Governing Uncertainty? | Satofumi Kawamura

by Critical Asia

by Satofumi Kawamura, June 2021】

The impact of COVID-19 is accelerating global uncertainty. It has previously been remarked that as the world becomes uncertain, this uncertainty is regarded as the momentum that drags human beings down from the subject position of the world. While the term ‘dark’ is often used as the prefix for new ideas or theories aiming at intervening in the current situation, it may also represent the uncertainty or opaqueness of the world. As Bernard Stiegler (2020) indicates, the certainty of the world is correlated with the centrality of the transcendental subject. The universal scientific rule underpinned by Newtonian mathematical physics was the basis for the Kantian transcendental philosophy, which was also projected to invent the philosophical basis that should have guaranteed the certainty of the world. However, since their time, such a Newton-Kantian assumption has already been challenged, and the environmental, technological, socio-political, and economic crises on a global scale have made us gravely concerned with the certainty of the world. Thus, as the certainty of the world becomes subject to scepticism due to these concerns, human beings as transcendental subjects also come to lose their privileged position.

The problem of the Anthropocene is proposed to face the uncertainty, and to understand that this uncertainty is essentially caused by human beings themselves. According to Žižek (2018), the problem of the Anthropocene has received increased attention, because, although we have disrupted the natural order through technological interventions, we are unable to control the effects of the disruption. As Žižek contends, no one can predict what genetic engineering or global warming will cause. In this sense, COVID-19 is a problem in the Anthropocene era. This epidemic emerged because of the expansion of human activity and became a pandemic because globalisation has greatly enhanced human mobility. Nevertheless, we can neither predict nor control the development of epidemics. Criticising the dualism between humans and non-humans, in which non-humans are considered as objects to be dominated by humans, the posthumanist philosopher Rossi Braidotti (2013) advocates radical Spinozist monism. She argues that ‘geomorphism’ is a crucial phenomenon in the Anthropocene era, because according to her, human beings come to be environmentalised, and thereby the chaotic complexity of the environment increases. For the SARS-CoV-2 virus, human beings are precisely the environment in which the virus can proliferate, and the calculation of the pandemic’s trajectory becomes uncertain because of the interplay between human beings and viruses. As the environment causes crises, human beings and viruses have become equivalent and indiscriminable today.

However, uncertainty itself is not a crisis for the governmentality of the neoliberal state. This is because the governmentality of the neoliberal state has been enhanced through the exploitation of uncertainty. Exploitation does not mean that the state legitimatises the exercise of its power as the defence of the certainty of a peaceful national life against an uncertain threat, but that the state utilises the uncertainty to produce emergent orders. For the neoliberal state, the market is the only place where governmental rationality can be found. As Foucault (2006, 32) argues, neoliberalism maximises the liberalist idea that ‘inasmuch as it enables production, need, supply, demand, value, and price, to be linked together through exchange, the market constitutes a site of veridiction’, and therefore ‘to be a good government, the government has to function according to the truth’ found in the market. In the liberalist assumption, the truth or rationality can be produced through the interplay between the individuals in the market, and the order that emerges through the uncertain process of human activities is the basis of liberal governmentality. Neoliberalism has developed this idea to the limit and maximised the market to subsume any kind of human and non-human activity. As stated by Brian Massumi (2015, 52), neoliberalism ‘operates in a field of immanence whose bare activity, fed forward and transduced into enterprise activity, amplifies into a self-expanding pattern of economic multiplier effects cresting into an emergent order’, and that ‘order, which never transcends its environmental conditions of emergence, is the neoliberal economy as a globalizing process’. Neoliberalism ‘values “creative destruction” over self-preservation’ (Ibid) and pursues the surplus value produced by the destruction of any stabilised and certain systems. Finally, to detect emergent orders, neoliberal capitalism enhances the technology for utilising the data to calculate the probability in statistical methods. However, it is impossible to confirm any certainty from the probability, because, as Arjun Appadurai (2016) points out, the emergent order is produced performatively through an uncertain process. The probability merely works as an index of the emergent order retrospectively. Thus, for neoliberalism, uncertainty is the source of the value, and neoliberal governmentality becomes the principle to maintain the uncertain process and to restructure the society according to the emergent orders.

