To Have Done With Biopolitics

We have to fix our gaze, instead, precisely on what the statue of Justice … was not supposed to see, namely what nowadays is apparent to everybody: that the state of exception is the rule, that naked life is immediately the carrier of the sovereign nexus, and that, as such, it is today abandoned to a kind of violence that is all the more effective for being anonymous and quotidian.[1]

Biopolitics has not been done away with; rather, the contrary is true: its grip over life has tightened. The calculated decision to deny vaccinations to millions of people in low-income countries largely situated in the so-called Global South, prioritising intellectual property rights, is biopolitical. Biopolitical too was the invitation extended to Vietnamese workers to form ‘bubbles’ and live on factory floors in order, they said, to keep the global supply chain afloat thereby ensuring comfortable lockdowns in the West, with minimal disruption to consumption. Lest Western countries feel immune, biopolitical was the fact that those whose jobs could be done remotely were comparatively shielded from the risks of contagion, while delivery workers, nurses, carers, supermarket workers, construction workers, postal workers and others risked their lives for low wages to satisfy the promise to ‘keep the country safe’ and ‘save the national health service’ that, incidentally, has been consistently underfunded for decades. Such is the violence of biopolitics: a double violence of forcible abandonment and police enforcement of the ban on pain of death.

According to Aristotle, the free person is one that includes the slave as its very condition of possibility. That is, the addition of the slave as instrument is the shadow that accompanies the free person in the exercise of their own possibility of being a human being. So invisible is the presence of the slave that one plus one does not equal two in this instance, but, simply, one. This, Agamben says, is the nature of biopolitics. The uncomfortable truth that, first, biopolitics implies the assignment of a value to life, a gradation of value, wherein some lives can matter over others. Second, that the flourishing of one life occurs at the expense of another, whose life is reduced to naked life. To be clear: no life is ‘naked’ or ‘bare.’ Rather, the designation of a life as ‘naked’ is better thought as an incorporeal transformation that results from the sovereign decision to reduce life to its nakedness, by arbitrarily dividing and separating out a fictional sphere of life thought to be separable from its form. That is, from its own possibilities, its way, mode or form of life and where, instead, its lifeform is one condemned to a practice of survival - a never-ending task. This is plain to see in the living conditions of those in refugee camps in Dabaab or Shatila who, for a meagre sum of less than a dollar an hour, spend their days powering machine learning for Tesla, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and other institutions of Silicon Valley.[2] Here, the worldly comfort of some in California is made possible by condemning others to a reality of material and social death. In his critique and archaeology of Western politics Agamben’s unwavering belief is this: nothing justifies that my life is worthy at the expense of another, at the cost of another’s suffering.

While two decades ago Agamben’s writings on the exception garnered accolades, his comments on the Covid-19 pandemic had the opposite effect; knee-jerk denouncement, horror, going so far as to caution against reading or teaching his work - as though the latter were prevalent to begin with. If, for Deleuze, the purpose of philosophy is to annoy, then Agamben has met the challenge. Just as Lenin’s critique of economism for its narrow purview thus limiting the possibilities of a communism to come, Agamben’s philosophical and political positions do not lend themselves to facile assimilations within the contemporary order of things. There are not economic considerations first and the luxury of a politics in second place. This involves a forgetting that the economic is nothing other than a social relation, whose separation under the guise of basic necessity from everything else that constitutes a human life is a fiction. An increase in wages for workers in the West at the cost of a wage cut for those cultivating, labouring, supplying raw materials and commodities elsewhere in the world cannot constitute the basis of a communism worthy of the name. Biopolitics functions through this dynamic of prioritisation, valuation, inclusion only to brutally exclude so-called undesirables, systematically and anonymously, so that any compromise with it and on its terms is, bluntly, insufficient.

A recently published work takes pride in situating itself against Agamben’s thought, embracing what the author lamentably calls a ‘positive’ biopolitics. A deeper abandonment, then, of the living to the thanato-political potential of sovereignty and the brutalism of global capitalism. The work in question praises Amazon’s pandemic efforts, apparently accomplishing a service to humanity by hiring an additional 100,000 workers to meet lockdown induced demand for consumables. Absent is any mention of Amazon’s reputation of thwarting attempts at union organising, the deplorably inhumane conditions of workers obliged to piss in bottles between deliveries on pain of missing targets, and the billions accumulated by its founder since February 2020. The future of biopolitics has always been bright, though - and this is the point - not for all of us.

Biopolitics is a technique of government; few governments declare to operate against the common good, and, in this sense, biopolitics has always been positive. Biopolitics, though, is more than the government of life, of the so-called ‘biological life’ of the population. Its real danger lies in its ability to objectify an abstraction, the idea that a part of ‘life’ can be readily identified as either biological or political, sensible or vegetative, and therefore capable of isolated care, exclusion or separation. This Aristotelian ontological apparatus, which, Agamben argues, has plagued the West’s conceptualisation of life and the living, is inherently biopolitical since it rests on articulating the ‘good life’ by way of division and separation of that which is thought to play no part in constituting it, ‘vegetative’ or ‘sensible’ life for instance. This is a fictional articulation of the living; it is not at all clear where one’s zoē ends and bios begins.

Yet, it has been difficult to identify that which is not good for us. All around us a generalised fear and anxiety has taken hold in the face of a virus of which we still know little about, in a political context whose modus operandi is: confusion. Various arguments have been directed at and limited to problems set by those who have little interest in us, from the provision of universal healthcare to truth itself. Agamben posed an important question some years ago: in the name of what do we claim to speak? Over the course of the pandemic, the loudest authoritative voices have given the illusion that it is in the name of humanity, of saving lives and protecting the vulnerable that order words, injunctions, invitations proliferate. All the while, 16 million people in Yemen are on the verge of famine and non-resuscitation orders condemned people with disabilities to a premature death. A delirium - this discourse does not merit the seriousness given to it. Of what use is a morality grounded in a politics utterly devoid of ethics?


[1] Giorgio Agamben, Means without End: Notes on Politics, tr. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 113


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