Danse Macabre, Trinity Church

Hrastovlje, Kopar, 1490.

What can be more important in life than life itself? What can be more precious in life than life itself? What is it that overtakes life? What is it that leaves it behind? Do we, in life, have anything other than life – except death? Because, only if we reduce life to mere existence and survival can we begin to move among the differences and divisions of life, so fruitfully and lucidly elaborated by the theory of biopolitics.
In the tradition of Western thought, the sphere of politics is, in its own understanding, wider than the sustenance of man’s bare biological existence and, as such, refers to the orderly life of the human community. As an appropriate example in this regard we can take Aristotle’s philosophy of society, his description of the political, or rather human, universe whose ancient insights demonstrate the millennial immutability of the essence of the political sphere and its constitutive meaning for man. Aristotle, in the process, distinguished several levels of human communities that differ in composition, complexity, purpose, and order of historical evolution.

The first in the order of evolution – the smallest of all communities, however – was the home ‒ a household or home with an estate or oikia, oikos. Aristotle defined it as a community created by nature for the purpose of maintaining everyday life. As the first and simplest community, it consists of those who cannot do without each other, and these are primarily man and woman, who are together by necessity and not by choice, for the sake of procreation, i.e. the biological maintenance of the species – whilst in the working and productive part of the household, the master (oikonomikos) and the slave are united for the purpose of maintaining mutual life (dia ten soterian). The household is, therefore, an essential community, formed not by choice but with the primary purpose of sustaining life, both the biological life of the species (the male-female relationship) and the material needs of human existence (the master-slave relationship).
Unlike the household, as a life-oriented community, the political community (koinonia politike), the last and final among all human communities, which Aristotle considered in its historical form of the Greek independent city-state (polis), is oriented towards a much broader spectrum of human activity. Aristotle recognised the difference between the political and other, smaller, simpler and more primary communities, especially that of the household, in the fact that although the political community was created in order to sustain the bare life (tou zen heneka), its real purpose is the good life (tou eu zen heneka). In this sense, the political community is principally a community for the good life, and its purpose is not merely the territorial organisation of the group, or the establishment of just relations or the facilitation of economic exchange. Of course, all this must exist for a political community to exist, but its purpose is much broader than mere cohabitation and consists in a perfect, self-sufficient, blissful and beautiful life abounding in beautiful deeds, i.e. achievements that surpass the immediate needs of everyday life and its functioning. Politics is, therefore, that essential area of human life in which man develops what distinguishes him from other living beings, what qualifies him as human. The difference between man and other living beings, i.e. animals, which are taken as man’s closest genus – genus proximum – lies in mental speech or logos (zoon logon echon) as the possibility of distinguishing between categories of things beyond sorrow and pleasure, namely, between the useful and the just, which is the condition for the emergence of the political community. Aristotle’s philosophy of the political community is, therefore, based on the understanding that man, in addition to being a living being, i.e. a biological being, is by his inner nature also a political living being, that is, a being of the political community (anthropos physei politikon zoon). Man is destined to live in a political community, and, together with other people, decide on all things of general interest. In other words, as Hegel would say, political space is a moral universe, the territory of the spiritual (logos) and the just (dikaion), in which man lives, acts and exists as a human. That political space, as a human world, a space in which man understands himself as a man, is older than man and all his institutions.

Empirically and historically, the home (with estate), or the household, precedes the political community owing to the necessity of maintaining bare life as a prerequisite for achieving political existence; however, by nature and concept the political community is the first thing that precedes all other communities, including the household, if these communities are to be considered human communities, and not random forms of cohabitation necessitated by bare life. The notion of the political community is a criterion specifically reserved for human existence, so the realm of the political lies somewhere in between the realm of the gods who are above, the realm of the beasts who are below, and also those, who, according to Aristotle, take human form but have not yet reached the essence of man, such as the slaves. Those who, by their nature, cannot live in a political community live an inhuman and disorderly life, a life without law, being in constant war – between themselves and with others of a similar nature.

Albertus Pictor, “Death plays chess”, frescoe Täby Church, Stockholm, 1480.

We shall immediately emphasise that these fundamental insights of Aristotle’s have a ‘metapolitical’ character, i.e. that they are anchored in Aristotle’s metaphysics as onto-theology and are not the result of his social analysis. This is especially clear given the links between central political categories and the notion of Nature. One of the fundamental attitudes is the definition of man as a political living being by nature (ton physei), and it is in this context that one should understand Aristotle’s specific distinction between the household and the political community. It was not directly gained from experience, but was the result of a reflexive procedure that stemmed from Aristotle’s fundamental metaphysical perspectives.

