Agamben in Lisbon: Pandemic and Biopower’s Reckoning
6 July 2022
The Light Inside, James Turrell, 1999; Image Credit: Wikiart
Todd McGowan discusses the perhaps most heated discussion of the pandemic – the Agamben controversy. If the current status quo reveals anything for philosophy, it is the inadequacies and ineptitude of the theory of biopower. Analyses of power of both Foucauldian and Agambenian provenance support an anarchist dimension in contemporary global theory, which in its questioning of the state and capital – as if they were situated on the same plane and equally corrupt – “actually feeds capitalism’s own logic.” McGowan concludes by saying: “Anarchism’s refusal of state power eliminates the site at which one can contest this logic with an alternative.” Which is why both “Foucault and Agamben cede the struggle before it begins.” To highlight the distinction between capital and the state is for McGowan the supreme task for the Left – pandemic capitalism only urges for this task to be accomplished.
There are events in history that invalidate philosophies that come before them. But this is not often the case. Usually, philosophy has a certain impermeability relative to the movements of history. This is what makes it possible to read philosophers who wrote thousands of years ago and still find something valuable in their thought. Even failed attempts to apply a philosophy don’t necessarily render that thought obsolete. Marx remains a viable thinker for many adherents despite the series of catastrophes that occurred when Marxists attempted to realize his political vision. The staying power of Marx’s thought, like the staying power of Plato, Kant, Heidegger, and many others, exists because of the disjunction between thought and history. (1) We are not ready to reduce thinkers to specific historical events, even if those events seem to speak directly to a certain thinker. (2) This impulse is itself philosophical and stems from the recognition that philosophical speculation is always out of time. Every once in a while, however, an event takes place that simply gives the lie to a line of thought and the thinker associated with it. All of a sudden, a thinking that seemed potentially convincing loses all viability.
This is what occurs most famously with the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. In additional to destroying the city of Lisbon, this earthquake also puts to rest Gottfried Leibniz’s theodicy – his attempt to reconcile evil with the existence of God through the contention that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Despite the discredit that now surrounds it, Leibniz’s Theodicy is a thoughtful work that attempts to explain the existence of both moral and natural evils. (3) As Leibniz sees it, because of the interrelations of all things, we cannot have a perfect world. Every good implies some evil. As a result, God did not create – nor could he have created – a perfect world. Instead, he created the best of all possible worlds. In the Theodicy, Leibniz writes, “God, having chosen the most perfect of all possible worlds, had been prompted by his wisdom to permit the evil which was bound up with it, but which still did not prevent this world from being, all things considered, the best that could be chosen.” (4) God did the best that he could, and we should regard everything that happens in this light. What appears deficient in the world is a result of the structural exigencies that demand a certain order: perfect bliss represents a structural impossibility, which is why its absence does not reflect badly on God. No matter how horrific the events that occur in this world, it is nonetheless necessarily the best of all possible worlds.
Leibniz dies decades before the Great Lisbon Earthquake. He is not around to witness this historical refutation of his doctrine. But the destructiveness of this natural disaster makes it impossible for Leibniz’s followers to continue to believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds. What’s more, the event also provides Voltaire with an occasion to satirize Leibniz in his philosophical novel Candide, a novel in which the earthquake is actually the least of the evils that besets Pangloss, Voltaire’s stand-in for Leibniz. Voltaire’s send-up of Leibniz and his philosophy ends up becoming more well-known than the philosophy itself, which comes to seem a self-parody. The earthquake puts an end to the viability of Leibniz’s theological argument. Then Voltaire nails the coffin shut. Such events are extraordinarily rare in human history. Today, we are fortunate enough – or unfortunate enough, given that it involves enduring a disaster – to live through another such event.
It is my contention that the Covid-19 pandemic reveals the unviability of the theory of biopower. This theory, which sees dominance being exercised through the production of bare life, is in its heyday. According to this theory, power invades our lives by creating a preoccupation with survival above everything else. In the epoch of biopower’s reign, survival and health become the only values, which take up the center of our political world. As Giorgio Agamben, the leading proponent of the theory of biopower puts it, “The ancient right to kill and to let live gives way to an inverse model, which defines modern biopolitics, and which can be expressed by the formula to make live and to let die.” (5) According to this theory, a radical transformation of the political field – from threatening death to enforcing life – comes to define the new epoch of power. (6)
But the response of authorities and theorists of biopower to the Covid-19 pandemic indicates that the explanatory power of the theory, like Leibniz’s theodicy in the face of the Lisbon Earthquake, cannot survive our contemporary disaster. The attempt to save lives – to make live, in Agamben’s terms – cuts against the economic imperatives of capitalism. The efforts to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 put a wrench in the accumulation of capital. As a result, as much as any of the human victims of this disaster, the theory of biopower succumbs to its ravages.
The Covid-19 pandemic gives the lie to the theory of biopower because the prevailing responses to the pandemic reveal the tension between survival and the exigencies of the ruling socioeconomic system. The attempt to preserve life – what the theorists of biopower view as the primary operation of power – in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic actually interrupts and disturbs the functioning of capitalism. The capitalist system finds itself unable to deal with the massive threat to life, which reveals that the ruling structure today is not one of biopower at all. Instead of aiding in the process of capitalist accumulation, the measures designed to address the pandemic operate as a brake on the capitalist system. At the moment when it imposes on the economy, state power ceases to work hand-in-hand with the forces of capital. Thus, the pandemic and the response to it show that the theory of biopower marks a fundamental theoretical misstep, a misstep that has had baleful political consequences.
