The biopolitics of the bird-flu pandemic

Bird flu pandemic: chickens in coop

There’s a pandemic on don’t you know.

Or maybe you don’t: that’s the problem. Across the globe now, millions of birds have died, and many more have been put to slaughter in order to try and curb the spread of the deadly strain of bird-flu that has ravaged its way through swathes of the global bird population.

Given the sheer scale of the situation, it’s perhaps a little surprising that we’ve not seen more about the pandemic in the media. Perhaps it’s because we’re all bored with the pandemic now. It may also simply be the case that we all care a little less about things that don’t directly affect us.

Either way, it’s an issue that deserves far more attention than it is currently getting.

To kill or be killed

As a researcher interested in biopolitics and the ways in which ‘life’ is created and sustained as an artificial construct, I listened with great interest to a radio interview the other day with a poultry farmer who had seen thousands of birds slaughtered as part of protocols to manage the spread of contagion.

In fairness to the farmer, he seemed genuinely upset. Though not quite in the way you might expect.

You see, the reason the farmer was upset was not so much because the birds had died (or rather, been killed), but rather, that they had died at the wrong time.

In a ‘normal’ situation, the birds would have been allowed to live for a few more weeks, only to then be killed in a similar way – to be served up on dinner tables across the land over the festive period.

The upset then wasn’t so much at the loss of life, but rather the loss of control over the timing and manner of the birds’ deaths.

Tractor ploughing field

The sovereign and the farm

The case of the poultry farmer is very much reminiscent of the sovereign kings and queens of yore.

In feudal times, sovereign power was exercised through the life and death of subjects who could be killed at a moment’s notice, in much the same way as animal farmers sending their stock off to slaughter.

However, in the case of bird-flu, a higher power has entered the scene – a literal ‘force of nature’ that reveals the hidden workings of power. In this case, it’s not so much an issue that the birds die, but rather how they die, and in what context.

The human life worth living

We all die: we know this. But what matters in modern society is that we are all seen to ‘fight’ our impending deaths to the last. This is because we are compelled to keep ourselves alive for as long as possible – that when we do die, we should die the ‘good’ death, and not the death of the coward.

These concepts rest at the heart of biopolitics; the fact that in our modern world, biopower is all about creating and sustaining a certain concept of what it means to be ‘alive’ and live the good life.

This is why there is so much furore around assisted dying. Heaven forbid that someone should want to take control over their own death! Rather, we are encouraged to think of suicide / human euthanasia as a form of cowardice – that we should only die when the state decides.

It seems strange then that in these circumstances, animals actually have more rights than we do as humans. After all, a terminally ill dog can be taken to the vets for the last time. This isn’t seen as a cruelty; rather, it is a means to relieve suffering.

Creating the human

What’s interesting here is not that animals are protected more than humans; but rather the mechanisms at work to create an artificial divide between humans and animals. We humans are deemed to have a ‘soul’ – or some abstract quality that marks us different to animals. Therefore, in order to protect our ‘humanness’, so we must endure more than animals in order to maintain our position relative to the animal ‘other’.

So, next time you see an item on the news about the slaughter of animals, or indeed, the death of humans, I urge you to reflect on how these deaths are presented, and what this means for how we understand our place in the world as ‘humans’. In the world of biopolitics, it’s not the fact that we die that matters. Rather, it’s all about how we die, when we die, and in what context.

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