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Survival gone viral

Edgar Illas

To cite this article: Edgar Illas (2020) Survival gone viral, Culture, Theory and Critique, 61:4, 457-465, DOI: 10.1080/14735784.2020.1856701

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Published online: 04 Jan 2021.

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Survival gone viral

Edgar Illas

Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, USA


In this paper, I argue that the Covid-19 pandemic has made it more evident that the question of survival plays a structural role in the politics of globalisation. Like a virus that feeds off living cells without producing new ones, globalisation builds on blurring the previously differentiated spaces of the state, the market, war, and nature. The pandemic has exacerbated the instability that results from this blurring of the political spaces of modernity. Amidst this instability, survival has become a prevailing and yet liminal condition for the appearance of politics itself. Rather than interpreting this condition as a biopolitical reduction of political life to mere life, as Giorgio Agamben or Roberto Esposito have done, my theorisation claims that global survival has produced a hyperpoliticization of all events and acts of social life. I illustrate these logics with the political centrality of life in the Black Lives Matter movement.


Survival; globalisation; biopolitics; Black Lives Matter

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated structural dynamics that were already in place. At the beginning of the pandemic, prominent thinkers such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek interpreted the new state of emergency as an opportunity to create a political event: they claimed that the crisis put us at the crossroads between the self-destructive path of capitalism and the construction of communism.1 After several months in the new normal, however, it seems more plausible to think that the virus will not constitute an epochal event and will simply accelerate and intensify some of the dominant tendencies of globalisation.

One of these tendencies has to do with the global conditions for politics. Specifically, the coronavirus has made even more evident the destructive effect that globalisation has had on the political categories of modernity. Like a virus that feeds off living cells without producing new ones, globalisation builds on blurring the previously differentiated spaces of the state, the market, war, and nature. In other words, in the global age, the world appears as a plane of immanence that mixes disparate political, economic, war, and environmental logics. This magmatic fusion has created a situation of permanent instability and crisis that I have proposed to call‘the survival regime’.2

© 2021 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group

CONTACT Edgar Illas


To defend the need of communism, Badiou used openly motivational terms:‘we must take advantage of this epidemic interlude, and even of the– entirely necessary – isolation, to work on new figures of politics, on the project of new political sites, and on the trans-national progress of a third stage of communism after the brilliant one of its invention and the– interesting but ultimately defeated – stage of its statist experimentation’ (2020). I will refer toŽižek below.


See Illas2020.


Indeed, after the outbreak of the pandemic, the question of survival has become pain-fully real and urgent. Without warning, all acts of individual and collective life have begun to revolve around the basic and yet infinitely diverse and multifaceted problems of survival. The domain of bare existence has rapidly acquired immediate political mean-ings. Any quotidian and instrumental activity, like wearing a mask, going to work, teach-ing a class, runnteach-ing a business or playteach-ing a sports game, has unavoidably become politicised. In this respect, the threat of death and the prospect of survival have gained a liminal but determining presence in all spheres of global society. For these reasons, the analysis of survival as a political concept – an elusive and undertheorized one – seems more pressing than ever.

What is the survival regime? Let me refer to the main previous theorizations. First, survival is logically mere struggle for life. It simply refers to life before civil organisation, to the realm of experience that remains outside of politics. In Hobbes’s classic terms, sur-vival belongs to the prepolitical sphere of the natural ‘war of all against all’ (bellum omnium contra omnes), in which there is‘continual fear and danger of violent death, and [where] the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ (1994: XIII, 9: 76). There is nothing political in survival. On the contrary, politics represents the effort to protect individuals and collectives from the anxieties of survival.

Yet the main thinkers of biopolitics in the twentieth century (Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben and Roberto Esposito) have taught us that this exclusion of survival from pol-itical life precisely defined the dominant paradigm of modern politics. Modernity con-sisted in the insertion of survival into the centre of politics through the paradoxical exclusion of biological life. Modern politics, as Hobbes illustrates in a paradigmatic form, projects life as a natural and chaotic state from which politics itself protects us. Thus, the consideration of survival as a non-political phenomenon is in fact the sign of its politicisation.

