On the Politics of Life

By Johan Filip Lokau

We are in the middle of a crisis; however, this is not only a crisis of the hospitals, not only a crisis of the economy, certainly not a crisis of the so-called “European solidarity”, it is also a crisis of politics and what we mean when we speak in political terms. The immediate cause of this crisis is a virus, most likely comparable to influenza, which has conjured up a potentially illegal reaction dedicated to destroying – or, for a time, at least drastically limiting – the social forms of existence we previously thought essential to maintaining our lives in a society. We cannot visit our churches, our children cannot go to school, we cannot partake in any form of public life, we can hardly even visit our friends, in the event of their deaths we cannot attend their funerals, and we cannot have rallies or demonstrations. That the actual danger of the disease is at least questionable, as well as the efficacy of the effectively dictatorial measures imposed, ought to be mentioned here, although this is not what I wish to write about. There is enough debate around this as is and I, not a medical expert or a mathematician, haven’t much to add. What I do wish to address are some of the political foundations and implications of the discussion concerning the Coronavirus, particularly in Germany, and the measures imposed to prevent its spread.

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Solitude

The most prominent term being thrown around the newspapers of late is “solidarity” (Solidarität). This “invisible bond among men”, which currently means “to be distant physically, while being all the while closer than ever before”, as our president puts it, apparently has the power to “keep us together as a society”, despite the fact that almost every actually social aspect of this society has been eradicated. Solidarity, however, is, in its very nature, political, and as such is only really present when the social bonds are left intact through which persons with political interests and ideas may organise and express themselves. Solidarity “is able to comprehend a multitude conceptually”, as Hannah Arendt writes. But simply because solidarity is able to comprehend a multitude, this does not mean that the person or group with whom one is solidary is totally arbitrary. Rather, solidarity is the ability to form “a community of interest” specifically “with the oppressed and exploited” or in other words with those who are not able to organise and express their political interests and ideas themselves or have failed in doing so. This community of interest may not be built on a shared material interest, which would be specific to the oppressed and hence not be able to “comprehend a multitude”, it must base itself on a shared idea. And it is through this idea, for instance the idea of freedom, that this solidarity may eventually be able to encompass “all of mankind”. Thus, one may declare one’s solidarity with the refugees currently being left to die on the Greek islands because, by virtue of their human dignity, they shouldn’t have to suffer being stateless and therefore basically rightless. But which group currently requires our solidarity, by whom is it being oppressed, and how may this help “keep us together as a society”? The examples given in the newspapers and in television of an alleged “solidarity”, such as students shopping for the elderly, are actually examples of general human kindness, of compassion, which may make people good Samaritans, but it does not make them a political force to be reckoned with. For compassion, as it is not bound to any ideas, is not able to “comprehend a multitude”, and is thus politically impotent.

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non political act

Nonetheless, it is precisely the elderly and the already sick for whom our solidarity is demanded. The oppressor, in opposition against whom we have a shared, supposedly political interest is the virus, and the idea is life, in and of itself. However, life is not an idea, life is as fact, of which the virus is just as much a part as the inevitability of death. Consequently, a society cannot be founded on an “idea” of life or on nothing but life’s preservation, lest this be a life totally bereft of content and therefore meaning. For life alone is simple: It obeys certain necessities, which an organised system can help fulfill. The principle of this form of organisation is then nothing but the same necessity which governs life itself. However, everything which actually makes us human, be that in art, philosophy or politics, springs from spontaneity, and therefore from freedom, and this principle of freedom exists, to a certain degree, in opposition to the necessity which governs life. All the commonplaces one hears in the discussion around the virus, especially from those who demand that the measures taken to prevent its spread go even further, nonetheless move in the same line of thought, that is: the invention of the virus as a political oppressor and the invention of life as an idea forming the basis of our political society.

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political oppressor

Some of the most prominent examples in Germany I was able to gather thusfar are, first, the moral war waged by those who were “reasonable” (vernünftig) enough to follow the measures currently imposed by the state before these measures were imposed at all. This is the war against the supposed “egoists” (Egoisten) and non-existent coronapartygoers. That reason cannot exist in the absence of society and the fact that, since it is the most reasonable thing in the world to seek out communication, the measures currently imposed appear, from the standpoint of reason, totally unnatural, is by these people left largely unregarded. It is, after all, totally absurd that someone who desires to meet and talk to, in person, those closest to him in a time like this is thought of as antisocial. For the physical experience of the person to whom one speaks is the only proof one has that what one is saying is not just going into thin air, that there is somebody to whom one speaks at all. Furthermore, as they have secured the moral high ground for themselves, through the alleged imperative of protecting the life upon which our society is supposedly built, these moralists have, in fact, exempted themselves from reasonable critique. For their moral imperative, life in and of itself, by virtue of existing prior to any conversation or communication, is non-communicative. It cannot be argued or reasoned with, nor will it allow anything to stand next to it. That even the German minister of finances, Olaf Scholz, seems to now partake in this totally flawed reasoning in his refusal to even talk about lifting the restrictions on public life “in the service of the economy” is shocking. That perhaps not the lives, but the social and economic existences of millions, maybe tens of millions, as well as the political foundations of our society, could be at stake if these restrictions are not lifted sooner rather than later seems to escape him.

