Biopower and the “New Normals” of COVID-19

Jordan Liz

Assistant Professor of Philosophy, San Jose State University 

Everyday it seems a new headline or a different politician draws attention to how COVID-19 has disrupted society and impacted everyone’s life – how it has ushered in a “new normal.” For many, this “new normal” is the site of despair and anguish. It is a sudden and unwelcome interruption to their projects and engagements. For these people, the “new normal” serves as a novel source of stress and anxiety over what will happen to them, their loved ones, the nation and humanity.  

For others, it is a reason for hope. It is important to note that the “new normal” of life during the pandemic is temporary. There is also the “new normal” that will emerge if society is able to overcome this crisis. The current pandemic has made evidently clear the vast number of problems that plague our society- from economic inequalities, to the realities of racism and xenophobia, to the severe lack of social safety nets, among many others. At the same time, it has made clear that the “essential workers” have always been those that are most underpaid and underappreciated. COVID-19 has made these truths so obvious that, for some, it is impossible to imagine the future being merely a return to the social, political and economic inequalities of the past. 

Still, others are indifferent. Some envision the next “new normal” as being far more familiar, albeit with perhaps more opportunities for distance learning and remote working. Nevertheless, this current fascination with the “new normal” raises a number of immediate questions. Here, I will focus on two: first, what is the “new normal”? And second, how will the “new normal” of the future be decided? 

One key feature of the “new normal” is its emphasis on the singularity of norms. It presumes that there is a “new normal” during the pandemic that will be followed by a “new normal” if and when this crisis ceases. The claim is about a singular “new normal” that presumably everyone is now experiencing. But what is this? The threat of infection? Perhaps, but this is likely more pressing for the elderly and those who are immunocompromised than for those calling for the States to be reopened. Financial stability? Again, perhaps, but the economic realities of the pandemic have varied tremendously depending on whether one is already wealthy, able to work remotely from home, classified as an “essential worker” or currently unemployed. Loneliness? Maybe, but this too will be different depending on whether one is already living with others, accustomed to interacting with others virtually, is currently hospitalized, or is simply an introvert. 

At best then, it seems that we could only ever talk about a singular “new normal” at a very broad level. Even then, however, it seems to skew towards the concerns and experiences of some. This, I think, is both true and unsurprising. If nothing else, the current pandemic has shown the extreme differences between the lives of the haves and have-nots. In the US, it has always been the case that depending on a whole host of factors, such as race, class and gender, one’s “normal” experiences will differ significantly. The “normal” life of an upper-class White male is very different from that of the working-class Latina. In short, there is no singular “normal” US-American experience. 

But, if this is true, then why not speak of “new normals”? Now, perhaps, one could argue that the singularity is meant as unifying – as a symbol that we are all in this together, albeit six feet apart. That’s a nice thought, but it amounts to unity at the cost of non-recognition. And that is the problem. The French philosopher Michel Foucault argues that discourse, or the ways of speaking common to any social and historical period, are the byproduct of an entire network of knowledge and power. Among these is a form he calls biopower. Broadly speaking, biopower is aimed at the control and regulation of the life, health and reproductive capacities of bodies and populations. This management is achieved via a number of tactics, such as forced sterilizations, regulations on abortions, and even the current shelter-in-places orders.

Now, to maximize the health of the nation, biopower may seek to remove potential threats to its survival. Thus, biopower makes divisions between the ‘normal’ population that it must protect, and the population of ‘abnormals’ that endanger the survivability of the nation. This, of course, raises an immediate question: how can a State that is designed to protect life ever justify killing? For Foucault, the answer is simple: it kills via exclusion. Those deemed ‘undesirable’ are not allowed the same kinds of protections, opportunities and securities that the ‘normal’ population is. Such exclusions may take on multiple forms: exposure to toxic and unsafe working conditions for low-income workers, more police hostility in ‘violent’ Black communities, a border wall to keep out ‘dangerous’ undocumented immigrants, or even simply their erasure from discourse. 

And that is the point – the discourse of “new normal” emerges precisely at a time wherein many of the pre-existing inequities and injustices of our society have been made manifest. Yet, the “new normal,” while masquerading as inclusive, is not. Such erasures are apparent in, for example, the first waves of stimulus packages that immediately gave corporations millions in loans, while most families and individuals still wait to receive their one-time stimulus check and unemployment benefits. Or, the disproportionate media coverage given to people protesting the shelter-in-place orders compared to the far more organized rent strike movement. In all of these cases, a version of “normality” is being presupposed. It is “normal” to bail out corporations, but not citizens; it is “normal” for people to protest lack of freedoms, but not high cost of rent and the systematic financial insecurities that many people face. Indeed, even the idea of the “new normal” of COVID-19 being oppressive and repressive privileges the perspective of those who have never been oppressed or repressed. For Black and Brown people, who already had to be careful about how close to get to strangers lest they think they were about to get robbed, there is nothing new about social distancing. 

All of this has further implications for how we conceptualize the “new normal” of the post-COVID-19 world. There, again, the focus is on a singular “new normal.” But, singularity is not unity. Just like in the past, the future will contain many “new normals.” The question, then, should not be “what will the next ‘new normal’ look like?” but rather “what do we want the next ‘new normals’ to be?”  For Foucault, power relations are inescapable; but, they can change. Biopower itself is a relatively recent phenomenon on his account. That said, it does require effort. 

A better world is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, nor is it the byproduct of spontaneous generation. Emphasizing this is significant because much of the current discussion of the next “new normal” gives the impression of a powerless people trying to grasp at what the future will hold. This is not the time for nihilism or deterministic thinking. While the post-COVID-19 world is one not yet made, it is already being shaped by our current discourse and actions. Whether it turns out great, bad or just okay rests upon us. 

1 May 2020

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