Giorgio Agamben and the Biopolitics of COVID-19

Khaled Nasraoui, A man shows a permit to a police robot monitoring curfew enforcement to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Tunis, April 2020

Better take off your medical mask, put it on your head and call it a thinking cap, because today I want to talk about the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben.

Why? You ask. Two reasons. The first is because, since the coronavirus crisis began, Agamben, who lives in Italy, has been writing commentaries and reflections that have been published by Quodlibet, and — amid the almost universal parroting of government propaganda by our so-called intellectuals — they are rare in openly questioning the official narrative on the coronavirus. He’s a philosopher, and not an easy one, so understanding what he writes may be difficult at first; but keep at it, because it’s some of the best responses I’ve read since this crisis event was initiated, and accords with my own views about what is being done and how.

The second reason is to look at how Agamben’s writings about the coronavirus panic have been met, which has been with howls of indignation, violent denunciations and contemptuous attempts to pathologise and dismiss the 78-year-old philosopher as an out of touch old man who should be censored for endangering the lives of others. In other words, the response has been the same that has greeted anyone, including myself, who has dared to question and challenge the government and media line about the coronavirus.

1. Biopolitics

We’ll get back to that later, but before I quote at length one of Agamben’s texts, simply called ‘A Question’ — and in that alone it has raised the ire of the unquestioning — I want to say a little about why we should be reading and listening to him at this time.

Giorgio Agamben is one of the foremost exponents of the theory of ‘bio-politics’. This is a term most closely associated today with the work of the French philosopher and historian of ideas, Michel Foucault, who died in 1984. In a series of studies, including Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1961), Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (1961), The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) and The History of Sexuality (1976-84), Foucault showed how various discourses — of knowledge, of madness, of education, of discipline, of punishment, of policing, of medicine, of sexuality, of subjectivity, of death — situate the body in relation to power; or, more accurately, how power is manifested by and through this situating of the body within discourse. This marked a radical addition to the Marxist identification of power with the imposition of economic, political and legal structures by the State, and a refinement of how the sphere of ideology works. Crucial in this constitution of human subjectivity within the relations of power is the State’s control over the biology of its population. Foucault called this ‘a new technology of power’.

This, so to speak, is where the work of Giorgio Agamben picks up. In a series of 10 books published over more than 20 years, including Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995), Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (1998), State of Exception (2003) and Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm (2015), Agamben has shown how, by reducing human subjectivity to ‘bare life’, the institutions and technologies disposed of by the State have been able to subject us to a bio-politics that has become the paradigm for contemporary government. The key form of this bio-politics, and the one through which Agamben is viewing the coronavirus crisis, is the State of Exception by which the State suspends, removes or otherwise ignores our human rights and civil liberties, and with them the division between judicial, legislative and executive powers on which liberal democracy has been based, however imperfectly. In a State of Exception, the government assumes executive power without legislative oversight or approval, our civil liberties are suspended indefinitely, and our human rights are removed, on the justification of protecting our biological existence or ‘bare life’.

Whether we are being protected from a terrorist attack, a political extremist or a mysterious virus, for reasons of safety, security or health, the State of Exception has been used, and continues to be used, to build a form of totalitarianism that, under new and renewed crisis events, has become the norm. The so-called ‘War on Terror’ that followed the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001 ushered in what the US calls the ‘Security State’ in which we have all lived for the past two decades. In France, the State of Emergency declared in November 2015 in response to terrorist attacks in Paris didn’t expire, after no less than five extensions, until November 2017, two years later, when it was replaced by a raft of repressive measures embedded into ordinary law. And as we are seeing now in the response of the UK Government to the so-called threat of COVID-19, this surveillance state, which is transnational and therefore transcends the nation state of our parliamentary politics, is built on the total surveillance and control of the population through the use of tracking, location and monitoring devices in our phones and other communication technologies, and implemented with new police powers to enforce so-called health and safety regulations that have had neither parliamentary scrutiny nor legislative approval.

