Giorgio Agamben’s “Where Are We Now? The Epidemic as Politics”: A Review
As Abraham Lincoln considered the crisis he faced on the eve of his inauguration, he distinguished between the principle to which his political order was devoted — “Liberty for all,” as articulated in the Declaration of Independence — and the means to secure that principle — the Constitution of the United States. Prudent action requires clarity about the proper end as well as perception of the proper means to that end. Having clarified the stakes of the impending conflict, and resolved to act in defense of his nation’s Founding principles, Lincoln wrote to himself: “That we may so act, we must study, and understand the points of danger.”
No one was better prepared to perceive immediately the high stakes of Covidtide than Giorgio Agamben, whose previous work on the state of exception has proven painfully relevant since the early months of 2020. If there is to be a political reaction to the heretofore-bureaucratic management of what is still, even late in 2021, referred to as “the ongoing pandemic,” Agamben’s study might well play a role in clarifying the “points of danger” posed, not so much by COVID-19 itself, but by our public health regime. Perhaps it already has; as Josiah Lippincott has documented, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s striking declaration that “We can either have a free society or we can have a biomedical security state” is likely indebted to Agamben’s writing.
The Italian philosopher’s essays on COVID-19, our reactions to it, and the deeper paradigm that explains those reactions are published in English translation as Where Are We Now? The Epidemic as Politics. The meaning is clear enough, drawing on the pejorative use of “politicization.” But the collection might have been better subtitled ‘The Epidemic as Anti-Politics’. The public health regime now in power is a fundamentally anti-political phenomenon, one which substitutes expert administration over silenced subjects for the clamor of citizen deliberation and political representation. It is precisely the politicization of the pandemic that we badly need. To “politicize,” in the non-pejorative sense, means to treat a properly public issue as public, as subject to political speech and political control — and that means, in nations dedicated to republican self-government under the rule of law, to bring the biosecurity apparatus before the judgment of the people and their representatives, to make the public health establishment justify itself to the public. A truly politicized pandemic would offer a chance to tame our public health authorities, to champion the humane conditions of political self-rule, and above all to restore the conditions for normal human life.
Agamben’s most striking illustration of the biosecurity state’s depoliticization is a short essay from October 2020, “The Face and the Mask,” in which he identifies the human face as “the site of politics,” “the true city of men, the fundamental political element.” Agamben writes like a prophet sent to chastise the decayed democracies for so carelessly renouncing their birthright:
“A country that decides to renounce its face, to cover with masks the faces of its citizens everywhere is, then, a country that has purged itself of any political dimension. Inhabiting this empty space, which is at every moment subjected to a control which knows no limits, individuals now live in isolation from one another. They have lost the immediate and sensible foundation of their community, and they can only exchange messages directed towards a name that no longer possesses a face. A faceless name.”
It turns out that the conditions for a properly human life — which cannot be a “socially distanced society,” for we are embodied souls, not ghosts in machines — are closely entwined with the conditions for our existence as political animals. Even if we do not achieve our final end as humans in political participation, still, the conditions for a human life well-lived stand and fall together with the conditions for citizenship. Agamben calls us back to this quasi-Aristotelian realization — related to Aristotle’s dictum that the city comes into being for the sake of life, but exists for the sake of the good life — by confronting us with the inhumane terminus of the modern political paradigm, the blindness to any good higher than the preservation of “bare life.”
In both his earlier work and in his COVID-19 essays, Agamben teaches us that expert management of “a state of perennial crisis and emergency” is nothing new: biosecurity is merely the present year’s manifestation of our “growing tendency to trigger a state of exception as the standard paradigm of governance.” And there is an immediate precedent for this regime: “what American political analysts call the ‘Security State’ — which was established in response to terrorism — has now given way to a health-based paradigm of governance that we term ‘biosecurity’.” As Matthew Schmitz has observed, the War on COVID-19 has followed the model of the War on Terror, with similarly ruinous results for the civil liberties, public order, and social integrity of those on whose behalf it is supposedly waged. Reading Agamben, one has the impression of a massive network of structures — not only government agencies but academic institutions, whole fields of industry, communications technology companies — shifting gears from the War on Terror to the War on COVID-19, as American factories shifted from peacetime industries to manufacturing armaments during the Second World War.
