It may have been a cosmic coincidence or the intersection of institutional inertia with scientific initiatives. In either case, the official voting of the anti-democratic and arcane Electoral College coincided with the initial Covid-19 vaccinations in the United States, illuminating in the process the full range of the biopolitical plague that especially afflicts us in this country although its ravages are world-wide. Hence, it is both a biological threat of the coronavirus and the political rendering of abusive power that constitute the biopolitical plague we confront.
While the arrival of a vaccine, pursued by the scientific community and its capitalist corporate manufacturers, offers what many now see as a “light at the end of the tunnel,” they are blind to the fact that this is only one tunnel among a mountainous range exploited by predatory power. In effect, the vaccine is a temporary solution to a deeply rooted problem represented by a host of human power trips reflected in the destruction of animal habitats, factory farming, global supply chains, and global climate change. Such power trips are also represented in the reign of patriarchal systems and an evolutionary selection for “power over” which contaminates society and social relationships. One can date this biopolitical plague to the emergence of empire over 5,000 years ago and its fostering of war in order to control resources.
Over 500 years ago the European expansion into the Americas spread another biolpolitical plague, one that also contained another deadly virus – smallpox. Conquest was not only by force of arms and the material expression of white supremacy, but also through this infectious disease that killed millions. The construction of these empires, and with it their settler colonialist mentalities, would enact regimes of oppression and exploitation of the Indigenous of the Americas and of enslaved Africans. The residual effects of this systemic racism persist to today, evident in patterns of institutional discrimination and devastation of the lives of people of color.
These last four years in the United States have underscored not only the persistence of this systemic racism, but also the eruption of a demented form of the biopolitical plague. Beyond the malignant narcissism of Trump, one finds a cultural narcissism and civic illiteracy among significant segments of the U.S. population. The biopolitical environment of racism and xenophobia are particularly, but not exclusively, evident among the white working class, especially those living in rural areas. The very real decline in living standards and the attendant rise in morbidity statistics contribute to this environment while also resulting in what Jonathan Metzl has brilliantly exposed and analyzed as “dying of whiteness.” As Jessie Daniels notes: “The lie of whiteness holds out a promise that being white will save you from social isolation and disconnection through materialism, individualism, and the satisfaction of superiority. When the world changes, it burns off those false promises like a flame melting wax and what is left may not seem like enough to go on.”
On the other hand, those who wield power in the neoliberal economic order and in the corridors of federal and state governments are dedicated to fanning the flames of privatization and privilege. The heavy hand of a slave republic past still burdens present day politics not only with the Electoral College and Senate, but also with other elements of a constitutional order incapable of nurturing a twenty-first century multiracial democracy.
Beyond these immediate economic and political constraints here in the United States, we confront a global biopolitical plague of “greed, inequality, and overconsumption” that ravages the ecology of the planet. To counter this biopolitical plague, Vandana Shiva has proposed an “Earth Democracy” that would globalize “compassion, justice, and sustainability.” However, without local and global resistance and the practice of a radical social and political solidarity, the realization of “Earth Democracy” will be nothing short of a utopian dream.
To contend with the nightmare of our biopolitical plague, we can perhaps look to the more constrained visions of social and political solidarity found in Camus’ relevant and compelling novel, The Plague. Against the backdrop of fascism and war, Camus reminds his readers that moral responsibility needs to be ever vigilant against the pestilence of biopolitical plagues that would sacrifice humans at the alter of false gods, whether religious or political. As Camus demonstrates through both his fiction and his life, we have a moral responsibility to engage with others to protect the victims of biopolitical plague and to challenge injustice and oppression wherever it appears through the practice of social and political solidarity.