Lonely passenger on an empty metro in Moscow, Russia. April, 2020. Photo: Olga_Kuzmina / Shutterstock.com
When the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben first intervened in the public debate surrounding the looming COVID-19 pandemic in late February, his very brief comments prompted an explosion of criticism.
Relying on the information that was made public by Italy’s National Research Council, which significantly downplayed the health and social risks posed by COVID-19 at the time, he wondered: “Why do the media and the authorities do their utmost to spread a state of panic, thus provoking an authentic state of exception with serious limitations on movement and a suspension of daily life in entire regions?”
The Italian government was saying that the virus was nothing to worry about and yet at the same time it was beginning to consider lockdowns. Agamben argued that we were witnessing “the tendency to use a state of exception as a normal paradigm for government.” He then proceeded to compare COVID-19 to a “normal flu” and concluded that the state measures and social responses that arose from the pretext of this “flu” signify an increasingly authoritarian governmental turn. He discussed the overarching climate of fear that is being fostered in our societies; a fear used by states to legitimize authoritarian interventions in the fabric of daily social existence.
Agamben’s inability to adequately appreciate the severity of the virus led to the totality of his arguments being summarily dismissed. Nevertheless, original criticisms and reformulations sprung up, driving the discussion forward. Some of the most interesting perspectives were captured in a response by Slavoj Žižek.
The discussion between Agamben and Žižek sheds a light on how the pandemic reshapes questions of governmentality, state control, subjectivity and resistance. They represent two opposing viewpoints that figure prominently in anti-authoritarian, autonomist and radical left discussions. By working through them, we can arrive at some basic, synthetic conclusions that make a consistent anti-authoritarian analysis of the political responses to the coronavirus pandemic possible.
Restricted freedoms and new forms of solidarity
In his response to Agamben, Žižek turns his argument upside down by asking: “Why would state power be interested in promoting such a panic, which is accompanied by distrust in state power (“they are helpless, they are not doing enough…”) and which disturbs the smooth reproduction of capital? Is it really in the interest of capital and state power to trigger a global economic crisis in order to reinvigorate their reign? Are the clear signs that not just ordinary people, but also state power itself is in panic, fully aware of not being able to control the situation – are these signs really just a stratagem?”
If one of the state’s key functions is to facilitate the reproduction of capital and the never-ending quest for profit maximization, how, then, is the current state of emergency, with the oncoming global economic meltdown, of benefit to our rulers?
Following Agamben, one could argue that the “system” accepts these measures as temporary impediments which will ensure the future smooth reproduction of capital in the future. But that eludes a key point: on previous occasions when governments have vastly expanded their control, excluding wars on domestic soil, they have successfully managed to implement their measures without shutting down their economies. Think, for example of the Patriot Act under the Bush administration, the introduction of Counter-Terrorism legislation in the UK, and the violent repression of social movements that accompanied the Chicago School’s experiments in Chile.
Žižek argues that the current restrictive measures should not be viewed through a classic Foucauldian lens, which constantly searches for new ways that technologies of governance are trying to restrict, or direct, our freedoms and desires. He writes that Agamben’s position is “the extreme form of a widespread Leftist stance of reading the ‘exaggerated panic’ caused by the spread of the virus as a mixture of power exercise of social control and elements of outright racism (‘blame nature or China’).”
Contrary to Agamben’s views on the restrictions of freedom, Žižek observes that new forms of solidarity have emerged and that there is a renewed tendency of people being critical of their governments. He also recognizes the possibilities that arise for a turn away from nationalist isolationism and towards a more global, solidarity-oriented framework underpinned by the common risks we all face.
Rather than returning to normality or simply analyzing reality through our “normal” frames of reference, Žižek contends that “we’ll have to change our entire stance toward life.” He believes this process has the potential to lead to a “reinvented Communism” in which our mutual interdependence is legislatively and institutionally recognized on a global scale.
One day later, Agamben responded to his many critics. He clarified that his purpose was not to “give opinions on the gravity of the disease, but to ask about the ethical and political consequences of the epidemic.” He reiterated his caution regarding the overarching tendency of our societies to be directed by common feelings of fear and anxiety. The current crisis was exacerbating our tendency to view each other with suspicion, Agamben argued, rupturing already strained connections of mutuality and solidarity: “Other human beings, as in the plague described in Alessandro Manzoni’s novel, 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.”
He then elaborated on what is possibly his most important intervention: “People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective. A society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society.”
Towards an Anti-Authoritarian Synthesis
In a sense, similar to the famous debate between Foucault and Chomsky, Žižek and Agamben are not exactly debating. A more adequate description would be to say that their arguments stand parallel to each other: they are analyzing the same issue from entirely different perspectives, informed by their own pre-existing theories and trajectories.
While Žižek prefers to focus on the possibilities that arise from this objectively new reality, Agamben wants to ensure that governments and capital do not manage to exploit the current conjuncture to further erode our already limited freedoms.
An anti-authoritarian synthesis, then, involves the combination of precisely these two perspectives: an awareness of the unfolding potentialities, alongside the required vigilance against states’ attempts to expand and consolidate their powers — attempts that would, by consequence, interrupt the realization of those potentialities. Additionally, it is important to maintain a critical awareness, and further politicize, the failures of both national states as structures and neoliberalism as an economic system.
