Freedom and Life in an Age of Contagion

by Steve Heikkila


The viral magnifying glass enlarges the characteristics of our contradictions and of our limitations. It is a reality principle that collides with the pleasure principle. Death is its companion.

–Jean-Luc Nancy

We must live with the awareness that conflicts between life and freedom may occur…even if we uphold both universal principles, we cannot observe both of them unconditionally in many highly sensitive situations.

–Agnes Heller, Beyond Justice

On February 27th, days after authorities in Lombardy and Veneto invoked Italy’s first quarantine measures in an effort to stem the tide of the COVID-19 pandemic, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben published a brief essay entitled L’invenzione di un’epidemia (The Invention of an Epidemic) wherein he asserted that “there is no SARS-CoV2 epidemic in Italy.” Needless to say, that essay didn’t age well. Less than a month later the Italian healthcare system was overwhelmed with the sick and dying, and Italy overtook China as this “fake” pandemic’s epicenter. On March 17th, having received a good deal of pushback for proffering pandemic skepticism, Agamben published a set of Clarifications.

There is something very peculiar going on in Agamben’s Clarifications that bears further attention. It concerns our perennially complicated and uneasy social and political struggle to respect both the value of life and the value of freedom. In most cases, mind you, this isn’t a problem, since both freedom and life are respected as important social values. However, certain concrete situations arise that place these values in conflict. Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic presents us with just such a situation.

In taking a dissenting position on Italy’s lock down measures (which were justified in the interest of saving lives) we might expect Giorgio Agamben to champion the value of freedom over the value of life. He doesn’t. Instead he does something odd. He points to Italy’s lockdown measures as proof that freedom no longer exists as a value in Italian society. Agamben writes:

“The first thing that the wave of panic that has paralyzed the country obviously shows is that our society no longer believes in anything but bare life. It is obvious that Italians are disposed to sacrifice practically everything — the normal conditions of life, social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions — to the danger of getting sick. […] what is a society that has no value other than survival?”

As we see, Agamben doesn’t express freedom’s ‘social extinction’ explicitly. His is an argument about value attrition, the claim that social values have dwindled to a single value: bare life. In effect Agamben claims that, at least in Italy, conflicts between the values of freedom of life are no longer possible. Italy is now a land of slavish, cowering survivalists.

What is peculiar about this ‘resolution’ is that Agamben is clearly not ‘pro-bare life’. His pronouncement is a lament. Given that he is a member of Italian society himself, we might even characterize it as an ironic lament.

What I find unbearable about Agamben’s assessment — particularly as it comes from a political philosopher of the Left — is its mournful conservatism. I mean conservative here, not in the ideological sense, but in the sense of voicing a politics of resignation. There’s no proposed resolution to what he characterizes as an almost obsequious obsession with bare survival, no call to action, no possible path to emancipation. Quite to the contrary actually. Agamben’s Corrections reads as a surrender to an increasingly dystopian status quo ante. With a tone of disgust, Giorgio Agamben ‘washes his hands’ of the whole affair. “We in fact live in a society that has sacrificed freedom to so-called “reasons of security”,” Agamben writes, “and has therefore condemned itself to live in a perennial state of fear and insecurity.”

Regarding the conflict between the values of freedom and life that the COVID-19 pandemic provokes, I want to add that there is an inverse ‘normatively totalizing resolution’ to the one articulated by Giorgio Agamben. One that is at least as unsettling and unsatisfactory. It’s not an exact antipode. That is to say, it doesn’t deny the very existence of life as a social value. Instead it insists that freedom is the ultimate value, to which all other values (including that of human life) are subordinate. Where Agamben’s lamentable resolution is slavish, this one is aspirationally homicidal.

Examples of this position abound among certain segments of the American Right for whom pandemic precautions have been cynically astroturfed into an election year partisan political issue. On April 30th, for example, hundreds of protesters armed with rifles seized the Michigan state house demanding that state legislators put an end to pandemic lock down measures. Few of them wore masks, and the crush of bodies clearly violated any semblance of social distancing. This is antithetical to Giorgio Agamben’s depiction of Italian society willing to sacrifice “nearly everything” to “the danger of getting sick.” Explaining his motivation, one protester made it perfectly clear: “In America, we should be free. Don’t let them try to protect us from ourselves.”

