COVID-19, Biopolitics and Abolitionist Care Beyond Security and Containment

Photo Credit: Decarcerate PA

BY EVA BOODMAN

In the first week of May 2020, Darlene “Lulu” Benson-Seay and Andrea Circle-Bear died from COVID-19—the first women known to have died from the virus in prison.[1] Given the unsanitary, crowded, and punishing state of those institutions, they represent a public health disaster that preexisted, and was exacerbated by, COVID-19: the Prison Industrial Complex. In reaction to Benson-Seay’s death, New York abolitionist movement groups like Release Aging People in Prison, who have intensified their advocacy since the pandemic broke, made a statement that the failure to release her along with those considered “low risk” had de facto sentenced her to death.

Movement groups have known for a long time that prison – a place where an unemployable, underemployed, and racialized surplus population is warehoused for profit[2] — is its own kind of death sentence, and are using the public health argument to bring people home. In an unprecedented way, it is working: some who would otherwise be held captive are being released. But released into what? Those who are most vulnerable – who are older, have health conditions, or are serving long sentences or life without parole – remain locked up at enormous risk to their own lives, and the adjacent institutions and limitations that await them, should they be released, will offer a different side of the same punishment paradigm[3].

In the grassroots response to the pandemic, we can see a vision of care beyond security. As health and prison advocacy groups alike develop mutual aid systems, like Pennsylvania’s Put People First “Community Care Committees” that act as networks of both support and mobilization, we are seeing a strong move away from health as security in “containment” and towards emancipatory health centered on the needs of older adults, incarcerated people, people with disabilities, and others subject to organized neglect.

As families, communities and abolitionist groups around the country fight to bring loved ones home, an integrated and complex understanding of abolitionism has emerged that links decarceration with community care. Organizers like those at a recent Movement for Black Lives online forum are articulating a concept of abolitionist care that seeks to build beyond the carceral caring institutions that await those returning from prison, as well as those who are poor. As Patrice Cullors of Black Lives Matter put it, “we have to be calling not just for decarceration. We have to also, in the same breath, be naming: ‘and this is what it looks like to be building out a robust system of care’.”[4]

We have to be calling not just for decarceration. We have to also, in the same breath, be naming: ‘and this is what it looks like to be building out a robust system of care’.

Patrice Cullors

If abolition looks beyond decarceration to the construction of a different, anti-carceral society, then alongside prisons, it needs to make nursing homes, treatment centers, and for-profit medicine obsolete.[5] That is the project of abolitionist care.

Putting abolitionist care into practice

Current work to put abolitionist care into practice does so with a clear understanding of the way US state power has always managed life and death for profit. What abolitionists can offer in the face of COVID-19 – beyond the more mainstream discussions of an economic downturn and the scarcity, mismanagement, and misdistribution of medical resources — is a framework that underlines the racial and class dynamics of state-engineered neglect that are only exacerbated by COVID-19.

That analysis pushes us not only to decarcerate, but to implement the alternative forms of care we want to see, beyond crushing un- or underemployment, beyond halfway houses, psychiatric institutions, and nursing homes – the latter increasingly being exposed in the news as carceral warehouses for both the living and the dead.[6] This is a moment when abolitionists can be at the forefront of a movement for a different kind of care.

Resisting neoliberal characterizations of care and health

The dominant discourse under neoliberal capitalism, however, actively limits the characterization of care and health to being understood as a form of protection against invaders, and has done so for several centuries. In keeping with this security discourse of care, the 20th century molecular biologist Joshua Lederberg once wrote that human beings “live in evolutionary competition with microbes – bacteria and viruses”, warning ominously that “there is no guarantee that we will be the survivors”.[7] This perspective is widely accepted by epidemiologists, infectious disease researchers, and public health experts, and many have – with good reason – expressed outrage that the money put into our microbial security is microscopic compared to the astronomical amounts put into US missile defense systems.[8] Ignoring what is called “biodefense”, and defunding it at an institutional level, as Donald Trump’s administration has, has lethal effects: greater numbers of people will die from COVID-19.

