. Anti-Lockdown Theory: In defence of Giorgio Agamben | Ceasefire Magazine

Anti-Lockdown Theory: In defence of Giorgio Agamben In Theory

In the first of an occasional series, Ceasefire's theory columnist Andy McLaverty-Robinson examines Giorgio Agamben's much-criticised analysis of the Covid-19 crisis.

Columns, In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, May 19, 2020 9:31 - 0 Comments


‘Empty’ (Eirik Solheim, licensed under Creative Commons)

With a new virus sweeping the world, the media in panic mode, and states reacting with draconian lockdowns, the coordinates of the social world seem shaken to their core. Yet some social theorists have written works foreshadowing this crisis, as well as responding to it. In the first of an occasional series, Ceasefire’s theory columnist Andy McLaverty-Robinson examines theorists who are particularly relevant to the current crisis. He begins by returning to Giorgio Agamben, focusing on his analysis of the crisis.

The storm has finally broken. The creeping police-state of the last two decades has been extended into an unprecedented system of social control. On the pretext of public health measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic, a swathe of ordinary social activities are criminalised. Scenes which would not look out-of-place in dystopian fiction are unfolding daily: police harassing sunbathers and mountain-climbers, chasing away cricketers, bawling at people on beaches from naval ships. Horizontal social relationships, unmediated by technology or the state, are effectively banned. The ground is taken out from under social movements. This could be the beginning of a new order: the introduction of Chinese-style capitalism, in Britain and across the world.

Today, most people are reacting emotionally, not theoretically. The accepted wisdom that socialising kills is repeated as a mantra by people with no knowledge of the science behind it. An appeal to apolitical science, along with media-fuelled public panic, provide the motivations to meet a healthcare problem with military and policing measures. Yet scientists are actually divided on the pandemic. Scientific knowledge is a product of evidence. It only becomes in any way reliable after extensive experiments have been conducted and cross-checked. In other words, evidence emerging within the first months of a new disease is not reliable and changes constantly. Doctors have told us that early evidence is unreliable, that even simple DIY masks are probably effective, and that testing is more effective than lockdowns. As late as January 2020, scientific consensus was that lockdowns don’t work at all.

This orthodoxy changed overnight, based mainly on data from China – data which has probably been manipulated by a Chinese government obsessed with image management. Chinese dissidents believe the government covered-up and bungled the crisis, with one calling it a 90% manmade disaster and blaming the government’s obsession with image. People in Hong Kong overwhelmingly saw the Wuhan lockdown as being for show and bound to fail. Yet the Chinese model has been exported via the WHO to the west and south. Alternatives – ranging from mass testing to wearing masks, from antivirals to improving the water supply in poor countries – are either ignored or tagged onto the lockdown hysteria. We can also predict that many people will die due to the psychological and economic impacts of lockdowns. And we also know that lockdowns and distancing are unrealistic for the poor, homeless, prisoners and detainees.

It can thus be concluded that the pandemic tells us little about the response. Lockdowns are not preferred because they are proven effective. Lockdowns are preferred because they fit into existing trends towards securitisation, rely on resources governments already have (police, not doctors), and extend state power. They also fit in well with current fashions for algorithmic modelling and the use of feedback and nudges on an aggregate level (instead of relating to people on an individual level). This is where theory comes in.

There have already been a great many pieces by radical writers on the situation. Some of these simply fall in line with the authoritarian orthodoxy, or supplement it with concerns about structural causes, uneven impacts, or protection of the worse-off. Others advance important criticisms that the approach is based on moralities of shame, not medicine, that the dominant framing is wrong, that it involves a state health system trying to control people’s bodies, that its impact varies with life circumstances, that the crisis is caused the capitalist disturbance of the substance of nature and life, that lockdowns are simulations of insurrection and urban warfare and attacks on personal relationships, or criticise the use of punishment instead of social measures. Others attack what they variously term the focus on control, totalitarianism, the general imprisonment of entire populations.

