There is an impending need to resist survival and resilience, the new-found rationalities of neoliberalism, which is mobilising catastrophic climatic changes and pandemics. The challenge is to re-locate resistance in invoking the damage caused by a centralised state and unbridled capitalist expansion, which have made death central to our social and political life.

The author is associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The views are personal.



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