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II Philosophers act

One health and one home: on the biopolitics of Covid-19

Miguel Vatter

March 31, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has rather spectacularly confirmed the relevance of the philosophical paradigm known as biopolitics. Not only are we specimens of a biological species who also happen to organize our lives together through politics, but this pandemic has made it crystal clear how much our politics (and economics) are dependent on our capacity to “govern” or “manage” our species life in relation to non-human life as such.

However, we still do not know how the human response to the coronavirus outbreak will re-articulate the connection between our species life and our political life. To date, the pandemic joins two novel elements that stand in need of further critical and biopolitical thought. The first element is the fact that the coronavirus “jumped” between distinct species. This possibility of a species jump that characterizes viral outbreaks with pandemic potential has led public health experts to speak of a “One Health” model. As defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization, “One Health is an integrated approach for preventing and mitigating health threats at the Animal-Human-Plant-Environment interfaces with the objective of achieving public health, food and nutrition security, sustainable ecosystems and fair trade facilitation” (One Health, n.d.). Thus, the phenomenon of a virus that jumps across species not only confirms the belief (already held by Darwin and Nietzsche) that distinct species do not exist as such but are epiphenomena of a continuum of life in constant becoming (Lemin, 2020). The pandemic also indicates that the species jump has its own biopolitical mirror image in questioning traditional immunitary devices like national boundaries and unequal distribution of wealth. As Judith Butler (2020) and Slavoj Zizek (2020) hurriedly pointed out, the virus is uncannily egalitarian. This fact suggests that nationalist and capitalist conceptualizations of the “Animal-Human-Plant-Environment interfaces” will need to be drastically revised in view of achieving One Health on a planetary scale. But now this expression needs to be read as follows: our conception of health needs to be reoriented by the Oneness of life which performatively denies the naturalized hierarchies and speciesism underpinning social pathologies like classism, racism and sexism.

The second novel element is that the rest of the world followed China in adopting the lockdown of their citizens in their homes as the biopolitical policy

of choice to combat the epidemic. What is the significance of this topological choice for our biopolitical response? Philosophers of biopolitics have given varied answers to this question: some, like Giorgio Agamben (2020a, 2020b), understand the lockdown as a repetition of the sovereign prerogative to “ban" certain individuals considered to pose a high risk for the “security” of society. Others, like Sergio Benvenuto (2020), see the lockdown as accelerating a trend in advanced capitalist societies towards recovering the ancient Greek idea of home as “hearth” (Gr. Hestia): the original space for the reproduction of life where the instruments for this reproduction are under our “dominion”. As Carl Schmitt (2014) pointed out decades ago, “the house remains the nucleus and center of terrestrial life, together with its concrete orders: house and property, matrimony, family and inheritance . . . The fundamental institution of law, dominium or property, receives its name from domus” (Section V, para. 1).

However, I think that the shock of Covid-19 has done more than shatter a Panglossian belief that we lived in the best of all possible worlds, just as it has done more than reiterate Candide’s conclusion that the best path in life is simply to “tend one’s garden” and sell the modest products of one’s work at home. Just like the viral species jump highlights the emergence of One Health, so too this globalized and highly mediatized - thanks to internet technology - lockdown has led many more to the renewed conviction that we can no longer continue to “progress” in the way we have done so far. The direct link between a human species in lockdown and skies free of pollution, old waterways teeming again with life and so forth has reinforced the most ancient awareness that nature is the One Home for humanity. This explains the sentiment expressed by commentators like George Monbiot (2020), who believes this pandemic “could be the moment when we begin to see ourselves, once more, as governed by biology and physics, and dependent on a habitable planet.”

Not by chance, the connection between nature and home was an important insight of the first Greek philosophers who sought to find the key to human government in biology and physics, namely, the Pythagorean philosophers. One of them, Philolaus, wrote: “The first thing fitted together, the one [f<> hen] in the center of the sphere, is called the hearth [Hesfki]” (Diel Kranz 7 [B91 ]). Here the “home” or “hearth” does not connote the private dominion where life is safely governed by the master, but it refers to a principle of harmony composed of the unlimited materiality of life (symbolized by the fire) and the One that is the principle of all limitation: together they generate the cosmic order as One Hearth that should become the model for all political order. The human species will be able to find their way back (Gr. nostos, from which some philologists say derives the Greek term nous, or mind (Lachter-man, 1990) to this One Home as long as it understands, as Walter Benjamin (1996 [1928]) says:

Technology is the mastery not of nature but of the relation between nature and humanity. Men as a species completed their development thousands of years ago, but humanity as a species is just getting started. In technology, a nature is being organized through which mankind’s contact with the cosmos takes a new and different form from that which it had in nations and families. . . . Living substance conquers the frenzy of destruction only in the ecstasy of reproduction.

