Abstract: This article examines the relevance of Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague, for understanding the rationales and actions taken by state actors in the CoVid-19 crisis. Because the novel holds special meaning for street-level public service personnel and also remains a very popular novel in general, this paper examines, in particular, how Camus’ work helps us schematize the nexus between intensified public pressures and political posturing, on the one hand, and the ethical and ontological dilemmas for public servants, on the other. This paper examines, in particular, how resistance by the demos to the fiat power of unaccountable agencies captured by supranational institutions has only conscience to rely on. The crucible of that conscience is given account here.
“In prisons, before they give you a lethal injection, they swab your arm with alcohol!” ~George Carlin.
Within weeks of the Coronavirus quarantine, quick pundit commerce emerged across major daily news outlets, pressing Albert Camus’ classic parable on pestilence, The Plague (first published in 1947), into service explaining all things SARS-CoVid-2. Writing at the beginning of the quarantine in the Wall Street Journal, Landon Jones (2020) notices — with a nod to matter that writers about public administration have grappled with since at least mid-20th century — that, as in the novel, so with our current circumstances: an inchoate public fails to fully comprehend what’s happening, disputes casualty figures, then blames and abuses officials as their world unravels. When the plague finally lifts at the end of the novel the public is seized with euphoria but by little wisdom. At the center is the wary public servant knowing that what happened could resume any time. Caution, restraint and patience seem called for. Citing the line given by Camus to the novel’s protagonist (but, fashionably Wall Street Journal, stripped of the novel’s gravitas and pathos), Jones finds that, “The only means of fighting a plague is common decency” (para. 9).
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Stephen Metcalf (2020) extracted from his reading of The Plague the coming of another “universal reset”, the last one happening just after WWII. From Camus:
“What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest — health, integrity, purity (if you like) — is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter” (Camus, 1991, p. 253). For Metcalf (2020): “The market, it turns out, is a virtual synonym for lack of public vigilance. In response to our plague, there will be yet more tax cuts; already there are reports of insider trading among lawmakers; our healthcare system is in shambles. The machinery of global capital has gone quiet, and we find ourselves half-abandoned, each to our own little mindful solaces.” (para. 11).
In this reading (with distinctive relevance for academics trumpeting “the New Public Service”), the reset we face this time is to reckon with that great slackening of collective attention (a dereliction of vigilance) while mighty moneyed interests gathered over decades (their virulence increasing) to dismantle virtually all of the advances made for assuring the public some protection against the scourge (plague) of capitalism unleashed into every precinct of our lives.
For author Alain de Botton (2020), writing in the New York Times, Camus intended a disputation on human frailty in the face of any given catastrophe that takes us unawares. “He was drawn to his theme because he believed that the actual historical incidents we call plagues are merely concentrations of a universal precondition, dramatic instances of a perpetual rule: that all human beings are vulnerable to being randomly exterminated at any time, by a virus, an accident or the actions of our fellow man” (para. 4). Rich and poor, old and young, haves and have-nots, according to this perspective, are all radically equal before the eyes of universal, indifferent chance; an outlook not far from New Public Management predilections that demands upon the state are, everywhere, radically equivalent, streaming as if through an always continuous present tense.
With the chops to write about this work in the context its author’s oeuvre and artistic arc, Roger Zaretsky (2020) explains how, where and when the central motif of Le Peste very likely germinated. It was 1941. Camus had recently moved to a French provincial mountain town, convalescing for tuberculosis. He had, at the time, been grappling intellectually with overcoming a central preoccupation of his work up to that point, one familiar to the Stoics writing two millennia earlier: life presents us with perpetual assaults — an unrelenting parade of absurdity — upon our dignity, security, hopes, resolve, convictions, esteems and so on. Though coming to terms with this condition may be essential for living the “examined life”, awareness of this absurdity is no substitute for purpose, which no life worth living can escape. Camus had already commenced note-booking his thoughts in this regard prior to his arrival in Le Panelier, a mountain hamlet tucked away in the highland region of Southern France. Nearby there was being enacted, from under the nose of the Nazi occupation’s assaults of all kinds, one man’s extraordinary purpose.
One cannot help but wonder if [Camus’] sight was sharpened by events in the nearby village of Chambon-sur-Lignon. Led by its pastor, André Trocmé, this mostly Protestant village saved the lives of more than 3,000 Jewish refugees during the war. When a Vichy official demanded to know if Trocmé was hiding Jews, the pastor replied: “We do not know what a Jew is. We know only men”. Camus never revealed what he knew about Chambon, but it is telling that the village’s doctor was named Rioux. (Zaretsky, 2020, para. 3)
However it actually happened, Bernard Rieux became the central protagonist of the novel, a doctor of internal medicine made captive by the descent of plague on the Algerian coastal city, Oran. The opening pages present the reader an acidly unflattering portrait of the city; a place consumed with the banal, restless pursuit of creature comforts. “It has a smug, placid air and you need time to discover what it is that makes it different from so many business centers in other parts of the world. How to conjure up a picture, for instance, of a town without pigeons, without any trees or gardens, where you never hear the beat of wings or the rustle of leaves — a thoroughly negative place” (Camus, 1991, p. 3). The reader’s sympathies are put immediately on notice: beware of cheap sentimentality, all who venture further.