To be sure, the example above is not indicative of the attitude of American society as a whole. Plenty of other Americans support pandemic protection measures expressly in the interest of saving lives. We must also bear in mind that there are plenty of laid-off and furloughed working class Americans who oppose pandemic lockdown measures, not in the interest of freedom, but in the interest of life. 40 years of neoliberal austerity and historically-unprecedented levels of wealth inequality have transformed the United States into an economically brutal place with a nearly non-existent social safety net. For many poor and working class Americans, being deprived of the ability to work is, like the pandemic itself, a threat to life. It can result in losing one’s home, losing one’s access to healthcare, and quickly descending into poverty and food insecurity.

These caveats notwithstanding, there is, as author Anand Giridharadas has noted,a primordial American tradition going back to the founders of being freedom-obsessed.” This freedom obsession makes we Americans “so afraid of the government coming for us that we’re blind to other types of threats.” As if to illustrate Giridharadas’ point, it’s worth noting that his comments caused conservative American media to lose its collection of atomized individual minds.

Some Americans take the Revolutionary war slogans Live free or Die! and Give me liberty or give me death! so literally that they preclude any possibility of compromise between life and freedom. Social media is replete with videos of the most appallingly antisocial examples: belligerent patriots who not only refuse business owners’ requirement that customers wear masks, but in some instances intentionally cough in the faces of low-wage service industry workers or spit on them.

While freedom is valorized in these examples, it’s important to note that freedom is understood very narrowly as negative freedom (aka liberal freedom), which amounts to the right of the individual to be unmolested (especially by the government). No one can force me to wear a mask or stay in my home. No one can stop me from getting my hair cut. No one can legitimately force me — a free individual — to do, or to abstain from doing, anything.

Liberal freedom has an economic expression as well, captured well by the French phrase laissez-faire (leave alone, or literally, “let do”). No one can legitimately regulate the way I (or a corporation) conduct business in the market. The market must remain free, even if it means your grandmother has to die from a virus. Even if it means immolating your children’s future on the bonfire of impending climate disaster. These are, after all, matters of mere life.

Here we reach a point of conservative common ground between Agamben’s resolution and that of certain American political conservatives. Much like Agamben’s capitulation to the value of bare life, the conservative valorization of negative (liberal) freedom serves as a counterweight to intentional political interventions into the status quo.

Frankly, I’m really not interested in normative stances that serve to protect our highly dysfunctional late capitalist way of life from a viral pandemic. Quite to the contrary, I’m interested in the opportunities that the pandemic’s radical disruption of ‘business as usual’ might afford us for rethinking and ultimately changing our world for the better.

To this end, what strikes me about the two ultimately conservative positions I’ve highlighted above is the extent to which each is captured by the spell of what critic Mark Fisher describes as capitalist realism. The term capitalist realism expresses the idea that late capitalist ideology has been reified. That is to say, it’s principles and values are no longer understood as a set of values you can take or leave, but instead are understood as fact, as part of nature, and as such, implacable and irresistible. This understanding is famously captured by a demoralizing slogan that Margaret Thatcher often repeated whenever anyone called into question her commitment to neoliberal economics: “There is no alternative” (TINA).

What’s fascinating about the COVID-19 pandemic is that it’s revealed to us that there are alternatives. It did so, as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek noted back in March, by confronting us “with something we considered impossible.” It stopped the world. Or as the economist Yanis Varoufakis recently put it, the pandemic “pressed the pause button on capitalism”. According to prevailing cultural hegemony (capitalist realism), this isn’t supposed to be possible (TINA). For a moment at least, the capitalist realist spell is, if not broken, at least weakened.

In the spirit of “striking while the iron is hot” I want to explore the window of opportunity that this pandemic rupture of capitalist realism affords. However, to really “crack this open,” so to speak, it’ll be worthwhile to examine the normative flaws (yes, we’ll be doing actual normative philosophy) in the two conservative takes on the value of freedom and life I highlighted above. Doing so will take us some way towards revealing what is missing from the political world (or what remains of it) that capitalist realism built.

For this reason I’ll be splitting this exploration into two pieces. Taking my cue from philosopher Agnes Heller, in this first piece, I’ll address the complicated dialectic of freedom and life that confronts us in concrete situations like that posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a second piece we’ll move on to exploring the opportunities that the pandemic disruption of capitalist realism afford us.

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.

To say that freedom and life are both ultimate values means that contestation and validation of all other norms, values, principles, and laws ultimately make appeal to one or both of these two. To say they are co-ultimate values means that any “higher-order consensus” resulting from our social and political discourse requires that both values be recognized without subordinating one to the other.

