Covid-19 and the security state

Photo by Marco Passaro

I was struck by something  David Runciman wrote recently in the Guardian in which he argues that the (UK) government’s response to Covid-19 reveals the true nature of politics, i.e. when it comes to it the state can exercise an incredible amount of power; it’s simply that most of the time we are oblivious to this. I guess the critical test is what happens when the crisis is over: will things revert to ‘business as usual’ or will we continue to live in a (relatively benign) form of police state?

Interestingly enough, I have just been reading Foucault’s series of lectures that he delivered in 1977-78 on ‘Security, Territory and Population’, where he explores the move from sovereign power to ‘governmentality’, which is essentially based on a combination of bio and disciplinary power.[1] Ironically (and prophetically perhaps) he uses the example of pandemics to show how there was shift in the way governments dealt with such problems over time.  In the Middle Ages, according to Foucault, lepers were subjected to exclusion, which were underpinned by a series of laws and regulations.  In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in the face of plague pandemics, there was a more disciplinary approach, in which populations were partitioned and regulated in order to control the spread of infection.  In the eighteenth century, and in context of dealing with smallpox outbreaks, Foucault argues that the focus was now on developing a system of epidemiology, a science of pandemics, in order to understand its spread, its mortality rate, etc. This is what Foucault would define as the shift to bio-power.

It seems to me that you have a good example of this when it comes to the way that states across the world are dealing with Covid-19.  Yes, there are laws and regulations to control people’s movements and in some cases to effectively exclude them from mainstream society; but the primary focus is on using epidemiology to manage the spread of the virus and to weigh up the various types of risk involved. In the case of the UK this is primarily about weighing up the risk of overwhelming the NHS with too many Covid-19 cases against the long-term socio-economic risk of maintaining the lockdown for any length of time.

However, there is another aspect to Foucault’s argument which perhaps deserves to be highlighted more. This is the idea of security (hence the title of his series of lectures). Foucault’s basic thesis is that we now live in societies that are primarily governed by technologies and mechanisms of security rather than societies governed by technologies and mechanisms of discipline and jurisprudence – although the latter are still relevant:

…we need only to look at the body of laws and the disciplinary obligations of modern mechanisms of security to see that there is not a succession of law, then discipline, then security, but that security is a way of making the old armatures of law and discipline function in addition to the specific mechanisms of security…What is involved is the emergence of technologies of security within mechanisms that are either specifically mechanisms of social control, as in the case of the penal system, or mechanisms with the function of modifying something in the biological destiny of the species.[2]

The reference to the biological destiny of the species brings us back to the question of bio-politics; the focus here is not on how the state disciplines individual subjects, individual bodies, but, rather, on how it manages whole populations. And the only way to achieve this is through the state having access to large amounts of data, more commonly known as statistics. The collection and analysis of such state data is the cornerstone of the security state. Clearly there still have to be mechanisms in place in order to physically (and ideologically) manage individual subjects within such populations, which is why technologies of discipline and jurisprudence are still necessary. However, and this is the key part of Foucault’s argument, ‘governmentality’ is no longer framed in terms of either discipline or jurisprudence, but in terms of ensuring the integrity of the state within a particular territory. As Foucault argues later in the seminar, the survival and integrity of the state has become an end in itself, rather than a means to an end.

Coming back to Covid-19, one of things that has struck me is that in spite of the all the criticisms of the UK government’s response to the crisis, how quickly (within a matter of days) Britain was effectively put on a total war footing and, as I noted at the start of this piece, moved towards what is essentially a form of police state; and all this with exceptionally high levels of acquiescence from the population. This is a graphic example, if ever one was needed, of bio-politics and the security state (in the Foucauldian sense) in action.

  1. Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population : Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-1978 (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Houndmills, 2007).
  2. Ibid, p.10.