The first rat corpse makes appearance on p. 7 (of the Vintage International edition), kicked inadvertently by Rieux as he exits his apartment onto stairway landing, continuing downstairs. “Only when he was stepping out onto the street did it occur to him that a dead rat had no business to be on his landing”, at which point Rieux turns back to inquire with the Concierge about the rat’s appropriate disposal. Initially dismissive, the Concierge suddenly becomes “genuinely outraged.” Camus’ portrait of the Concierge, we soon realize, stands in for the city at large. “In vain, the doctor assured him that there was a rat, presumably dead, on the second floor landing. [The Concierge’s] conviction was not to be shaken. There ‘weren’t no rats in this building,’ he repeated, so someone must have brought this one from outside. Some youngster trying to be funny, most likely” (Camus, 1991, pp. 7-8).
Here is a place where the direst portents have provenance beyond the ken and compass of its inhabitants; matter with which countless street level public servants have contended, and for whom Camus’ novel holds special meaning. For Camus and more than a few public administration theorists (cf. Farmer, 1995, 2005; Patterson, 2001, 2003; Catlaw, 2007; Stout, 2012, 2019): Ontologically prior to how public policy is anywhere formulated — ad prius the dilemmas canonized in the intellectual debates (1935-1941) between Herman Finer and Carl Friedrich over the ordinal allegiances public servants are obliged by — there is sorted out from within the soul and psyche of public administrationists everywhere just what purposes they are to fulfill.
This paper is organized around an exploration of these purposes, utilizing key features of Camus’s character development for comparing the novel’s philosophical treatment of existential crises imposed on (fictive) state actors under emergencies with how such (actual/current) actors have responded to the CoVid crisis. The paper’s following section introduces the two central characters and key plot points of The Plague, with correspondence drawn to the continuous present of Pandemia. The next section incorporates Michel Foucault’s theory of governmentality and how this helps illustrate governance initiatives under the current crisis. The penultimate section examines how the current crisis illustrates axioms of biopolitics and biopower. The concluding section summarizes the bases for caution in relegating crisis management to narratives of fear and control.
Much has been made for and against The Plague being allegory on the Nazi occupation of France and the influence this period must have had on its author’s artistic development. As Zeretsky (2020) points out, Camus was adamant that the book’s symbolism was “polyvalent”, to be understood, as Camus himself explained to the literary theorist and critic, Roland Barthes, “at several levels”. These levels register, on the one hand, with the rich characterization of the central character ensemble, whose circumstances, foibles and dilemmas unfold with the emerging crisis they encounter together: unique and particular on the one hand, then becoming shared and timeless as the singularity of their conditions presses upon them. One can imagine (the very real) Rioux, aware of his town’s pastor’s actions, realizing there will be no escape for the captive conscience; there will be no innocent bystanders, only lapses of attention, for which there will be a reckoning. Camus decompresses that realization, deriving from the glance of the universal, captive onlooker — the Rioux wherever we find him — a canvas made into novel.
The aloofness the novel takes until very late in the story about what, exactly, demands the attention Camus intended to explore, may partially explain its enduring relevance and popularity. The reader is lured and compelled by the relationships in the novel, each enfolding the crisis as much as, if not more so than the crisis, itself, enfolds the characters. Camus interposes this ambiguous focus onto the central relationship of the story: between the wearied but implacable physician pressed into public service, Rieux, and he who would become the doctor’s constant companion and inadvertent muse, Jean Tarrou.
The first verb attributed to Tarrou is telling: we encounter him “gazing down at the convulsions of a rat dying on the step in front of him” (Camus, 1991, p. 13), entrance to the same apartment building where Rieux lives. Tarrou’s origins and background are not fully disclosed until late in the novel. Early in the story we learn that he enjoys the bohemian company of dancers and actors and spends a great deal of time at the beach. Mostly, he is an observer whose notebooks offer indispensable chronicle of plague. “But,” as the narrator reveals, “an unusual type of chronicle, since the writer seems to make a point of understatement, and at first sight we might almost imagine that Tarrou had a habit of observing events and people through the wrong end of a telescope” (Camus, 1991, p. 24). Tarrou pays close attention, it appears, but as if from a distance. From early in the novel:
“In those chaotic times he set himself to recording the history of what the normal historian passes over. Obviously we may deplore this curious kink in his character and suspect in him a lack of proper feeling. All the same, it is undeniable that these notebooks, which form a sort of discursive diary, supply the chronicler of the period with a host of seemingly trivial details which yet have their importance, and whose oddity should be enough to prevent the reader from passing hasty judgment on this singular man.” (Camus, 1991, p. 24)
Camus expects his readers to see past trivial surfaces.
