Must Society be Defended from Agamben?

Many European countries have by now been in lockdown for more than a week. This has given everyone ample time to reflect on our current condition. Many of the world’s leading critical thinkers have shared their thoughts with us through op-eds, blog posts, and so on. Among the more troubling are three opinion pieces Giorgio Agamben wrote for his Italian publisher Quodlibet. As one could have expected, Agamben vehemently opposes the use of the state of emergency to control this crisis. For the majority of patients, COVID-19 poses no more trouble than a regular flu. Agamben thus fears that exceptional measures pushed through today are dangerously disproportionate. If the reader thinks that makes Agamben sound like coronavirus denialists such as Bolsonaro or Trump, then I must confess they are right. Just like these authoritarian leaders sacrifice global health to their own egos, it seems like Agamben dangerously underestimates the threat the coronavirus poses. So the question must be asked: must society be defended from Agamben?

For me, this problem is particularly urgent. I am a graduate student in philosophy writing my dissertation about Agamben’s work. Should I, from now on, excuse myself for mentioning Agamben in my research? Will I have to answer mean questions about him and the coronavirus on my PhD defense? I know I am not accountable for the ramblings of a 77-year old man in Italy, but still, I cannot help but feel a bit responsible for whatever my dissertation topic writes. Taking to heart his own statements about ‘abandonment’ as the exposure of people’s bare life to the decision over life and death, I cannot but wonder whether the proposal of doing nothing – a position Agamben shared with the US, the UK, and the Netherlands until a few days ago – is not more problematic than the lockdown we are now in. Is it not the politicians pleading for sacrificing the weak and vulnerable for the sake of ‘group immunity’ who are abandoning the population to the virus’ sovereign decision over life and death? Is it not obvious to Agamben that, today, going into lockdown is riven with class privilege? Upper and middle classes can work from home, while workers, refugees, and the homeless are left to fend for themselves. To give Agamben a fair chance, I will address each of his three arguments against the deployment of the state of exception separately:

(1) Agamben, firstly, laments the fact that we value biological survival over all other social concerns at the moment. It seems like populations are willing to give up everything – their jobs, their social life, seeing their families – in order to stay alive. Agamben has a point that this shows just how much we have become permeated by the biopolitical imperative to value life above all else, but so what? There is not much to enjoy from social contacts or seeing your family once you are dead. Biological survival is a necessary condition for the cultivation of other social values, so it seems only appropriate that, in times of need, survival comes first. On the other hand, Agamben’s indictment seems fair once we realize that the coronavirus is, in actual fact, not very lethal. Only a small minority of patients develop strong symptoms and, among them, only a minority dies. Agamben, however, misjudges the threat as one of survival or death. What makes the coronavirus so dangerous is not its lethality, but its impenetrability. The problem with the coronavirus is its opaqueness to the governments trying to control its spread. As Bifo wrote recently on Verso Blogs, “neither the immune system nor medical science know anything about the agent. The unknown stops the machine, the biological agent turns into an info-virus, and the info-virus unchains a psychotic reaction.” COVID-19 operates as an info-virus that upsets governmental plans to keep the population safe. Hospitals and clinics are ill-prepared to face this challenge due to years of budget cuts in health services. In that sense, it is more appropriate to regard the recent declarations of the state of emergency as signs of institutional breakdown rather than as a totalitarian ploy to exert domination over the population.

(2) Agamben’s second criticism is that the fear of contagion governments promote turns everyone into a potential source of infection. During the War on Terror, everyone suddenly became a potential terrorist and could be treated accordingly; nowadays, people suddenly become a potential health threat to each other. This not only grants governments the authority to impose severe restrictions on even healthy citizens, but it also destroys social bonds. People no longer dare to give each other handshakes and the Internet is bursting of messages from lonely people in quarantine begging for a hug. Agamben is right that physical contact is crucial for social well-being. One of the major consequences of the lockdown will be a mental health crisis of unseen proportions. For many of us, the isolation we experience now will have lasting effects for some time to come. On the other hand, Agamben should also not exaggerate the problem. I do not believe people will hesitate to embrace their loved ones once this crisis is over. The restrictions on social interaction are temporary and there is no reason to assume anything different. In the meantime, solidarity is maintained through other means. Right now, my own university department is setting up a system to put lonely students in lockdown in contact with each other. People incessantly find new ways to help each other through these times, whether it is singing Bella ciao from one’s balcony, sewing mouth caps for the local hospital, or babysitting nurses’ and doctors’ children. Lamenting the breakdown of social bonds, like Agamben does, vastly underestimates the viscosity with which the multitude sticks together.

