One Health and One Home: On the Biopolitics of COVID-19

 

March 31, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has rather spectacularly confirmed the relevance of the philosophical paradigm known as biopolitics.  Not only are we specimens of a biological species who also happen to organize our lives together through politics, but this pandemic has made it crystal clear how much our politics (and economics) are dependent on our capacity to “govern” or “manage” our species life in relation to non-human life as such.

However, we still do not know how the human response to the coronavirus outbreak will re-articulate the connection between our species life and our political life.  To date, the pandemic joins two novel elements that stand in need of further critical and biopolitical thought.  The first element is the fact that the coronavirus “jumped” between distinct species.  This possibility of a “species jump” that characterizes viral outbreaks with pandemic potential has led public health experts to speak of a “One Health” model.  As defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization, “One Health is an integrated approach for preventing and mitigating health threats at the Animal-Human-Plant-Environment interfaces with the objective of achieving public health, food and nutrition security, sustainable ecosystems and fair trade facilitation.”[1]  Thus, the phenomenon of a virus that jumps across species not only confirms the belief, already held by Darwin and Nietzsche, that distinct species do not exist as such but are epiphenomena of a continuum of life in constant becoming.[2]  The pandemic also indicates that the “species jump” has its own bio-political mirror image in questioning traditional immunitary devices like national boundaries and unequal distribution of wealth.  As Judith Butler (2020) and Slavoj Žižek (2020) hurriedly pointed out, the virus is uncannily egalitarian.[3]  This fact suggests that nationalist and capitalist conceptualizations of the “Animal-Human-Plant-Environment interfaces” will need to be drastically revised in view of achieving One Health on a planetary scale.  But now this expression needs to be read as follows: our conception of health needs to be re-oriented by the Oneness of life which performatively denies the naturalized hierarchies and speciesism underpinning social pathologies like classism, racism and sexism.

The second novel element is that the rest of the world followed China in adopting the “lockdown” of their citizens in their “homes” as the bio-political policy of choice to combat the epidemic.  What is the significance of this topological choice for our biopolitical response?  Philosophers of biopolitics have given varied answers to this question: some, like Giorgio Agamben (http://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers/;http://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/reflections-on-the-plague/), understand the lockdown as a repetition of the sovereign prerogative to “ban” certain individuals considered to pose a high risk for the “security” of society.  Others, like Sergio Benvenuto (2020) see the lockdown as accelerating a trend in advanced capitalist societies towards recovering the ancient Greek idea of “home” as “hearth” (Gr. Hestia): the original space for the reproduction of life where the instruments for this reproduction are under our “dominion”.  As Carl Schmitt pointed decades ago, “the house remains the nucleus and center of terrestrial life, together with its concrete orders: house and property, matrimony, family and inheritance…. The fundamental institution of law, dominium or property, receives its name from domus”.[4]

However, I think that the shock of COVID-19 has done more than shatter a Panglossian belief that we lived in the best of all possible worlds, just as it has done more than reiterate Candide’s conclusion that the best path in life is simply to “tend one’s garden” and sell the modest products of one’s work at home.  Just like the viral “species jump” highlights the emergence of One Health, so too this globalized and highly mediatized – thanks to the internet technology – “lockdown” has led many more to the renewed conviction that we can no longer continue to “progress” in the way we have done so far.  The direct link between a human species in lockdown and skies free of pollution, old waterways teeming again with life, etc. has reinforced the most ancient awareness that nature is the One Home for humanity.  This explains the sentiment expressed by commentators like George Monbiot (2020) who believes this pandemic “could be the moment when we begin to see ourselves, once more, as governed by biology and physics, and dependent on a habitable planet.”

Not by chance, the connection between nature and home was an important insight of the first Greek philosophers who sought to find the key to human government in biology and physics, namely, the Pythagorean philosophers.  One of them, Philolaos, wrote: “The first thing fitted together, the one [to hen] in the center of the sphere, is called the hearth [Hestia]” (Diel Kranz  7 [B91]).  Here the “home” or “hearth” does not connote the private dominion where life is safely governed by the master, but it refers to a principle of harmony composed of the unlimited materiality of life (symbolized by the fire) and the One that is the principle of all limitation: together they generate the cosmic order as One Hearth that should become the model for all political order.  The human species will be able to find their way back (Gr. nostos, from which some philologists say derives the Greek term, nous, mind)[5] to this One Home as long as it understands, as Walter Benjamin says, that “technology is the mastery not of nature but of the relation between nature and humanity.  Men as a species completed their development thousands of years ago, but humanity as a species is just getting started.  In technology, a nature is being organized through which mankind’s contact with the cosmos takes a new and different form from that which it had in nations and families….  Living substance conquers the frenzy of destruction only in the ecstasy of reproduction.”[6]

