The Virus that Ends Us: On the Ethics of Withdrawal and Affirmation

The paradise of modernity holds unbearable risk (© Jan Pospisil)

The global responses to the Covid-19 crisis have shown the exhaustion of modern politics. The views on offer are segregated, polarised and run across historically developed political fault lines. The current majority renders the fight against the virus and the disease it triggers as indispensable and necessary. In social practices like physical distancing and stay-at-home, it invokes individual and collective heroism and global solidarity. States are called upon executing radically intrusive measures to prevent a further spread of the disease. Advocates of this position come from the left and the right; they can be liberal as well as conservative.

The prevalent critique, as well, contrasts traditional political fault lines. Liberals are concerned with the restriction of global liberties and the alleged totalitarian character of especially the state-led approaches. In critical political theory, a number of Foucauldian-inspired critiques perceive a biopolitical character inherent to the Covid-19 responses. Giorgio Agamben, for instance, sees his assumptions on the state of exception confirmed and interprets Italy’s Covid-policy as a process of classic securitisation. Others claim to witness an attempt to establish a global system of population control. In light of the stumbling of most governments into a situation they are only barely able to govern proactively, these accounts may sound powerful, but utterly fail to explain the reasons and the character of the current global lockdown.

These assessments neglect the great ethical transformation that the current crisis generates. Solely focusing on the potentialities of their totems, the virus or state power, the arguments remain deeply embedded in a modern ontology. They focus on the restoration of some form of modern normality. Their perspective stops at the limits the virus represents. As contrasting as they may sound, the debate is backwards-looking by projecting an ideal state of modern society to the post-virus world, even though they already sense that nothing will remain as it has been before.

What we experience is neither an expression of evolving solidarity in the face of global crisis nor of totalitarian biopolitics willing to suppress populations in the name of neoliberalism. Instead, we are witnessing the first concrete manifestation of Anthropocene ethics at a large scale. What the climate change debate has attempted to trigger through their calls for a state of emergency related to carbon politics, the Covid-19 crisis is now executing, expanding, improving. There is no return to a status quo ante.

The current crisis shows that Anthropocene ethics evolve around what Claire Colebrook calls a post-apocalyptic Anthropocene reasoning that for once reunites humanity not in its aspirations, but in its common condition of facing an end. These ethics develop in a contestation between the two ontopolitical logics of withdrawal and affirmation. Being born out of late modernity, both of these logics have to face antagonisms that they cannot overcome.

Withdrawal appears to be the order of the day. Physical distancing separates humans from one another, state-imposed curfews, in collaboration with the stay-at-home movement, separate humans from the world. In modern reasoning, these acts can be read as heroism, as individual sacrifices for the collective good of health and, in the last instance, survival. Withdrawal thus wins ethical quality, which leads Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos to call Covid an ‘ethical disease’. Indeed, the ethics of withdrawal believe in the solvability of the situation. It declares a total responsibilisation which, by invoking the figure of the ‘vulnerable’, requires all subject interests to step back behind of what is proposed as indisputable common sense.

The ethical logic of withdrawal has an extended history in the ecology movement. As Delf Rothe has shown, this radical reasoning is foundational to the ‘eco-catastrophism’ strand of the climate movement. In withdrawal, there is hope, the hope of victory against the disease and, thus, against nature. The offered hope to return to normality, however, turns shallow since it becomes increasingly obvious that the ethics of withdrawal only work in permanence.

The requirement of enduring withdrawal lets this logic fail. Society’s withdrawal from the world unavoidably translates into society’s separation from itself. The current enthusiasm for global solidarity in withdrawal will be short-lived. In real-world politics, border closures, patriotic isolationism and Blockwart-mentality dominate. Society in withdrawal is the end of society. In spite of suggestions such as Donna Haraway’s ‘kin-making’, society’s separation from the world eventually means the end of the world. What is presented as the ethics of withdrawal appears as a last attempt to rescue modernity under the conditions of the Anthropocene.

In contrast to withdrawal, affirmation reaches beyond hope. It accepts the fragility and precarity inherent to life. Affirmation is pragmatic. It acknowledges the exposure to the ‘great outdoors’, the predominance of nature, the human embeddedness in the world. Affirmation is thus closely tied to resilience, to the idea that people and societies can cope with and adapt to adverse circumstances. In practical terms, elements of affirmative logic in relation to Covid-19 were to be found in ‘controlled spread’ and ‘herd immunity’ approaches that would have accepted the infection of a significant part of the population – and, therefore, a significant number of deaths – in order to keep societies continuing as normal as possible.

As withdrawal, affirmation faces an ethical antagonism. The approach of safeguarding society as a whole by committing to sacrifice parts of it has not only led to severe humanist resistance. Such an approach also remains unthinkable in modern reasoning. A late-modern human society genuinely struggles to accept its self-sacrifice to the world, because, in contrast to a real war, the sphere of heroism, such sacrifice is essentially non-heroic and wasted. Death remains lonesome, useless, unremarkable. Despite all calls for resilience, for coping with disaster and crisis, for accepting risk as the necessary precondition of essentially fragile life, the human appears incapable of achieving what Slavoj Žižek demands with regards to the Covid-crisis: to accept existential uncertainty and to deal with it.

Both withdrawal and affirmation emerge as equally necessary and impossible. In an answer to the epidemiologist John Ioannidis’ claim that the world was overreacting to the coronavirus because of unreliable data, fellow epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch confirmed this ethical antagonism by stating ‘Ioannidis is right that the prospect of intense social distancing for months or years is one that can hardly be imagined, let alone enacted. The alternative of letting the infection spread uncontrolled is equally unimaginable’. Both withdrawal and affirmation fail because they aim at constructing humanist ethics in the Anthropocene. However, the Anthropocene relentlessly enforces the post-human condition: neither can human society withdraw from the world, nor can it remain within the world. It can only affirm its own finality. The times of life as a promise appear to have ended.


The author wants to thank Pol Bargues Pedreny and David Chandler for comments on earlier versions of this blog post.


About the Author

Jan Pospisil is Research Director at the ASPR – Austrian Study Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution and an Associated Professor at the University of Vienna. He is also part of the Political Settlements Research Programme (PSRP), located at the University of Edinburgh. Jan’s research focuses on post-liberal approaches in the fields of peace and security. He has recently published the monograph ‘Peace in Political Unsettlement’ with Palgrave Macmillan.