In the notion of “biodefense”, readers might recognize the connection between population security and health as “biopolitics”: a mode of power consolidated by controlling risks to the health and productivity of the population through institutions and practices that “make live or let die”, first articulated by the philosopher Michel Foucault.[9] While disease control may seem to operate at an undifferentiated human level, the discourse of biodefense, in keeping with its militaristic associations, implies that some bodies are unable to manage an internal contaminant, and must be eliminated or cleansed, for the health and benefit of society. In this way, biopolitics manages the distribution of life and death for the “optimization” of society – a mode of power with continuing eugenicist associations that justifies how groups and bodies are raced, classed, and gendered in the sphere of production.[10]

While there are limitations to any theory, a broadly biopolitical view of the response to COVID-19 brings these shapes and effects of power into plain sight: Who has access to adequate care and who does not, who is held captive in unsanitary conditions where infection will spread, like prisons, detention centers, and nursing homes, who is unable to support themselves, who is engaged in essential work as an elder care aide, hospital orderly, bus driver, grocery store cashier, or mail carrier. We are seeing the unequal distribution of vulnerability and protection, where, as health care and labor organizer Rachel McCullough writes, the federal government is telling grandparents “to lay down their lives for the good of the stock market,”[11] and telling those who still have low-wage service jobs to lay down their lives in order to afford for groceries.

All of us should have access to the means of protecting ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities from the virus. But the security discourse for health and care places it squarely within the context of broader formations of power that predate the pandemic. For thinkers like Foucault, managing the health and security of the population, far from a mere crisis response, is the very nature of power under capitalism – a mode of power that is defined by its management of life and death at the level of the population. On this model of power, “at risk” demographics must be contained and controlled so that the population comes closer to its “normalized” (read: productive, docile) state. As we are asked to help “flatten the curve” at the population level, who is made to live, and who is left to die?

Resisting the real lockdown

Without minimizing the horrors of this virus, giving any credence to Trump’s tweeted claim that “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF”, or unwittingly fueling far-right conspiracies that the virus is a hoax, this is a moment when our current understanding of “security” demands deep and urgent reexamination. As prisons, nursing homes, halfway houses, and psychiatric wards become recognized as sites of both confinement and infection, Foucault’s concept of biopower as “risk management for the health of the population” couldn’t be more relevant, and this has been reflected in a series of recent think pieces on the concept, spurred by Giorgio Agamben’s cynical and overly simplistic characterization of Italy’s stay-at-home order as a biopolitical “state of exception” likened to totalitarian control.[12]

A more helpful, and less superficial, application of the concept of biopolitics is to use it to describe the very operation of governance of the neoliberal nation state, and not just a crisis response taken out of historical context.[13] The inappropriately termed “lockdown” of quarantine is not the most telling biopolitical fact; rather, it’s the more real lockdown occurring in prisons and other carceral institutions that makes theories of biopolitics ring true.[14] As Ani Maitra writes, in the current neoliberal economy, “any large-scale restriction that hinders the movement of capital, labor, and commodities is seen as ‘counter-growth’ and hence undesirable by governments and corporations.”[15] Stay-at-home orders are consistent with a notion of biopolitics that protects those whose productive citizenship allows them to stay safely at home with their online jobs, leaving poor people – inside and outside of carceral institutions – to die[16].

The inappropriately termed “lockdown” of quarantine is not the most telling biopolitical fact; rather, it’s the more real lockdown occurring in prisons and other carceral institutions that makes theories of biopolitics ring true.

