New Reflections

Giorgio Agamben

First published on Quodlibet, April 22, 2020

Are we experiencing, with this forced confinement, a new totalitarianism?

In many quarters, the hypothesis is now being formulated that we are experiencing the end of a world, that of bourgeois democracies founded on rights, parliaments, and the separation of powers, and that this is giving way to a new despotism that, as regards the pervasiveness of control and the cessation of political activity, will be worse than the totalitarianisms that we have known before. American political scientists call it the Security State, a state in which “for security reasons” (in this case, for the sake of “public health,” a term that suggests the notorious committees of public heath during the Terror), any limit can be imposed upon individual liberties. In Italy, moreover, we have long been accustomed to legislation made by emergency decrees from the executive power, which thus replaces the legislative power and effectively abolishes the principle of the separation of powers upon which democracy is based. The control exercised through video cameras and now, as has been proposed, through cell phones, far exceeds any form of control that was exercised under totalitarian regimes such as Fascism or Nazism.

Speaking of data, in addition to that which will be collected via our mobile phones, some mention should be made of the data being disseminated in numerous press conferences, often incomplete or misinterpreted.

This is an important point, because it touches on the root of the phenomenon. Anyone with some knowledge of epistemology cannot help but be surprised by the fact that the media, for all these months, have released figures without any scientific rigor, first by not relating the data to annual mortality for the same period, and also by not specifying the causes of death. I am not a virologist nor a doctor, and I limit myself to citing the texts of reliable official sources. Twenty-one thousand deaths resulting from Covid-19 is certainly an impressive figure. But if you relate this to annual statistical data, then things — as they must — take on a different aspect. The president of Istat, Dr. Gian Carlo Blangiardo, communicated the numbers on last year’s mortality a few weeks ago: 647,000 deaths (or 1,772 deaths per day). If we analyze the causes of death in detail, we see that the latest available data for 2017 record 230,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease, 180,000 cancer deaths, and at least 53,000 deaths from respiratory illness. But one point is particularly important and concerns us closely.

Which?

I quote the words of Dr. Blangiardo: “In March 2019, there were 15,189 deaths from respiratory illness and 16,220 the year before. Incidentally, it is noted that these are higher than the corresponding number of Covid deaths (12,352) reported for March 2020.” If this is true, and we have no reason to doubt it, without minimizing the importance of the epidemic we must ask ourselves if it justifies measures limiting freedom that have never before been implemented in the history of our country, not even during the two world wars. A legitimate doubt arises that by spreading panic and by isolating people in their homes, they wanted to shift onto the population the very serious responsibilities of the government that had first dismantled the national health service and then, in Lombardy, committed a series of no less serious errors while confronting the epidemic.

Even the scientists, in fact, have not made a good show. It appears that they haven’t been able to deliver the answers that have been expected of them. What are your thoughts?

It is always dangerous to entrust to doctors and scientists decisions that are ultimately ethical and political. You see, scientists, rightly or wrongly, pursue their reason in good faith, which identifies them with the interests of science, and in whose name — history demonstrates this amply — they are willing to sacrifice any qualm of a moral kind. I need not remind you that under Nazism highly respected scientists led the eugenic policy and did not hesitate to take advantage of the camps in order to carry out lethal experiments that they believed were useful for the advancement of science and for the care of German soldiers. In the present case, it’s a particularly disconcerting show to watch, because, in reality, even if the media are hiding it, there is no agreement between scientists, and some of the most illustrious of them, such as Didier Raoult, who is perhaps the greatest French virologist, have different opinions on the importance of the epidemic and on the effectiveness of isolation measures, which in an interview he called a medieval superstition. I have written elsewhere that science has become the religion of our time. The analogy with religion must be taken literally: theologians declared that they could not clearly define what “God” is, yet in his name they dictated to man rules of conduct and did not hesitate to burn heretics; virologists admit that they do not exactly know what a virus is, but in their name they presume to decide how human beings should live.

We are being told — as has happened often in the past — that nothing will be the same as it was before and that our life must change. What will happen, according to you?

I have tried to describe the form of despotism that we should expect and against which we must not tire of keeping guard. But, if for a moment we leave the realm of current affairs and try to consider things from the point of view of the fate of the human species on Earth, I am reminded of the considerations of a great Dutch scientist, Ludwig Bolk. According to Bolk, the human species is characterized by a progressive inhibition of the natural vital processes of adaptation to the environment, which come to be replaced by a hypertrophic growth of technological apparatuses that adapt the environment to man. When this process surpasses a certain limit, it reaches a point where it becomes counterproductive and transforms into the self-destruction of the species. Phenomena like what we are currently experiencing seem to me to show that this point has been reached and that the medicine that was supposed to cure our ills now risks producing an even greater evil. Against this risk we must resist by any means.

Excerpted from a longer interview that was published in an Italian newspaper.

Translation by D. Alan Dean.