What is a Lockdown?

This text is a slight revision of a “working paper” accepted for presentation at the INPE-conference, august 2022, in Copenhagen. https://conferences.au.dk/inpe2022/  The theme of the conference is “Pedagogical Forms in Times of the Pandemic”. INPE stands for “International Network of Philophers of Education”. (I revise the paper every now and then to prepare it for the final presentation).


What Is a Lockdown?

by Thomas Aastrup Rømer, Danish School of Education, Aarhus University

In this paper I try to answer the following question: What is a lockdown? I point out four answers, highlighting political, philosophical, social and pedagogical levels of explanation. These levels have their own circulating effects where one answer reinforces the other, together filling out the contours of the concept of lockdown. The analysis is based on a book I wrote on the subject last year (Rømer 2021).


1. A political answer

The first and most defining answer is political: A lockdown corresponds to an immediate collapse in the democratic distinction between state and society. Society as such and all its sectors are subordinated to a single statistical biopolitical logic, where civil life and interactions is reduced to almost chaotic and mulitlayered quantitative processes, on both global, national and local levels. All tings and practices in society, from education to love, work and gatherings in general, are – in principle at once and instantly – redefined by a new and all-encompassing concept of health: “Health” as it is defined by global realtime biostatistics.

This collapse of politics ruins the precondition for democracy. In several societies this has happened in a more or less open confrontation with the different countries’ constitutional traditions. I will give a brief demonstration of how this process evolved in Denmark at the end of the paper.

Again, the collapse in the democratic distinction between state and society happened instantly, by the actual lockdown-decision as such. A new political structure is launched, and all the rest is just a consequence of this revolutionary moment. Well, in a way “revolution” is a wrong word, due to the fact that revolution is a political action while lockdown is rather a destruction of politics and plurality as such. Lockdown is an anti-revolutionary revolution.

The product of this instant event is a biostate. The biostate was not established with modernity, as Foucault believed. For until March 2020, we had democracy with the separation of people and state as its basic premise, and in this democratic state biopolitics was only a minor part of the practice of government and life. It was only at the moment of lockdown that the state seized society in its totality and transformed ‘the people’ from what was before a precondition of free gathering into a statistically defined “zoe” under the realm of shifting and chaotic quantitative measurements. Lockdown transformed free human gathering and its economic, philosophical and pedagogic offsprings, such as thought, speech, property, community and education, into behavioral permissions based on statistical measurement.

Before “lockdown” did not exist. Now it excist all over; not “every where” but “all over”.

In this perspective, the so called “reopening” is not an alternative to lockdown, as it is sometimes declared. A reopening is rather a reinforcement of lockdown. “Reopening” is the name of the process by which lockdown flows and cascades out of its “moment” and into the disrupted spheres of life in the form of advanced and regulated admissions, also called “restrictions”, and as new moral and behavioral standards that enable people to “gather” fully masked and regulated. This is seen, for example, when you “reopen” the schools with massive behavioral regulation, mask requirements and test-structures that have their own educational effects on the school’s staff and on the habits of students and parents. In this way, “reopening” become a kind of biopolitical experimentation destroying and affecting all practices rooted in the history of natural law and civil life.

Thus, lockdown and “restriction” is not quite the same: Lockdown is the name for a revolutionary anti-political politics and restrictions are the concrete policies of this event. In a way, the philosophy of lockdown becomes totalized when “everything” is “reopened”. From now on we always live in a “reopening”, that is, within the horizon of lockdown, no matter how free life seems to be on the surface and at the moment. From now, at best, “free” is something you are allowed to be for a while.

Some believe that a lockdown is an expression of a renaissance and strengthen of the nation state. This is a mistake in my opinion. Rather, a lockdown is an expression of a destruction of the nation-state. After all, the entire democratic-humanist foundation for the modern state is taken away, and instead the states now become subject to new quantitative-global principles, which I will explore below, thereby producing so-called populist regimes.