A biopolitical view helps us see why a militaristic politics of “security” that distributes life unequally doesn’t make us – and especially the most vulnerable among us – safe and cared for, and that the security state is itself a public health risk. As COVID-19 emphasizes the carceral, biopolitical nature of “caring” and “rehabilitative” institutions, we are seeing a deepening awareness of decarceration as a health necessity, and an opportunity to develop the practices of abolitionist care that are emerging in response to the pandemic. As C. Riley Snorton writes on HIV/AIDS, “if one believes that AIDS, and its precipitating and attendant crises, are structural and ideological, then one must consider how those very spatiotemporal formulations also forge abolitionist strategies and imaginaries.”[17] The biopolitical analysis shows us these possibilities, helping us refuse the terms on which COVID-19 has been given; “to refuse its biopolitical and necropolitical machinations; to refuse the representational structures that present some deaths as the requirement for the optimization of life itself; and to insist on different vocabularies for living, which involves asking more and better questions as well as laying claim to the survival of the damned”.[18]

Viruses have been naturalized as apolitical “equalizers” that exercise their capricious transformations across race, class, species, and continent, invading the cells of human beings with strands of fat-coated proteins. But the concept of the “virus” was biopolitical from the outset, and could, in that sense, be thought of rather as a great “un-equalizer”. As Ed Cohen writes, “viral ontologies” cohabit with and within political ontologies.[19] The politics of viral containment “relentlessly plays upon the contingency of the human ‘we’”[20] – and this is entirely consistent with the security rhetoric that diverts attention away from systems of inequality that are the true creators of so-called risk. A disease is considered epidemic or pandemic precisely because it calls attention to the boundaries that delimit species, households, and nations, and it prompts a “security” response precisely for that reason. This is especially clear when we look at the way that epidemics “have been informed by, and conversely have informed, the economic assumptions of industrial capitalism” insofar as the official “costs” of epidemics “are figured primarily in terms of the monetary ‘value’ by which they diminish general productivity rather than the qualitative experiences of suffering and loss they engender.”[21] Without this threat to the neoliberal economic system and to the otherings that rationalize capitalist exploitation and disposability, COVID-19 would be “just an illness”, and not a pandemic.

The eugenicist security discourse around pandemics has become naturalized

This is to say that a pandemic – and the security discourse that responds to it – seem natural, but this is because these have both become naturalized. The security discourse in response to the virus reveals a kind of power premised on the threat of internal invasion that goes back to the first etiologies of parasites and viruses in the 19th century – an era when nation states were being consolidated through practices and habits that established racial categories.[22]

Robert Koch’s 1876 “postulates” on cholera, for example, elide the difference between the way that microbes operate and the way that societies operate, in spite of the lack of logical or medical motivation for the analogy between the cellular and societal registers. The rationale for the analogy refers back to the humoral medicine of the Middle Ages,[23] taken up by Louis Pasteur and Claude Bernard in the 19th century, whereby microbes function primarily by “depleting an organism’s vital capacity”, and violating its milieu intérieur, “its ‘own’ milieu and, conversely, that which it owns.”[24] As Cohen observes, “in depriving the host of its own proper and essential material, the parasitic microbe thus ‘naturally’ violates liberalism’s most sacred precept (i.e. that one owns one’s body as one’s property).”[25]

Unsurprisingly, this is the very same neoliberal discourse that justifies widespread lack of access to healthcare for those who are poor, un- or underemployed, undocumented, and currently or formerly incarcerated – a discourse and set of institutional practices that could be said to be the more important cause of the health crisis we are experiencing here in the United States: a “national withholding of care” that drives the economy precisely by maintaining class and racial inequality.[26]

Meanwhile, those in psychiatric facilities – described as “death traps” by a resident in Marcy, NY – are now becoming infected with the virus at twice the rate of even those in nursing homes.

The eugenicist reverberations of this old theory of viruses are not subtle, and we can see them at work in the direct effects of, and the response to, the current COVID-19. As those with white-collar jobs adapt by working online from home, the unemployed and underemployed – categories where BIPOC people are overrepresented – will get little support from a government relief package for individuals largely based on unemployment insurance.[27]

Meanwhile, those in psychiatric facilities – described as “death traps” by a resident in Marcy, NY – are now becoming infected with the virus at twice the rate of even those in nursing homes.[28] Brown and black people are dying at twice the rate of white people[29], and New York’s Governor Cuomo is ruling out relief for undocumented migrants. The most important implications of the biopolitical analysis aren’t a blanket rejection of any state-sponsored emergency measures, or the white right-wing populist rejection of the stay-at-home order.[30] Instead, the biopolitical perspective helps us understand what was wrong all along, and the perspective and leadership that can shift the paradigm: those of formerly and currently incarcerated people, poor people, BIPOC, older people, people with disabilities, and care and service workers.

