Commentary. The security-minded state turns out to be a medical-pastoral state that guarantees immunization to the citizen-patient, who must be ready, on his part, to obey.

Even for the ‘state of exception,’ fear is a boomerang

Is it a coincidence that panic has broken out precisely in those regions governed by the Lega, where the flames of hate have been fanned for a long time and where the immigrant is considered a public enemy, the bearer of every disease?

Many people are asking themselves that question. And this notion seems to find further confirmation in the recent statements and actions by the leaders of the two regions involved. In a twist, one of them took out a mask and covered his face in a recent video, “quarantining” himself, declaring himself at risk, both for oneself and for others, and thus instilling fear once again—if it weren’t for the fact that the mask he was using looked more like a carnival mask. It’s a farce. 

The other regional president went all in on the usual prejudice-mongering—we are superior, they are inferior, we are healthy, they are sick, we are clean, they are dirty—this time going as far as to invoke the grotesque imagery of Chinese people eating “live mice”—a famous Chinese delicacy, as everyone knows.

Yet it doesn’t quite fit to talk here about the “state of exception,” the paradigm of government through which we can read the contemporary world, as taught masterfully by Giorgio Agamben, who recently argued for this concept in the pages of this newspaper (on Feb. 26).

Contrary to what some have argued, that paradigm remains valid. Indeed, it has now become daily practice: democratic procedures are being suspended by provisions taken in the name of an emergency. One decree here, another decree there: that’s how citizens end up accepting “measures” that are supposed to guarantee their safety, but that are actually seriously limiting their freedom. 

The measures taken in recent days by the government and the regions—in no particular order—are paradigmatic for this process. They have gone so far as to close down cultural institutions, ban public assemblies and meetings. These “measures”—needless to say—all have more than a hint of authoritarianism about them and are of a disturbing character.

However, it seems that the framework of the “state of exception” is not enough for a world as complex as our globalized one, where fear now plays a decisive political role. This is the fear of the outsider, xenophobia, which pushes us to erect barriers and walls—combined, however, with the fear of everything outside ourselves, exophobia, which causes us to burrow down into our own niche, to immunize ourselves, to cocoon ourselves, watching the unfolding events through the reassuring distance of the media screen.

The securitarian impulse is being willfully fomented. And it’s the same with the impulse that some people mistake for mere indifference, as if it were solely an ethical issue, and which is rather an affective paralysis with a hefty dose of “reasons of state.” There is no doubt that fear is being used in an underhanded manner to govern. This is precisely why sovereignism, especially anti-immigrant sovereignism, is not just a new edition of the old nationalism. It is a new phenomenon: it leverages the fear of the other, the alarm about what is coming from outside, the anxiety of precariousness, the desire to be “immune” from it.

But this is only one aspect—because those in power who are playing with the fire of fear end up being burned by it. While they think they’re administering hate in just the right dosage, and that they’re carefully managing the fear, everything is getting out of hand. This is the point: governance, which wants to govern under the banner of the state of exception, is in turn governed by what proves to be ungovernable. It is this continuous reversal that is most striking and remarkable. The model here is the same as that of technologization: those who use it end up being used by it, those who possess it become dispossessed.

This is why “immune democracy” is an unprecedented form of governance, in which politics, reduced to administration, is, on the one hand, further reduced to the dictates of the planetary economy, and, on the other hand, suspends itself by abdicating its responsibility in favor of science—“Let the experts handle it!”— which is imagined to be objective, true, definitive. It’s as if science was a blank slate, fully neutral; as if it hasn’t been closely connected with technologization, itself highly technicized, for quite some time.

In this way, the security-minded state turns out to be a medical-pastoral state that guarantees immunization to the citizen-patient, who must be ready, on his part, to obey—caught between the right to buy hand sanitizer and the prohibition against stockpiling—every hygienic-sanitary rule that protects them from contagion—that is, from contact with “the other.” It’s no longer clear where law ends and healthcare begins.

The coronavirus—a “sovereign” virus already in its name [translator’s note: “corona” means “crown” in Latin]—is making a mockery of “state of exception” sovereignism, which is trying to profit from it in a grotesque manner. It keeps escaping, slipping away, crossing every border. And it is becoming a metaphor for an ungovernable crisis, for an apocalyptic collapse. However, capitalism, as we know all to well, is not a natural disaster.

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