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Thoughts on the Pandemic and "Biopolitics"

The events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have led to an explosion of analysis and debate within the ranks of those academics who are interested in the notion of biopolitics. Since biopolitics (following Foucault's instantiation of the term) concerns the political and social power over life itself, and is focused on "that domain of life over which power has taken control," a global pandemic and various state responses to the control of bodies––demonstrated by quarantines and medical interventions––is an opportunity to wax eloquent about biopolitics in the hope of using this rubric to explain what is happening. The fact that the biggest living theorist of biopolitics, Giorgio Agamben, who linked the biopolitical to the notion of sovereignty and the Schmittian notion of "state of exception" (so that, for a long time, these three notions were inseperable), revealed himself as a COVID truther who denied the need for a quarantine and instead treated any form of quarantine as an abject for of biopolitical intervention, has caused some speculation amongst those thinkers invested in this line of analysis. After all, when your most important theorist starts denying a global pandemic, and ends up sounding like someone on InfoWars, you probably should start wondering about his analysis and why you were using his categories in the first place.

To dismiss the biopolitical analysis simply because one of its key architects is akin to anti-vaxxer, however, would be unfair. Such a dismissal would be genetic fallacy. Indeed, such a genetic fallacy links to another genetic fallacy regarding Agamben's work: his use of Schmitt, the Nazi theorist of jurisprudence, which led to the elevation of the concept of "state of exception" and a particular understanding of sovereignty that underlies all contemporary conceptualizations of biopolitics. But as I tell my students whenever we discuss the genetic fallacy, while origins should not be treated as a reason to dismiss particular claims and arguments out of hand, they should be allowed to inform our apprehension of these claims and arguments, and thus hold those that are connected to dubious theories and thinkers with more suspicion. So the question about whether contemporary biopolitical analysis is meaningful cannot be dismissed simply by pointing out that Agamben––upon whose categories much of the contemporary useage of this term depends––is similar to an anti-vaxxer reactionary. Rather, we have to ask what does this kind of analysis give us, what explanatory meaning does it have, when thinking of the current crisis or anything similar to this crisis.

Also, to be fair, sophisticated contemporary biopolitical thinkers who care about preventing the spread of COVID-19 and recognize that we are living through an emergency that threatens vulnerable populations (and that not all emergencies humanity encounters are merely "states of emergency" in the Agambenian sense, though they also can be that due to the politics involved), have challenged Agamben and urged a rethinking of the categories. Panagiotis Sotiris has written a thoughtful response to the Agambenian rubric, Against Agamben, is a democratic biopolitics possible, where he goes back to Foucault and attempts to eke out a conception of biopolitics that is not contained within Agamben's totalizing conception that, aside from leading to science denial, cannot cognize that forms of quarantine are necessary for human care.

Even still, my position remains that this biopolitical rubric cannot explain what is happening due to the fact that it is mired in idealism. Its categories cannot be saved, it cannot be realigned, and largely it is just an expression of academic dilettantism that was made up by Foucault, without any connection to a material analysis, and theoretically imposed in a manner that led to a distortion, rather than an explanation, of social phenomena. There are a host of academic theorists who invent theories about the way the world is, and go so far as to invent ontologies behind these theories, but are largely interesting expressions in academic imagination. Since I have worked hard to chart the erroneousness of this kind of thinking in my essay about "sovereignty" inflected theories, I won't repeat all of those arguments here.

This is not to say that we should ignore work from theorists who think reality through the rubric of "biopolitics" or dismiss them out of hand. There is definitely interesting work going on in this theoretical milieu, even if it is largely idealist, and I have drawn upon such work when I have found it relevant. I have also found Mbembe's work on the "necropolitical" informative, even if I don't agree completely with his framework or some of his claims, so this is not an injunction to dismiss out of hand such analyses. (Indeed, discussions of necropolitics are useful in the current situation because the response to the pandemic demonstrates what lives are considered worth saving, and what lives are exposed to death.) More accurately, I'm questioning whether the biopolitical analysis is relevant as a foundational standard to think social phenomena, even the phenomena it claims authority over.

