The Rise and Fall of Biopolitics: A Response to Bruno Latour

Joshua Clover


How swiftly do genres of the quarantine emerge! Notable among them is the discovery of the relation between the present pandemic and onrushing climate collapse. The driving force of this genre is not holy shit two ways for a lot of people to die but the realization, or hope, that the great mobilizations of state resources currently being unspooled to address COVID-19 prove the possibility of a comparable or greater mobilization against ecological catastrophe, an even greater threat if somewhat less immediate. There is to be sure a certain mixing of analogies: in the United States, confronting climate change is conventionally likened to the New Deal or Marshall Plan, schemes to hedge against the charisma of communism, while addressing the pandemic decisively takes the language of war itself, a “war footing,” “wartime president,” and so on. This is an interesting slippage, no doubt, though both analogies rely on a vision of preserving global hegemony. Insert rueful laugh.

Bruno Latour provides a recent example of this genre; it appeared dually in Le Monde and Critical Inquiry on 25 March, here under the title “Is This a Dress Rehearsal,” and in French under the more prosaic but imperative “Health Crisis Demands We Prepare for Climate Change.”[1] The short piece is filled with the author’s habits of mind such as the inevitable “Latour Litany,” a list of all the various actors human and inhuman in an “entire network,” enumerated with an insistent leveling of its contents where what matters is that all these actors stand in ratio with each other, mute equivalents. It is as if exchange value had taken up a side hustle as a theorist. The goal is to demonstrate yet again the indistinction of nature and society toward discovering the obvious truth that “The pandemic is no more a ‘natural’ phenomenon than the famines of the past or the current climate crisis.”

But here problems arise for the comparison, as the author himself admits. Writing from France, he notes that Emmanuel Macron’s capacity to confront the pandemic is not of a kind with even his least gesture toward (purported) climate abatement, recalling how his gas tax was met not with relief and a thirst for more but with the riots of the Gilets Jaunes movement. Per Latour, this is because Macron — and ostensibly other leaders — have not forged the kind of new state that climate collapse will require. Instead, “we are collectively playing a caricatured form of the figure of biopolitics that seems to have come straight out of a Michel Foucault lecture.”

He means Foucault’s final lecture on the theme Society Must Be Defended, describing a new kind of power. Whereas once “Sovereignty took life and let live,” he writes, we discover toward the end of the eighteenth century “the emergence of a power that . . . in contrast, consists in making live and letting die.” This is the famous formula of biopolitics: the sovereign power to make live and let die.

Latour notes that this power’s deployment in the present moment includes “the obliteration of the very many invisible workers forced to work anyway so that others can continue to hole up in their homes.” Rightly so — this is a peculiarly awful time to be a delivery worker, from the warehouse or restaurant to the driver anxiously tossing a box on your porch. Recent days have presented an even more devastating turn: recent pronouncements by various governmental figures who, noting the economic devastation of COVID-19, proclaimed that people would have to abandon quarantine procedures after a fortnight at the very most and return to work so as to avoid cratering the economy. This despite the medical certainty that this would lead to more transmissions and more deaths. Forty-four years and five days after Foucault’s lecture, Donald Trump tweeted, WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO! If this was in any way opaque, two days later Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick speculated, “are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that America loves for its children and grandchildren? And if that is the exchange, I’m all in.”

But this course of action is not speculative at all: rather it seems to be the express plan of the state, coming soon. Look, to save the economy, we’re gonna have to kill some folks. Like, a lot. Horrified humans immediately noted this was a blood sacrifice to capitalism and who could disagree? This is the most dramatic political development since the early hours of millennium if not very much longer. It must seem like the apotheosis of biopolitics: a crackpot sovereign deciding at national scale who will be made to live, who let die.

Except for the way in which this was, in the clearest manner, the reverse. By 22 March, Goldman Sachs was already predicting an unparalleled 2.5 million new jobless claims; this would prove optimistic.

Critical Inquiry