While Parliament is suspended indefinitely and we sit at home like frightened rabbits, both this surveillance and the regulations for its police enforcement are being developed by the UK Government in collaboration with tech companies like BT, EE and O2, using data collected through automatic number-plate recognition cameras by the Department for Transport, and through developing apps with Google and Apple to trace anyone infected with SARs-CoV-2 and share that information with other tracking devices. All this has been done with the blessing of the Information Commissioner’s Office, the UK’s supposed privacy watchdog, on the grounds that sharing our private data will protect us against ‘serious threats to public health’. Once again, therefore, our citizenship and the rights deriving from it have been reduced to the biological existence of our bare life. This is the bio-politics of what has quickly been dubbed and accepted as our ‘new normal’.

All this, of course, is in contravention of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights on the ‘Right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence’. In the Guide to the enforcement of this right by the European Court of Human Rights dated August 2019,  it states:

¶180. ‘The court has found that the collection and storage of a person’s health-related data for a very long period, together with the disclosure and use of such data for purposes unrelated to the original reasons for their collection, constituted a disproportionate interference with the right to respect for private life.

¶184. ‘The mere existence of legislation which allows a system for the secret monitoring of communications entails a threat of surveillance for all those to whom the legislation may be applied. While domestic legislatures and national authorities enjoy a certain margin of appreciation in which to assess that system of surveillance is required, the Contracting States do not enjoy unlimited discretion to subject persons within their jurisdiction to secret surveillance.

¶185. ‘Collection, through a GPS device attached to a person’s car, and storage of data concerning that person’s whereabouts and movements in the public sphere was also found to constitute an interference with private life.’

Certain human rights lawyers have expressed their concern that the Emergency Powers handed to the police by both the Coronavirus Act 2020 and the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 interfere not only with our right to private and family life under Article 8, but also with our right to liberty, as protected by Article 5 of the Convention; and that restrictions on gatherings potentially pose a threat to our rights to freedom of expression (Article 10) and our rights of assembly and association (Article 11). This is why the various European governments theoretically subject to these conventions have declared a State of Emergency — either officially, as in Italy and Spain, or de facto, as in France, Germany and the UK — suspending our human rights for as long as the executive decides a State of Emergency caused by the coronavirus pertains.

As evidence of this, the Memorandum to the Joint Committee on the Coronavirus Bill, dated 20 March, addressed its infringement of our rights under the following articles and protocols of the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporated the European Convention articles into British Law: Article 2. Right to life; Article 3. Freedom from torture, inhuman and degrading treatment; Article 5. Right to liberty and security; Article 6. Right to a fair trial; Article 8. Right to respect for private and family life; Article 9. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion; Article 10. Freedom of expression; Article 11. Freedom of assembly and association; Article 14. Prohibition of discrimination; plus the following protocols: Protocol 1. Right to peaceful enjoyment of his possessions; Protocol 2. Right to education; Protocol 3. Right to free elections. The general consideration of the unnamed lawyers writing this Memorandum was that the proposed police powers are, in their opinion, necessary in order to protect public health, and that any interference they have with our human rights is therefore ‘justified, proportionate and lawful’. They duly concluded that the Coronavirus Bill is ‘compatible’ with the Human Rights Act 1998. 

What these Government lawyers didn’t explain is why, under Section 89 of the Coronavirus Bill, these police powers will be in existence for at least 2 years, with the option, under Section 90, to extend them another 6 months, and, under Section 92, to make ‘consequential modifications’ to them. One chambers briefing observed that:

‘Although technically approval is still required within 28 days, as Parliament is now in recess this will not happen prior to the first review which is due by 16 April 2020. This effectively means there will be there will be no parliamentary scrutiny of Regulations which on their face impose extraordinary and draconian restrictions on freedom of movement backed by increased powers of arrest and prosecution. If this is a sign of things to come it does not bode well.’

In State of Exception (2005), which everybody trying to understand this moment should be reading, Giorgio Agamben has pointed out that, under the Chancellorship and then Leadership of Adolf Hitler, the constitution of the Weimar Republic was never abolished, but merely suspended by the Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State issued in February 1933 — which under Article 48 of the constitution suspended a raft of human rights, including the right of public assembly and of free association, the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications, the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press, as well as habeas corpus — and the subsequent Enabling Act 1933 that legally handed Hitler dictatorial powers. From a juridico-political point of view, therefore, the 12 years of the Nazi dictatorship were administered under a State of Exception.

