Despite the post-positivist and postmodern epistemic shifts that have blurred the boundary between traditional notions of objectivity and subjectivity, it wouldn’t be erroneous to proclaim that the most plausible historical evaluations have emerged in retrospect. The temporality of our subjectivity plays a crucial role in determining our response to events around us—more so when the subjectivity is that of a historian, and the event is as contemporary and calamitous as the Covid-19 pandemic. Begun during the initial months of the 2020 lockdown in India and finished before the year came to an end, Ranabir Samaddar’s A Pandemic and the Politics of Life identifies itself as a ‘current history’ of ‘the “long 2020”’, presented in a richly analytical ‘historical frame’. At the risk of ‘[burning] your hands when you attempt to write current history’(p. xi), Samaddar’s ‘current history’ exhibits a fertile (to borrow C Wright Mills’s terminology) ‘sociological imagination’ that will help every reader make better sense of the pandemic-induced angst and, hopefully, participate actively in our collective struggle against ‘bio-politics from above’.
An eminent migration and refugee studies scholar whose oeuvre has often traced the genealogy of the South Asian migrant figure to colonial structures and policies; situated them in the contemporary context of neoliberal regimes and economy; and asked radical questions about dominant notions of nation-state, citizenship, power, labour laws and governmentality—Samaddar’s latest book deploys an equally extensive historical and analytical framework to evaluate the recent migrant worker crisis that shook the nation’s conscience. The migrant worker crisis no doubt occupies centre stage in Samaddar’s narrative—reflected befittingly in the haunting silhouette of workers walking back home that graces the book’s cover. But the inferences that Samaddar draws from his incisive evaluation of the phenomenon, ranging from his reflections on the public in public health to what he terms as ‘politics of life’ and ‘bio-politics from below’, go beyond the migrant worker issue to reveal the iniquitous underbelly of neoliberalism. The epidemic and its migrant crisis becomes the mirror in which Samaddar rips apart the façade of neoliberal regimes by showcasing their fetishization of productivity and capital flow at the cost of human life that is deemed disposable.
Samaddar’s monograph comprises three chapters and an epilogue that succinctly enlists his ‘Ten Theses on the Politics of Life’—theses that are developed in the course of the chapters. The first chapter, ‘Borders of an Epidemic’, serves as a detailed introduction to the book’s theses as well as the context that shaped the migrant crisis. Samaddar’s unique introduction to the pandemic uses the motif of borders to delineate how the virus did not create new inequalities but simply made evident the pre-existing fault lines of race, class, caste and gender in neoliberal democracies. Observing similarities between the workings of war, disease and race, Samaddar evokes a Foucauldian methodology to introduce the workings of power in times of crisis—leprosy, black death, Bombay plague, Spanish flu, famines in colonial India, and the malaria epidemic to name a few. The chapter also provides a detailed account of the onset of the pandemic in Wuhan, and China’s bold approach in controlling it. Samaddar observes the failure of neoliberal governments, brimming with racist arrogance, in controlling the virus despite having the knowledge of China’s experience; a failure emanating from the fact that as they dabbled into ‘a dangerous neo-Malthusian game’ of arbitrating the number of deaths that would be acceptable to them, they chose to prioritize the demands of economy over those of life (p. 26).