Biopolitics and Coronavirus
In a recent intervention Giorgio Agamben describes the governmental response to the outbreak of the coronavirus in Italy and elsewhere as ‘frentic, irrational and entirely unfounded’. He characterizes the measures implemented in response to Covid-19 pandemic as an exercise in the biopolitics of the ‘state of exception’, namely, spaces where extreme forms of coercion are put in practice. The example of China comes to mind: which implemented an authoritarian version of biopolitics that included the use of extended quarantines, bans of social activities, supported by the vast arsenal of coercion, surveillance and monitoring measures.
The problem with Agamben’s account is that he describes Covid-19 as an ‘invented epidemic’ and the governmental reaction to the outbreak as just another example of the tendency to use the state of exception as a normal paradigm for government. Evidently, Agamben has been proven wrong in stating that Covid-19 is hardly different from the normal flu and his assessment of the current crisis has met with overwhelming criticism. Some have even argued that society must be defended from Agamben as he has now turned out to be a ‘coronavirus denialist’, who dangerously underestimates the threat the virus poses. That does not mean, however, that this critique should not be taken seriously.
As described by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish measures to be taken in the case of an epidemic in the French town of Vincennes in the 17th century include what is currently known as a ‘full lockdown’. The gates of the city are closed and people are confined in their homes, with the doors of each house being barred from the outside by the representative of the government. The streets and other public spaces are occupied by a well-ordered militia of syndics and sentinels. As Foucault has it, ‘the plague as a form, both real and imaginary, of disorder’ finally served to legitimate ‘the penetration of regulation into even the smallest details of everyday life’. The haunting memory of epidemics and chaos associated with them would have paved the way for biopolitics as a system of constant surveillance and discipline in which governmental control directly pertains to the physical existence of citizens.
In a similar fashion Agamben has diagnosed modern policies and practices of state control over the bodies of citizens as the biopolitical paradigm of the modern, a concealed matrix of contemporary political life that usually hides behind the civilized mask of liberal democracy. In times of emergency, however, modern state power show its true face, resorting to the ‘state of exception’ in which the bare life of citizens is subject to unmediated power.
A more important question, however, has been posed against Agamben, namely, whether a democratic biopolitics is possible. To put this question in a different way: Is it possible to have collective practices that actually help the health of populations without a parallel expansion of forms of coercion and surveillance? So far no theoretical move in this direction can be observed.