Bare Life: Biopolitics and Covid Capitalism

Read Time:15 Minutes

By Victor Conti

 As we slowly emerge from what will probably be the most active phase of state intervention, the true costs of our government’s actions against coronavirus have started to become clear. In the unlikely case that your mental health or that of those close to you has not been severely affected by nearly a year of lockdown, you will still not have failed to notice the faint but audible howling of a society that is cracking to pieces around you: the stories of suicides and suicide attemptsfamilicide, relationship break-ups, child abuse and domestic violenceTens of thousands have died from preventable deaths because they did not receive healthcare or chose not to seek it. Public services, notably healthcare and education, have been reduced to a skeleton service. And the protection of the population against coronavirus has justified the return of policies that resemble eugenics: the government has suspended its normal duties of care for the vulnerable, old and young, and doctors have applied blanket ‘do not resuscitate notices’ to people with learning disabilities.

In a thousand subtle ways, dignity has been stripped from our encounters with the state or its enforcing proxies in business: continuously changing rules, masks, queues and basic services refused or curtailed due to ‘unprecedented circumstances’. Relentless and emotionally damaging government propaganda has left much of the population so terrified of the virus they won’t risk seeing their families. Among those not plunged into a crisis of physical or mental health themselves, there is a strange, muted atmosphere, like that of the home front in a war where atrocities on the front line are taking place unseen, and it is polite not to mention them.

Biopolitics

For the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, this state of affairs is not an aberration or a mistake, but simply the extreme manifestation of the West’s direction of travel since its very beginning in Greek and Roman city-states. Agamben was the first to call out the cruelty and absurdity of lockdown as a response to coronavirus (and he has been vilified for his views). As you read his (translated) words below, remember that not only has Agamben been theorising exactly the state behaviour we see today for decades, but that the state of emergency declared across Europe last year that he responds to did not end. It persists to this day in many countries and important aspects of this state of emergency will become permanent – just as previous states of emergency (notably the war on terror and its restrictions on free speech and its suspension of due legal process) became normalised, to the degree that most European countries were already in a permanent state of alert of some kind. There is every reason to believe that the lockdown itself represents not a temporary expediency but a permanent shift in the orientation of the state toward its citizens. Agamben is not challenging the idea that there is an epidemic or that the risk to human life should be taken seriously; he is dealing with the underlying cause for the state’s actions, for which coronavirus is only the trigger.

“There have been more serious epidemics in the past, but no one ever thought for that reason to declare a state of emergency like the current one, which prevents us even from moving. 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. We in fact live in a society that has sacrificed freedom to so-called “reasons of security” and has therefore condemned itself to live in a perennial state of fear and insecurity.

It is not surprising that for the virus one speaks of war. The emergency measures obligate us in fact to life in conditions of curfew. But a war with an invisible enemy that can lurk in every other person is the most absurd of wars. It is, in reality, a civil war. The enemy is not outside, it is within us.” (Agamben, March 2020)

For Agamben, we are living in a society predicated on the principle of biopolitics, where the cost of a concept of citizenship is to allow the individual’s body to be occupied by a sovereign power, always reducing a part of that body and (and potentially all of it) to raw biological life, or ‘bare life’, as Walter Benjamin described it. In Agamben’s analysis, the twentieth century’s democracies and totalitarian regimes share one essential quality: they are both forms of a state that has as its humanitarian concern the care of all citizens, the health of the body politic as such, with the result that it extends the ability to exercise sovereign power not just to police or judges, but to any number of professionals. No one is guiltless. We are all just a few steps from losing our right to medical care, to being detained, or becoming an asylum-seeker, a refugee, a criminal. The paradigm for the West is not the city, says Agamben, but the concentration camp. To fulfil society’s noble quest to ‘protect’ all its citizens, all citizens must risk being reduced to the ‘bare life’ of a camp internee.

The camp – a space where the ultimate exercise of state authority is for the state to act without any humane restraints – seems to return no matter how hard we try to put it behind us. The twenty-first century’s refugee crisis showed us the ambiguity at the heart of citizenship – who is a recognised human being and who is bare life – when the bodies of young children washed up on our beaches and thousands were crowded into the sordid camps at national borders where any act of violence became permissible.

Europe’s brutal handling of the refugee crisis was itself, in part at least, the consequence of the war on terror waged earlier in the twenty-first century that established Muslims as the enemy of Western society. Agamben saw the cages, orange jump-suits, and tortures of Guantanamo Bay as another example of what he, using the German jurist Carl Schmitt’s concept, calls a ‘state of exception’: where the maintenance of state authority paradoxically requires that the state suspend normal legal practice and act arbitrarily. Agamben refused to take up a professorship in the United States due to the practice of fingerprinting arrivals that the war on terror instituted. A fingerprint reduces a person to bare biological life as a condition of recognising their citizenship: the perfect example of the terrible dynamic he identified at the heart of Western democratic and totalitarian regimes.

