Against Agamben: Is a Democratic Biopolitics Possible?

Giorgio Agamben’s recent intervention which characterizes the measures implemented in response to the Covid-19 pandemic as an exercise in the biopolitics of the ‘state of exception’ has sparked an important debate on how to think of biopolitics.

The very notion of biopolitics, as it was formulated by Michel Foucault, has been a very important contribution to our understanding the changes associated with the passage to capitalist modernity, especially in regards to the ways that power and coercion are exercised. From power as a right of life and death that the sovereign holds, we pass to power as an attempt to guarantee the health (and productivity) of populations. This led to an expansion without precedent of all forms of state intervention and coercion. From compulsory vaccinations, to bans on smoking in public spaces, the notion of biopolitics has been used in many instances as the key to understand the political and ideological dimensions of heath policies.

At the same time it has allowed us to analyse various phenomena, often repressed in the public sphere, from the ways that racism attempted to find a ‘scientific’ grounding to the dangers of trends such as eugenics. And indeed Agamben has used it in a constructive way, in this attempt to theorise the modern forms of a ‘state of exception’, namely spaces where extreme forms of coercion are put in practice, with the concentration camp the main example.

The questions regarding the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic obviously raise issues associated with biopolitics. Many commentators have suggested that China made steps towards containing or slowing the pandemic, because it could implement an authoritarian version of biopolitics, which included the use of extended quarantines and bans on social activities, which was helped by the vast arsenal of coercion, surveillance and monitoring measures and technologies that the Chinese state has at its disposal.

Some commentators even suggested that because liberal democracies lack the same capacity for coercion or invest more on voluntary individual behaviour change, they cannot take the same measures and this could inhibit the attempt to deal with the pandemic.

However, I think that it would be a simplification to pose the dilemma as one between authoritarian biopolitics and a liberal reliance on persons making rational individual choices.

Moreover, it is obvious that simply treating measures of public health, such as quarantines or ‘social distancing’, as biopolitics somehow misses their potential usefulness. In the absence of a vaccine or successful anti-viral treatments, these measures, coming from the repertoire of 19th century public health manuals, can reduce the burden, especially for vulnerable groups.

This is especially true if we think that even in advanced capitalist economies public health infrastructure has deteriorated and cannot actually stand the peak of the pandemic, unless measures to reduce the rate of its expansion are taken.

One might say that contra Agamben, ‘naked life’ would be closer to the pensioner on a waiting list for a respirator or an ICU bed, because of a collapsed health system, than the intellectual having to do with the practicalities of quarantine measures.

In light of the above I would like to suggest a different return to Foucault. I think that sometimes we forget that Foucault had a highly relational conception of power practices. In this sense, it is legitimate to pose a question whether a democratic or even communist biopolitics is possible.

To put this question in a different way: Is it possible to have collective practices that actually help the health of populations, including large-scale behaviour modifications, without a parallel expansion of forms of coercion and surveillance?

Foucault himself, in his late work, points towards such a direction, around the notions of truth, parrhesia and care of the self. In this highly original dialogue with ancient philosophy, he suggested an alternative politics of bios that combines individual and collective care in non coercive ways.

In such a perspective, the decisions for the reduction of movement and for social distancing in times of epidemics, or for not smoking in closed public spaces, or for avoiding individual and collective practices that harm the environment would be the result of democratically discussed collective decisions. This means that from simple discipline we move to responsibility, in regards to others and then ourselves, and from suspending sociality to consciously transforming it. In such a condition, instead of a permanent individualized fear, which can break down any sense of social cohesion, we move to the idea of collective effort, coordination and solidarity within a common struggle, elements that in such health emergencies can be equally important to medical interventions.

This offers the possibility of a democratic biopolitics. This can also be based on the democratization of knowledge. The increased access to knowledge, along with the need for popularization campaigns makes possible collective decision processes that are based on knowledge and understanding and not just the authority of experts.

Biopolitics from below

The battle against HIV, the fight of stigma, the attempt to make people understand that it is not the disease of ‘high risk groups’, the demand for education on safe sex practices, the funding of the development of therapeutic measures and the access to public health services, would not have been possible without the struggle of movements such as ACT UP. One might say that this was indeed an example of a biopolitics from below.

And in the current conjuncture, social movements have a lot of room to act. They can ask of immediate measures to help public health systems withstand the extra burden caused by the pandemic. They can point to the need for solidarity and collective self-organization during such a crisis, in contrast to individualized “survivalist” panics. They can insist on state power (and coercion) being used to channel resources from the private sector to socially necessary directions. And they can demand social change as a life-saving exigency.

Panagiotis Sotiris is an adjunct faculty member of the Hellenic Open University and editorial board member of the Historical Materialism Journal.

Reposted from https://lastingfuture.blogspot.com/ with author’s permission.

  12 comments for “Against Agamben: Is a Democratic Biopolitics Possible?

  1. M. da Rui
    14 March 2020 at 7:00 pm

    Thanks, that was nice and clearly written. The topic is certainly an interesting opportunity to reflect on biopolitics today.