The thinking of biopolitics unmasks this form of internal exclusion of biological life in modernity. In a famous sentence in History of Sexuality, Foucault says:‘For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question’ (1990: 143). The point is that, while classic politics organised power apart from the issue of life, or at least by approaching it obliquely, the modern state, by contrast, focuses on disciplining bodies and regulating the movements of masses to control life and transform it into a condition external to politics. Thus, if classic power founded politics on some form of transcendence, whether philosophical (like Platonic truth) or theological (like the Christian God), modern power installs itself as an immanent representation of human life. Life is the other of modern politics, the other that, in fact, constitutes its condition of possibility.

Agamben develops this idea to reflect on the inherent relationship between state control and the reduction of life to naked life or‘nuda vita’. He redraws the genealogy of the shift theorised by Foucault and locates the origin of the political capture of life in the Greek distinction between bios and zoē, that is, between qualified life and bare life. Thus, whereas‘classic democracy’ distinguished between these two categories, mod-ernity consists in the‘vindication and liberation of zoē’ and the transformation of ‘its own bare life into a way of life… to find, so to speak, the bios of zoē’ (1998: 9). Modern bio-politics, in other words, centres on the control of life and on the body as a site of


subjection and, therefore, blurs all distinctions between politics and survival. Politics becomes the task of setting the very‘natural’ order and biological frame of life.

Esposito reinterprets modern biopolitics in terms of bodily immunisation. Through the examination of the biological, medical and anthropological studies from the nine-teenth and twentieth century that served as subtext for the Foucauldian theses on life and power, he describes biopolitics as a project of immunisation from external elements that can endanger the existence of the social body. These elements can indistinctly be enemies, natural catastrophes, social disorders, or illnesses and viruses. Thus, immunity is ‘the power to preserve life’ and ‘politics is nothing other than the possibility or the instrument for keeping life alive’ (2008: 46). The othering of life in the modern Hobbe-sian state pursues the full implementation of the immunitary paradigm.

More recently, another theoretician of biopolitics, Davide Tarizzo, makes the radical affirmation that life itself is a modern invention that only emerged when the biological life of the subject became the main object and gravitational centre of the control of the state. By taking up the Darwinian analysis of natural selection as an exemplary epis-temology, Tarizzo shows the connection between the modern conceptualisation of sub-jectivity and the invention of life. Through this connection, life acquires three functions: to give form to the self, to enforce the struggle for survival and to stipulate the imperative to be healthy. Or, as he puts it,‘Life appears as the individuation of an unfathomable Self;’ ‘Life results in a furious struggle for life;’ and ‘Life is kept alive by our will to health’ (2017: 54). Consequently, Darwinism expresses the metaphysical basis of the biopolitics of modernity.

My hypothesis builds on the premise that globalisation represents a rupture with modern rationalities. The rupture takes place at many levels and is paradoxical to the extent that globalisation is the maximum expression of modernity and, precisely because of this, it cancels out the epochal force of modernity as a project and as a tem-porality. Indeed, conceiving globalisation as rupture already entails a paradox, because change and the emergence of the new are essential features of modernity. The break with a previous past is the modern gesture par excellence, so a global break could only contribute to the advance and reproduction of the modern logic. Rather than dwelling in this aporetic quandary, however, my claim is that globalisation constitutes a postmo-dern plane that has encompassed all temporal and spatial limits, including those of the modern. Despite its paradoxical origin, globalisation now defines the absolute present of everything that befalls us, of everything that is the case, to use Wittgensteinian language. We have become postmodern, we are now global, and we always will be.


This dispersion of the state has entailed the merging of thefield of politics and the capitalist market. Naturally, this does not mean that the state did not interact with the market in modernity. Yet its dominant function is no longer the regulation and bio-political protection of people’s lives. Rather, the central function of the corporate state is to act as another productive agent, albeit a very powerful one, in the global market. Instead of regulating and disciplining the market, civil society and life from an exter-nal or neutral position, now the state, or what Joshua Barkan calls ‘corporate sover-eignty’, operates as an internal mechanism of control in the spaces of social production.3