The same State of Exception has been applied by three successive US governments to the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, where so-called ‘enemy combatants’ are detained indefinitely outside of both international law, the Geneva convention and even US criminal law without charge or trial, in a state of bare life that means even those who try to kill themselves through hunger strikes are force-fed. In this we can see repeated the practices of the Thatcher government against IRA prisoners denied political status and also force fed, and the anticipation of the extrajudicial imprisonment and torture of Julian Assange by the current UK Government. But we can also see the medical practice of keeping dying patients suspended in a state of vegetative life in which they have been deprived even of the right to die; and, most recently, the enforced, painful and ultimately futile ventilation of elderly and sick patients who would otherwise be administered palliative care simply because they have tested positive for SARs-CoV-2.

This is the context in which, on 13 April, Giorgio Agamben published the following text:


‘The plague marked the beginning of corruption for the city. No one was willing to persevere any longer in what he had previously considered to be good, because he believed that he would perhaps die before achieving it.’

 — Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

I would like to share with whoever would like to hear it a question on which, for over a month now, I have not stopped reflecting. How could it happen that an entire country, without realising it, has collapsed politically and ethically in the face of an illness? The words I have used to formulate this question have been carefully weighed one by one. The measure of abdication of our own ethical and political principles is, in fact, very simple: it is a question of asking ourselves what is the limit beyond which we are not willing to renounce them. I believe that the reader who takes the trouble to consider the following points cannot fail to agree that — without realising it, or by pretending not to notice it — the threshold that separates humanity from barbarism has been crossed.

1) The first point, perhaps the most serious, concerns the bodies of the dead. How could we have accepted, solely in the name of a risk that could not be specified, that individuals dear to us and human beings in general should not only die alone, but — something that had never happened before in history, from Antigone to today — that their corpses should be burned without a funeral?

2) We then accepted, without too many problems, solely in the name of a risk that could not be specified, limiting, to an extent that had never happened before in the history of the country, not even during the Second World War (when the curfew was limited to certain hours), our freedom of movement. We consequently accepted, solely in the name of a risk that could not be specified, de facto suspension of our relationships of friendship and love, because proximity to our neighbour had become a possible source of contagion. 

3) This was only possible — and here we touch on the root of the phenomenon — because we have split the unity of our lived experience, which is always inseparably bodily and spiritual, into a purely biological entity on the one hand, and an affective and cultural life on the other. Ivan Illich has demonstrated, and David Cayley has recalled it here recently, the responsibility of modern medicine in this split, which is taken for granted but is in reality the greatest of abstractions. I know very well that this abstraction was created by modern science through resuscitation devices, which can keep a body in a state of pure vegetative life. But if this situation is extended beyond the spatial and temporal confines that are proper to it, as we are trying to do today, and becomes a sort of principle of social behaviour, we fall into contradictions from which there is no way out

I know that someone will rush to respond that we are dealing with a situation that is limited in time, after which everything will return to how it was. It is truly strange that we could repeat such a statement other than in bad faith, since the same authorities that proclaimed the emergency do not cease reminding us that, when the emergency has been overcome, we will have to continue to observe the same directives, and that ‘social distancing’ — as it has been called with a significant euphemism — will be the new organising principle of society. And, in every case, what we have accepted submitting to, whether in good faith or in bad, cannot be reversed.

At this point, since I have declared the responsibility of each of us, I cannot fail to mention the even more serious responsibilities of those who would have had the duty of keeping watch over human dignity. First of all, the Church, which in making itself the handmaiden of science, which has now become the true religion of our time, has radically repudiated its most essential principles. The Church, under a Pope who calls himself Francis, has forgotten that Francis embraced lepers. It has forgotten that one of the works of mercy is to visit the sick. It has forgotten that the martyrs teach that we must be prepared to sacrifice our life rather than our faith, and that renouncing our neighbour means renouncing our faith.

Another category or persons that has failed in their duties is that of lawyers. For some time now we have been accustomed to the reckless use of emergency decrees through which executive power is effectively substituted for that of the legislature, abolishing that principle of the separation of powers that defines democracy. But in this case, every limit has been exceeded, and one gets the impression that the words of the Prime Minister and the head of civil defence, as was once said of those of the Führer, have the immediate force of law. And it is not clear how, once the temporal validity of the emergency decrees have been exhausted, the limitations on our freedoms could, as is asserted, be maintained. With what legal arrangements? With a permanent State of Exception? It is the duty of lawyers to ensure that the rules of the constitution are observed; but the lawyers are silent. 

