Question of Power – Analysis of the Discursive Power Practices of the COVID-19 Crisis

The second wave of the Coronavirus pandemic has severely hit Europe and the US. To cope with the spread of the virus restrictive measures are being (re-)imposed in Europe, arguably for the sake of public health and safety. Meanwhile, governments and policymakers seem to have quickly adapted scientific arguments to justify those rules. This has been widely interpreted as a new way to concentrate power in their hands. Thus, the political response to the COVID-19 crisis is not only driven by power dynamics, but the current situation is also used to leverage the virus to expand and cement power. Because it is not the virus to which we can attribute power. In fact, the real power always lay with politics rather than science or disease – and it continues to do so.

Discursive Power Practices and COVID-19

As in other scenes of struggle for power in human history, two simple rules determine the power dynamics in times of COVID-19. First, power claims must be based on discursive strategies and narratives: the framing of an issue and justification of action. Where no such narratives exist to legitimize claims for power or where they do not resonate emotionally and rationally with the audience power can only be ensured by means of force. In most democracies today, the ultimate principle and thus source of legitimate power is the common good. Second, power can become manifest or incorporated in customs and organizations. This is the reason why Alexis de Tocqueville postulated the separation of powers and John Locke spoke of inalienable natural rights. Discursive power practices and institutionalization of power form a structural relationship of reciprocal determination. Therefore, they present key concepts of political legitimacy. Only through discursive practices can power be moulded and only when it is embedded in institutions is power sustainable – yet confined. In a setting where power is already institutionalized (e.g. separation of powers, political system of checks and balances) discursive practices are only successful when they manage to (re-)shape the relatively stable confinements of customs or organizations.

In the context of the Coronavirus pandemic, discursive power practices have driven the crisis response and management. Until the present day, policymakers across the globe are leveraging existential fears (of one’s own death and the death of close relatives and friends) and hopes (of protection and security) to establish and assert authority in areas like the economy or religious, cultural and public life. Wearing a mask or staying at home are declared as necessary means to protect ourselves, especially the weakest members of our societies: our grandparents, immune-deficient spouses, children, friends etc. At the same time, politicians are seeking to spread hope. If only we follow what they prescribe, we might just be able to get through this pandemic as a society. Political actors have thus harnessed discursive practices to legitimize governmental intervention and centralization of political power – and they continue to do so.

Nonetheless, discursive power practices in relation to the Coronavirus pose a somewhat unique case, as they have arguably been much more successful than many of the past narratives employed. This is even more remarkable in view of the rather negligible morality rate of COVID-19 compared to diseases like the plague, Ebola or cholera. At the same time, the success of discursive practices in relation to this global virus is understandable. In contrast to climate change, the disease is not a distant disaster that could befall our descendants. Rather it seems to present a near evil that could strike us at any time. The dystopian, even apocalyptic scenarios painted in the context of the Coronavirus crisis could even be seen as antipoles to religious expectations of salvation. And unlike the threat of terrorism, the virus is potentially ubiquitous; everyone is a potential suspect who could spread the virus. No space is safe, and even one’s own body can betray oneself.

Last but not least, the exercise of power and control in the fight against COVID-19 also had a relieving effect for countless people: border closures, strict rules of conduct and restrictive measures helped reduce complexity in a world that has become increasingly unmanageable due to globalization and digitalization. Moreover, they offered an opportunity to publicly shame or secretly denounce those who do not follow the rules and, on the flip side, to effectively prove one’s own conformity: by adhering to social distancing, covering one’s nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing, and of course wearing a mask. Simply put, the Coronavirus crisis offers an opportunity to categorize and separate “right” and “wrong”, “good” and “bad” – even if moral and scientific controversy persists with regard to what correct conduct in response to the pandemic should look like.

