Biosecurity and Politics
by Giorgio Agamben, 2020-05-11
Go here to read the original Italian text.

Giorgio AgambenWhat is striking about the reactions to the exceptional [Covid-19 'pandemic'] measures implemented in our country [Italy] — 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 wider experiment, in which a new paradigm of government of men and things is at stake. Already in a book published seven years ago, which is now worth rereading carefully (Tempêtes microbiennes, Gallimard 2013), Patrick Zylberman had described the process through which health security, which until now 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 an instrument to govern what was defined as the worst case scenario. It is according to this worst-case logic that as early as 2005 the World Health Organization announced "two to 150 million deaths from incoming avian influenza,", suggesting a political strategy that states were not then prepared to embrace. Zylberman shows that the device being suggested consisted of three parts: (1) construction, on the basis of a possible risk, of a fictitious scenario, in which data are presented in such a way as to encourage behaviors that allow governing an extreme situation; (2) adoption of the logic of the worst as a regime of political rationality; (3) the integral organization of the body of citizens in such a way as to reinforce adherence to government institutions to the maximum, producing a kind of superlative civicism in which imposed obligations are presented as evidence of altruism and the citizen no longer has a right to health but rather becomes legally obliged to ensure health (biosecurity).

What Zylberman described in 2013 has now actually occurred. It is clear that, beyond the emergency situation related to a certain virus that may in the future be succeeded by another, what is at issue is the design of a paradigm of government whose effectiveness far exceeds that of all forms of government that have been known so far in the political history of the West. If already, in the progressive decline of ideologies and political beliefs, the reasons of security had allowed citizens to accept limitations of freedom that they were not previously willing to accept, biosecurity has proved capable of presenting the absolute cessation of all political activity and all social relations as the highest form of civic participation. It was thus possible to witness the paradox of left-wing organizations, traditionally accustomed to claiming rights and denouncing violations of the [Italian] Constitution, accepting without reservation limitations on freedoms decided by ministerial decrees devoid of any legality and which not even [Italian] fascism had ever dreamed of being able to impose.

It is evident — and the same government authorities never cease to remind us of this — that so-called "social distancing" will become the model of the politics that awaits us, and that (as the representatives of a so-called task force, whose members are in obvious conflict of interest with the function they should exercise, have announced) they will take advantage of this "distancing" to substitute digital technological devices everywhere for human relationships in their physicality, which have become as such suspected of contagion (political contagion, of course). University lectures, as the MIUR [Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research] has already recommended, will be given from next year onwards permanently online, and we will no longer recognize each other by looking at each other's faces (which may be covered by a mask) but via digital devices that will use biological data compulsorily taken. And any "gathering", whether it is done for political reasons or simply for friendship, will continue to be prohibited.

At issue is an entire conception of the destiny of human society in a perspective that in many ways seems to have taken over from religions, now in their twilight years, the apocalyptic idea of an end of the world. After politics had been replaced by economics, now, in order to be able to govern, this too will have to be integrated with the new paradigm of biosecurity, to which all other needs will have to be sacrificed. It is legitimate to wonder whether such a society will still be able to call itself 'human', or whether the loss of sensitive relationships, of the face, of friendship, of love can really be compensated by an abstract and presumably completely fictitious 'health security'.

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