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.).