The attempt to preserve life during the Covid-19 pandemic leads to a series of measures that interrupt the flow of capital: social distancing that limits possibilities for exchange, lockdowns that close retail establishments and keep consumers in their homes, and mask mandates that disturb the everyday activities that sustain the economy. The leaders of capitalist states institute these measures in the name of allowing citizens to continue to live, but they recognize that such measures have a deleterious effect on the economy, which is why they occasion so much resistance, especially from right-wing proponents of unbridled capitalism. Leaders employ them reluctantly because they have no interest in damaging the capitalist economy that runs their societies, but the exigencies of people’s survival depends on these state interventions. In this way, the conflict between the exercise of state power and the capitalist economy comes to a head in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In the midst of this response, it becomes clear that there is no pure exercise of biopower because there is no single site of authority. The divide between the state and capital comes to a head when disaster strikes, which is what the theory of biopower fails to account for.
Rather than confronting this discrepancy between the state and capital, Agamben proclaims that capital simply capitulates before the power of the biosecurity regime that now controls the state. For Agamben, it is this regime, not capital, that holds the cards today. In Where Are We Now?, he writes, “Capitalism, for its part, has with only a few exceptions accepted loses to productivity that it would never previously have considered, probably hoping that later on it can find an accord with the new religion [of medicine].” (7) As Agamben frames it here, capitalism is not the strongest force in contemporary society. The pandemic shows that it bows before the exigencies of what he calls the religion of medicine. But this position underestimates the dominance that capitalism typically has over the state. It is not a secondary force in our existence but the primary one.
The provenance of the resistance against the measures instituted to protect against the pandemic indicates their political bearing. The resistance movements are not emancipatory efforts struggling against the ruling order. They are not fights against an oppressive power structure. Instead, the resistance against the measures used to fight the pandemic stem from those who champion the free flow of capital, from business owners and libertarians to Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. The political fault line during the pandemic separates those who side with the forces of capital and those opposing unbridled capitalism. The former fight the restrictions, and the latter embrace their necessity.
Confronted with being on the side of Trump and Bolsonaro, Agamben claims that we live in politically confused times, where Right and Left lose their straightforward significance. He then claims, “A truth remains such, whether it is expressed by the Left or enunciated by the Right.” (8) While this seems like a neutral statement about the nature of truth, it is actually an indication of Agamben’s turn to the Right. The leftist understanding of truth necessarily includes the site of enunciation as integral to the truth being articulated. For instance, it is a far different matter when Donald Trump denounces the exploitative practices of Jeff Bezos and a union leader does so. Trump says this to damage a competitor while the union leader says it as part of a collective struggle against the forces of big capital. Trump uses the truth to lie because of the desire driving the statement, whereas this is not the case with the union leader. The desire that informs the statement of truth – why one is saying it – is part of what one says. To fail to take this into account, as Agamben fails to do, is to play into the hands of the Right, which must ignore the logic of desire.
The fact that Agamben finds himself on the same side as Trump and Bolsonaro in response to the pandemic points to the error in biopower’s conception of politics. For the theorists of biopower, the struggle is always against power, which is typically manifested in the state. With the pandemic, however, a split opens up between the state and the forces of capital. The site of power itself becomes clearly divided. This is a divide that the theorists of biopower have difficulty reckoning with, which is why, aside from a brief comment about capitalism’s capitulation to the forces of biosecurity, Agamben remains silent about capitalism during the pandemic.
Stating the Obvious
The theory of biopower emerges in response to the evanescence of Marxism. Although Michel Foucault dies in 1984, it is Giorgio Agamben who popularizes the theory in the 1990s in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the theoretical abandonment of Marxism on the Left. But despite distancing itself from Marxism, the theory of biopower takes up the Marxist attitude toward the state. Marxism has an inherent suspicion of the state. This is because it sees the state as inherently the bourgeois state, as a function of the capitalist relations of production that underwrite it. As a result, from this perspective, all efforts to work within the state structure are doomed from the beginning. The only hope lies in ultimately moving beyond the state, in escaping capitalism’s demands by escaping the state that corresponds to this economic form. (9)
Marx’s own pessimism about state-level interventions gains its most cogent expression in his early work. The state is part of the ideology that The German Ideology aims at tearing down. In this work, Marx and Friedrich Engels claim that the state is nothing but an illusory form of appearance that hides the underlying reality of class conflict. State power simply expresses the rule of the capitalist class. They write, “all struggles within the state, the struggle between democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, the struggle for the franchise, etc., etc., are merely the illusory forms – altogether the general interest is the illusory form of common interests – in which the real struggles of the different classes are fought out among one another.” (10) Fighting for democracy against authoritarian rule has no chance for creating substantive change because the realm of capitalist economy is the only substantial arena. To change the society, one must directly confront the economic structure. This is Marxism’s unequivocal verdict on the state.
One of the reasons that political thinkers turned to Foucault after the fall of the Soviet Union and the death of actually existing socialism is that his emphasis on power breaks from Marxism’s myopic focus on the economy to the exclusion of all other domains. Power works through religion, education, politics, and every possible field, in addition to the economy. The turn to an analysis of power looks at economy in terms of the role that it plays in subjecting people to coercive control, just as the state or the religious institution does. While the shift in focus from economy to power broadens the site of inquiry, it does nothing to further penetrate into how capitalism and the state work in relation to each other. This remains a blind spot that the theory of biopower inherits from Marxism, although it inverts the relation.
