The unfolding global crisis induced by COVID-19 has led states to scramble as they collect scarce medical resources, impose business shutdowns and national quarantines, and close off borders to slow its transmission. To contain the initial outbreak, officials in Wuhan quickly constructed makeshift hospitals. Soon after, the Chinese national government locked down major cities. Upon hitting Singapore and South Korea, officials implemented vigilant surveillance methods to track down test cases, treat patients, and—most importantly—isolate the infected immediately. These and many other states have deployed a mix of public education campaigns, shelters in place, and stimulus aid to workers, all in an effort to maintain the health of their populations.
As all of these measures relate to the state management of a society’s health, they are the province of what philosophers and social theorists term “biopolitics.” Owing its modern origins to the late-career writings of Michel Foucault, biopolitics—styled also as “biopower”—is a theoretical paradigm concerning the modern state, social, and economic overwatch and dominion over a population’s health and vitality. In endeavors to comprehend the contemporary crisis, philosophers like Giorgio Agamben have indicted the state in particular for its “invention of a pandemic” and the supposed totalitarian form and consequences of its response. As a rejoinder, others have mused about the democratic or communist potential of biopolitics that might take the place of governmental action from on high during these society-wide healthcare emergencies.
What various contemplations and debates over biopolitics expose are the limitations imposed by the sheer bluntness of the concept, its tendency to render all state intervention as “top-down” and foreboding while casting actions “from below” as normatively desirable, even liberatory. Though Agamben and others like him might be forgiven for not immediately recognizing the severity of the threat, biopower’s shortcomings do not stem merely from its ill-fitted application to the present. Rather, trouble exudes from its core, from its gestation during the early days of the rapidly neoliberalizing late-twentieth century. In the face of complex questions about public health protocols and the proper means of appeasing volatile financial markets, our moment’s pressing concerns cannot be boiled down to a simple question of whether state power over its citizenry’s health and well-being does or does not feature authoritarian characteristics.
In the decades following Foucault’s death, philosophers and social theorists have adopted and altered the biopower concept, oftentimes ditching Foucault’s flashes of optimism while retaining his reservations about the state. It is within this context that we should evaluate the present array of biopower’s critics and commentators during our own plague year.
Notably, Giorgio Agamben’s condemnation of the Italian response to COVID-19 begins with a reference not to one of Foucault’s later works on biopower, but rather to a scene of pandemic and quarantine from the earlier Discipline and Punish. There, Foucault depicted the operation of power through an “enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a ﬁxed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical ﬁgure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the dead.” Passages like this and others on a plague described as “at once real and imaginary” set the stage for Agamben’s reflections on this most recent “invention of a pandemic.”
Despite downplaying the tragedy of the disease’s ravaging of his home country, Agamben’s justification for castigating the state’s restrictions on movement and commerce reveals a skepticism—a particular mode of anti-statism—that runs much deeper. Consistent with his career-defining works on the state of exception and emergency power, Agamben sees the response to COVID-19 as just the latest in a series of disproportionate state action in the name of health and safety. In taking such steps as a national lockdown, the state’s assurance of protection displaces the normal functioning of government for a more permanent state of exception, in which a host of civil liberties may be eroded at a moment’s notice. For this reason, Agamben marks little distinction between responses to terrorist threats and those presently scaled up disciplinary measures erected in the name of the virus. Both are defined by “limitations of freedom…accepted in the name of a desire for safety.” In a short follow-up to his original piece, Agamben doubled down on what he perceived as man’s longing for “bare life,” a vulgar desire which accepts all the authoritarian consequences of fulfilling that wish.
There is little doubt that this criticism touches upon some very real qualities of the modern security state. The juxtaposition between the terrorist threat and the pandemic certainly exposes some of the absurdities that germinate in the fertile soil of fear. For example, it only took the first week of the pandemic in the United States for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to waive restrictions on passengers boarding planes with liquids over 3.4 ounces, an accommodation made to allow travelers to fly Purell in hand.
However, what Agamben ultimately offers is a rather ill-defined theory of the state, one with a highly-questionable normative core. Its shortcomings become apparent as soon as one attempts to develop an understanding of how and why Italy has come to suffer so deeply from COVID-19 and the virus’s impact on its simple ability to govern. Consider, for instance, the state of exception’s ability to explain Italy’s current relation to international markets and monetary institutions. How much can we discern from the emergency power thesis about Italy’s recent tussling with the European Central Bank over its initial unwillingness to bail the country out of the economic crisis prompted by the pandemic? Italy appears here not as an all-powerful sovereign dictating life and death—the bios and the thanatos—but rather an enervated authority squeezed by an aggressive act of nature on one side and a regional monetary body on the other. It is clear that a blanket condemnation of emergency power is inadequate for understanding the political here. There is something more complex at work than the mere sovereign impulse to exploit the “perennial crisis and perennial emergency.”
