Tug of class war: Agamben vs Zizek on the impact of Covid-19

Panos Theodoropoulos analyses a war of words which has broken out between two well-known political philosophers over the nature of State reactions to Covid-19 and the possibilities for liberatory politics, while trying to find a constructive synthesis of their key points.

Turning Marx on his head, I want to focus on interpreting the recent conjuncture in terms of what it means regarding governmentality, state control over our lives, obedience, subjectivity, and resistance. To do this, I will briefly work through Girogio Agamben’s arguments regarding the situation in Italy, move to Slavoj Zizek’s rebuttal, and try to engage in a discussion that develops these perspectives from an anti-authoritarian position. Of course, neither of these thinkers come from an explicitly anti-authoritarian perspective, but the reasons I am focusing on them will hopefully become apparent. In the interests of accessibility, I will not engage with various deep academic/theoretical arguments but will limit my sources to the two personalities’ interviews.

Agamben’s initial intervention came on February 26th, and he has since refined and further explained his position (1 | 2). In the first of these articles, relying on the information that was made public at that time, he made reference to the “alleged epidemic” of coronavirus, whose danger was significantly downplayed in the publications of Italy’s National Research Council, and wondered:

“If this is the real situation, 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?”

Given the perceived lack of proportionality between the publicly available information and the Italian State’s response, he argued that we were once again 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 government turn, where freedom is curtailed “in the name of a desire for safety that was created by the same governments that are now intervening to satisfy it”. Importantly, he talked about the overarching climate of fear which is being fostered in our societies (fear over terrorism, fear over unemployment, fear over climate collapse, etc.) which are being used by states to legitimise authoritarian interventions in the fabric of daily social existence.

Agamben’s very brief comments prompted an explosion of criticism from all segments of the political spectrum. As fun as it may be to go through the various intricacies, what is most important here, for the purposes of this article, is the essence. Which, in my opinion, is most adequately captured in Zizek’s response because it incorporates criticisms both from the left and from the right, while elaborating some original insightful perspectives of its own. I am no fan of Zizek, but I will use the various elements of his response as pieces that contribute to a nuanced analysis of the situation, in order to then move on.

Zizek’s rebuttal: This isn’t the panopticon

To begin, it is important to state that Zizek had the advantage of hindsight- his response to Agamben was published on March 16th, and in that time the information publicly available had been vastly enriched. This allows him to score some easy points by ridiculing Agamben’s naïve statements around the virus’s strength. However, he soon moves away from that and turns Agamben upside down. He asks:

“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 we, as anti-capitalists, accept that one of the strongest motivators of State function is the “smooth reproduction of capital” and the never-ending quest for profit maximisation, it makes sense to wonder how the current state of emergency, with the oncoming global economic meltdown, benefits our rulers. A crude interpretation of Agamben’s points could argue that the “system” accepts these measures as temporary impediments which will ensure the future smooth reproduction of capital, but that eludes a key point: in previous instances of vast expansion of government control, excluding wars on domestic soil, they have managed to successfully implement their measures without largely shutting down their economies (see, for example, the Patriot Act under the Bush administration, the introduction of Counter-Terrorism legislation in Britain (including PREVENT), or the Chicago School’s experiments in Chile).

Zizek continues by arguing that the current governmental measures should not be viewed through a classic Foucauldian perspective which is constantly searching 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’)”.

He notes that, contrary to Agamben’s views on freedom being restricted, new forms of solidarity have emerged. He recognises a renewed tendency by masses of people to be critical of their governments. He also recognises 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 (the echoes of sociologist Ulrich Beck here are important and will be revisited below). Based on his view that, rather than returning to normality or simply analysing reality through our “normal” frames of reference, “we’ll have to change our entire stance toward life”, he focuses on the resultant possibilities which he sees as having the potential to lead to a “reinvented Communism” in which our mutual interdependence is legislatively and institutionally recognised on a global scale. These are the parts of his arguments that I am going to focus on; for a more nuanced reading, I recommend the original article.

