The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to life the worst dreams — or nightmares — of Foucauldian biopolitics, encapsulating the very meaning of politics as the protection of collective life. It has been a real-time experience in many regards: the first (nearly) global lockdown; the first stalling of industrial production, resulting in a short-lived but impressive collapse of greenhouse gases; the first slowdown of global trade on a massive scale, reinforcing to consumers that the products we use every day travel around the world to reach us; and the first time that non-totalitarian countries have become so deeply involved in managing their citizens’ private lives, hygiene, and movement.
Public discussions have mostly focused on the question of which type of political system—authoritarian or democratic—has been better able at managing the extraordinary circumstances brought about by the pandemic. However, the answer probably lies outside the framework of regime typology. To say that China managed the pandemic well means forgetting the structural reasons as to why the virus emerged on Chinese soil (extreme pressures on the natural world; high population density near livestock; and potentially a leak from a Wuhan laboratory), the cost of the Chinese-style lockdown (journalists and doctors jailed for telling the truth), and the number of real victims, which has largely been obscured by official propaganda.
More broadly than the nature of political systems, reactions to the pandemic have largely depended on certain features of national cultures, such as individuals’ compliance with collective habits, sense of civic duty, public trust, and respect for government decisions, regardless of any big “civilizational” divide (“Asian” versus “Western”). This explains the large differences in collective reactions between, for instance, the more obedient South Korea, Taiwan, and Israel, on the one hand, and the southern states of the U.S., Russia, and France, known for their entrenched defiance of state decisions, on the other—with a vast variety of reaction across that spectrum. Reactions have also varied by social group. The resistance expressed by some citizens to the lockdown in the name of freedom — and the need to continue working — has revealed socioeconomic lines of friction rarely exposed in pre-pandemic times. For instance, blue-collar workers, who are already the most economically vulnerable, have been the ones whose jobs could not be shifted online.
Perhaps more interesting than the regime discussion is the fact that the pandemic has forced even liberal democracies to implement restrictions on individual freedoms, something that has historically been the case in authoritarian countries such as China, sparking widespread debates about the rise of illiberal practices in liberal societies, too. This confirms that the boundaries between what is liberal and what is illiberal are in fact tenuous and fluctuating: pockets of illiberal practices and ideas are being propagated not only by populist movements, but by liberal state structures and communities. One can identify at least three such illiberal pockets: the “war on terror” narrative that has allowed for extensive infringements of privacy in the name of security; anti-migrant legislation and practices, such as detention camps that have put states at odds with their own human rights declarations; and the broader and more structural transformation of the relationship between private and public life as a result of IT and social media, which Shoshanna Zuboff has called “surveillance capitalism.”
As we can see, the pockets of illiberalism in liberal democracies are all related to the difficult balance between security/protection and liberty/privacy, as well as to the articulation between what is needed collectively and what is needed individually. The pandemic has created the same tensions between offering security by restricting freedoms and protecting the nation’s body against the autonomy of individual bodies. Recognizing that these tensions are inherent to any democratic polity makes it possible to look differently at illiberalism, seeing it not as an external threat coming from disenfranchised communities or foreign states, but as our own inner ambivalences toward how we live together and which rules should regulate this togetherness.
If this illiberalism is also largely generated by and within liberal societies, the pandemic did serve to illuminate a geopolitical rebalancing that has been underway for the past several years, showing, for instance, that China and the US have greater capacity to rebound more quickly economically than Europe. China, Russia, and India have taken the lead in vaccine distribution abroad, using their vaccine diplomacy as a new soft power. But it is probably in the spread of AI tools such as facial recognition that the pandemic has most accelerated ongoing transformations. Once again, the key issue for liberal democracies will be to strike the right balance between security and privacy, to ensure enough popular literacy that citizens can make informed decisions, and to create new oversight mechanisms to prevent states and corporations from abusing the potential of these technologies.
Last but not least, the pandemic has confirmed the unsustainability of today’s economic model of over-consumption, global value chains that can easily be disrupted, and excessively high pressure on the natural world — reigniting the discussion about how sustainable today’s “liberalism” is and how “illiberal” it might become if it fails to offer long-term sustainability.