    I think – probably since you wrote this – Western states have begun taking arguably coercive measures, which only ties in with the notion that pressure may come from below to implement such measures, as you pointed out.

    The notion of resilience and community response/solidarity is always quite an interesting one to me in relation to our neoliberal paradigm. I’m not an expert in your or any field so excuse me if my thinking is a little simplistic, but I think the fact that the burden of ensuring basic welfare is increasingly borne by communities simply because the state is too busy doing the private sector’s bidding to invest in and look after citizens is very significant.

    It’s almost an embodiment of a much more subtle form of biopolitical coercion in neoliberalism, which forces community ties to practically grow out of thin air out of sheer need for a support on the basis of whose provision the modern social contract was developed and which it now wholly fails to deliver.

  2. Nicos Trimikliniotis
    15 March 2020 at 10:56 am

    Well argued Panayiotis! The alternative or default position is what Johnson is doing with his “herd experiment”. This is an act of barbaric social Darwinism!

  3. Karsten Schubert
    16 March 2020 at 7:29 am

    I actually devoted an article to developing the concept of democratic biopolitics regarding HIV Pre-Exposure-Prophylaxis (PrEP). I also extensively discuss the implications of of democratic biopolitics for the overall biopolitical scholarship. You might find it useful: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-658-25769-9_5

  4. Owen Dempsey
    16 March 2020 at 1:45 pm

    Thank you for a very thoughtful piece. I confess to being less optimistic and draw from a Lacanina perspective on subjectivity that gives us less apparent freedom of choice than Foucault’s seems to:

    I have written a longer first draft of a piece here:

    https://myownprivatemedicine.com/2020/03/16/coronavirus-love-and-capitalism-a-recipe-for-fascism/

    My final para is:

    “But whether or not subjectivisation is coercive negative public health measures face two ideological obstructions – they prevent a natural (sexual but aim-inhibited, drive to care with love for the interpersonal other), and at the same time even seems to be causing ruptures in the commodity-exchange chain demanded by capitalism. I fear a collective response to this will be an even more intensified ramping up of capitalism and a ramping up of its consequent socio-economic inequalities and spin offs such as nationalist xenophobia.“

  5. Nicholas Kiersey
    17 March 2020 at 2:26 am

    One of my friends has said he doesn’t think a democratic biopolitics is possible, because it is antidemocratic at its core. However, as this Cosmonaut article points out, the left often too falls into an “initiative and incentive” model of organizing, which claims to be radically democratic but, in practice, often is anything but. So, you do need something like a “democratic scientific mass line.” And this will involve us creating democratic systems for activating and orienting ourselves. So there is certainly (to be explicit here) the idea of an “activist biopolitics” that maybe has not been yet articulated, as opposed to the neoliberal model of activism that Occupy Wall Street so unfortunately succumbed to.

    https://cosmonaut.blog/2019/11/19/organizing-for-power-stealing-fire-from-the-gods/

    So, yeah, personally, I’m totally comfortable calling for a socialist biopolitics or democratic biopolitics. I guess maybe I just have a more authoritarian mind, but I don’t see the problem so much with it. As Foucault says, socialism has always borrowed its governmentality either from liberalism or totalitarianism. The key is to invent its own. In this sense, for him, the issue was less one of biopolitics and one more of liberalism (which invented biopolitics, but which perhaps shouldn’t have the last word on it, you know?). So a socialist governmentality might use biopolitics, but use it differently and more democratically.

  6. Richard Twine
    21 March 2020 at 8:25 pm

    Another biopolitics from below could be Veganism (sustainable food transition as progressive biopolitics). And we should not forget the hidden camp of the live animal market, or the industrialised factory farm, where many zoonotic diseases ferment.

    • Mina R.
      21 March 2020 at 8:34 pm

      Absolutely Richard. The way we treat animals is beyond problematic, both because it’s unsustainable environmentally and in terms of the impact on human public health, and because of the endless suffering it entails. A recurring problem seems to be that people – especially in social science and human rights activism – is that people see human rights, welfare etc. vs. animal rights, welfare etc. as mutually exclusive. It couldn’t be further from the truth, as the incredibly debasing, horrific, objectifying ways we treat animals in factory farms and other death camps only allows us to set the bar for the minimal standard of acceptable treatment for humans as ‘anything better than that’. We objectify bodies, lives, reproductive systems as inert commodities and we wonder why we can’t seem to operate in a decent set of relationships between government and governed and between citizens, classes, genders etc. If you haven’t yet read it, I highly recommend Zoopolis by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka.

    • Martin Pescador
      22 March 2020 at 12:47 pm

      If we want to address this problem, let us turn to the roots of it.

      Begin with the plough [1], grains [2], slavery, debt and taxation – the cornerstones of the state nexus.

      Money is virtual grain.

      And note that such things as the feedlot have been developed to profit from excess in the grain market.