Prison abolition during the pandemic

Even if biopolitics structures our social fabric and is internalized within ourselves through normalization, it is a mode of power that always involves and includes resistance.[31] Even under quarantine, prison abolition groups across the country have redoubled their efforts in creative ways, both on and offline, including Twitter storms, phone and e-mail campaigns, and bike and car demos that comply with social distancing measures.

#FreeThemAll organized one of many car-only actions that surrounded an immigration detention center in Elizabeth, NJ; Decarcerate PA, Amistad Law Project, the Coalition to End Death by Incarceration, the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund and other groups blocked traffic in front of Philadelphia’s City Hall demanding that the Mayor release more than 13% of those in Philadelphia jails, with gloved and masked protesters holding “Inaction is Murder” signs.[32] There are #FreeTheVulnerable Zoom rallies; virtual strategy meetings, talks, protests, and forums. Elected officials are issuing reprieve orders for thousands of people convicted of low-level, non-violent offenses. But this, while unprecedented, is not enough to end a health crisis that is as much the result of vulnerabilities created by racial capitalism’s warehousing of bodies as it is the result of a microbe. This crisis is making even more visible what these groups already knew, and opening the eyes of many others to the reality that the institutions of confinement of the security state do not make us healthy and safe; that our elders should not die in prisons or nursing homes; and that the reason they do is not limited to COVID-19.

In the grassroots response to the pandemic, we can see a vision of care beyond security. As health and prison advocacy groups alike develop mutual aid systems, like Pennsylvania’s Put People First “Community Care Committees” that act as networks of both support and mobilization, we are seeing a strong move away from health as security in “containment” and towards emancipatory health centered on the needs of older adults, incarcerated people, people with disabilities, and others subject to organized neglect.[33] One example of abolitionist care is the expansion of mutual aid in neighborhoods, movement groups, and across prison walls. This is particularly exciting, because, as Dean Spade writes, mutual aid usually tends to be “one of the least visible and most important forms of work that social movements need to be developing,” since they “support vulnerable populations to survive” while also “mobilizing significant resistance and building the infrastructure we need for the coming disasters.”[34] But in addition to being exciting, these efforts to mobilize care are necessary as we prepare for what Mike Davis has called “a medical version of Hurricane Katrina.”[35]

Because it meets basic needs while building connection, mobilization, and analysis, Spade notes that effective social movements “always include elements of mutual aid.”[36] Mutual aid is inherently abolitionist, because it “exposes the failures of the current system and shows an alternative.”[37] But in the same way that the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program was coopted by the USDA, current mutual aid projects do carry a danger of cooptation, and during this pandemic, we will have to be vigilant that our work for abolitionist care remains oppositional to the neoliberal status quo, rather than becoming complimentary to it, or taken up in order to justify the retraction and reduction of social services. When put into practice, some kinds of mutual aid can also rub purists the wrong way, because it might sometimes involve collective support in accessing money and services through state-sponsored social programs.

But we can, as Safe Outside the System Collective organizer and police abolitionist Ejeris Dixon writes, make demands on the system, and use it to survive, while we are in the messy process of building anti-carceral community practices and institutions.[38]

The process of building and expanding spaces of abolitionist care will have to involve decarceration and bringing people home, but not only that: it will also need to work to bring about the obsolescence of nursing homes, treatment centers, and other sites of carceral care through community practices that will receive buy-in from the communities most affected by the US’ unequal distribution of death.

An abolitionist practice of care means, as M4BL organizer Rich Wallace argues, that the vision of a prison-free society should be carried out alongside transformative justice practices, the expansion and support of forms of care already happening, and the slow, hard work of building community around non-carceral responses to harm.