Furthermore, a number of highly discriminatory practices concerning vaccine-passports and testsystems has been developed in many contries. These practices may be used and implemented in other settings.

In my view we are in a rebirth of the 1930s due to this mixture of totalitarian politics and discriminatory practices. We have moved from a strong and passive state to a weak and active state. We should, in my opinion, fear a modern version of the 1940s.


2. A philosophical answer

This observation lead us to the second characteristic of the essence of lockdown, the philosophical aspect: A lockdown is a destruction of freedom.

This is seen, for example, when Slavoj Zizek speaks for a new world communism, controlled by global organizations (Zizek 2020). In Zizek’s case, there is a form of symbiosis between technocracy and Hegelianism. We get a world spirit disguised as numbers and evidence and global power. Under this new global hegemony, the traditions of freedom, which has deep liberal, social and republican roots, cannot survive. This transforms the constitutional principle of “freedom as a precondition” with its associated natural law and human rights, into mathematically defined behavioral permissions.

With this transformation, there is a trivialization of “freedom” and a shift away from western culture. Freedom and protests are often even reduced to Trumpism, misinformation and/or to neoliberalism. The “Trump-reduction” is everywhere in the media but also in philosophical groups, for instance in an article by Peter McLaren in Educational Philosophy and Theory where he – in this exact maner – reflects upon the Canadian protests against vaccine mandates (McLaren 2022). The “neo-liberal” argument appears for example in an article from Michael Peters in the same journal. Peters draws on Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito’s distinction between “community” and “immunity”. However, Peters tends to stay within the “immunity”-ideology and forgets the “community”-part which is in fact the most basic. Here is the quotation:

“The shift in immunology from philosophical metaphors of ‘immune self’ to dynamic ecologies may well indicate a necessity in the choice of political vocabulary metaphor that no longer models itself on Western culture with its liberal and neoliberal emphasis on individuality and homo economicus, but adopts a immune-biopolitics of the state that looks to a transformation of social relations anticipating future pandemics, climate change, sustainability, and coexistence that helps to guarantee humanity’s survival” (Peters & Besley 2022).

The consequences of this reduction of “communitas” to “immuntias” and of the reduction of “western culture” to “neoliberalism”, covering all of society’s educational, scientific and social activities and freedoms, are uncontrollable. Actually, Esposito himself was also worried on behalf of freedom proper. In an interview from April 2020 on the subject of lockdowns, he says:

“Our democracy cannot survive long with this deficit of freedom and social interaction” (Gøttske 2020, my transl.)

Esposito is concerned with what he considers to be “the vital organs” of society, that is “communitas”, which should not be reduced to populism and neo-liberalism.


3. A social and psychological answer

There is also a sociological and psychological answer to my main question.

I have just described a democratic collapse, by which society is swallowed up by the state, that is itself swallowed up by the rise of a new technical world spirit, thereby destroying the traditions of freedom.

This logic can be extended to a wide range of other global issues, e.g., climate-politics and others – as it was also the case in the above quote from Peters.

Lockdown materializes as not only connected to corona, but also as a general method of implementation to “guarantee humanity’s survival”, as Peters calls it, whereby the political and philosophical essence of lockdown can be expanded and transported into further anti-democratic and technocratic experiments on all levels of society. Let me give you af few examples:

The first example is Andreas Malm’s attempt – inspired by Sovjet policies in the 1920’s – to establish an ecology- and corona-based “war communism” or even an “ecological leninism”, thereby taking the logic of lockdown into the issue of climate change and also even the other way around: seeing corona as a subspecies of an ecological crisis caused by capitalism (Malm 2020).