If the idea of contesting norms in public discourse seems philosophically esoteric in some sense, it’s not. Heller notes that at least in democratic societies where open dialogue is permitted, arguments about norms, rules, and principles are “an everyday occurrence.” We don’t always make comprehensive appeals to the ultimate values that undergird our normative arguments. Demonstrating, for example, how one contested norm contradicts another mutually accepted norm often suffices. However, as Heller reminds us, “one can have recourse to such ultimate values if one chooses to argue in full.”

We also continuously validate norms and values by our actions because values motivate actions. In this sense values remain concrete. No one can plausibly point to a culture where people protest in public, for example, and claim that that culture does not value freedom. In this way, Heller insists, “people act such that these cultural values should exist, should flourish, or occasionally be ‘immortal’.” She cites as examples, “the nation (my nation), the family, freedom of speech, progress, health, humankind, independence, welfare and culture.” There are, of course, many more. The co-ultimate values of freedom and life don’t impose any kind of “consensual hierarchy” on these values, which is part of the reason why we constantly contest them. The way these contests get resolved can vary by culture and are constantly evolving.

What is so powerful about Heller’s demonstration that freedom and life are co-ultimate universal values in modernity is just how straightforward it is. The claim can be verified, she notes, “via all modern versions of the ethico-political concept of justice.” When philosophers ponder the “just society,” dating at least back to Hobbes, life and freedom are “presupposed, and in this sense they are axiomatic.” In each case ensuring the life and liberty of citizens is a central feature of what it means to be a just society.

There is more evidence still. All theories of natural law (and the social contract theories premised upon them) declare that we are born free and have a right to life.

Need written proof? The claim can also be verified by reference to various declarations of human rights. Heller mentions “The American Declaration of Independence, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.” I would add to this the UN Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948. Article 3 states: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

n short then, her argument is historical and empirical, and in this sense, demonstrable. This is entirely appropriate given that we’re dealing with a question, not about the nature of freedom or human life, but of what we who are living in the world actually value. It’s a properly historically-contextualized question.

Even the universality of the values of freedom and life coalescing into a higher-order consensus, Heller argues, is “understood as a historical product.” As such, their universal validity is not a priori, but a “factual universality”. At first blush this may appear implausible given conditions of value pluralism within and across a diversity of cultures. Heller acknowledges that as part of the modern human condition “we live in a pluralistic moral universe”. Nevertheless, when Heller says the values of freedom and life are “factually universal,” she explicitly means “transculturally universal.” This universality is illustrated by the fact that “[t]here is no culture today in which unfreedom could be publicly chosen as a value.” Indeed, “not even the worst kind of tyrant can now publicly confess that he prefers unfreedom to freedom.” This doesn’t mean, of course, that an authoritarian society, for example, will not impose severe limitations on people’s actual freedoms. It does mean, however, that even authoritarian governments don’t ‘sell” their authoritarianism as ‘unfreedom’ for the simple reason that freedom is an important culturally recognized value.

This last point is noteworthy in the context of Giorgio Agamben citing the fact that Italians tolerated the Italian government’s use of state-power to enforce pandemic lockdown measures as “proof” that Italian society has finally forsaken freedom as a value. Agamben’s claim was immediately contested publicly, including by a number of fellow Italian intellectuals who, as members of the very society that reputedly eschews the value of freedom, performatively refute Agamben’s thesis.

There remains a question as to how we know that freedom and life are the only ultimate universal human values. Why aren’t there three or five? What about other contenders, like justice or equality? Addressing this question begins to drag us off topic, so rather than recount Heller’s argument here I refer you to Beyond Justice, which addresses this question in detail.

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.

Here is a link to a video of protesters gathered in Rome on June 7th (during a pandemic). The protesters are chanting, in English, the phrase “I can’t breathe.” One of the protest organizers, Denise Fuja Berhane, explained in an interview that the purpose of the event was “to protest the murder of George Floyd and the systemic racism that keeps African Americans from living fully free lives in America.” With this protest and this comment Girogio Agamben’s claim that Italian society believes in nothing but bare life is refuted. We could cite more examples, but this is sufficient.

As for American conservatives who storm state houses with rifles to end the tyranny of pandemic lock-down measures, or who refuse to wear protective masks in public on the grounds that their negative (liberal) freedom is more important than human life? It would suffice to demonstrate that these people lack the conviction of their own claim. To do so, we might simply ask them, in regard to abortion rights, if they support a woman’s right to choose. Most of them, being American conservatives, will predictably flip normative positions without a second thought. Despite the fact that the ability of women to control their own reproductive destinies is essential to any hope for their free and equal participation in American social, economic, and political life, most American conservatives disallow this freedom ultimately, on the grounds that the value of life is more important. Indeed, conservatives even have a name for this stance, and it’s not “pro-freedom”. It’s “pro-life”. If conservatives remain unaware of this contradiction, it’s in large part due to a failure to engage the dialectic of freedom and life seriously enough to recognize, as Agnes Heller would have predicted, that they actually value both freedom and life.