The turn from economy to power leaves Foucault and the other theorists of biopower especially ill-equipped to analyze the structures of the capitalist social order. Capitalism does not rule through its deployment of power but through inserting itself into subjects’ desire, which is a term that Foucault explicitly rejects. (11) By focusing on power, Foucault misses what drives subjects to commit themselves to capitalist society. It is not the power that capitalism has over them but the way that it entices their desire. Capitalism doesn’t issue threats or commands but rather entices with the promise of an unlimited satisfaction that the commodity will provide. One invests oneself in capitalism for the promise of a future satisfaction that will never come. The impossibility of the future that capitalism holds out before us doesn’t detract from its appeal but augments it. We strive for what we cannot attain and never cease striving because the fail is the fuel for our desire. While the capitalist economy occasionally imposes its power on people, this is an entirely secondary operation. It rules through the logic of desire, not the discourse of power. As long as Foucault and Agamben analyze the working of power, they will miss what keeps capitalism going, including the relationship that develops between capitalism and the state.
What Foucault and his inheritors have in common with Marxism is the belief that the state is always an oppressive force. What characterizes Foucault’s thought – along with that of other theorists of biopower such as Agamben and Roberto Esposito – is that he doesn’t distinguish between capitalism and the state. Foucault and the other theorists of biopower do not often mention capitalism because they do not see it as distinct from the power of the state. In contrast to Marx, these figures do not see the state as simply the expression of capital’s self-interest. Instead, they make no distinction at all. Both are expressions of power, and power is the enemy. The inability to theorize capital’s dominance in an epoch when it manifests itself everywhere is the primary weakness of the theory of biopower. If Marxism reduces the state to capital, the theory of biopower does the reverse, which is an even more grievous error because the primary danger today is danger to the state not of the state.
While Agamben worries a great deal about the expansion of state power, he remains relatively silent about the role that capitalist logic plays in people’s subjugation. There is no sense that capitalism, not state power, represents the fundamental threat confronting humanity today. There is no insistence that the project of emancipation must, first and foremost, take on the forces of capital in order to confront this threat. In fact, Agamben’s interventions during the Covid-19 disaster bespeak his absolute resistance to any expression of state power even if it might act as a brake on capitalist accumulation. As he sees it, any exercise of power by the state in the name of preserving life has the effect of reducing persons to the status of bare life, of extending the regime of biosecurity through the announcement of a state of exception. Authorities take advantage of any occasion – something like a pandemic, for instance – to increase control over life. This is the only danger that they recognize.
Foucault and his inheritors interpret the contemporary form of power as fundamentally different from the punitive authority that precedes it. The theory of biopower originates with Foucault in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but it is Agamben who really brings it to prominence almost two decades later. According to Foucault, we live now in the aftermath of a fundamental transformation in the way that power operates. In his lecture series at the Collège de France entitled Society Must Be Defended, Foucault announces the shift from a regime of sovereignty to one of biopower. Sovereignty rules through prohibitions but leaves subjects alone if they don’t transgress these limits, while biopower rules through insinuating itself into every aspect of a subject’s life. Under the regime of biopower, no one is ever left alone for even the briefest moment.
As Foucault conceives it, the transition that takes place involves a change in authority’s attitude toward life and death. Rather than threatening death for disobedience, the regime of biopower demands that subjects live according to its dictates. Power shifts its focus from death to life. Foucault states, “Sovereignty took life and let live. And now we have the emergence of a power that I would call the power of regularization, and it, in contrast, consists in making live and letting die.” (12) This historical change does not, in Foucault’s mind, represent progress. Quite the opposite. It marks an increase in control, as power enacts the production of life rather than just threatening subjects with death if they disobey.
We can see an example of biopower producing life today in the Apple Watch. This apparatus constantly monitors one’s level of fitness – checking the pulse, blood oxygen saturation, calories burned, and heart arrythmias. The watch can even call for an ambulance if it detects that the wearer has fallen. People invest in it for the healthy lifestyle that it promises, but by doing so, they unwittingly participate in the logic of biopower. As a site of biopower, the Apple Watch produces a subject utterly preoccupied with its survival. The company advertises this product with the slogan: “The future of your health is on your wrist.” The Apple Watch makes live – it forces constant attention to life on us – and is thus evidence that Foucault’s nightmare has become our everyday reality.
By highlighting this example of what appears as biopower, the problem with the theory already becomes apparent. The concern for healthy life – making live – in this instance doesn’t emanate from the state but from capital. While it is true that contemporary capitalism demands that subjects concern themselves with sustaining their lives, this is not necessarily a preoccupation of the state, despite the focus of biopower’s theorists on the state. This lacuna exposes just how the theory of biopower leads us astray.
Fight the Power
Foucault is not the end point of theorizing biopower. In the late 1990s, Agamben takes up the baton and links the structure of biopower to the logic of the concentration camp, which he sees as the paradigmatic site for modernity. While he follows Foucault in his conception of biopower as the productive power to make live, Agamben departs from Foucault on the question of sovereignty. Where Foucault sees sovereign power transforming into biopower, Agamben theorizes sovereignty as integral to the functioning of biopower. He envisions no contemporary abandonment of sovereignty. It is instead sovereign power itself that relies on the production of life.
Agamben focuses on the state as the site from which biopower deploys itself. He sees sovereignty as an essential foundation for the expression of biopower. In Agamben’s most important work, Homo Sacer, he articulates this link between sovereignty and biopower, a link that challenges Foucault’s conception of a radical transformation from one into the other. Agamben states, “the inclusion of bare life in the political realm constitutes the original – if concealed – nucleus of sovereign power. It can even be said that the production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power.” (13) Sovereignty here is essential to the productivity of biopower. But the problem remains the same as it is for Foucault. Politics becomes concerned with life and thereby impinges on our ability to simply live.