Late in the novel, as prelude to its most famous passage, Tarrou reveals to Rieux his raison d’être, carefully turning the telescope around and onto himself. He tells Rieux that his father held a high post as a prosecuting attorney and that Tarrou’s formative experience, coming of age at 17, was hearing his father’s argument in court for the capital punishment of a defendant, “telling the jury that they owed it to society to find him guilty; he went so far as to demand that the man should have his head cut off” (Camus, 1991, p. 248). By 18, Tarrou had turned radical: “To my mind the social order around me was based on the death sentence, and by fighting the established order I’d be fighting against murder” (Camus, 1991, p. 250). He joined like-minded others, spending years in joint ventures, telling Rieux, “there’s not a country in Europe in whose struggles I haven’t played a part. But that’s another story” (Camus, 1991, p. 250).
Tarrou is revealed to us here for his partisan soul (and very likely as avatar for the author, himself), now finding himself captive as if again in the thrall of his father at court, this time witnessing death sentences that only appear to be indiscriminate. From Tarrou’s standpoint he has been fighting plague since he came of age. Realizing at some point that his own actions were complicit in murder (“approving acts and principles that could only end that way” (Camus, 1991, p. 251)) he discovered that “we can’t stir a finger in this world without the risk of bringing death to somebody” (Camus, 1991, p. 252). Then comes the novel’s intricate rendering of purpose. Perhaps first drawn by Camus from his awareness of (the nonfictional) Rioux, Tarrou declares to Rieux that this epidemic has taught him nothing new, “except that I must fight at your side” (Camus, 1991, p. 253).
“I know positively — yes, Rieux, I can say I know the world inside and out, as you may see — that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him. What is natural is the microbe. All the rest — health, integrity, purity (if you like) — is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention. And it needs tremendous will-power, a never ending tension of the mind, to avoid such lapses. Yes, Rieux, it’s a wearying business, being plague-stricken. But it’s still more wearying to refuse to be it. That’s why everybody in the world today looks so tired; everyone is more or less sick of the plague.” (Camus, 1991, p. 253).
Here is Camus’s iconic portrait of “reflexivity”, inspired by his intellectual devotions to Stoicism, drawn decades before that ethical trope would captivate so much attention by post-modern feminism, public administration theory and legal studies in race and racism. Published in 1947, poised like a fulcrum balancing the apex and nadir of an era (nominally “late Modernism”), Camus’ “polyvalent” novel imparts a faceted surface to the torment of plague. Tarrou emerges here as Rieux’s shadow, discovering how social contradictions and hypocrisy can become plague-like, seizing up as if from nowhere (everywhere) but with a provenance (virology) that can and must be interrogated so that every precinct of awareness might not succumb to doubt and despair; pestilence terrifying and bewildering the masses while summoning and sharpening sensibilities of those for whom witness and vigilance are the necessary but not sufficient conditionality of purpose.
The purpose derived within the novel may be timeless for its summons to courage and conscience, but it is pegged against a particular administrative and institutional context. Camus makes this point of reference clear by the disclosure of Tarrou about his coming of age. Neither capital punishment nor coming of age rebellion are particularly unique to the “Modern Age”. Camus’ summons to the reader seems nonetheless clear: comprehending Le Peste requires some interrogation about the administrative state in the continuous present, besides its monopoly of violence (epitomized by death penalty).
Doing intellectual justice to Camus’ intentions means interrogating how he would himself read (or write) his novel today. What attributes of prevailing administrative arrangements have changed such that we’d expect Tarrou’s (and our own) outlook to be altered likewise? If writing today, how would Camus assign the ordinal points of his moral compass to state actors in the CoVid crisis? What pivotal moment would define Tarrou’s coming of age if he were our contemporary? Would Rieux emerge (again) as a stalwart and implacable public servant administering state sanctioned protocols? Or would he instead be whistleblower calling attention to state interests and action compromised by influences at odds with the will (and health) of the people?
This essay proceeds next with exploring the broad institutional arc giving shape to The Plague, and how the “structuration of power” within the epoch Camus wrote remains at least as pertinent for public administrationists to grapple with today as it was at mid-20th century.
First published in 1976, Michel Foucault’s The Will to Knowledge explores an earlier fulcrum moment in Modernism: the shift from the “juridico-discursive” to the “biopolitical” structuration of power; from a state preoccupied with negative and repressive functions (discipline and punishment) to a state reorganized for positive influence on life, “that endeavours to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations” (Foucault, 1990, 137). Rachel Adams (2017) distills how this biopower materializes:
“The new biopower operates instead through dispersed networks – what in Security, Territory, Population Foucault names the dispositif. This dispositif of power works from beneath, from the ‘level of life’ itself, and, as Foucault earlier described it in Society Must Be Defended, ‘[i]t was a type of power that presupposed a closely meshed grid of material coercions rather than the physical existence of a sovereign.'” (Adams, 2017, para. 5)
Where sovereign power is supreme, criminal conduct is a kind of infection construed as a direct trespass, transgression or threat against the symbol of the sovereign “body”. Where the sovereign is replaced by “the population”, threats to the state imperil the security of the (now) extenuated “body” of all. The sovereign is made diffuse, his will transformed into the ligaments of “governmentality”; his fiat authority converted into an “administrative state”. There emerges now the “at risk” population segment, where being “suspect” precedes any actual crime. “To be suspected, it is no longer necessary to manifest symptoms of dangerousness or abnormality, it is enough to display whatever characteristics the specialists responsible for the definition of preventive policy have constituted as risk factors” (Castell, 1991, p. 288).