The dedifferentiation between the state and the market does not only refer to the pri-vatisation of social services or to the shift from disciplinary rule to neoliberal manage-ment. More fundamentally, but also more concretely, the fusion of market and state has entailed the dissolution of monetary sovereignty into the financial system. Whereas the economic force of modern sovereign power lay in the capacity to create and destroy money for the arrangement of national markets, in globalisation the pro-duction of money largely depends on the debt economy offinancial circuits. The gener-ation of money out of money itself through the circulgener-ation offinancial debt, which Marx expressed in the formula of interest-bearing capital‘M – M’’, that is, of ‘money which is worth more money, value which is greater than itself’ (1976: 257), has become the explicit and dominant form of capital accumulation. Starting in the 1970s, money gradually changes from being a commodity produced and controlled by states to being issued by private banks in the form of debt. Money is thus privatised, a privatisation that, as Maur-izio Lazzarato has said, is‘the source of all privatizations’ (2012: 96). In this respect, the changing role of money overdetermines the neoliberal dissemination and repurposing of state apparatuses. Central reserves begin to play the role of rescuers: when thefinancial sector experiences stagnation and needs liquidity, governments assume the debt and perform the famous bailouts in order to reactivate the circuits of finance.4 The state and the market are equally subsumed under the same logic offinancialization.5

Thisfinancial merging of the state and the market, and the subsequent blurring of the modern and differentiated spaces of civil society, the family and the self, which become also part of the self-valorization of capital, generates a situation of permanent instability. The mixing of the logic of competition of capitalism and the political logic of enmity of states creates continuous short circuits that disrupt all sense of peaceful stability. This does not mean that the operations of finance simply and mechanically determine all the political and social conflicts of the world. The very distinction between an economic base and a superstructural society falls apart after the merging of state and market. In this respect, the collapse of previous spatial and operative distinctions is both the immanent cause and effect of a situation of volatility that is both productive and destructive at all levels. This situation entails the state of war and permanent conflict.

3Barkan2013. For other great analyses of the transformation of the state in globalization, see Mezzadra and Neilson2019,

especially 209–52; and Lindahl2013.

4As Adam Kotsko has written,‘[f]ar from a contradiction, a financial sector bailout is precisely the duty of the neoliberal

state as ultimate guarantor of market structures’ (2018: 21).

5For an analysis of globalfinancialization, see, in addition to Lazzarato2012, Lazzarato2015; Harvey2005; Marazzi2010;


In this situation, survival is no longer an element external to politics, like in premo-dernity, nor is it the site of internal exclusion of the modern biopolitical state. Survival adopts a structural function that permeates every domain. Survival defines the horizon of experience in the acts of navigating through continuous uncertainty: survival as a necessity in the marketplace, survival as a logic of war, survival as the fundamental ques-tion of climate breakdown and the species, or survival as the main threat and concern in a pandemic. Survival is not so much a specific content of political action or capitalist pro-duction but rather unfolds as the amorphous form of collective life after the vanishing of all stability. It defines, in short, the immanent cause of the magmatic conglomerate of market, state, war, nature, and social life.

The actuality of survival as a global regime questions the entire modern architecture of the political. The distinctions between friend and enemy, civil society and state, left and right, or peace and war, are deeply destabilised. Even if these distinctions continue to be present, they do not materialise in concrete spaces nor do they serve to draw clear and distinct antagonisms. Whether it is because of a terrorist attack, afinancial crisis, an eco-logical catastrophe or now a virus, governmentality operates as a constant struggle to institute spaces that can contain global instability. What kind of governmentality defines the global survival regime? Foucault described modern governmentality as a tri-partite power ensemble that had‘the population as its target, political economy as its major form of knowledge, and apparatuses of security as its essential technical instru-ment’ (2007: 108). Governmentality was thus an attempt to rethink the complexity of the state beyond its repressive aims and its role in the reproduction of the capitalist relations of production. Foucault’s term lay the emphasis on the biopolitical control of governments and their operativity not through top-down domination but through assemblages of institutions, knowledges, and procedures that inherently organised social life.

