-By Robert Braun, Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna
In a recent debate of philosophers about the politics of coronavirus measures Giorgo Agamben, one of the leading philosophers of our times, was of the opinion that the (im)mobility measures taken across the Globe to stop the virus are an extreme form of what he calls biopower. According to Agamben, described in his Opus magnum Homo Sacer, twentieth century biopolitics is not the sovereign’s intervention ’to make die or to make live’ and thus her ability to govern (an essential form of modern politics as Foucault had it), but something as old as politics itself; a specific form of politicized natural life that is constitutive of the political: life exposed to death, especially in the form of sovereign violence (Agamben, 2017). According to Agamben, however, in the twentieth century, especially in Hitler’s Germany, the exception – bare life –, originally situated at the margins of the political order gradually begins to coincide with the whole of the political realm and what was the exception becomes the norm. His criticism of the current ‘corona-actions’ is exactly this: measures are being applied in a ’state of exception’ that focus on’ bare life’ only – politicized biological life as opposed to qualified or good life. This is risky biopolitics: absolutization of biopower to make live intersect with an equally absolute generalization of the sovereign power to make die.
Jean-Luc Nancy disagrees: as an entire civilization is in question, he argues, the current situation is a sort of ‘viral exception,’ and governments are just grim executioners taking diversionary maneuvers, not making true political reflection. He claims that biopolitics is an inadequate term under current conditions, as life and politics challenge us together, and scientific knowledge tells us that we are dependent only on our own technical power together with its uncertainties. Others, like Roberto Esposito, argue that what we actually see is less a dramatic totalitarian grip on power than a total breakdown of public authority. Sergio Benvenuto dismisses Agamben altogether, claiming that everything that’s being done is preventive, and saving people is an ethical rather than biopolitical choice. He also looks optimistically beyond the crisis and hopefully argues that our (im)mobilities will stay for the better – “working remotely” or “wfh” (working from home) and life will be “hearthed” or “homeized:” avoiding the office, sleeping in and working on computers from homes will be the norm; Amazon and Netflix will do the shopping, bringing theatres and movies home; schools will disappear and sedentism or „generalized seclusion” will become our habitual way of life. Massimo De Carolis also argues that it is reasonable to hope that the epidemic will eventually end and that the measures being applied are inspired by a principle of common sense.
In the philosophers’ debate I tend to side, like Shaj Mohan, with Agamben: it is as surprising as it is frightening how easily we gave up our basic liberties, freedom of movement, rights of choice and making ethical decisions, to accept biopower as the ultimate form of control and life-goal. Mohan adds technological determinism to the list of biopower: entrusting hyper-machines that make machines which humans can neither build nor comprehend making decisions (aka Big Data), rendering humans immobile and resigned like animals caught in the deadly headlights. Focusing on bare life only, the short term ‘flattening the curve’ by concentrating on biological life and dismissing the precautionary principle of assessing political and social impacts, is equally frightening.
Decisions of this kind are generally made by upper middle class (mostly) white men living in decent apartments or houses, with proper access to online tools and appropriate bandwidth to transfer social interaction to the home office or online connectedness. Impacts on a whole generation of schoolkids, less privileged, missing the social as well as the intellectual essentials is mind-boggling; not only of the missed knowledge, but the lacuna of social interaction and shared peer compassion. Families being crammed into flats without appropriate private space, women potentially having to endure domestic violence as police are engaged elsewhere to keep law and order distancing on the streets; the setback to feminism and gender as women across the Globe are taking the lion’s share of the troubles both public and private as they manage work and care (this being, counterintuitively, an equally important reason as the virus for the breakdown of the medical system as 80% of health employees, women, have to tend to their children as schools close) – these are just the most immediate impacts that come to mind. Rarely do I quote current American leaders approvingly, but Larry Kudlow, President Trump’s top economic adviser is right in arguing that “[t]he cure can’t be worse than the disease,” but this should include much more than economic consequences.