      1: See the work of geomorphologist Montgomery of the how the plough is the original “climate change” tech and cause of civilisational collapse: https://www.washington.edu/news/2017/05/02/new-book-by-uws-david-r-montgomery-addresses-how-to-rebuild-earths-soils/

      Also, gender inequalities can still be linked: https://academic.oup.com/qje/article-abstract/128/2/469/1943509

      2: https://www.soas.ac.uk/foodstudies/forum/lectures/11dec2014-how-grains-domesticated-us.html / and the work this talk was building towards: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34324534-against-the-grain

    • Benjamin David Steele
      22 March 2020 at 9:51 pm

      There are a lot of problems with veganism. It necessitates industrialized agriculture and mass transportation, both dependent on big oil and other big biz interests. There is no way to do mass veganism without mass industrialization, which means centralization of wealth and power.

      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2019/11/26/corporate-veganism/
      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2019/06/29/carnivore-is-vegan/

      • martin pescador
        23 March 2020 at 10:38 am

        Yes, Benjamin, indeed. There are good reasons why veganism is suddenly centre stage: it is less due to movements from below, than movements from above. The food and agriculture industry can kill two birds with one progress stone: implement the 4th industrial revolution on our dinner plates and produce “sustainable” food to silence critics and keep business (and power distribution) more or less as usual.

        Essentially, as far as I am concerned, what we are seeing is the final nail in the coffin of the nature/culture divide delivered under the banner “plant-based”.

        Instead of factory food (where protein is pushed through machines rather than cows) and returning agricultural land to “nature”, what needs to happen is bringing nature and culture back together by returning agriculture to nature.

        There is a movement working for that, La Via Campesina, working with agroecologists across the world.

        All things are alive, carrots scream too. Pray for the soul of the being you devour and come out of the big-like-us (cf. Lynn Margulis) comfort zone thinking.

        • Benjamin David Steele
          23 March 2020 at 2:53 pm

          I was raised with very liberal thought. My family’s church was liberal and touchy-feely. And I’ve spent most of my life in a liberal college town. As I’ve aged, I’ve become more leftist, but still maintain a general liberal mindset. Since childhood, I’ve loved nature and was always close to animals. Starting in elementary school, I was worried about the environment and the future of humanity. I really am an unrepentant hippy-dippy tree-hugger.

          I say that as an explanation. I’m not a right-wing reactionary. I’m not opposed to “plant-based” diets on principle. I’ve been a vegetarian in the past and I’m surrounded by vegetarians. I’ve also had a good friend who was a vegan and I lived with him for a time. I’m familiar with all the arguments for “plant-based” diets. And I share the concerns of many vegans and vegetarians. But based on the evidence I’ve seen, I’ve come to different conclusions.

          It’s not as if I hate plants. When I was doing the paleo diet, I did eat plenty of animal foods but I also was eating massive amounts of fruits and vegetables, more than is eaten by my vegetarian brothers and their families. The big thing that changed for me was the paleo emphasis on traditional, sustainable, and local farming. I started regularly shopping at the farmers market. I can get nearly everything I need from local sources. I’ve even gotten into the habit of making my own bone broth from locally-sourced marrow bones.

          I’ve gotten to know the farmers I shop from. It feels good knowing the people who are raising your food. These days I eat far more animal foods than in the past, including lots of eggs and sometimes dairy. The nice thing about that is that I can get animal foods directly from local farmers year round. The same cannot be said about plant foods. For vegans, they have no choice but to buy many products being shipped in from far away.

          We don’t think about how subsidized is our industrial food system. We aren’t paying the full costs. Fruits and veggies are unnaturally cheap in the Western world. Many of the people who grow produce for the West can’t afford to eat the foods they grow. It’s only international trade agreements, powerful militaries, farm chemicals, and cheap oil that keeps those prices low for us Westerners.

          You can make arguments that plants are sentient too. It is only anthropomorphism that makes us identify with animals in the way we don’t with plants. But science is beginning to show us that plants are intelligent, aware of their environments, and do respond to the world around them, including trying to defend themselves from being eaten. That is what the plant antinutrients are all about.

          Still, even ignoring that, let’s simply look at the death count of animals. Every time a field is plowed, sprayed or harvested, it causes the death of thousands of creatures (insects, spiders, mice, rabbits, baby birds, etc). Farmers also regularly shoot larger animals like deer that get into their fields. Compare that to the fact that someone on a carnivore diet could sustain their health over a year with the meat from a single cow. So, if veganism is an ethical position about killing the fewest animals, carnivore potentially can be the most ‘vegan’ diet around.

          That is what bothers me about corporate veganism. An ideology is being sold on false pretenses by using empty rhetoric to manipulate otherwise well-intentioned people. I don’t criticize vegans for their intentions. But as it has been said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Those advocating “plant-based” diets should stop and wonder why big biz is so interested in promoting their diet, even to the point of arguing for authoritarian measures like EAT-Lancet. Why is a diversity of transnational corporations funding and backing the EAT organization that is behind the EAT-Lancet report? They wouldn’t be doing so unless there was immense profit to be obtained.

          https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2019/01/21/dietary-dictocrats-of-eat-lancet/

  7. Benjamin David Steele
    22 March 2020 at 10:00 pm

    Agamben came across as amazingly tone deaf. He sounded like someone who has spent so much of his life in ideas that he has lost contact with everyday experience the rest of us live.

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