Giorgio Agamben: “The epidemic clearly shows that the state of exception has become the normal condition”

Artwork by Sabine Pigalle

In an interview with “Le Monde”, the Italian philosopher criticizes the implementation of extraordinary security measures assuming that life must be suspended to protect it.
Interview by Nicolas Truong.

Published March 24, 2020.
Translated by Lena Bloch, French original here.

Internationally renowned Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben has notably elaborated the concept of “state of exception” as a paradigm of government in his great work of political philosophy Homo Sacer (Seuil, 1997–2005). In the wake of Michel Foucault, but also of Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, he has conducted a series of archaeological investigations of the notions of “dispositif “ and “ command “, and has elaborated the concepts of “ idleness “, “ form of life “ or “ inactive power “. Giorgio Agamben, a leading intellectual of the “ non-governable “ movement, published an article in the newspaper Il Manifesto
(“Coronavirus and a state of exception”, February 26) which drew criticism because, based on the Italian health data of the time, it focused on the defense of public freedoms by minimizing the extent of the epidemic. In an interview with Le Monde, he analyzes “the extremely serious ethical and political consequences” of the security measures implemented to curb the pandemic.

In a text published by “Il Manifesto”, you wrote that the global pandemic of Covid-19 was “a supposed epidemic”, nothing more than “a kind of flu”. In view of the number of victims and the rapid spread of the virus, especially in Italy, do you regret these words?

I am neither a virologist nor a doctor, and in the article in question, which dates back to a month ago, I was simply quoting verbatim what was then the opinion of the Italian National Research Center. But I am not going to enter into the discussions among scientists about the epidemic — what interests me, are the extremely serious ethical and political consequences.

It would seem that, since terrorism has been exhausted as a cause of emergency measures, the invention of an epidemic could offer the ideal pretext for extending (emergency measures) beyond all limits,” you write. How can you argue that this is an “invention”? Can’t terrorism, just like an epidemic, lead to security policies that are unacceptable, even though they are real?

When we speak of invention in a political field, we must not forget that this should not be understood in a solely subjective sense. Historians know that there are conspiracies that are objective, so to speak, that seem to function as such without being directed by an identifiable subject. As Michel Foucault showed before me, security governments do not necessarily function by producing the situation of exception, but by exploiting and directing it when it occurs. I am certainly not the only one to think that for a totalitarian government like China’s, the epidemic was the ideal way to test the possibility of isolating and controlling a whole region. And that in Europe we can refer to China as a model to follow shows the degree of political irresponsibility into which fear has thrown us. We should ask ourselves about the strange fact that the Chinese government suddenly declares the epidemic closed when it suits them.

Why do you think the state of exception is unjustified, when containment is seen by scientists as one of the main ways to stop the spread of the virus?

In the situation of Babelic confusions of languages that characterize us, each category pursues its particular reasons without taking into account the reasons of the others. For the virologist, the enemy to fight is the virus; for the doctors, the objective is the cure; for the government, it is about maintaining control, and it is quite possible that I do the same, reminding that the price to pay for it should not be too high. There have been much more serious epidemics in Europe, but no one has thought of declaring a state of exception like the one that in Italy and France practically prevents us from living. If we take into account that the disease has only affected less than one in a thousand of the population in Italy, we wonder what we would do if the epidemic were to get worse. Fear is a bad advisor and I do not believe that turning the country into a plague region, where people look at each other as vehicles of contagion, is really the right solution. The false logic is always the same: just as in the face of terrorism it was said that freedom had to be suppressed to defend it, so we are told that life must be suspended to protect life.

Are we not witnessing the establishment of a permanent state of exception?

What the epidemic clearly shows is that the state of exception, in which the governments have trained us for so long, has become the normal condition. People have become so accustomed to living in a permanent state of crisis that they do not seem to realize that their lives have been reduced to a purely biological condition and have lost not only their political dimension, but also any human dimension. A society that lives in a permanent state of emergency cannot be a free society. We live in a society that has sacrificed its freedom to the so-called “reasons of security” and has thus condemned itself to live constantly in a state of fear and insecurity.

In what sense are we living in a bio-political crisis?

Modern politics is from top to bottom a bio-politics, whose ultimate stake is biological life as such. The new fact is that health becomes a legal obligation to be fulfilled at all costs.

Why do you think the problem is not the seriousness of the disease, but the collapse of all ethics and politics that it has produced?

Fear brings to light many things that we pretend not to see. The first is that our society no longer believes in anything other than bare life. It is obvious to me that Italians are willing to sacrifice almost everything: their normal living conditions, social relationships, work, and even friendships, feelings, political and religious convictions on the altar of the danger of infection. Bare life is not something that unites men, but rather blinds them and separates them. As in the plague described by Manzoni in his novel The Betrothed, people become no more than spreaders of infection, who must be kept at least a meter away and imprisoned if they get too close. Even the dead — this is truly barbaric — are no longer entitled to funerals, and it is not clear what happens to their corpses.
Our fellow man, our neighbor no longer exists and it is truly frightening that the two religions that seemed to govern the West, Christianity and Capitalism, the religion of Christ and the religion of Money, remain silent. What about human relations in a country that gets used to living in such conditions? And what is a society that believes only in survival?
It is a truly sad spectacle to see an entire society, faced with an uncertain, vague, unconfirmed danger, liquidate all its ethical and political values. When all this is over, I know that I will not be able to return to the normal state.

What do you think the world will be like afterwards?

What worries me is not only the present, but also what will come after. Just as wars have left a legacy of harmful technologies in times of peace, it is very likely that after the end of the health emergency, experiments that governments have not yet succeeded in carrying out will be pursued: that universities will be closed down and courses will be held online, that meetings to discuss political or cultural issues will cease once and for all, and that only digital messages will be exchanged, and that everywhere it will be possible for machines to replace all physical contact, eliminate all risk of infection between humans.

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Lena Bloch

Lena Bloch

Background in psychology of learning, literature, philosophy, math.