Some argue that lockdowns are expressions of authoritarian personalities and their preference for conformity over autonomy. They argue that a lockdown is a form of discipline rather than protection, and is an attack on social movements and the poor. One piece, written from the perspective of the virus, accuses people of scapegoating. The virus is just the flip side of capitalism and frees people from pseudo-necessities like globalisation, work and school. Another piece calls for ‘burning everything that supposedly protects us from evil but actually reproduces it‘. Responses range from calls for resistance, to mutual aid, from DIY mask-making to rent strikes and general strikes.

Agamben on Social Distancing and Contagion

According to Agamben, state sovereignty relies on a moment of exception – such as states of emergency. These are moments when the state suspends its own laws, without putting itself outside the law as such. Sovereignty rests on a claimed right to select which lives are meaningless “bare life” and which are lives worth living. This means death-camps like Auschwitz are the ‘nomos’ or basic law of the state. States of exception involve the exclusion of something from the fields of the law and of political value. Historically, this exclusion is limited to particular times (e.g. war) or places (e.g. concentration camps). Today, however, it’s spreading across social life. There is a zone of indistinction as to whose lives count. Everyone is potentially the enemy.

Agamben thus argues for resistance to states of exception – which always carry the danger of a Holocaust. The problems of sovereignty are ontological – relating to questions of being. They can only be solved by establishing a completely different way of being. What Agamben advocates instead, is a ‘coming community’ composed of ‘whatever-singularities’. This involves thinking people have value, whatever their attributes are – instead of dividing them up into worthwhile and bare lives. It is exemplified by mass gatherings/revolts such as Tiananmen Square, Tahrir Square, Gezi Park, Occupy, etc.

Agamben sees in the current lockdowns an extension of the ‘state of exception’. He is based in Italy, the first western country to introduce a lockdown and the first anywhere to lock down the whole country. The Italian government’s reaction went through three stages: a first stage of business-as-usual and minimising the crisis, a second stage of surreal doublethink, and a third stage of panic and lockdown. (This has been mirrored elsewhere). Agamben’s first piece, Contagion, was written during the second phase, when the government were giving mixed messages: draconian measures in Lombardy and Veneto, but also reassurances that the virus is not severe and attempts to keep the nearby Milanese economy running.

Already, Agamben argues that the ‘so-called’ epidemic was being used to spread an ‘inhuman’ discourse. This discourse focuses on viewing other people as contagious, i.e. dangerous, and separating from them. He says this is similar to the ways “terrorism” laws turn everyone into potential terrorists. But this time, it’s applied to people who don’t even have any malicious intent. This is an attack on relationships among human beings. ‘The neighbour’, in the Christian sense of loving thy neighbour, ‘has been abolished’. Such panicky measures both derive from and aim to provoke fear. They achieve what leaders have long wanted: stopping unmediated contact and cultural, political and educational discussion among people.

In The Coronavirus and the State of Exception, Agamben criticises the doublethink of this period. He describes the emergency measures as ‘frenzied, irrational and totally unjustified’. He repeats the claims of the Italian health authorities that coronavirus ’causes mild/moderate symptoms (a kind of flu) in 80 to 90% of cases’. This was to draw ire as the panic progressed, although the statistics on symptoms haven’t changed much. This means the emergency response is utterly disproportionate. When he wrote this, only Lombardy and Veneto were locked down. Agamben correctly predicted that the emergency would gradually extend to all Italy, since cases would arise elsewhere and the definition of affected areas was vague and broad.

It has happened for several reasons. Firstly, because states of emergency have become a normal practice of government. Governments simply defaulted to the responses they already take against “terrorism”, “riots”, refugees, and so on. “Terrorism” has been exhausted as an excuse for states of exception. So governments now invent epidemics out of ordinary health issues as a new pretext. Secondly, the panic reflects a social ‘state of fear’ which creates a ‘real need for collective states of panic’. This floating panic looks for an object – and the epidemic is an ideal pretext. It leads people to accept (or even demand) the very security measures governments provide. The latent panic was just hanging around waiting for the next crisis to latch onto.

In a third piece, Clarifications, as well as an interview around the same time, Agamben responds to hostile reactions to his earlier pieces. By this time, Italy has passed into the third phase, and approaches which relativise or minimise the virus have been rendered taboo. Agamben is thus under attack for calling it ‘just a flu’, as well as for opposing the lockdown. In reply, he emphasises, firstly, that he is not concerned mainly with assessing the seriousness of the disease itself. He is not a virologist or doctor. He was just quoting what the Italian officials were saying. Rather than the disease, he is concerned with the social responses. It’s not really all that important to his argument whether coronavirus is just a normal flu or something much worse. The latent panic can attach itself just as well to a serious epidemic as to a hyped one.

