Western societies have made themselves comfortable in the state of exception that the Covid-19 pandemic triggered. Policies that would have been unthinkable just a year ago are now not only politically feasible but fiercely supported by an exhausted population ready for anything to go back to its old life. However, as we are approaching the second anniversary of the Covid-19 pandemic, it appears clear that there is no going back to the old life. Green passes, perpetual vaccination of the population, and surveillance are going to contour our lives for the years to come.
Amidst panic and exhaustion, Western democracies started flirting with authoritarian methods legitimised by the science of experts and doctors whose allegiances are left unquestioned. Regardless of the fact that pharmaceutical companies keep spending billions on lobbying campaigns and the ongoing scandals that reveal these companies’ bullying tactics, nobody dares question Covid-19 policies. Whoever dares to doubt Covid-19 policies earns the reputation of a flat earther, a science denier, and conspiracy theorist who threatens the public good with their irresponsible stupidity.
How did we get to this point of polarisation? The Covid-19 pandemic has only brought to light an intellectual stagnation that has been going on for decades, and perhaps centuries — stagnation caused by the elevation of technical and practical thinking to the only matters worth considering. Pragmatism leaves no space for discussion nor ambiguities, and calculations are the compass that lead to truths only contestable through other numbers and statistics.
In limiting our perspective, pragmatism (or “purposive rationality” as Habermas would call it) also created a whole ideology that impedes us to accept the validity of any argument that does not follow the same narrow logic. As there are useful subjects, those oriented at the production of wealth, there are useless ones, too abstract to be considered more than mere intellectual games. This kind of mentality led to a hierarchical society of experts confined to their domains, at the top of which we find scientists. However, scientists themselves have not gained more authority over politics. If they had, perhaps we would not be struggling with climate change. Scientific discoveries are, depending on their integrability into the current power structures, treated like irrefutable truths or merely as opinions.
Traditionally thought of as the protectors of objectivity, scientists in this system become passive producers of legitimacy; and in the name of science, governments began to take decisions on all domains of our life. Although scientists themselves often remind the public of the constant evolution of science, the governments prefer to talk about science as a truth factory, from which they conveniently pick the product that aligns best with their ideas. The exponents of the Frankfurt school talked extensively about the rise of purposive rationality and their predictions turned out to be painfully accurate.
In this climate, the work of Michel Foucault and Jürgen Habermas, of a structuralist and of a critical theorist, have never been more needed. Although it may seem peculiar to juxtapose the theories of Habermas with Foucault’s because of their many divergences, I believe that they complement each other in many ways. The Foucault-Habermas debate frames their theories as incompatible, but I believe that a synthesis of their ideas provides a more complete perspective of the topic at hand.
While Foucault shows how science and knowledge provide the foundation for biopolitical practices, the work of Habermas helps us to see how purposive rationality came to colonise all aspects of life. By offering a reading of these authors and putting them in communication with the current situation, I hope to provide an account that avoids polarisation and entrenchment, and that stimulates an intellectual discussion that breaks free from the constraint of the dominant ideology.
Reading Foucault in the Time of Covid-19
Michel Foucault (1926–1984) is one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century, and after more than thirty years, his works continue to be strikingly pivotal to analyse contemporary societies. His theories on institutional control that investigate the relationship between power and knowledge are helpful to understand and see in a more nuanced way the policies that have been framing our lives in the past years.
Foucault was the first in identifying a biopolitical shift in modern politics, that is, an interest from the institutions in matters pertaining to the biological lives of individuals. According to Foucault, power relations act directly on the body of individuals: “The body is immersed in a political field”, and power is seen as “a political technology of the body”. In other words, biopolitics represents the relationship between power and the body, whereby the body becomes a target of power.
It is important to stress that Foucault frames power in the context of power relations and the instruments necessary for its functioning. He thus departs from the dominant positions on the problem of power that conceive of power as something imposed from the top down, or something that is possessed by some individuals. Power is rather understood as a strategy, a set of dispositions and techniques that emerges from networks of relationships. Power, therefore, is not exclusively given a negative meaning or as an obstacle to individual freedom, but power simply goes to constitute things.