In line with this metaphysical foundation for determining the universe of politics developed by Aristotle, we encounter those theoreticians of our time who claim that, on the threshold of the modern age, politics, whose purpose was, in fact, the good life, has transformed into biopolitics. The term biopolitics was first introduced by Michel Foucault in his research on power, and today, a number of authors from Giorgio Agamben through Antonio Negri to Roberto Esposito closely focus on this term in their influential studies on the nature of politics in our times.

And what is actually meant by biopolitics? The term biopolitics is understood as a political state, in which life as such becomes the primary object of projections and calculations of state power – that is, a political state in which people’s bare life becomes the centre, the fundamental determination, and interest of politics. Foucault considered such a development to be an epochal novelty, stating that man had existed as Aristotle’s philosophy had defined him for thousands of years – as a living animal (un animal vivant), which was, in addition to that, also capable of political existence. Modern man, by contrast, is an animal whose politics calls into question his biological existence. Therefore, the interest of politics has been reversed from the good life (to eu zen), which was the purpose of the political community defined by Aristotle, to the life simply as it is or the bare life (to zen or zoe). Giorgio Agamben shares a similar claim. According to him, the stepping of bare life into the sphere of the polis, or the politicisation of bare life as such, presents a crucial event of modernity and marks a radical transformation of political and philosophical categories of classical thought. The phenomena that Agamben considers as biopolitical ‘paradigms’ include: concentration camps, the life of refugees outside their country of origin, and the state of emergency as a suspension of the legal order, as well as other similar situations that manifest the modern crisis and the redefinition of the traditional Aristotelian delineation of politics. His concludes that biopolitical phenomena do not represent anomalies and a regression to earlier forms, but a matrix and a political space, in which modern man lives and finds that biopolitics has so mastered the modern understanding of the essence of the political that today’s Western fundamental biopolitical paradigm is no longer the polis / city-state but the concentration camp. In short, the political model of the West is not a city but a concentration camp, not Athens but – Auschwitz.

In the context of the standard bio-political phenomena, the sovereign power that assumes the disposition of bare life does so, as a rule, by distinguishing between ‘us’ and ‘them’, whereas the standard political framework which, based on the implementation of law, shows a respect for life, remains something reserved for ‘us’, but is abolished for ‘them’. For historical examples, these dualities were expressed as Aryans vs. Jews, domicile citizens vs. refugees and the like. Prisoners of concentration camps are deprived of political livelihood to the extent that they can be killed at will, just as refugees in a foreign country have no rights as non-citizens, since they do not fall under the protection of the national legal system; and, on top of that, international law is not only rather abstract but lacks instruments for its effective enforcement and sanctioning. Reduced to life as it is, the bare life, or zoe, such persons testify to the existence of biopolitical practices; but, as a rule, there are also those legally protected subjects of the political community, whose zoe is integrated into the political community’s higher goals and which the political community builds and establishes as the good life or, in Agamben’s categorisation, bios. Although biopolitics at its core represents the removal of the distinctions between inclusiveness and exclusiveness, the private and the public, zoe and bios, and the like, in such a way as to affect the nature of the whole community, in political reality the biopolitical oppressors, i.e. those in the name of whom biopolitics is implemented and who belong to the political system and the community that strives to sustain itself, are relatively clearly confronted by those who are reduced to zoe, who are victims of biopolitical practices and do not form part of the political community. This difference was particularly evident in the Nazi distinction between the citizens of the Reich (Reichsbürger) and those who were only members of the state (Staatsangehörige), as prescribed by the Reich Citizenship Law of 15. 9. 1935. September 1935, which was part of the Nuremberg Laws. In practice, this was reduced to distinguishing between the racially desirable and, in given circumstances, fully legitimate citizens, and the racially undesirable, whose rights and legal protection were significantly reduced and who were later subjected to extermination in the camps.

It should be added that the deliberate spreading and conscious planning of biopolitical practices, i.e. the implementation of projects that necessarily involve those practices – regardless of the propagation of biopolitics warned against by Foucault, Agamben or Roberto Esposito – was, in principle, unacceptable in the value and normative system of the civilisation within which the conflict was supposed to happen. For this purpose, resort is usually found in the justification of biopolitical practices, whereby they are presented as inevitable and normal in given conditions, and primarily defensive and enforced / unavoidable. Historical examples demonstrate that this procedure is quite common, and consists in defining the conflict as something that passes beyond the framework of a political dispute, and thus can neither be litigated by standard political means nor end in a political solution. As a rule, the ‘other’ is presented and denounced as a threat to biological survival, i.e. as a biopolitical agent, whence it is deduced that we are dealing with a conflict in which biopolitical means respond to a biopolitical practice or threat, that is, a conflict of opposing biopolitics. At the same time, ‘our’ biopolitics is, of course, only enforced, defensive and reactive. These conductors of biopolitical practices often designate the objects of their own biopolitics as dangers to life itself or as genuine ‘biopoliticians’, drawing the conclusion that their lives have no right to protection and can be disposed of without any sanctions. As Himmler summed it up: “We had a moral right, we had a duty towards our nation, to destroy that nation that attempted to destroy us”. That is why, eventually, the motive / motif/theme of eternal war as a means of political existence became inherent in any biopolitics. “Those who want to live must fight, and those who do not wish to fight in this world of permanent struggle, have no right to exist”. (Hitler)

Dušan Makavejev. WR: Mysteries of the Organism, 1971.

