The Moral Austerity Trap

Over the past half-decade, a series of political passions have swept across the Democratic coalition. Despite their intensity, these moments of moral fervor have tended to fade as the news cycle moved on. Nevertheless, one thing has remained consistent in various slogans that have galvanized this constituency: an advocacy for “lives.” This word is a through line that connects the rhetoric of several otherwise tenuously linked causes. 

The most obvious instance is Black Lives Matter, which emerged in the final years of the Obama administration but was sidelined for much of the Trump era until its resurgence around the middle of 2020. Somewhat forgotten lately, on the other hand, is the March for our Lives, the anti-gun violence movement that appeared in 2018 in the wake of the Parkland, Florida massacre. More recently, statements of support for measures instituted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic seized on the same word: “stay home, save lives” and “masks save lives.” 

At first glance, especially to those sympathetic to these causes, this rhetoric may look like a self-evident expression of basic human decency. However, this relatively recent innovation in liberal messaging should surprise us somewhat, since slogans emphasizing the protection of “life” have long been associated with religious conservatism. The formation best known for positioning itself on the side of “life,” after all, is the anti-abortion movement. 

“When the protection of biological ‘bare life’ becomes the driving concern of politics, people inevitably come to see their fellow citizens primarily as vectors of danger and contagion.”

Liberals tend to dispute the association between opposition to abortion and concern for “life.” For decades, they have alleged that the pro-life movement overvalues the life of the fetus while undervaluing the life of the mother; and that conservatives’ simultaneous opposition to abortion and support for policies evidently hostile to “life”—from military buildup to the death penalty—reveals their inconsistency. The pro-life cause, according to this account, lacks a holistic vision of life; it cordons off one particular category of lives and designates it as needing protection, but devalues the right to pursue the positive goods that make living worthwhile. 

However, the “lives”-based liberal causes of late might be subject to similar critiques. Their slogans imply sweeping moral concern, but in practice, they translate to a demand to prevent a particular subset of deaths. For instance, mass shootings comprise a tiny portion of gun-caused deaths in the US, but the March for our Lives has ensured that this category continues to play an outsized role in the debate around this issue. At the same time, as in the abortion debate, the demand for the protection of a subset of “lives” often entails bracketing off tradeoffs and complexities. For instance, the fact that social distancing saves some lives but may put others at risk is rendered invisible by the standard exhortation to “stay home.”

As criticisms of the pro-life movement suggest, emphasis on a minimal right to life risks relegating other values to a secondary status. Moreover, it may leave the retraction of public goods uncontested. For instance, calls to “stay home, save lives” take for granted the incapacity of the state to enact cohesive and efficacious public health policies. They thereby reinforce the responsibilization of individuals for keeping the pandemic under control. In this sense, the politics of life itself is a moral manifestation of the logic of austerity.  

To be clear, this logic inheres less in the reasonable demand to prevent unnecessary deaths, whatever is causing them, than in the tendency to prioritize this motive over other pursuits and ends. The work of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben would suggest that this trend, previously evident in the longstanding conflicts around abortion and assisted suicide, proceeds directly from the reorientation of politics towards what he calls “bare life.” 

Agamben’s body of work is a critique of the politicization of life in the purely biological sense: in other words, the mere fact of living, as opposed to the range of positive goods that might accrue to the living. In the ancient world, the social and political dimension of life was the public life of the citizen in the polis. But, Agamben argues, we now live in an era when “life and politics—originally divided—begin to become one.” When the protection of biological “bare life” becomes the driving concern of politics, people inevitably come to see their fellow citizens primarily as vectors of danger and contagion. The result may be the delegation of unaccountable power to those who position themselves as protectors of life. 

Agamben controversially argued at the beginning of the lockdowns this Spring that COVID-19 had become the basis for a new “techno-medical despotism” that, in the name of “saving lives,” unilaterally suspended rights and demoted other values. This argument earned him fierce criticism, mainly from erstwhile allies on the left. However, it is consistent with his longstanding account of the trajectory of power. In particular, it echoes his better-received attacks on the post-9/11 War on Terror, which, we should recall, was also justified by concern for lives.

This is the modern dispensation that Michel Foucault, whose ideas Agamben is building on, defined as biopolitics, which entails the growing concern of the state with its subjects as biological beings. The widely distributed regime of biopolitical power regulates individuals’ lives through institutions including education and medicine; while at the same time, state and private bureaucracies increasingly quantify, categorize, and manage populations on a large scale. 

The resonance of slogans concerning “lives” today reveals the degree to which biopolitical assumptions have become intuitive. The lives that the associated causes defend are posited first and foremost as “bare life;” their primary aim is the sheer prevention of death. Furthermore, the way they envision the lives in need of protection accords with the techniques of biopolitical population management. After all, while the trigger for these causes tends to be media narratives that feature individual protagonists, what sustains them over time is the incorporation of these anecdotes into statistical models. Newspapers alternate op-eds about COVID-19 victims with graphs and charts. Videos of police killings accumulate millions of views, but statistics about racial disparities assign these videos their political meaning. 

The presumptive measure of success for an initiative to save or protect lives, then, would take the form of an overall reduction within the subset of deaths emphasized. A positive demonstration would be impossible: non-deaths, obviously, cannot be counted. Lives being saved, then, can only be proven in the form of a downward shift in the relevant metrics. This may seem obvious, but it stands in revealing contrast to movements that have sought the expansion of rights and access to social goods: the right to vote, the right to organize workers, the right to education, the weekend, sick leave, paid holidays, school access, and so on. This shift in emphasis implies a tacit acceptance of a narrower horizon of political possibilities. 

In line with its biopolitical vocation, the “lives” agenda does not seek to build consensus through collective deliberation. Rather, it tries to achieve its ends through the sheer force of moral exhortation. The force of the demand to preserve life derives from its apparent simplicity. But this minimalism also allows it to be used as a moral bludgeon. Criticism of the cause and the demands made by its adherents can be treated as tantamount to indifference to death. 

In practice, this rhetorical style can be more divisive than unifying, because it vilifies the unpersuaded in advance. But if the tacit goal is to provide ideological cover for the uncontested rule of a morally enlightened elite, this vilification is part of the point: it is the supposed ethical deficiency of the people that renders elite rule necessary. Earlier iterations of the politics of preserving life, such as the wars on drugs and terror, have made clear that the pursuit of this end may destroy some lives under the guise of preserving others and enable the accumulation of unaccountable power. Concern for victims can thus become carte blanche for victimization, but the moral purity of the cause makes such objections moot to its advocates.

In this way, the passions motivated by the protection of lives can function as the emotive obverse side of technocratic anti-politics. The framing of political causes in these terms underlines the state’s role as biopolitical custodian and reinforces the reduction of politics to this end, which nevertheless facilitates an expanded regime of bureaucratic supervision. This mandate has been elevated alongside the evisceration of public investment over decades of austerity. In the absence of a common vision of the good life, what remains is life itself. Any politics that accepts this premise seems unlikely to transcend the impasses of the present.