While reading Giorgio Agamben’s (2020) anthropological note on the “danger” of habituation of Italians to bare life under a state of exception invoked in the name of an allegedly “manufactured” crisis, what comes to our minds – also within the broader context of the pandemic and its deaths – is Achille Mbembe’s (2003) classic essay on necropolitics. According to Mbembe:
“the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die. Hence, to kill or to allow to live constitute the limits of sovereignty, its fundamental attributes” (2003: 11).
One can read Agamben’s intervention as an instance where “death and freedom are irrevocably interwoven” (Mbembe 2003: 38). And indeed in the everyday narratives of the pandemic by many southern Europeans rebelling against the strict biopolitical regimes of COVID-19 containment in countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece – even in the face of death tolls that were unthinkable in contemporary times of (southern) European privilege – one cannot fail to sense this metaphysical tension between death and freedom: the freedom to die stoically, set above the unfreedom of containment – to live longer and perhaps still relatively free in a post-pandemic world, one could add.
But as we navigate through the social media feeds of our southern African and Caribbean networks, such narratives of freedom are also widespread, often entangled with critiques of the brutality of postcolonial African and Caribbean states in enforcing lockdowns and the negative consequences of lockdowns and economic stoppages on the poorest of the poor, who, according to many, cannot afford to carry out social distancing. In response, Africanist historian Chambi Chachage (2020) rightly highlights the erasure of decades of postcolonial history of dealing with epidemics that such narratives promote.
The spectre of a health dictatorship often ends in implicit or explicit references to China, and its allegedly draconian measures in containing COVID-19. The idea that other countries should learn from the Chinese experience—by end of March, Hubei was virtually corona-free according to Chinese data—is simply anathema to many public health experts and the vast majority of academics and public intellectuals in the West. Given their democratic status, one might expect findings from South Korea and Taiwan to be more palatable, but even then, their orientalist “otherness” continues to blind the public debate in Europe and America.
So paradoxically the preservation of life under the Chinese model has become a synonym of Foucaldian “biopolitics” and “governmentality” – with the worst connotation possible, of course – while the freedom to consume in crowded malls and to worship in packed churches is vehemently advocated by market and Christian fundamentalists alike.
While we do not doubt the authoritarian nature of Chinese biopolitics and its excesses, in this historical moment, the Asian superpower was able to protect its citizens from the worst, not only by containing the immediate biological threat to their lives posed by the virus, but also by sustaining the material reproduction of life through securing production and redistribution of the basics required for human sustenance.
Herd immunity and the freedom to die
One alternative proposal floated by the critics, the now (in)famous concept of “herd immunity”, is very much in line with Agamben’s philosophical reflections: let large numbers of people catch the virus and deal with it, so that immunity would be built over time, and the world – read: the market economy – can go on with business as usual.
Setting aside the lack of conclusive evidence that herd immunity can be built in the absence of a vaccine and for this specific virus, the proposal itself has a disturbing necropolitical implication: large numbers of people would die (in much larger numbers than if containment were pursued) in the process of building immunity, and these would be disproportionately older people and people with underlying conditions. This also translates into other inequalities across multiple dimensions: race and ethnicity (as we are seeing in the US, but also in Sweden), class (who works in frontline services that cannot be digitised), and gender (COVID-19 is a rare case where men seem to be more vulnerable), and so on.
People in high-risk groups have become the newly designated disposable bodies of the pandemic.
But the necropolitical logic of slavery cogently described by Mbembe (2003: 21-22), structurally reveals itself as the unitary logic of the capitalist system. Ultimately everybody has a price, even historically privileged populations – it is just a matter of supply and demand.
When the price of keeping somebody alive becomes too high (for the billionaires who do not want to pay taxes, and their friends in government who help them out), then the freedom to die described by Agamben is deployed as an ideological tool to justify the economic calculation, and to convince potential victims to embrace that economic logic as just and necessary.
What the pandemic shows is that the boundaries between the zone of being and the zone of non-being that Grosfoguel (2016) insightfully highlights as the dividing line between raced subjects, are shifting and situational, and can, under specific historical conditions, cut through historical privilege too.
All of a sudden, the elderly of European welfare states that had for long benefited from the accumulation and extraction of wealth from cheap labour and raw materials from the Global South, find themselves to be disposable bodies, rather than privileged pensioners enjoying the spoils of post-WWII well-resourced social democracies.
The hierarchy of disposability is of course not equalised by the virus: in its geopolitics of aid, China is keen to send 1000 ventilators to New York, but far fewer to the whole of Africa, where ventilators are very scarce due to several decades of structural adjustment programmes and their neoliberal aftermath.
Africa remains the “dark continent” where talks of the potential damage of the pandemic are muted, by the unspoken perception that African lives are valued differently from Western ones – after all, when did the world stop to fully acknowledge the millions of African deaths caused by HIV/AIDS or malaria?
Yet, despite the everlasting differential effects of capitalism – a system that as Ralph and Singhal (2019) cogently describe, is based on the “production of difference in tandem with the production of capital” – the pandemic is rapidly and brutally resolving for us longstanding debates about the nature of the current world order. The market is the ultimate sovereign, with the power to bestow life or death upon its subjects. If millions must die to sustain production and consumption in the pursuit of profit, then so be it – that is the message that market advocates want us to register.
There is some hope though that the truly global, albeit highly uneven, dimension of this pandemic might lift the veil of false consciousness that has so far separated the North from the South, the West from “the rest”. As more people in the North experience the frailty of life under the necropolitics of the market, the opportunities for global solidarity will increase. But we would be wrong to underestimate the powerful and blood-thirsty forces working against us.
Vito Laterza is Associate Professor of Development Studies in the Department of Global Development and Planning, University of Agder, and a member of the university’s Centre for Digital Transformation. He is also senior research associate of the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation, University of Johannesburg. He currently works on political economy, race & class inequalities, digitalisation, and communication studies in Africa and the West.
Louis Philippe Römer is Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Vassar College. where he has taught in Anthropology and Africana Studies since 2016. Professor Römer holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from New York University. His current research focuses on race & class, discourse, and media in the Caribbean and the Atlantic World.
Agamben, G. 2020, 17 March. Clarifications. An und für sich. Available online at https://itself.blog/2020/03/17/giorgio-agamben-clarifications/
Chachage, C. 2020, 30 March. Social distancing and “flatten the curve”: Africa can do it. Corona Times. Available online at https://www.coronatimes.net/social-distancing-africa-can-do-it/
Grosfoguel, R. 2016. What is racism?. Journal of World-Systems Research, 22(1): 9-15.
Mbembe, A. 2003. Necropolitics. Public Culture, 51(1): 11-40.
Ralph, M. and M. Singhal. 2019. Racial Capitalism. Theory and Society, 48(6): 851-881.