(P- 487)

Economics originally meant the government of the household (pikos). One of the most stunning biopolitical consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, as many economists have noted, is that the lockdown at home has led to a definitive break with the analog}' between household debt and public debt that underpinned decades of neoliberal austerity policies (Tooze & Schularick, 2020). If the pandemic forces us into our homes but allows us to consider what is our true “one home,” the same necessity to stay at home, like the sword that wounds and heals in one stroke, also freed us from the dogma that considers public debt as if it were the sum of debts incurred by households. The home lockdown, paradoxically, has made the oikos-nomy into a political matter once again. But we do not yet know how different this new “political” approach to economics will be from traditional political economy that Marx had already critiqued. The celerity with which all governments have relinquished all budgetary and fiscal restraint, which neoliberals considered the real standard of legitimacy, is indeed quite revolutionary in undoing the neoliberal imperative to privatize debt and risk. However, it is also reactionary in so far as it brings back the old faith in the providential state as the lender of last resort and ultimate social safety net. The risk associated with recurring to this medieval faith in the “immortal” nature of the fisc is that such economic-theological belief underwrites an identification of sovereign power with saving power, the myth of the state as God’s representative on earth (Kantorowicz, 1997 [1957]). Unscrupulous rulers and investors will, undoubtedly, try not to let this “good crisis go to waste”. The rest of us need to consider that One Health and One Home also entails One Humanity, whose dignity stands above the sovereignty of states and whose worth is beyond market-allocated price. There is no doubt that a pandemic is a brutal way to reveal the vulnerability of all living human specimens. The protection offered by an immortal corporation like the state promises us a degree of invulnerability. Yet what we really hope for in times like these is not the invulnerability of our finite, mortal specimen lives but to experience the life that is eternal.1 This can only be attained by living up to the humanity in us and to the harmony or law of nature above us.


1 “Yet it is impossible that we should remember that we existed before our body, since neither can there be any traces of this in the body nor can eternity be defined by time, or be in any way related to time. Nevertheless, we feel and experience that we are eternal.” Ethics V, P 23, Sch. in (Spinoza, 2002), commented in Vatter (2011).


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Agamben, G. (2020b). Reflections on the plague. European Journal of Psychoanalysis, www.

Benjamin, W. (1996). To the planetarium. In Benjamin studies (p. 487). Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1928)

Benvenuto, S. (2020, March 23). Estizzazione: La nostra vita dopo il coronavirus [Estizzazione: Our life after coronavirus]. Doppiozero.

Butler, J. (2020, March 30). Capitalism has its limits, 4603-capitalism-has-its-limits

Kantorowicz, E. H. (1997). The king’s two bodies: A study in medieval political theology. Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1957)

Lachterman, D. (1990). Noos and nostos: The Odyssey and the origins of Greek philosophy. In J. F. Mattei (Ed.), La naissance de la raison en Crece (pp. 33-39). PUF.

Lemm, V. (2020). Homo natura: Nietzsche, philosophical anthropology and biopolitics. Edinburgh University Press.

Monbiot, G. (2020, March 25). Covid-19 is natures wake-up call to complacent civilisation. The Guardian,

One Health, (n.d.).

Schmitt, C. (2014). The planetary tension between orient and Occident and the opposition between land and sea. Política Común, 5.


Spinoza, B. (2002). The complete works (S. Shirley, Trans.). Hackett.

Tooze, A., & Schularick, M. (2020, March 25). The shock of coronavirus could split the EU -unless nations share the burden. The Guardian, 2020/mar/25/shock-coronavirus-split-europe-nations-share-burden

Vatter, M. (2011). Eternal life and biopower. The New Centennial Review, 10(3), 217-249.

Zizek, S. (2020, February 27). Coronavirus is “Kill BilT-esque blow to capitalism and could lead to reinvention of communism. RT.

14 The Italian laboratory

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