American political culture is obsessed with ferreting out and condemning hypocrisy, and this appears to be an almost paradigmatic example. We should note though that this ‘hypocrisy’ cuts both ways. There are ample instances in which liberal and leftist Americans champion freedom over life in one concrete situation, and life over freedom in another. There are more than enough instances, in fact, to hang us all as ‘hypocrites’. A more sympathetic reading is that these are instances of people grappling, sometimes well and sometimes poorly, with the perplexity and confusion we all experience in dealing with freedom and life in conflict.

To be clear, we can easily conceive of life and freedom as compatible values without contradiction. Nevertheless, there are concrete situations (like the COVID-19 pandemic) that place these co-ultimate values in conflict. What this amounts to, to quote Agnes Heller, is that in the particular concrete situation “our actions cannot be guided by both principles, or at least not by both equally.” We’re then forced by circumstance to give priority of one value over the other. This is a choice that, according to our own normative commitments, ought not be made. This is why they make us uncomfortable, and frankly a little crazy. Such is the nature of the dialectic of freedom and life. At best we will negotiate some kind of a compromise. However, even this never settles the issue. Genuine conflicts between the value of life and value of freedom are irreconcilable.

There are innumerable concrete situations where such conflicts arise. In fact, Agnes Heller hypothesizes that “all value discussions which remain unsettled in modernity” result from “conflicts between the values of freedom and life.” The reason I selected the abortion issue as an example at the beginning of this section is because it’s a textbook illustration of just such a conflict. Pacifism is another, as is taxation, as are (more recently given the American epidemic of suicides and mass shootings) Second Amendment rights in the United States. Now, unfortunately, we must add the COVID-19 pandemic to the list.

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.

Here, as I suggested at the beginning of this piece, serious engagement in the dialectic is further complicated by the normatively-distorting effects of capitalist realism. Perhaps the best way to make this clear is by examining the most ominous and consequential instance of a concrete conflict between the values of freedom and life: the climate crisis.

When the Sunrise Movement, Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Senator Ed Markey, and others lobbied for a Green New Deal to address the impending threat of climate change, a typical response from mainstream Democrats, Republicans, and corporate media outlets alike was “how are you going to pay for that?” Embedded in this response is the perverse thought that saving the human species from extinction might simply be too expensive. If this response sounds homicidal, that’s because it is. I’m sure, however, that if you polled the people who express this view, they would be unlikely to characterize themselves as nihilists harboring a species-level death-wish.

This idea that the economy can ill-afford to support the continuation of human life on earth is a perfect expression of what Mark Fisher describes as capitalist realism. It reflects the claim, which Fisher attributes (via Slavoj Žižek) to Fredric Jameson, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. This claim articulates the reification of market values (including liberal freedom in the form of an unchecked market) into facts, into unalterable nature itself. “There is no alternative” (TINA).

Regarding the climate crisis, then, capitalist realism proposes an ultimate resolution to all conflicts between the values of freedom and life: market freedom, recast as necessity (TINA), finally vanquishes life. Conflict resolved. Game over.

This is not what taking the dialectic of freedom and life seriously looks like.

Our handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is all the more concerning in this context inasmuch as it’s effectively a ‘dress rehearsal’ for how we address our future political interventions (or lack thereof) into the climate crisis. It’s why we should all be concerned with breaking the spell of capitalist realism.

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.

What is missing in each case is positive freedom. Whereas negative or liberal freedom is freedom from any kind of interference or harassment, positive freedom is active freedom. It’s the freedom to do. Among a plurality of persons (e.g., in the world we all live in), positive freedom can take the form of democratic freedom: the freedom of a polity to collectively determine its own destiny.

The very idea of absolute freedom (liberal freedom taken to the extreme) is anathema to democratic politics. In economic terms, absolute freedom takes the form of market fundamentalism — the idea that unregulated free-market capitalism can solve all of our social, political, and economic problems (including, as we saw above, offering a “final solution to the human life problem”). Democratic freedom, which, per Agnes Heller, promises optimum rather than absolute freedom, is directly at odds with market fundamentalism because it proposes that a plurality of persons, a democratic polity, should guide and determine its own destiny rather than the market.