(3) Agamben’s strongest argument is that the draconian emergency powers of today could become tomorrow’s apparatuses of oppression. Usually, what starts as an extraordinary measure during a state of exception, becomes a permanent tool in the governmental arsenal once the crisis is over. China is already normalizing some of its emergency measures to spy on its population. It has implemented an app-based system of health codes that assign different colour codes to citizens depending on how closely they have been in contact with corona-affected areas. Access to public transport and job facilities could be linked to this data. Public health can hence quickly serve as a pretext for ‘risk scoring’ citizens or even sabotaging political dissidents. Also in Western countries, a cluster of disaster capitalism is forming around the crisis. Private companies have already started developing apps that combine geolocation data with health scores to monitor public life. As Agamben mentions, universities are also switching to online teaching to minimize contagions, but what hinders them from regularizing online teaching? Rather than investing in proper academic staff and offices, they could find it is much cheaper to pay an expert once for making an online teaching module and afterwards pay a grad student peanuts to answer students’ questions online. Are the academics recording their courses at home right now automating themselves out of a job?

All the while, the main tactic of leftist opposition has become impossible: public manifestations. Believing that socialism is upon us simply because governments are, in times of crisis, considering a universal basic income or universal healthcare, is naïve. If we should have learned one thing from decades of austerity, it is that neoliberals never let a serious crisis go to waste. Keynesian and Neo-Marxist policies might be considered in times of need, but they will quickly disappear in the annals of history if there is no substantial political backdrop to solidify their effects. If the Left fails to grasp this momentum, it will be business as usual once things go back to normal. But how do you organize opposition from the comfort of your home that exceeds free-floating clicktivism? The Left is confronted with a challenge of reconstructing the world after COVID-19 and has lost the most powerful weapon in its arsenal. Corona has hitherto only changed the world in various ways; the point, now, is to give it the correct interpretation to not let it go to waste.

Tim Christiaens (°1992) is a PhD-student and teaching assistant at the Institute of Philosophy. He obtained his MA and MPhil degrees in philosophy, specializing in contemporary political philosophy, and an MA in comparative & international politics, working on EU and Russian politics, at KU Leuven. His research focuses mainly on contemporary economic issues, such as financialization, socio-economic exclusion, and free market competition, viewed from the lens of Italian and French critical theory (Foucault, Deleuze, Agamben, post-operaismo, etc.). 

  10 comments for “Must Society be Defended from Agamben?

  1. Rogergathmann
    26 March 2020 at 12:23 pm

    The problem with the Left is that, indeed, it believes public demonstrations are the most powerful weapon in its arsenal. This is the weak and debile cousin of the strike, and its perfect failure to stop anything in the last 30 years seems to have led to zero rethinking.

    In France, the most successful demonstrations lately have been the most violent – les Gilet jaunes. Whereas even the strike, modified by the fear of going “too far”, has not stood in the path of the neolib bulldozer. Clickivism or chanting the people united will never be defeated are not really different responses – they are on the same spectrum. In fact, I suspect the latter, which often really addresses the media honchos (hence their pathological response, their fear of “cancel culture) – might have more possibilities.

    I don’t mean to be pessimistic – in fact, I find the new generation of activists, people like Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, who smoothly integrate web based messaging – clicktivism – with activism, bringing money and attention to activists, working out the lineaments of mutual aid, are signs that the tired old sixties protest paradigm is finally being discarded.

  2. Hugo Val
    27 March 2020 at 2:01 pm

    As you know, Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, Klossowski, …, saved Nietzsche from the nazi territorialization. Despite your astonishment towards Agamben’s position – who is, by the way, being courageous (in a late foucaultian sense) – what puzzles me the most is how easy theory is discarded in the face of a phenomenon that, on the contrary, touches every single point that underlie the last centuries of political theory. One of the most grasping examples is Esposito’s disavowal of his academic production when he recognizes – precisely like you did in your point 1. – the state of emergency as a symptom of failure rather than glory. Perhaps the great task lies in refusing to territorialize Agamben from the common sense point of view, even – or just precisely – in the face of the catastrophe.