Namely, the Nazis considered the lower races as a health threat to their own genetic material, so that the fight against them was presented as a struggle for public health. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which excluded Jews from the civil system (the Reich Citizenship Law) and prohibited marriage and sexual intercourse between Jews and Aryans (the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour), were generally regarded not so much as anti-Semitic acts but as laws that superintended public health, so that the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour was regularly included in the collections of German health regulations. The entire racial and hygienic activity of the Nazi Germany, which included sterilisation, euthanasia, and mass extermination to eliminate the dangers posed by inferior races, was based on the notion of others as bacilli or a plague that jeopardise health and may therefore be eliminated by any means possible.

One of the principal insights of Agamben’s thoughts on biopolitics as a key phenomenon of the modern transformation of the political sphere is that the possibility of introducing biopolitical practices rests on a rather sporadically researched constitutional legal institution in the theory of politics – the state of emergency. Speaking from the operative point of view, the aim of this institution lies in the strengthening and significant expansion of the authorisational powers of the central government in situations of crisis or major and serious threats to the whole community (which may have different origins and forms – war, major internal riots, disasters or certain system breakdowns). In principle, the imposition of the state of emergency involves measures such as the reduction or abolition of freedoms and elements of the legal order, and usually implies empowering the executive government to pass laws and other regulations independently of parliament, including those that are not in line with the existing constitutional order. The basic characteristics of the state of emergency are the suspension of the existing legal order, the replacement of legal norms by decrees of the executive government and the abolition of the difference between legislative, executive and judicial authorities. As Agamben writes in his book State of Exception, the institution dates back to the establishment of civil-liberal democracies and nation-states, and since then it has been known – in a variety of versions – by all the political systems of the modern world, many of which have applied it in practice. An example of the concept of the state of emergency is the famous Article 48 of the Constitution of the Weimar Republic of Germany, which stipulated that if security and public order in the German Reich were severely disrupted or threatened, the Reich President could take the necessary measures to restore security and public order, and, if circumstances require it, do so with the use of the armed forces. He could also abolish fundamental legal rights in whole or in part. Another example was the so-called Enabling Act, passed in March 1933, not even two months after Hitler had taken power. The Enabling Act stipulated that the laws of the Reich may be passed by the Government of the Reich, outside the procedure in the Reichstag, i.e. the parliament, and that laws passed by the Government could be in disagreement with the existing constitution. Following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, President Bush declared a state of emergency on 14. September 9. 2001, by Presidential Decree No. 7436, thus restricting civil rights and freedoms, reducing the level of legal protection of individuals against state actions – imprisonment and detention on the basis of executive and non-judicial decisions – and significantly expanding the powers of the security services and police. Subsequently, on 13 November 2001, 11. 2001. Bush passed the decision that persons who do not possess American citizenship and who are suspected of terrorist activities can be detained for an unspecified period. The novelty of this regulation was the deprivation of any legal status for the detainees.

Contrary to those who consider the institution of the state of emergency to be only a pragmatic or factual issue, Agamben believes that it is a decisive issue related to the very essence of the legal order, warning us that the nature of its being on the edge of law and politics is more important than its external phenomenology. The basic paradox of the state of emergency can be expressed in several ways:

  • – A legal norm that suspends legal norms
  • The legal form of something that cannot have a legal form
  • A no man’s land between public law and political fact, between the legal order and life
  • – A state of law that coincides with the natural state.

In this sense, the state of emergency lies at the very centre of the political system, at the intersection or line of indistinguishability of the two elements that make up the legal-political system of our civilisation: the legal vs. the arbitrary, i.e. bare forces outside the law. Western political history consists in the dialectic and mutual balance of these elements, which can function as a legal-political system; but when, on the basis of a legal fiction, according to which lawlessness maintains law, the situation of anomie or lawlessness based on law is created, in other words, when state power annexes anomie by using the state of emergency, a space for unlimited biopolitics opens: “When they show a tendency to coincide in one person, when the state of emergency, in which they are connected and indistinguishable, becomes the rule, then the legal-political system turns into a killing machine”. What Agamben particularly seeks to show is that, as to the degree of anomie and violence, the state of emergency surpasses dictatorship, as it causes a temporary suspension of law (iustitium), a legal void created and supported by state power. Generally speaking, the state of emergency underlies the possibility of the most horrific phenomena of biopolitics, from death camps in Nazi Germany, through American prisons outside any legal framework, to refugee camps.

