A Question

I am struggling very hard to understand how the whole world became ‘taken in’ by Covid-19. How a simple Coronavirus, that causes a disease with a fatality rate similar to severe flu, managed to change our world for ever. How the whole world scarpered headlong, without thinking, in one direction like a herd of Wildebeest. There are a number of theories for this but I won’t dwell on those here. However, because of a new virus, for reasons of safety, security or health, the State of Emergency has been instigated, and continues to be used, to build a form of totalitarianism that, under new and renewed crisis events, has become the norm.

The so-called ‘War on Terror’ that followed the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001 ushered in what the US calls the ‘Security State’ in which we have all lived for the past two decades. In France, the State of Emergency declared in November 2015 in response to terrorist attacks in Paris didn’t expire, after five extensions, until November 2017, two years later, when it was replaced by a raft of repressive measures embedded into ordinary law. And as we are seeing now in the response of the UK Government to the so-called threat of COVID-19, this surveillance state, which is transnational and therefore transcends the nation state of our parliamentary politics, is built around the total surveillance and control of the population through the use of tracking, location and monitoring devices in our phones and other communication technologies, and implemented with new police powers to enforce so-called health and safety regulations that have had neither parliamentary scrutiny nor legislative approval.

So I wish to ask a question as asked by the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben and I have translated and rephrased his question (as best I can) for a British audience – as I don’t speak Italian I’m sure the original is much better; but I hope that you get the gist of it.

A QUESTION

‘The plague marked the beginning of corruption for the city. No one was willing to persevere any longer in what he had previously considered to be good, because he believed that he would perhaps die before achieving it.’

— Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

I would like to share with whoever would like to hear it a question on which, for over a month now, I have not stopped reflecting. How could it happen that an entire country, without realising it, has collapsed politically and ethically in the face of an illness? The words I have used to formulate this question have been carefully weighed one by one. The measure of abdication of our own ethical and political principles is, in fact, very simple: it is a question of asking ourselves what is the limit beyond which we are not willing to renounce them. I believe that the reader who takes the trouble to consider the following points cannot fail to agree that — without realising it, or by pretending not to notice it — the threshold that separates humanity from barbarism has been crossed.

1) The first point, perhaps the most serious, concerns older citizens and the bodies of the dead. How could we have accepted, solely in the name of a risk that could not be specified, that individuals dear to us and human beings in general should not only be discarded from hospitals to nursing homes to die alone, but — something that had never happened before in history, from Antigone to today — that their corpses should be buried without friends at their funeral?

2) We then accepted, without too many reservations, solely in the name of a risk that could not be specified, limiting, to an extent that had never happened before in the history of the country, not even during the Second World War, our freedom of movement. We consequently accepted, solely in the name of a risk that could not be specified, de facto suspension of our relationships of friendship and love, because proximity to our neighbour had become a possible source of contagion.

3) This was only possible — and here we touch on the root of the phenomenon — because we have split the unity of our lived experience, which is always inseparably made up of body and spirit, into a purely biological entity on the one hand, and an affective and cultural life on the other. Ivan Illich has shown us, and David Cayley has written about the responsibility of modern medicine in this regard, which is taken for granted but is, in reality, the greatest of abstractions. We know very well that this abstraction was created by modern science through resuscitation devices, which can keep a body ‘alive’ in a vegetative state. But if this situation is extended beyond the spatial and temporal confines that are proper to it, as we are trying to do today, and becomes a sort of principle of social behaviour, we fall into contradictions from which there is no way out

I know that someone will rush to respond that we are dealing with a situation that is limited in time, after which everything will return to how it was. It is truly strange that we could repeat such a statement other than in bad faith, since the same authorities that proclaimed the emergency do not cease reminding us that, when the emergency has been overcome, we will have to continue to observe the same directives, and that ‘social distancing’ — as it has been called with a significant euphemism — will be the new organising principle of society. And, in every case, what we have accepted submitting to, whether in good faith or in bad, cannot be reversed.

At this point, since I have declared the responsibility of each of us, I cannot fail to mention the even more serious responsibilities of those who would have had the duty of keeping watch over human dignity. First of all, the Church, which in making itself the handmaiden of science, which has now become the true religion of our time, has radically repudiated its most essential principles. The Church, under a Pope who calls himself Francis, has forgotten that Francis embraced lepers. It has forgotten that one of the works of mercy is to visit the sick. It has forgotten that the martyrs teach that we must be prepared to sacrifice our life rather than our faith, and that renouncing our neighbour means renouncing our faith.

Another category or persons that has failed in their duties is that of lawyers. For some time now we have been accustomed to the reckless use of emergency decrees through which executive power is effectively substituted for that of the legislature, abolishing that principle of the separation of powers that defines democracy. But in this case, every limit has been exceeded, and one gets the impression that the words of the Prime Minister, as was once said of those of the Führer, have the immediate force of law. And it is not clear how, once the temporal validity of the emergency decrees have been exhausted, the limitations on our freedoms could, as is asserted, be maintained. With what legal arrangements? With a permanent State of Exception? It is the duty of lawyers to ensure that our freedoms are maintained; but the lawyers are silent. 

I know that there will inevitably be someone who will answer that the sacrifice, which is serious, has been made in the name of moral principles. To them I would like to recall that Adolf Eichmann, apparently in good faith, never tired of repeating that he had done what he had done according to his conscience, to obey what he believed to be the precepts of Kantian morality. A rule which states that good must be renounced in order to save the good is just as false and contradictory as that which, in order to protect freedom, orders us to renounce freedom.

Much of the above has been compiled from this excellent Blog Giorgio Agamben and the Bio-Politics of COVID-19

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