Only five years ago the Paris Agreement on Climate Change (2015) signalled to the global economy an urgent need to pay attention to the life-world of humans. By early March 2020, the spread of the novel coronavirus was declared by the World Health Organization to be a global pandemic. Scores of countries declared lockdowns in order to curb its spread.

Already crisis-ridden, the global economy recoiled from neo-mercantilism in the form of a speedy circulation of labour, commodities, capital, and services – thus hurtling down the path of disaster. The situation was glaringly apparent in the abandonment by governments of welfare-oriented social policies; even greater marginalisation of migrants and refugees; the destitution of low-wage labouring populations suffering from food insecurity; a massive reduction of the organised labour force; and, most importantly, an acute crisis in public health systems across a world already struggling with the neoliberal management of public health.

The public health crisis has only deepened the economic crisis. Incomes of wage-earning groups dropped, public spending on social services declined, and from all accounts, corporate sector earnings went up. In India, too, we saw Covid-19 responses of the government in the form of organised bailouts for big business far in excess of relief efforts for vulnerable sections of the population – migrant workers, the elderly, slum populations, and out-of-work labouring groups.

There were no strings attached to the relief to business, while that offered to states, small- and medium-scale enterprises, and others were yoked to the loan market. The virus looked suspiciously like a neoliberal virus, echoing Samir Amin’s prophetic words. The crisis thus turned out to be unprecedented in scale, impacting production (along with the reproduction of labouring lives) and conjoining structural inequalities, cyclical instabilities, and an unprecedented disruption of life.

The moment was, and remains, one of a public health emergency in the context of massive political-economic disorder. The issue thus is one of life itself. Perhaps the life question has never been articulated in the post-war era in such an acute sense as it has now.

In this crippled condition of public services under neoliberal regimes, people are realising that there is far more value in universal public services than what they pay for in taxes, especially in times of a grave health crisis. The deficit hysteria asking for even greater privatisation and a reduction of public services and jobs underscores the severe effects of the Covid-19 crisis.

In this milieu, marked by a specific pattern of capital investment and deployment of power that sucks blood from a disaster-struck population, bio-politics from above gathers strength. Bio-capital and bio-power stem from life’s crises. Correspondingly, the old patterns of investment and deployment of power decline, as is evident from an increase in the number of sunset industries (including traditional banking) and the ineffectiveness of established political institutions, such as the parliament and liberal parties, to respond to this crisis of life, and their detachment from it. The Left, too, as part of this scenario finds itself demobilised.

Yet the crisis of life produces, and must produce, political responses. Bio-politics from below is not so much about the “below” as it is against the “above”, and about multiple scales – local, community, state, national, as well as occupation-centric. These multiple scales speak of the need for a new kind of public power...

As Covid-19 ravages the country and neoliberals transform an epidemiological crisis into a pandemic of fear, there is a widespread desire among the lower orders of society for a major change in ideas and policies that guide their lives, and equally widespread signs of collective action to protect human lives.

At the same time, there is a mad rush among governments to take advantage of the situation and promote neoliberal changes which otherwise they would have needed time to initiate. In this context, a return to a pre-Covid-19 economic and social ideology may be possible, but it will be difficult. In 2020, more than a hundred years after the Bombay plague, the country is in a similar situation.

While entire populations are at risk, the structural inability of the neoliberal post-colonial regime to ensure the safety of life is evident. The shock of Covid-19 is simply too great for the old order to return; even with the restoration of trade, resumption of supply lines, initiation of a large-scale work-for-wages scheme, and expanding NREGA, such a return may not be possible.

At best we may see the adoption of some form of neo-Keynesianism globally, based on injecting new money into the market by specifically enabling the unemployed lower classes to spend. But it will be short-lived, for such policies will not be able to address the question of life. Bio-politics from below revolves around that question.

If, as indicated earlier, the world witnesses a neo-Malthusian scenario in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, what will be the response to this resurgence of neo-Malthusianism in global politics? The question is important if we want to envision a new politics of life and the importance of care in such a transformed politics. This calls for a new type of public power which values care as the guiding principle of organising society, which will be treated as a commons.

We must consider the following questions: what kind of power will guard a society that emerges as the commons? What kind of power will nourish a world of care, which would entail protection and a consequent norm of responsibility – precisely the principles which have been central to the notion of “care of the self “, a notion manipulated by modern bourgeois democracies? What will be the new policies and new modes for recreating, reinforcing, and widening the social foundations of care and protection?

The more we think about these questions the more will we see that these are about imagining self-rule in a different manner, which learns from the histories of fighting disease and war in the past, and is yet infused with a new imaginary of a state that runs things differently; assures protection to its people; and discharges responsibility for the safety, security, and well-being of its people – in short, a new combination of autonomy, history, and politics.

Unlike what media tells us, the response to the epidemic is not even.

The poor and the migrant, the aged and vulnerable, the assembly-line worker in a plant that produces ventilators, and the mechanic in a small shop making testing kits; the workforce in transportation, sanitation, and waste reprocessing; or the vigilant guards of a village and an urban slum; and medical workers like nurses – all collectively contribute to the early figuration of a caring society. Trust will be an important element in protecting society as a common resource.

Albeit this is a crude sketch of a new type of general power which may be called for in a post epidemic-scenario, I think it provides a starting point for reconstructing and characterising what is specific about this new imaginary of a society of care; as well as the other conflicts it will unleash, and confrontations that it will have to endure. In one sense, the imagination of a caring power and a caring society can be based on a counter-history of crises and statehoods.

Bio-politics from below is a form of politics that encourages us to think along new lines for protecting life. It is not about new issues of life, but about how issues hitherto considered as belonging to the high world of politics and governance are transformed into issues of life. Bio-politics from below is concerned with the truth of life and death.

A Pandemic and the Politics of Life

Excerpted with permission from A Pandemic and the Politics of Life, Ranabir Samaddar, Women Unlimited.