  3. Terence Blake
    29 March 2020 at 9:04 am

    I am of two minds here. While I agree with Agamben as to the nature of the power now being deployed, I think that he neglects the scientific side of the crisis, and that his epistemological analysis is not up to the level of his political concepts. This conceptual imbalance may have been understandable at the time of writing of his first article on the epidemic, but more recent events should have led Agamben if not to revise his ideas at least to nuance them. https://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2020/03/28/agamben-redux-ionist-how-denying-ones-denial-can-reinforce-it-rather-than-negate-it/

  4. Hamad
    30 March 2020 at 3:32 am

    I think everyone could be wrong about science. Even the idea of Covid-19 isn’t that straight forward, that something called R0 what’s making it worse than the normal flu. That though it doesn’t kill everyone who gets it, but it could spread so easily and cause healthcare system failure.

    But i really don’t understand why he actually till his last article can’t stop and see Italy around him. The numbers would’ve stopped a prophet from spreading his message and think maybe god had abandoned me?

    His questions about burying and taking care of loved one is an important one.

    My grandmother is in a later stage of her life, she suffers from dementia and sometimes goes in depression that causes her to stop eating. she lives far away from us, with her daughter in another city. Issue is my father is the doctor in the family, and whenever things goes bad he will hit the road to her, fix things and come back. So a curfew is being imposed on us for a period of month, we can’t go out the city. my grandmother went in another episode of depression, she stop eating. my dad have a really hard question to answer.. if he goes now he will buy a fine of 10K, so he decides not to go and wait.

    But at what cost? These maybe her last moments in life. If she dies now he won’t be able to bury her.

    This is what these restriction are taking from us. This decision making process alone is dehumanizing.

  5. DPS
    31 March 2020 at 1:37 am

    Does Agamben really think that dictators and would-be dictators like Trump require a virus to become oppressive fascists? The problem is not the quarantine, the problem is the takeover of society by the forces of centralized capital. That is why we are ill-prepared for this, this is why we fear the world will fall apart in a few weeks, this is why healthcare workers treat the ill without PPE, why those who cannot defend themselves are now stacked dead in skating rinks in Madrid and in refrigerated trucks parked outside the hospitals of New York City. I don’t know if Agamben is a real danger to society, but his thinking is limited.

