Commentary. This is what happens when politics suddenly reveals itself as bio-politics. Over and above the humanized rules of the Polis, the elementary rules of survival, of Bios, take precedence.

We have arrived at ground zero

At the speed of light, we’ve reached something like a “ground zero” condition. The government’s decision to transform the whole country into one big “red zone”—to halt social and economic life in order to save biological life—is emblematic of this fact.

In the space of less than a week, the usual world in which we lived has been turned upside down, and we have regressed, in one leap, to a zero level of activity, and not only—of movement, of work, of productivity, but also of relationality. And also—dare we say it—of civilization. This is what happens when politics suddenly reveals itself as bio-politics. Over and above the humanized rules of the Polis, the elementary rules of survival, of Bios, take precedence.

The fact that the measures taken appear at the same time terrible and reasonable—an oxymoron—tells us just how deeply we have been stricken by evil in the “flesh and bones” (to use the words that Satan addresses to God in the Book of Job), suddenly disrupting all our accustomed habits. Every previous arrangement oriented towards civil coexistence in a “social system” is overwhelmed by the new—pre-human, dis-human—rules of “living systems.”

The document published a few days ago (on March 6) by the Society of Anesthetists and Intensive Care Physicians, with a title that is disturbing in and of itself (“Recommendations of clinical ethics for admission to intensive treatment and their suspension in exceptional conditions of imbalance between needs and available resources”) is paradigmatic from this point of view. The doctors on the front lines are telling us, in a nutshell, that “it may be necessary to place an age limit on admission to intensive care.”

In the presence of an influx of patients greater than the possibilities of hospitalization, the selection between those who will be saved and those who won’t be will be made according to biographical and biological criteria, rather than according to the mere (and random) order of arrival (“first come, first served”). “It is not a question of making choices that are merely value judgments,” the document specifies, “but of reserving resources that could be very scarce for those who have, first of all, a greater probability of survival and, secondly, for those who can have more years of life preserved, with a view to maximizing the benefits for the greatest number of people.” 

They put this in writing to come to the aid of the condition of ethical desperation of the personnel on the ground who are called to choose between those who will or won’t be saved, so they won’t feel alone in the face of a “dis-human” responsibility. 

The document evokes “catastrophe ethics” and, implicitly, the principles of a “state of exception,” aware of the scenarios of the past that these ideas, unthinkable until just a few days ago, might evoke (for my generation, it is inevitable that we will see in the background of such a triage the ramp at Auschwitz where the “erste Auswahl” took place, the horrendous “first selection” based on the physical and personal condition of the newcomers, “deciding” whether to send them to the ovens or to forced labor). For all these reasons, this document remains a very human and inhuman one at the same time. It is both chilling (in its ultimate implications) and understandable, for the immediate reasons why it was produced—due to the terrible “force of things” that has brought it into being.

It is the application of a merciless “instrumental rationality” (which imposes the principle of maximizing the results with the available resources) to a reality that reduces mercy to a luxury that one cannot afford (anymore). I would like to stress that in any case, it deserves the highest respect, on account of the character of those who wrote it and of those to whom it is directed: people who by profession are working on the front lines on a daily basis, facing great risks, on the extreme front where life and death are decided. It would be unfair to pass any critical judgment on them.

If I will allow myself to make an observation, however, it will not be so much about what the document says, but about what it doesn’t say. It takes the “imbalance between needs and available resources” as a factual assumption—a sort of fact of nature, just like the virus in the end. However, this is not the case. If the number of intensive care beds is limited, this is because someone (public decision-makers, government politicians, national and international economic powers, opinion leaders, information providers) has decided that it should be so for years. 

If we have only 5,000 in Italy, compared to 28,000 in Germany and over 20,000 in France, this is as a result of choices: the choices that have cut €35 billion from the health care budget and 70,000 hospital beds over the past 10 years. If our first responders are forced to face such “deadly dilemmas,” this is because others, above them or part of their institutional structure, have determined the scarcity that forces such a selection and makes it so pitiless. This should be the conclusion of a rational observation that would rise above the “professional” field and judge from a “generalist,” or, indeed, a “generally human” perspective. In this light, even the virus might become “humanized”: not in the sense of becoming less of a ferocious threat, but in the sense of revealing that specific ferociousness that is typical of us, the “last men.” 

It would offer us, as Susan Sontag had already intuited, disease as a metaphor for a human and social condition. In the end, isn’t its selectively Darwinian logic, based on the chances of survival, the same one that at least a couple of decades of neoliberal hegemony have inculcated into us with the principle of value as performance, declaring the unproductive (the “old,” first of all) useless and the winners as the ones who deserved it?

Isn’t the isolation to which it is forcing us, the breaking of ties it is imposing as self-defense, precisely the Thatcherian program of the dismantling of society in the name of extreme individualism, now a part of our genetic code? Isn’t the collapse of the financial markets under the impact of disease and fear a sign of the structural fragility of financial-capitalism denounced by the few doomsayers? Instead of the old Latin saying, In medio stat virtus (“virtue is found in the middle”), a more fitting one for our time would be, In medio stat virus—in the sense that the virus is the microscopic geometric intersection point where all the directions of the crisis of our time reveal themselves.

When all this is over, we will have to rethink our entire universe of meaning, starting with the unsustainability of the hegemonic system that seemed immortal until just recently. And to do so, we will also need a radical change in perspective, language, categories and future outlook.

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