It has always been tough to pin down where we should locate Foucault and Agamben politically. Their focus on power clearly distances them from classical Marxism, but, on the other hand, they see liberal democracy as a political dead end. We can see a clue to their ultimate political position in their analysis of power, an analysis that betrays an allergy to power. This allergy lets us know that Foucault and Agamben, no matter what they claim about their political position, are actually anarchists. Their analyses of power implicitly lay out this anarchism. (14)
Foucault and Agamben view the exercise of power as form of dominance that we should distance ourselves from. (15) Throughout their analysis of changes in the operations of power, what remains the same is the belief that power is illegitimate violence. This leads to seeing the state as anathema. Agamben makes this clear in The Coming Community, where he envisions future political struggle between power (represented by the state) and singularity. He writes, “The novelty of the coming politics is that it will no longer be a struggle for the conquest or control of the State, but a struggle between the State and the non-State (humanity), an insurmountable disjunction between whatever singularity and the State organization.” (16) Agamben champions what he calls “whatever singularity” because it does not involve itself with power over others, which is implicit in the functioning of the state. State organization reduces humans to instruments that can have no autonomy. It is only a nonorganized and loose coming together that might manage to avoid the violence of power and respect whatever singularity.
The problem with anarchism as a political position is that rather than challenging the way that capitalism functions, it actually feeds capitalism’s own logic. Anarchism’s refusal of state power eliminates the site at which one can contest this logic with an alternative. Although the contemporary state operates largely in support of capitalist relations of production, this is not the only possibility for the state or some equivalent structure. Anarchism gives up the possibility of challenging capital through the only power possibly equal to it. Both Foucault and Agamben cede the struggle before it begins.
The fundamental task for the Left in the capitalist epoch is to highlight the distinction between capital and the state. While capital often uses the state to support its expansion, its relation to the state is always tenuous. Capital and the state are never identical, which is what both Marxism and the theorists of biopower miss. The tenuousness of their relationship provides an avenue for political intervention. It is in times of crisis that the tension between capital and the state becomes most pronounced and creates an ideal moment for action.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the distance between capital and the state blows wide open. In order to respond to the crisis, states around the world resort to measures that stop the flow of capital and restrict the functioning of capitalist society. The state’s attempt to ensure the survival of its citizens – to “let live,” in the words of Foucault – take on a clearly anticapitalist hue. Biopower, if that is what we must call it, reveals itself as an opponent of unbridled capitalism rather than as capitalism’s handmaiden. States make emergency payments to all citizens, freeze evictions, expand free medical care, offer state-funded child care, and close businesses. These are not actions that benefit capital.
At this point, the power of the state and the interests of capital come into opposition. The theorists of biopower have no way to account for this division, which is why Agamben’s response to the pandemic is so woeful. Unable to recognize the potential radicality of the split between state power and the forces of capital, Agamben lumps both together under the rubric of biopower and launches a series of diatribes against its expansion during the Covid-19 pandemic. When he does discuss the difference, he laments capitalism’s capitulation to the state and its regime of biopower. These diatribes show the failure of the theory of biopower to think through the politics of capitalist society in crisis. But more than this, Agamben’s reactions to the pandemic highlight fundamental missteps that have always been present but never fully apparent. The pandemic reveals that the theory of biopower is not a theory of emancipation after all but rather a theory that supports the workings of capital.
Agamben with Trump
One of the most shocking conjunctions occurring in the responses to the Covid-19 pandemic was that of Donald Trump with Giorgio Agamben. Although Agamben’s politics may be difficult to discern, no one would imagine him as a Trump supporter. Agamben’s critique of biopower has led him in the past to a vehemently anti-American position because he associates the American War on Terror with the most grotesque exercises of biopower. In State of Exception, Agamben goes so far as to equate George W. Bush’s indefinite detaining of enemy combatants in an extralegal prison in Guantanamo Bay with Adolf Hitler’s decision to place Jews in concentration camps.(17) The extremes of the American War on Terror so offend Agamben that, after the institution of new radical border policies in the United States, he refuses to come at all as a protest against reactionary American extremism. (18) However, this suspicion of American political activity transforms into finding common cause with the conservative American leadership of Donald Trump during the Covid-19 epidemic. (19)
In a series of short texts intervening in the politics of the pandemic (which were collected, along with some additional short texts and interviews, in Where Are We Now?), Agamben vehemently denounces almost all of the attempts to stop the spread of the disease. According to his analysis, these measures indicate just how far the society has sunk into the morass of biopower, how it has given itself over to an antisocial force that rules without regard for sustaining the social bonds that make life worth living. Making live becomes the justification for a new regime of constraint that so deforms society that we will no longer recognize it. He writes, “Having replaced politics with the economy, now in order to secure governance even this must be integrated with the new paradigm of biosecurity, to which all other exigencies will have to be sacrificed. It is legitimate to ask whether such a society can still be defined as human or whether the loss of sensible relations, of the face, of friendship, of love can be truly compensated for by an abstract and presumably completely fictitious health security.” (20) In the effort to ensure survival, the state shatters human relations during the Covid-19 pandemic. As Agamben sees it, the responses to the pandemic have the effect of stealing the most precious treasures of human coexistence – the bonds of friendship and love. The state’s intervention that occurs in the name of biosecurity merely uses the pandemic as a justification for its new intrusions into life.
But what doesn’t make sense in Agamben’s critique is his insistence that economics now trumps all politics. The state’s response to the pandemic does not reflect the displacement that he fears but rather indicates a moment where politics gains traction over the economy. Agamben’s analysis is revelatory insofar as it gets the situation precisely backwards. The state’s political interventions occur in spite of the damage that they do to the capitalist economy. The pandemic prompts a political decision that interrupts capital’s dominance. But Agamben fails to see this because he doesn’t separate theoretically the workings of the state from those of capital, which is the defining error of the theory of biopower.
