On the Politics of Life

We are in the middle of a crisis. However, this is not only a crisis of the hospitals, not only a crisis of the economy, certainly not only a crisis of European solidarity, it is also a crisis of politics and what we mean when we speak in political terms. The immediate cause of this crisis is a virus, most likely comparable to influenza, which has conjured up a reaction which I dare to call potentially illegal. It is dedicated to destroying – or, for a time, at least drastically limiting – the social forms of existence we previously thought essential to maintaining our lives in a society. We could, until the end of April, not visit our churches, our children still cannot, for the most part, go to school, we cannot partake in any form of public life, we can hardly even visit our friends, in the event of their deaths we cannot attend their funerals, and we could until recently not have rallies or demonstrations. That the actual danger of the disease is at least questionable, as well as the efficacy of the effectively dictatorial measures imposed, ought to be mentioned here, although this is not what I wish to write about. There is enough debate around this as is and I, not a medical expert or a mathematician, haven’t much to add. What I do wish to address are some of the political foundations and implications of the discussion concerning the Coronavirus, particularly in Germany, and the measures imposed to prevent its spread.


The most prominent term being thrown around the newspapers of late is “solidarity” (Solidarität). This “invisible bond among men” [1], which currently means “to be distant physically, while being all the while closer than ever before”, as our president puts it, [2] allegedly has the power to “keep us together as a society”, despite the fact that almost every social aspect of this society has been eradicated. Solidarity, however, is, in its very nature, political, and as such is only really present when the social bonds are left intact through which persons with political interests and ideas may organise and express themselves. Solidarity “is able to comprehend a multitude conceptually”3, as Hannah Arendt writes. But simply because solidarity is able to comprehend a multitude, this does not mean that the person or group with whom one is solidary is totally arbitrary. Rather, solidarity is the ability to form “a community of interest” specifically “with the oppressed and exploited” or in other words with those who are not able to organise and express their political interests and ideas themselves or have failed in doing so. This community of interest may not be built on a shared material interest, which would be specific to the oppressed and hence not be able to “comprehend a multitude”, it must base itself on a shared idea. And it is through this idea, for instance the idea of freedom, that this solidarity may eventually be able to encompass “all of mankind”. Thus, one may declare one’s solidarity with the refugees currently being left to die on the Greek islands because, by virtue of their human dignity, they shouldn’t have to suffer being stateless and therefore basically rightless.

But which group currently requires our solidarity, by whom is it being oppressed, and how may this help “keep us together as a society”? The examples given in the newspapers and in television of an alleged “solidarity”, such as students shopping for the elderly, are actually examples of general human kindness, of compassion, which may make people good Samaritans, but it does not make them political. For compassion, as it is not bound to any ideas, at least if one continues to follow Arendt, is not able to “comprehend a multitude”, and is thus politically impotent.

Nonetheless, it is precisely the elderly and the already sick for whom our solidarity is demanded. The consequences of this, at least if one thinks of solidarity in the strictly political sense of the word, is to think of the virus as an oppressor, in opposition against whom we have a shared, supposedly political interest, and to think of life, in and of itself, as an idea by which this interest is justified. However, as I see it, life is not an idea, life is a fact, of which the virus is just as much a part as the inevitability of death. Consequently, a “community of interest”, or a society, cannot be founded on an “idea” of life or on nothing but life’s preservation, for such an idea doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, to solely preserve life as a biological process is quite possible through organisation, for life alone is simple: It obeys certain necessities, which an organised system can help fulfill. In this case, the principle of this form of organisation isn’t an idea, but the same necessity which governs life itself.

