The Plague was Already Present (Critique in Times of Coronavirus)

by | 29 Apr 2020

No philosopher took as brave a stand against the political approach of the Coronavirus than the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. Although his thoughts were for the most part rejected by both the academic world as public opinion, he stood his ground. What a majority of his commentators failed to see, is that Agamben does not deny the Coronavirus or the threat that it poses to public health. Granted, titles such as that of his first article – L’invenzione di un’epidemia – are not helpful, but Agamben’s worries lie with the political logic that is being displayed combatting this health crisis. His intention is not to question the health hazard itself.

Language is crucial part in politics. In his latest opinion piece – Distanziamento sociale – Agamben reflects on the term ‘social distancing’. To him it is but a euphemism for the political reality in which the majority of the world population finds itself today: confinement. Euphemisms like this one are efficient tools in politics as they evoke goodwill and preparedness in the population to assent with far-reaching measures. The opposite tactic is equally efficient. Policy makers can make situations appear worse than they really are in order to get that same goodwill and preparedness. Hence the invention of ‘an epidemic’, according to Agamben.

In the articles written after L’invenzione di un’epidemia Agamben illustrates what mechanisms are used to turn a crisis into a political opportunity and how to turn the state of exception into the new norm. Nevertheless the question remained how was it that it came about so easily and especially that it came about so quickly? In his recent reflections – Riflessioni sulla pesteAgamben addresses that very question. How does it come that societies feel so plagued that they so easily give up their freedom, their rights and privileges? His answer is simple: they were already unwell. The plague was already present.

Agamben argues that on some level people were already aware that there was something amiss. They just waited for a sign of confirmation, like the rats dying in the streets of Oran in Albert Camus’ classic La Peste. This awareness is what made people give up the lives they were leading so easily, according to Agamben. And it is the only positive element he sees in today’s crisis. Our actions reflect our deep-seated discontent with our lives. The first escape opportunity that was offered, we took. Herein Agamben sees an opportunity. It might be the wake up call we need to bring about a cultural shift once this crisis is over.

This seems to be the core idea of Agamben’s critique on the Corona politics. Due to the fact that we have grown discontent with our lives and the manner in which they are organized in our society, we have no interest in saving them. This explains why we are so willing to let society come to a stop. It might also explain why many philosophers and thinkers alike have problems understanding Agamben’s line of thought. They do not see the privilege of their social position. That is why they are unable to understand that a majority of the people could not care less whether society stumbles or falls.

Without its cultural and social dimension, only the biological life remains to be defended. We might be willing to give up our cultural or social life, but we are not ready to die. This fear of death is the second reason Agamben sees for our easy surrender to a totalitarian regime (or at least politics that display totalitarian traits). Only on fear, Agamben states, can tyranny be founded. Our best defence against the threat of a totalitarian regime is to make sure that we feel like we have more to lose than just our biological lives.

For this reason Agamben quotes a reflection on death by Michel de Montaigne in his latest essay. With his words Agamben reminds us not to hide from death out of fear. We should be willing to meet it anywhere. There is no death wish hidden in these words. On the contrary, the thoughts of de Montaigne devalue death. They express a profound appreciation for values other than the biological which are hidden in cultural and social life. The more these values are present in our personal lives, the less we will be prepared to remain in our safe homes or under the protective wings of the state in order to safeguard our lives.

Therein lies the true challenge according to Agamben. When the world comes out of its lockdown, the real illness still needs to be fought. This is the plague that scourged us before the Coronavirus struck and which made us agree too quickly with the far-reaching measures to combat it. Agamben argues the need of a thorough evaluation of the values that were (and still are) cultivated in our society and shape our lives. These values idolize the individual and vitalize in particular the biological aspect of life. This cultural emphasis on the biological becomes visible in our day-to-day activities. They are primarily focused on our physical well-being and health: our efforts for example to create homely comfort, our conscious relation to what we eat, our sports routine, … Although this concern for the biological has created a variety of cultural practices, they are in reality nothing more than efforts to bolster our biological lives.

Their protective nature becomes clear when one poses the question what it is we live for. Is it to sit comfortably at home? To eat healthy or to sport regularly? These activities are not without value but they (literally) only aim to ensure and to optimize our living conditions. They tell us nothing about why we would want to live. The reasons for this, Agamben states, are only to be found in relation to others and in the communal life. And this leads back to his initial critique on the policies issued to combat the Coronavirus. They prevent people to (re)discover the values that give their lives meaning and joy, because they hinder them from (re)connecting with each other. The phenomenon of social distancing, which Agamben tackles in his latest article, illustrates this.

Social distancing cuts the ties between people and radicalises our sense of individualism. And thus it feeds our concern for ourselves, our bodies, its health and its survival. In short, it strengthens our fears and our readiness to hand us over to totalitarian politics. Drawing inspiration from the political thought of Elias Canetti, Agamben reckons that it is only in group or in a mass that we can forget about ourselves and are able to let go of (our concern for) our bodily selves. In other words, only absorbed by a community can we open up to values other than the biological and thus escape from the fears woven around it. That is why governments have always feared masses and tried to find ways to prevent them. They are the natural counterforce to their claim to absolute power.

If we do not want to simply defeat the Corona-virus, but also cure us from the plague that was festering in us long before the Corona outbreak, we need to take to heart the analysis of Agamben. We need to break the ban of individualism and all measures that enforce it. Only in (re)discovering the other and in (re)committing ourselves to our relations, can we establish a political community which we not only find agreeable to live in, but also find worth living in. And what is more… On such a community no totalitarian state can ever get a grip.

Jonathan Lambaerts (°1985) studied social-cultural work, philosophy and theology. He currently works at the Thomas More university college, where he teaches philosophy.


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