Whose Immunity? Three Comments about Surveillance in a Time of Pandemics

Nitzan Lebovic June 2020

1. Instituting Inequality

When we think of a state of emergency—something declared by most of the countries around the globe in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—we usually think of a temporary, drastic response to an urgent situation. We think of a general principle that allows a community to unite against a great threat. Sometimes, when that threat is just too great—think for example of climate disasters, large-scale catastrophes—the response requires a tighter coordination between authorities, from the transnational to the local. Writing for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito recently pointed out that such extreme situations shed light on the history of such relations; he cited the ancient Roman idea of a vitam institutere (institutional life) tasked with the conservatio vitae (conservation of life). In democratic constitutions, effective regimes have usually limited the scope and duration of states of emergency. Yet, Esposito claimed, instead of a coordinated effort to neutralize the threat and move on, what we are witnessing today is the unprecedented spread of “the biopolitical state.” For him, the state of emergency does not imply a turn towards totalitarianism or “naked life,” as Giorgio Agamben has argued in recent articles, but a more complicated return to the “immunity syndrome,” and “shared self-distancing” (NZZ, 16 May 2020; an abridged translation to English appeared in the European Journal of Psychoanalysis).

Esposito did not venture far, in this short text, beyond a general gesture toward the immunity syndrome. A closer look reveals that the coronavirus plague—with its state of emergency and self-distancing—exposed a paradoxical relation: the institutional life meant to protect human beings via self-distancing distrusted or simply ignored local knowledge and used technological surveillance to enforce its regimen. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the diagnosis and response to the plague were both conditioned by an inherent state of inequality, and existing forms of political and socio-economic oppression. Esposito himself wrote, in 2013, “Everywhere we look, new walls, new blockades, and new dividing lines are erected against something that threatens, or at least seems to, our biological, social, and environmental identity” (Terms of the Political: Community, Immunity, Biopolitics). Much of this thinking is beholden to Elias Canetti, the German-Jewish author who, writing nearly a century ago, described the control exercised over minorities on “hygienic” and eugenic grounds: “Canetti located at the origin of our modernity . . . a perverse short circuit between touch [tatto], contact [contatto], and contagion [contagio]. The risk of contamination immediately liquidates contact, relationality, and being in common” (59). Such mechanisms have become basic to the modern—biopolitical—state.

2. The Political Paradox

What walls, which dividing lines? How to distance, and from whom? In another recent article, David Harvey wrote of “a class, gendered, and racialized pandemic” (David Harvey, 19 March 2020, “Anti-Capitalist Politics in the Time of COVID-19”:

Indeed, during the past few weeks those following the news could not but notice that minorities, separated by barriers of class and race, descent and gender, were punished twice: they were punished once for who they were, and again for who they were not. They suffered once, because they stood at the forefront of the response to the plague—traditionally low-paying jobs—and were the first to die. And they suffered again, as the immediate object of state control and surveillance, or what became the paradigmatic institutional response to the pandemic, at all levels.

Esposito’s theory of immunitas—“communitas is affirmative, while immunitas is negative”—allows us to look more deeply at one mechanism of control operated by the state during this pandemic; if “immune is he or she who breaks the circuit of social circulation by placing himself or herself outside it,” then the “immunitary dispositif” exposes the gaps between the haves and have-nots, or those, like our leaders and ultra-rich, who get tested on a daily basis, versus the many nurses who cannot get access to basic protective means, let alone testing. Such gaps illustrate how, with the first threat of the pandemic, minorities of class, gender, and race were the first to pay the price, and shared self-distancing became a system of exclusion in which, in fact, very little was “shared.”

