Episode 23: Coronavirus, Catastrophe & Agamben, with Garnet Kindervater

This episode is about the biggest story of the decade so far, COVID-19, or the coronavirus. But its also an episode with someone I’ve been wanting to have on the show for a long time, Garnet Kindervater.

Before we get started, just a few observations about the politics of the coronavirus itself. I don’t know if its fair to say viruses have a politics, but their human victims certainly do. And, as some of you may have been following, we’ve seen a big debate break out this week over a piece on the virus by Giorgio Agamben. Garnet and I don’t talk about Agamben in this interview. At the time of recording, we were only just becoming aware of this debate. But I want to talk a little bit about it before we get started, as I think its relevant to the interview you’re about to hear.

Agamben’s basic position seems to be an extreme take on the libertarian left’s impulse to read the state, or sovereignty, as a technology of control in itself. And so, for him, living in Italy in the midst of the state’s effort to control coronavirus, there seems to be a natural connection between the way the state is expressing its power right now, isolating large portions of the population, and his overall thesis that since the terrorist attacks in New York in 2001, government has become a permanent state of exception. Here’s a quote:

“It is blatantly evident that these restrictions are disproportionate to the threat from what is, according to the NRC, a normal flu, not much different from those that affect us every year … We might say that once terrorism was exhausted as a justification for exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic could offer the ideal pretext for broadening such measures beyond any limitation.”

Now, I’m not an epidemiologist. But neither is Agamben. So I am not sure how take this statement. According to the New York Times, the death rate among those contracting the seasonal flu is typically around 0.1% in the U.S. Whereas estimates of the death rate among those contracting COVID-19 in China vary between 1.4% and 2.3%. In the literature, there’s a lot of commentary about regional variation and stuff like that, but the bottom line is that Agamben does seem to be trivializing the matter to a degree that could be considered irresponsible, or even negligent.

Now of course, that’s not to discredit Agamben’s intellectual program necessarily. There’s a long history of theorists making bad calls on specific controversies. But there have been number of replies published to Agamben. Two have stood out for me, and I want to mention them now as I think they’ll maybe help listeners better understand the value of the interview.

The first piece that I thought worth mentioning is by Slavoj Zizek. In a piece published on the blog The Philosophical Salon on March 16, Zizek rebukes Agamben for what amounts to an “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.” For Zizek, however, Agamben’s folly is not in the same breath an excuse for a return to some kind of idealized left authoritarianism. To the contrary, its a demand for a new, democratic form of communism. Whatever the successes of China in combating COVID-19, he says, we should be clear that the old communist model encourages corruption. The lesson to be learned here is therefore of a different order.

Longtime listeners will have heard me ramble sometimes about something called “socialist governmentality.” This is a phrase coined by Foucault, though never really fully developed. What he seems to do, towards the end of Birth of Biopolitics, is suggest that socialism has always had to turn to liberalism or totalitarianism for its model of government. A true socialist governmentality, in this sense, has yet to be invented. So what would this novel form of government look like? In a coming episode, I’ll be talking a bit more about this question, with Danish scholar Magnus Paulsen Hansen. For now though, the point (as Zizek notes) is to recognize the challenge of creating a form of collective action that accepts the need for expertise in the face of complexity while simultaneously embedding this expertise in transparency, coordination and collaboration.

The second piece I wanted to draw attention to is perhaps more controversial, but I think it gives some flesh to Zizek’s observation. Its a piece by Panagiotis Sotiris, called Against Agamben: Is a Democratic Biopolitics Possible? Now, its not always easy to grasp the difference between governmentality and biopolitics, and there’s an intimate relationship between the two of them. For me, however, its critical to note that the political project of governmentality precedes biopolitics. And one can even say, if we read Foucault’s lectures, that if governmentality sort of presents the basic question of how the state can arrange the conduct of its population “without a sting,” then biopolitics is the basic proposition made by liberalism that optimal social behaviors can be achieved by means of market-based tools. That is, for example in neoliberalism, that changes to behavior can be achieved by incentivizing subjects to develop certain relations with their own “human capital” through changes in various marketplace dynamics: interest rates, bankruptcy laws, smoking bans, various legal punishments that involve jail time, or that don’t, etc.

So, in a sense this should all leave us in a very cynical place about biopolitics. And fair enough. After all, it is at its core a technology of cajoling from us the performance of a way of being that is suited for capitalist markets. And we were never asked if we wanted to live this way! But I suppose the question here — that is, the question of democratic biopolitics — is whether all use of markets to this effect is anti-democratic. For Sotiris, the COVID-19 crisis produces the question: what if there was a rationale for a democratic people to create their own machinery of, well, to put it crudely, behavioral control? As he puts it, what we are talking about here is the need for “behaviour modifications … from below.”

For Sotiris, the great example of this is the ACT UP movement, the political movement formed by gay men in the 1980s in the struggle against HIV which fought for mastery of the disease at least partially through behavioral change based on better data about the disease. A similar though more trivial example of the democratic use of markets can be found in Peter Frase’s discussion of parking spaces, in Four Futures. But for Sotiris, in the context of COVID-19, such measures can even include the use of “state power (and coercion) being used to channel resources from the private sector to socially necessary directions.”

So, those are two replies to Agamben. And now, maybe just one more recommendation: a recent article from the website Cosmonaut, called Stealing Fire From the Gods. There was actually a great discussion on this article recently on the podcast General Intellect Unit. But the author, Amelia Davenport makes a number of points that are I think highly relevant to this Agamben-coronavirus controversy. Too often, she says, the left falls into an “initiative and incentive” model of organizing, which claims to be radically democratic but which, in practice, is often anything but. We all know the story: burnout, bullying, and cancel culture all bespeak the potential tyrannies of horizontalism. Therefore, as she puts it, we do need something like a “democratic scientific mass line.” That is, the collaborative creation of democratic systems for activating and orienting ourselves, in our socialist strategy.

So what we have here then is perhaps a contrast. On the one hand, the neoliberal model of activism adopted by Occupy Wall Street and, on the other, this model of a socialist or democratic biopolitics. Foucault always warned us not to succumb to the blackmail of having to be entirely for or entirely against political concepts. Liberalism invented biopolitics, but maybe we shouldn’t let it have the last word about it; a socialist governmentality might use biopolitics, but use it differently and more democratically.

Two quick notes:

  1. In the interview I ask Garnet about a chapter of his, ‘Catastrophe and Catastrophic Thought,’ in the 2018 edited volume, Biopolitical Disaster, edited by Jennifer Lawrence and Sarah Marie Wiebe. You can find out more about this book, here.
  2. Here’s a link to the free War Nerd episode I mentioned in the show, interviewing a scholar living in Italy. Highly recommended.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.