At various points, Agamben rails against social distancing, lockdowns, and even mask mandates. All of the means that states use to fight against the explosion of the pandemic receive his scorn, and none receive his endorsement. If Agamben had his way, the vulnerable would simply be left to die, but at least they would die outside the paradigm of biopower. (21) As Agamben sees it, the responses represent the choice of preserving bare life over sustaining a form of life, which renders them complicit with the contemporary dominance of biopower. (22) Opting for survival over a livable form of life leaves us with a world in which no one can live. Or, as Agamben puts it in one of his short texts on the pandemic, “Bare life – and the danger of losing it – is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them. Other human beings … are now seen solely as possible spreaders of the plague whom one must avoid at all costs and from whom one needs to keep oneself at a distance of at least a meter.” (23) Agamben attacks the distancing used to stop the spread of the disease. As he sees it, social distancing is the worst type of oxymoron: distance entails the annihilation of sociality. Social and distance have nothing to do with each other.
But here we can begin to see the error that runs through Agamben’s critique of the response to the pandemic and that ultimately undermines the theory of biopower. Both Foucault and Agamben exhibit a blindness to the role that mediation plays in social relations, a mediation that works through distance. By keeping a distance from each other, we do not act antisocially. Instead, we uphold the social bond insofar as we utilize forms of mediation. Sociality occurs when I exchange letters, have a conversation, or engage in a discussion. All of these forms of sociality rely on the mediation of language, which connects us to each other by separating us. The mediation of language provides the basis for the social bond, but it does so at the cost of actual proximity. When I relate to the other through words, these words enact a barrier between us, but this barrier is an enabling one. This mediation creates the bond through distance and enable the bond to exist through the separation that subjects have from each other. Social distance makes sociability possible through the creation of an interstitial space that mediates between the various subjects.
I can interact with the other because the mediation of the public world gives me breathing space where the other is not over-present. In contrast to familial relations that involve proximity, the social bond holds us together through distance. Far from being an oxymoron, social distance represents the only possible form of sociality. The move from proximity to distance is the move from the closed connection of the family to the open bond of the society.
Instead of recognizing distance as the sine qua non of sociality, Agamben ties our social being to proximity, which is why he recoils from the term social distance. The inability to recognize the necessity of mediation is also operative in Agamben’s critique of the state. He fails to see that the state is not just a sovereign authority. It represents the ultimate end point of mediation, providing a terrain on which subjects can engage with each other without simply colliding. (24) The state form signifies the connection that holds the society together. While the state can certainly act oppressively, its formal status as the signifier of the social bond does not inherently entail any oppressive expression of power. It is precisely the formal status of the state and of all mediation that Agamben misses in his critique of social distancing. The theory of biopower fails to recognize that the power of the state is not just oppressive but also constitutive of modern subjectivity.
Agamben’s critique doesn’t stop with social distancing. From the very beginning of the pandemic, Agamben speaks out against the various lockdowns used to try to stem its spread. In “The Invention of an Epidemic,” he writes, “in a perverse vicious circle, the limitations of freedom imposed by governments are accepted in the name of a desire for safety that was created by the same governments that are now intervening to satisfy it.” (25) It is clear that Agamben is not wrong to fear that calls for safety often serve as the cover for mechanisms of oppressive interventions. But just because safety can function ideologically doesn’t mean that it necessarily does, as Agamben assumes.
Agamben fails to distinguish between a state protecting citizens from a natural disaster and a state arming itself against an external enemy. The protection of citizens against a natural disaster brings out the formal function of the state, the state as a site of mediation, whereas foreign wars require the evocation of the state’s national content, the nation as a site of identification. The inability to see this distinction inevitably leads the thinker astray. In order to gin up enthusiasm for foreign wars, the state must call for nationalist pride, which foments the logic of us versus them and mobilizes an investment in the state as an oppressive force. In order to be the site of nationalist pride, the state must not just be a form. It must have a substantial content, and this content is always ideological. This is what is missing when the state acts as a pure form in response to a natural disaster. Rather than serving as a source of nationalist pride, the lockdowns spur a universalizing connection that the state form signifies. No one feels exceptional in a lockdown, which is why right-wing protesters inveigh against the state when it orders lockdowns but not when the state declares war. This distinction is one that should preoccupy our thinking much more than it does.
Finally, Agamben’s critique also extends to the mask mandate. It seems as if the mask mandate would have nothing to do with the biopolitics. It is a measure designed to allow for more of the freedom of movement during the pandemic, which is what Agamben claims that he wants. But nonetheless, he includes a critique of masks in his diatribe against the measures taken to stem the effects of the pandemic. In an essay entitled “When the House Burns,” he writes, “The face is the most human thing; the human has a face and not simply a muzzle or a snout because we dwell in the open, because in our faces we expose ourselves and communicate. This is why the face is the place of politics. Our impolitical time does not want to see its own face; keeps it at a distance, masks and covers it. There must be no more faces, only numbers and figures. Even the tyrant is faceless.” (26) Covering the face, for Agamben, represents a betrayal of politics for the sake of tyranny. (27)
Agamben’s attempt to link the exposed face to humanity misses the role that masks play in the constitution of subjectivity. One becomes a subject through putting on a mask, not through exposing one’s face. The subject emerges through its ability to lie, to present a fiction that separates the subject from its environment. Without the mask, without the obfuscation that distances subjectivity from those around it, there is no space for the subject’s freedom. While the mask can allow one to act maliciously, it also provides a realm invisible to any prying eyes.