3. The surveillance mechanism

The conditions for this institutional relationship are not new. During the early 1970s, the French thinker Michel Foucault traced how the modern liberal state perfected biopolitical mechanisms, making of them a “live and let die” principle. The logic of the biopolitical system is the use of mechanisms, such as surveillance, that enable those in power to control boundaries and movements of groups or individuals, so the socio-economic gaps change, but they never shrink. (The critical theorist Achille Mbembe pointed out that the role of the command to “let die” has recently increased, turning biopolitics into necropolitics.) Foucault’s work stressed the importance of analyzing mechanisms, rather than the ideological language that framed them. From this perspective, well meaning liberals who joined the early testing and storing of protection gear, were no different than their political rivals; they excluded themselves and broke the social circuit.

From a different angle, surveillance could be used to save life, but also to control or end it. It serves “institutional life,” first and foremost. The massive application of surveillance to the recent epidemic allows us a glimpse into a modern paradox: what began as a program meant to control minorities, rendering them the groups most afflicted by the pandemic, was expanded to become a “universal” program aimed at saving millions of lives. For example, the facial-recognition programs first adopted on a large scale to control the Uyghurs of western China and the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories were adopted as an efficient means to track contagion in the population as a whole. But it did not stop there. Instead, the mechanism was quickly readapted to serve what the Canadian Sociologist David Lyon called “the surveillance culture.”

Allow me to cite a few examples of how countries are using surveillance during the pandemic: China uses CCTV cameras and drones equipped with facial recognition programs; Russia uses more than one million CCTV cameras in Moscow, with similar capabilities, as well as apps installed on mobile telephones for “self-discipline”; Israel uses a surveillance program (called “the tool”) developed by Shin Bet, which the defense minister wanted to fuse with a private artificial intelligence program created by the infamous private company NSO; Turkmenistan, Turkey, the Philippines, Iran, and Hungary have all tightened state control of social and public media, the last even threatening those who disseminate “fake news” (i.e., any information critical of the regime), with prison sentences of up to five years. In the Philippines, IBM built an “Intelligent Operations Center” that, according to The Intercept, “enhances authorities’ ability to monitor residents in real time with cutting-edge video analytics, multichannel communications technology, and GPS-enabled patrol vehicles”. In the United States, the attorney general made an attempt to suspend habeas corpus.

A recent use in Minnesota of contact tracing to track protestors proves that the surveillance regimes in existence cannot be suspended, let alone rolled back. It also shows that the biopolitical state toys with space and time, proximity and distance, at will, when it serves its purpose; what yesterday was meant to temporarily curb the movement of “an internal enemy”—be it a carrier of the virus or an allegedly hostile group—is now controlling the movement of every-body, with no clear end-point. The starting point of a surveillance system is always the notion of an “internal enemy,” but it may end by turning us all into enemies of the state. As citizens of a biopolitical state, the essence of our “institutional relation” to life is our willingness to allow surveillance, or let the institution to dictate the boundaries between internal and external, life and death, immunity and contagion, self and other. Where other/external/contagion/minorities are nothing but an object of mechanism, it is just a matter of time before the body politic will launch an attack upon itself, producing an era of “thanatopolitics.”

A few links:

Wired, September 5, 2019 Inside China’s Massive Surveillance Operation

Haaretz.com, April 1, 2020 Israel’s Justice Ministry Opposes “Unusual” Collaboration With NSO to Fight Coronavirus

The Shift, March 24, 2020 Hungarian Emergency Bill Could Jail Journalists for Five Years for “Fake News”

Rolling Stone, March 21, 2020 DJ Wants to Suspend Certain Constitutional Rights During Coronavirus Emergency

The Hill, April 10, 2020 Apple and Google Launch Joint Coronavirus Tracing System

Foreign Affairs, April 7, 2020 The Pandemic Will Accelerate History Rather Than Reshape It

Dr Nitzan Lebovic is Associate Professor in the History Department of Lehigh University, U.S. Nitzan’s second book, Zionism and Melancholy: The Short Life of Israel Zarchi, came out in Hebrew in 2015 and published with the “New Jewish Philosophy and Thought” series at Indiana University Press.