  6. Lauren Smith
    31 March 2020 at 3:57 pm

    I think the author is making the same mistake that so many of the people on the Left are making in their positioning on the coronavirus crisis, and which causes me such a deep disappointment with the Left. It rushes to portray the choices we face as – un-dialectically, sadly – two: we need to choose between the value human lives and the values of the capital. And so, the Left consumes itself entirely in a soap opera that fills the public space with kitsch. I see the association of Agamben with ‘coronavirus denialists such as Bolsonaro or Trump’ as an example of this pace.
    Framing the problem in these binary terms, obscures, in my opinion, something more fundamental than the current reaction to the virus reveals. Namely, how we understand the human condition. Is the human condition the one of the self-sufficient individual who is forced to take sociability as a given with which it has to come to terms somehow, the one that liberals embrace and place at the foundation of a whole political philosophy and institutional system? Or is the human condition inherently social, and the Other is indispensable and fundamental to the constitution of the self, as Lacan invited us to think? I think here lays the essence of Agamben’s intervention in this coronavirus pandemic of fear. Indeed, the Lacanian insight might mean that every self carries within it an ineradicable trace of the external other, and that the other is never really external, never really Other, even in biological terms. It might mean that we constantly exchange things with our others, like thoughts, gazes, emotions, energies, touches – and, inevitably, viruses too. Virology and immunology come to attest of the inevitability of the exchanges with the other and with the environment that Lacan has noticed at the level of the psyche. Immunology intervenes to show that every organism reacts differently to the virus it receives depending on its particular needs and strengths. Hence, ‘science’ seems not to support the attitude of looking at the other as the source of my own disease (or of my personal hell – Sartre). My physical wellbeing ultimately depends upon my own response to the virus, which, in turn, largely depends upon my own choices on how I support or hamper my immune system’s response to external stimuli, like viruses.
    So, it is not true that ‘neither the immune system or medical science know anything about the agent’. Medical science knows for a long time that we carry viruses in our bodies and spread them to others even without knowing it and without symptomatology, and that we continue to carry and spread the virus for a while even after we have cured from the symptoms it provoked. But these long known facts are now portrayed as odd and frightening characteristics of only the coronavirus, attesting to how ignorant people in general are about how their body functions and what its needs are. If we care to scratch a bit the surface of ignorance, we will find medical insights about how the human body functions and about how it interacts with other human bodies and the environment, and these insights carry political significance. For instance, the days after this post has been published, voices of several scientists found themselves way out of the noise created by fear, to send a message that contradicts the mainstream narrative, including, among other things, that a person’s state of mind is really crucial in how the body experiences the encounter with the virus, and that social interaction and touch is crucial to prolong the lives of those elderly and vulnerable categories we want to protect now by locking them up and isolating them in their houses.
    It also appears that there is no scientific consensus about how we should approach this virus, but it is almost certain that left thinking has voluntarily submitted itself to the authority of expertise, allowing sentimental political declarations to prevail over sober evaluation of the situation in which we find ourselves. The previous critiques successfully formulated by the Left against the culture of expertise have suddenly been forgotten, or deemed not applicable in the case of ‘hard’ (?), medical science. A kind of medical scientific obscurantism has oddly hit the Left, who prefers to put their faith in a certain kind of mainstream medical expertise, without pursuing the matter further. Incidentally, it also seems that the Left has conveniently chosen to take for granted the kind of expertise which brings it the most efficient ammunition to fight with capitalism’s rapacious appetite for profit at all costs. But what are the consequences on the possibility of building community when we choose the narrative that invites us to see our other as the biological enemy that contaminates us with the virus?
    The way we react to this virus says a lot about how sustainable is our understanding of the grounds (physical grounds included) of political community, and it seems to me that most reactions from the left have erred on this occasion on the side of implausibility and unsustainability. Fear seems to have blocked the ‘Left’’s capacity for critical thinking and realistically assessing the events and human biology. The consequences of fear and of the fixation on biological survival (to answer the ‘so what?’ at the beginning of the blog post) are on the quality of being human, when we contemplate the possibility that there are a range of other values competing with the value of biological survival. One such dilemma is expressed in one of the commentaries to this blog post: risk paying a large fine or risk not seeing my mother again before she dies.
    I mean to say that the crisis that the coronavirus reveals is very much a cultural crisis, and more specifically a crisis of the ontologies we rest on. Thinking about how can the Left reorganise its ‘resistance’ under the new conditions of welcome social isolation, are but petty ontic, managerial preoccupations, besides the more fundamental issue of how we conceive of the community in which we want to practice this Leftist solidarity.
    Lucid voices like Agamben’s come to save somehow the reputation of continental thought, but many on the Left, taken away by the enthusiasm of shutting down society for its own sake (am I the only one to think now of paternalism?) rush to start a bullying campaign against him, implying, as the author of this blog does, that after his intervention on the Coronavirus issue, Agamben’s name might not be frequentable any longer in respectable academia. What a sad situation.

  7. Charles Brophy
    2 April 2020 at 11:03 am

    I think the problem with many of Agamben’s interventions in current affairs is that they tend to be assumed as concrete interventions, when they’re really more philosophical reflections in an ominous tone.

    Agamben’s objective in these interventions seems to be to point out how far we are from the proper practice of politics, as against a call to action in the present. Think his piece on biopolitical tattooing, where the real problem he is exposing is the problematic extension of the state over bodily life, as opposed to a new menacing form of oppression (which I don’t think biometrics can directly be). I think oppression is a problematic concept in Agamben.

    This comes back to how Agamben talks about the state of exception. The kind of concrete states of exception he discusses in his pieces on the security state or on coronavirus relate only partially to his more philosophical discussions of the concept. After all the biopoliticization of the state hasn’t operated through constant states of exception because, a) the inclusion of life is at the heart of politics and b) the more historical way in which populations in Europe actually came to be governed by the state didn’t operate through the state of exception until really the 20th century. His more political pieces on contemporary states of exception are more then, I think, to do with the creeping control of apparatuses over human life, and the removing of spaces for real living. He isn’t here trying to highlight a constant struggle between oppression and resistance.

