Des Fitzgerald reviews Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World by Benjamin Bratton (Verso, 2022).
Since mid-2020, a small library’s worth of books on the Covid pandemic has appeared. We have had accounts of where public health specialists got it wrong, of the inside story of vaccine development, and of clinicians’ experiences. What we have not had, so far, however, is much on the politics of Covid, including on the relationship between the pandemic and wider questions of governance, authority and expertise. This is strange. As the philosopher and political theorist, Benjamin Bratton, points out in his 2022 book, Revenge of the Real (Verso), Covid emerged at a time when “populism” was ascendant in several countries. By populism, Bratton means politics in the style of a Trump or a Bolsonaro, big on “demagoguery, folksy scape-goating, simplistic emotional appeals” – a governing style that “despises expertise and fetishizes metaphors” (9). For a long time, this populism seemed to gain strength from its refusal to accept the liberal centre’s idea of “political reality.” It was the pandemic, Bratton argues, a biological and not a cultural force, that finally burst the populist bubble. Covid —cast by Bratton as the confluence of biology, science and reality – has pulled the veil back. And pulled it back not only from the last decade of reactionary unseriousness, but from the longer post-war settlement, whose comfort and security allowed ageing boomers to act as if rationality and expertise were boring things for other people
One way to think about the pandemic, says Bratton, is as a kind of experiment in global governance. On the one hand, he argues, we have a political culture beset by populism, delusions of security, and a commitment to personal autonomy. This predominates in countries like the “lumbering” UK and USA with their “political culture of the suspicion of governance” (26-28). On the other hand, there are places where the emphasis has been on expertise, technology, data, mutuality and governmental authority. These were countries, many of them “Asian technocracies,” Bratton writes, “that took the situation and the data seriously” – where governments were “trusted and competent” (21). The invocation of “trust” here tells us that what is at stake for Bratton is not only governance, but subjectivity. If the liberal subject is grounded in a kind of individualised autonomy, Bratton calls instead for an “epidemiological model of society,” and thus a re-thinking of subjectivity as transmissibility. An organism, after all, is a thing that transmits – information, viruses, whatever. A society of organisms, as transmitters, can thus be reconfigured through a “biochemical” model. And a person, in turn, becomes not much more than “a node in a political network to which [they are] responsible” (34-35).
Now, there are very obvious objections to this recasting of human society in crudely biochemical terms. But Bratton – and this, in many ways, is where the real thrust of his book lies – wants to rule them out in advance. Scholars in the humanities, he argues, have for too long fallen for the lure “biopolitical critique” – a mode of thinking based on a limited reading of Michel Foucault, in which “any governance of bodies is [taken to be] fundamentally authoritarian and illegitimate” (4). Bratton is scathing about this view – much of which, he argues, is ideologically “aligned with the populist right” (34). It was especially an error, he goes on, to interpret public health measures as Giorgio Agamben’s “state of exception” i.e. as an unacceptable imposition of state control and surveillance. It is certainly the case that Agamben issued a series of strange and indefensible comments on the pandemic in its early days – writings to which this book gives large, some might say excessive, attention (23). By contrast, Bratton writes approvingly about “technocracies” that followed what he calls a positive biopolitics, i.e. an epidemiological form of governance in which people understand themselves as “a population of contagion nodes and vectors” (33). In short: against a biopolitical critique that has become an ally of the reactionary right, Bratton argues that we need now a large-scale epidemiological and scientific reimagination of the political as such (68).
