Seeing the Biomedical Security State
Giorgio Agamben, and a year and half of lockdowns, has shown us where we are.
“We can either have a free society or we can have a biomedical security state.”
When Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis used this phrase in an early August press conference, it went viral on social media. That phrase, “biomedical security state,” struck a chord in the media.
A few days later, a reporter from the Washington Post reached out to me. While looking into the phrase’s origins, he found that I had been the first to tweet out the words “biomedical security state” in October of 2020. I had continually used the term in my Twitter feed since then, and a few days before the press conference, a tweet thread of mine with the phrase went viral.
A call to DeSantis’s communications staff on the reporter’s part was inconclusive. It was not clear where, precisely, the governor had gotten the phrase; his remarks were unprepared. But the power of the term is unmistakable. It’s apparent connection to my own work is gratifying.
I coined the term in the spring of 2020 after reading a number of blog posts by noted Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. The turn of phrase had a power to it. “Biomedical security state” captures the reality of our current regime: the post-9/11 “national security” surveillance apparatus merged with the global medical establishment and Big Pharma. The TSA checkpoint and hospital, united as one.
Agamben’s work is incredibly useful. His recent writing addressing the lockdowns in Italy clarifies his earlier research into the “state of exception,” which is also the title of his best-known work. In it, he explores the legal-juridical foundation of the tendency in the West, post-WWII, to move away from ordinary law toward emergency edicts. For Agamben, provocatively, the concentration camp is the “nomos of the modern.” For Agamben, the spiritual center of the West had moved from “Athens to Auschwitz.” Liberal democracy, far from bringing about real human freedom, had abandoned itself to the ideal of the concentration camp.
The “sovereign” suspends these laws in the name of safety and protection. The ruler thereby reduces the citizen to a mere body that is acted on directly by the regime. What makes these states of exception so insidious is that their existence is codified in law. The law suspends the law. Agamben notes that Nazi Germany, for instance, was governed for virtually the entirety of its existence under Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which allowed for the suspension of German law in times of emergency.
Agamben’s work is frequently hard to understand. Like other post-modern writers he tends to be abstract in his writing. Anger at the lockdowns, however, gave him clarity.
In a post entitled “A Question,” published in Italian at a small blog, Agamben noted that the virus had caused his fellow citizens to abandon all of the signs and symbols of a truly human life. The abandonment of funeral rites and communal interaction cut especially deep: “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.”
The philosopher went on to condemn the Church and legal experts for going along with such an inhuman project. These guardians of civilized life had abandoned both religion and law in the name of total deference to brute science. Agamben recognized in March of last year the sweeping changes that would be wrought by the pandemic. He rightly feared their impact on human life.
Agamben is a prophet of our time. His opposition to the biomedical regime and the extension of the nomos of the camp are not mere words on paper. In January of 2004, Agamben refused to travel to the United States to deliver a lecture, since doing so would require him to give up biometric data that, he argued, would be used to reduce him to mere life. Human beings, for Agamben, should not be treated like bodies simply.
A distinction between higher life (bios) and lower life (zoe) is crucial to Agamben’s work, and to human life as a whole. A regime totally dedicated to safety, the biomedical security state that DeSantis correctly condemned, is totally at odds with a life of human flourishing. Reducing human beings to bare life, the life of the fungus—absorbing nutrients and expelling waste in the name of pure existence—is inhuman.
The life lived merely to survive, avoiding all risk, has no vital power or aspiration. It has no virtue. Friendship, love, art, poetry, science, and community require risk to come into being. Fear of death is no way to live. Agamben’s work makes this lesson extraordinarily clear.
The last year and a half has been an unrelenting assault on higher human life. Australia has, in the name of quarantine, built literal camps to imprison those it deems to be walking biohazards. Human resources harpies in America beat down those who express skepticism of the medical “wonders” wrought by corporate America. Everywhere there is fear and paranoia of one’s neighbors and friends.
We have been told over and over again that everyone we meet might be a walking disease vector. But treating healthy human beings like plague carriers in the name of “science” is an abomination. No lab experiment can tell us what justice is. No computer model can tell us how to live the good life. Radical subordination to emergency edicts and the implementation of the permanent state of emergency is inhumane and sick.
Ordinary citizens must fight back against this biomedical security state. Our leaders, like Ron DeSantis, are right to lead the charge.
Josiah Lippincott is a former Marine officer and current Ph.D. student at the Van Andel School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. You can find him on Twitter at @jlippincott_.
For more about the “Taking the Mask Off” series, click here.