by Jonathan Joseph
Jacques Derrida died some 16 years ago and might seem an unlikely candidate for providing an analysis of the current Covid-19 epidemic. Yet I will summon Derrida here to provide a certain view of these exceptional times, drawing mainly on the arguments of his book Specters of Marx. Here, he remarkably refers to his philosophy of deconstruction—an approach more focused on text and meaning than on the material world—as a radicalisation of a certain spirit of Marxism. Using Marx to question the smug triumphalism of capitalism’s liberal supporters, this intervention seemed as much a challenge to the postmodern indulgencies of his own followers.
Now we might conjure up Derrida just as he conjured up Marx, to provide insights not only into that which is rotten in the state of today’s world, the decay that is exposed by the threat of the virus, but also to expose that which might not be quite right in some of the analysis of such rottenness in the world. Derrida conjured up the spirit or spectre of Marx without the heaviness of the body of Marxism, here now is perhaps an opportunity for Derrida to reappear, albeit spectrally, without some of the lightness of deconstruction. For Marx a spectre was haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism. Derrida seizes on this bold claim, a claim that was not in fact realised. And yet: ‘The spectre that Marx was talking about then, communism, was there without being there. It was not yet there. It will never be there.’
Europe is currently being haunted by a new spectre. The Spectre of Covid-19. Part of Derrida’s comment about communism holds true. The virus is something intangible. It gives the impression of being here without being here. And yet it is most definitely here. It is not something to come. This seems obvious—yet Giorgio Agamben made an early intervention to claim that the pandemic is largely a fabrication designed to justify the measures of a state of exception. While the reality of the pandemic is now undeniable, its presence does have a bearing on how we understand European phantasmagoria.
For Derrida, this phantasmagoria was about capitalism. He writes of how commodities come to life through the process of exchange, thus assuming a mystical character. They become ‘the furtive and ungraspable visibility of the invisible … that non-sensuous sensuous of which Capital speaks’. The spectral charter of capitalist relations requires the bodilessness of money and the endless visible but invisible drive of speculation and accumulation. It is not hard to imagine Derrida’s thoughts on the recent financial crisis that gripped the Eurozone and the rest of the global economy.
Under neoliberalism we see human activity at its most commodified. Not simply through processes like commodity fetishism and financialisation, but through the spectral character of the single market, the Europe of free movement, which is one of the greatest illusions of all, a Europe whose ghostly free movements, facilitated by neoliberal ideology, are now rendered visible under the spotlight of the pandemic.
What the pandemic highlights is that the Europe of free movement is not a Europe of free people, but a form of governmentality that regulates conduct from a distance through the liberal imperative of freedom, promising us freedom of movement in return for our faith in the powers of the free market. It is, moreover, what Foucauldians would call a biopolitical construct, concerned with the administration and management of populations, which enables free movement but also severely constrains it for those deemed to fall into the wrong category of the population. Most notably, this was highlighted by another recent ‘European’ crisis, the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ which required all Europe’s biopolitical sophistication to keep out a plague of non-European migrants. Now biopolitics is turned on the insiders through the realisation that the threat can be inside any of us whose ghostly movements must now be rendered more visible by enhanced biopolitical practices, our ghostly traces can now be traced by new technologies.
In some senses, the pandemic follows on from the War on Terror in justifying a phantasmagoria of ‘exceptional measures’. This is what Agamben means when he claims that once terrorism was exhausted as a justification for exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic was used to create a climate of panic, thus provoking a state of exception.
However, this is an astonishing claim for the obvious reason that the epidemic is clearly not an invention, not a product of discourse or effect of what Foucauldians might call ‘medicalisation’, but a reality. Furthermore, it is difficult to see why neoliberal regimes would wish to create a state of exception as a ‘normal governing paradigm’ when the measures we have seen introduced are so detrimental to neoliberal economies. Indeed, the popular debate in the media is of a clash between the neoliberal economic paradigm that wishes to keep the economy running even if this costs lives, and the exceptional state measures designed to limit the spread of the pandemic even if this causes severe disturbance to the economy.
The terrorist threat certainly was more of a fabrication, designed to justify an intensified regime of biopolitical measures. However, it supported a ‘normal governing paradigm’ that was more normal than exceptional, at least from a neoliberal point of view. This is the paradigm based around notions like resilience, an ideology that teaches us how to live in a world of complexity and uncertainty. Relating not only to terrorist threats, but all forms of crises, emergencies, shocks and disasters, ideas like resilience, wellbeing and sustainability—as a new trinity of governance encourage us to be self-reflexive and self-governing in the manner envisioned in Foucault’s account of neoliberal governmentality. Operating ‘from a distance’, resilience seeks to work through encouragement more than by direct coercion, devolving responsibility from the state to the individual, encouraging us to familiarise ourselves with the threats we face and even to show enterprise in the face of possible adversity.