However, this necessity, it seems to me, exists in opposition to freedom. For necessity is calculable, definable, unambiguous, it can’t exist in the presence of that which is radically different from itself, just as life can’t exist in the presence of death. Necessity is exclusive, and, because it can’t tolerate difference, non-communicative. Freedom, meanwhile, exists only in the presence of difference, and gains its positive, political content from the interaction and communication of radically different parties, which is, in fact, the essence of all politics. While necessity can’t tolerate freedom, freedom can therefore, to a certain extent, tolerate necessity, for otherwise it would betray itself. Society, finally, in order to remain social, can’t base itself on necessity, but must have freedom as its leading principle, for to be social is always to tolerate a certain radical difference, even if this is just the difference between oneself and somebody else. Therefore, the preservation of life, life as a biological function being a form of necessity, can’t be the basis of a society, and a form of organisation dedicated solely to this necessity, is, in fact, antisocial.

As a side note, this is also the reason why the good Samaritan can, by virtue of his compassion, never be free. For to be compassionate is to suffer with another, and is thus a postulation of sameness at heart, not of difference, which would be the condition for the possibility of freedom.

All the commonplaces one hears in the discussion around the virus, especially from those who demand that the measures taken to prevent its spread go even further, nonetheless move in the same line of thought, that is: the invention of life as an idea forming the basis of our society and accordingly of the virus as a political oppressor. Some of the most prominent examples in Germany I was able to gather thusfar are, first, the moral war waged by those who were “reasonable” (vernünftig) enough to follow the measures currently imposed by the state before these measures were imposed at all. This is the war against the supposed “egoists” (Egoisten) and non-existent coronapartygoers. [4] But reason is the root of any and all ideas. And since it is through ideas, as Arendt writes, that we’re able to “comprehend a multitude conceptually”, ideas, and therefore reason, have a decidedly political quality, and cannot exist in the absence of society. The fact that, since it is thus one of the most reasonable thing in the world to seek out society and therefore the measures currently imposed appear, from the standpoint of reason, totally contrary to its own nature, is by these people left largely unregarded. It is, after all, totally absurd that someone who desires to meet and talk to, in person, those closest to him in a time like this is thought of as antisocial. For the physical experience of the person to whom one speaks is the only proof one has that what one is saying is not just going into thin air, that there is somebody to whom one speaks at all. Furthermore, as they have secured the moral high ground for themselves, through the alleged imperative of protecting the life upon which our society is supposedly built, these moralists have, in fact, exempted themselves from reasonable critique. For their moral imperative, life in and of itself, by virtue of existing prior to any conversation or communication, is itself non-communicative. It cannot be argued or reasoned with, nor will it allow anything to stand next to it, since its principle is that of absolute necessity. It is, in my opinion, exemplary of the president of the German parliament, Wolfgang Schäuble, to have stated the error in this reasoning in all its clarity, at least where the German constitution is concerned: “But when I hear that everything else must step back as to allow the protection of life, then I must say: Understood so absolutely, this isn’t correct. Constitutional rights limit each other. If there is an absolute value in our constitution, then it’s human dignity. It’s inviolable. But it doesn’t exclude that we have to die.” [5]


Second, there is the seemingly omnipresent metaphor of war. “Nous sommes en guerre, en guerre sanitaire certes. Nous ne luttons ni contre une armée ni contre une autre nation, mais l’ennemi est là, invisible, insaisissable, et qui progresse”, as Emmanuel Macron said. [6] That “a war waged against an ennemi invisible is the most absurd of wars” was already correctly pointed out by Agamben. [7] For how can one fight that which one cannot see? Also the fact that this war, then, would not be a war against a foreign aggressor, as the virus could be lurking within any one of the citizens of a given state. Thus, each of the state’s citizens becomes an at least potential foe, and the war is, quite literally, a civil one. However, this does not describe a civil war in the ancient sense, in which there are two sides, one of which will, sooner or later, come out on top and found a new body politic. What is currently being waged is a civil war in the sense of Thomas Hobbes, where the difference between friend and foe becomes arbitrary and the reality is a return to the natural state of the bellum omnium contra omnes – the war of all against all. Everybody is, after all, a potential carrier of the disease. That this “Behemoth” of the civil war may only be defeated by the “Leviathan”, the state in which all individual wills to anything but bare life are relinquished and the will of the sovereign stands in the place of the will of each citizen, insofar as citizens want anything more than what is “the most profitable to themselves”, [8] one can observe in real life, happening in our streets at this very moment. Hobbes’ state of the Leviathan is, in a sense, exactly the one being constructed to combat the Coronavirus, insofar as this state is justified solely by maintaining the ability of its subjects to do nothing but what’s best for their own lives. When this ability is itself threatened by certain liberties granted to the subjects (trade, which can spread disease, for instance), it follows from Hobbes argumentation that these liberties ought to be taken away. [9} Except that, where the Behemoth for Hobbes was actually a civil war, from which the authoritarian state would have actually been a release, the Behemoth for us is the free state of society and the Leviathan not the release from nature into civility, but from freedom into necessity or obedience.

