Book Review by Tormod Johansen
The unexpected success of the book State of Exception has made the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben an indispensable political thinker of the 21st century. But like a Greek drama, his star has now seemingly fallen. His controversial statements about the government of the pandemic have frustrated those who previously praised him. Ironically, the messages of his latest book in English, Where Are We Now? The Epidemic as Politics [Vilken punkt har vi nått? Epidemin som politik] is pretty much in line with what he has maintained in previous efforts.
The book shows how his central theses and arguments have been further borne out over the past 21 months. During the pandemic, the state of emergency has literally spread across the world. As Agamben argues that the preservation of life at all costs has become the main goal of politics. His concept of “naked life” points to the way life today has become abstract and biological, separated from social life. The war on terrorism was justified by the protection of life but led to restrictive security regimes.
Agamben’s point is that during the pandemic, developments have escalated further and the restriction of rights and sacrifice of human life conditions have reached new levels. Baptisms, birthdays, funerals; political rallies, meetings, demonstrations; sports and cultural activities; education in schools and higher education; meetings between friends, children and adults. All this has been sacrificed on the altar of mere survival.
Biosecurity is a new form of governance, where people no longer have a right to health but rather an obligation to be healthy. The highest civic duty then becomes social distancing, at the expense of all other aspects of life. Agamben goes so far as to call medicine in the hands of the rulers a cultic religion, which has gained the upper hand over its competitors, Christianity and capitalism. This religion now applies punishment to those who do not follow its dogmas.
But this medicine is not aimed at those who are already sick. Because we are all potentially asymptomatically ill, we are all threats that legitimise restrictions in the name of life. The tremendous adherence to these restrictions, Agamben points out, goes further, affects more people and is more successful than ever before. Even the world wars did not lead to the closures we are now experiencing. The “new normal” is thus truly something new.
But isn’t he exaggerating? The ongoing climate crisis comes to mind here. Despite the messages from the scientific community in recent months – everything is just as serious, and in several respects worse – these unequivocal messages seem to be having a modest effect. The same is true of Agamben’s message – his warnings of permanent martial law, the crisis of democracy, and the disintegration of rights seem too overt and true to be taken seriously.
So, what about the already infamous formulation Agamben delivers in the book, about the equivalence between Italian university teachers who in 2020 accepted distance learning and those who in 1931 swore allegiance to the fascist regime? Some explain it as a polemical joke. But it can also be understood as entirely consistent with his his main point. Agamben argues that the fascist regime was a new form of governance and that the biosecurity paradigm we have now entered is a new form of governance, equally worthy of criticism.
While we may find this distasteful, should we automatically reject the rest of his critique? Exaggeration does not undermine everything anyone says. If it did, we would reject virtually everyone in the public eye, including elected politicians, government experts, and scientists. We should also recall that all serious academic lawyers today make comparisons to Nazi Germany when discussing the current exemption rules. This includes, for example, the Norwegian professor Hans Petter Graver in the 2020 book “Pandemi og unntakstilstand : hva covid–19 sier om den norske rettsstaten” [Pandemic and state of exception : what covid-19 tells us about Norway as a Rechtsstaat]. Graver makes an explicit argument that we must use Ernst Fraenkel’s theory of the dual state in order to grasp the current emergency regimes used in liberal states.
So how are we Swedes supposed to read this book? Sweden stands out, mainly because our state has not, as in our neighbouring countries, threatened the population with punishment, but have relied on voluntary action. At the same time, the political unity around the government’s proposals in 2020 testifies to how the political spirit was nevertheless in favour of biosecurity. The debate was characterised more by who could propose the most radical measures and less by restraint. Sweden chose a comparatively milder path, and this deserves attention rather than rejection.
However, on 1 October 2021, the government gave instructions to a committee to inquire the need for legislation on declaring states of emergency in peacetime. There is a risk that it will not be the world that is inspired by Sweden’s example, but the other way around. In that case, Agamben would be proven correct here too.