I know that there will inevitably be someone who will answer that the sacrifice, which is serious, has been made in the name of moral principles. To them I would like to recall that Adolf Eichmann, apparently in good faith, never tired of repeating that he had done what he had done according to his conscience, to obey what he believed to be the precepts of Kantian morality. A rule which states that good must be renounced in order to save the good is just as false and contradictory as that which, in order to protect freedom, orders us to renounce freedom.

2. The Assumption of Evidence

In the rest of this article I want to look at how this and other commentaries by Giorgio Agamben have been greeted, for it tells us a lot about how the biopolitics of the state works in practice.

Agamben is the author of over 40 book-length works. He’s one of the most interesting and — until he questioned the extraordinary measures enacted by governments in response to the coronavirus — one of the most respected of continental philosophers. We might think, given that he has been read for the past quarter of a century precisely because his writings have addressed and analysed exactly the situation in which we find ourselves now, that we would listen to what he has to say. But we would, of course, be wrong. What has actually happened has been the exact opposite.

Agamben’s first commentary, titled ‘The Invention of an epidemic’, was published by Quodlibet on 26 February. I won’t quote the whole thing here, but he concluded by writing:

‘The disproportionate reaction to something not too different from the normal influenzas that affect us every year is quite blatant. It is almost as if, with terrorism exhausted as a cause for exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic offered the ideal pretext for scaling them up beyond any limitation.

‘The other, no less disturbing, factor is the state of fear that in recent years has evidently spread among individual consciences and that translates into an authentic need for situations of collective panic for which the epidemic provides, once again, the ideal pretext. Therefore, in a perverse vicious circle, the limitations of freedom imposed by governments are accepted in the name of a desire for safety that was created by the same governments that are now intervening to satisfy it.’

This brought forth paroxysms of online rage and contempt, only some of which I shall briefly list here, placing the key terms in their attacks in bold.

  • On 2 March, the journal of psychoanalysis, Antinomie, published an article by Sergio Benvenuto, an Italian psychoanalyst, in which he described Agamben’s commentaries as ‘paranoiac interpretations of history.’
  • On 13 March, the Hannah Arendt Centre for Politics and Humanities published an article by Roger Berkowitz, a Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights, titled ‘When Philosophers are Blinded by Theory’, in which he accuses Agamben of ‘blindness to reality that can come from a too-strong love for one’s own theoretical fantasies.’
  • On 16 March, MicroMega published an article by Paolo Flores d’Arcais, an Italian philosopher and journalist, titled ‘Philosophy and Virus: The Ravings of Giorgio Agamben’.
  • On 23 March, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by Anastasia Berg, a postdoctoral Junior Research Fellow in Philosophy, titled ‘Giorgio Agamben’s Coronavirus Cluelessness’, in which she claimed ‘the Italian philosopher’s interventions are symptomatic of theory’s collapse into paranoia.’
  • On 26 March, Critical Legal Thinking published an article titled ‘Must Society be Defended from Agamben?’ by Tim Christaens, a PhD student in Philosophy writing his dissertation on Agamben, in which he writes of Agamben’s texts: ‘If the reader thinks that makes Agamben sound like coronavirus denialists such as Bolsonaro or Trump, then I must confess they are right.’
  • On 29 March, Verso published an article titled States of Emergency, Metaphors of Virus, and COVID-19’ by Joseph Owen, another PhD student, who dismissed Agamben as an ‘elderly and misguided sage’ whose ‘theoretical dispositions have clouded his judgement’.
  • In its March/April edition, the New Left Review published an article by Marco d’Eramo, an Italian journalist, titled ‘The Philosopher’s Epidemic’, in which he accused Agamben of ‘coronavirus denialism’, and argued that the likelihood of security services benefiting from the the pandemic ‘does not justify a leap to paranoid conspiricism’.

