UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON “Nonviolence and Covid-19: a force already more powerful?” by Roberto Baldoli and Claudio M. Radaelli


March 31, 2020

The regulatory responses to the pandemic caused by Covid-19 imply several, important restrictions to freedom of citizens. There are many dimensions of the crisis we do not deal with but are certainly important – such as the provision of evidence, how governments learn from science, and the capacity of national health systems to provide intensive care units. We zoom on one single dimension in this post: the restriction of individual freedom.

These regulatory measures are a manifestation of biopolitics, that is the attempt to use political wisdom, knowledge, information, and power to govern the daily, bodily administration of life and provide order to local populations. The key question they raise is what is the space for collective practices that ensure, sustain, protect and multiply life without compromising individual rights? To address this question, we should start from a concept of politics that goes beyond the notion of ‘what the state does’: human biology and politics can be managed top-down by state power, but there is another way to govern this relationship – a relationship that becomes particularly problematic and critical under the conditions of a pandemic. Decisions binding on a community do not necessarily arise out of the Leviathan and its insatiable appetite for control. Politics is also self-governance. The other category we should consider in different terms is bios: there is unique power in any individual life, as shown by the power of one or ‘person power’. By ‘person power’ we mean the power to use one’s body for individual transformations that have changed political life, as shown by Rosa Parks’s decision to sit where she was not supposed to. By combining these re-elaborated of politics and bios, we end up in the region of nonviolence where we find the space for the collective practices we are looking for.

But first, let us consider the conventional wisdom about bio-politics. Right-wing libertarians are horrified by the escalation of state intervention and consider the current regulatory responses an attack on individual liberties. We do not need to embrace this view to acknowledge that in single space of rights and liberties like the European Union’s single markets basic freedoms such as freedom of movement are suspended. Outside right-wing libertarians, Agamben connects the current restrictions to fight the spread of the coronavirus to the ‘state of exception’(we do not comment on his statement that the pandemic is an invention). In Foucauldian ways, the state takes the Covid-19 pandemic as another giant step towards the realisation of its project of biopolitics. Whatever the position on the political spectrum is, in these weeks’ commentaries the focus has been on state-imposed coercive measures. The ‘Chinese model’ is the perfect example of dealing with an epidemic top-down. Which leads to the dilemma of freedom versus health protection.

To solve the dilemma, we should not get imprisoned by the conventional categories of biopolitics. This crisis cannot be faced with the normal categories of political theory; it is changing our own existence in a way that we are not understanding in full yet. And so we adventure into new territory. Here we find political theorist Iain Atack who argues that biopolitics is also about opportunities. The micro-physics of power does not necessarily bring us to the inevitable imprisonment of human beings into the repressive project of state-led biopolitics. The ‘bio’ is not just a passive subject governed by the state. In the political theory of nonviolence, the ‘bio’ is the source of power. Even the power granted to the state is only granted on the basis of a consent that can also be withdrawn at any time. In a sense, following Gene Sharp, is the ‘bio’ that controls the ‘politics’ – not the other way round.

And yet, what has nonviolence got to say about the spread of virus and the protection of lives under the conditions of a pandemic? In a recent blogpost in the New York Times, Alain de Button looks at the classic subject of Albert Camus and the plague. The plague goes down to the deepest aspect of life that we all share: death. The fact that we cannot escape the random arrival of death is epitomised and made concrete by the narration of how the plague spreads in Oran. The plague is always a possibility – Camus argues – we cannot ignore that. But this ineluctable, random death for us all – yes: the plague – is also a fundamental condition of equality.

It is in this equality that we can look at the other with empathy, and feel the bond that ties us all. This equality – the Italian philosopher of nonviolence Aldo Capitini explained – awakens the individual from passivity. It points to the option of a common project, of what we can do together to create, here and now, another reality. This reality is fundamentally self-government, the swaraj Gandhi had in mind as true dimension of political life. For Capitini nonviolence is not a theory or a set of precepts, theological commandments or state-enforced regulations. It is a praxis. It is what we do every day with the ‘bios’: our bodies, our action, our liberation or repression, ultimately our life. When we experience liberation and openness – Capitini goes on – we create a new reality by ‘adding’ to the status quo. The adjunctions [aggiunte in Italian, from the Latin root of aggiungere, that is ad (towards)+iungere(to unite)] are formidable elements of change. They cannot be provided by the state.

This new reality is already around us. The fight against the pandemic is already based on the consent and cooperation of citizens. True, there are many police cars enforcing restrictions in Italy (and elsewhere). But we cannot envisage a situation where there is a state enforcement officer for every supermarket, one for every house, every block, every citizen. The photo of the citizens of Prato in front of a supermarket, with its discipline, Magritte-like precision, renders justice of many stereotype about the (un)civic culture of the Italians and the need for state repression.

The actions of many of us are already showing non-coercive practices of health protection under conditions of emergency. We realize that one individual action can be detrimental to the life of many other, equal-to-us individuals. Hence we act with precaution. In a sense, these self-imposed, responsible but not regulatory measures are an example of self-government. Although they are restrictive of our own individual freedom, they are actions of liberation. We are thinking of those ordinary, daily actions that constrain our bodies. These are the actions of those who are staying at home to avoid the collapse of hospitals, renouncing money and fresh air for the weakest of the society. We often hear that we are at war against Covid-19. But there are no enemies with tanks to fight. There are only heroes – with their ‘ordinary courage’ to sacrifice themselves for the others, such as nurses, doctors, hospital workers, volunteers, police and even the army. There are acts of ‘infinite openness’ (another term we find in Capitini) to the other incarnated in actions such as clapping hands every day to thank those fighting the virus; the many crowdfunding initiatives to support hospitals or pay for equipment; the rise in donations to associations helping the elderly and the most vulnerable. Even from the corporate sector, we have seen companies’ donations of medicines or change of production to produce masks and hands sanitizer gel.

A top down response based on coercion is relatively easy to organise, but it is already showing cracks in the demonstrations in China and disobedience here and there. To repeat, you cannot have a cop for every citizen, in every place of the country. In these hard times we witness considerable efforts geared towards top-down biopolitics. But we see also a lot of ‘bio’ looking for emergent ‘politics’ that has its grounds in swaraj. It is a bottom-up response to the crisis, un-organised by the state, spontaneous, civic, which may even include new forms of ‘social movements’ against the pandemic. Governments should quickly learn from this response and, instead of putting additional pressure on top-down regulation, draw the lesson about how to cope with the crisis in bottom-up and non-coercive ways. This  war can be won by creating stronger communities that will remain such beyond the pandemic. Nonviolence has been called ‘the force more powerful’: more powerful than invasions, terrorists, tyrants… and perhaps, of course together with science and the organization of the modern state (not instead of…!), more powerful than Covid-19.

Claudio M. Radaelli, Professor of Public Policy, University College London

Roberto Baldoli, Associate Staff, University College London