In describing the practices of power, Foucault introduces the concept of governmentality, which is a combination of government and rationality. The term was introduced to problematize the concept of state power and seeks to answer the question “How are we governed?”. Foucault sees in the emergence of biopolitics a new “art of government” that operates through systematisation and science, the backbone of a pervasive logic that induces individuals subjected to it to self-governance.
It becomes clear that this kind of sovereignty needs to legitimise its practices by appealing to rational and scientific foundations. These foundations make up a regime of truth, the beating heart of political strategies in a biopolitical regime. Alongside biopolitics a net of technologies also emerged to make the control of people’s bodies and lives easier. This comes along with another characteristic of biopolitics, the disciplination of bodies and minds operated through surveillance and normalisation. This surveillance system appears as a space in which the bodies of individuals are subjected to constant control and end up adhering to standards that are subsequently internalised and perceived as free choices.
When Foucault talks about government through truth, he refers to a condition in which one does not come to doubt the rules and mechanisms of power exercised. The regime places individuals in a condition in which there is no questioning of the norms and mechanisms of power exercised. Reality as a whole becomes a representation of the emerging truth and the population becomes subservient to the truth. This is perhaps one of the most important lessons to be learned by Foucault. Power is not necessarily coercive; power can take a benevolent and natural form, and a subject regulated by a system of truths that appear to be natural and benevolent is not necessarily free.
Science as Ideology
The work of Foucault helps unveil the role that knowledge and science play in sustaining power and making it more pervasive. Enjoying a non-partisan status, science helps legitimize the state’s policies while educational institutions participate in the creation of a cohesive view of life, which is essential for maintaining power. In turn, the establishment of a truth regime, or a shared understanding of how things should be, pushes citizens to adopt self-regulating measures that align with what the state wants. In this way, power is exercised without being perceived by its subjects.
While Foucault provides a genealogical account of the rise of biopolitics and the symbiotic relationship between power and science, it only partly explains how science gained its hegemonic position in all domains of life. The work of Jürgen Habermas on advanced capitalism provides further insights into the role that science plays in contemporary societies and in our current situation.
In his studies, Habermas compared pre-capitalist and capitalist models of production and observed that, in the former system, rationality never became an open threat to the authority held by cultural traditions. Traditions continued to provide legitimacy to the state and its domination. This state of affairs changes in capitalist societies as the traditions that legitimise domination and guide action lose their cogency in relation to the new criteria of rationality.
In this dynamic, Habermas sees the formation of an ideological tendency of science as an institution determined by two fundamental evolutions of 20th-century society, namely the growth of state intervention to stabilise the system of production and the growing interdependence between research and technology.
According to Habermas, the growth of state intervention leads to a new dimension of politics which is no longer directed towards the realisation of practical ends, but towards the solution of technical problems. Actions are oriented by what Habermas calls “purposive rationality,” a strategic, instrumental, and utilitarian thinking typical of scientific and technical subjects. When this kind of rationality colonises the lifeworld, that is the political and social domains of life, political and social problems are articulated as technical problems that do not require public discussion and thus depoliticise the population.
The ideological character of science in late capitalism according to Habermas resides both in the fact that programmed scientific-technical progress becomes the primary productive force, constituting the foundation of legitimacy and in the fact that this technocratic consciousness eliminates the differentiation between practice (praxis) and technique (techne). This means that the affirmation of science in a social system requires, on the one hand, that the results and methods of science satisfy particular values typical of the society under examination, and, on the other, compatibility between the sentiments included in the ‘scientific ethos’ (i.e. the set of norms that regulate the behaviour of scientists) and those that are characteristic of other institutions (political, economic, etc.).