Economics originally meant the government of the household (oikos).  One of most stunning bio-political consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, as many economists have noted, is that the “lockdown” at “home” has led to a definitive break with the analogy between household debt and public debt that underpinned decades of neoliberal “austerity” policies.[7]  If the pandemic forces us into our homes but allows us to consider what is our true “one home,” the same necessity to stay at home, like the sword that wounds and heals in one stroke, also freed us from the dogma that considers public debt as if it were the sum of debts incurred by households.  The home lockdown, paradoxically, has made the oikos-nomy into a political matter once again.  But we do not yet know how different this new “political” approach to economics will be from traditional political economy that Marx had already critiqued.  The celerity with which all governments have relinquished all budgetary and fiscal restraint, which neoliberals considered the real standard of legitimacy, is indeed quite “revolutionary” in undoing the neoliberal imperative to privatize debt and risk.  However, it is also “reactionary” in so far as it brings back the old faith in the providential state as the lender of last resort and ultimate social safety net.  The risk associated with recurring to this medieval faith in the “immortal” nature of the fisc is that such economic-theological belief underwrites an identification of sovereign power with saving power, the myth of the state as God’s representative on earth.[8]  Unscrupulous rulers and investors will, undoubtedly, try not to let this “good crisis go to waste”.  The rest of us need to consider that One Health and One Home also entails One Humanity, whose dignity stands above the sovereignty of states and whose worth is beyond market-allocated price.  There is no doubt that a pandemic is a brutal way to reveal the vulnerability of all living human specimens.  The protection offered by an immortal corporation like the state promises us a degree of invulnerability.  Yet what we really hope for in times like these is not the invulnerability of our finite, mortal specimen lives, but to experience the life that is eternal.[9]  This can only be attained by living up to the humanity in us and to the harmony or law of nature above us.

Bibliography

Benjamin, W. (1996) Selected Writings. Volume 1: 1913-1926. Edited by Marcus Bollock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Benvenuto, S. (2020) “Estizzazione. La nostra vita dopo il coronavirus”, Doppiozero, 22-III-2020, https://www.doppiozero.com/materiali/estizzazione-la-nostra-vita-dopo-il-coronavirus

Butler, J. (2020) “Capitalism has its limits” https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4603-capitalism-has-its-limits.

Kantorowicz, E. H. (1997) The King’s Two Bodies. A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press). Original edition, 1957.

Lachterman, D. (1990) “Noos and Nostos. The Odyssey and the Origins of Greek Philosophy.” In La naissance de la raison en Grèce, edited by Jean-Francois Mattei, (Paris: PUF) pp 33-39.

Lemm, V. (2020) Homo Natura. Nietzsche, philosophical anthropology and biopolitics (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).

Monbiot, G. (2020) “Covid-19 is nature’s wake-up call to complacent civilisation”, The Guardian, March 25, 2020.

Schmitt, C. (2014) “The Planetary Tension Between Orient and Occident and the Opposition Between Land and Sea.”  Política Común 5. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/pc.12322227.0005.011.[1]

Spinoza, B. (2002) The Complete Works. Translated by Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company).

Tooze, A. and Schularick, M. (2020) “The shock of coronoavirus could split the EU – unless nations share the burden”, The Guardian, March 25, 2020.

Vatter, M. (2011) “Eternal Life and Biopower”, The New Centennial Review 10 (3):217-249.

Žižek, S. (2020) “Coronavirus is ‘Kill Bill’-esque blow to capitalism and could lead to reinvention of communism”, https://www.rt.com/op-ed/481831-coronavirus-kill-bill-capitalism-communism/


[2] Lemm 2020.

[3] Judith Butler, 2020; Žižek, 2020.

[4] Schmitt 2014: section 5.

[5] Lachterman 1990.

[6] “To the Planetarium” in Benjamin (1996: p. 487).

[7] Adam Tooze and Moritz Schularick (2020).

[8] Kantorowicz 1997.

[9] “Yet it is impossible that we should remember that we existed before our body, since neither can there be any traces of this in the body nor can eternity be defined by time, or be in any way related to time. Nevertheless, we feel and experience that we are eternal.” Ethics V, P 23, Sch. in (Spinoza 2002), commented in Vatter (2011).

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