Rocco Ronchi argues that the virus displays characteristics of an ‘event’ that has agency to produce transformations that prior to their taking place were impossible. I disagree. Not because transformations are not possible. They should be. We must learn to care more for the environment by moving around less; use online tools to meet when possible and appropriate. However, the virus is not an event; an event is only an event when named and narrativized (White, 1987). The ‘virus’ is not in our worldly, human narrative timespace. It’s realtime: entangled, like in quantum theory (Rovelli 2017), making humans mobile and immobile, dead and alive at the same time. Whether more immobility or more movement is now up to us; politics may be finally back to its ontological position (Agamben 1998).
We may hope that soon ‘it’s over’; it never will be, there is more impossible and unimaginable to come. Thinking of the virus in terms of an event with agency is missing the point, as is the assessment that these are temporary measures to save us from the virus that is the Nietzschean ‘human, all too human,’ as Jean-Luc Nancy in his second contribution argues. We are, from now on, entangled with the virus; not only, as the ‘Spanish flu,’ because it will come back and stay on in waves, but also as impacts of how we reacted to and created risks will linger. Agamben’s analysis is also a warning: politics in its ontological position is making decisions about how to live, not how to survive.
In the first ten years of my academic carrier I tried to understand how historical knowledge is constructed, by studying narratives of the Holocaust (Braun, 1994). When the exception became the norm, Jews of Europe in 1939 or 1941 also asked the question: ‘when will this be over?’ But what they experienced was not yet an event, nor could it have been ‘over’ – it became an ‘event’ only by its tragic ending. I am not suggesting that the same, in terms of devastation, is for us to come. What I argue for is that they, in 1941, could not imagine what was there to arise. It was not an event they experienced: just a moment in space and time. The ‘Holocaust’ did not happen, it only occurred when narrativized from the vantage point of afterwards. We do not yet have this hindsight – we live in and experience coronavirus timespace. The virus is not happening to us, it is happening with us. However it is by us that all humans become ‘homines sacri’ – living in a normalized state of exclusion (from qualified political life) to be seen as potentially killed by the virus.
There are alternatives to biopower. We may be reminded of Hannah Arendt’s suggestion of “doing nothing” (Arendt, 1963) which, she argued, the Jewish Councils should have followed when asked by the Nazis to comply with their requests in exchange for some, mostly the rich and the affluent members of the communities to be rescued. Her argument was that if one is given impossible choices or options leading to unpredictable consequences one may refrain from making ‘biopolitical’ (not her words) decisions. As the Jewish Councils helped organize Jews and selected some to be saved, they made moral decisions. Arendt argued that as there was no possibility of resistance, there still existed the possibility of non-participation. They could have done many things – organize food for the elderly, teach the young or pray; but not participate in the biopolitical horror of conflating make live with to make die. What Arendt then and Agamben now suggest is not to not do anything, but to not sacrifice politics (the pursuit of good, qualified life) in the wake of (biological) dangers. The risk is not the virus; it is the belief of the omnipotent sovereign that by giving up good life bare life can be saved. But bare life is life not worth living. It is, as we know from Primo Levi (1958), the life of the ‘muselmann’ in the Camp – not much alive, not much dead either.
Political decisions in viral times are agonistic (Mouffe, 1999). The pathogenicity and transmissibility of the virus are real, as are the many social consequences of the biopolitical decisions taken by upper-middle class men. Agonistic democracy realizes that no one has the ‘knowledge’ (neither natural scientists, nor virologists or those using ‘models’ based on past experience) to make right decisions; therefore conflicts need to be openly addressed by those who are impacted by the risks, both biological and social. Yuval Harari in his recent piece in the Financial Times reminds us that one of the challenges we face is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. Biopower opts for the first, agonistic democracy would favor the second.
I don’t have the panacea to what needs to be done. And I should not have. I am just another stakeholder with challenges from home-office to homeschooling, from caring for elderly parents across closed borders to trying to reflect on my feelings and experiences when I pass someone on the street or enter a shop to buy food and thereafter washing my hands fervently. Governments and other decision-makers should be busy making (virtual) public spaces for deliberation about next steps, use the available knowledge, methods and tools to empower as many citizens as it is possible to join such discussions about our shared futures, and also open up social science research to study in real-time impacts of shut-downs, fears and other biopolitical policies applied.