Agamben’s response: Emergencies are used to collar freedoms

One day later, Agamben responded. He clarified that his purpose is 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. In inter-relational terms, he argues that the current crisis was exacerbated our tendency to view each other with suspicion, rupturing any (already worn) 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, in my opinion, the most important point:

“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”.

In his most recent intervention he added some nuance by explaining that, contrary to thinking of the recent measures as some sort of malevolent, top-down conspiracy, he views them as examples of “objective conspiracies” where the situation on the ground is exploitable by governments who want to introduce specific measures. This is similar to Naomi Klein’s recent intervention, which however hasn’t received nearly the amount of criticism that Agamben’s has. Rather than focusing on the present situation, which has already been vastly covered and analysed, Agamben chooses to  direct his energies towards forecasting problematic future possibilities that are inscribed in the present:

“What worries me is not only the present, but also what will come after. Just as wars have bequeathed to peace a series of nefarious technologies, in the same way it is very likely that governments, after the end of the health emergency, will seek to continue the experiments that they have not yet managed to carry out: that universities and schools close and only give online lessons, that we stop gathering and talking for political or cultural reasons and only exchange digital messages, that as far as possible machines replace all contact — all contagion — between human beings”.

In a sense, similarly to the famous debate between political philosophers Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky, Zizek and Agamben are not exactly debating; a more adequate description would be to say that their arguments stand parallel to each other: they are analysing the same issue from entirely different perspectives, informed by their own pre-existing theories and trajectories, and cannot meet to confront each other head on. While Zizek 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. Zizek is correct in criticising Agamben’s initial naiveté: the coronavirus pandemic has produced a massive global death toll, severely handicapped precarious workers, exacerbated the risks faced by health and care workers, and has further demonstrated the wider brutality of neoliberalism. He is correct when he states that it is the privileged who can afford to carry on living as “normal”, whereas the rest of us have to adapt to a vastly different existence.

Limits of the current critique

However — and this is where I believe that criticisms of Agamben are either myopic or outright malicious- Agamben never said that we should keep on living as if nothing had changed. He never said that we should go out in the streets and joyfully kiss each other in a jubilant proclamation of freedom and autonomy from authority. Agamben is warning about the problematic possibility that some of the key characteristics of the current states of emergency are expanded beyond the critical months required to contain the virus.

Contrary to what most media outlets and leaders want us to think, social distancing is far from a new phenomenon. What is new is its practical dimension. For is Margaret Thatcher’s quote that “there is no such thing as society” not the most extreme manifestation of social distancing imaginable? Is austerity not the economic manifestation of social distancing when the main public infrastructures that enable sociability, including youth clubs, libraries, gyms, and schools are all decimated or shut down?

The collapse of the main institutions fostering some semblance of community spirit in the past, including trade unions, is one of the defining characteristics of the post-modern era. The rise of individualism and the concurrent retreat from collective class narratives and understandings of self is a fundamental pillar of the neoliberal project enforced by governments and businesses all over the world. This project, together with many before it, relies on creating and exacerbating divisions between people, including those of race, class, nationality, sexuality, and so on. Indeed, the acute hypocrisy of today’s governments is laid bare when they blame individuals for the anti-social behaviours which these same governments have patiently encouraged and incubated over at least three generations!

Agamben is not speaking out of context: he warns that the atomising, solidarity and community-destroying trends that existed before the pandemic will probably be exacerbated during and after it, and that governments will take advantage of it to enact measures which enable them to advance their goals. Yes, social movements need to focus on the immediate needs at hand. These include supporting workers who have lost their jobs, workers who are on the frontlines, and every vulnerable person that requires assistance that isn’t provided by state structures. 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 politicise existing instances of collective, community-based solidarities in order to try and overcome the total web of oppression in our lives. This includes organising initiatives, searching for new ways to communicate and collaborate, and arguing for actions such as strikes, rent strikes etc. However, we cannot forget that we inhabit a world that is built on inequalities. And that States, and most formal institutions, ultimately serve to protect and enhance these fundamental inequalities.