Abolitionist care, while engaging in mutual aid, also needs to build out other community-based care institutions that will replace our current biopolitical ones – in the same way that W.E.B. Du Bois’ abolition democracy wasn’t only the negative project of ending slavery, but the positive, constructive project of developing alternatives to its adjacent institutions. In this way, abolition in the COVID age could, as Wallace suggests, look to halfway houses, churches, nursing homes, and addiction treatment centers to bring their participants, neighbors, and workers on board with undertaking a non-punitive “non-reformist-reform” that will lead to abolition, while simultaneously targeting structures, policies, and funding streams that perpetuate a “security” model of care. On this view, the goal of abolitionist care would be to build a world and a network of systems beyond the Prison and Care Industrial Complexes.

Abolitionist care would be undertaken with an acute awareness of the kinds of power it is engaging, using, and shifting; an acknowledgement of the ways that it might be temporarily complicit with “security” processes in order to make incremental changes that reduce the harms of carceral care.

As we engage in new and old abolitionist visions and practices that circumvent a racially-driven biopolitics of security, the hope is that this experience of mobilizing, analyzing, and connecting with one another during COVID-19 will outlive this crisis, and that, as a member of the group Mutual Aid Disaster Relief writes, “the unnamable disaster that is everyday life under neoliberal capitalism” will remain on pause, or frozen in relief, in a way that extends the momentum of this moment into a different future.

The hope is that in the face of a biopolitics of security, we will stretch out the “zones” of mobilization and mutual aid, “where people are able to share goods and services with each other freely, where we reimagine new social relationships outside the dictates of the market, where we work for something real and build something together.”[39] What our movements are continuing to build is a vision that refers to the realities exposed by the pandemic, and activates our collective imaginations based on, and beyond, what biopolitics allows us to see: a vision of a new mode of collective care that includes, and goes beyond, Freeing Them All.

This was written with input from Faria Chaudhury and Krissy Mahan


FOOTNOTES

[1] Gino Spocchia, “Coronavirus: New York records first female prisoner to die of COVID-19”, The Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/coronavirus-new-york-prisoner-female-death-woman-cuomo-a9493916.html

[2] There is profit involved in “public” prisons, and not just private ones, since federal and state facilities enter into contracts with corporations for health care, food service, job training, transportation, telephone calls, and more recently, video-chat and e-mail programs like ConnectNetwork that charge both parties.

[3] Mujahid Farid & Laura Whitehorn (2014) Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP): Challenging the Punishment Paradigm, Socialism and Democracy, 28:3, 199-202, DOI: 10.1080/08854300.2014.957590

[4] M4BL online forum, “#FreeThemAll! Prison is no place for a pandemic”. April 23, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=532120480829118&external_log_id=1252dbcf14322a43d6ab301870c7b2ad

[5] I’m referring more particularly here to Medicaid older adult care. The history of nursing homes is intimately tied to racial capitalism, and is carceral in its warehousing of surplus bodies for profit.

[6] Tracey Tully, “After Anonymous Tip, 17 Bodies Found at Nursing Home Hit By Virus”, New York Times, April 152020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/15/nyregion/coronavirus-nj-andover-nursing-home-deaths.html

[7] Joshua Lederberger, “Emerging Viruses, Emerging Threat”. Science, January 19, 1990.

[8] Michael Specter, “The Good Doctor: How Anthony Fauci became the face of a nation’s crisis response”. The New Yorker, April 20, 2020.

[9] And reinterpreted by thinkers like Giorgio Agamben and Bruno Latour.

[10] Kyla Schuller’s recent book The Biopolitics of Feeling (Duke University Press, 2019) demonstrates that race and sex difference – defined by the notion of “impressibility” or “sensitivity” — were mechanisms of biopolitics, managing the life and death of the population through discourses of heredity that in the 19th century were a kind of proto-epigenetics. She argues that race and sex difference served to justify the vulnerability of the white colonial population.

[11] Caring Majority mutual aid invitation e-mail, Caring Majority/Jews for Racial and Economic Justice listserv, April 12, 2020.

