Where are the postmodernists when you need them?

Georgio Agamben is one of the few students of ‘biopower’ to grasp the significance of lockdown.

James Heartfield

Topics Books Covid-19 Politics

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The coronavirus pandemic, and the public policy measures to contain it, have cost us 2.65 million lives and an estimated $28 trillion in lost output. The International Labour Organisation estimates that 114million people lost jobs in the response in 2020 and workers lost $3.7 trillion in wages.

Despite these spectacular changes, the public debate about the policy response to Covid has been almost non-existent. The lack of debate is not accidental. All across the world, constituent assemblies suspended party-political debate. Some countries – like Italy under Mario Draghi – have ended up with apolitical or technocratic administrations. Governments instituted extensive restrictions on popular participation, under the broader blanket of the lockdown policies. Protesters have been arrested and attacked all over the world. Social-media platforms have censored scientists and journalists who are sceptical of the official medical advice.

Just as worrying as the silencing of political opposition in the pandemic has been the absence of any theoretical response to this remarkable transformation. While it is understandable that the daily discussion of death and infection statistics has eaten up broadcast hours and column inches, it is worth asking why theoretical reflection on the meaning and virtues of lockdown, social distancing and other measures is virtually non-existent.

Particularly striking is the non-appearance of ‘critical theory’. While critical theory reigns supreme in the debate over race relations (largely unchecked by empirical and statistical evidence), all discussion of the coronavirus and policy responses is adamantly ‘positivistic’, scientistic and uncritical. It is as if the 1960s had never happened.

That is all the more remarkable considering that the late Michel Foucault is the world’s most cited social scientist. Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality both feature in the Top 20 most cited works of social science. At the core of Foucault’s work is a critical analysis of the discourse of health, which he treats as a matter of social ordering.

Foucault’s best-known chapter in Discipline and Punish opens with an account of the management of a 17th-century plague, which shows that it is really the population that is being managed, under the auspices of managing a disease. He even coined the term ‘biopolitics’ to describe the ways the authorities have pursued ‘an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population’. In History of Sexuality, Foucault details the ‘explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations’, which, he argues, mark ‘the beginning of an era of “biopower”’. Given Foucault’s investment in the analysis of social governance under the remit of health policy, the silence of his many diligent students on the coronavirus pandemic is remarkable. ‘Where are the Foucauldians when you need them?’, jokes one University of Kent academic.

One Foulcauldian – perhaps the best known since Foucault himself died in 1984 – has bucked the trend and written a trenchant series of articles which take a caustic look at the lockdown. He is Giorgio Agamben, and his piece, ‘The Invention of an Epidemic’, was published in Il Manifesto at the very start of the crisis in February last year. Where Are We Now?, his collected articles and interviews, has now been published by the Eris Press in English. It is a welcome assault on the mainstream understanding of the virus.

‘We live in a society that has sacrificed freedom for “security reasons”, and has hence condemned itself to living in a perpetual state of fear and insecurity’, writes Agamben. While people in Britain are only just asking the question whether the government has too much power, Agamben was warning last spring that ‘words pronounced by the prime minister… have the immediate validity of the law’, in an overturning of all bourgeois norms of legality.

Agamben reflects on the meaning of the new order and warns that: ‘Fear is a bad adviser, and I don’t believe that transforming the country into a plague-ridden land, where we all look at each other as potential sources of contagion, is really the solution.’ He is alive to the way that a kind of social alienation has become deeply embedded in the management of the epidemic, explaining that ‘because our neighbour has become a potential source of contagion, we have agreed to suspend our friendships and relationships’. He also warns that ‘social distancing… will be society’s new organising principle’. ‘I do not believe that a community based on “social distancing” is humanly and politically liveable’, he states.

For Agamben, the technology of Zoom meetings and online ordering that have prospered in the pandemic are not to be welcomed. ‘Digital devices will replace any contact – any contagion – between human beings’, he says. These new technologies presage the elimination of the ‘public presence, and the latter will be pre-emptively confined to the private sphere and to the enclosure of domestic walls’. ‘What is at stake is nothing less than the abolition of public space’, he says.

Agamben develops Foucault’s account of biopolitics, arguing: ‘Modern politics is, from top to bottom, biopolitics: what is at stake is, ultimately, biological life as such.’ He identifies a tendency to worship the ideal of health and to acquiesce to those who represent the new authority of the medical professional. Pointing to the way that health services have become increasingly coercive, Agamben says that ‘the new element is that health is becoming a juridical obligation that has to be filled at all costs’.

Fundamental to his argument – a claim that he has made elsewhere, notably in Homo Sacer – is the observation that modern social norms increasingly diminish human existence to the bare condition of biological life. That means we lose sight of the importance of freedom and self-expression. ‘Human rights’, in this account, lead us to abandon civil liberties in favour of mere biological existence, as if we were like cattle. ‘People have been confined to their houses and, deprived of all social relationships, reduced to a condition of biological survival’, Agamben writes. The problem comes when ‘people no longer believe in anything, except in a bare biological existence which should be preserved at any cost’, he says, ‘but only tyranny, only the monstrous Leviathan with his drawn sword can be built upon the fear of losing one’s life’. We have reached a point where more engaging social projects have lost meaning so that ‘our society believes in nothing but bare life. But bare life is not something that unites people: it blinds and separates them.’