Let's be clear, what is really going on with this pandemic is the deployment of class politics writ large. That is, class politics that concerns imperialism and settler-colonialism, and all of the contradictions connected to this unfolding civil war. Capitalist-imperialist states are attempting to respond to the pandemic and encountering, in their responses, these internal contradictions. This is not about some biopolitical agenda but the way in which such states function as machines of class power.

The truth is that a quarantine, if it was carried out by a socialist society that cares about people, would be entirely different than the quarantines we are witnessing. We can in fact imagine a quarantine that puts people first, that is able to care for its most vulnerable members, but still necessarily imposes measures that protect the larger population from infected members. China's treatment of COVID-19 demonstrated that, due to its socialist past that is not easily shaken by its current state-capitalist agenda, it was able to care for its population while affecting quarantine measures. Since China is no longer socialist, and is in fact state-capitalist, such an act of care was compromised. But even still, due to its socialist legacy, it was still far beyond than what other imperialist states have managed to affect to date. In any case, the point, here, is that quarantine is necessary but the way that is carried out is affected by state power and class concerns.

That is, quarantines are necessary in the situation of a pandemic and it would be ludicrous, as the Sotiris article notes, to dismiss such interventions as altogether violent biopolitical interventions. If people are to live, then quarantining must happen, and discussions of "that domain of life over which power has taken control" do little beyond repeating a truism: that the ruling class and its state apparatus, to put it far more material terms, makes decisions about life and death––as it always has in every class divided mode of production. Moreover, even in a hypothetical classless society decisions regarding life and death would have to be made in a pandemic; we can imagine such decisions, however, operating differently since they would issue from collective decision making and would be based on clear regard for collective health rather than prioritizing the health of the most socially and economically privileged members of society, since such a privileged strata would not exist when there are no classes. Such an insight, to be clear, is what Sotiris was getting at with his notion of a "democratic biopolitics"… The problem, though, is that once we start thinking of a positive conception of biopolitics we are moving outside of the normative realm of biopolitical theory and into Marxism where power and hegemony are not necessarily bad terms but are judged based on what political line (and thus what classes) are in command. Sotiris' attempt to square his approach to biopolitics with an appeal to a return to Foucault (i.e. his emphasis on the notion that for Foucault biopolitics was "relational") strikes me like progressive readings of Nietzsche. It's more of a search for what wasn't really there, a reinterpretation based on what we want the thinker to accept, and in fact an endorsement of a different political sensibility coded in terms we want to keep. For the Foucault who wrote about sovereign power and biopolitics, there cannot be a positive reading of the biopolitical or even power-qua-power: all instantiations of power are murderous, particularly the power written on the body itself that constructs us as subjects. To suggest otherwise would be to assert some kind of meta-historical claim, to privilege a narrative of either mastery or liberation, which is always murderous. While I am well aware that Foucault began to think through the problems of this genealogical approach (see, for example, his essay What Is Enlightenment?), my point is that attempting to save biopolitical theories as foundational for describing the current conjuncture, now that they have been revealed as (at least by themselves) somewhat impoverished, is a bit off the mark. Maybe we should be talking about the material relations instead.

Indeed, my biggest problem with this entire biopolitical theoretical milieu is that it is not based on concrete analyses of concrete situations. It's a theory that is generated from abstract ruminations about theory itself, that makes an a priori philosophical decision about ontological and epistemic categories, and then tries to say "this is how it is" when in fact we are dealing with largely academic conjectures. Although Marxism is not immune to the same mistakes––since there are many abstract and overly academic forms of Marxist rumination, as well as anti-academic Marxisms that traffic in a thinking parallel to Agamben's COVID truther nonsense––at its root, historical materialism has developed according to social movements and world historical revolutions. That is, the core theory of historical materialism has largely concerned concrete analyses of concrete situations through the struggles of the masses and not abstract academic rumination, although it can become such––but such becoming is easily criticized by historical materialism itself. (And, again, I have discussed this elsewhere in an essay that was part of a trilogy that the aforelinked essay on sovereignty was a part of.)