He also clarifies that the “invention” of an epidemic is a discursive phenomenon. It functions like a conspiracy, but it is not necessarily a deliberate conspiracy. A government can “invent” a discourse even if it’s hitched to a real issue. Governments usually exploit a real crisis, rather than cause it directly. He reaffirms that suspending life to protect it, like suppressing freedom to defend it, is the wrong path to take. The crisis is biopolitical, because it turns health into a ‘legal obligation’. By implication, health is treated as a duty, not a right.

Agamben makes similar arguments against lockdowns in all four pieces. He objects to lockdowns because they sacrifice everything which gives meaning to life. And they do this for the aim of simply surviving. The lockdown turns everyone into ‘bare life’ (under de facto house arrest) and unifies them around the fear of losing this ‘bare life’ (dying of the virus). Lockdown destroys or suspends life itself, supposedly for its own protection. The state or the public takes away ‘the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions’. Even dead people are denied funerals. And society has met this with barely a whimper. In Italy, neither churches nor capitalists have protested much at their core values being overridden. (In contrast, there has been religious resistance in other countries, as well as from American rightlibertarians). There is also little mass resistance. ‘It is a truly sad spectacle’, says Agamben, ‘to see an entire society, confronted with an otherwise uncertain danger, liquidate all of its ethical and political values en bloc’. This happens because people have got used to seeing life only as biological survival, without meaning. People have got used to living in permanent emergency. And humans have been defined as purely biological, to the exclusion of political, social, emotional, and ‘human’ aspects.

He also opposes lockdowns because they show clearly that the state of exception is now the norm. It puts us in a state of civil war against ourselves (a war on a virus we might already have). It causes a ‘perennial state of fear and insecurity’ – incompatible with freedom. Agamben is sure this is not just a medical problem but a feature of contemporary society. This is the first time anyone has used such drastic lockdowns against an epidemic – cancelling all social life and movement. Yet there have been much worse epidemics in history. And by the same token, if the emergency measures are lifted, they will leave technological residues. In particular, he thinks the attempt to replace direct contact – ‘contagion’ – with machine mediation will carry on. We will never be able to go back to a normal state – at least, Agamben himself will not. In a later piece, he clarifies that those who have maintained a ‘minimum of clarity’ will not return to normality. He also repeats his belief that only those who are abject, without hope, can gain new hope.

The fourth piece is translated as both Reflections on the Plague and Reflections on the Pest (the Italian peste can mean either a plague or a pest). The introduction by Sebastian Lotzer argues that nothing has changed, but everything has changed. Everyone wants a return to a normal, bearable life. But nobody explains why people are prepared to bear it. Rights recognised by bourgeois states are not basic. They express a balance of power, a truce. They can be lifted at any time – from our side by a mass uprising, and from the state’s side, by a state of emergency. He cites a case of police attacking protests which complied with German social distancing requirements. People need to give up the illusion that rights are protected, and focus on the balance of power. The lockdowns were possible because social movements have done too little to tilt the balance of power in our favour. Agamben thinks people were too moderate. For example, thousands marched in Berlin over the refugee issue, but did not even spraypaint the Greek consulate when they passed it. The lockdown only makes visible what was already the case. Focusing on medical aspects is metaphysical, involving trust in experts. Instead, the important issue is the material balance of power.

Agamben once more insists that he is talking about reactions to the epidemic, not the epidemic itself. In particular, he is concerned with why people have accepted, rather than resisted, this drastic attack. He argues that they did not resist because the situation was already unbearable. The plague, the treatment of others as contagious, was already implicit, unconsciously, in social relationships. Common beliefs and convictions have collapsed. People only believe in biological existence and survival. And this can only lead to ‘a tyranny, a monstrous Leviathan with drawn sword’.