A second example: Bruno Latour agrees to this connection between i bio-lockdown and a climate lockdown, comparing Man to a fearful ashamed and lonely insect/termite without parents proper (Latour 2021). According to a recent critique by Sune Frølund, Latour’s combination of post-naturalism and post-humanism tends to undermine the concepts of both humanity and nature and therefore also of education and science as such (Frølund 2022). What should we think of the bio- and climate sciences, when science is just a social construction? And how can we educate a termite? Latour calls this new posthuman bioworld “Gaia”. But certainly, this “gaia” of insects is the opposite of the “earth” of Hanna Arendt and of other post-war humanists. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning, that this metaphor of Gaia, which is neither real nature nor human, is also effective in some techno-transhumanist groups. Gaia becomes the internet combined with global bio- and behavioral statistics, controlling the insects without constitution, pasts and mothers and fathers.

So, Zizek talks about a “world communism”, Malm speak of a “war communism” and the thoughts of Latour will reduce life to a isolated and fearfull “human” insect swamped in a techno-metaphysical Gaia. These are strong statements that tend to ruin the concept of freedom that has founded political, scientific and educational institutions for hundreds of years. Thus, human existence become surrounded by catastrophic hyperfacts-statistics, which problematize and catastrophize natural contact with other people and with the layers of things and nature. Nature and other humans are dangorous!

In these books I haven’t been able to find a single critical remark towards the philosophy of lockdown. And there are no thoughts on the political and educational traditions.

Such a deep and anxious loneliness of the human animal produces a new basic psychology. We end up with what is sometimes called a “dark pedagogy”, a situation of horror, “angst” and hyperfacts (Lysgaard a.o. 2019). Social and moral “existence” in natural plurality with others and with the things of the world is now changed into constructed “identities” with vast and dangourous distances in between. In order to convey these constructed distances, a completely new language of statistics, horror and technology is being developed. So we get a statistically and technologically defined loneliness, where everything is dangerous and infected. This loss of a common world is associated with grief, anxiety, fear and mourning, which are the defining emotions of the biopolitical epoche. This is very similar to the dystopian techno-totalitarian situation that Hannah Arendt considered in the preface to her book The Human Condition in 1958 (Arendt 1958).

Obviosly, inside these logics of totalitarianism, of post-humanism, and within the collapse of freedom there are grave problems for human rights, democracy and education.


4. An educational answer

Fourth, there is an educational answer. The lockdown is a radicalized continuation of the neoliberal standards of the 2000s where pedagogy and education was turned into a symbiosis between global learning statistics and evidens-based technocracy; a symbiosis that, within itself, already contained the collapse of the relationship between society and state just mentioned, and which also had the technical-global dimension as an intrinsic aspect. Lockdown is, in a sense, the name for an extension of anti-education – of “the age of measurement” as Gert Biesta has called it – to all social terms and areas of behavior.

This fact of a global-statistical hegemony is also the reason why powerful global forces are very happy about the political and educational possibilities of lockdowns. Thus, some nation states have entered into agreements with World Economic Forum, which, via its so-called “great reset” ideology, have declared an interest in a new global and biotechnological hegemony (Rømer 2021). This “reset”-philosophy is also supported by the Global Monetary Fund and other global actants and it mingles in all sort of ways with the United Nations 2015-world goals for sustainability, with the behavior of WHO and with the development of national and regional technocracies. Obviously, the interests and the power of the tech-industry and the global medical organizations is sky-rocketing at the same time. Between the isolated individuals, new technologies dwell as structures or passages of communication, changing teaching into zoom- and even perhaps avatar-life and social life into anti-contagious-apps, google-books and SoMe, emptying the playgrounds of social essence.