A lack of alternative structures

This is where Zizek’s arguments can be compared to those of Beck and other early-21st century sociologists and economists who were advancing the view that “class is dead”. I don’t have space here for an adequate exposition of Beck’s insightful and complex arguments and I will inevitably misconstrue them. However, it suffices to say that Beck broadly argued that the dominant Marxist explicatory framework of class struggle was outdated; he believed that in the globalising world of the 21st century society could be best analysed and rationalised through the lens of “risk”: we are all exposed to various levels of risk, including the rich. Furthermore, he believed that class identifications were on the retreat, as social mobility and a shift in social conditioning had resulted in an increasingly fewer number of people identifying themselves with a specific class background. As class-based identifications and organisations declined, other, more fluid and open identifications were on the rise. Political discourse and resistance moved from the shop floor to wider, identity-based and/or environmental issues. Beck argued that, from environmental catastrophe to terrorism, there are some threats that impact everybody regardless of class, and which would require global, large-scale collaboration to be overcome.

The problem with this view is that, unfortunately, class and other systems of hierarchy are still major forces shaping our collective reality, and attempting to ignore or “see past” this without confronting it does not provide answers. When Zizek is arguing for a new, globalised form of Communism based on our understanding of our collective interdependence, he does not talk about the institutions that would enable that shift. This is because they don’t currently exist. A globalised 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. Globe-spanning institutions such the WHO, IMF, OECD, European Union, and single national States do not come anywhere near this description. To be more precise, the conditions for the emergence, organisation and consolidation of such institutions are themselves rendered impossible (or made much difficult) 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. Agamben, on the other hand, grounds his position on the existing realities and historical trajectories of these institutions. The fact that his arguments are sometimes expressed in a reductive form and lack a thorough appreciation of the objective difficulties surrounding the current situation does not mean that the totality of his thought should be dismissed.

Aspects of Agamben’s warnings have already began to manifest themselves in the UK. The civil-liberties group Big Brother Watch — a far cry from Zizek’s “extreme”, “exaggerated” Leftists — warns of 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 breathtaking 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.

“This is no time for parliamentarians to abdicate their vital function of scrutiny. These extraordinary powers risk permanently rebalancing the relationship between citizens and the State.

This crisis requires the public’s courage and co-operation, not our criminalisation. These are the most draconian powers ever proposed in peace-time Britain and they require urgent review and reform.”

After protests from various sides, the Bill’s duration was reduced from two years to six months and finally voted in. The practical results of the generalised wave of securitisation taking place, which the Bill is but one expression of, were made evident a few days ago 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? How does it enable a further repression of autonomous movements? 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 behaviour, on the pretext that they are simply trying to save us from ourselves? How do people react to these policies, given their current socialisation? This goes way beyond people hoarding toilet roll. Instances of anti-social, cannibalistic behaviour have been documented everywhere and my pessimistic feeling is that they will become more dominant as the days in quarantine rise.

Beyond the noise of mainstream debate

While it is important to prioritise our activities and our criticisms, it is also vital that we don’t 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 coronavirus changed our lives forever, and that the dominant social tendency towards increasing them 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 in social contexts, organised collective activities (whether political or not), and existed in a deep and inescapable state of mutuality. It was tainted by individualism, by racism, sexism, assholes, etc., but it was all around us and it formed the condition of our daily lives. This is precisely what is at stake, and what Agamben is imploring us to defend.

So what does this mean for anti-authoritarian/anarchist/autonomous politics? My few years of movement activity do not provide me with the confidence or necessary experience to issue programmatic proclamations. However, I consider vital that any programmatic proclamations that do emerge are borne of a rational appreciation of the situation. This requires both an understanding of the objective requirements at hand (social distancing, self-isolation, etc.) but also of the wider socio-political forces at work and, more specifically, 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. This intervention is a small attempt at moving the wider discussion currently taking place in social movements towards this direction.

~ Panos Theodoropoulos