Although originally conceived and implemented as a state response to extreme internal situations such as civil war, with the intention of facilitating a return to normalcy, the state of emergency is increasingly generating extreme situations to implement extreme policies, which involve biopolitical practices. Therefore, Agamben places the source of totalitarianism and its practices precisely in the state of emergency: “Modern totalitarianism can be defined as the establishment, by means of the state of exception, of a legal civil war that allows for the physical elimination not only of political adversaries but of entire categories of citizens who, for some reason, cannot be integrated into the political system.” The frequency of biopolitical practices in the 20th century correlates with the frequency and longevity of conscious and deliberate implementations of the state of emergency, which is empirically confirmed also in democracies. Thus, Agamben concludes that today the state of emergency has reached its widest use worldwide, that “the intentional creation of a permanent state of exception has become one of the most important measures of contemporary States, democracies included” and, furthermore, that the frequency of its implementation “tends to become the authorities’ permanent practice” and the paradigm of government.

In this way, Agamben shows us how, in situations of abolished legal norms or suspension of the law (iustitium), the distinction between the private and the public is erased on its own, opening up the question of the true nature of the acts committed in that condition. In such circumstances, political adversaries, i.e. citizens who, for some reason, cannot be integrated into the political system, become reduced to the status of what had been known in Roman law as homo sacer, i.e. the sacred man, a person who is banned from both profane and sacred laws on account of a crime committed (and who therefore cannot be sacrificed in a religious ritual). This person enjoys no rights whatsoever, is deprived of any identity, both religious and civil, and may be murdered by anybody with impunity. It is this ‘sacred man’ that Agamben considers the prototypical object of political power over life, and it is around him that he has developed his theory of biopolitics. Homo sacer is a figure of archaic Roman law in which human life is integrated into the legal order (ordinamento) only in the form of its being excluded, that is, its ability to be killed. According to a Roman source (Sextus Pompeius Festus, 2nd century AD), a sacred man is one whom the people have condemned on account of a crime. It is forbidden to sacrifice him, but whoever may kill him will not be convicted of murder. In fact, the first law of the tribunes stated that if someone kills the one who is sacred according to the plebiscite, it will not be considered murder. And that is why it is customary for an evil or impure man to be called sacred.

“Lord Have Mercy”
weekly statistics on the death toll during the plague, 17th century, England

Homo sacer and the sovereign, i.e. the one who decides about the state of emergency, present, according to Agamben, two symmetrical figures with the same structure and standing in correlation with each other: the sovereign is the one to whom all people are potential homines sacri, while homo sacer is the one towards whom all people may act as potential sovereigns.

Let us say that, ultimately, it is in this, as in all previously presented dualities, that the problematic nature of the very concept of biopolitics lies. Although this is not an opportunity for a more detailed development of the topic, we can only say that the concept itself is based on a distinctly metaphysical (onto-theological) understanding of man as a rational living being. This is because all the divisions of life into the animal life of animals vs. the human life of man, natural and bare life, i.e. biologically bare life vs. politically qualified life, life worthy of man vs. life unworthy of man, life in the biological sense of the word vs. life as a possibility of the subject, etc., all these and similar dualities always result in the claim that man is not (only) an animal. Metaphysically speaking, he is not just an animal, but an animal rationale, a rational animal, a doubly unique being of animality and intelligence (rational speech, logos), a being of survival and supra-survival.

The life that always ‘stays behind’ is precisely the life subordinated to metaphysics as onto-theology. What can be more important in life than life itself? What can be more precious in life than life itself? What is it that overtakes life? What is it that leaves it behind? Do we, in our life, have anything other than life, except – death? Because, only if we reduce life to mere existence and survival can we begin to move among the differences and divisions of life, so fruitfully and lucidly elaborated by the theory of biopolitics.

And when, for example, nowadays, on the occasion of the coronavirus pandemic, Giorgio Agamben asks himself, “What is society if it has no value other than survival” and if “it no longer believes in anything but bare life” (non crede più in nulla se non nella nuda vita), then, with this question which actually seeks to ask what is a society that has no value other than nature and does not believe in anything other than natural life, he, as well as the entire metaphysics, misses the existential-ontological truth that only in such a situation, e.g. a pandemic, can man find himself (simultaneously) before himself as a biological being of nature, before the bare life of a mortal being and before the question of survival on a purely biological level. The first of all fears is born, i.e. the fear of death, fear as an expression of anxiety, which overwhelms man on the same level at which he is concerned about his very existence. In other words, he cares about life as – a gift of existence.