94 minutes | Mar 19th 2020

Episode 23: Coronavirus, Catastrophe & Agamben, with Garnet Kindervater

This episode is about the biggest story of the decade so far, COVID-19, or the coronavirus. But its also an episode with someone I’ve been wanting to have on the show for a long time, Garnet Kindervater. Before we get started, just a few observations about the politics of the coronavirus itself. I don’t know if its fair to say viruses have a politics, but their human victims certainly do. And, as some of you may have been following, we’ve seen a big debate break out this week over a piece on the virus by Giorgio Agamben. Garnet and I don’t talk about Agamben in this interview. At the time of recording, we were only just becoming aware of this debate. But I want to talk a little bit about it before we get started, as I think its relevant to the interview you’re about to hear. Agamben’s basic position seems to be an extreme take on the libertarian left’s impulse to read the state, or sovereignty, as a technology of control in itself. And so, for him, living in Italy in the midst of the state’s effort to control coronavirus, there seems to be a natural connection between the way the state is expressing its power right now, isolating large portions of the population, and his overall thesis that since the terrorist attacks in New York in 2001, government has become a permanent state of exception. Here’s a quote: “It is blatantly evident that these restrictions are disproportionate to the threat from what is, according to the NRC, a normal flu, not much different from those that affect us every year … We might say that once terrorism was exhausted as a justification for exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic could offer the ideal pretext for broadening such measures beyond any limitation.” Now, I’m not an epidemiologist. But neither is Agamben. So I am not sure how take this statement. According to the New York Times, the death rate among those contracting the seasonal flu is typically around 0.1% in the U.S. Whereas estimates of the death rate among those contracting COVID-19 in China vary between 1.4% and 2.3%. In the literature, there’s a lot of commentary about regional variation and stuff like that, but the bottom line is that Agamben does seem to be trivializing the matter to a degree that could be considered irresponsible, or even negligent. Now of course, that’s not to discredit Agamben’s intellectual program necessarily. There’s a long history of theorists making bad calls on specific controversies. But there have been number of replies published to Agamben. Two have stood out for me, and I want to mention them now as I think they’ll maybe help listeners better understand the value of the interview. The first piece that I thought worth mentioning is by Slavoj Zizek. In a piece published on the blog The Philosophical Salon on March 16, Zizek rebukes Agamben for what amounts to an “extreme form of a widespread Leftist stance of reading the “exaggerated panic” caused by the spread of the virus as a mixture of power, exercise of social control and elements of outright racism.” For Zizek, however, Agamben’s folly is not in the same breath an excuse for a return to some kind of idealized left authoritarianism. To the contrary, its a demand for a new, democratic form of communism. Whatever the successes of China in combating COVID-19, he says, we should be clear that the old communist model encourages corruption. The lesson to be learned here is therefore of a different order. Longtime listeners will have heard me ramble sometimes about something called “socialist governmentality.” This is a phrase coined by Foucault, though never really fully developed. What he seems to do, towards the end of Birth of Biopolitics, is suggest that socialism has always had to turn to liberalism or totalitarianism for its model of government. A true socialist governmentality, in this sense, has yet to be invented. So what would this novel form of government look like?