Reconfigurations of Governance Regimes
Reconfigurations in Space and Time
Reconfigurations of Politics: Voice, Rights and Expertise
Reconfigurations of Social Policies and Inequalities
Global Challenges
Special Issue no. 1 | June 2020
Politics of the Coronavirus Pandemic
Global Challenges
Special Issue no. 1 | June 2020
Politics of the Coronavirus Pandemic | Reconfigurations of Politics: Voice, Rights and Expertise — Article 9

A National-Liberal Virus

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Covid-19 is a stunning illustration of the apparently antithetical triangle of factors that has shaped the destiny of our planet since the end of the eighteenth century. By all accounts, Covid-19 is a national-liberal virus. And the dissipation of the national-liberal mirage – which has blinded us like deer in the headlights – is a precondition for ending this nightmare.

Three trends – generally considered antithetical – have shaped our planet’s destiny since the end of the eighteenth century: the world’s integration – in economic, financial, scientific, technological, cultural and religious terms; the universalisation of the State as the principle of sovereignty and political organisation; and the expansion of Identitarianism and ethnic or religious particularism as a general ideology.


The three processes are combinatorial and synergetic, forming a triangle of factors which appear confusing only because we remain prisoners of erroneous conceptions of the State, culture or globalisation. However, Covid-19 is a stunning example of this triangle of factors to which we have been subject for more than two centuries.

It is hardly necessary to question the global nature of the pandemic. But therein lies the problem! The issue is tragically banal, and as old as the hills. In the fourteenth century, the Black Death arrived from China.Many of the pandemics the colonial powers took pride in fighting in Africa were likely products of their own occupation  In the sixteenth century, we exported our own microbes to the Americas, depopulating them in the process. Many of the pandemics the colonial powers took pride in fighting in Africa were likely products of their own occupation. At least until HIV, which emerged from the equatorial forest as a result of the construction of roads and railway lines and the forced mobility of the workforce.

The second vertex of the triangle, the globalisation of Covid-19 immediately increased the discretionary power of the nation-state, which closed its borders, locked down its population and imposed techniques of mass surveillance and control. In the same way that the liberalisation of trade and finance and the increased mobility of the workforce at a global level have, since the 1980s, resulted in the State’s growing intrusion into the social – and even private – lives of its citizens. Some commentators refer to the “rolling-back of the State” and the “end of territories”. Really?

Finally – the third vertex of the triangle – Covid-19’s globalisation, while strengthening the prerogatives of the nation-state, is fuelling identity-related anxiety. In both Europe and the United States, people of Asian origin are viewed with suspicion and even attacked, including in Silicon Valley. Donald Trump refers to the “Chinese virus” and the “Wuhan virus”, making a diplomatic issue of its name. The “Yellow Peril”, I’m telling you! But there are other suspects, too: the foreigner, who brings with him his miasmas from elsewhere. In Canton, for example, the Chinese are targeting the numerous Africans living from suitcase (or container) commerce.


At the first vertex of the triangle, we must first of all reconsider the effects of the world’s integration, upon which our economies – but also our lifestyles – have become dependent. The risks in delocalising economic production are now clear, as shortages of masks, tests, medicines and vaccines have revealed. The global agribusiness industry is likewise under scrutiny, not only for the environmental costs it entails but also the risk it brings in terms of propagating disease. The destruction of our public services, worsening labour conditions, the Uberisation of whole swathes of our economies at the expense of traditional employment – in the name of international competitiveness – have come at a cost that we are now paying in our pain: our hospitals, already bled dry, are overrun; free-floating bikes and scooters have become a vector of contagion about which no-one, curiously, is concerned; for-profit Amazon-style distribution platforms have given the finger to government regulations for protecting workers and consumers.

Mass tourism, which has already brought our planet’s cultural jewels to their knees – in Angkor, Dubrovnik or Venice, for example – and which has made major cities like Barcelona, Amsterdam, London, Lisbon or Paris unliveable, where residents are literally driven out by Airbnb renters and the secondary residences of the global jet set, is a major source of pollution as well as being intrinsically dangerous from a health perspective. Has it not already reintroduced bed bugs to Marseilles and Paris, pests that had disappeared from France but prospered for decades in New York? Aren’t the peripatetic cruise ships transformed into Covid-19 clusters – to which the planet’s ports have closed one after another – a cruel allegory of the absurdity of this form of leisure activity?

More fundamentally, if we want to avoid a multiplication in transmission chains between animals and humans, as was the case with Covid-19 and HIV, and to prevent the outbreak of new zoonotic diseases, it is essential to put an end to the interpenetration of export-driven intensive agriculture and the wild environment, a degree of proximity that favours the transmission of viruses between species.It is essential to put an end to the interpenetration of export-driven intensive agriculture and the wild environment  Likewise, immunised barrier populations must be preserved between viruses and industrial society; the deforestation of tropical and equatorial regions such as the Amazon, the Congo basin and Indonesia must end; global heating, which will release nasty surprises that have been trapped for tens of thousands of years in the soils of the Far North, must be stopped. As well as poisoning our food supply, polluting the atmosphere and causing often fatal chronic conditions, the insane growth of agribusiness in the name of competitiveness has made us forget that biodiversity is the best form of disease prevention for plants, animals and humans alike.


At the second vertex of the triangle, the other priority will be to counter the excesses of a State that, for public health purposes, has reclaimed some of its prerogatives, and to regulate a market that the neoliberals have suddenly discovered is “crazy”. But beware of pyromaniac firefighters! Measures in violation of the most basic freedoms have been taken around the world in the name of the health emergency. There is little doubt that these temporary measures will surreptitiously be passed into ordinary law, as the provisions against terrorism have already been. This temptation will be even greater with the (already sprawling) surveillance industries pushing the issue. In the current crisis they will find the opportunity to have us adopt the Chinese model of biometric population control that our leaders are not quite sure how they can legitimise democratically. The solution here is ready-made: it’s all done in the name of public health. Only those who are potentially infected themselves will complain.

In particular, on the issue of the shameful treatment of refugees and migrants by Europe and the United States, we cannot expect a quick return to the rule of law. Driving these people underground with legislation that is as criminal as it is stupid has created clusters of contamination in detention centres and informal camps where there are no restrictive measures to protect us. In addition, the military hubris of the State will have to be contained. The wars it has undertaken, with a human, environmental and health cost that is already frightening, will also become clusters for spreading the epidemic, in particular in the Middle East and North Africa. It should not be forgotten that war in Africa was a major factor in the spread of HIV and Ebola.


Finally, at the third vertex of the triangle, a return to cosmopolitanism is essential if we want to prevent the inevitable slowdown in international trade from transforming into cultural withering or a hatred of the Other. Only international cooperation and the concomitant reopening of borders, the pooling of research and scientific knowledge instead of the neoliberal commodification of science, the affirmation of solidarity and brotherhood at a global level and a relentless campaign against identitarian stupidity may be of some use in the fight against a disease spawned not by our “identities” but by our lifestyles, our overexploitation of the earth and our military conflicts.

By Jean-François Bayart
Professor of Anthropology and Sociology
Yves Oltramare Chair for Religion and Politics in the Contemporary World
Faculty Affiliate at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
The Graduate Institute, Geneva

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