Agamben also argues that the crisis shows a need for religiousness (apparently in the sense of higher meanings). People are finding religious meaning in science and the media. The media discourse around the epidemic is full of apocalyptic, ‘end times’ discourse. Science has replaced the church as the focus of religious devotion. And this brings the problems of religion – schisms, dogmatism, political abuse – into science. Like other religions, science can cause or be used to spread superstition and fear. Scientists are actually divided, with some, the ‘heretics’, denying the situation is apocalyptic, and others, the ‘orthodox’, radically deviating from the statist way of handling things. As in religious schisms, one faction of scientists gains the favour of governments because its views coincide with state interests.

‘Empty Hotel’ (Mussi Katz, licensed under Creative Commons)

Agamben’s Social Distancing again has an introduction by Lotzer. It begins by suggesting that panic overrides concern about the scale of lies and manipulation. It then criticises the German radical scene for falling into line. Agamben himself argues that “social distancing” is a euphemism for confinement. It’s more media-friendly than referring to house arrest or martial law. It is also a root metaphor for a new form of society.

The current crisis is a laboratory for new social and political structures. The next phase of capitalism might be based on distancing. For example, practices of working from home, distance learning, and replacing in-person with online communication might be generalised. Agamben thinks a society based on social distancing is not humanly or politically viable. He speaks of the current social formation as a type of mass or crowd, as theorised by Canetti. Crowds are unusual, as the only situation in which the normal fear of others is flipped into its opposite. The mass created by panic and distancing is an inverted mass. It is defined by distance but has the mass’s freedom-impeding qualities. It is not atomised and individualist. It is unified, but only by something negative, a prohibition on coming together.

Later Pieces

Since I wrote the first draft of this column, two more pieces by Agamben have appeared. There has also been a vicious backlash from lockdown apologists, attempting to smear Agamben as senile, anti-science, denialist, or irrationally libertarian. This takes the form of the usual politics of moral panic and de-platforming which has reached insidious extremes in this crisis – as if simply listening to “irresponsible” voices is itself “irresponsible” and deadly. This proves Agamben’s point: we are not far from book burnings.

The first of Agamben’s new pieces is titled A Question. The question – which has troubled Agamben for a month – is: “How can it happen that an entire country, without realizing it, collapses ethically and politically because it has been confronted with a disease?” Extending his argument in earlier pieces, Agamben insists that the threshold between humanity and barbarism has been crossed. Firstly, people are allowed to die alone and cremated without funerals. The denial of funerals is unprecedented. Secondly, lockdowns have restricted freedom of movement to an unprecedented extent. They have also suspended “bonds of friendship and love”. All of this is done based on risks – not things which are known. These risks cannot be known or limited. And Agamben thinks it is long-lasting – both because the state intends to continue “social distancing” after the lockdown, and because present trauma will not be easily erased. Agamben argues that this was able to happen because of the artificial split between bodily life and emotional/cultural life. This split is encouraged by modern medicine. It is now being extended beyond its “proper” sphere. He also criticises the failures of the church to stand up to barbarism and the legal system to constrain executive power.

This piece also replies to one of the criticisms of Agamben. Zizek has taken a very different position from Agamben. He abjectly supports the current expansion of state power while seeking to leverage it for lackist existential and authoritarian socialist political goals. In the process, Zizek has abandoned his earlier celebration of disaster as “traversing the fantasy”, and begun to encourage pop-psychology responses. Among a host of criticisms (e.g. that he is a “kneejerk” libertarian and underestimates the virus), Zizek has criticised Agamben on the basis that solidarity has not collapsed. Rather, staying at home is coded as a form of “love of the neighbour”. In this piece, Agamben replies that it involves sacrificing moral principles in the name of moral principles. He invokes Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who thought, apparently in good faith, that he was doing right by obeying the law and aiding the Holocaust.