This said, the virus may help us rethink our current politics. For the cure not to be worse than the disease it is also advised that we don’t return to our old ways of doing. Governments for instance were eager to order masks, oxygen equipment and other indispensable items from China. Irrespective of the human rights violations, extreme surveillance regulations or disease irresponsive work conditions that were put in place there, or the political consequences that an early economic recovery, even as the virus is still not contained but information about its local spread is suppressed, would mean for the Chinese hegemonic aspirations both regionally and globally. Also, ordering stuff from China is return to cargomobilities transporting negative externalities from the Global North to the Global South as it has been done for decades (Birtchnell et al, 2015).
One lesson from the current situation is how easy it is for governments to rearrange regimes of mobility. We should not forget this when automobility and the future of the car is discussed. Automobility, as we currently know it, is one of the most violent sociotechnical regimes within which we dwell. It is very much the normalized state of exception and extreme biopower shaping our cityscapes and socialities that Agamben fears. During our moments of meditation, which Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan in the debate invites us to do, we may also reflect on other biopolitical (mobility) regimes: automobiles that kill millions, for instance.
The only point on which I have quarrel with Agamben is that there is no ‘aftermath.’ There is no ‘after the virus.’ We will, from now on, live with the virus in unhappy entanglement. The after is now. The virus is no threat. Tests will render results faster, vaccines will be invented. ‘The enemy isn’t somewhere outside, it’s inside us’ Agamben writes in his Clarification in the philosophers’ debate. When our biological life is at threat, we give in to our innermost fear and regress to being modern: return to a nature/culture dualism for the natural sciences to save us (Latour, 1993). This is a mistake. Biopower is, actually, the enemy. The virus is not an event, it has no agency and is not transformational. It’s not even a living organism, just a bunch of lipids, proteins and nucleocapsid with a single stranded RNA genome. We, zoon politikon with our political DNA, are. We have agency. And foresight.
We can use this moment in time to focus on our core political values – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness instead of giving in to biopower. Biopower is banal: thoughtless, fearful and coglike. What I suggest here is that instead of containing the virus by control, we may fight it by our collective intelligence and imagination. Some hope to use our connected lives in the future to stay more sedentary; we may as well use our networks to engage, opt-in and decide together. Instead of more surveillance, more big data and more arithmetic decision-making for more control, instead of closing down and giving in, we may try to open up. When our physical mobilities are threatened we should be socially and virtually more mobile than ever. We can share, discuss and debate; make decisions collectively; bring and discuss new knowledge, create new forms of engagement, public deliberation and democratic practice.
Our governments are trained biopolitical machines. It is up to us to not revert, exercise and accede, to biopower. Not by not complying with the curfews, that would be stupid at this point. But it would be equally stupid not to request to be part of the decision making – that government of the people, by the people and for the people, not the one only controlling the people, decide on how we live our lives from now on with the virus in and around all of us.
Agamben, G. (2017). The Omnibus Homo Sacer. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Arendt, H. (1963). Eichmann in Jeruslem: A Report ont he Banality of Evil. New York: Viking.
Birtchnell, T, Savitzky, S & Urry, J (eds) 2015, Cargomobilities: moving materials in a global age. Taylor & Francis, Hoboken.
Braun, R. (1994) The Holocaust and Problems of Historical Representation, History and Theory, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 172-197.
Latour, B. (1993). We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Levi, P (1958) If This is Man. London: Orion Press.
Mouffe, Ch. (1999). Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism? Social Research Vol. 66, No. 3, PROSPECTS FOR DEMOCRACY, pp. 745-758
Rovell, C. (2017). The Order of Time. London: Penguin Books.
(1987). The Content of the Form. Washington: Johns Hopkins University Press.