In the context of the initial Agamben exchange, some did try to temper the philosopher’s claims. Roberto Esposito cautioned against conflating “maximum security prisons and a two-week quarantine in the Po Lowlands.” Others like Sergio Benvenuto cited the role of supranational bodies like the World Health Organization in recommending preventative measures and prodding state governments to prepare for the virus’s impact. In a separate response, Slavoj Žižek wondered if Agemben’s argument possibly failed on its own terms. If the state had fomented panic to reinforce its sovereign might, he argued, such a strategy had clearly backfired in the face of increased distrust over its capacity to reckon with disaster.
Despite the pushback from some, Agamben’s view of biopower cannot be written off as a simple idiosyncrasy of one thinker’s anti-statism. Rather, it has become a dominant frame for those with sympathies to Agamben’s approach as well as for those looking for the bright side of the biopolitical paradigm. Take Panagiotis Sotiris’s short essay “Against Agamben, Is a Democratic Biopolitics Possible?,” in which he imagines a plan of action that “combines individual and collective care in non-coercive ways.” Inspired by Foucault’s writings on parrhesia and the “care of self,” Sotiris dreams of democratic decision-making efforts that would guide our containment and treatment practices during trying times like these.
Sotiris’s reach for a politics “from below”—he references the history of ACT UP as an exemple—echoes other partisans of the biopolitical framework such as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt who have offered similar non-hierarchical political prescriptions (the amassing of “the multitude”) to address the onerous pervasiveness of biopower. Hardt, Negri, and Sotiris all appear to be guided by an anti-bureaucratic impulse, one which perceives actions taken by state officials in the name of health as necessarily tinged with authoritarianism. It is one which looks romantically upon the actions of social movements and “the people,” which are taken to be more authentic and democratic. In the vein of Esposito’s criticism, this broader pattern of thought consistently mistakes the prison guard for a healthcare bureaucrat. It also seems to mistake the citizen for the surgeon general.
To be sure, there is something to be rescued in the biopower concept as evidenced in recent work that flows downstream from Foucault. Melinda Cooper’s writings on the entwining of state economic policy, market forces, and the molecular sciences exhibits the best of these investigations into health and modern governing practices. In assessing the post-Fordist finance economy and the 1970s crisis of capital accumulation, Cooper observes how the U.S. government made sweeping changes to patent law and installed new bureaucratic procedures to encourage the growth of biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry. These developments might explain former Vice President Joe Biden’s present reluctance to commit to employing executive authority to seize the patent and make widely available a COVID-19 vaccine upon its development (note: there is a well-established statutory provision for this very type of action). As projections for this quarter’s GDP tick up to double-digit losses, these careful considerations of the state’s relationship to economic growth and the health of its population—both in its positive and deleterious ramifications—contrast starkly with those about whether or how much of the current pandemic is an insidious social fiction propagated by would-be dictators.
When Agamben first denounced Italy’s intervention, it was unclear if the U.S. was to suffer the same fate as that country; seven weeks later, the death count in America has ticked past Italy’s while governors and mayors fret about the likelihood of needing to soon ration life-saving ventilators and intensive care hospital beds. At the same moment, capital and its servants in the state have undermined and co-opted already meager—and criminally late—mitigation and relief efforts. The late robber baron David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity, for instance, mounted an early resistance campaign to business shutdowns and quarantines, notably just two years after calling for $1 billion in cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As President Trump echoes Agamben’s caution against a cure “worse than the problem itself,” his Treasury Secretary has aided CEOs and shareholders in gobbling up billions from an opaquely administered relief fund. As always, corporate America eats first, long before the rest of the country will receive its paltry stimulus checks, many of which will not arrive until summer’s end.
During a time when the right understands the promise of state power, it is dire that those on the left wrestle with questions about who controls it, what shape it takes, and what might lie beyond its horizons. Those questions will have to be answered with struggles over what surveillance we can tolerate and what we decide constitutes freedom in the face of necessary restrictions (in many ways, these are the classic dilemmas of liberal democracy). The sound of anti-statism ought to ring dissonant in the ears of anyone who has begun to understand the magnitude of what damage—to the health of society, to its foundational structures—the virus presents. Now is the time for rigorous analysis and strategizing about how to retool the state, to de-commodify health industries, and to introduce some element of rational planning to address situations where the irrationality of market forces has left populations susceptible to crisis. Perhaps for now we can take solace in the fact that there will necessarily be some state response and that, as has always been the case, the philosophers have only interpreted the world.
 Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 198.
 Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton, Technologies of the Self: A Seminar With Michel Foucault (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988).
 Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Empire, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).
 Daniel Carpenter, Reputation and Power: Organizational Image and Pharmaceutical Regulation at the FDA (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010); This despite groups like ACT UP as having both lacked a democratic constituency and whose impact on the development of HIV/AIDS treatments has been contested.
 Melinda Cooper, Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2008).