The 21st century seems filled to the brim with crises that political theorists have a duty to make sense of. Three years after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that has rendered most of our lives irreparably changed in some way, critical theorists are beginning to develop mature, articulate responses to local, national, and international political responses to, and effects of, the pandemic. Pandemic and Crisis of Democracy is one such book and represents an exercise in sense-making of recent politics that will likely be a boon to many of those who get the opportunity to read it.
This review begins with a summary of the book as a whole. From there, I turn to three specific lines of thinking that are present throughout the book, all of which are highlights in terms of the overall contribution of the book to contemporary political theory. Having completed that summary and one brief critique, I offer a contextualization of this exceptionally timely work in terms of identifying prospective audiences and placing it as a work of new critical theory that can begin to address a new idea of “The Americas” in a 21st-century context.
As a whole, the book seeks to situate the presidential politics of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro as not only a horrible mismanagement of a public health crisis by an authoritarian who seeks to erode democratic institutions but, alongside that mismanagement, a creation of a new kind of necropolitics that amplifies existing trends within Neoliberalism to even more catastrophic ends. To these ends, Duarte masterfully begins a book with an essay, sometimes in first-person perspective, about the pandemic as he experienced it in Brazil. These sorts of narratives, I hope, will prove useful to those who come after us and who might not have firsthand experience of the anxiety, death, mourning, and authoritarian encroachment of this period in our history. Chapter two, then, develops ideas of power in the context of biopolitics, which turns into necropolitics under neoliberalism. The analytical framework set out in chapter two is applied in chapters three and four, which demonstrates that the Necropolitics of covid was not a breach of politics as normal, but, rather, a continuance and intensification of already-existing neoliberal political processes that cast many persons and groups outside of the consideration of worthiness for life. The conclusion is a clear one: such necropolitics are a clear and present threat to democracy, and we can no longer pretend that mere constitutional rights and Enlightenment hopes for democracy are enough to stop authoritarianism. Instead, Duarte concludes, we need a more performative theory and praxis of democracy that has a chance at developing meaningful counters to the bio- and necropolitical praxes offered by the right.
To make this nuanced and necessary political argument, Duarte takes the time, especially in the second chapter, to outline the important contributions to contemporary understandings of Foucault, Arendt, Mbembe, and several others in the areas surrounding the politics of bodies in the contemporary world, such as Judith Butler. These explanations are one of the highlights of the book, as they summarize and situate many years’ worth of reading and analysis into a few dozen pages, rendering some of the more complicated ideas of recent decades of political thought into simple and easily accessible concepts that are then deftly deployed in the rest of the book. At times, the reader might mistake the book for a transcript of lectures given by an experienced professor for the sake of clarifying the aforementioned giants in contemporary political thought: the clarifying role of these sections of the book make what could otherwise have been a hard argument to follow much more compelling.
Making good use of those clear explanations, the book’s second major contribution is in its recording and situating of Bolsonaro’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic within the context of existing political practices. As the book outlines in chapter three, Brazilian politics already exhibited an increasingly authoritarian politics before COVID that sought to other the LGBTQ community, communists, those on the left, darker-skinned folks, and so on, COVID provided an opportunity to not only expand those same biopolitical narratives but declare whole swaths of the population who did not belong to those already marginalized groups as subject to death for the sake of the preservation of the image of Brazilian strength personified by Bolsonaro himself. This politics, which Duarte labels as Bolsonarism, makes use of COVID to intensify dedication to those in political power by disregarding any form of knowledge that would seek to question the official line of the moment: the resultant deaths from this foreclosure of critique and discussion towards good public health ends directly turns the biopolitics of neoliberalism into the necropolitics of authoritarianism. As the author describes it, “ If biopolitical mechanisms for the governing of the lives of the population bring together dangerous side-effects derived from the distinction between worthy and unworthy lives, these consequences tend to become even more intensified and aggravated when authoritarian regimes or illiberal, immunitarian, populist or façade democracies recur to them”(Pg. 44). Documenting that shift from biopolitics to necropolitics is of vital political importance to any reader of this work.
