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#COVID19: Translating a pandemic politically (3)

The new experience that has replaced dignified suffering is artificially prolonged, opaque, depersonalized maintenance.

Ivan Illich, Medical Nemesis

Originally published by Autonomies


If political sovereignty is defined by the decision on the exception (Carl Schmitt), on what is to be excluded from and included within the domain of law, modern sovereignty’s decision is inherently biopolitical, for the included is defined as much, and is increasingly so, by the immunity of a population against the biologically threatening that is excluded (Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, Roberto Esposito).  Law and medical knowledge and practice steadily coincide.  What is “healthy” becomes what is “legal”.


Biopolitics is the political expression of capitalism, a social form centred on the unlimited extraction of energy from life and its control through forms of the managed circulation of commodities.  Oppression and exploitation, in all of their many changing forms, are but the techniques of extraction and the modes of governmentality that pass under the antiseptic term of “economy”.


The colonisation of life under capitalist social relations calls for a “healthy” population, requires its “protection” against threatening “illness”, judged by measurements of risk.  As “zero risk” for a population is impossible to secure, these same social relations sift and select out those deemed “unfit” in parallel and overlapping politics of hierarchy (of class, race, sex, ethnicity, etc.: energy extraction is intensified by the unequal distribution of (energy) costs for the production of commodities and the reproduction of capitalist social relations) and necropolitics (those whose “energy” is in excess or useless may be left to die)(Achille Mbembe).


The extraction of energy from human life (through labour exploitation, hierarchisation and segregation, “unpaid labour”, consumption, and the like) crafts that same life as exploitable.  Subjectivities of oppression and exploitation are created through the same processes and apparatuses of energy extraction.  Capitalist “subjects” want to work, to consume, to be protected against whatever threatens them, for their identity as individuals is an essential product of capitalist social-political relations, even if this same crafting renders the ideology of the individual purely fictional.  There is accordingly a demand for the State, for state protection, and a desire for the benefits which accrue to passive pleasures.


Capitalism functions as a religion, in the sense of it involving sacralising rituals or cults: capitalist social relations create sacred and inviolable realities (the State, law, sovereignty, commodities, etc.), divorced from the profane activities necessary for their creation.  Incapable of sanctifying anything of intrinsic value (and thus devoid of dogma), the sacred is what is put into “economic” circulation, that which is valuable only insofar as it is held in the perpetual movement of exchangeable, monetary value (regardless of its usefulness, or its beautygoodness or truthfulness).

Capitalism is therefore equally a religion without hope or mercy; it can only promise the continuation of the same, with no end in sight for the need to labour and consume.  To desire otherwise is to be sick.

And all talk of atonement, salvation, the end of history/slavery is rendered incomprehensible.

Between the need for work and the fleeting pleasure of possessing the “New”, there is but despair.

“Capitalism is entirely without precedent, in that it is a religion which offers not the reform of existence but its complete destruction.” (Walter Benjamin, “Capitalism as Religion”)


Under the reign of capitalist biopolitics (and what the COVID-19 pandemic makes all too evident) the religion of capitalism is bound to the religion of science, or more precisely, to that of medicine.  Again, what is at stake is not theory or dogma, but cultic practice; in this instance, practices that will supposedly assure the “well-being” of physical life, that is, those conditions of the human population that will guarantee the continuous and expanding extraction of energy.

Medicine’s intervention, as religion, is not the occasional visit of the family doctor, but a permanent, medicalised surveillance and control of populations.  Medicine becomes fully political, or politics entirely medical, as the exception is now defined biologically and by the modes of social behaviour which protect and maintain “health”.

Social distancing, masks and gloves, quarantines, temperature checks and generalised testing for infection, mobile telephone tracking apps, are the new ritual markers and gestures of the medical religion.  And these rituals are mandatory, with heresy and apostasy being paid for with fines and imprisonment, and even death. 

With the death of God, what the cultic practices of the medical religion sacralise are population groups, groups that must be controlled and immunised, as well as excised, with nothing to await beyond themselves.


There is no promised end to the new, state-medical exception; no salvation within the new religion, for the crisis is now permanent.  Even should the coronavirus be finally domesticated, others lie in wait to assault us in turn at the ever receding borders of capitalist expansion, which are as much outside us as within us.

Medicine “is the religion of a world that feels as though it is at the end and yet is not in a position, like the Hippocratic doctor, to decide whether it will survive or it will die.”

Giorgio Agamben, Medicine as Religion

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