This is, no doubt, bracing stuff, but of course there is a long history of thinking affirmatively about social organisation in biological and (broadly) biopolitical terms. It was prominent in Emile Durkheim’s sociology in the nineteenth century. It was there in the first decades of British social anthropology. It was a key aspect of the Chicago School of urban sociology. It was a major source of debate in evolutionary theory and social psychology in the 1980s. One might go on, but the point is that it is just odd that Bratton mentions none of these, nor any of the critiques of them. One cannot help but wonder if this is not because those critiques – consider, for example, Stephen Jay Gould’s well-known writing on sociobiology – cannot be so easily dismissed as the stuff of the populist right. Bratton’s reading of Foucault meanwhile (i.e. that one might read biopolitics or biopower as, in fact, not necessarily bad) was inter alia the topic of a famous essay by Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose in 2006. And a broadly positive or affirmative biopolitics has been outlined by Roberto Esposito, Didier Fassin, and others, in various well-known publications. None of this work is mentioned. Certainly, The Revenge of the Real is published as a trade book by Verso, and it may that people who do not read much scholarly literature will find its theoretical claims bold and interesting. But others are entitled to ask what exactly is new here – and, perhaps more sharply, why it is that the book seems to ignore so much related work. “Read your Foucault better,” Bratton chides the reader at one point, in his characteristically scolding tone – to which one is tempted to respond: “Benjamin, read the secondary literature” (146).
Stranger still, however, is the book’s critique of what it calls “postmodernism,” or “constructivism” – which Bratton takes to at least somewhat aligned to populist and reactionary politics. Indeed, one of the major targets of the book is a certain kind of critical philosophy. “Philosophy and the humanities,” Bratton writes, “failed the pandemic because they are bound too tightly to an untenable set of formulas, reflexively suspicious of purposeful quantification and unable to account for the epidemiological reality of mutual contagion” (137). This is fine, but it’s also an argument that wouldn’t sound out of place in an unusually sophisticated Richard Dawkins tweet (though Dawkins, at least, has never claimed to be any kind of social theorist). Things get odder still when philosophy is hooked onto right-wing politics. “Trump,” Bratton says at one point, “pulled medical advice out of whatever obsequious cavity congratulated him most recently” (25). And yet the virus continued to rage in spite of him. “The world,” Bratton goes on, somewhat triumphantly, “is not, finally, a text.” But what exactly is the claim here? Is it that Donald Trump is a closet Derridean? Is it that continental philosophy has some kind of mysterious responsibility to pandemic management that it has, alas, failed to live up it? Or is it something closer to that well-known farrago of reactionary conspiracism – that textual practices in the humanities act as an unseen and yet powerful force in political life? In any event, “postmodernism” has of course been out of theoretical and political favour for literally decades now. It is genuinely weird that Bratton, a celebrated theorist, never discusses in depth the many material turns, ontological turns, nonhuman turns, speculative realisms, agential realisms, feminist materialisms, actor-network theories – one might go on! – that have been advanced by other scholars in recent decades, all of them offering more or less a “realism,” against the variously “textual,” “cultural” or “performative” inclinations that are thought have held sway in philosophical and cultural thought for far too long. It is as if the last decade or so of writing in STS, anthropological theory, feminist studies, etc., simply didn’t happen.
In the book’s second half, Bratton builds on his well-known earlier work and imagines a “stack” of technological surveillance tools in which society, rather like an organism, comes to sense (and thus govern) itself. One important outcome of the pandemic, he argues, is that it has changed our relationship to models, data and prediction. Accordingly, we all “became amateur epidemiologists” (48), a development that should help us now to deflate the concept of surveillance. “We could be using [surveillance] technologies for much more important things than, for example, racial profiling,” Bratton argued (56). We could, of course, but the reality – to use Bratton’s own favoured term – is that ”we” are indeed using them in this way, and, beyond his own desire for it to be otherwise, no convincing case is offered by the author for why anything is likely to change. “Surveillance, but in a good way” could be this book’s slogan – which would fine if only the author offered an account account of what, exactly, was going to make it so. Bratton engages extensively with Shoshana Zuboff’s popular book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Profile Books, 2019), but there are so many other well-known, critical texts by scholars like Ruha Benjamin or Safiya Noble, which would really have helped him make a sharp and convincing case – but these are, again, frustratingly absent.