Despite the extraordinary arrogance of these judgements, they are not the ravings of Twitter trolls. All the authors are highly educated people writing in authoritative forums. And yet, as can be seen, in all their attempts to dismiss Agamben the authors resort to the same convergence of medicine and politics they are denying ­is applicable to a biopolitical understanding of the current crisis, and whose medical separation of the patient’s body from the patient’s person Foucault analysed in The Birth of the Clinic. Through this biopolitical discourse, Agamben is repeatedly diagnosed as paranoid, a theoretical fantasist, his judgement clouded by age, his thoughts reduced to symptoms of his paranoid theorising and ravings, himself in denial brought on by the lockdown, a fermentor of conspiracy theories. Indeed, the full panoply of medical and psychiatric discourse is employed to justify — if not yet the sectioning and incarceration of one of the most influential philosophers of the past quarter of a century — then certainly his dismissal outside the realms of rational discourse. That this is being done irrationality — without the authors needing to argue why Agamben’s arguments, in their opinion, are flawed — is characteristic of all such ad hominem attacks, which have come to characterise the forums of Twitter, Facebook, the BBC and the UK Parliament, if not yet the discursive practices of philosophical thought.

However, there is another aspect of these attempts to pathologise Agamben that I want to draw attention to, and which have a far wider application in spreading the orthodoxy on coronavirus than this attempt to silence an Italian philosopher most of you will not have heard of.

Perhaps the most disappointing of these, because it is written by an old friend and comrade of Agamben, is by the French philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy, for whose writings on community I have great respect. I cite his response here to show how, even in the most subtle of minds, there has taken hold what Roland Barthes called the ‘doxa’ of ideology. By this he meant that which, because it has been so widely accepted as given, has become invisible to interrogation. On 27 February, in response to Agamben’s text, Nancy, taking exception with Agamben’s description of coronavirus as ‘not too different from the normal influenzas’, wrote — again in the psychoanalytical journal Antinomie:

‘“Normal” flu always kills several people, while coronavirus, against which there is no vaccine, is evidently capable of causing far higher levels of mortality. The difference (according to sources of the same type as those Agamben uses) is about 1 to 30: it does not seem insignificant to me.’

This assumption of ‘evidence’ is what has become most pervasive in the debates, if one can call them that, more accurately the pronouncements — official and unofficial, on mainstream media as on social media — by governments and journalists alike. This assumption is that some contemptuous few of us, such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, assumed that the coronavirus was just another flu, and even recommended herd immunity as the proper response, but that now we know better. Now, is the assumption, we have the evidence. Now we have ‘the science’, as Bill Gates said this week when announcing his plans to immunise the world. Now we have the justification to declare a State of Exception that the UK government is considering maintaining for the two years they initially extended, to everyone’s initial surprise, to the powers handed to the police by the Coronavirus Act 2020. We were wrong, but now we understand — and accept — why parliamentary scrutiny must be suspended, why legislative approval is not necessary for our politics, why Health Protection Regulations in contravention of our human rights must be enacted by police officers, community support officers, local authorities, and anyone else the Secretary of State authorises to do so.

To take just one example that must stand in for many of how consensus for these dictatorial powers has been assumed, in one of the most widely-read, copied, shared and commented-upon of these assumptions, the Sunday Times last week published an article titled ‘Coronavirus: 38 Days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster.’ Significantly, the article is an attack on Boris Johnson, with the implication being that anyone who disagrees with its assumptions is therefore ‘on the side’ of the much reviled British Prime Minister. But in making its claim, which I have already quoted before, that COVID-19 is ‘one of the worst infections of the most deadly virus to have hit the world in more than a century’, the authors cite a study published on 24 January in the medical journal, The Lancet, which they claim suggested the potential lethality of coronavirus ‘was comparable to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed up to 50 million people.’ In fact, the Lancet study did nothing of the kind, and the authors of the Sunday Times article fail to site the huge amount of subsequent evidence correcting these wild speculations, as if we know nothing more about the virus than we did 3 months ago; but it’s too late. This emotive, fear-mongering, factually inaccurate, deliberately deceptive and hugely irresponsible article has now become the default official history of the coronavirus in the UK, spread through the viral network of social media into everyone’s laptop.