In Medicine as Religion, Agamben argues that science, Christianity and capitalism have long coexisted as major worldviews. This coexistence has been broken by science. Science, or rather the part of it which takes the form of a religion, is now trying to reshape existence in an unheard-of way. The church and capitalism, and people who accept the lockdown, have ceded their own political and religious convictions along with their movement, friendships and loves. Medicine is in the forefront. It is part of the pragmatic rather than dogmatic wing of science. Agamben argues that medicine as a doctrine is “Gnostic-Manichean”. It relies on exaggerated dualisms. It takes on the eschatological task of Christianity, i.e. the salvation of the soul and the existential relationship to death. The resultant practices were formerly episodic. They have now taken over all of social life, and been made compulsory for everyone. Life becomes an “uninterrupted cultic celebration” of the medical faith, i.e. the struggle against the virus. The current crisis is like an indefinitely prolonged day of judgement. This is similar to earlier totalitarian tendencies in Christianity. However, like capitalism, science does not offer redemption. It only prolongs struggle. The current crisis is the culmination of the global civil war which has replaced world wars. It is clear to Agamben that this is cultic because other, greater causes of death are not treated similarly. For example, nobody has tried to legally impose healthy eating to reduce heart disease.


As far as it goes, I think Agamben’s theory is spot-on. He sees clearly the political and libidinal forces involved in the responses to the virus. He does not fall for the trick of treating political responses as simply effects of the virus. However, I feel there are a few limits. One is the lack of an alternative theory on how to handle pandemics. This is perhaps too much to ask of a philosopher. But the most visible alternative today to public health totalitarianism is the neoliberal model of just letting the disease run its course. This is why the left, even the radical left, have so easily fallen into line with the new totalitarianism. There are already well-established alternatives, including the idea of health as a human right and the Illichian critique of “packaged” healthcare. It would be good to see these alternatives getting more visibility.

The other limit is the lack of a theory of resistance to lockdowns – either descriptive or aspirational. Agamben talks as if people have just rolled over and accepted lockdowns. And in Europe, a lot of them have. But there’s a sizeable number who haven’t. As of March 24, 100,000 people had been fined in Italy for breaking the lockdown – and that’s the ones who were caught.

The general impact on social movements has been devastating. Nonetheless, there have been major revolts, notably in prisons and detention centres worldwide: among others, in Scotland, Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Spain, Luxembourg, Nigeria, Turkey, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Iran, Colombia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Russia. There has also been a lot of Scottian resistance or resistenz, small acts of breaking and bending rules which corrode the state’s ability to exercise power. The global poor cannot afford to stay at home, and in any case, cannot isolate in overcrowded homes with shared amenities. Lockdowns are often largely ignored. Where enforced, they have triggered mass revolts and street battles. Migrant workers seeking to return “home” have also revolted. Anecdotal reports suggest that lockdowns are mostly being ignored in the poorer parts of British and French cities. At the time of writing, protests are breaking out against the lockdown. Often, these are led or captured by the far-right, right-libertarians or conservatives. However, autonomous and anarchist protests have also started to reappear. Protests often involve cyclists, car processions, highly mobile crowds, or small-group actions.

Another kind of resistenz is flight. From Italy to India, Wuhan to Manila, millions have fled from locked-down cities to rural areas. This is often fuelled by job loss, but also the lower state regulation and higher food security in rural areas, and the ability to access family support networks. (Such flight might spread the virus, but it might also reduce its spread by reducing population density). There’s also the massive problem that the lockdowns have caused a major economic crash. This may limit how far they can serve as a model for future forms of capitalism.

A final point is that Agamben might be exaggerating the novelty of these kinds of panicked responses. There are precedents for this kind of panicked overreaction, both historically, and in the health scares of the last 40 years – AIDS, SARS, ebola, BSE, foot-and-mouth, zika, etc. There are also precedents in the normalisation of lockdowns as a response to armed attacks, and the creeping securitisation of a wide range of issues. But the current lockdowns are certainly larger in spatial and temporal scope. Neither during past pandemics, nor during the world wars, was social life so comprehensively disrupted. For example, some churches have not gone without an Easter mass since the 1200s. Many countries have not had a May Day without workers’ protests for over a century. Nor were entire countries locked-down. Clearly the response to this virus says less about the virus itself than about creeping securitisation, political interests, and mass psychology.

For those interested in more of his work, Andy’s books on Homi Bhabha have recently been published.

See Also: In Theory Giorgio Agamben: destroying sovereignty
See Also: In Theory Giorgio Agamben: the state and the concentration camp

Andy McLaverty-Robinson

Andy McLaverty-Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. He is the co-author (with Athina Karatzogianni) of Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (Routledge, 2009). He has recently published a series of books on Homi Bhabha. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.

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