You have both been working for several years on the concept of biopolitics as applied to Central and Eastern Europe, including Russia. Can we talk about the rise of an illiberal biopolitics? And is there a liberal biopolitics, or are the terms antinomic?
The idea of biopolitics is largely known for its Foucauldian iteration of the late 1970s, which explained how European disciplinary institutions were gradually replacing their repertoire of direct coercive methods of control with more nuanced and “soft” tools of surveillance. On the one hand, this transformation indeed implied some degree of liberalization. On the other hand, the exponential transfiguration of techniques of governance and population management into a panopticon does not sounds very liberal: the omnipresent state is increasingly capable of monitoring all spheres of life. Practices of biopower often merge with the state apparatus, since the sovereign power appropriates biopolitical instruments and even makes them central to their governance toolkits. In this case, the liberal/illiberal frame of analysis becomes quite relevant.
Generally speaking, the pivotal liberal/illiberal biopolitical divide corresponds to the distinction between individual and collective bodies. Foucault approached population mostly through a technical (numerical or statistical) lens and paid much less attention to individual bodies. We tend to think that liberalism is a more pertinent reference point for anatomo-politics, a concept that implies and leaves substantial room for the values of the individual body, as opposed to collective corporeality, which is always punitive and oppressive. Anatomo-politics may take different forms of resistance and contestation. Some actors reinterpret Giorgio Agamben’s idea of bare life in a positive sense, making individual—and often literally naked—bodies into loci of radical disagreement and protest (Piotr Pavlensky, Pussy Riot and Katrin Nenasheva in Russia or FEMEN in Ukraine serve as good examples of this). Within this cultural frame, the body in all its nakedness symbolizes freedom and challenges the biopower operated or hijacked by the state.
Another form of contemporary anatomo-politics is mass-scale protests against COVID-related bans, restrictions, and limitations, including the current vaccination campaign. This completely new phenomenon—mainly driven by an unusual blend of right-wing believers in conspiracy theories, left-wing anarchists, and adherents of pretty libertarian attitudes toward the physicality of bodily life—is still waiting for proper conceptualization.
Anyway, anatomo-politics starts with the individualization of our bodies. It might be otherwise called embodiment: practices of sport, yoga and meditation, dancing, or, for example, naturism are pretty liberal in their cultural background. For instance, the German FKK (“culture of free body”) was one of the liberal spaces within the largely totalitarian East Germany. In all kind of regimes, there are anatomo-political “islands” of embodied practices that reclaim our bodies from the totalizing universe of biopower.
In the meantime, biopolitics should not always and necessarily be qualified along ideological lines. It can transcend ideological divides and merge with governmentality, or techniques and mechanisms of governance. This might be true, for instance, of using managerial and administrative resources in times of crises: the important things are the sustainability of health care systems and the professionalism of medical staff. In this sense, biopower can operate at a certain distance from state institutions and maintain some autonomy from them.
You have also been working on Russia’s relations with its neighbors, especially but not exclusively the Baltic states. How do you articulate the link between biopolitics at home and the geopolitical order? Is Russia in particular projecting mechanisms of power abroad that you would describe as biopolitical?
There is definitely a correlation between domestic and foreign policy biopolitics, as well as between bio- and geopolitics. Usually, regimes that are grounded in the biopolitical understanding of power relations tend to project it beyond their national borders, seeing it as explaining the operation of international politics more generally. Belarus and Russia are good examples of this trend. For their elites, both internal and world politics are spheres for physical survival, leaving very little space for norms and rules. Seen from this perspective, biopolitics might feed Realpolitik thinking of the type encapsulated in the well-known metaphor “war of all against all.”
The concept of the Russian world, as promoted by the Kremlin, is an inherently biopolitical construct. It is based on the imagined global community of Russophones, who allegedly require care and protection on the part of Moscow. At the same time, this external biopolitics has geopolitical repercussions insofar as parts of some territories belonging to Russia’s neighbors fall within Moscow’s self-assigned “sphere of interests.” Thus, biopolitics can directly impact geopolitical issues, including the biopolitical construction of spaces and borders, as well relations of centrality and peripherality.
Another form of external projection of biopower is the Kremlin’s contacts with a plethora of Western right-wing parties and groups that very much adhere to a biopolitical agenda, including pro-family and anti-LGBTQ policies, a strong nexus between church and state (in line with the Foucauldian idea of “pastoral power”), and anti-migration and often Islamophobic narratives. This partnership has some reverberations for Russia’s geopolitical construction of Europe as a civilization in a state of moral decay, a source of sexual deviance and sinful pleasures.
It does not seem that Russia has achieved much in this direction. Donald Trump is no longer in the White House, Matteo Salvini is out of the Italian government, and Marine Le Pen is not French president. Moreover, those biopolitically conservative regimes that persist—the Polish one, for instance—are definitely not among Russia’s geopolitical allies.