Today, with all the inaccuracies built into how most countries, and certainly those in Europe and the United States, are recording deaths ‘with’ COVID-19 — which includes anyone who died testing positive for SARs-CoV-2, or anyone whose death the doctor filling out the certificate thought COVID-19 might have been a possible or contributing cause, or simply anyone who displayed similar symptoms to COVID-19 but wasn’t tested — even with this systemic inaccuracy by which so-called COVID-19 deaths are being hugely exaggerated in number, as of today there have been 198,000 deaths officially attributed to the disease across the world since the first official deaths in China 4 months ago.

To put this figure into context, so far this year 18.6 million people have died across the world; 2,598,000 of them from cancer; 1,581,000 from smoking; 532,000 from HIV/AIDS; 427,000 from traffic accidents; 339,000 from suicide; 310,000 from malaria; and 154,000 from seasonal flu; all in the last four months.

In the UK, the official number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 under the above criteria by the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England is 19,500. However, according to a much-quoted and retweeted article published this week in the Financial Times, which extrapolates future COVID-19 deaths as a percentage of overall excess deaths recorded by the Office for National Statistics, it may be as many as 41,000, more than twice as much. In this exaggeration it parallels the claim of 50,000 deaths for the seasonal influenza of 2016-17, also drawing on figures from the ONO, in an article published in November 2018 in the Daily Mail. In fact, only 18,000 deaths were associated with seasonal influenza in England in 2016-17, which is a similar proportion of fact to media report. As chance would have it, the same day as the Financial Times article, 22 April, Giorgio Agamben published his most recent text on the coronavirus, titled ‘New Reflections’, in which he calmly wrote:

‘Anyone with some knowledge of epistemology cannot fail to be surprised by the fact that the media for all these months have released figures without any scientific criterion, not only without relating them to the annual mortality for the same period, but without even specifying the cause of death. I am not a virologist or a doctor, but I limit myself to verbally citing reliable official sources. 21,000 deaths from COVID-19 seem and are certainly an impressive figure. But if you put them in relation with the annual statistical data, things, as is right, take on a different aspect. The president of the National Institute of Statistics, Dr. Gian Carlo Blangiardo, communicated the numbers of last year’s mortality a few weeks ago: 647,000 deaths (therefore 1,772 deaths per day). If we analyse the causes in detail, we see that the latest available data for 2017 record 230,000 deaths from cardiovascular diseases, 180,000 deaths from cancer, at least 53,000 deaths from respiratory diseases. I quote the words of Dr. Blangiardo: “In March 2019 the deaths from respiratory diseases were 15,189 and the year before had been 16,220. Incidentally, it is noted that they are more than the corresponding number of deaths for COVID-19 (12,352) reported in March 2020.”’

The official and universal assumption about the exceptional fatality rate of coronavirus has no empirical, factual or statistical basis. On the contrary, what has been assumed is precisely what is disproved by the facts. What is ‘evident’, to use Nancy’s word, is that the fatality rate of coronavirus is very much comparable to the seasonal influenza in Italy in 2016-17, when there were nearly 25,000 excess deaths attributable to influenza-related illnesses; in Germany in 2017-18, when there were over 25,000 excess deaths, in England in 2014-15, when there were over 28,300 excess deaths; or as recently as 2017-18, when there were 26,400 excess deaths. I’ve quoted these figures before, and will continue to quote them as evidence for my reasoned deduction — against the blind orthodoxy of assumption — that SARs-CoV-2 and the symptoms that maybe 1 in 10 of those infected with it will develop, and which according to recent estimates kills maybe 0.1 per cent of those infected and most likely less, is very much comparable to and equivalent to seasonal influenza, as the monitoring of excess deaths in Europe shows.

Imagine a camp in which 770 people are lying on 770 separate bunks, stacked one on top of the other. This represents the 18 per cent of the population and 12.2 million people in the UK that are over 65. One of them, aged 82, and therefore more than 2 years over the average life expectancy for a man in the UK, has died. At the time of dying he tested positive for SARs-CoV-2, possibly contracted in the hospital in which he has been a patient for the past 16 days, half of them while sedated on a ventilator that took over his breathing, causing rapid weight loss and atrophy of his muscles. This is not only an image of the 15,850 people over 60 who have died from COVID-19 in England and Wales, but also the painful, unnecessary and cruel bio-politics of the crisis our response to those deaths has created, in which elderly and sick citizens have been deprived of the palliative care they should be receiving in their passage to death in order to justify the lockdown not only of the other 769 people in the camp, but also of the other 4,277 people under the age of 65 living in 6 other camps, all under the surveillance and control of our police and security forces aided and abetted by a growing body of citizen enforcers and informers.