As depicted by Camus, Tarrou’s father conducts himself as if prevention were not optional; rather, the punishment (and its shadow, discipline) is everything. Likewise with La Peste: the pathogen’s punishment is categorical/everything. Through the transmuting gaze of Tarrou it is the punishment (plague), itself, which must be eradicated:
“So that is why I resolved to have no truck with anything which, directly or indirectly, for good reasons or for bad, brings death to anyone or justifies others’ putting him to death. That, too, is why this epidemic has taught me nothing new, except that I must fight at your [Rieux’s] side.” (Camus, 1991, pp. 252-253)
Less and less preoccupied with direct physical reprisal for threats against the (literal) sovereign body, the state becomes more and more preoccupied with what Foucault called “the conduct of conduct” (the governance of behavior). This is a process of institutional formation first materializing with the Renaissance, clearly taking form in the 18th Century era of democratic revolution, then solidifying as the “liberalism” of the 19th Century nation state, where the fully enfranchised “citizen” could now be glimpsed, entitled to “inalienable” rights based primarily on explicit partitions between individual “liberties” and restricted state (once the sovereign’s) authority.
By mid-20th Century a new species of biopower was emerging. With the increasing imbrication between capitalism and the state, the social compact between a now fully integrated “administrative state” and “citizen” had again morphed. With greater enmeshment between private (corporate) interests and state authority, the imperatives of system security serving the interests of capital accumulation grew proportionately, capturing the attention of political scientists concerned with the increasingly close precincts — the “iron triangles” — emerging between corporate interests, senior federal administrators, and political actors.
With the “neo-liberalism” (also called “late capitalism”) of the latter part of the 20th Century, there emerged the popular trope that we are all, in the first and last place, our own “human” capital; the authors of our own brave new selves. Appearing in a collection of essays with Foucault published in 1991 (just a few years before the ascendancy of the “New Democrats” in the U.S. and “New Labor” in Britain), Gordon writes:
“The idea of one’s life as the enterprise of oneself implies that there is a sense in which one remains always continuously employed in (at least) that one enterprise, and that it is a part of the continuous business of living to make adequate provision for the preservation, reproduction and reconstruction of one’s own human capital.” (1991, p. 44)
Where each life, one at a time, has become the “enterprise of oneself”, the state’s role becomes increasingly esoteric. Castell (1991, p. 288) elaborates: “The modern ideologies of prevention are overarched by a grandiose technocratic rationalizing dream of absolute control over the accidental, understood as the irruption of the unpredictable. In the name of this myth of absolute eradication of risk, they construct a mass of new risks which constitute so many new targets.” (cf. Brown, 2015; Harvey, 2007)
The year later, 1992, authors David Osborne and Ted Gaebeler published their book, Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector, soon made by the Clinton Administration its talking-points manifesto, then narrative backstop for the inter-agency initiative, National Performance Review, and eventually translated into 20 languages. For the next twenty years, leading public administration journals were absorbed with exploring the premise — established and developed by Osborne and Gaebeler across 11 chapters and over 330 pages — that government legitimacy across all sectors faced a cascading set of crises (a.k.a— though not by these authors — as neoliberalism), for which the grafting of operational and mission-driven principles of the private sector onto the organizational performance cultures and fiduciary obligations of government was the antidote. Tucked 200 pages deep was the buried lead of the book, what would become anthemic of the reinvention creed, the title of Chapter 8: Anticipatory Government: Prevention Rather than Cure. Public administration scholarship would take a long, measured look at the tenets of government re-invention, producing scores of empirical studies.
Although there were some sharp critiques made of it, this canon never received the sustained, historiographic inventory of its assumptions that Foucault had sized up over the two previous decades: that umbilical to the ambitions of “anticipatory government” there had been (for some time already) emerging an epochal shift in the locus of government intentions and action. Under the auspices of “results oriented”, “customer-driven” and “enterprising government” (headings for Chapters 5, 6, and 7, respectively, of Reinventing Government), mainstream intellectual precincts of public administration began making room for the more profound ambitions of anticipatory government to gain traction and legitimacy: that ontologically prior to whatever was the people’s (always mercurial) will, there was the brave, new and emerging suite of purposes for government to fulfill. In this gambit, according to public administration theorist Thomas Catlaw (2007), the people’s will had been made subordinate to the intricate, mirrored fabrication of their interests.
