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Agamben’s Polemic: On Biopolitics, State, and Capital

by | April 15, 2020

In a moment like this, there is something recognisably unhinged about a polemic against emergency measures to save lives. To characterise state responses to the global pandemic as ‘frenetic, irrational and entirely unfounded’, and to view the latter as an ‘alleged epidemic’, seems to betray a mind either unaware of the enormous loss of life and livelihood already under way, or else one too obsessed by other concerns to take this loss seriously. To claim that today’s emergency measures represent only the further normalisation of a permanent state of exception – and should be rejected out of hand – is thus a kind of polemic without interlocutor, to the extent that the rest of us are worried sick about our loved ones or ourselves; or to the extent that we are busy organising a way out: in any case we just aren’t listening. So an unhinged polemic, cast to the winds.

If it was engaged at all, this polemic – offered recently by philosopher king Giorgio Agamben – was met with instantaneous ridicule and condemnation. Amongst almost the entirety of the theory-consuming left, it was seen as an indefensible step too far from the thinker whose ideas of destituent power and bare life have otherwise inspired a generation of anti-state thought and action. In fact, its apparent disconnect from any ethical concern renders engaging with it almost impossible, if not pointless. What do you do with a guy who balks at maintaining social distance, in language approaching that of evangelical pastors encouraging their congregants to shake hands? It seems so patently wrong that we easily dismiss it as the culmination of a form of thought more interested in metaphysics than human life, political theology than real, this-worldly struggles. No ‘line’ is worth following that leads to such devastating senselessness.

But Agamben’s polemic may also be seen as an honest articulation of a more general difficulty presently facing the anti-state tradition. Many of us share his apprehension towards the normalisation of states of exception. And many of us likewise find something right about his critique of a sovereignty that consistently – again, and again, and again – reduces subjects to bare life. And so if one acknowledges that these ideas can’t be all wrong, one finds oneself at a loss about how to comprehend a situation in which the most effective response to the crisis are state mechanisms inextricably linked to technologies of surveillance and control. How, then, to comprehend a situation in which the state that we all hate—for its cops, its borders, its endless violence—is, one of the key lifelines for much of the world?

There are two thoughts to keep in mind, then. Firstly, that states are bad. Secondly, that even as mutual aid, solidarity, and the building of worker’s power are every day more and more essential means of survival, so the state, too, remains an essential means of survival, at least for many. But how can these thoughts be kept in the same mind at the same time? This question isn’t unimportant. For while the state may be in a position to save many lives right now, so it is simultaneously deploying its security apparatuses perhaps on an unprecedented scale. This, at least, is what Agamben gets right: ‘What is worrisome is not so much or not merely the present, but what comes after.’

One answer to the question comes by way of Foucault’s concept of biopolitics, itself widely circulated in discussions of the crisis.        En brève, the concept refers to the progressive politicisation of biological life in modernity: the state comes increasingly to intervene in the health of the population, through numerous agencies and medical regulations; life itself is progressively ‘governed’ and ‘administered’. Why the current pandemic lends itself to appropriations of this concept is clear. But what is missed in such appropriations is Foucault’s materialist genealogy of it. For theorists are quick to forget that biopolitics is not, for Foucault, just a thing that states do. Instead, it originates as a specific means of capitalist domination, and so it continues as a specific means of capitalist domination. For Foucault, biopolitics thus entails a political economy.

Thus for Foucault, biopolitics, or ‘biopower’, is an essential condition for the generalisation and perpetuation of capitalism:

[B]io-power was without question an indispensable element in the development of capitalism; the latter would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes…. The adjustment of the accumulation of men to that of capital, the joining of the growth of human groups to the expansion of productive forces and the differential allocation of profit, were made possible in part by the exercise of bio-power in its many forms and modes of application. (History of Sexuality Vol. 1, 140-1)

While readings of Foucault often erase such Marxian commitments, the latter offer a crucial reminder that the current ‘biopolitical event’ is inextricable from logics of capital accumulation. For Foucault, biopolitics is from the beginning a political tool used by capitalist states. Hence, that the state is investing massively in the health of populations right now must accordingly be seen as a strategy for maintaining the ‘controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production’, for protecting the labor power on which capital depends. For why else all these emergency measures, if not to keep this ruthless machine running?

Construing biopolitics in terms of its relation to political economy provides a corrective to Agamben. Political economy is entirely absent from Agamben’s own metaphysical speculations on the state. These speculations travel far on etymology and the exegesis of ancient political texts; in tracing political problems to antiquity, they largely skip over any consideration of the specific mutations undergone by power with the advent of capitalism. Thus such speculations stop short of explaining the specifically modern deployments of biopolitics, seeing the latter as the mere telos of a premodern political logic of sovereignty. Foucault’s materialist rejoinder consists in the claim that state emergency measures also embody a specifically capitalist logic. While it would be foreign to Foucault’s language to claim that the content of biopolitical control is capital, his own research might not preclude such a conclusion.

Understanding the articulation of state and capital allows us to see these emergency measures in a perhaps more measured light. They aren’t the paroxysmal realisation of the political essence of the West, but instead the political tools deemed necessary to resolve an imminent economic crisis which is, at the same time, and no less, a human crisis of breathtaking scale. They are stop-gap measures to shore up a world economy that had, even prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, been slowing for many years; while these measures are also means of sheer survival. As such, to cautiously accept them is not tantamount to endorsing totalitarianism, or to further normalising the state of exception. Instead, to accept them is to acknowledge that under capitalism, the state (and capital) have come to mediate our relations to our health, our bodies, our lives. It is to acknowledge that the state has in fact appropriated our means of health and care, that we are dependent for our existence on the logics and actors responsible in the first place for our ill health, our sickness, our exploitation. This acknowledgement is not an endorsement of emergency, but a clear-eyed recognition of where we stand. It is a recognition that capitalism has not yet been overcome.

It is a recognition that sometimes, we are alive because capital wants us to be alive, at least for now. It is a recognition that we cannot step out of the value relation by ourselves, as individuals, and that until we do so collectively, we will – at least sometimes – be forced to play by its rules.  Like Agamben, Foucault was a virulently anti-state thinker. Yet in theorising the imbrication of capital, state, and life, he was also able to comprehend our dependence on the latter, a dependence which both traps, and sometimes, cruelly, sustains.

So Agamben’s polemic misses the point. Until we abolish capitalism, the need for these sorts of emergency measures will be constantly regenerated. As Foucault explained (and as much Marxist state theory corroborates), the emergence of the modern capitalist economy generates the need for distinct political mechanisms of control – while it is just our added misfortune that these mechanisms are now increasingly tied to our biological lives, and often take the form, as now, of emergency measures. Thus the generalisation of emergency measures is not only due to the logic of sovereignty, as Agamben would have it. Instead, it is also due to the political and now biological requirements of capital. The very biological unsustainability of capitalist globalisation – recently discussed by Mike Davis – portend ever more of these state interventions. Agamben’s strategy is to run from them. In the meantime, people will keep dying.

Put differently, biopolitics cannot be confronted only on the terrain of the state. It must also be confronted on the terrain of capital. In failing to step onto the latter, Agamben falls into the philosophical abyss.