Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Philosopher Who Fears the Government Response to COVID-19: Techno-Medical Despotism

Christopher Caldwell writes at The New York Times:
In late February, Mr. [Giorgio ]Agamben began using the website of his publisher, Quodlibet, to criticize the “techno-medical despotism” that the Italian government was putting in place through quarantines and closings. Mr. Agamben, 78, is a philosopher of language, art and meaning. Since 1995, he has focused on what he calls the “archaeology” of Western political institutions, devoting a monumental nine-volume work, “Homo Sacer,” to excavating their hidden logic. Some of his earlier work was translated by Michael Hardt, the Duke professor and co-author of the radical campus classic “Empire.”...

The part of the Italian intellectual establishment that calls itself “radical” has been Mr. Agamben’s milieu for half a century. His position on the coronavirus has cost him its support. Paolo Flores d’Arcais, the influential editor of the bimonthly MicroMega, accused Mr. Agamben of “ranting.” The newspapers La Repubblica, Corriere della Sera and Il Foglio all called him a negazionista regarding the coronavirus, using a word generally reserved for those who deny the Holocaust happened. Just as unexpected as these repudiations was the sudden receptivity to Mr. Agamben’s recondite philosophy in the pages of La Verità and Il Giornale, newspapers more often sympathetic to Mr. Salvini’s League.

Last month, Quodlibet published Mr. Agamben’s collected posts in an expanded volume called “Where Are We Now? The Epidemic as Politics.” (That’s a rough translation; the book does not yet exist in English.)...

Mr. Agamben’s name may ring a bell for some Americans. He was the professor who in 2004, at the height of the “war on terror,” was so alarmed by the new U.S. fingerprinting requirements for foreign visitors that he gave up a post at New York University rather than submit to them. He warned that such data collection was only passing itself off as an emergency measure; it would inevitably become a normal part of peacetime life.

His argument about the coronavirus runs along similar lines: The emergency declared by public-health experts replaces the discredited narrative of “national security experts” as a pretext for withdrawing rights and privacy from citizens. “Biosecurity” now serves as a reason for governments to rule in terms of “worst-case scenarios.” This means there is no level of cases or deaths below which locking down an entire nation of 60 million becomes unreasonable. Many European governments, including Italy’s, have developed national contact tracing apps that allow them to track their citizens using cellphones...

He believes that the fateful inheritance of the coronavirus will be social distancing. He is puzzled by the term, “which appeared simultaneously around the world as if it had been prepared in advance.” The expression, he notes, “is not ‘physical’ or ‘personal’ distancing, as would be normal if we were describing a medical measure, but ‘social’ distancing.”..

His point is that social distancing is at least as much a political measure as a public health one, realized so easily because it has been pushed for by powerful forces. Some are straightforward vested interests. Mr. Agamben notes (without naming him) that the former Vodafone chief executive Vittorio Colao, an evangelist for the digitized economy, was put in charge of Italy’s initial transition out of lockdown. Social distancing, Mr. Agamben believes, has also provided Italy’s politicians with a way of hindering spontaneous political organization and stifling the robust intellectual dissent that universities foster.

The politics of the pandemic expose a deeper ethical, social and even metaphysical erosion. Mr. Agamben cites Italians’ most beloved 19th-century novel, Alessandro Manzoni’s “The Betrothed,” which describes how human relations degenerated in Milan during the plague of 1630. People came to see their neighbors not as fellow human beings but as spreaders of pestilence. As panic set in, authorities executed those suspected of daubing houses with plague germs.

When a society loses its collective cool this way, the cost can be high. Rich, atomized, diverse, our society has a weak spot, and the coronavirus has found it. “For fear of getting sick,” Mr. Agamben writes, “Italians are ready to sacrifice practically everything — their normal living conditions, their social relations, their jobs, right down to their friendships, their loves, their religious and political convictions.”

In fact, “the threshold that separates humanity from barbarism has been crossed,” Mr. Agamben continues, and the proof is in Italians’ treatment of their dead. “How could we have accepted, in the name of a risk that we couldn’t even quantify, not only that the people who are dear to us, and human beings more generally, should have to die alone but also — and this is something that had never happened before in all of history from Antigone to today — that their corpses should be burned without a funeral?”


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