The political and human stakes are high indeed, for the state of exception is “the mechanism by which democracies can transform themselves into totalitarian states.” The paradigmatic case of such a transformation, as Agamben argues in his 2005 State of Exception, is the Nazi regime’s use of Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution to legitimate Hitler’s rule. Any hint of a comparison of our present biosecurity regime to Nazi totalitarianism might seem hyperbolic, but Agamben is not claiming that a misbegotten (or even nefarious) public health response to COVID-19 is comparable in destruction or horror to Nazi rule. Rather, he is observing that the totalitarianism of the 20th century continues to haunt us, not as a bizarre deviation from an otherwise enlightened and progressive age, but as the most monstrous manifestation of that age’s characteristic dysfunctions. The restrictions on human social life and movement by our biomedical security state have actually been more extreme than those restrictions placed on wartime civilian populations to protect them from air raids and other wartime threats. Never was so much sacrificed by so many for so little.
The biosecurity regime presents “the end of all social relations and political activity” as “the exemplary form of civic participation.” This is indeed a ‘paradox’, and one that Agamben does not think we can endure for long. While some passages, expressing hope for a transformation of human life in a renewal that might follow Covidtide, are not very helpful for seeing “where we are now,” his diagnosis of the present crisis is lucid. The biosecurity state is a total regime, replete with its own “religion, whose God is bare life”; Covidtide is an apocalyptic time, insofar as it reveals (the meaning of “apocalypse” is “to uncover” or “reveal”) that “our society believes in nothing more than bare life,” a god to whom the very conditions for human society must be sacrificed.
Here Agamben’s analysis recalls Patrick Deneen’s thesis in Why Liberalism Failed, that liberal societies bring about the atomized individualism described in the state of nature teachings that form liberalism’s theoretical basis. Whatever one thinks of Deneen’s thesis about liberal societies in general, this is certainly the effect of the biosecurity regime that has swept liberal as well as illiberal nations: “People no longer believe in anything, except in a bare biological existence which should be preserved at any cost. But only tyranny, only the monstrous Leviathan with his drawn sword, can be built upon the fear of losing one’s life.” Agamben indicts the other powers of the earth for bowing before the new “medical religion.” Again, one is tempted to accuse him of hyperbole, until one reconsiders the spectacles of the past year. Who can forget the image of Christ the Redeemer towering over Rio de Janeiro, illuminated with the idolatrous message that “VACCINE SAVES”? Ordem e Progresso, indeed.
Agamben’s hopes for the future can be frustratingly obscure, as when he speaks of a coming “alternative political configuration” and a “new, future politics.” But at other times, he only seems to be wishing for a return to the normal conditions of human life.
“We reject […] the mute and faceless bare life and the health religion that governments are proposing. We are not awaiting either a new god or a new human being. We rather seek, here and now, among the ruins around us, a humbler, simpler form of life. We know that such a life is not a mirage, because we have memories and experiences of it — even if, inside and outside of ourselves, opposing forces are always pushing it back into oblivion.”
But even humble, simple forms of life — especially such forms of life — require a well-ordered society and a responsible political authority. Any stable restoration of human society will require political action, not just the scandalous celebrations of college football crowds and the quiet maintenance of normal life in communities far from the centers of power. The great danger is that we allow the New Normal to become normal, allow an entire generation of children to grow up habituated to the dictates of an irrational public health regime, allow the state and tech corporations to institute a social credit system in the West as well as the East. One sign that such political action might succeed is the criminally-underreported protests in the streets. One can only hope that it is also being prepared for in the quiet deliberations of up-and-coming politicians. Such politicians must have realized by now that dissidents from the public health regime constitute the largest underrepresented population in the Western democracies today. Agamben shows us that the very extremity of the “health terror” is a sign of hope that those who have encouraged it are afraid of losing their grip on power. But a happy conclusion to this unhappy age will require clarity of vision and well-organized action. Let us hope that the ambitions of the few are made to serve the good of the many, and that leaders emerge to overthrow the biosecurity regime before it completes its works of death, desolation, and tyranny.