In February of this year, the Italian Political Philosopher Giorgio Agamben published an opinion in his association blog, the Quodlibet. In this piece, Agamben wrote about his theory of the state of exemption and how the corona virus could become one of those cases. Months later, it is time to admit that Agamben missed the point on the whole situation. But this does not mean he was wrong.
I will first introduce Agamben and his views and later explain in what aspects he failed in his article. Giorgio Agamben is an Italian Philosopher, publishing works on aesthetics and the concepts of the state of exception and the Homo Sacer. Both the works of the state of exception and the Home Sacer are intrinsically political and interconnected.
The Homo Sacer in roman politics meant a man that could only be judged by the gods. A man that was not part of the BIOS (BIOS meaning political life). This man would not be able to be sacrificed nor killed.
With the Liberal Revolutions during the 18th and 19th Century, the common men passed to the role of his own judge inside BIOS, as there was no Homo Sacer. Thus, the divide between the BIOS and ZOE (the animal life, what Aristoteles also calls “living in accordance to our urges and not virtue” in the Nichomachean Ethics) ended.
But these two notions would merge with the appearance of Biology.
For Agamben and Foucault, Biology is a totalitarian science with its extremes as Genetics and Eugenics.
In Biology there is a norm for species, and therefore there is also an abnormal. Biology treats every being as objects, bare life, ZOE. Therefore biology justifies that every individual that is part of BIOS is also part of ZOE, leading to the possibility that every BIOS individual is excluded from BIOS and left as just ZOE, as just simply living with no rights. With the divide once more present, states can expulse beings out of their societies and, at an extreme kill them, since they are not BIOS.
For Agamben, the modern state is aware of its ZOE and BIOS, thus every individual is treated as ZOE but with the rights of BIOS. In other words, individuals in society are simple life with rights to political life.
But since the state is not composed of territory, but of the people who create the body of the state, then the State is also ZOE with the rights of BIOS, this is the state paradox. The state has control over its citizens bare life through the political rights. And it is legitimized because the state is elected democratically. This is what is called Biopolitics as famously introduced by Foucault. Biopolitics is the political decisions of life, and by consequence of death as well.
For Agamben this is the main reason why democratic states become authoritarian, they exist in a Biological context that, through Biopolitics, can take the rights out of a human, thus making them just bare life, forgiving their killing as not a murder since they are just bare life. An excellent example of this was how, in NAZI Germany, the Jews would first be revoked their citizenship, and then sent for the extermination camps. Because the Jews were not BIOS anymore but simply ZOE, it was not murder nor genocide for the NAZIs. And for Agamben, the only way a state can enact such movement of removing BIOS is through a state of exception.
In democratic societies, there are laws that would prevent states from removing rights from people and making them ZOE. But for Agamben, the creation of the state of exception is the ultimate tool for the expulsion of the abnormal out of the state. Through the state of exception, the government can bypass the rule of law, expel what it considers abnormal, turning them into bare life justifying crimes like torture and murder.
States of exception would be situations like the one in which asylum seekers find themselves in, or the situation of
prisoners in Guantanamo bay. Another state of exception would be a pandemic.
This is the philosophy that led Agamben to write in February about how the Italian government was creating a state of exception with a Fake Pandemic. In this article, Agamben tried to disprove the allegations of a Sars-Cov 2 Pandemic in Italy. I remind, this was written in the beginning of February, so the numbers were in favour of what Agamben was writing about. Agamben mentions the perversions of how the freedoms of individuals were being taken by the state and accepted and agreed by the people through fear politics.
Unfortunately, Agamben could not be more wrong than this.
First, I would like to leave a disclaimer saying that in February of this year we knew a lot less about Sars-Cov 2 and the disease Covid-19. The incubation periods were still being discussed and the WHO believed it was not of pandemic sizes. The WHO did ask for States of emergency to be put in action, but for Agamben this was strategies of fear.
The reality of the pandemic was, and is, that due to its incubation period, the fact that it is transmissible for longer without showing any symptoms, and that it is transmissible through large droplets, surfaces and maybe airborne, makes it a very effective virus going undetected, and later bringing nations to a halt.
And it brings nations to a halt for two reasons
1: The world is more global at the present century than it has ever been, trips to different countries can be done in less than a day, especially inside Europe.
2- It leaves people with symptoms that do not allow them to work, such as strong headaches and fever. Let us not forget about the fact that it is damaging to the lungs, and even deadly in some cases.
Looking at the responses given by governments it is obvious that individual freedoms were suspended, but this suspension was a time saving strategy to put to work new strategies and ways of living. A reboot of normal life if you will.
Was this the case of BIOS expulsion/revoking of rights? Yes, but the important question is, was this a case of state of exception? And this is trickier because it depends according to the country. In some countries, the state did not gain any extra power over the other institutions that are there to stop it. States rapidly understood that removing rights would backfire not only politically but economically. It is believed that the economic damage has already been done, but it could be worse if a return to work and an ease to lockdown would not be done.
The example in which a state of exception was completely used is the case in which the state did not protect the ZOE of its citizens. I will mention two notable cases:
1- Hungary: as I have mentioned before, Viktor Orban has taken advantage of the pandemic situation to consolidate his power. Even though Viktor Orban moved Hungary into Lockdown and is now heading for a unilateral shutting of borders. It also uses his power over the refugee camps treating the people inside as bare life and opening the doors to Europe whenever he pleases.
2- The already powerful, but now very contested, Alexander Lukashenko knew the dangers of closing down his economy so he used his power to still revoke rights on people and to move his country as if a pandemic did not exist. Hosting Victory Day parades and prohibiting distance learning.
In Conclusion, I think Agamben missed the point for two reasons.
The first reason was that Giorgio Agamben believed that this was not a world pandemic but the fabrication of one through fear, to take away rights from some citizens. It is understandable that Agamben thought of this, since this theory is his life work, and Italy has been living one of the hardest decades in its History, while having to deal with illegal migrants, with some political parties proposing the expulsion of said migrants.
The second reason was the economic impact and protests over regulations. Most states in Europe knew the damaging economic impacts would inevitably occur, thus they went to lockdown with plans to open the countries again and giving people their liberties once more. But the more regulations over whether face masks should be wore in the middle of open public space have been met with anti-mask and anti vax protests. There are voices in democracy that will always be against the ripping away of rights whether founded on reason or not.
Agamben might have missed the point, but not by much. A state of exception is in place, but this is not the fabrication of one.
For more on the theory of Agamben I would recommend the Homo Sacer, being bellow 200 pages and with accessible writing and translation, as it is a good way to read his philosophy and his sources.