The widespread belief — and all but universal assertion in our mainstream and social media — that the threat of coronavirus justifies imposing a State of Exception on 2.9 billion people across the globe is a product, first, of World Health Organisation and UK Government guidelines on identifying and attributing deaths to COVID-19 that that would otherwise be listed as a respiratory disease such as bronchopneumonia or pneumonia; and, second, of the reporting and exaggeration of those already exaggerated numbers outside of any context by the press and media. In fact, not only have official deaths from COVID-19 been hugely exaggerated as a result of the Government guidelines on subsuming all other contributing causes into this category, but the statistics on deaths in any other year where the underlining cause was respiratory disease are hugely underestimated. In the UK, deaths in which the patient has an influenza virus for which, following standard procedure, they havent been tested are typically listed under a contributing and far more serious disease such as cancer or motor neurone disease, or simply as old age, even when the final illness was a respiratory infection. Even given the comparable mortality rates between COVID-19 and seasonal influenza, the changes to the taxonomy of this crisis has skewed the figures towards raising the threat of the former. This can only have been done to serve a bio-political agenda.

History teaches us that dictatorships dont arrive all at once and fully formed. They creep up, step by step, each one removing a little more of our rights and freedoms, until regulations we would have risen up against in outrage just a few months ago are meekly accepted as justified, proportionate and lawful. This week, as anticipated, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations 2020 were amended to extend the lockdown prohibitions as follows:

‘The prohibition applies both to leaving the place where a person is living without reasonable excuse, and also to staying outside that place without reasonable excuse.’

In the Explanatory Memorandum to this amendment to the martial law under which we now live, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, a 41 year-old former computer software salesman with a background in the housing market but with no knowledge either of constitutional law or of epidemiology, declared:

‘In my view the provisions of The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.’

Before we can talk about how to organise resistance to the State of Exception under which it now appears we will be living for the foreseeable future, we need to challenge the all but universal assumption that these dictatorial prohibitions and the surveillance state on which they are based — whether justifiably or not, whether proportionately or not, whether legally or not — have any basis in an increase in deaths caused by COVID-19 above or even equivalent to the usual rate of deaths from influenza.

It’s for this reason that I continue to read these statistics, as others apparently are not, and try to show as clearly and patiently as I can why there is no basis for this assumption. Quite the opposite. What they show is that, despite the attempts to subject him to the bio-politics of power, Giorgio Agamben was not showing symptoms of paranoia, indulging in fantasies, raving, exhibiting signs of dementia, in a state of denial or indulging in conspiracy theories when he wrote, two months ago, that coronavirus is ‘not too different from the normal influenzas that affect us every year’. On the contrary, he was speaking what almost nobody is speaking any longer: the truth — not only about the virus but, more importantly, about how it is being employed by our governments, by our media and by their corporate backers in the service of the bio-politics of what, in his most recent reflection, Agamben describes as a new totalitarianism:

‘From many sides the hypothesis is now being formulated that in reality we are experiencing the end of a world, that of bourgeois democracies, founded on rights, parliaments and the division of powers, which is giving way to a new despotism; that, as regards the pervasiveness of controls and the cessation of all political activity, it will be worse than the totalitarianisms that we have known so far. American political scientists call it the Security State, which is a state in which “for security reasons” (in this case of “public health”), any limit can be imposed to individual freedoms. And the control that is exercised through video cameras and now, as has been proposed, through mobile phones, far exceeds any form of control exercised under totalitarian regimes such as fascism or Nazism.’

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

Abraham Bosse, frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)

Further reading:

The Science and Law of Refusing to Wear Masks: Texts and Arguments in Support of Civil Disobedience

Lockdown: Collateral Damage in the War on COVID-19

The State of Emergency as Paradigm of Government: Coronavirus Legislation, Implementation and Enforcement

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18 thoughts on “Giorgio Agamben and the Biopolitics of COVID-19

  1. Excellent. Agamben is one of the few who has retained his wits and provided great insight into this dangerous time. I hope this essay is widely read.