    The oppression of apparatuses comes only secondarily for Agamben, in the same way that for Foucault, power and systems of domination are distinct. Complaining then about the extension of apparatuses and systems of control doesn’t in Agamben have a direct relation to oppression or the domination of populations. Initially he can only say that it produces the conditions for domination and oppression (in the way that he can say the reduction of people to bare life can produce the possibility of Auschwitz but not every instance coincides with Auschwitz) whilst on the other hand he can note that it reduces the space for politics and life (which can’t anyway simply be characterised as domination).

    The need to free human beings from apparatuses still forms I think an important basis to think politics through Agamben, but obviously its almost useless to practically pursue this in the face of a genuine biological crisis..

  8. Thomas van Binsbergen
    2 April 2020 at 11:49 am

    Dear Tim, to answer your last question, we could maybe draw some inspiration from Geoffroy de Lagasnerie’s book «L’art de la révolte : Snowden, Assange, Manning ». In the anonymous or/and fleeing act of these whistleblowers Lagasnerie discerns great potential for new political subjectivization. He writes that “in their way of rebelling, of constituting themselves as subjects in struggle, they have implemented in a practical way a new relationship to law, the state, and dissidence. They did not take up on their account established forms of revolt and were not satisfied with only bringing new objects onto the pre-established scene of public confrontation. Their attack targets the political scene itself. They question the frameworks of politics, the prescribed forms of mobilization and expression – and they operate, as a result, challenging the dispositif of contemporary democratic politics as we know and as are imposed.” So perhaps this could be a way of radically challenging today’s politics and going about fighting for a more critical, free and equal world society in these times of forced private seclusion. (By the way, some activist groups are already incorporating this idea in their tactics, e.g. TruthTeller.life from XR.)

  9. David Petrie
    2 April 2020 at 5:54 pm

    Should society be defended from Agamben?

    No.

    We would do well to remember that Agamben’s argument is premised upon information from the CNR

    ” … the National Research Council (CNR), which states not only that “there is no SARS-CoV2 epidemic in Italy”, but also that “the infection, according to the epidemiologic data available as of today and based on tens of thousands of cases, causes mild/moderate symptoms (a sort of influenza) in 80-90% of cases. In 10-15% of cases a pneumonia may develop, but one with a benign outcome in the large majority of cases. It has been estimated that only 4% of patients require intensive therapy”.

    If the CNR data cannot be trusted it is difficult to see how anyone could ground an argument.

    The flu is estimated to kill between 290,000 and 650,000 people worldwide each year, Covid-19 has been linked to more than 50,253 deaths as of today (2 April 2020).

    We should not speculate on what the figure will be at the end of 2020 – some sources claim the virus is 10 times more lethal than flu, others 30 times,

    Also reported today, the captain of n American aircraft carrier (USS Theodore Roosevelt) has pleaded with the US navy for his 4,000 crew to be isolated on shore after confirmation that at least 70 had been infected with coronavirus, but none of the 70 cases is serious.

    Very uncomfortable, no doubt, for the sailors – but if this story had on 2 April 2019 … it would not have made a ripple in the press. What would the story have been, “Some sailors have caught flu on a US ship, none have died”.

    We wish them all well, of course.

    Yesterday, the Scottish government, attempted to introduce emergency powers altering 800 years of trial by jury and replacing it with single judges. Said emergency powers have been postponed following protests from politicians and lawyers. There are an alarming number of reports of citizens being followed by drones, harassed by police while walking in the countryside, one woman fined under a non-existent law following emergency instructions (not laws), shoppers being told that they cannot by Easter eggs, since they cannot be considered “essential” …in line with the government’s emergency measures.

    It is very difficult to see how all this helps in the “war” against the Coronavirus.

  10. Panos
    2 April 2020 at 10:42 pm

    I have a slightly different analysis, available here. Very good read though and I probably agree with most of your points. However, I am inclined to look at Agamben’s positions a little bit more sympathetically.

    https://interregnum.live/2020/04/02/agamben-zizek-and-the-virus-an-attempt-at-an-anti-authoritarian-synthesis/

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