As we’ve seen, absolute freedom (liberal freedom on steroids) also takes a sovereign individual form which is not only anathema to democratic politics, but hostile to politics in general. Agnes Heller describes this form as “the deification of individuals qua individuals.” It’s “the idea of absolute autonomy of the empirical person, the individual unrestricted in action and behavior.” Because we inhabit the world with others, such persons don’t really exist, Heller insists. It’s merely an ideal, and a dangerous one at that because it entails “the renunciation of all human bonds constituted by symmetric reciprocity.”

We see this renunciation clearly in the cases of people refusing to wear masks to protect vulnerable members of their community and, more appallingly, intentionally coughing in the faces of service industry workers simply to make a point about their sovereign individuality. To put Heller’s point crudely, people who valorize the idea of absolute freedom don’t give a shit about anybody but themselves.

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt echoes Heller’s point. “If it were true that sovereignty and freedom are the same,” Arendt writes, “then indeed no man could be free, because sovereignty, the ideal of uncompromising self-sufficiency and mastership, is contradictory to the very condition of plurality. No man can be sovereign because not one man, but men, inhabit the earth…”

Under capitalist realism, these two idealized forms of absolute freedom work together to ensure that democratic politics doesn’t happen. Political action — action in the plural expressing positive freedom — is stymied by what Judith Butler characterizes as “responsibilization”. Political problems demanding political solutions are recast as problems for which individuals are responsible, and this leaves the market “unmolested” so it can just do its thing.

We see this happening again and again. From casting an epidemic of police murders of black men as a ‘problem’ caused by “a few bad apples,” to corporate HR departments reducing systemic racism to a psychological problem best addressed by corporate training (see Robin DiAngelo’s recent book White Fragility), to attributing the Great Recession’s economic meltdown to “a few bad actors abusing the system,” responsibility for structural, historically-, legally- and institutionally-sedimented social, economic, and political problems is deflected onto individuals to protect the increasingly dysfunctional market from political intervention.

For our current purposes, what’s important to note in these examples is not simply that responsibilizing individuals protects a dysfunctional economic system (although it does do that). Rather, it’s that it ensures that no intentional collective human action can intervene in crises that impact human beings in the plural — things like climate change and viral pandemics. In short, it aims to eradicate democratic freedom.

I am reminded, in this respect, of an Obama era satire in The Onion entitled Republicans Vote To Repeal Obama-Backed Bill That Would Destroy Asteroid Headed For Earth. In this piece Rep. Steve King (R-IA) remarks, “The voters sent us to Washington to stand up for individual liberty, not big government […]. We believe that the decisions of how to deal with the massive asteroid are best left to the individual.” While this is satire, this is the actual “solution” to the climate crisis implied by capitalist realism.

Mark Fisher discusses this very matter in Capitalist Realism. “Instead of saying that everyone — i.e., every one — is responsible for climate change, we all have to do our bit,” Fisher writes, “it would be better to say that no-one is, and that’s the problem.” Assigning individual responsibility for problems that can only be effectively tackled collectively ensures that no one takes responsibility. In Fisher’s words, “the model of individual responsibility assumed by most versions of ethics have little purchase on the behavior of Capital or corporations.” I would add that this isn’t necessarily a shortcoming of ethical theory. Rather, it’s simply due to the fact that the climate crisis cannot be effectively dealt with via individual ethics. It’s a social, political, and economic problem — that is, a problem to be addressed by human beings in the plural. What can have purchase on the behavior of Capital or corporations is politics.

In both the case of the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, then, what’s called for isn’t so much a deeper normative commitment to the value of life as it is a need for a more robust understanding of freedom. This is part of what it means to take the dialectic of freedom and life seriously — and more importantly, to take it seriously in a way that offers hope for actually doing something about these crises.

In his response to Giorgio Agamben’s epidemic denial essay (The Invention of an Epidemic), Italian philosopher Rocco Ronchi expressed this need well:

“The virus rather articulates existence, ours and that of others, as “destiny”. Suddenly we feel we are being dragged by something that is overpowering, which grows in the silence of our organs, ignoring our will. […] Among the virtues of the virus, we must also mention its ability to generate a more sober idea of freedom: the freedom achieved in doing something about what destiny does to us.”

Ronchi summarizes this “sober freedom” with a distinctly anti-capitalist realist prescription: “Politics must have precedence over the economy.”

While I am loath to find anything virtuous about a deadly virus, I would add to the viral “virtues” Ronchi mentions its ability to pierce the seemingly seamless facade of capitalist realism. This will serve as the topic of the forthcoming second part of this piece entitled Shit Just Got Real: Pandemic Interventions in Capitalist Realism.

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

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