Like social distancing, the mask plays a constitutive role in the formation of a public world. If no one wore a mask and simply revealed a private self in every public interaction, no public interaction would be possible. The public world exists because I withhold my private views, which is what the film comedy Liar Liar (Tom Shadyac, 1997) shows. The great achievement of this film is that it exposes the impossibility of public existence without a mask. (28) The film’s hero, Fletcher Reede (Jim Carrey) must spend an entire day incapable of lying, thanks to a curse levelling by a son exasperated with his deceitful father. Forced to live without a mask and constantly reveal what he’s thinking, Reede is simply incapable of interacting with anyone. He reveals his judgments on the appearance of his coworkers and his views of the incompetence of those around him. When a woman asks him how he likes her new dress, he looks at her unusual haircut and responds, “Whatever takes the focus off your head.” He then insults an overweight man and remarks on the existence of a pimple on another’s face. Such disturbances continue in every interaction he has. As a result, no one can tolerate his presence. He lives unmasked, and no one can bear to be around him. The film illustrates that life without a mask condemns us to privacy overwhelming and swallowing up the public world.
The alignment of the mask with the public world is essential to its political valence. The mask is not the evanescence of politics, as Agamben would have it. It is the genesis of politics because it establishes the distance from the private world in which political struggle can take place. The public world is a world of masks, not a world where we bare our private selves. The political terrain is not that of competing private interests – this is the conservative vision – but instead that of the struggle to enact a form of universality. This is a struggle that can only take place in public among those masking their private selves. Agamben’s hostility to the mask is the extension of his hostility to any form of mediation, but it is mediation that is the ground of politics.
The tyrant, contra Agamben, isn’t faceless. The tyrant, as Donald Trump shows, is the one who refuses to cover his face, who insists that his face must remain visible. Tyrants plaster their faces all over their domain in order to show not their political position but an image that resides beyond the political and that constitutes the basis of their rule. (29) Trump refuses to wear a mask because he refuses to engage in political struggle. He demands allegiance to his private self rather than political struggle taking place in public.
Like Agamben, Trump does not care for how the mask interferes with the social bond. He explicitly invokes this when describing his own refusal to wear one. On April 3, 2020, he says, “I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens – I don’t know, somehow I don’t see it for myself. I just, I just don’t.” (30) As Trump laments the aesthetic damage that a mask does, he makes an objection related to that of Agamben. But in Trump’s case, the mask represents a political position that he wants to remain aloof from. To be masked is to be thrust into a public world of political contestation.
Although Trump has different reasons for attacking to the various responses to the pandemic, he nonetheless echoes Agamben’s critique. He comes out against social distancing, lockdowns, and mask mandates because he sees all these measures as irresponsible disruptions of economic freedom. When various parts of the United States locked down to stop the spread of the disease, he tweeted, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.” (31) Trump is not a theorist of biopower, but he does share with such theorists a belief that the state response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been itself another disaster.
Trump and Agamben are not politically aligned. But their proximity on the response to the pandemic should give us pause when thinking about the theory of biopower. No one is simply guilty by association, but Agamben’s response to the pandemic mirrors Trump’s too precisely not to garner attention. Trump’s resistance to the measures that other countries used to effectively combat the spread of Covid-19 led to thousands of needless deaths in the United States. Refusing any exercise of state power out of a fear of expanding the reach of biopower amounts to implicitly taking up Trump’s attitude and contributing to the ravages of the disease. But even more significantly, it entails missing the role that the state form or the state as a form can play in combatting the ravages of contemporary capitalism.
Agamben As Voltaire
Leibniz was not around to provide his analysis of the Lisbon Earthquake, so we cannot know if it would have been the event that made him think twice about his doctrine of theodicy. But Giorgio Agamben is alive and well in the epoch of the Covid-19. Rather than revaluating the doctrine of biopower in the face of a pandemic that shows the need for a display of state power that would arrest the onslaught of disease, he doubles down on the biopolitical interpretation of this event. Each time Agamben receives criticism about his response, rather than reconsider his theoretical opposition to any state measures, he takes his opposition even further, arguing for an open embrace of infection and death. While it might be tempting to lament this theoretical turn, we should rather celebrate it, since it lays bare where his theoretical position leads. Through Agamben’s own response to the pandemic, we can see the theory of biopower reveal itself as a cult of death. Insisting on death becomes the only way to prove one’s mettle in the struggle against the hegemony of life. (32) If biopower enjoins us to live, one must fight this power by choosing death, both for oneself and for others.
This position reaches its apogee with Agamben’s call for Pope Francis to violate the lockdown and begin to visit those sick with Covid-19. As Agamben sees it, the task of the leader of the Catholic Church is to imitate Christ even to the point of embracing one’s own death. In his brief article entitled “A Question,” he states, “The Church, under a Pope who calls himself Francis, has forgotten that Francis embraced lepers. It has forgotten that one of the works of mercy is that of visiting the sick. It has forgotten that the martyrs teach that we must be prepared to sacrifice our life rather than our faith and that renouncing our neighbor means renouncing faith.” (33) The contrast between Saint Francis and Pope Francis is telling: the first Francis sacrifices to comfort the sick, while the later one hides to protect himself from them. But what this criticism conveniently leaves aside is that Pope Francis visiting Covid-19 patients would not entail only a sacrifice of his own life. It would endanger thousands of others as well. Pope Francis would turn himself into a superspreader and, very likely, a mass murderer. When one reads him criticize Pope Francis in this way, it seems as if Agamben has become his own Voltaire, providing commentary that appears to have been written to satirize how the theorists of biopower would respond to the pandemic.