The logic of survival has further dispersed the governmentalization of the state. Rather than revolving around biopolitical control, the survival regime functions as a decentred and aleatory modulation made of the urgent responses to pressing threats and vital crises. The regime emerges as an after-effect of the ongoing struggles for stabilisation and sur-vival. These struggles, however, increase the instability of the world even more, thus gen-erating the states of exception that we experience daily at many levels. Stabilisation and subsistence fold up onto each other through a series of never-ending struggles that mix politics, war, capital, and life. The result is a kind of degree zero governmentality that is always singular and different from itself, depending on the situation and conflict in question.


Yet the problem is thatŽižek inadvertently destabilises his own distinction when he relates each option to the prospect of survival. On the one hand, in different parts of his text he describes capitalist barbarism as‘apolitical survivalism’ (2020: 98), as the cele-brated neoliberal ‘survival of the fittest’ (87), and as an apocalyptic ‘Mad Max-style struggle for survival’ (99). On the other hand, Žižek also alludes to survival to define the goals of communism. He claims that‘our first principle should be not to economise but to assist unconditionally, irrespective of costs, those who need help, to enable their survival’ (87). Or he demands that, during the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, we make an effort to guarantee ‘the minimum of survival of all new unemployed’ (103). The confluence of the two sides of the opposition is indicative of the growing predo-minance of survival as a political category. This category is twisted and self-conflicting, as it blurs its own conceptual distinctions as a category.Žižek’s contradictory use of survi-val, which he employs to denunciate capitalism as apolitical and to define the liberatory programme of communism, perfectly exemplifies these blurring effects. Indeed, there are no definite criteria to distinguish between the apolitical survival of capitalism and survi-val as orientation or even ultima ratio of communist politics. This entanglement is not merely a problem of inconsistency in Žižek’s reflection; instead, the blurring is, again, inherent to the category of survival, which functions as some type of structural horizon of politics in globalisation while at the same time leaving the direction of politics open and undetermined. Unlike the programmatic– and dogmatic!– directives of modern politics, the political events that take place in the anomic terrain of global war mix‘progressive’ and ‘reactionary’ consequences that fall back on a moment of survival that functions as a kind of structural logic or last instance.

Given these indeterminations, we must ask the question of whether survival gives form to specific types of politics. In reference to Covid-19, Agamben, for instance, does not see any possibility for politics in a situation of sheer survival. For him, survival means the reduction of life to the individual body and to the fear of death. He asserts that the social distancing that has been put into effect as a result of the pandemic prevents the generation of collective power. As he writes,‘The naked life, and the fear of losing it, is not something that brings men and women together, but something that blinds and sep-arates them. Other human beings, like those in the plague described by Manzoni, are now seen only as potential contaminators to be avoided at all costs or at least to keep at a dis-tance of at least one metre. What will human relations become in a country that will be accustomed to living in this way for who knows how long? And what is a society with no other value other than survival?’ (2020).

Agamben presupposes that politics only appears when bodies come together in the polis. Here he incorporates one of the fundamental points of Hannah Arendt’s con-ception of the political. Arendt, one of Agamben’s recurrent philosophical references, explains in The Human Condition how the gathering of bodies is a condition for the gen-eration of power. She describes the polis as the place of the true appearance of human power and relates this appearance to urban density:

The only indispensable material factor in the generation of power is the living together of people. Only where men live so close together that the potentialities for action are always present will power remain with them and the foundation of cities, which as city states have remained paradigmatic for all Western political organization, is therefore the most important material prerequisite for power. (1958: 201)


This bodily dimension is indeed an essential material condition for politics, and the poli-ticisation of survival also builds on the action of getting together. Yet this polipoli-ticisation functions self-referentially as a response to a threat to self-preservation. Let us illustrate this point with the ongoing actions of the Black Lives Matter movement. As we saw in June 2020, thefirst significant political act after the outbreak of the pandemic, the dem-onstrations of BLM, drew its power from the physical gathering of people. The act of getting together in these demonstrations was even more significant amidst the threat of the virus. Getting together on the street became an immediate affirmation of survival against any concrete and general force of death. This affirmation perfectly complemented the political core of the BLM movement, which also centres on the unreserved affirma-tion of life.