The book also situates itself vitally as a work of political theory aimed at recording and making sense of the lived present of the author in the hopes of explaining the trends that he sees to those of us who would read the work. Intellectually, the foundations for this are best laid in the second chapter’s deployment of Arendt, who spent much of her academic career carefully documenting the major events of the Second World War as well as the formation of the state of Isreal in theoretical terms. This sense of political theorist as historian of the present carries throughout the book, however. For instance, Duarte makes the case that writing books such as this one is the “duty” of academics in times like these (Pg. 22) in the introduction of the book, and he spends much of the final few pages turning towards a call for praxis that might slow down or alter the catastrophically destructive and anti-democratic course upon which many nation states have set themselves. With these three highlights in mind, I would highly recommend this work to anyone interested in gaining a more critical understanding of COVID politics and how those political trends may well set the stage for upcoming anti-democratic political movements and struggles in the coming years and decades.
Pandemic and the Crisis of Democracy is, as a whole, well-written and timely, situating contemporary political thought within ongoing political practices. No work is without flaws, however. In the case of this work, the conclusion, though it is itself well-done, connects less to the overall theme of Brazillian COVID politics than the rest of the work does. A future edition, perhaps with several more years to observe political outcomes and make reflections that can move beyond calls for praxis, would address the political fate of Bolsonaro thanks to the demos’ perception of and action against his COVID politics as neoliberal necropolitics.
In terms of audience, this book would be of great benefit to undergraduate students in two contexts. The most obvious of these would be in an international relations class that focused on Latin America as a whole, or Brazil in particular. In such a context, this book serves as a timely and critical intervention in some more recent events that highlight power dynamics and authoritarian political shifts. Perhaps less obviously, this would make an excellent part of a contemporary political theory course: the first and second chapters that lay the intellectual framework for the arguments of chapters three and four would make excellent companions to assigned readings from Foucault and Arendt. As I said above, Duarte’s explanations of earlier thinkers are masterful in their clarity without doing much, if any, conceptual violence to the original works. Graduate students focused on Latin American politics, or who are looking to begin research agendas in the contemporary application of critical theory to COVID and the world thereafter should consider this book to be essential reading. Finally, the book is written clearly enough that those politically concerned with, but perhaps unable to articulate praxis about, the erosion of democracy should also consider this to be an important book to better understand the political processes through which we are living.
Beyond the text of the book, this work is also an important intervention in a contemporary political understanding of The Americas. In reading this work, especially the sections in which Duarte documents Boslonaro’s refusal to take medical advice, insistence on always having been “right” despite having contradicted himself, and utter willingness to sacrifice his countrymen for the preservation of his own power and ego, I was brought back to my own experiences as a citizen of the United States (and moreover of Florida). Both (former, twice impeached) President Trump and Governor DeSantis not only promoted the same ineffective drugs as Bolsonaro, but the Floridian counterparts also saw fit to happily merge their anti-LGBTQ agendas was red-scare tactics and a biopolitics of the “Good Citizen” that was more than willing to throw away the lives of the working class. Beyond the fact that Bolsonaro now lives in a gated community in Florida, apparently a favorite post-career trend of would-be authoritarians, the similarities of the political responses to COVID have, in my view, brought into sharper focus a concept of “The Americas.”
For recent decades, many activists and scholars have been reluctant to consider this hemisphere as any one political unit, and rightly so: the colonial overtones to the concept are clear, as are the neocolonial ones in the economic dependencies built into NAFTA and its military precursors, the Monroe Doctrine and American anticommunist efforts in Latin America. With that said, there may be a case from within critical theory to take a closer look at the similarities we see in Latin America, the United States, and Canada in terms of the concerning development of necropolitics. This goes beyond what Duarte correctly identifies in the relationships between, for example, the United States in Chile, the former being more than happy to cooperate with a dictatorship in the latter to try out neoliberal principles. Instead, I suggest that this Bolsonarist politics, with its quick move to necropolitics for the sake of hastening neoliberal-style corporate hegemony and authoritarian power are a style of politics beginning to affect the Americas more broadly. And, unlike the temporal cycles of colonialism, this style of necropolitics developed simultaneously. The political sickness that COVID-19 brought to the Americas, then, might be a bolstering of a new, authoritarian necropolitics that travels well across borders. In combatting this new strain of neoliberal horror, books like Pandemic and the Crisis of Democracy are essential inoculations against misinformation and authoritarian rewritings of history, which are already well underway. Despite, or perhaps because, of the Bolsonarist politics unfolding in some of the communities most affected by COVID in the United States, this work should be considered required reading for those critical of the new political normal after the pandemic.