Agamben warns that the atomizing, solidarity and community-destroying trends that existed before will be exacerbated during, and after the pandemic, and that governments will take advantage to enact measures that enable them to advance their goals. Yes, social movements need to focus on the immediate needs at hand. We need to support workers who have lost their jobs, workers who are on the frontlines, and every vulnerable person that requires assistance through the creation and empowerment of mutual aid networks. Yes, we need to observe social distancing and self-isolate if possible, for the duration of the critical phase of the pandemic.
And, most importantly, we need to try and politicize existing community-based solidaritiy initiatives to work towards autonomy. This includes organizing efforts, searching for new ways to communicate and collaborate, and actions such as strikes, rent strikes and mutual aid networks. However, we cannot forget that we inhabit a world built on inequalities and that states, and most formal institutions, ultimately serve to protect and enhance themselves.
One of the problems inherent in arguments such as Žižek’s is their surprising neglect to seriously consider the fundamentally unequal structures that coordinate the vast majority of responses to the virus, and upon which they base their hopes for the future. A globalized communist response to the virus — and to anything else — would necessitate the presence of already existing, developed institutions that function on communist collective principles.
It would rely on some sort of mass federalist network along the lines of what is envisioned by democratic confederalism and other similar theories. Žižek does note that he is alluding to a “broad” version of communism. However, no matter how “broad” it is, the WHO, IMF, OECD, European Union, and most states do not come anywhere near this description.
To be more precise, the conditions for the emergence, organization and consolidation of such institutions are themselves significantly complicated by the indefinite prohibition on public gatherings and similar measures: it is much more difficult to foster community, solidarity and collective action from Facebook and Zoom. Yes, emboldened autonomy and dual power may be on the horizon; however, the path towards them will be rendered much more difficult if we are denied basic access to each other.
Aspects of Agamben’s predictions have already began to manifest themselves in the UK, where the government passed a Coronavirus Bill that would, among other things, allow for potentially infected individuals to be detained. The civil-liberties group Big Brother Watch — a far cry from Žižek’s “extreme”, “exaggerated” leftists — warns of the troubling developments underway in what is a more detailed and specific echo of Agamben’s arguments:
The Bill contains blank cheque powers to detain and test ‘potentially infectious’ members of the public and even children in unidentified isolation facilities on threat of criminal sanctions. That could be any one of us. It contains sweeping powers to shut down even political assemblies, which could thwart the possibility of public protest against this power grab in the months ahead.
These breath taking powers demand utmost caution, the closest scrutiny and the strictest time limitations. Many of the powers are unprecedented, unexplained and simply unjustified. The two-year duration of the Act has not been justified and is totally out of step with the existing legal standards for emergency regulations.
After protests from various sides, the Bill’s duration was reduced from two years to six months and finally voted in. The first practical results of the generalized wave of securitization underway, which the Bill is but one expression of, were made evident in late March when a woman who coughed on a police officer was jailed for 12 weeks. If one can be thrown in jail for a cough, what does that mean for protests and direct action? How does the present context legitimate an increase in state violence and repression? How are existing inequalities and injustices exacerbated?
Briefly put, how can the current coronavirus crisis be used by authorities to further advance their aims? How can it be used to further estrange and distance us from one another and from our wider aims? How do government policies shape and reinforce people’s subjective behavior, on the pretext that they are simply trying to save us from ourselves?
This goes far beyond people hoarding toilet paper. Instances of anti-social, avaricious and opportunistic behavior have been documented everywhere and, without direct intervention by social movements, they will probably escalate.
Reality forged in struggle
While it is important to prioritize our activities and our criticisms, it is also vital that we do not succumb to the deafening roar of the media and “public opinion,” a roar that tacitly accepts a sweeping state intervention in all aspects of our existence. It is important to keep in mind that the distances, ruptures and conflicts in the social landscape were already profound before the coronavirus changed our lives forever, and that these trends will probably worsen as a result of the pandemic.
When the rich were extracting themselves from local societies by moving to gated communities and suburbs, we were still present in each other’s lives even in the midst of the widespread decay of our collective institutions. We met for social events, organized collective activities and existed in a deep and inescapable state of mutuality. It was tainted by individualism, racism, sexism, assholes, and whatnot, but it was all around us and it formed the condition of our daily lives. This is precisely what is at stake.
So what does this mean for radical leftist politics? As always, reality will be forged in struggle, through people’s real, practical interventions in their communities. However, it is blatantly obvious that we are at a crossroads where one direction leads to increased autonomy and the other to increased autocracy. The degree to which anti-authoritarian and other radical movements shape future developments depends on cultivating both an understanding of the objective requirements at hand, such as social distancing and self-isolation, but also of the wider socio-political forces at work. In essence, Žižek’s dreams are only possible if we heed Agamben’s warnings.
More specifically, we need to be conscious of how the language of social responsibility and social health is complimentary, and not contradictory to, broader policies of social control and authoritarianism. One does not render the other impossible.
We need to responsibly but firmly resist current social trends that will result in our further estrangement from each other. As soon as it is feasible, social movements need to return to the streets and to the building of hubs, shelters and centers intimately connected to the communities they operate in, while incorporating and developing existing critiques of states, neoliberalism and inequality.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/agamben-zizek-anti-authoritarian-synthesis/