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“in the service of the economy”

Second, there is the seemingly omnipresent metaphor of war. “Nous sommes en guerre, en guerre sanitaire certes. Nous ne luttons ni contre une armée ni contre une autre nation, mais l’ennemi est là, invisible, insaisissable, et qui progresse”, as Emmanuel Macron said. That “a war waged against an ennemi invisible is the most absurd of wars” was already correctly pointed out by Agamben, as well as the fact that this is not a war against a foreign aggressor, it is, in fact, a civil war, as the virus could be lurking within any one of us. Thus, each of us becomes an at least potential foe. However, this does not
describe a civil war in the ancient sense, in which there are two sides, one of which will, sooner or later, come out on top and found a new body politic. What is currently being waged is a civil war in the sense of Thomas Hobbes, where the difference between friend and foe becomes arbitrary and the reality is a return to the natural state of the bellum omnium contra omnes – the war of all against all. Everybody is, after all, a potential carrier of the disease. That this “Behemoth” of the civil war may only be defeated by the “Leviathan”, the state in which all individual wills to life are relinquished and the will of one, central agent stands in the place of the will of each individual, one can observe live, happening in our streets at this very moment. Except that, where the Behemoth for Hobbes was actually a civil war, from which the authoritarian state would have actually been a release, the Behemoth for us is the free state of society and the Leviathan not the release from nature into civil society, but from freedom into obedience.

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bad bad shepherd

That freedom, which actually forms the political basis of our society, should, in this context, be redefined to mean the freedom of the individual or personal liberty (individuelle bzw. persönliche Freiheit), seems quite natural. For, if one declares that the political basis of a society is life itself, which the state is entrusted to maintain for all its citizens, what then is freedom but an individual luxury that may be well and good when everything is running smoothly, but must be relinquished by the individuals at the first sign of trouble, lest they be “egoistical”. Thus, the discussion concerning the Verhältnismäßigkeit or the relation of means and ends of the current, dictatorial measures imposed has often been focused around the relation between individual liberty and what is referred to as the “common good” (Gemeinwohl), meaning the health and well-being of that fraction of the population which is actually at risk of dying of the disease. The fact is, of course, that this relation is quite the opposite way around: One must consider inhowfar and for how many of our fellow citizens the free, public life of our society will be impeded if this disease is simply allowed to run rampant. For it is freedom, not the lives of individuals, which the state embodies and which our politicians are first and foremost entrusted to protect. That the citizens must be alive to enjoy this freedom, and hence their material necessities be taken care of, that in the service of its principle the state must therefore also, to a certain extent, secure its citizens welfare, should be self-explanatory.

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Overall, there is hardly anything one can rely on…

Once again, and to conclude, it is not my desire here to speak as a doctor or a mathematician, for in these fields I cannot add anything to the debate concerning the measures imposed against the Coronavirus that is not already known. Moreover, even the experts can’t seem to be wholly agreed upon the actual danger of this new disease, some claiming it will pass like the common cold, others that it will demand a death toll of 500.000 or more in the next year in Germany alone. Overall, there is hardly anything one can rely on, be it statistics and science or, which is more worrying, political institutions and politicians. For it cannot be denied that, in the guise of “security” and “control”, our politicians seem prepared to overthrow all actual political securities there are. After all, the extreme restrictions we are currently living under probably lack a real legal foundation, the parliaments seem prepared to simply let the representatives of the executive branch, as well as the so-called “experts”, whom nobody ever elected, take over the task of governing. Meanwhile, the central government in Berlin is abusing the current situation to destroy the federal principle upon which our institutions are built even further than it already has anyway. Furthermore, it is extremely worrying that the basic preservation of human life as the only principle of politics, no matter the cost, seems to go hand-inhand with a return to the borders of the nation states.

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return to the borders

The closing of borders within Europe has, even by the head of the World Medical Society, Frank Ulrich Montgomery, been described as “political actionism”, as it is, from a medical perspective, totally useless. Whether the political uncertainty generated by all this is intentional, as to justify a further need for an alleged “security”, is impossible to
tell. Finally that all of these measures, regardless of the principle guiding them, seem to enjoy massive public support indicates that there is a certain poverty of political principles and ideas present in the majority of the population, as well as and especially among politicians. Should the coming economic depression actually be as catastrophic as certain experts are making it out to be, German history gives us a precedent for what it means when an impoverished mass without a principle of action meets a caste of politicians enacting dictatorial measures because they don’t know any better. But we are not at that point yet, and we can only hope that it doesn’t take another Hitler for the value of the political principle of freedom to be understood.

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