[12] Giorgio Agamben, “The State of Exception Provoked by an Unmotivated Emergency”, originally published in Italian on February 26, 2020, in il manifesto. Translated into English in Positions Journal. http://positionswebsite.org/giorgio-agamben-the-state-of-exception-provoked-by-an-unmotivated-emergency/

[13] This crisis will likely change the way that power operates, but that shift will be more complex and broadly felt than the experience of white collar workers being made to work from home.

[14] Advocates in Pennsylvania are reporting that men’s facilities are on indefinite lockdown, with additional restrictions on movement and many placed in solitary confinement.

[15] Ani Maitra, “COVID-19 and the Neoliberal State of Exception”, Common Dreams, March 30, 2020. https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/03/30/covid-19-and-neoliberal-state-exception

[16] I am repurposing Foucault’s theory here to describe the US neoliberal context. There is plenty of debate to be had about the applicability of Foucault’s concept to the contemporary US, but I can’t engage it here.

[17] C. Riley Snorton, “On Crisis and Abolition”, in AIDS and the Distribution of Crises, ed. Jih-Fei Cheng, Alexandra Jushasz, and Nishant Shahani, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020), 315. https://read.dukeupress.edu/books/book/2716/chapter/2037379/On-Crisis-and-Abolition

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ed Cohen, “The Paradoxical Politics of Viral Containment; or, How Scale Undoes Us One and All”, in Social Text 106, Vol. 29, No. 1, Spring 2011, Duke University Press, p. 25.

[20] Cohen, 15.

[21] Cohen, 16.

[22] See Kyla Schuller, referenced in note 6 above. Chris Chapman has also written on the normalization of white productive citizenship enforced by institutions that grew out of the US poorhouse in the 19th century, like residential schools, prisons, and nursing homes. This history explains why the economics of US care are primarily used to enforce work.

[23] And probably Platonic isomorphism that understands human souls to have smaller scale, but identical, structures to the city state.

[24]Cohen, 21.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Malcolm Harris, “Take Care”, in Commune, April 1, 2020. https://communemag.com/take-care/

[27] The UI system pays workers a percentage that they themselves put in; they are entitled to weekly portions of the money that came out of their own paychecks for 13 weeks, until they are rehired, or until the money runs out. As you can imagine, this leaves low-wage workers with very little help, and leaves those who quit their jobs with no help at all.

[28] https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9321-ten-dead-hundreds-infected-new-york-state-psychiatric-facilities-crisis-coronavirus-outbreak

[29]https://www.vox.com/2020/4/17/21225610/us-coronavirus-death-rates-blacks-latinos-whites

[30] http://thephilosophicalsalon.com/the-state-of-biopower-in-the-age-of-the-coronavirus/

[31] Panagiotis Sotiris writes that these forms of resistance could be called “democratic biopolitics”—a form of biopolitics “from below”. His view acknowledges that biopower is the pervasive mode of power, and that any resistance to the security state will also be a form of biopower. I’m personally not sure – given the eugenicist normalizations of state biopolitics – where I stand on this view, but recognize that any form of resistance will be, to some extent, complicit with the norms at work in the society it wants to remake. See Panagiotis Sotiris, “Against Agamben: Is a democratic biopolitics possible?” in Critical Legal Thinking, March 14, 2020. https://criticallegalthinking.com/2020/03/14/against-agamben-is-a-democratic-biopolitics-possible/

[32] https://www.rawstory.com/2020/04/inaction-is-murder-protesters-surround-city-hall-to-demand-philly-freeourpeople-from-jail/

[33] “Organized neglect” is Ruth Gilmore’s term.

[34] Dean Spade, “Solidarity Not Charity: Mutual Aid for Mobilization and Survival”, in Social Text, 142, Vol. 38, No 1, March, 2020.

[35] Mike Davis, “The Coronavirus is a Monster Fueled by Capitalism”, In These Times, March 20, 2020. https://inthesetimes.com/article/22394/coronavirus-crisis-capitalism-covid-19-monster-mike-davis

[36] Spade, 136.

[37] Spade, 137.

[38] Ejeris Dixon, “Building Community Safety”, in Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement, ed. Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2020).

[39] Cited in Spade, 147.

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