In the final chapters, Bratton sets out a model of a distant, touchless, sensing world of automation and feedback, whose surveillance-led operations enact not simply pandemic management, but the epidemiological model of society as such. During lockdowns in China, he says, “platform delivery systems [kept] the stressed social fabric intact.” Even as the streets are empty, life goes on computationally; automation “isn’t the fragile virtual layer on top of the sturdy city; rather the inverse is true” (88-89). Probably this betrays an unfortunate vestige of liberal subjectivity on my part, but I kept wondering about where dissent would fit into Bratton’s vision. And, indeed, policing. If automated “control” and “authority” are to move to the centre of planetary governance, what space, if any, is left for disagreement, even resistance – or is all political disagreement to be dismissed as mere “populism” or “postmodernism”? Bratton does not say. Indeed, the book seems more concerned with disparaging dissenters, in increasingly facile term, than engaging seriously with such questions (see e.g. Robertson, 2011; Nurik, 2022). The text is scathing about “Karens” who protested against Covid restrictions. And yet people how lived through the reality of Covid legislation will indeed remember a good deal of weirdly authoritarian, often very violent and frightening policing. Bratton spends a lot of time making clear his contempt for people who shop at Whole Foods, or protesters who listen to “lousy music,” but the book would have benefited instead from sharper thinking on the actually very real world (there’s that word again) of public health policing, as well as the reality of how surveillance technology is actually used to maintain authority and to control dissent in the actual world we live in. “The question of the kind of society we want,” Bratton writes, in a late, ill-advised chapter on the Black Lives Matter movement and other urban protests in 2020, “cannot be reduced to the question of the kind of policing we want” (131). He worries that calls to defund the police, though he respects them, will “delegitimize the state” and lead to the privatization of security – but of course it is precisely the state’s claim to the legitimate use of violence that has produced today’s epidemic of police shooting. Indeed, one might even say that the state enacts its legitimacy precisely through its authorization of racialized violence. Bratton’s answer to police violence is to turn instead to the mysterious powers of “social governance,” as if the police and their political supporters do not already claim to act precisely in the name of the social.
The response to Covid has been beset, Bratton argues in the end, by what he calls “Boomer Theory”. The class of 1968 offered us the ability to “deconstruct and critique authority but feeble capacities to construct and compose.” Yet it seems to me that what Bratton’s book offers as a replacement is little more than a kind of Cop Theory –a macho vision of rational order and authority, a fantasy of political control overseen by automated surveillance systems, accompanied by a generalised contempt for protesters as well as a casual dismissal of political dissent. “It is possible,” writes Bratton late in the text, “that Giorgo Agamben destroyed whatever was left of his reputation as a public intellectual with his many agitated, delusional and frankly embarrassing public responses to the COVID-19 pandemic” (109). This is probably true. But The Revenge of The Real itself is published by a famous left-wing press, blurbed by important scholars, and indeed authored by a Professor who, as his Twitter bio reminds us, is faculty at UC San Diego, the European Graduate School and NYU Shanghai. There is surely more to be said, here, about philosophical reputations, and how they are suspended, apparently unmoving, in an international ecology of star professors and elite institutions. The question of whose reputation is able to survive work that is “frankly embarrassing” is an important one, and one that is certainly posed by this volume – just not, I think, exactly as its author intended.
About the Author
Des Fitzgerald is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Exeter. From January 2023, he will be Professor of Medical Humanities and Social Sciences at the Radical Humanities Laboratory, University College Cork. His most recent book, The Urban Brain, with Nikolas Rose, was published by Princeton University Press in 2022. His next book, The City of Today is a Dying Thing, will be published by Faber & Faber in 2023.
Benjamin, R. (2019). Race after Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. London: Polity.
Esposito, R. (2008). Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy. Minneapolis, MI: University of Minnesota Press
Fassin, D. (2009). “Another Politics of Life is Possible.” Theory, Culture & Society, 26(5): 44–60.
Nobel, S. (2018). Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: NYU Press
Nurik, C.L. (2022). “Facebook and the Surveillance Assemblage: Policing Black Lives Matter Activists & Suppressing Dissent” Surveillance and Society 20(1): https://ojs.library.queensu.ca/index.php/surveillance-and-society/article/view/13398
Rabinow, R. and Rose, N. (2006) “Biopower Today”, BioSocieties 1: 195-217
Robertson, G. (2011) The Politics of Protest in Hybrid Yegimes: Managing Dissent in Post-Communist Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Zuboff, S. (2019) The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: Profile Books.