In the Baltic states, the linkage between biopolitics and geopolitics has its own specificity. For example, the predominantly Russophone Estonian city of Narva, located on the border with Russia, is often discussed in Estonian media from an implicitly biopolitical perspective. This geopolitically important city is largely perceived in mainstream Estonian discourse as being populated by a different “type” of people—people who are more inert and socially conservative, more state-centric, and more culturally attached to Russian patterns of information consumption. This argument popped up during debates this summer in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, again corroborating the interconnection between geopolitical and biopolitical frames of reference.
Russia’s vaccine race serves as another example of a geo-/biopolitical weaponization of the pandemic. Sputnik V was introduced as the first vaccine for COVID-19 in August 2020, even before the required third stage of tests was completed. The Kremlin’s fast-track approach to vaccine development clearly revealed its desire to exploit the extraordinary global situation to improve Russia’s position in the international arena, which was particularly damaged by the poisoning of Navalny.
Last year, you published Critical Biopolitics of the Post-Soviet: From Populations to Nations. Are there specific features of biopolitics in the post-Soviet realm—due to the Soviet experience or to post-Soviet transformations—that you see as different from biopolitics in Europe?
The surge in Western biopolitics is to a very large extent rooted in the experiences of mass-scale terrorism, the influx of refugees, and the prominence of deep racial divides. In most post-Soviet countries, these issues are not at the top of political agendas. What fuels biopolitics in the post-Soviet space is the ongoing process of nation (re)building/(re)emerging and the corresponding national self-assertion. This makes the idea of the collective national body attractive and pronounced. But it is exactly at this juncture that major biopolitical issues start to crop up: How is the nation conceptualized, imagined, and represented? Are all people (“population,” in Foucauldian terms) consensually considered to belong to the national self?
In our book, we found that this is not the case in Donbas, for instance. Our field research in eastern Ukraine revealed that there are voices in Ukraine who do not see the residents of eastern regions as fully belonging to the Ukrainian nation. In Georgia, some local Muslims feel ostracized as “internal others” by religious fundamentalists who claim that full-fledged and authentic Georgian identity exists only on the basis of Christian faith. In Latvia and Estonia, a significant proportion of local Russophones build their identity on linguistic and cultural borders with mainstream nationhood.
Another specificity of the so-called post-Soviet space is its liminal position at the intersection of Russia’s neo-imperial biopolitics and the EU’s biopolitical project. The former is explicitly conservative, the latter is ostensibly liberal (although, of course, the liberal/conservative divide is a major driving force for political battles within some member states, such as Poland). This collision of dissimilar biopolitical projects contributes to the politicization of the issues of sexual identity, family policies, educational practices, and religion in most of the post-Soviet countries.
The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have been a case par excellence for the exertion of some forms of biopolitics regardless of a state’s political practices and ideology. In the long term, how do you think this rise in biopolitics in daily state-society interactions will impact liberalism as a political project?
European left-wing public intellectuals (such as Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Žižek, and Michel Houellebecq) and social activists (such as the Gilets Jaunes in France) have long claimed that biopolitics gradually erases distinctions between liberal and illiberal regimes, as well as between democracy and autocracy, freedom and unfreedom. Some of these thinkers have employed stark metaphors, such as the camp that, in their view, represents the future of the West. These voices see the pandemic as powerful confirmation of their views. In their logic, since the major function of the state is to provide physical safety and secure a healthy life as the undeniable top value and priority, the price for fulfilling this function is quite high: growing authoritarianism regardless of the nature of political systems and institutions.
However, we remain skeptical about the idea of equating liberal and illiberal regimes on the grounds that all of them need to take exceptional measures and limit the normal structure of daily life. Undeniably, nation-states have reasserted themselves as major forces shaping responses to the crisis, yet by and large, their sovereignties in no way follow the Schmittian model of will-based and unaccountable decisionism or the friend/enemy distinction. The newly retrieved sovereignties are precarious (to paraphrase Judith Butler’s biopolitical idea of “precarious lives”) in the sense of exposing governments’ indecisiveness rather than strategic resolve, and their policies controversially oscillate between many positions. Under these circumstances, the Foucauldian idea of responsibilization becomes more important for anti-pandemic response than concentration and usurpation of power.
The fact is that the COVID-19 emergency did not annul democratic decision-making, whatever we may think about the quality of these decisions. In countries with a strong background of liberal norms and experiences, checks and balances and free media are still in place. And in many respects decision-making is not monopolized by the state authorities: medical professionals, startup communities, and transportation companies, to name just a few, are important contributors to the collective search for solutions. In the meantime, countries with strong illiberal traditions (such as Russia or Belarus) have become even more authoritarian during the pandemic, as their ruling elites instrumentalize public health requirements to prevent people from engaging in protest actions. In this sense, the divide between liberal and illiberal governments persists, and we do not see how the two might eventually converge.