In any case, we do not need biopolitical theory to think the current pandemic. What is happening makes more sense if we think it according to historical materialism. There is a global pandemic and, in response to this pandemic, class interests are being revealed. The problem with the medical infrastructure of the imperialist states has nothing to do with biopolitical aspects but with the political line of the dominant class. Medical science has been developed, for years, according to particular class concerns (which also means imperialist and settler-colonial concerns), and so any quarantine adopted within this reality will also be affected by these same concerns. This has less to do with the redeployment of biopolitics and more to do with what class is in command. If it has something to do with the notion of "necropolitics" then this also has to do with the material interests of the class in command: who gets counted as worth saving, who gets numbered in the populations exposed to disease and death, is always about class power. What infrastructures can continue functioning, who is allowed access to these infrastructures, is a question about the class contradictions of the mode of production and the way in which the state functions to defend a particular class hegemony.

Hence, a biopolitical analysis does not get to the root of matters; it is largely epiphenomenal. Theories of "governmentality" and sovereignty which are connected to biopolitical analysis are likewise epiphenomenal. This is because politics regarding life and death are generated by the deeper politics of class struggle. When a state arises as the instrument to execute the will of a particular ruling class, all of the institutions through which we are socialized and live are also––being apparatuses of this state––institutions of class power. They be compromised by class struggle (many of them can be sites of struggle), and thus forced to make concessions to a greater or lesser degree to the will of the oppressed and exploited masses, but we can understand all of this, in the last instance, by understanding the class structure of a given social formation.

In this sense, the study of biopolitics (and necropolitics) is useful if and only if it is reconfigured as an analysis of particular mechanisms of state control with the state understood as an instrument of class power, as the machine that protects a ruling class and ensures its persistence. We can thus chart different biopolitical/necropolitical aspects of a social formation based on the articulation of its state and this given state's apparatuses. For example, the structure of the US state is such that, due to its privatization of the medical system and "restrained" character ("restrained", here, in Fineman's sense in that it is restrained from providing any kind of care-based response, but not restrained in enforcing privatization), a necropolitical character largely outweighs its biopolitical character. Rather than intervening directly upon the domain of life, in this pandemic, the US has largely functioned to sacrifice the most vulnerable within its domain and expose everyone to death. And when it now begins to enact quarantines, even this biopolitical intervention will be largely overdetermined by this necropolitical ethos. Of course Mbembe always saw the necropolitical as intimately linked with the biopolitical; the point, here, is that both of these registers of biopolitical analysis can be explained not by biopolitics or necropolitics themselves, but by the nature of the US settler-capitalist state. The combination of a history of colonial genocide and slavery, which accounts for its particular class structure and the state this class structure generated, is the foundation for anything we can deem bio/necropolitical. Similarly, Israel has tightened up its apartheid controls of Gaza thus exposing the Indigenous population to disease and death. Interestingly enough, Mbembe used occupied Palestine as a paradigm example of the deployment of necropolitics, arguing that it was a "death-world" where the subjected population was exposed to disease and death. But this necropolitical analysis is secondary; the reason Gaza is a death-world, that it can now be exposed to COVID-19 an subjected to a violent quarantine, is because of Israel's colonial structure: the material fact of the contradiction between colonizer-colonized precedes any analysis of bio/necropolitics.

Again, we can imagine how a quarantine would look different if the concrete situation was different––and this would still be a form of biopolitics but would it be negative, would we even need to use this terminology to think what was happening in a quarantine in social formations that were not predatory? Would we not simply say, without recourse to this theoretical tendency, that such social formations were protecting life and caring for life while intervening with medical measures that were not compromised by capitalist and imperialist politics? This seems to be what Sotiris' essay is getting at. But the point is that all critiques about biopolitical or necropolitical measures are actually critiques of capitalism (and imperialism and settler-colonialism) and thus this analysis––which is a "radical" analysis since it means to "grasp things at their root"––is more important to highlight than the epiphenomenal exploration of biopolitics. Rather than a "biopolitics from below", as Sotiris terms his radical rejection of the Agambenist conception of this theoretical trajectory, we need to return to a historical materialist analysis that, based on a concrete analysis of a concrete situation, subordinates biopolitical theory to the theory that has actually been generated by the oppressed masses when they have been organized into revolutionary movements resulting in two world historical socialist revolutions.