Andreas Schleicher, an influential statistician and director of education at the OECD, very early welcomed the pedagogical consequences of the lockdown (Anderson 2020). Schleicer declared in a pure “great reset-spirit”:

“It’s a great moment for learning” and “All the red tape that keeps things away is gone and people are looking for solutions that in the past they did not want to see”

His affirmative approach was – in my view – a direct consequence of his views in a 2018-book, where Schleicher, who is himself a statistician, among other things highlighted the Chinese educational system due to its statistical-evaluational performativity as well as concepts such as global learning and competency (Schleicher 2018). This fact supports my thesis about the conceptual connection between the new biopolitics and a neoliberal educational ideology, which in the former decade was carried forward by the OECD’s measurement systems and the neo-liberal states. Global education is going to play a major part in the new biopolitical reality. In that sense, Zizek’s “world communism” has both concrete names and organizations. A strange “gaia” indeed.

These processes also connect to the transhumanist ideology, after which Man as a species dissolves into new technological formats. Here, the modern left and the old neoliberal organizations are part of a new techno-global symbiosis, leaving the entire postwar-humanism – and even place and time as such – in the dark or changing it in into means for the new regime.

So overall, lockdown is a destruction of a democratic-humanist tradition that was developed since World War I and II and reinforced by the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 with roots further and long back in European and world cultural history. This destruction will probably lead to a lockdown of educational philosophy as well, which must now submit to the new system, e.g. by turning Hegel into a global emperor of counting, Levinas into “screen-faces” and Kant into a “fact tjeck-philosopher”.


5. Further remarks

Different countries have had different political-legal processes, but with almost the same effect. In Denmark, society moved from a generel dominance of the constitution to an epidemic law of exception that was adopted by parliament on march 11, 2020. This law was made directly against the recommendation of the health authorities, even though the government claimed the opposite on lockdown day. The government even failed to enlighten parliament on this lack of recommendation from its own health-experts who proposed a swedish approach without lockdown. The government was given almost total power for a whole year.

This new epidemic law, the law of exception that covers the constitutional break-down just mentioned, was normalized a year later, so it is now almost impossible to leave the overall structure of lockdown. As mentioned abowe, some of these processes is actually reminiscent of the way in which the ideology of economic man and globalism was implemented in the educational system in the late 2000’s (Rømer 2022).

In direct continuation of the government’s disruptive lie in march 2020, the press and the parliament was, during the lockdown-period, transformed into a kind of junior partner for what was now a weak and activist state in total power. Critical activity became “conspiracy” and “misinformation” and so on and so forth. In Denmark, this new philosophy of the state claimed a shift from a “principle of proportionality”, which is the administrative principle of democracy, to an “extreme principle of precaution”, which is the administrative ideology of the new biostate. This shift has chaotic consequenses for democratic life and for life as such.

Of course, these problems have been discussed in the critical margins and I have already mentioned some. Criticism of this powerful process stems from people with roots in social-poetic traditions, including Georgio Agamben, and a number of democratic and liberal groups around the world (Agamben a.o. 2020, Rømer 2021). This establishes a democratic alliance between historical-poetic socialist critics and various liberal and conservative views that cares for concepts of freedom and natural law in different ways. There is also a vast critique from many doctors and health professionals who knows that health is something that must first and foremost take place in civil society rather than through detailed behavioral and statistical regulation on behalf of a failed state.

Finally, I would like to mention that two 92-year-old left-wing icons, Jürgen Habermas and Noel Chomsky, have both endorsed the premise of biopolitics, although, to my knowledge, without Zizek’s Hegelian premise (Habermas 2021). Zizek himself, who is not a young man either, is simply scared to be ill, he says in his book on the matter. It is, in my view, highly immoral for old men (and women) to deprive children and young people, who should not fear corona at all, of their opportunity to live and begin anew inside a free society. In Germany, Habermas was criticized by Die Welt’s cultural editor, Andreas Rosenfelder (Rosenfelder 2021). Furthermore, a leading German political scientist, Professor Ulrike Beate Guérot, has also criticized both the lockdowns, the collapse of European post war-solidarity and the views of the left wing that I have just outlined (Goerot 2022, Goerot & Hunklinger 2021).

With these five layers of explanation I hope to have made a contribution to the understanding of the essence of lockdown.



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