For the neoliberal states, the uncertainty amplified by COVID-19 is also the source of the legitimacy of its governmentality. The ‘new normal’ would be the emergent order according to which government should function. The medical sociologist Mima Tatsuya (2020, 194) criticises the use of the term ‘new normal’ because he thinks this term makes us misunderstand the abnormal and exceptional situation brought by COVID-19 as a normal situation. He contends that COVID-19 has made it easier to incorporate exceptional measures, such as a lockdown or movement restriction, into our mundane lives, thus acclimatising us to such an abnormality. However, it should be argued that the ‘new normal’ is essentially not new, because the incorporation of the abnormality or its exception is the normal operation by the neoliberal governmentality. ‘Rather, neoliberalism’s tendency is to capture the exception and incorporate it’ (Massumi 2015, 53). Thus, the ‘new normal’ should be regarded as a term to make us understand the nature of the neoliberal state with more clarity than ever before. Normality under neoliberal governmentality has meant that ‘normativity ceases to be a foundational concern, or even a constitutive factor’ (Ibid), and the attention paid to the word ‘new normal’ should correspond to the fact that the neoliberal normality is revealed due to COVID-19. The disclosure of the neoliberal normality exposes the neoliberal state as well, that is, neoliberal governmentality is based on the strong power of the state. Usually, neoliberalism is thought to devalue the role of the state because of its claim to a limited government. However, as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (2016, 53) argue, ‘neoliberalism differs from classical liberalism in ascribing a significant role to the state’, because it assumes that markets ‘do not spontaneously emerge as the state backs away, but must instead be consciously constructed, sometimes from the ground up’. In other words, the state is required to exercise strong governmental power so it can maintain the market as the emergent order of the uncertain process. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the state’s power under neoliberal governmentality was hidden behind the momentum of the market. However, it now has become obvious as the power governing the uncertainty accelerated by COVID-19. In this sense, although strong and strict policies such as a lockdown or movement restriction seem to be the restoration of the state’s power, this is not restoration, but rather the exposure of how the state power has operated so far.

However, neoliberal governmentality has failed to govern the uncertainty accelerated by COVID-19 because the disease cannot be totally subsumed in the market. Rather, the pandemic decelerates the momentum of the market expanding globally, and this deceleration of the market makes the state’s power visible. Without the market as the emergent order, each state is more likely to employ direct measures of controlling the uncertainty. As the neoliberal governmentality recedes, discipline and sovereignty-based power come forward. Thus, the incorporation of exceptions by the neoliberal state becomes more obvious. Meanwhile, the advancement of digital technology seems to facilitate the formation of a new emergent order. The digital platform that works to communicate the risk of the infection may enable each individual to critically contemplate how they should behave, and thereby the social order that can decrease the risk may emerge. However, there is also the high possibility that the neoliberal state optimises the communication to conduct each individual to a particular direction through the ‘modulation of affect’ (Andrejevic 2013, 53) while reducing the care for those who do not follow the conduct. The digital platform makes it easier to extract both the information by which people are more likely to be affected and the data of individuals who are not affected by the information. Here, individuals become the objects that are both affected by the information and analysed by the platform. Consequently, hiding the exercise of its strong power, the state can maintain the emergence of the order as the ‘new normal’ that is exploitable for it.

How about Japan? As a neoliberal state, the Japanese government organised by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and the supporters of neoliberal governmentality seem reluctant or opposed to the policies that will decelerate the economy. As Yumiko Iida (2002, 114–117) pointed out, in the aftermath of the 1960 Anpo (US–Japan Security Treaty) struggle, the LDP government began to legitimatise its governmentality by arguing the validity of its economic policy. While ‘Prime Minister Ikeada Hayato, who replaced Kishi Nobusuke, strategically proclaimed a populist policy centring on economic growth, promising to double income within ten years’, the ‘primary concern of this politics was to create a climate and social infrastructure wherein the market could freely operate with little hindrance from a Leftist ideology and people, and minimize the state’s responsibility of mitigating the possible negative effects of such market-driven development policies’. In this sense, the LDP government has the highest concern for maintaining the market as the source of the legitimacy of their power, and that is why they are reluctant to take more direct and restrictive measures. The dominant party platform of the LDP, which has been the dominant party for more than sixty years, has been to reform the Japanese constitution into less democratic and more authoritarian, and this platform, although it has not succeeded in gaining an understanding from most Japanese citizens, reflects the LDP’s desire to have political legitimacy different from economic governmentality. The supporters of the LDP’s platform of reformation demand strong restrictive measures against the pandemic because they believe that the legitimacy of the LDP government can be guaranteed without economic governmentality. Consequently, this demand creates a conflict with the supporters of the LDP government as the neoliberal government, causing a split between the supporters of the LDP government. The actual policy the LDP government has taken is neither completely neoliberal nor completely restrictive, thus it loses its popularity from both camps.

Satofumi Kawamura, Kanto Gakuin University, Japan


Appadurai, Arjun. 2016. Banking on Words: The Failure of Language in the Age of Derivative Finance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Andrejevic, Mark. 2013. Infoglut: How Too Much Information Is Changing the Way We Think and Know. London: Routledge.

Braidotti, Rossi. 2013. Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Foucault, Michel. 2008. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979. Trans. Graham Burchell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Iida, Yumiko. 2003. Rethinking Ideology in Modern Japan: Nationalism as Aesthetics. London: Routledge.

Massumi, Brian. 2015. Ontopower: War, Powers, and the State of Perception. Durham: Duke University Press.

Mima, Tatsuya. 2020. Kansensho-shakai: Afuta-korona-no-sei-seiji. [Infection Society: The Biopolitics of the After-Corona] Kyoto: Jinbunshoin.

Srnicek, Nick and Alex Williams. 2016. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London: Verso.

Stiegler, Bernard. 2020. “Démesure, promesses, compromise.” Mediapart.

Žižek, Slavoj. 2018. Like a Thief in Broad Daylight. London: Penguin Books.

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