By the turn of century, within issue after issue of public administration’s leading journal venues, the biopolitical project glimpsed by population management ambitions a century earlier had become ensconced under refurbished credo — New Public Management; its foundational tenets given devotional attention and bestowed substantial legitimation beyond the next decade.
The distant, precursor roots of preoccupation with all things anticipatory — a “rationalizing dream of absolute control” — began taking shape with the 19th Century crises and turbulence of mass internal migration in Europe from ancient rural enclaves to emerging urban centers, then the ensuing massive European emigration to, and industrialization within North America. The responsibility for addressing the human consequences of social disruptions, disorganization and perennial poverty before this era had fallen generally under the aegis of pious good works and charity on the acclaimed premise that all of God’s children were entitled to His beneficence and grace. The rise of industrialization and the massive material progress and social dislocations made possible by engineering and social sciences initiated increasing focus on population management and control. In an age soon utterly under the spell of Darwinism and colonial ambitions, the sorting and sifting of all life properties eventually consolidated under the new “science” of eugenics. With the rise of “Big Philanthropy” (Rockefeller, Carnegie, Du Pont, Kellogg, Sage, etc.), managing for “misfortune” now took on more and more biopolitical properties. In a 2013 essay for the The New Atlantis, William Schambra pinpoints “philanthropy’s original sin”:
“In their understanding of themselves, [philanthropic] foundations’ determination to reach root causes efficiently and scientifically came to distinguish American philanthropy from mere charity. The old, discredited charitable approach had taken too seriously and had wasted its time addressing the immediate, partial, parochial problems of individuals and small groups. Charity lacked the steely, detached scientific resolve to see through the bewildering, distracting, superficial manifestations of social ailments down to their ultimate sources, which we now had the power to cure once and for all.” (Schambra, 2013, p. 5)
As Schambra notes, the Harvard trained biologist, Charles B. Davenport, put the matter bluntly. Writing in 1910, Davenport lamented that “tens of millions have been given to bolster up the weak and alleviate the suffering of the sick” while “no important means have been provided to enable us to learn how the stream of weak and susceptible protoplasm may be checked” (Davenport, 1910, pp. 34-35). As he viewed the matter, “Vastly more effective than ten million dollars to ‘charity’ would be ten millions to Eugenics. He who, by such a gift, should redeem mankind from vice, imbecility and suffering would be the world’s wisest philanthropist” (Davenport, 1910, p. 35). Davenport’s gushing acclaim for the “world’s wisest philanthropist” soon emerged as the basic script behind the halo management of those who were otherwise ruthless captains of industry, reinvented under their foundation managements as sage and beneficent tribunes of security and progress.
To return to Camus’ protagonists: Under the conditions where corporate interests and stakes have primacy, where would Camus have derived his inspiration for the soul scouring resolve of Tarrou or the undaunted public service devotion of Rieux? Where corporate primacy reigns supreme and all life objectives are made subordinate to “the enterprise” (where the espoused “co-production” of public policy obscures real/actual standing and power), what is the likelihood of a Tarrou even showing up to give witness to and grapple with conscience and purpose? What would Camus say today about the threat of plague under conditions where the state has made itself propagator of the “gain of function” of contagious viruses (Deigin, 2020)? How would Rieux react to state initiatives in bio-weaponry? What position would Tarrou take towards bio-power?
From Demos to Bios
Following a speech given by Schambra in 2012 presenting some of the linkages between philanthropy and eugenics, the Council on Foundations took him to task for “sing[ling] out a shameful piece of global scientific history” to discredit all of philanthropy’s subsequent achievements, making clear that Schambra failed to “understand philanthropy’s value as part of a global ecosystem for greater good” (Spruill & Murphy, 2012, para. 5). Perhaps never in history has the acclaimed “global ecosystem for greater good” been in more bold relief for the seamless coordination between pillars in philanthropy and governmental authority worldwide than with the recent pandemic crisis, every facet of which is being administered by agencies with direct ties to our era’s most laureled paragons of the greater good, Bill and Melinda Gates. The World Health Organization (WHO) has remained a leading agency in coordinating the global response to the pandemic. According to their most recent donor report, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are second only to the U.S. government in largesse furnished WHO, supplying more in direct financial support than Australia, France, Canada, Germany, Russia and the UK, combined (Corbett, 2020).
Two groups exerted early and substantial influence for determining lock-down protocols in the UK and United States, then, subsequently, across the globe, both of which are recipients of substantial Gates funding. The Imperial College CoVid-19 Research team issued an early prognostication predicting 500,000 deaths in the UK and 2.2 million deaths in the US unless the strict government measures of social distancing were instituted, neither of which estimates have been remotely approximated or which definitively substantiate the advisability of social distancing as it has been administered (Adam, 2020). The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, headquartered in the U.S. state of Washington, the home of Microsoft, provided the data upon which the White House’s early estimates about the disease would be based. This year alone, the Gates Foundation gave $79 million to the Imperial College, and $279 million for the IHME (Corbett, 2020).