Agamben’s refusal to distinguish between the forces of state power and the interests of capital leads to a series of politically baleful responses to the Covid-19 outbreak. In The Kingdom and the Glory, Agamben himself weighs in on Voltaire’s satiric rejoinder against Leibniz in a way that almost anticipates his own response to the pandemic. He writes, “Even the most beautiful minds have zones of opacity in which they get lost to the point that a much weaker mind can ridicule them. This is what occurred to Leibniz with Voltaire’s caricature of his position in Candide.” (34) Perhaps we should see Agamben’s flirtation with the theory of biopower, like Leibniz’s theodicy, as a zone of opacity that leads him astray and allows much weaker minds to criticize him, as they are doing in the wake of his occasional pieces during the pandemic.
This zone of opacity extends beyond the state response to the pandemic. It includes the theory of biopower as such, a theory that laments the politicization of life and thereby fails to see that life cannot be politicized because it has always been political. Life is always symbolized life, life mediated by the signifier, even when stripped of everything in a concentration camp. The theory of biopower never takes proper stock of the foundational role that mediation has for subjectivity. Rather than producing bare life, the disaster exposes the structural necessity of mediation for subjectivity. This is why natural disasters are always political opportunities. They show us the connective tissue that constitutes life in common, the mediation that inherently politicizes us.
While Leibniz cannot imagine a disaster that doesn’t have some positive correlation that justifies it as part of God’s plan for the world, Agamben cannot recognize how a disaster might thwart the plans the ruling structure. Even though a disaster invalidates the philosophy of each of them, it does so for opposed reasons. Leibniz tries to reconcile everything with an image of the best of all possible worlds. Agamben aims at explaining all state action as an expression of biopower, as part of the worst of all possible worlds. The Lisbon Earthquake can in no way reveal God’s goodness, just as the response to the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be made into another victory of biopolitical sovereignty.
Unlike Leibniz, we need the courage to accept that disasters are simply disasters. They hold no secret upside that renders their occurrence more palatable. But we also need the courage to recognize that survival is not always ideological. When the state has to resort to extraordinary interruptions of the capitalist economy to keep us alive, it is not acting as the stooge of biopower. Instead, it is showing us the limit to capital’s dominance of our existence. We can see in the disaster the ashes of the theory of biopower, with its insistence on the ubiquity of a power apparatus that functions without a rift. The disaster makes evident the rift. The only way to avow the truth of the Covid-19 event is to acknowledge that the theory of biopower must be buried alongside all the dead.
1. This staying power of the significant thinker leads Jacques Lacan to claim “One never goes beyond Descartes, Kant, Marx, Hegel and a few others because they mark a line of inquiry, a true orientation. One never goes beyond Freud either.” Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960. Trans. Dennis Porter. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York, NY: Norton, 1992, 206.
2. The attempt to dismiss a thinker due to a conjunction with historical events is usually the result of an antiphilosophical impulse, even when the thinker directly aligns himself or herself with a historical event, as Martin Heidegger does in the case of Nazism. Commenting on Emmanuel Faye’s incessant critique of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism, Alain Badiou contends that one should always oppose “the tenacious plotting by these moral hermeneuts” and proclaims, “Down with the little masters of the purification of philosophy!” (Alain Badiou, “A Letter from Alain Badiou.” Verso, 21 December 2014, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1796-a-letter-from-alain-badiou, Accessed 26 October 2021.) Badiou rightly sees that, while one must take Heidegger’s anti-Semitism into account, it cannot act as a sufficient condition for dismissing his philosophy altogether, which is what Faye and his cohort desire. To dismiss Heidegger because of his Nazism and anti-Semitism is to allow history the last word relative to philosophy.
3. The power of Leibniz’s argument is striking even for the contemporary reader who comes to it believing theodicy to be a wholly ideological project. Even though almost no one reads the Theodicy anymore, it takes only a slight adjustment to find oneself ready to accept Leibniz’s claims. The argument holds together, although its premises are utterly dubious.
4. Gottfried W. Leibniz, Theodicy. Trans. E. M. Huggard, Chicago: Open Court, 1985, 61.
5. Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Zone Books, 1999, 82–83.
6. Hilary Neroni argues that biopower, far from being the mode of contemporary governance, is actually today’s ruling ideology. By focusing on the exigencies of bare life, we miss the role that capitalism plays in determining our existence. In this sense, the theorists of biopower of the ideologists of contemporary capitalism. See Hilary Neroni, The Subject of Torture: Psychoanalysis and Biopolitics in Television and Film. New York, NY: Columbia UP, 2015.
7. Giorgio Agamben, Where Are We Now? The Epidemic as Politics. Trans. Valeria Dani. Rowman and Littlefield, 2021, 52.
8. Ibid., 70.
9. There are Marxists who take a more sanguine view of the state form. For instance, Anna Kornbluh launches a vigorous defense of form, such as that of the state, within the Marxist project. She writes, “Form is not delimited containment but prismatic projection of other spaces. Structure is not transcendental determinativeness, but immanent agency. Law is not an emanation from nature or what exists, but an axiomatic writing that creates new possibilities.” Anna Kornbluh, The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space. U of Chicago P, 2019, 106. State law is not here the handmaiden of capital but a constitutive form that enables possibilities. Of course, Kornbluh recognizes that state law can function in the service of capital, but it is nonetheless an independent and constitutive force.
10. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology. Progress Publishers, 1976, 52. In the Communist Manifesto, they write, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” See The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition. Trans. Samuel Moore. Verso, 1998, 37.
11. Toward the end of the first volume of the History of Sexuality, Foucault stakes out a position against desire, which he sees as caught up in the discourse of sexuality. He writes, “The rallying point for the counterattack against the deployment of sexuality ought not to be sex-desire, but bodies and pleasures.” Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley Random House, 1978, 157. As Foucault sees it, once one is on the terrain of desire, one has already succumbed to the power of the enemy.
12. Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. Trans. David Macey. Picador, 2003, 247.
13. Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford UP, 1998, 6.
14. For a definitive rejection of any link between Agamben and anarchism, see Leland de la Durantaye. Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction. Stanford UP, 2009. But Agamben himself provides a counter, when he states, “Anarchy has always seemed more interesting to me than democracy.” Giorgio Agamben, Creation and Anarchy: The Work of Art and the Religion of Capitalism. Trans. Adam Kotsko. Stanford UP, 2019, 54.
15. For Foucault, this becomes most evident in his lecture series entitled On the Government of the Living: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1979–1980 (Trans. Graham Burchell. Palgrave, 2014). There, he identifies the refusal of power as his starting point, even though he admits that it is ultimately impossible to have a social order without some form of power. He states, “it is not a question of having in view, at the end of a project, a society without power relations. It is rather a matter of putting non-power or the non-acceptability of power, not at the end of the enterprise, but rather at the beginning of the work, in the form of a questioning of all the ways in which power is in actual fact accepted.” (78) What Foucault here chalks up to his method actually indicates his anarchist political position. While Agamben may more openly identify himself with anarchism, Foucault’s hostility to all expressions of power is just as thoroughgoing.
16. Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community. Trans. Michael Hardt. U of Minnesota P, 1993, 85.
17. Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception. Trans. Kevin Attell. U of Chicago P, 2005.
18. Agamben specifically objects to the American demand for fingerprinting necessary to obtain a US visa. He sees this as evidence of the reign of biopower that he aims to resist by refusing to come to America.
19. Agamben argues that the pandemic has shaken up the traditional political divide between Right and Left. He argues, “The degree of confusion into which the emergency situation has thrown the minds of those who ought to remain lucid, and the way in which the opposition between Right and Left has become devoid of any real political content, is very clear in this case.” Giorgio Agamben, Where Are We Now? The Epidemic as Politics. Trans. Valeria Dani. Rowman and Littlefield, 2021, 70.
20. Giorgio Agamben, “Biopolitics and Security.” Trans. D. Alan Dean. Blog Post, 11 May 2020, https://d-dean.medium.com/biosecurity-and-politics-giorgio-agamben-396f9ab3b6f4. Accessed 26 October 2021.
21. The contrast between Agamben and a thinker such as Alain Badiou is stark. While no one could accuse Badiou of being a fan of state power, he nonetheless argues that the pandemic represents a situation in which one must have the discipline to do what’s right in order to preserve life. He sees it as a simple situation in which we should support the state’s efforts at minimizing the casualties.
22. Agamben sees form of life as the specific antidote to biopower’s reduction of our existence to bare life. A form of life introduces a separation between life and politics that enables us to regain the space in which to live our lives.
23. Agamben, Giorgio. “Clarifications.” Trans. Adam Kotsko. An und für sich blog, 17 March 2020, https://itself.blog/2020/03/17/giorgio-agamben-clarifications/. Accessed 26 October 2021.
24. The great thinker of the state as the site of fundamental mediation is Hegel, who considers the state as constitutive for modern subjectivity. It is not surprising that both Foucault and Agamben remain more or less silent on Hegel as a political thinker, despite Agamben devoting a short book to his aesthetic philosophy.
25. Agamben, Giorgio. “The Invention of an Epidemic.” European Journal of Psychoanalysis, 26 February 2020, https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers/. Accessed 26 October 2021.
26. Agamben, Giorgio. “When the House Burns.” Trans. Kevin Attell. Diacritics, 6 January 2021, https://www.diacriticsjournal.com/when-the-house-burns-down/. Accessed 26 October 2021.
27. Although we might imagine Agamben would include Donald Trump among the faceless tyrants of the world, Trump actually refuses to wear a mask, which complicates this diagnosis.
28. The fact that the star of Liar Liar, Jim Carrey, is also the star of The Mask (Chuck Russell, 1994), a film in which he gains incredible powers to act with the mask, represents one of the great cinematic interconnections in the history of Hollywood. Even though the films have nothing to do with each other, it appears as if Carrey is working out his own theory of the mask in the choice of these roles.
29. Agamben’s claim that the face is the center of humanity seems out of place coming from him. It’s much more the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas that locates the ethics of a shared humanity in the visibility of the face. The fact that Agamben turns to this position in his critique of the response to the pandemic indicates that he’s pulling out all the cards, using whatever he has in his arsenal to combat every possible state responses to the pandemic. Agamben is not typically a champion of Levinas, but he becomes one when he sees a possibility for criticizing the state’s efforts at ensuring more survival.
30. Donald Trump, qtd. in Daniel Victor, Lew Serviss, and Azi Paybarah, “In His Own Words: Trump on the Coronavirus and Masks.” New York Times, 2 October 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/02/us/politics/donald-trump-masks.html Accessed 26 October 2021. Accessed 26 October 2021.
31. Donald Trump, qtd. in Maggie Haberman and David E. Sanger, “Trump Says Coronavirus Cure ‘Cannot Be Worse Than the Problem Itself’.” New York Times, 23 March 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/us/politics/trump-coronavirus-restrictions.html. Accessed 26 October 2021.
32. It is not surprising that one of Foucault’s dreams late in his life was to establish a center where people could come and experience extreme pleasure just before dying. This dream parallels Agamben’s potentially lethal response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
33. Giorgio Agamben, “A Question.” Trans. Adam Kotsko. An und für sich blog, 15 April 2020, https://itself.blog/2020/04/15/giorgio-agamben-a-question/. Accessed 26 October 2021.
34. Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government. Trans. Lorenzo Chiesa (with Matteo Mandarini). Stanford UP, 2011, 271.