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Biopolitics and Coronavirus, or don’t forget Foucault

The narrative of those who saw the coronavirus as “just another flu”, “hysteria”, “a media product” or the like fell apart. The supposed good reasoning of those immune to panic, calling the hysterical alarmists to reason, was eventually confronted with the abundant evidence of the damage caused by the virus, be it the not negligible mortality rate, or the collapse of health systems around the world. Those who tried to belittle the danger were wrong, but perhaps with some good faith: a call for reason is always in place. But among those who have been misinformed in the past few weeks, few have made as spectacular a mistake as Giorgio Agamben. The Italian’s mistake was so great that he maybe ended up revealing the limitations of his critical project in the field of research on biopower. In this sense, I will argue that it may be healthy to return to Michel Foucault’s thinking.

Agamben is largely responsible for a certain “necro-thanatopolitical turn” in recent decades, which consisted of emphasizing the often disregarded side of biopower, that of causing death. It is important to keep in mind the context at the time of his first books in the Homo Sacer series, that is, the advance of a certain unquestionable sovereignty on the part of the United States, even more pronounced after 9/11. His argument, at least in State of Exception, is well known and sheds new light into the Benjamin maxim: for Agamben, the State of Exception has been the general rule of government since World War II. Agamben’s insight was to demonstrate a line of continuity that links the current democratic-liberal states to the death techniques of the Nazi apparatus: Guantánamo Bay is not that far from Auschwitz. We can read within this schema, in a paradigmatic way, the prisons, the refugee camps, the communities under siege etc. All of these political situations are those that produce what he called a bare life, a life exposed to the actions of sovereign power.

It is not surprising, considering the context of the emergency legislation such as the quarantine regime in Italy, which Agamben has commented on the case. His position about the situation, however, did not go beyond his diagnosis of almost 20 years ago, that is, the generalization of the State of Exception; in addition, the texts went viral for the wrong reasons, generating a wave of responses, generally negative. Let’s go to his texts.

In “L’invenzione di un’epidemia”, of February 26, Agamben calls the epidemic “a supposed epidemic” and, later, “a normal flu”. At that time the European country already had 528 confirmed cases, with 14 deaths. Even in the distant February of this year the disruptive potential of the virus was already known, and that very quickly a hundred cases could soon turn into thousands. The government’s “unmotivated” decisions would confirm, for Agamben, the State of Exception paradigm, in which governments use overestimated dangers to expand their arsenal of legal surveillance and control devices, decreasing freedom even more. The affective backdrop is the mobilization of a “climate of panic”, creating the necessary conditions for the rapid approval of harsh and unnecessary measures.

In his second text, “Contagio”, of 11 March, the day when the WHO qualified the situation as a pandemic, Agamben argues that it is a “[so] called epidemic” – on the 11th, there were more than 10,000 cases of the disease in Italy. In this text, Agamben uses his very well known theoretical approach: that of choosing a figure from the past to describe something that occurs in the present. In this case, the philosopher recalls the figure of the Untore, who in 1630 designated those individuals who were supposedly responsible for transmitting the plague on purpose, spreading a kind of oil on surfaces. Such an accusation was largely motivated by unfounded suspicions, or what we would now call as “fake news”. The (even tougher) Italian regulations against the coronavirus would be reactivating the irrational hunt for the Untore; that is, just as with terrorism in recent times, we all are transformed into potential transmitters of some danger. Such a framework would lead to the end of social contacts and neighborly relations, which are implicit objectives of strategies that aim, strictly speaking, to depoliticize.

It is astonishing that Agamben argues in terms of contagion and seems to ignore a vast literature that discusses the relationship between contagion and biopower, especially within the framework of the HIV pandemic. There is nothing essentially new about thinking about the “contagion paradigm” in communion with the “biopolitical paradigm”. But for now, enough of criticizing Agamben. Others have already done so on the occasion of his recent unfortunate texts, and much better than me: Jean-Luc NancyBruno CavaPanagiotis Sotiris. I would like to draw upon this last text to go in a direction that seems to me more productive: as I suggested, a return to Foucault’s thought about biopower that would undo certain misreadings that have taken place in recent years.