Science, therefore, maintains its primacy in all domains of social life only because it is recognised by people as the main source of legitimacy. This, of course, came at an expense. Pragmatism and rational thinking became the two main criteria by which we orient ourselves in all domains of living with catastrophic effects on our political and social life. If pragmatism and rational thinking are good for technical progress and science, they are not as good for creating values and for giving a meaningful direction to our lives.
The transformation of Western societies caused a loss of meaning, identity, and purposeful existence that plunged the population into pervasive uncertainty regarding beliefs and values. It is no coincidence that in the 19th century the problem of the loss of meaning inaugurated a whole philosophical tradition destined to last well into modernity.
Habermas wants to show that there are limits to this reduction of practical problems to technical problems. The very solution of technical problems presupposes not only the development of the productive forces but also the development of the social conscience of the subjects, that is, the primacy of politics. He especially draws attention to the fact that, since the advent of positivism, the theory of knowledge has in fact been replaced by the theory of science; that is, all forms of self-reflection on knowledge and the knowing subject have ceased, and the assumption has been affirmed that only facts and the relations they determine count. This type of position has been affirmed both in the field of natural sciences through Peirce’s pragmatism and in the spiritual sciences through Dilthey’s historicism.
This approach has harmed scientific research by impeding a healthy reformation of the principles on which science stands. And by aggravating the schism between scientific and humanistic disciplines, it interrupted the process of cross-fertilisation which is indispensable to avoid intellectual stagnation. A radical critique of the sciences and their relationship to humanistic disciplines and their harmonious reintegration is thus the key to overcoming this stasis. It is only through this that we will be able to recognise the appropriate role that science should play in society and develop a holistic response to the complex problems that we are faced with.
A Habermas-Foucault Synthesis
Foucault’s and Habermas’ philosophies are very different when one looks at the objectives that they wanted to pursue and their normative outlook. But that does not preclude the possibility of taking the best of both worlds to create a mestizo, able to transcend the genetic limitations imposed by its progenitors.
As we have seen in the first section, knowledge is an aide to normalisation and helps to determine both how this should happen and how it is maintained. Knowledge does not only allow for the creation of a truth regime, but also for the implementation of a biopolitical apparatus that aims at the regulation of its population bodies, lives, and health.
With these insights that stem from the observation of behaviours, culture, and institutions, Foucault manages to uncover the subtle ways in which power shapes individuals and their actions and teaches us to look at what might appear as common sense with an inquisitive eye. In the context we find ourselves in, where a state of exception is slowly becoming normalised and a new truth regime is being established, Foucault’s remarks are of great inspiration. The questions that he helps us raise are: Are scientific truths really as super partes as they appear to be? In which way are certain narratives limiting our worldview?
Foucault stresses that power is neither good nor bad in itself but when accepted blindly it can become extremely dangerous. After 200 years of biopolitics, we have become so accustomed to self-regulation and compliance that critical thinking seems to have abandoned the public sphere. The astonishing obedience demonstrated by the population during the Covid-19 shows how docile and passive we have become. Despite the government’s contradicting claims on vaccines’ efficacy, number of contagions, and necessary measures, people simply kept their heads down. Nobody dares doubting the authority, not even when the authority seems to falter, why?
After interviewing people for the past year and a half on their experiences of Covid-19 as a researcher on SolPan, a comparative and longitudinal study, I have noticed that people tend to unquestionably trust experts and happily delegate to them. In itself, this is not a problematic behaviour. On the contrary, one may even argue that it is good. What is problematic, however, is that the lack of engagement with issues that are deemed purely technical or scientific makes us liable to policies that merely use science to legitimise themselves. Politics in fact, can easily hide behind science and feed off its allegedly super partes status. The idea that science does not become politics when translated into public policies is a great biopolitical triumph, and now is a threat to our political and public life.
While Foucault identifies science and knowledge as tools of power, he does not go as far as to describe the kind of rationality that supports science’s legitimising power. Habermas’ work addresses this question by showing not only how purposive-rationality came about and colonised all domains of social life, but also how it damaged politics and disenfranchised the population. When all political matters are framed as technical matters, the population is excluded from discussions over their future.