Democracy and COVID-19

The Coronavirus crisis has exceptionally revealed these discursive power practices that are usually hidden and rarely become visible within liberal democratic systems. Once they do, however, they can be observed and analyzed in terms of their justification logic and narratives, which tend to be ambivalent, dialectical and pluralistic. The open outcome of liberal politics is a result of the competition between different discourses as part of the permanent struggle for democratic majorities and consensus: between defenders of the public “protection and security thinking” on the one hand and the advocates of a critical “bio power” discourse on the other.

Discursive power politics revolving around the virus manifest themselves in the field of health policy, that is, in technocratic narratives at the intersection of politics and science. Although (far too) many people like to believe that this takes the shape of a conspiracy. However, current political power practices could not be farther from this scenario. First of all, the network of social practices, discourses, habitus and institutions is far too complex to allow for manipulation at such a scale. For an organized conspiracy to work, the number of people involved is too high and the number of relevant variables almost unmanageable. Additionally, a lack of political consensus on a course of action makes the possibility of a government conspiracy highly unlikely. Many countries reacted in a rather uncoordinated, ad-hoc manner when COVID-19 hit them. At no point in time was there a political “Coronavirus strategy”. Even now, the majority of countries lacks a coherent response and governance framework to deal with the pandemic as it evolves. In many ways, decision-makers have been playing it by ear since the Coronavirus first appeared on their agenda. Rather than devising a long-term strategy or contingency plans beyond one week at a time, policymakers have focused on short-term crisis management, reacting only to weekly projections and headlines.

Day-to-day politics have thus driven political actors and shaped their narratives and approaches vis-à-vis the COVID-19 pandemic. What is more, the daily political business has itself become a permanent object of debate and competition. In the health policy discourse, decisionmakers frequently adopt scientific language to support their claims to truth and move issues outside the political arena of compromise and consensus. Thus ‘medicalizing’ politics turns policy problems into binary question of true and false, and enables policymakers to marginalize or reject competing claims from representatives of the economy or issue areas like culture and religion. As a consequence, political legitimation mechanisms follow an increasingly proceduralist logic that only knows one standard of correctness: Did an expert or a panel of experts find a certain measure or strategy correct or not? Scientists, on the other hand, adapt political communication patterns and strategies, including framing scientific recommendations as solutions to challenges that facing all of society. Scientific suggestions are increasingly presented as lacking alternatives and are therefore termed binding and are made mandatory.

This technocratic power manifestation produces three consequences. First, we may be witnessing the dawn of a new kind of science religion with its own liturgies, including quasi-ritual behaviors (distancing schemes, regular disinfection, hand washing etc.), its own taxonomy (“herd immunity”, “flatten the curve”) and a clergy of human biological experts. The current predominance of this cult over established world religions is demonstrated inter alia by the silence of church leaders, the absence of church narratives in the Coronavirus discourses and the unopposed acceptance of all restrictions on church services, processions and other religious practices.

Second, COVID-19 has enabled the imposition of a strictly hierarchical concept of the common good, with health protection as the most important public good and its subsequent prioritization over other goods like prosperity or mobility. This doctrine is profoundly opposed to pluralist and liberalist theories as advocated by William D. Ross and Isaiah Berlin. Amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, discursive practices replace a multitude of values with an exclusive focus on the ethical rigorism of the Hippocratic oath.

In view of this development the third consequence is almost inevitable: the emergence of a new antagonism between democracy and a liberal constitutional state. The ongoing shift towards polarization, dramaturgy and trivialization is dividing the population into two camps: those who live in justified, naked fear for their existence and those who are spurred on by conspiracy theories and ignore the Coronavirus altogether including state measures and recommendations. Nevertheless, polarization creates yet another window of opportunity for decisionmakers to widen and cement political power – with possible consequences for citizens’ fundamental rights. The struggle over a balance of power thus shifts between paradigms of democracy and the rule of law. Democracy and liberalism may have been incorporated in modern constitutions but have not yet been reconciled with one another. Because popular government and individual rights are not rooted in the same historical and ideological context, their combination in modern institutions presents an explosive potential for power struggles. The discursive power of a virus like SARS-CoV-2 might suffice to fuel or unleash this potential.


The full version of this article was first published in The European on 28th October 2020.