Excursus on the topic of public health Ruthless Criticism

Translation of “Pandemie V. Exkurs zum Thema Volksgesundheit” from GegenStandpunkt 2-20

Excursus on the topic of public health

The lockdown is dragging on. Popular discontent is limited; for the time being, a good opinion of the government rises in the polls – weekly voter surveys will probably be the last thing to die. However, the sector that mentors the people’s democratic morals, responsibly looking ahead, is already deeply worried.

First, about the mood in the country, which might suffer if the beloved people are denied not only any prospect of the enacted restrictions being lifted, but if even discussion of an exit strategy is held back as premature. So it then takes place after all, according to the basic pattern of a democratic discussion culture: as a debate about the presumed inadmissibility of a discussion about the conditions of its admissibility...

A second concern is basic democratic rights. They are suffering under curfew as well as under the already discussed conditions for lifting it. It is self-critically asked whether “we” have made the right decision in the conflict between the rights to freedom and to the protection of health, and whether the right measures were taken.

Those who are really responsible do not gloss over the use of sovereign force. They justify it with the precepts of epidemic-medical reason. And that’s very interesting, quite apart from the compassionate question about the balanced relation between the two sides. Because with reason, the politicians complain they are acting in the best interest of those who are subjected to their measures. At the same time, their use of force shows that the purpose they are pursuing with their rules is not that of those affected. And this raises two questions:

What is the cause that the state imposes on its people when it can’t do without force for its reasonable actions? And: who and which interests does it hurt with its violently decreed reason?


The reason, which the state claims for its force and puts into action with its force, is in any case not one thing: the universality of the universal human interest in staying healthy or in being healthy again. Its declared purpose is public health. What is at its root, the peculiar reason that is peculiar to this objective, is evident from the relation in which it is placed by the state. With the health policy measures that it considers necessary, it severely restricts what its society and it itself lives on: the process of making money in general. But by no means does it overrule the necessities of its monetary economy. It sets what the protection from epidemics requires in relation to them. For its restrictive interventions in national business life, it demands the highest possible justification of itself: proof of an emergency situation that makes damage to the economy unavoidable. And that is what it is doing: it does everything in its power to keep the damage to the money cycle as low as epidemiologically justifiable; it exercises even more power, namely by creating money, to compensate for the damage that is nevertheless essential. If it takes public health so seriously that it actually lets the main social purpose of increasing money suffer for its sake, then it must not really be damaged. It is true that right now no state can avoid giving priority to disease control over the undisturbed continuation of working life; but when it does, it does so in such a way that there is no doubt as to why it does: because public health is an essential condition for a healthy economic life. When the state takes care of an infectious disease and even partially paralyses the normal course of business in the country, it is concerned with the fitness of its people for this course of business: this is the peculiar ratio of the purpose of public health, which distinguishes the interest of the state from the interest of the individuals who serve the state as a people.

By its commitment to this purpose, therefore, the state serves precisely the national monetary economy which it restricts. It secures one of its essential conditions, enforces the “reason” of this system – by force and at its expense.


The policy measures that force the citizens to behave in ways that are reasonable in terms of health policy encounter neither a naive interest in health that could possibly be guided to actually proper behavior through medical education, nor – the main and favorite argument of state derivations – a primal human inclination to irrationality, which epidemic-medical arguments can do little against, but only force. With its rules, the state intervenes, in many places very harshly, in a material interest which follows from the necessity of making money which it itself imposes. It is this not at all a natural interest in survival under the regime of “the market,” i.e. under the conditions of the property system decreed and consistently enforced by the state, which stands in opposition to the coercive health policy measures of the government. This is all the more so because the population working for money habitually assumes that their own health is by no means their “highest good,” but an indispensable prerequisite for the necessary acquisition of money, and the most important means of surviving the necessities connected with it. In this respect, the addressees of the state’s anti-epidemic policy have already taken the standpoint that their health condition is functional for getting by in the market economy; in this respect, it complements the state’s interest in public health, that is, in a people suitable for earning money; but precisely for this reason, they are not at all in line with this state concern and with a restrictive health policy derived from it: this frustrates private calculations with the need to earn money and one’s own constitution as a precondition for it. Especially for non-infected or symptom-free money earners, the drastic epidemic control measures from above are difficult to understand and anything but a special holiday gift. For this reason, those who are materially damaged also demand financial compensation from the state, committing their authorities “from below” to the political-economic meaning and purpose of the epidemic policy measures pursued “from above”: the fact that the state’s health policy is, after all, a service to the market economy’s money-making, and has to relativize itself to this or compensate for it. And within the framework of its calculations, the state power even gets involved.

