Karl Marx is said to have remarked of a French socialist that if he is a Marxist, then I’m certainly not. In a similar vein, it would appear that Giorgio Agamben is no longer an Agambian—or perhaps he’s been misreading him(self) lately.
The Italian philosopher’s recent article about the coronavirus repeats the absurd, conspiratorial claim that it’s no different from a ‘normal flu’. The seriousness of the pandemic has been, in his telling, exaggerated as a pretext for limiting freedoms and implementing increasingly authoritarian rule:
First and foremost, what is once again manifest here is the growing tendency to use the state of exception as a normal governing paradigm (his emphasis).
In Homo Sacer, Agamben explains in some detail what he sees as the antecedents of this paradigm:
Insofar as its inhabitants were stripped of every political status and wholly reduced to bare life, the camp is also the most absolute biopolitical space ever to have been realized, in which power confronts nothing but pure life, without any mediation. This is why the camp is the very paradigm of political space at the point at which politics becomes biopolitics and homo sacer [a person who, under Roman law, can be banned and may be killed by anybody, but may not be sacrificed in a religious ritual] is virtually confused with the citizen.
The spectre of the camp lurks behind all sovereign power and, left unchecked, it comes to the fore and dictates the way in which subjects are ruled. The state of exception, in other words, is no longer exceptional – it’s just the norm.
But these lockdowns are exceptional and people’s willingness to accept them is not, as Agamben suggests, tantamount to normalisation. In fact, we are experiencing a reversion to much older, cruder forms of control. In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault argues that the ‘plague as a form, at once real and imaginary, of disorder had as its medical and political correlative discipline’. But modern forms of discipline have been refined to the point where these draconian measures are not only no longer required, but counterproductive. In the current crisis, for instance, the disruption to capital may well hurtle the global economy towards a depression. Modern methods of control and discipline—the realisation or the attempt to realise the state of exception as the governing paradigm—are employed (perhaps above all else) to facilitate the free flow and accumulation of capital.
In a follow-up essay, ‘an indirect response to the controversy surrounding his article about the response to coronavirus in Italy’, Agamben argues:
The first thing that the wave of panic that has paralyzed the country obviously shows is that our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything — the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions—to the danger of getting sick. Bare life—and the danger of losing it—is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them.
The paradox that seems to elude Agamben is that spatially isolating oneself is a collective response to the crisis. ‘Other human beings,’ he continues, ‘as in the plague described in Alessandro Manzoni’s novel, are now seen solely as possible spreaders of the plague whom one must avoid at all costs and from whom one needs to keep oneself at a distance of at least a meter.’ But another novel, Albert Camus’ La Peste, provides the exact opposite lesson: It’s only through human solidarity—or what Jean-Paul Satre called Being-for-Others—that the spread of the plague can be halted and the community saved.
There is an alternative to the lockdowns, though: the herd immunity strategy, in which large numbers of people are allowed to become infected and, hence, develop immunity, was part of the Netherlands’ and Britain’s early plans and, more recently, seems to spiked the interest of Donald Trump. This is the reduction of entire populations to bare life; herd immunity is the almost perfect realisation of a society governed by biopolitics. It’s a Darwinian dystopia where older, at-risk and less productive members of society are sacrificed for younger, healthy, more productive economic subjects.
‘What is worrisome is not so much or not only the present,’ warns Agamben, ‘but what comes after.’ While he understates the seriousness of the virus, it’s true that it won’t be easy to roll back the coercive measures currently being implemented. There are already, even in these early stages of the crisis, some concerning signs: the easy adoption of martial rhetoric; the lack of transparency in the Australian government’s refusal to release its coronavirus modelling; our parliament’s sitting hiatus and the heavy emphasis and reliance on the police to enforce the lockdown orders, all speak to the authoritarian impulse at the heart of all state power.
There is a real danger that western democracies will emerge from this and look to China’s state authoritarianism not just as the most effective model for disease control and maintaining order, but—now that neoliberal orthodoxies have surely been upended—the most effective political structure for managing the economy.
But there will also be an opportunity to build a more just and equitable system: precarious workers living from pay cheque to pay cheque who show up at their jobs despite being sick, it should now be obvious, are not just a risk to themselves. Capitalism won’t assume its same pre-coronavirus form when this is all over. But what comes next is not predetermined. A better world is possible, but, as always, it will have to be struggled for.
(This was originally published in Meanjin on 1st April, 2020.)