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 have the following question: What is a lockdown? I want to point out four answers, highlighting political, philosophical, social and pedagogical levels of explanation. These levels that have their own circulating context and effect, where one answer reinforces the other, filling out the contours of the concept of lockdown. The analysis is based on a book I wrote last year on the subject (Rømer 2021).
1. A political answer
The first and most defining answer is political: A lockdown is a term for an immediate collapse in the democratic distinction between state and society. The whole of society and all its sectors are subordinated to a statistical biopolitical logic, whose numbers, layers and interactions subsequently explode into almost chaotic quantitative processes and demands on both global, national and local levels. All practices in society are – in principle at once and instantly – redefined by a new, reduced and all-encompassing concept of health: “Health” as effective and 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 countries’ constitutional traditions. I will give a brief demonstration of how this process evolved in Denmark at the end of the paper.
The collapse in the democratic distinction between state and society happened instantly, by the actual lockdown-decision as such. A new political structure was launched, and the rest was 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. It is an antirevolutionary 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 a democracy with the separation of people and state as a 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. Free human gathering and its economic, philosophical and pedagogic offspring, such as thought, speech, property and education, was translated into behavioral permissions based on statistical measurement.
In this perspective, the so called “reopening” is not an alternative to a lockdown, as it is sometimes declared. A reopening is rather a reinforced 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 “restrictions” as new moral and behavioral standards. 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. Thus, “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 anti-political politics and restrictions are the policy of this event. Even 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.
Some believe that a lockdown is an expression of the renaissance and strength of the nation state. This is a mistake. Rather, a lockdown is an expression of a liquidation of the nation-state. After all, the entire democratic-humanist foundation for the state is taken away, and instead the states become subject to the new quantitative-global principles, which I will explore below.
Furthermore, a number of highly discriminatory practices concerning vaccine-passports has been developed; practices that can be used 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
These observations 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. Under this new 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. These permissions can be withdrawn overnight due to some statistical flux.
With this transformation, there is a trivialization of “freedom” and a shift away from western culture. Freedom and liberal democracy and protests are reduced to Trumpism, misinformation and/or to neoliberalism. The “Trump-argument” is everywhere in the media but also in philosophical groups, for instance in an article by Peter McLaren where he reflects upon the Canadian protests against vaccine mandates (McLaren 2022). The “neo-liberal” argument appears in this quote from M. Peters, who draws on Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito’s distinction between “community” and “immunity”, although Peters tends to stay within the “immunity”-ideology and forgets the “community”-part:
“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, see also McLaren 2022).
The consequences of this radical reduction of “communitas” to “immuntias” and of the recuction of “western culture” to “neoliberalism” for all of society’s educational, scientific and social activities and freedoms are uncontrollable. Actually, Esposito himself is 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
Thirdly, there is a sociological and psychological answer to my main question: The democratic collapse, by which society is swallowed up by the state, as well as the rise of a new technical world spirit, which destroys the traditions of freedom, can be extended to a wide range of other global issues, e.g., climate- and identity politics as was also the case in the above quote from Peters. Lockdown becomes a policy-method of implementation to “guarantee humanity’s survival” as he 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. This is also the case in Andreas Malm’s attempt at establishing a 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). Bruno Latour basically agree to such an idea of some kind of climate lockdown, referring to a metaphysical idea of Gaia (Latour 2021). This metaphor of Gaia is also effective in some techno-transhumanist groups. So, Zizek talks about a “world communism”, Malm speak of a “war communism” and the thoughts of Latour will lead us into a techno-metaphysical Gaia. These are strong statements that tend to ruin the concepts of freedom that has founded political, scientific and educational institutions.
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. Everything comes under the statistics of “infections” or “Co2” or “identity”. Thus, a deep and anxious loneliness produces a new basic psychology. We end up with what is sometimes called a “dark pedagogy” (Lysgaard a.o. 2019). Social and moral “existence” in natural plurality with others is now changed into constructed “identities” with vast distances in between. In order to convey these constructed distances, a completely new language of statistics and technology is being developed, which I, in order to protect our natural language, call “infectish”. 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 and mourning, which is the defining emotions of the biopolitical epoche. This is the very similar to the dystopian techno-totalitarian situation that Hannah Arendt considers in the preface to her book The Human Condition in 1958 (Arendt 1958).
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 learning technocracy; a symbiosis that, within itself, already contained the destruction of the relationship between society and state that I mentioned above, and which also had the technical-global dimension as an intrinsic aspect. The lockdown is, in a sense, 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 the reason why powerful global forces are very happy about political possibilities of lockdowns. Thus, some nation states have entered into agreements with the World Economic Forum, which, via the so-called “great reset” ideology, have declared an interest in a new global and biotechnologically hegemony (Rømer 2021). This strategy 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 that are closely infiltrating even pedagogical practice in kindergartens. Obviously, the interests and the power of the tech-industry and the global medical organizations and businesses is sky-rocketing at the same time. Between the isolated individuals, new technologies dwell as structures or passages of communication, changing teaching into zoom-life and social life into anti-contagious-apps and SoMe.
Andreas Schleicher, an influential statistician and director of education at the OECD, very early welcomed the pedagogical consequences of the lockdown (Anderson 2020). His affirmative approach was – in my view – a direct consequence of his views in a 2018-book, where Schleicher highlighted the Chinese educational system due to its statistical-evaluational performativity (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.
These processes also connect to the transhumanist ideology, after which Man as a species dissolve into new technological formats. Here, the modern left and the old neoliberal organizations are part of a strange techno-global symbiosis, leaving the entire postwar-humanism in the dark or changing it to a unphilosophical new-speak.
So overall, lockdown is a destruction of the entire democratic-humanist tradition that was developed since World War II, reinforced by the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, with roots further back in European 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 and Kant into a “fact tjeck-philosopher”. Soon, the rest of this entire tradition of thought will follow or rest in peace.
5. Further remarks
Different countries have had different political-legal processes, but with almost the same effect. In Denmark, society has been moved from dominance of the constitution and into an epidemic law of exception that was adopted by parliament directly against the recommendation of the health authorities, even though the government claimed the opposite on lockdown day and even failed to enlighten parliament on this lack of recommendation. This epidemic law, this law of exception that covers the inconsistent lie just mentioned, was normalized a year later, so it is now almost impossible to leave the overall structure of lockdown. Some of these processes is actually reminiscent of the way the ideology of globalism was implemented in the educational system in the late 2000’s (Rømer 2022).
In direct continuation of this disruptive lie, the press and the parliament was, during the lockdown-period, transformed into a kind of junior partner for the now weak and activist state. In Denmark, the philosophy of the state has 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 practices.
Perhaps we will be granted behavioral admission from this new totalitarian moment, but nobody knows when the prevailing philosophy and the structure of the lockdown materializes once more. It may happen overnight.
Of course, these problems have been discussed all over the place 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 circles around the world (Agamben a.o. 2020). 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 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, who is not a young man himself, is scared to be ill, he says in his book on the matter. It is, in my view, highly immoral for old men 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, the 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). I do not know to what extend Chomsky’s views have been the subject of debate in the United States or elsewhere.
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