In many cases, what is additionally burdening the consensus between the government and the governed under the banner of health policy reasons is the fact that politicians with their restrictive measures are not only encountering the money interests of various categories of working people, but also bourgeois individuals who have taken the necessities of working life as a challenge to be mastered with self-confidence and the compulsion to compete as a personal career opportunity; as a path to success they don’t let anybody interfere in their autonomous shaping of it, and certainly not the political authorities. The state awakens a spirit of contradiction in them that is definitely entirely a product of the rules of procedure it has issued to its society, namely, a result of the self-confident adaptation of the free individual to its raison d'être. With its prophylactic coercive measures, it insults the actors of its own show. But they aren’t consistently intransigent either: after all, the unreasonableness of others, arising from ambition and competitive thinking, can’t be brought to reason except by force – a discovery that reconciles many with the state’s health policy.

The restrictions which the state imposes are particularly sensitive to the social life of its people, and indeed of the whole of its people, where it is not at all a question of money acquisition and career, but rather of enjoyment of life, for which people submit to the necessities of working life in the market economy and for which all this should be worthwhile. The possessors of free will do not like to let themselves be ruled in the small realm of freedom, the bourgeois private sphere, which has its measure and finds its limits in the remaining free time and the money earned. All the less so because this happens all the time anyway, and because private life, which is organized autonomously to the best of their ability, is already quite full with the duties and necessities of life in a capitalist-democratic community. Even the residual free activity that is left over on average largely obeys the non-natural need to recover from and restore oneself for professional and other everyday life. The habits which people have developed for this purpose are disturbed by the state’s covid policy; which means, conversely, that here too the state, with its concern for the fitness of the people’s health, meets with little approval from people who, in their private lives, are products of a system which owes its existence to a legal system based on its monopoly on the use of force. It is here, in the refuge of free self-determination granted by the state, that the need to withdraw the imposed restrictions is most alive; at the same time, a great deal of inventiveness is at work here in circumventing state regulations, but also in making them bearable. And as long as this succeeds – the entertainment industry, which is the most severely affected by the suppression of social contacts, makes the greatest effort here – the inevitable dissatisfaction is limited.

The dissatisfaction that accumulates in the private sphere leads to the idea of resistance to state authority, an ideal denunciation of the customary civil obedience where the need for free activity makes a transition with particular determination to the standpoint of the right to undisturbed activity. This transition is so obvious to the bourgeois individual that he or she usually does not make it explicit at all, because he or she does not perceive any difference there – which shows once again that the private individual acts and reacts as a creature of the state’s legal order, i.e. the state authority encounters its own product precisely in the private sphere of its citizens when it awakens a defiant sense of justice there with its epidemic policy measures. It is clear, however, that it remains up to a small radical minority to suspect the state of a violation or even an attack on civil liberties, which the state itself grants and should therefore be held in the highest esteem.


This suspicion has its firm place in the democratic public sphere completely elsewhere. One is familiar with cases in the world of states where measures to protect against epidemics are only a pretext for governments to allow themselves to be empowered to engage in dictatorial practices; where the idea, which is also very attractive to local epidemic control officers, of digitally recording the movements and encounters of infected persons and those at risk of infection – which on balance makes up the total population – and of using the movement profiles for warnings, is misused for the expansion of popular control and oppression. Whether or not such an accusation is justified in individual cases is of less importance; it is certainly suitable for illustrating an already established concept of the enemy ranging from “authoritarian” to “dictatorial regime.” The same goes for the accusation, which is actually a poor match but made very easily, that a government unacceptable to Germany’s democratic guardians of public morals has criminally underestimated the incidence of infection in its country, insidiously concealed it, or both at the same time.

A particularly concerned minority, however, also becomes alarmed with regard to its own nation when it thinks, for example, that the cancellation of church services in corona times endangers religious freedom or that demonstrations would have to be stopped, which is bad, even if no concern is named for which one would have liked to demonstrate at the moment – it is, somehow, a matter of principle. And the more decisively it is concerned, the more the critical statements are shaped by the spirit of responsibility for the community whose previous constitution – despite everything ... – one has become so fond of: whose real bosses are said to have a dilemma between freedom and public health that they could possibly resolve the wrong way around, and reminded that too brisk a move would be bad for them and their democracy and would cost them sympathy. In any case, such concerns for democratic values do not amount to a rejection of the political violence that the democratically governed civil society is clearly in need of, let alone of a society that can’t do without a comprehensive monopoly on the use of force. It’s not even enough to question the concept of public health, which the state cares so intensely about.

In its place, state critics who do not want to be outdone in radicalism accuse the state of doing too little for public health. The yardstick is the silly ideal of a health care system in which the possibility of victims would have to be excluded on principle, even in the event of a new, fairly deadly virus spreading. This is what happens when the will to be ruthlessly critical of the state is combined with the viewpoint of responsibility for doing things better. The longing for a right life in the wrong one does not die from the corona virus either.