The UK Terrorism Acts provide plenty of reason to predict that the Coronavirus Act is not a temporary measure. In the name of protecting society from the harms of terrorism, there still exists the legal grounds for mass surveillance and the suspension of the right to legal representation up to and including trial and prosecution. Free speech remains severely curtailed – not only are extremist ideas forbidden, but all public sector employees are required to enforce the ban through the PREVENT legislation, which requires that all public servants detect and report signs of ‘radicalisation’ in the young. The Terrorism Acts are a model for modern biopolitics: carefully coded in the language of liberal democracy, they tacitly assume that the non-white population contains a latent threat to the liberal order which must be weeded out before it assumes the form of any concrete action against the state. The tragic case of Shamina Begum – a British citizen in an ambiguous legal territory, where the British state exerted its power by illegally revoking her citizenship in the face of the deaths of three of her children – is an emblem of the exception that proves the rule of state power. The state can only prove it is acting to protect its citizens from terror by making an exception that abandons those citizens to the risks of a bare, exposed existence.

What will be the legacy of coronavirus for the advance of biopolitics and the biosecurity state in the United Kingdom? No one can confidently predict how life will permanently change. However, what is undoubtedly true is that we have made explicit the relationship between ‘bare life’ and political citizenship that Agamben’s work identifies. We have accepted lockdown – where medical services and education are stripped back, where we must put up with the risk of death from preventable causes, and where human contact, social life itself, is permitted only through telephones and computer screens – as the paradoxical cost of life.

Humanitarian goodwill has been converted directly into inhumanity. It is like the bargain postwar 1945 Labour struck with imperialism: barbarity in the colonies would be permitted to pay for the restitution of the wrongs against the working class at home. The foreigner as ‘subject’ and not citizen has been internalised, on home soil. The vulnerable must be stripped of the right to life to protect the vulnerable from death. The NHS itself must be effectively ended as a functional health service in order to ensure the survival of the NHS. There is no going back from this recognition because it is in fact, as Agamben shows in books like Homo Sacer, a recognition of the original political fact of Western city-states, in which ‘male citizens had to pay for their participation in political life with an unconditional subjection to a power of death’ (p. 90). With the enlightenment and the doctrine of universal human rights, the extension of the constant possibility of being reduced to bare life has now been imposed on all citizens.

Covid capitalism

The drift toward the biosecurity state or biosecurity capitalism is not a product of coronavirus, it has been taking place for a long time: each successive ‘emergency’ has been used to subject the population to an increasingly medicalised control model. The war on terror instituted permanent emergency powers and a permanent emergency threat level. The refugee crisis saw the return of ‘camps’ of people stripped of basic rights and treated as non-people. The ground has long been prepared for the imposition of the current restrictions. Perhaps Covid-19 has propelled us into this new phase simply because the population are now panicked enough to openly embrace the contradiction: bare life as the cost of the possibility of living.

Agamben’s focus is on synthesising juridical and political theory with Foucauldian biopolitics. He uses the Marxist tradition in the form of Walter Benjamin, but his thinking is not an explicitly economic analysis and I would not expect him to see lockdown in these terms either. However, the underappreciated truth that the absolutist nation-state is the driving force in capitalist development – the expression of economic forces that in turn governs those economic forces in a recursively reciprocal relationship – is what makes reading a post-Marxist analysis like Agamben’s so vital for contemporary Marxism.

We have veered too easily into adopting the reformist idea that the state is a check and balance on unbridled capitalist development. In fact, the state, through its legal structures, represents a purified and abstracted form of capitalist power that acts to curb deviations within the capitalist system. The public embodiment of private property, the state conflates private and public power. Businesses and business leaders may seem muted in comparison to the state and they are subject to its laws. But that doesn’t mean that the state is successfully taming capitalism. The state is rather expressing a dominant order within capitalism as a continuous political motion that seeks to resolve the question of capitalism’s best interests (for there are always winners and losers) in the form of law.

The paradox of how the state’s humanitarian concern for its citizens could lead it to act so destructively, and with increasing ferocity throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, is partially explained by this reality: laws that protect people only by harming them are the corollary of class societies in which prosperity can exist only through exploitation.

The lockdown was triggered by the health crisis of a pandemic and its apparatuses will remain marked by that proximate cause. But the lockdown is also the legal expression of the stage of capitalist development which we have reached (and in this respect, it is important that the lockdown response spread to the West after it was implemented in China, a laboratory for a version of state capitalism with an immediate history in revolutionary Stalinism and a longer lineage in extremely powerful bureaucratic state structures).