It seems quite self-explanatory that this freedom, which actually forms the political basis of our society, should, in this context, be redefined to mean the freedom of the individual or personal liberty (individuelle bzw. persönliche Freiheit). For, if one declares that the basis of a society is nothing but life itself, which the state is entrusted to maintain for all its citizens, what then is freedom but an individual luxury that may be well and good when everything is running smoothly, but must be relinquished by the individuals when freedom threatens the supposed higher good of life, lest they be “egoistical”. Thus, the discussion concerning the Verhältnismäßigkeit or the relation of means and ends of the current measures imposed has often been focused around the relation between individual liberty and what is referred to as the “common good” (Gemeinwohl), meaning the health and well-being of that fraction of the population which is actually at risk of dying of the disease. The fact is, of course, that this relation is quite the opposite way around: One must consider in which respects and for how many of our fellow citizens the free, public life of our society will be impeded if this disease is simply allowed to run rampant. For it is freedom, not the lives of individuals, which our state ought to embody and which our politicians are first and foremost entrusted to protect. It also appears self-explanatory that the citizens must be alive to enjoy this freedom, and hence their material necessities be taken care of, that in the service of its principle the state must therefore also, to a certain extent, secure its citizens welfare. The state can, however, secure this welfare only in the service of its principle, that is, freedom, not in the service of life in and of itself.. For, as explained above, while freedom is tolerant of necessity, necessity is exclusive, and hence doesn’t tolerate anything other than itself.


Once again, it is not my desire here to speak as a doctor or a mathematician, for in these fields I cannot add anything to the debate concerning the measures imposed against the Coronavirus that is not already known. Moreover, even the experts can’t seem to be wholly agreed upon the actual danger of this new disease, some having claimed it will pass like the common cold, others that it will demand a death toll of 500.000 or more in the next year in Germany alone. Overall, there is hardly anything one can certainly rely on, be it statistics and science or, which is more worrying, political institutions and politicians. For it can hardly be denied that, in the guise of “security” and “necessity”, our politicians seem prepared to overthrow many of the actual assurances there are, that is, assurances of legal procedure. A large part of the measures enacted against the Coronavirus were, for instance, enacted not by law (Gesetz), but by decree (Verordnung), meaning that no parliament ever agreed to them. I’m only a layman, hence my knowledge of the usual legal procedure is limited, but, for example according to Andrea Edenharter, professor of law at the Fernuniversität Hagen, this practise of enacting decrees limiting constitutional rights indefinitely and without explicit legal permission is at least irregular, if not illegal. [10] Furthermore, the attempt of the federal government to create “normative clarity” through the revision of the law for disease prevention (Infektionsschutzgesetz), paragraph 28 of which is used as the basis for all of the decrees, was, for instance by lawyer Niko Härting, described as a “bad joke“, and an “attempt to legalise illegal measures in post.” [11] Thus, there is at least some debate as to whether all of the measures issued in the form of decrees, and these are the measures which infringe most on our constitutional rights, [12] lack a real legal foundation, and this is the reason why several people – myself included – have referred to them as dictatorial. For what is dictatorship, in the classical, Roman sense of the word, if not the suspension of the assurance of normal legal procedure in a time of crisis, in favour of an executive branch making decisions unchecked? That some of the German parliaments, for instance the one in Lower Saxony, [13] have started taking note of the fact that governments are basically making decisions over the parliaments‘ heads beyond normal legal procedure, is, in my opinion, both noteworthy and commendable.

