Freedom and Life in an Age of Contagion

by Steve Heikkila

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“DER DR. SCHNABEL VON ROM.” 17TH CENTURY PLAGUE PHYSICIAN COSTUME. (PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Life and Freedom are Co-Ultimate Universal Values

In engaging our public discourse regarding what to do about the COVID-19 pandemic, it has never occurred to me to become an uncompromising partisan on either side of the ensuing dialectic of freedom and life. I’ve been inoculated from doing so by Agnes Heller. In her remarkable book Beyond Justice, Heller compellingly argues that in modernity there are two co-ultimate universal values “in which all principles or maxims are rooted:” freedom and life.

Freedom and Life in Conflict

Having walked through Heller’s arguments, it’ll now be easy enough to successfully contest both Giorgio Agamben’s claim that Italian society has abandoned the value of freedom in favor of bare life, and the American conservative claim that liberal freedom is the sole ultimate value in America, to which the value of life must be subordinate.

The Normative Distortions of Capitalist Realism

If you were hoping I had a secret recipe for resolving conflicts between the values of life and freedom, let me disappoint you now. I don’t. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that all of us are all over the place when it comes to these concrete conflicts, sometimes prioritizing life and sometimes prioritizing freedom, and typically unable to offer a fully coherent account of our various choices. That said, seriously engaging the dialectic of freedom and life does matter.

The Democratic Politics of Freedom and Life

It’s understandable for people to want to be settled in their judgments, to see tensions eased, and to see socially and politically contentious matters resolved. What is egregious, however, is the attempt to force a final reconciliation to a normative conflict that affects entire communities (in the case of climate crisis or the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire world) by preemptively dissolving, rather than engaging in, the dialectical tension between the values of freedom and life. This ends up being a political failing in the case of both of the conservative ‘resolutions’ to the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve been exploring. By political failure in this instance, I mean specifically a preemptive refusal to entertain the kind of freedom that democratic politics depends upon. It’s a refusal that is, we shall see, reinforced by capitalist realism. In Giorgio Agamben’s case, it entails surrendering any democratic aspirations (entailed in surrendering all freedom) to a dystopian biopolitical governmentality (a la Michel Foucault). In the case of American conservatives, it entails suppressing democratic politics by aggrandizing negative (liberal) freedom into absolute freedom.

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Following the 2016 presidential election, people seemed to be saying these words repetitively — “clearly, we’re living in dark times.” indarktimes.com

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