Gates funding first helped establish (with $750 million seed money) then massively subsidized the Global Vaccine Alliance (Gavi), with commitments now totaling over $4.1 billion. The vaccines market is predicted to reach $58.4 billion by 2024, an increase in nearly $17 billion in just five years (Anonymous, 2020). Gates donated $35.8 billion worth of his Microsoft stock to his foundation. Meanwhile, during the course of the “Decade of Vaccines”, according to Forbes Magazine, Gates’ net worth more than doubled, from $54 billion to $109.4 billion.
There is extensive, direct connection between state actors and governments and the global pharmacological campaigning around world health concerns. In 2010, Anthony Fauci was appointed by Bill Gates to the Leadership Council for the Decades of Vaccines collaboration spearheaded by Gates with UNICEF and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID, where Fauci has been Director since 1984). In January of 2017, seven years into that decade (and just days before Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20th), Fauci made the (now) seemingly prescient, but (then) ominous pronouncement in speech given at Georgetown University Medical Center: “There is no question that there will be a challenge to the coming administration in the arena of infectious diseases.” Since the outbreak, it has been Bill Gates, more than any government officials, who has been continuously featured in mainstream media with opinion about the imperatives for a CoVid vaccine, issuing talking points taken up by more than a few heads of state (Wintour, 2020).
Demands upon the administrative state for the underwriting of the kind of high risk investments only it can undertake — massive public works projects in health and sanitation, transit and transportation, utility and energy systems, housing and education provision, employment security, etc. — are balanced across a triple ledger: direct appropriation of energy and other raw resources required by the prevailing order of finance capital from extraction zones across the globe (made cooperative, one way or the other); consistently regressive taxation on industrialized labor populations; and less than visible class and status arrangements thereafter. The less than visible arrangements materialize in the first place as increased exposure to the externalities of industrialized production, always quickening under conditions of “globalization” and shed status-downward. Pollution, population displacement, resource depletion, ecological damage, and habitat destabilization (as with the staggering settlement pressures evident in the favela of Brazil, the banlieue in France, and the sprawling slum dwelling conditions in India) all make clear that the biopolitical “project” materializes as a “double movement”: officious proclamations are issued to redress “increasing insecurity” with “risk management” protocols that consistently propagate ever increasing insecurity.
The other face of the invisible arrangements entails the relinquishing of the very rights that formed the social contract of “freedom and liberty” in the first place, primary among which are privacy rights establishing a cornerstone development of Western thought for centuries now. How did the inalienable rights to personal dominion over the most intimate precincts of one’s self — centuries in the formation — pose at some point a major risk exposure for the system requirements of the biopolitical project? From the standpoint of the post-“9/11” zeitgeist that “security is freedom”, the answer to that question has been settled. From the standpoint of biopolitics the geist follows other lines of purpose. Viewed (evermore so) as an organism, itself, the state’s management of risks must extend, logically, to the cellular level; for the infinite scalar mutability of the “networked society” necessitates perpetual and total egress into the precincts of bios. In this schema, conscription for armed service is like the marshalling of an organism’s antibodies: essential to the state and non-negotiable by the demos.
Camus leaves ambiguous the basis of Tarrou’s father’s ideological orientation to state violence via death penalty. As punishment the sentence is, of course, oxymoronic except by proxy warning (discipline) for the demos. As instrumentality of biopower, the death sentence presumes that the deviant one poses an otherwise ineradicable threat to the body politic. By progressive reduction of this logic, the cellular level of life is just another frontier of precariousness; another dominion into which state authority is interposed on the acclaimed grounds of the (anticipatory) security of all, “the global ecosystem for greater good”. Pressed by system logic to its imminent telos, such an ecosystem must extend to all life precincts: from demos to bios. Retinal scans, total grid surveillance, subcutaneous digital identity chips and vaccination passports (forefront apparatuses of today’s biopower) all press state authority ever deeper and irrevocably beneath the will of the people, the demos; ushered forward as if a seamless response to the always incipient emergency or system exigency (the questioning or dubiousness of which becomes just another risk to manage); always, as Foucault limned, via “a closely meshed grid of material coercions rather than the physical existence of a sovereign”.