Another grievous disturbance in the way in which our political system normally works is the fact that the German government, over the course of this crisis, has left the reasoning behind its decisions mostly up to medical experts, especially those of the Robert-Koch-Institut and of the Charité, whom nobody ever elected, neither the people’s legal representatives nor the people themselves. However, as one of the experts, Christian Drosten himself, pointed out: “I just was just sort of roped in. And it’s slowly becoming too much: the media, consulting politics. I’m not a politician, I’m a scientist.“ [14] And this is, in fact, exactly the point. For a scientist, respected as he may be in his field, is, when he gives a political opinion, nothing more or less than an ordinary citizen. He ought to have an advising role to politicians, but no politician can justify his his or her own policy by saying, for months on end, that this is what the same two or three experts told him was sensible. And even in a global pandemic, it can never be solely the epidemiological viewpoint that’s important. There must be some putting into perspective of the means and ends of a certain policy, a test of proportionality that is (Verhältnismäßigkeit), and this test must be done not by experts, but by elected officials. That it was never very convincingly explained in which terms the current measures are, to a large extent, even legal was already explained above. And what is, in my opinion, no less grievous, is that it was never justified why it should be impossible to weigh the lives threatened by the Coronavirus against the existences being destroyed by the measures imposed against it. Isn’t this weighing of different evils, and the choosing between them, exactly what our officials are elected to do?

Furthermore, it is extremely worrying that the basic preservation of human life as the only principle of politics, no matter the cost, seems to automatically go hand-in-hand with a return to the borders of the nation states. After all, these nation states almost unanimously decided to close their borders within the European Union. The classical triad of the nation state, „state territory“, „state authority“, and „state people“ („Staatsgebiet“, „Staatsgewalt“, „Staatsvolk“) of Georg Jellinek thus comes one step closer to being reinstated as the sole principle of the construction of states in Europe, placing the entire project of the European Union, as a means of overcoming this triad, under threat.

Finally, that all of these measures, Corona-demonstrations notwithstanding, still seem to enjoy massive popular support indicates to me that there is a certain poverty of political principles or ideas present in the majority of the population, as well as and especially among politicians. As argued above, I come to this conclusion due to the fact that the only guiding principle of the current measures imposed against the Coronavirus is life as life, that is, as biology, which is the same as saying that there isn’t any political principle at all. For life isn’t an idea capable of „comprehend[ing] a multitude conceptually“, and hence isn’t capable of political actualisation in a society. Should the coming economic depression actually be as catastrophic as certain experts are making it out to be, German history gives us a precedent for what it means when an impoverished mass without an ideal principle of action meets a caste of politicians enacting dictatorial measures because they don’t know any better.


The situation today doesn’t seem to me to be as radically different from that of the Weimar Republic as one would like it to be: I’ve already mentioned the possible economic preconditions. In terms of the way in which our laws are made, the legally questionable decrees are especially worrying. It is, after all, precisely through this replacement of laws by emergency decrees (Notverordnungen) that the Weimar Republic was increasingly ruled as of 1925, and it’s this rule by decree which initially allowed Hitler to cement his power. It isn’t my desire to compare our current politicians to the national socialists, but rather to show the danger in justifying decrees with a state of exception. For, well intentioned as they may be, our politicians are setting legal precedents that can easily be abused to totally different ends. This appears even more alarming in light of the fact that the AfD, a right-wing-populist, partially rightradical party has been on the rise in Germany for quite some time, and even came close to constituting the majority in several local parliaments last year. [15]

Furthermore, this drastic shift of powers in favour of the executive branch due to supposed states of exception isn’t totally new. Already in 2017, a law was passed in Bavaria to expand police powers, allegedly in order to deal with terrorist threats (the Polizeiaufgabengesetz). The most heavily criticised, though by far not the only change this new law brough about is to allow the police to place whomever they wish in “preventive custody” (Präventivgewahrsam), so long as they have sufficient reason to class whomever they wish to take into custody as an “eminent threat” (drohende Gefahr). However, neither this reasoning, nor the actual fact of custody, have to confirmed by a judge until three months have passed.

