Giorgio Agamben: Biosecurity and politics

Sharing the continuing reflections of Giorgio Agamben on the COVID-19 pandemic …

What is striking in the reactions to the exceptional means and apparatuses    that have been put in place in our country (and not only in this one) is the inability to observe them beyond the immediate context in which they seem to operate. Rare are those who try instead, as a serious political analysis would require, to interpret them as symptoms and signs of a broader experiment, in which a new paradigm of government of human beings and things is at stake. In a book published seven years ago, which is now worth rereading carefully (Tempêtes microbiennes, Gallimard 2013), Patrick Zylberman has already described the process by which health security, which until then had remained on the margins of political calculations, was becoming an essential part of state and international political strategies. At issue is nothing less than the creation of a sort of “health terror” as a tool to govern what was called theworst case scenario. It is according to this logic of the worst that in 2005 the World Health Organization had already announced from “two to 150 million deaths from the coming avian flu”, suggesting a political strategy that states were not yet ready to accept at the time. Zylberman shows that the proposed new politics was articulated around three points: 1) the construction, on the basis of a possible risk, of a fictitious scenario, in which data are presented in such a way as to encourage behaviours that allow to govern an extreme situation; 2) adoption of the logic of the worst as a regime of political rationality; 3) the integral organisation of the citizen body so as to strengthen adherence to government institutions as much as possible, producing a sort of superlative good citizenship in which the obligations imposed are presented as proof of altruism and the citizen no longer has a right to health (health safety), but becomes legally obliged to health (biosecurity).

What Zylberman described in 2013 has now duly verified. It is evident that, beyond the emergency situation linked to a certain virus which may in the future make room for another, what is in question is the design of a paradigm of government whose effectiveness far exceeds that of all forms of government that the political history of the West has so far known. If already, in the progressive decline of ideologies and political beliefs, security reasons made it possible for citizens to accept limitations on freedoms that they were not willing to accept before, biosecurity has proven capable of presenting the absolute cessation of all political activities and of all social relationship as the maximum form of civic participation. Thus it was possible to witness the paradox of leftist organisations, traditionally accustomed to claiming rights and denouncing violations of the constitution, accepting without any reservation limitations of the freedoms decided by ministerial decrees devoid of any legality and which even fascism had never dreamed of being able to impose.

It is evident – and the government authorities themselves do not cease to remind us – that so-called “social distancing” will become the model of politics that awaits us and that (as the representatives of a so-called task force, whose members are in a clear conflict of interest with the function that they should exercise, announced) advantage will be taken of this distancing to replace human relationships in their physicality, relations which have become suspect as sources of contagion (meaning political contagion, of course) with digital technological devices everywhere. University lectures, as the MIUR [the Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research] has already recommended, will be stably online from next year on, we will no longer recognise each other by looking at each other’s face, which can be covered by a health mask, but through digital apparatuses that will recognise biological data that is compulsorily collected and any “gathering”, whether for political reasons or simply for reasons of friendship, will continue to be prohibited.

An entire conception of the destinies of human society is under question, in a perspective that in many respects seems to have taken the apocalyptic idea of an end of the world from waning religions. After politics had been replaced by the economy, now the latter to be able to govern will have to be integrated with the new biosecurity paradigm, to which all other needs will have to be sacrificed. It is legitimate to ask whether such a society can still be defined as human or whether the loss of sensitive relationships, those of the face, of friendship, of love can be truly compensated by an abstract and presumably entirely fictitious health security.

Giorgio Agamben, May 11, 2020 (Quodlibet)

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