Even if the demonstrations had concrete demands for justice for George Floyd and for the ending of police brutality against African Americans, the very slogan of the move-ment expresses the significance of life as the substance of politics itself. BLM wants equal-ity, recognition, justice, peace, and accountability. Yet these claims gain their power from the pure expression of the value of life. Their essential political substance comes from stating the fact that life is what matters and that politics is a matter of life. Thus, the cat-egory of survival aims to define this politicisation of naked life and the immediate trans-formation of‘nuda vita’ into qualified life. Again, the fact that the demonstrations of BLM took place against the backdrop of the pandemic made this politicisation even more conspicuous and striking: the act of getting together en masse conveyed by itself the message that the social affirmation of black life was more vital than any risk of dying from Covid-19.

This does not mean that mere life is the content of BLM; in fact, the generic affirma-tion of life precisely defines the reacaffirma-tion against this movement encapsulated by the racist slogan‘All Lives Matter’. As Christopher J. Lebron has shown, BLM is another chapter in the history of an idea of equal dignity and‘a struggle [that] is as old as America itself’ (2017: xiii). Yet, even if equality and antiracist denunciation remain central practices, BLM brings a special inflection to the matter of life. The very slogan of the movement expresses the significance of life as the substance of politics itself. Indeed, the universal appeal of BLM seems to emerge from this mixing of the sense of injustice with the raw materiality of life. Barbara Ransby has remarked that BLM is not a Black-only struggle but a common struggle of all the oppressed:‘poor Black people are represented in all the categories of the oppressed in the United States’, so BLM must be understood as a‘Black-led mass struggle’ (2018: 3) that can include multiple oppressed collectives, from immigrants to indigenous, Latinx or Muslim communities. Is this immediate and post-hegemonic representation of heterogenous collectives not made possible by the affirma-tion of the common condiaffirma-tion of life, that is, of lives that survive under different faces of oppression? Thus, the category of survival aims to define this politicisation of naked life and its direct transformation into qualified life.6

However, the other movement that simultaneously made a collective affirmation of life over the risk of viral infection in 2020 were the pro-Trump virus deniers who began to defy and politicise medical directives. This movement belongs to the opposite side of the 6For other analyses of BLM and its contextualization in the history of black struggles, see Taylor (2016); Collier Hillstrom


ideological spectrum and yet it similarly appeals to the ultima ratio of survival. Their pol-itical message is that for them individual freedom is more important than any risk of getting sick and dying. In this respect, the coincidence of the two movements at this primary level epitomizes the problematic and unguarded nature of the politics of survi-val. Survival brings forth the paradoxicalfight against the reduction of life to survival. But the open and free character of this logic of politicisation makes space for all types of pol-itical causes, whether they are justice for the black community or the assertion of a dis fi-gured and unenlightened individualism.

This regime of survival does not lead to the end of politics, as Agamben fears, but to the hyperpoliticization of life. In the anomic spaces of globalisation, politics goes viral as soon as a manifestation of individual and collective life generates some kind of conflict, short-circuit, polemic, or different modulation in the plane of immanence of global society. The destabilisation of the political spaces of modernity, and especially the with-ering of the monopolies of state power, has infused political energy into all gestures and behaviours of social life. Hyperpoliticization may not produce new stable juridical spaces but it intensifies the political vitality of society. And, even if the cases of BLM and the Trump supporters represent clear ideological opposites, most political events of survival constitute hybrid mixtures of reactionary and progressive contents. Survival can generate acts of selfishness and violence as much as moments of collaboration and solidarity, and this unsettledness forces us to continually work on distinguishing the internal differences in these contradictory mixtures.

To survive does not mean that the only thing we can do is to try to postpone an inevi-table death. Survival is the driving force of social life in globalisation. Or, better, survival shifts like a virus that lives off of social life and yet also creates the conditions for the appearance of collective consciousness and solidarity. Our survival fluctuates between the exhausting combat to protect ourselves and the productive joy of being still alive, among others.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

Notes on contributor

Edgar Illas, is an associate professor in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at Indiana Uni-versity, Bloomington. His field of specialization is contemporary Catalan culture. His research interests also lie in political theory, Marxism, biopolitics, and war studies. He has published Think-ing Barcelona: Ideologies of a Global City (2012) and The Survival Regime. Global War and the Pol-itical (2020).


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