Yet there are spheres of international politics that have been hit badly by the pandemic. One of these is regionalism, one of the core pillars of liberal international society. In fact, COVID-19 has polarized world politics between global actors (World Health Organization, global vaccine producers, etc.) and national governments, with very little in-between. Regional organizations have largely failed to address the challenge of the pandemic and have proven incapable of operating in exceptional times. We cannot think of a single anti-coronavirus initiative that has emerged from the most successful regional bodies, those that have for decades been described as success stories of regional integration: the Council of Baltic Sea States, the Nordic Council, the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, the Visegrad Group… In this respect, we might need a thorough debate on the role of regional organizations in a post-pandemic world.
Our Program is called the Illiberalism Studies Program. Do you think the concept of illiberal(ism) has purchase for describing the current changes in values that you study, perhaps as compared to the concepts of populism and authoritarianism? What are the gaps and overlaps between the three notions?
Populism is the least useful notion, in our view. It is excessively broad and imprecise, and therefore can be applied to the whole spectrum of political forces looking for public support and offering simplified explanations of political issues. The only basis for classification of populism is the distinction between appeals to “the people” and appeals to objective knowledge. Yet even technocracy—which should, logically, be the opposite of populism—can be populist.
In this sense, illiberalism has some cognitive advantages. The concept itself is multifarious and has more than one reading, depending on the context. From a biopolitical perspective, what seems to be the most relevant is the tendency of some illiberal regimes (particularly in the post-Soviet world) to substitute for politico-ideological arguments with the explicit and mass use of brutal force against their opponents and dissenters. Again, Russia and Belarus are two perfect illustrations of this trend, as their governing elites are more violent then conservative. Lukashenko’s spectacular public appearance armed with a gun in August 2020 or Navalny’s poisoning and subsequent imprisonment are quite illustrative in this regard. These revealing episodes are important additions to the biopolitical debate, since the alleged conservatism of these regimes is reduced to flexing physical muscles, beating demonstrators and protestors, and harming their physical bodies.
This can be described by the concept of “carceral state,” a state that is devoid of clear ideological features and grounded in a corporeal understanding of politics as a battleground between “strong” and well-armed bodies of the police, on the one hand, and “weak” and unarmed bodies of the opposition, on the other. The dominance of this vision reduces political struggles to the issues of survival, escape, incarceration, or release from jail. In this space of violence, there is very little—if any—room for political debates on matters of substance, which fully suits the power holders.
Alexandra Yatsyk is a Research Fellow at Free Russia Foundation. Previously, she has served as a researcher, a visiting fellow and a lecturer at Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies at the University of Tartu (Estonia), the University of Warsaw and the Polish Institute of Advanced Studies (Poland), the Uppsala Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies (Sweden), the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna (Austria), the University of Tampere (Finland), George Washington University (DC, USA) as well as at the Center for Urban History of East-Central Europe at Lviv (Ukraine).
Her areas of expertise are in post-Soviet nation building, Russian influence in Europe, sports and cultural mega-events, biopolitics and art. She is the author of numerous articles and books, including recently co-authored the Critical biopolitics of the Post-Soviet: from Population to Nation (Lexington, 2019), Lotman’s Cultural Semiotics and the Political (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017), and co-edited Mega-Events in Post-Soviet Eurasia: Shifting Borderlines of Inclusion and Exclusion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), New and Old Vocabularies of International Relations After the Ukraine Crisis (Routledge, 2016), and Boris Nemtsov and Russian Politics: Power and Resistance (Ibidem Verlag & Columbia University, 2018).
Andrey Makarychev is Professor of Regional Political Studies at Johan Skytte Institute of Political Science, University of Tartu. He is also a Guest Professor at Center for Global Politics, Free University in Berlin and Senior Associate with CIDOB think tank in Barcelona. His previous institutional affiliations included George Mason University (US), Center for Security Studies and Conflict Research (ETH Zurich), and Danish Institute of International Studies. Andrey Makarychev teaches courses on “Globalization“, “Political Systems in post-Soviet Eurasia“, “EU-Russia Relations“, “Regionalism and Integration in the post-Soviet Area“, “Visual Politics“. In recent years he co-authored (all with Alexandra Yatsyk) three monographs – “Celebrating Borderlands in a Wider Europe: Nations and Identities in Ukraine, Georgia and Estonia” (Nomos, 2016), “Lotman’s Cultural Semiotics and the Political” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2017), and “Critical Biopolitics of the Post-Soviet: from Populations to Nations” (Lexington Books, 2020). He co-edited a number of academic volumes – “Mega Events in post-Soviet Eurasia: Shifting Borderlands of Inclusion and Exclusion” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), “Vocabularies of International Relations after the Crisis in Ukraine (Routledge, 2017); “Borders in the Baltic Sea Region: Suturing the Ruptures” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).