Resilience is not or should not be the exceptional. Rather, it encourages us to adapt our normal everyday behaviour by conjuring up the spectre of something exceptional but which, like Derrida’s messianic, the expectation of something to come, is there without being there and which is ‘always to come’. For resilience to work as a form of governmentality it must instil in us a sense of preparedness or readiness for something that should always be ‘to come’. The pandemic is such a shock precisely because it is here. And in this sense it is unexpected. It is not supposed to be here. Its appearance has rendered governmentality more problematic.
The encouragement of responsibilised behaviour by means of ‘governance from a distance’ has been shown to be an illusion, unable to deal with real crises. Just as neoliberalism has been found materially wanting in the face of the resource-needs of the fight against the pandemic, so its phantasmagoria of governance, based around the ideological belief in resilience, has been shown spiritually wanting as well. The response in Europe and the West has exposed both the neoliberalism of the market, with its failed allocation of the necessary resources to combat the virus, and the neoliberal self-limiting regime of governance, with its belief that self-interested individuals will behave in the right way. Why would individuals behave responsibly when neoliberal ideology encourages us to show selfish opportunism?
The spectre, the revenant, comes back, not to play out an Agambenian tragedy of exception, but to shine a light on the farcical but deadly incompetence of neoliberalism’s day-to-day approach.
But maybe Covid-19 is not the spectre that is haunting Europe. Maybe the spectre is Europe itself. Covid itself is something real, something that is actually there, something that exists beyond all the texts about free markets and individual responsibility and strong states and states of exception. Contra Agamben, it was not a phantasmagoria, it was real. It happened to us.
If that is the case, then Covid-19 is more like Derrida’s inverted-mirror that holds up the image, the imaginary, and shows the limits of spectrality, the limits of the phantasmagoria that calls itself neoliberalism, the market, the associated ideas of resilience as well as some of the ideological discourse surrounding Covid-19 itself.
Whereas the mystifying mirror effect plays a negative ideological role in hiding, concealing, distorting, and mystifying, returning a different (deformed, objectified, naturalised) image, an image that is nevertheless an imaginary one. Covid-19 absorbs some of this mystery and remains somewhat unknowable, while around it offering some glimpse of reality- of the underlying social relations of capitalist production, of the value of human beings ‘in themselves’, while exposing the ghostly concealments of neoliberal ideologies, Eurocentric discourses and practices of governmentality.
This also shows the limits of Derrida’s thinking. For the virus, in showing itself to be more than a ghost, shows that there is more ‘out there’ than just hauntology—a bodiless realm which rejects the certain foundations of ontological existence. There is a neoliberal phantasmagoria, for sure, but this crisis has given us glimpses of the underlying, but all too real, reality.
 J. Derrida, Specters of Marx (New York: Routledge, 1994), 92.
 Ibid., 100.
 G. Agamben, ‘The State of Exception Provoked by an Unmotivated Emergency’, Positions Politics (2020) available at http://positionspolitics.org/giorgio-agamben-the-state-of-exception-provoked-by-an-unmotivated-emergency/ accessed 1 April 2021.
 Ibid., 7.
 J. Joseph, ‘Derrida’s Spectres of Ideology’, Journal of Political Ideologies 6(1) (2001), 101–2.
 D. Chandler, ‘The Coronavirus: Biopolitics and the Rise of Anthropocene Authoritarianism’ Russia in Global Affairs 2 (2020). Available at https://eng.globalaffairs.ru/articles/coronavirus-authoritarianism/ accessed 1 April 2021. Agamben, ‘State of Exception’. .
 C. Salzani, ‘COVID-19 and State of Exception: Medicine, Politics, and the Epidemic State’, Paris Institute (2021) available at https://parisinstitute.org/depictions-article-covid-19-and-state-of-exception-medicine-politics-and-the-epidemic-state/?fbclid=IwAR0-JVomfNkHpWyckiNdhR0NUAbu8-AQRnsn2ln79cVabB81QpTTyeldv-k.
 Agamben, ‘State of Exception’.
 J. Joseph and J.A. McGregor, Wellbeing, Resilience and Sustainability: The New Trinity of Governance (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2019).
 J. Joseph, ‘Resilience as Embedded Neoliberalism: A Governmentality Approach’, Resilience: Policies, Practices and Discourses 1(1).
 Joseph ‘Derrida’s Spectres’, 103.