The elevation of the health agenda has become so overwhelming, Agamben claims, that it supersedes democracy. The concept epidemiology, he explains, contains the demos (the Greek word for the people). It speaks to how, during the pandemic, the demos is no longer a political body but, instead, a ‘biopolitical population’.

Agamben also draws attention to how a state of ‘exception’ or ‘emergency powers’ can be invoked to suspend ordinary democratic rights and legal norms. He has written previously on how anti-terror legislation created an ‘exception’ that allowed for surveillance and a loss of rights. The coronavirus pandemic is similarly an exceptional circumstance that is invoked to suspend ordinary legality and liberties. But the point about these ‘exceptions’ is that, paradoxically, they quickly become the norm – or the ‘New Normal’, as is often said today. Agamben thinks ‘it is very likely that, after the health emergency is over, governments will attempt to continue the experiments… we will no longer gather to have conversations about politics or culture’.

Agamben reacts defensively to the accusation that he is pedalling conspiracy theories, and insists there is agency in public policy. More successful is his discussion of ‘fear’, which begins on a high point of philosophical reflection (on Heidegger’s work, Being and Time). He makes a good argument that a certain amount of fear is to be expected for a humanity whose objects are outside of itself, but this ought to be manageable, because where ‘contingencies materialise, a proportionate level of concern will dictate the appropriate course of action’. There is, he says, ‘no need to lose our heads, no need to let anyone exercise power on the basis of fear’.

The difficulties arise in our reaction to overwhelming fear, which Agamben says is a ‘will to impotence, a wanting-to-be-impotent in the face of the fearsome thing’. This is especially the case when ‘those who feel fear seek reassurance’ from authorities like doctors or government officials, even though the asking reinforces their insecurity. Worse, ‘the very subjects whose responsibility it is to reassure are those who instead, perpetuate insecurity’: ‘They tirelessly repeat, for the good of the frightened, that the object of their fear can never be defeated or eliminated.’

Characteristically, Agamben’s intervention has provoked a welter of disapproval – not least from those who happily embraced his ideas in the past. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, philosopher Anastasia Berg rubbishes Agamben for dressing up ‘outdated jargon as resistance’. She says his interventions show ‘theory’s collapse into paranoia’, and asks – snobbishly – whether the ‘Florida spring breakers, the St Paddy’s Day pub crawlers’ are the ‘moral heroes Agamben is calling for?’.

A different take on coronavirus comes from left-wing activist Grace Blakeley in The Corona Crash: How the Pandemic Will Change Capitalism. Blakeley’s subject is interesting, and she brings a lot of evidence from the financial markets to it. What is oddly compelling, however, is just how determined she is not to talk about the way that the coronavirus pandemic is changing capitalism right now.

Blakeley wonders whether ‘we are headed for a depression’ and whether ‘unemployment will climb to 12 per cent’. A lot of the book, however, is not about capitalism in the era of coronavirus, but instead about what came before and what might come after. That is largely because Blakeley is struggling to defend the arguments she made in a previous book, Stolen, published just a year earlier, which argued that free-market neoliberalism was the enemy. Now as Western governments spend trillions on the pandemic, Blakeley is urging her fellow socialists, who ‘have grown used to campaigning against cuts to government spending’, that ‘these lines will ring hollow in the war economy created by the pandemic’.

But then, who is that addressed to if not herself? The same Blakeley that had been warning us about neoliberalism is today warning us about the dangers posed by a new ‘mode of accumulation’ or ‘State Monopoly Capitalism’, as she calls it. Blakeley’s error in both judgments is to take the contrast of ‘neoliberal’ and ‘statist’ capitalism too literally. In reality, the state has always played a massive role in the economy, even after the ‘neoliberal’ turn of the 1980s.

While Blakeley spends some time pinning the blame for the spread of coronavirus on the underfunding of healthcare and social inequality, she has relatively little to say about the impact that the policy response to coronavirus – the lockdown – is having on the organisation of the economy. She does throw out the proposition, early on, that the lockdown ‘had an immediate impact on the labour market, output, incomes and consumption’. But beyond noting that some of the Big Tech companies got big profits as they took market share from smaller retailers, Blakeley has surprisingly little to say about the lockdown’s profound impact on social organisation, as Agamben outlined.

‘The challenge we will face when this crisis subsides will be to wrest control back from those who have taken advantage of the moment to increase their power and wealth’, Blakeley says. But it is hard to see how people who willingly surrendered all their authority to the Conservative government and the Big Tech companies would be in much of a position to turn around and fight back – not unless they take a stand, now, against the domination of the lockdown policy.

James Heartfield’s latest book is The Blood-Stained Poppy, written with Kevin Rooney.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Books Covid-19 Politics


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