In the past two years we have witnessed the extent to which this approach has been adopted, as well as its consequences. Special committees of experts took decisions that affected the population both economically, socially, and psychologically without debates. This has been justified by the exceptional threat that the pandemic has triggered. All the while, the state of exception has become normalised, and with it paternalistic and technocratic practices.
The translation of technical and scientific issues into clear and understandable terms is essential to guarantee the active participation of the masses in decisions that affect them. This is not such a preposterous proposal since according to statistics: around 40% of the European population has completed tertiary education, while 70% completed secondary education. Never in history such high levels of education were achieved across the European continent. People have the intellectual tools to think and understand complex ideas but that is never asked of them. We often hear people arguing that if people were able to understand the state would not need to impose strict measures. But when they say understand, they mean obey. On the public level, there have not been attempts at explaining what makes Covid-19 vaccine different from other vaccines, how it works, nor its potential consequences. Citizens are treated like children, they are cut off from the adults’ talk because they are unable to comprehend. But what do states do to facilitate citizens’ understanding, to enhance their ability to think?
The works of Foucault and Habermas are incredibly useful for understanding how power and ideology limit our intellectual horizon. In these times of crisis and critical torpidity, these two authors provide us the tools to start questioning the reality we live in and prevent us from slouching our way into a dystopian future. It is painfully obvious that our societies are crumbling — economic, environmental, and social crises can be observed across the world. Western countries can still afford to live in their delusional state, but sooner than later we will all pay the consequences of our illusions.
The freedoms we give up today will not come back tomorrow
Three centuries after the beginning of Enlightenment, our societies could not look more intellectually stagnant. After having elected science and rationality as our new masters, we are slowly but steadily falling back into the laps of an authoritarianism fueled by bigotry and shortsightedness — a condition that we are enthusiastically embracing. The way the Covid-19 pandemic has been dealt with is yet another symptom that clearly shows our inability to think and reflect on the consequences of our actions.
The most worrying aspect of the way discussions over Covid-19 have turned is their incredible lack of depth and nuance. On the one side, there are those who are willing to give up all their constitutional rights and are ready to start an inquisition against those that deny science, that is, the truth regime. On the other, much smaller side, you find conspiracy theories of various kinds, anti-vaxxers, and some who do not belong to either extreme but are treated just as equally because they do not conform to the truth regime.
Despite the media representing the second group as a cohesive and evil sect, it is so inconsequential that you will find an article critical of Covid restrictions only if you look hard enough. For these reasons, it is a topic not worth expanding.
Those that belong to the first category seem to be affected by a Pollyanna syndrome that impedes them from seeing the dangers of uncritically accepting restrictive measures. As the French political scientist Oliver Nay wrote in a paper titled, “Can a virus undermine human rights?”:
“The risk is that fear could change the value that citizens accord to freedom. As global biological and environmental threats increase, citizens might be disposed to give up some of their constitutional rights. The aspiration to security can quickly erode the desire for freedom.”
So a question that people should ask themselves is: What future are we giving shape to with our actions? Is Covid the only threat to our existence?
The different value placed on personal freedoms in the face of fear of disease can undermine the very desire for democracy in favour of authoritarian measures legitimised by science and statistics. We are already experiencing this tendency in the ongoing discussions about vaccines and the fear that this regime will continue after the emergency is less dystopian than it might seem.
Twenty years after 9/11, the Patriot Act is still allowing security agencies to spy on every American without due process. Six years after the 2015 Paris attacks, an anti-terrorism law still reduces civil liberties by curtailing judicial oversight of security tools. What makes us think that with Covid measures it will be any different?
Emergency measures are introduced and then normalised, thus becoming part of the truth regime that we are all subjected to. What we lose today will not be given back tomorrow, or, as history teaches, not without blood.