What the coronavirus epidemic shows us is more the strength of Michel Foucault’s explanatory scheme than the current necro-thanatopolitical strain of interpretations. We all know that Foucault saw biopower as a series of events, from theoretical ones to concrete practices, which formed the basis of a new relationship between national states and the biological element of human life. No longer the exclusion of political life and the plundering of goods and rights that would characterize the Old Regime, but instead new techniques organized around the better extraction of the living forces. Thus, biopower is a descriptive index of the moment when States began to exercise the management of spheres of social life that today seem obvious to us, such as health care, birth and mortality rates, etc. Foucault does not suggest that this would be due to humanist concern of the State; it is, in fact, about meeting the demands of capitalism. Bruno Cava synthesized well in his recent text: the concept of biopolitics does not necessarily describe a “good” or “bad” situation: Foucault is limited to pointing out precisely the limits of our situation.

Faced with the coronavirus, the majority of States have exercised strong sanitary and population control in order to prevent its spread; strictly speaking, actions are being taken to prevent a greater death toll. Such biopolitics places us in the domain of how Foucault conceived the population management techniques, focused (primarily, but not exclusively) to better condition the living forces. It is increasingly evident, however, that even drastic actions have not been enough to contain the spread of the virus, and a sense of collective responsibility is growing towards those who cannot protect themselves: those who can’t work at home, those who are in unfavorable sanitary conditions, the elderly etc. This makes evident another mistake in Agamben’s reading of the current situation: the act of many of voluntarily isolating themselves and avoiding social contact would not be the breaking of sociability, but rather a version of solidarity based on a common vulnerability. Here, a parallel with the HIV pandemic is possible, in which the organization of social movements gave rise to a “biopolitics from below”, as suggested by Sotiris, who pressured the State to guarantee better access to health. The State, then, as one of the actors in a complex field of forces: is it not precisely what Foucault suggested when he removed the sovereignty of the State from the privileged scope of analysis?

In terms of biopower between life and death, what the Foucaultian lens gives us are two ways of seeing the phenomena of the management of bodies and populations: first, to identify the actions of social powers that differentiate those who must die from those who must live; the most vulnerable from the least vulnerable. In fact, it is when Agamben moves in this direction, on how (sovereign) power operates in the case of the decision on life and death, that we see the greatest points of progress in his work; however, this reading is eclipsed – partly by its readers and also partly by the author himself – by the precedence of a generalist mentality, which would limit us to see every situation as a State of Exception and all life at permanent risk.

Second, the essential originality that Foucault emphasizes several times when describing biopower is that, now, social powers no longer act exclusively in individual bodies (the sphere of discipline), but in the very “social body” of a given nation: to think about life and death, we must think about phenomena at the populational level. It is in this sense that, modernly, every death policy has overwhelming effects – it is important to remember that Foucault himself has coined the term “thanatopolitics” -, and every life enhancement policy has an equally broad scope, although, as has been observed many times, differential. That is why it has been a constant political struggle to increasingly expand the scope of life-affirming policies: to conquer more accessible medicines, health and personality rights, to depathologize trans and homosexual identities, etc. All of these political struggles, in the strict sense, are biopolitical.

This does not mean underestimating places, or as Agamben calls them, the camps in which violent sovereign power is exercised; in this sense, Achille Mbembe’s analysis is also vigorous. In countries like Brazil, different temporalities and different power regimes operate simultaneously; just look, for example, at the differences in life expectancy by neighborhood in a large Brazilian city. But we cannot give in to the temptation to generalize the thanatopolitical diagnosis, to see in each new sanitary measure as an expression totalitarianism and exception; the power of the Foucaultian view lies in diffracting the lines of force of the social powers, identifying precisely where the erasure of life operates, the elimination of the useless and the underprivileged. It is in this sense, for example, that Judith Butler has advanced with her work about (social) grief, that is, the occasion when the pain of loss is mobilized: with the advancement of the coronavirus, which lives are not being mourned?

Finally, it is necessary to entertain a certain irony that permeates this debate. In a world increasingly saturated with fake news, it is possible that the initiative to minimize the coronavirus came from a correct intuition: the spread of hyperbolic news can corroborate with misinformation, or increase an undesired “climate of hysteria”. However, it is more and more clear that those working for disinformation are, in fact, those who insist on a certain “climate of normality”, as we saw in the recent public demonstrations in support of the Bolsonaro government, in which thousands of people ignored safety recommendations and went to the streets. We are in a situation where the (lack of) information is, in itself, a matter of biopolitics.


Felipe Demetri is a PhD Student of Psychology (Federal University of Santa Catarina). Author of “Judith Butler: filósofa da vulnerabilidade” (Devires, 2018). Has researched on the following themes: biopolitics, gender, sexuality, subjectivity.

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