In a piece published in Nature in 2017, Gavi CEO, Seth Berkley, announces under the title, “Immunization needs a technology boost”, the pressing need for and imminent emergence of a global digital identification grid devoted, valiantly, to the monitoring of the poorest and most vulnerable to pestilence and disease. Also in 2017, the consortium alliance “ID2020” formed, including the Rockefeller Foundation, Microsoft, Gavi and others, whose Manifesto opens: “Alliance partners share the belief that identity is a human right and that individuals must have ‘ownership’ over their own identity” (ID 2020, 2020, para. 1). As Berkley (2017) emphasizes in the Nature piece:
“Many relevant technologies are largely in place already. Big data, for example, can help public-health officials to anticipate the spread of disease and hone vaccination campaigns. Geospatial mapping and drones are already being used in Nigeria to identify communities that have not received polio vaccines, and in Rwanda to deliver blood needed for transfusions for mothers who haemorrhage [sic] after giving birth.” (Berkley, 2017, para. 6)
The provenance of “ownership” in this context is noteworthy, as is the context within which a symbiotic convergence between plague-abatement, vaccines, and digital-ID is now emerging. Gates has himself been instrumental in kick-starting and funding the research into the very type of digital certificates for vaccination he has been espousing now for months; certificates that may very well be utilized for broader, more integrated biometric ID in the near future. This quantum level, phase upgrade in biopower is taken up in a July 2020 Briefing Paper issued by the World Economic Forum entitled, The Internet of Bodies is here: Tackling New Challenges of Technology Governance.
Recent technological advancements have ushered in a new era of the “internet of bodies” (IoB), with an unprecedented number of connected devices and sensors being affixed to or even implanted and ingested into the human body. […] The IoB generates tremendous amounts of biometric and human behavioral data. This is, in turn, fueling the transformation of health research and industry, as well as other aspects of social life, such as the adoption of IoB in work settings, or the provision of new options for entertainment – all with remarkable data-driven innovations and social benefits. (Liu, 2020, p. 7)
While calling out how this development “raises new challenges for data governance that concern not only individual privacy and autonomy” (Liu, 2020, p. 7), the thrust of the Briefing Paper makes clear that IoB will deliver inestimable benefits for the very reason that it transits in biopower.
Drawing from the work of author Patrick Zylberman (2013) in historical epidemiology, the acclaimed Italian political theorist, Giorgio Agamben (2020) recently writes:
“At issue is nothing less than the creation of a sort of “health terror” as an instrument for governing what are called “worst case scenarios.” It is according to this logic of the worst that already in 2005 the World Health Organization announced “2 to 150 million deaths from bird flu approaching,” suggesting a political strategy that states were not yet ready to accept at the time. Zylberman shows that the apparatus being suggested was articulated in three points: 1) the construction, on the basis of a possible risk, of a fictitious scenario in which data are presented in such a way as to promote behaviors that allow for governing an extreme situation; 2) the adoption of the logic of the worst as a regime of political rationality; 3) the total organization of the body of citizens in a way that strengthens maximum adherence to institutions of government, producing a sort of superlative good citizenship in which imposed obligations are presented as evidence of altruism and the citizen no longer has a right to health (health safety) but becomes juridically obliged to health (biosecurity).” (Agamben, 2020, para. 1)
In the July 30, 2020 print edition of the New York Times, there appears a story under the headline, “Children carry COVID-19 virus, Small Study Finds”, claiming that high viral loads in children (found from a small study at Lurie’s Children Hospital, in Chicago) furnish further warrant for suspending classroom openings this fall. Like so many similar pieces published in major news venues, this piece journalistically (as opposed to any kind of peer review) inflates the relevance of essentially anecdotal evidence while seamlessly eliding evidence to the contrary (as with studies in Germany and Sweden).
Writing The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, in 1954, Camus glimpsed what Giorgio Agamben and others now understand to be the global, epochal transformation into a world governed according to the system logic of a closely meshed grid. In the essay, State Terrorism and Irrational Terror, he writes: “Irrational terror transforms men into objects, ‘planetary bacilli,’ according to Hitler’s formula. It proposes the destruction, not only of the individual, but of the universal possibilities of the individual, of reflection, solidarity, and the urge to absolute love” (Camus, 1991a, p. 183). In the exchange between them (cited above) when Tarrou discloses his weariness for being “plague-stricken”, Rieux responds a few pages later: “But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man” (Camus, 1991, p. 255). Given at this penultimate moment in the novel, Rieux’s response to Tarrou seems redolent of the reply given by Trocmé to the Vichy official demanding to know if he was hiding Jews: “We do not know what a Jew is. We know only men”. In The Plague, Camus parses Trocmé’s assertion here in absentia, finding that to “know” humanity requires encounters between radically equal interlocutors.
As if the high-pressure center of a storm system, Rieux transits the narrative with a subdued radiance, a preternatural calm. He is dutiful and self-abnegating, possessed of extraordinary fortitude and determination and capable of tender affection; formative virtues of a text-book stoic. But without Tarrou literally and otherwise at his side, Rieux is as if an outline not filled in, the more so when we discover at the end of the novel Rieux’s full identity. Through Rieux we are given by Camus the portrait of the “superlative good citizenship” that Agamben (and Tarrou) understands to be problematic when “imposed obligations are presented as evidence of altruism and the citizen no longer has a right to health (health safety) but becomes juridically obliged to health (biosecurity) [emphasis added].” Only when joined by Tarrou is Rieux given to comprehend his role to be more than perfunctory, more than by-the-book or beneath the authority to challenge or question. Tarrou must “fight at [Rieux’s] side” not in deference to the doctor’s expert authority or as subordinate to prevailing medical praxis. When comprehended within the circuitry of biopower, Tarrou’s character is as if a shadow presence, given body in The Plague by the canny semblance of its author.