In light of all this, the fear that radical political change may be on the horizon in Germany doesn’t seem to me to be wholly unfounded. It is, however, my sincere hope that this “new normalcy”, as several of our more prominent politicians have taken to calling it, doesn’t mean the foundation of a new state, a state which, for instance, would no longer guarantee constitutional rights unconditionally. This shouldn’t be what it will take for the value of the political principle of freedom to be understood.



[1] For this, as well as the latter quote about “keeping us together as a society”, see https://www.ndr.de/kultur/Corona Krise-Solidaritaet-und-Verantwortung,kommentar2366.htm l (22.05.2020)

[2] In his speech  from the end of march: http://www.bundespraesident.de/SharedDocs/Reden/DE/Frank-Walter-Steinmeier/Reden/2020/03/200326-Videobotschaft-Coronahelden.html (22.05.2020)

[3] This and the other Hannah Arendt quotes are all taken from Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, Penguin Classics, 2006, pg. 79 iv https://www.bento.de/politik/corona-partys-wie-viele-feiern-gibt-es-wirklich-a-68fbfa4f-4fbd-

[4] 403e 9900- 6131a1169eae (22.05.2020)

[5] https://www.swr.de/swraktuell/schaueble-wertediskussion-zu-corona-100.html (24.05.2020)

[6] https://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2020/03/16/nous-sommes-en-guerre-retrouvez-le-discours-de-macron- pour-lutter-contre-le-coronavirus_6033314_823448.html (22.05.2020)

[7] For the highly interesting article in which he mentions this, see: http://bookhaven.stanford.edu/2020/03/giorgio agamben-on-coronavirus-the-enemy-is-not- outside-it-is-within-us/ (22.05.2020)

[8] See Leviathan 6.

[9] See Leviathan 21,10: „The obligation and liberty of the subject is to be derived either from those words, or others equivalent, or else from the end of the institution of sovereignty; namely, the peace of the subjects within themselves, and their defence against a common enemy“; but see especially Leviathan 21,15: „When therefore our refusal to obey frustrates the end for which the sovereignty was ordained, then there is no liberty to refuse; otherwise, there is.“

[10] See: https://verfassungsblog.de/freiheitsrechte-ade/ (22.05.2020)

[11] See: https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/corona-massnahmen-rechtmaessig-101.html (22.05.2020)

[12] For the specific rights infringed upon, see: https://www.manager-magazin.de/politik/artikel/corona krise-ist-die einschraenkung-der-freiheitsrechte-eigentlich-rechtmaessig-a-1305723.html (22.05.2020)

[13] The oppositional parties in Lower Saxony „Die Grünen/Bündnis 90“ and the „FDP“ are currently taking the government parties „CDU“ and „SPD“ to court, whom the two opposition parties accuse of not sufficiently informing the parliament and of causing the current protests against the Coronavirus-measures by governing via decree. See: https://www.ndr.de/nachrichten/niedersachsen/hannover_weser-leinegebiet/FDP-und-Gruenewollen-gegen-Landesregierung-klagen,klage184.htm l (22.05.2020)

[14] https://www.zeit.de/wissen/gesundheit/2020-03/christian-drosten-coronavirus-pandemie-deutschland-virologe- charite (22.05.2020)

[15] https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/320946/umfrage/ergebnisse-der-afd-bei-den- landtagswahlen/ (22.05.2020)


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