Put simply, the lockdown expresses – in Agamben’s shadowy legal structures of exception, emergency, and the paradigm of the camp – a new stage in the subordination of the human body to the dead hand of capital. The extreme circumstances of the lockdown make it transparently clear that we are all, now more explicitly than ever, appendages to a vast technical apparatus which is rechannelling labour and consumption patterns in ways that benefit the super-rich and capitalism as a whole. It is not incidental that the lockdown apparatus is simultaneously destroying small businesses and enriching the technology companies that control the global economy and shape the law in their image. It is as if the lockdown is flattening out the whorls and grooves in capitalism: eliminating smaller capitalists which preserve its older forms and further destroying any pockets of autonomy in political communities that live their lives outside of the auspices of the state.

The immediate context to the pandemic and the lockdown is a long depression since the 2008 crash marked by a stubbornly low global rate of profit. The only way out of a similar depression in the 1930s was a world war which destroyed capital – including through the destruction or permanent scarring of entire nations – to such an extent that the profit rates were able to bounce back. Europe and much of Asia and Africa were levelled; physically, emotionally, and economically. Against the backdrop of a mushroom cloud of amnesia, where the traumas of the war were forcibly repressed for several decades, it was possible to build a new capitalist order atop scorched earth, applying advanced technical methods that had been developed, mostly by the United States military during the war, to a low material base.

The Covid economic crisis, in the UK the greatest fall in output since 1709, can be seen as such a levelling. As in a war effort, the state has stepped in: both to direct the destruction and to fund the battle by issuing billions and billions in low or negative interest debt. The state does so in the knowledge that the intense deflationary effects of drastically curtailed consumption will hold inflation at bay, and in the hope that a prolonged bout of economic growth after the destruction has been meted out will outstrip resurging inflation and neutralise the debts incurred. This is perhaps the underlying state-economic logic that made wars increasingly ‘total’ from the early 19th century onwards: a cycle of debt, destruction and growth that necessitated winner-takes-all-conflicts between states.

Just as in the second world war, the state has practically merged with the largest corporate concerns representing the most advanced technologies. Yes, lockdown is lining the pockets of pharmaceutical companies and redirecting money from small businesses into the hands of the big technology companies as people spend all their time and money online. However, it is more significant that the economic levelling of as much as 20% of the population through accelerated digitalisation is preparing a scorched-earth to rebuild the economy based on internet-enabled technology which business hopes will operate more profitably once the competition of the ‘bricks and mortar’ economy has been largely eliminated.

So long as much of our economic activity remained chained to sluggish, pre-internet industries and services, production could not truly be organised through the internet and the rewards of digital technology often seemed elusive. It’s no surprise that the furlough schemes rolled out across Europe closely resemble a universal basic income. Just as the more advanced technical basis of economic reconstruction after the second world war required the global mobilisation of standardised health and education systems, the new normal also requires new, different welfare systems to support the now surplus population. None of this is a conspiracy theory even if it so blatantly invites them: the ‘Great Reset’ and the ‘New Normal’ are open topics of conversation for senior corporate strategists who don’t face the same constraints as the politicians who must at least promise a return to normality to a traumatised people. Business knows a return isn’t on the cards and acts accordingly.

It is not possible to predict exactly what kind of biopolitical regime will emerge from the lockdown as the political bedrock to justify the new, digital-first, economy, or whether there will be anything like postwar economic upswing off the back of such destruction. But it is certain that the language of protection and safety, which has seamlessly merged with the willingness to accept endless harm to the most vulnerable, has gained a powerful grip on the population. A belated rhetoric of Western imperial supremacy justified the untold horrors of the postwar twentieth century, as we sought to impose the prosperous ‘American way’ on a recalcitrant world at all costs. The image of a happy, well-connected corporate knowledge worker, retreating to the safety of remote work and a semi-virtual existence whenever a new biosecurity threat appears, will now be the aspirational image used to justify the barbarism of the dominant techno-pharmaceutical order within capitalism in the twenty-first century.

It is perhaps premature to talk of a programme for resistance, so completely has society transformed itself in the past twelve months. But we must try to understand these patterns – especially gaps and inconsistencies in the system, such as countries or states that buck the trend of lockdown – in order to orient ourselves towards this new phase of history. Biopolitical control and digitisation are not going anywhere. But the huge and ceaseless damage they are causing will not (and should not) go unanswered. Finding a voice that might reshape the new order into something more liveable could be something like a minimum programme. The maximum programme would be to overturn the steamroller of state and corporate power that constitutes covid capitalism altogether – even if this seems a distant and difficult prospect.

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