That which Camus perhaps imagined (the real) Rioux to have contemplated but never, himself, could exchange with Trocmé is drawn out by the author upon the canvas of the novel: neither solitary, stolid contemplation nor superlative good citizenship will ever be sufficient for meeting the kind of purpose Camus has in mind. When imperceptive of the shadows at our side and, for that matter, continuously bereft of devoted interlocutors disposed to question the provenance of ordained purposes (the Tarrous otherwise among us), we, the public and our servants, alike, are perpetually at risk of succumbing to the injunctions of prescribed virtues and repetitive superlatives. Here is moral and phenomenological residue not sifted in the classic administrationist debate between Carl Friedrich and Herman Finer (occurring the decade before The Plague was first published) for how public servants must weigh the relative influences on policy implementation of political control from above and bureaucratic culture from below; prior to and interstitial of which is the structuration of biopower.
Such residue is the dispositif (in Foucault’s parlance) of a “closely meshed grid of material coercions”, continuously conveyed to us (all) as if injunctions upon our conscience; that much more compelling for being issued in lieu of a physical sovereign. These imperatives seem always as if suddenly surrounding us, binding every coordinate of our identity and security with a sense of purpose forever receding from view, and even then as a blur — fleetingly, as if from a rearview mirror. For at some point, sooner than later, the next emergency or inscrutable exigency will befall us. As such, it is perhaps explicable why Camus takes his time in the novel with revealing Tarrou’s true purpose vis-à-vis Rieux. The slow, drumbeat pace of the novel — its intricate chronicle of mundane statistics, the minutia of symptom descriptions and calibrations of quarantine parameters, all made heavier by withering heat and humidity — makes imperceptible when, precisely, Camus’ tailored fit between shadow and outline is complete; a liminal space mirroring how (otherwise imperceptible) sequences and circuits of biopower prevail more and more seamlessly beneath the will of the people.
This essay opens with the dark comic irony of a prisoner swabbed with alcohol before being administered a lethal injection. Under global conditions now binding the “body of citizens in a way that strengthens maximum adherence to institutions of government” (from Agamben, cited above) with unprecedented capacities for power to work from beneath the public’s will—from “the level of life”, itself—how to approach being plague-stricken may now demand a vigilant dubiousness of the acclaimed intentions state actors make. Ironic sensibility and studious skepticism might be the most essential inoculation, if not purpose, for a world more and more beset with increasingly plague-like conditions, if not the real thing, itself.
- See Carlin (1999). For full transcript:https://scrapsfromtheloft.com/2017/04/06/george-carlin-you-are-all-diseased-transcript/
- Metcalf’s call came months before virtually the identical call by the World Economic Forum. See:https://www.weforum.org/great-reset/
- For an account of Camus’ work on Nazism and correspondence of this with*The Plague,*see Sharpe (2016).
- See Foucault (2009).
- See Foucault (1990), p. 137.
- See Foucault (2003), p. 36.
- Al Gore assumed the lead role in the talking-points tour of 1993, appearing onThe Late Showwith David Lettermen, famously announcing the astronomical prices paid under procurement contracts by the military for hammers and toilet seats. For retrospectives on the Reinvention movement, see Clark (2013) and Buntin (2016).
- For 2010 estimate, see:https://web.archive.org/web/20100924204343/https:/www.forbes.com/profile/bill-gates/. For 2020 estimate, see:https://www.forbes.com/profile/bill-gates/#3f37e948689f
- See Davis (2007), and also:https://www.panoramas.pitt.edu/art-and-culture/telling-story-favelas-through-art-and-literature,https://unherd.com/2018/09/french-elite-ignores-apartheid-banlieues/, https://www.businessinsider.com/aerial-drone-photos-mumbai-extreme-wealth-slums-2018-9.
- For review of urban planning scholar Manuel Castell’s formative work in this area, see:https://www.hiig.de/en/revisiting-castells-network-society/.
- See Keck (2015) for review.
- For July 31, online version of theNew York Timespiece, see: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/health/coronavirus-children.html. For German and Swedish studies, see, respectively: https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2020-07-13/german-study-shows-low-coronavirus-infection-rate-in-schools and https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-sweden-schools/swedens-health-agency-says-open-schools-did-not-spur-pandemic-spread-among-children-idUSKCN24G2IS:
- For scholarly assessment of elite, “technocratic” driven influence of global electronic media, see Broudy and Arakaki (2020).
- This quality may explain why, according to Zeretsky (2020), Camus was himself quite critical of his work on the novel even up to its publication, confiding to his friend and novelist, Louis Guilloux, that he had written a “livre manqué” (work/effort gone wrong, unfulfilled). Other critics were similarly harsh, finding the novel as excessively moralistic or even “grey and heavy”.One reviewer condemned the novel as “the dullest of Camus’s books”. For more, see Zeretsky (2020).
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