  2. Thanks for this information. Also please consider the Australian Biosecurity Act 2015, which we are currently under in Australia during this coronavirus situation:

    I’m concerned about the threat of possible forced vaccination under the Australian Biosecurity Act, and have written to the Australian Prime Minister in this regard. See discussion on this in my letter to the President of the British Medical Association, Emeritus Professor Raanan Gillon:


    1. Hello Elizabeth, thank you for your comment. I don’t know about Australian legislation, but in response to similar concerns in the UK, Louise Hooper of Garden Court Chambers has published the following briefing. This explains that under current UK legislation the UK Government cannot make a vaccine mandatory. However, she does say that Schedule 21 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 does give the Government sweeping powers to detain, isolate and direct persons, and these are open to abuse, as we are currently seeing with a whole range of Regulations. Perhaps of more concern is that, under the current public mood of hysteria and with a virtual Parliament, there would be little if any opposition to the Secretary of State for Health making additional Regulations or amendments to past Acts that will have the force of law to make vaccines mandatory. In the absence of a legislature, it’s up to those of us who are still thinking to scrutinise and organise resistance to such emergency powers. Here’s the briefing, and you may be able to find something similar in Australia clarifying the situation there. Best wishes.


  3. Excellent, necessary article. One (significant) caveat: Is the State of Exception really the state of exception when it is so widely adopted, normalized? For whom was it meant to be exceptional? In other words, whereas Agamben argues that terrorism is exhausted and thence coronavirus-aided state of exception, in reality coronavirus is a clear CONTINUATION and extension of the Global War on Terror. This has been argued by philosopher Irfan Ahmad in The Polis Project (25 May 2020). In fact Agamben’s line that ‘social life/bare life’ has replaced the Schmittian ‘friend/enemy’ is untrue as misunderstands the nature of the State of Exception.


    1. Hello Basinda. Agamben explains that ‘state of exception’ is a syntagma for a range of terms in different legal systems for a consistent set of legal phenomena, including the ’emergency measures’ we’re currently under in the UK. Agamben’s thesis is that the state of exception has become the norm for western democracies and a paradigm of government in the 21st-Century. In this respect, the legislation and regulations made under the guise of combatting the coronavirus crisis are a continuation of the steady erosion of our civil liberties by the so-called ‘war on terror’. I think Agamben’s point is that they represent a huge step forward in the totalitarianisation of society, one in which the ‘invisible enemy’, as the virus was described by Donald Trump, has replaced the terrorist. The UK Government has made it very clear in its ‘recovery strategy’, which nobody seems to have read, that the biosecurity measures it is introducing are part of an extended infrastructure to combat this invisible enemy, and that the corona virus is just the first of many non-existent threats to our health and security it anticipates protecting us from in the future.

      Since Agamben is the philosopher who, over the past quarter of a century of writing, has been responsible for explicating the historical, juridical and philosophical contexts for the emergence of the state of exception as the paradigm of contemporary government, I’m not sure what you mean when you say he ‘misunderstands’ the term. As someone who opposes the state of exception, rather than wanting to justify its application by a sovereign ruler, certainly Agamben has a different understanding of the term than Carl Schmitt. While Schmitt equates it with constitutional dictatorship. Agamben sees the state of exception as a space at once outside the law and foundational of it, and therefore as a limit concept. In this respect, living for the foreseeable future under regulations that have the force of law and which will only expire when a threat that doesn’t exist disappears is exemplary of the state of exception.


  4. I understand that under the pretext of terrorism and, now, an epidemic the British State is taking power from the people. In the case of terrorism there is no pretence that power will be returned: in the case of the epidemic there is. How should this force of capture be expressed? If not as a conspiracy, then what? To say these things are happening as the result of an historical force is to say little more than that they are happening.
    Another difficulty concerns the growth or decline of wealth. In China the virus has been eliminated, growth restored, and the electronic police-state intensified. In Great Britain the capture of power by the State is causing poverty, misery and ill-health. The more dictatorial the Government, egged on by the Opposition, becomes, the worse things become. Where are we going? Towards revolution?


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