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After corona – a technocratic, planetary order

The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World
Forfatter: Benjamin Bratton
Forlag: Verso, (USA)
COVID-19 / It is difficult to read Bratton's positive biopolitics as anything other than a form of technocratic authoritarianism – where the subject is a point in a biopolitical network.


The prolific American philosopher and media theorist Benjamin Bratton has written a book in which he attempts to learn from coronathe pandemic and the way states around the world handled the sudden spread of a new deadly flu virus in February 2020. As the title suggests – The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World - Bratton understands Covid-19 as the real that emerges and takes revenge on a largely unprepared world. The book was written in the spring of 2021, so of course things are still evolving, but for Bratton a clear lesson is that Asian states like Taiwan, South Korea and partly China have managed to protect their populations far better than most countries in the West, not least United States and United Kingdom. Not least thanks to a different and much more comprehensive use of technology, Bratton writes. Asian countries have much more information about their citizens and have therefore managed to contain the virus much more effectively. It must have political consequences, says Bratton, who puts his trust in what he calls a "positive biopolitics", where states or better a supranational institution, a kind of world state, constantly collects data about its citizens, now conceptualized as points in a network , in order to deal with unforeseen events like a pandemic.

We must stop repeating insights from Western Marxism and French poststructuralism.

Bratton's coronaanalysis is an extension of the books TheStack (reviewed by Dominique Routhier in MODERN TIMES August 2016) og The new normal, in which Bratton convincingly argues that there has been a shift in the way modern society reproduces itself. The emergence and implementation of new technologies has not only influenced but decidedly transformed the way society works. We live in a post-sovereign world where goods, money and knowledge circulate in complex infrastructural networks that transcend human, technological and biological boundaries. The challenge is to catch up with this change. Bratton thinks and writes fast. The new book, like the others he has written, is filled with quirky whims, thoughtful observations, and surprising comparisons. It is a special kind of soft-philosophical societal commentary we are dealing with, where the premises of the analyzes are seldom made explicit and the conclusions deliberately remain a bit opaque.


Positive rationalization

The new book The Revenge of the Real is, however, clearer in speech than the former. Now Bratton is advocating for nothing less than a «positive biopolitics on a planetary scale». If TheStack was an attempt to develop an analysis of the new situation, where six intertwined technological systems from user, city and planet, were analytically included in the notion of a giant planetary computer, TheStack.  The new book is more concrete, though not action-oriented. According to Bratton, we must stop repeating insights from Western Marxism and French poststructuralism that show the inappropriate effects of a pervasive scientificization of the world. Where Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and especially all their successors continue to point out the problematic aspects of a rational design of living conditions, we must instead see the positive in this rationalization. And coronaThe pandemic shows us that the ability to handle and use huge datasets is absolutely essential to any future policy.

Bratton called it an "epidemiological view" of society, where we consider each other less as subjects than as objects – and in the case of coronathe pandemic, of course, as potentially dangerous objects. We need to understand society as a network of points that transmit infection, but also ideas, Bratton writes. Man is an object or a node and vector that can potentially infect and spread a virus, but also share knowledge. The epidemological perspective makes it possible to go from a modern politically, economically and culturally dominated perspective to a biochemical perspective, where the subject is a point in a biopolitical network.

Populists and late fascists

CoronaThe pandemic has shown that trying to return to the nation state is not a solution. The countries that have handled coronaThe worst pandemic is countries like the United States, India and Brazil, which are led by what Bratton calls populists, who deny experts and blame certain sections of the population for the pandemic. The populists were undressed and the pandemic showed the need for a technocratic, planetary order. Bratton's critique of the national populist leaders is unfortunately very brief, and it may seem a bit paradoxical that the answer to the late fascist fantasies is to revitalize and intensify the notion of a supranational IT rationality. The late fascism's mobilization of dissatisfaction with social and cultural deroute and the mediation of hatred into a hollowed-out political system fused with finance capital is difficult to overcome through IT logistics and expert power, one would think.

Bratton's brief analysis of senfascismn can only be done because he is not at all interested in political-economic developments, not least the fact that the former center of the capitalist world economy – the United States, the West and Japan – has for more than four decades had difficulty making a profit . Bratton is completely blank when it comes to the political economic premises of the populist politicians' triumph. We get a thin history of ideas about how neoliberal ideas become hegemonic. For him, it is a matter of expertise versus metaphors. Dealing with a pandemic requires competence and expertise, he writes. The answer to populismns anti-neoliberalism is thus a better use of technological innovations and more state. It is a strangely ahistorical return of 20th century planning capitalism now as an all-encompassing top-downplanning orchestrated by an elite cadre of designers and programmers.

A global Leviathan

It's hard to read Bratton's positives biopolitics as other than a form of technocratic authoritarianism in which Asian states and IT firms are the hidden model of a new policy led by a new global designer-engineer class. We need more control, not less. The task is to design a system that eliminates inappropriate forms of behavior. Bratton seems very little nervous about the negative consequences of abstracting life from its substantial carriers and particular individual life experiences. Automation must be in full swing.

The answer is a better use of technological innovations and more state.

After all, we are not human subjects, but “biochemical assemblages,” so it's just providing the full throttle with data collection (Bratton writes that surveillance is a wrong word to use), artificial intelligence, and logistics. It tends to a renewed naive, cybernetic ideology, where IT logistics is understood as a «sensing body» that rules the world through pandemics and climate chaos.

In other words, we must manage the crises, not solve them. That's the perspective: A technocratic, global eviathan.

Mikkel Bolt
Mikkel Bolt
Professor of political aesthetics at the University of Copenhagen.

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