My friend and publisher Oscar sent me a link to this article by Joseph Owen on versobooks.com, although it's almost two months old it's still worth reading:
'With the COVID-19 pandemic increasing in severity by the day, governments across the world have invoked viral metaphors to effect emergency legislation, in the process clamping down on civil liberties. In such a circumstance, what can the work of those who have studied liberal regimes' propensity to make the state of exception the rule, such as Giorgio Agamben and Carl Schmitt, offer to us – if anything at all?
On 26 February, Giorgio Agamben wrote a short piece for the Italian journal Quodlibet, titled ‘L’invenzione di un’epidemia.’[i] There, Agamben claims that coronavirus (recently renamed “SARS-CoV-2” and its disease “COVID-19”) is an epidemic conjured up by the Italian authorities and exacerbated by the national media. For him, the virus functions as an insidious form of mass panic and misdirection, as an excuse to extend prohibitive emergency measures over a mostly willing and anodyne population.
For anyone vaguely acquainted with Agamben’s work, his response won’t come as much of a surprise. His view is that citizens accept the bare minimum of existence to live under almost permanent restrictions of liberty. Governments treat every event as a pretext for the suspension of normal laws. Citizens adapt to the new reality: they defer to the exception, and so it becomes the rule. In doing so, some vital element of human life is suppressed or undone.
Agamben’s work has long looked at the nefarious implications of “bare life” and “states of exception.”[ii] So it should surprise no one to see him reiterate these themes amid an extraordinary collective human crisis, especially one which he believes has been engineered to the effect of both bolstering our experience of life as one of mere biological survival, and of thwarting our ability to experience life as living, that is, to move freely in the world.
So, here we are, galled by an elderly and misguided sage, a man born in 1942 whose stringent theoretical dispositions have clouded his judgement. On this small amount of evidence, Agamben is a coronavirus truther. His reliance on philosophical abstractions, just as the material world deteriorates around him, is his intellectual ruin. That he is personally more at risk from his wrongheaded assumptions adds an extra level of pathos and concern.
The following day, Jean-Luc Nancy wrote a rebuttal in another Italian journal, Antinomie.[iii] Not only does Nancy state the obvious medical knowns about COVID-19 to contradict Agamben’s analysis, he also draws on damning personal experience. About thirty years ago, Agamben had been one of the few people to advise Nancy to avoid having a heart transplant. Nancy politely reminds us (and him) that if he had acted on this advice he would almost certainly be dead, which counts as something less, presumably, than mere biological survival.
On 17 March, Agamben attempts to clarify his position.[iv] He claims journalistic manipulation. He remains disturbed by the probable long-term residue from the new draconian powers implemented at federal and municipal levels. He predicts the unstoppable movement of social life online. He also makes a curious value judgement. The fear of death, now closely allied to touching and proximity, “is not something that brings men and women together, but something that blinds and separates them.”'
'William E. Scheuerman prefaces his 2019 edition of his book on Schmitt The End of Law, with an admission of failure.[viii] His original intervention twenty years ago was to forestall Schmitt’s recovery. Now, Schmitt is “a household name in the English-speaking academic world”, whose disciples range from right wing populists to China’s policymakers. Clear authority and quick decision-making is seen as an international priority, not least when tackling COVID-19.
According to Scheuerman, Schmitt’s legal beliefs founded his political choices. His criticisms of the rule of law led him to formulate and endorse “a National Socialist alternative to liberal jurisprudence.” This alone should give us pause. However suggestive Schmitt’s analysis, his solutions were disastrous. Scheuerman’s main problem, as it is for so many Schmitt scholars, is in balancing fair criticism with just admonishment, in giving due consideration to a thinker he understandably abhors.
For Schmitt, indeterminacy—the view that legal questions lack single right answers—was the key theoretical dispute within law, and his thoughts on this influenced a generation of big-name social scientists and economists. From this, Scheuerman’s book highlights Schmitt’s compelling idea that we live under permanent states of emergency, as governments indefinitely extend their powers to counter perceived existential threats.
Scheuerman argues that Schmitt saw this executive tendency coming. His legal scepticism and “dire portrayal of the political universe” led him to the understanding that emergencies were unavoidable, irrepressible and ubiquitous. Emergency powers are transformed in the globalised world as a function of authoritarianism and economic exploitation. They are secretive and unaccountable. Clear resistance is difficult. The book offers a seductive example: one worker in Kentucky, learning that a multinational corporation has acquired his coalmine, asks only: “Who do we shoot now?” Authentic crises, such as the one wrought by COVID-19, cleave through the fog. They necessarily reveal figures of accountability; we must know who is to blame if things go wrong.
Schmitt elsewhere offers broad prophecy and portent. Consisting of terse axioms and slippery phrasing, his writing becomes easy shorthand for explaining modern politics. His superficial dictums haunt the present. Recalling Schmitt’s political distinction, “between friend and enemy,” populist leaders employ cronyism and identity politics to shape public policy. For demagogues such as Donald Trump, COVID-19 is primarily a hoax orchestrated by domestic opponents. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, outwardly dubious of the virus’s severity, has contracted himself the COVID-19. On 22 March, news reports reveal that Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei believed that the US manufactured the pandemic.[ix] Amid catastrophe, one must still define one’s enemy.'
Read the article here.
As Joseph Owen rightly points out, some metaphors are more dangerous than others, but it's not the use of virus or illness as metaphor that seduced us and our governments to be complacent. And I would like to add that it's not realistic to believe that the state (i.e. the politicians who we have elected, more or less, at least in a democracy) can protect us against all disasters. It's far from sure whether a president other than Trump would have acted much earlier than he did. We really should not overestimate power, not even the power of the American president. We don't elect gods, we elect politicians. The unwillingness to accept this is one the reasons for the rise of extremism, first and foremost rightwing extremism, but the fantasy exists on the other side of the spectrum as well.
As far as Carl Schmitt goes, Mr. Owen mistakenly believes that there's no difference between the anglo-saxon world and the rest of the world, at least he leans too heavenly on a book by William E. Scheuerman.
Derrida, Foucault, yes Agamben, Jacob Taubes, to name just a few, they all took Schmitt extremely seriously, they wrote about him, they studied him. The desire to forestall Schmitt's recovery is absurd, he had been already 'recovered'. And the weaknesses of liberalism, and I'd like to defend liberalism, don't disappear by turning Carl Schmitt into an enemy.
The need, the desire to name an enemy is bigger than Carl Schmitt, he clearly saw that it was naive to believe that mankind can overcome this need, this desire. That he was willing to accept almost everything in order to avoid anarchy is obvious given his past, but that doesn't make the question, inspired by Schmitt, less urgent: what exactly do we accept in order to avoid a bloody civil war?
On March 31 Mr. Owen wrote: 'Much of this article will look hopelessly naive in the next weeks and months because it is immediately inscribed into the recent past. To watch a widely-shared news report in the evening, one depicting the delicate mortal balance in a Bergamo hospital, is to render senseless the thoughts of the morning.'
It's still a bit too early, but it's seems that the economic consequences of the fight against the virus are as deadly as the virus itself. With this I don't want to imply that our governments made huge mistakes.
Nothing is easier than to believe that the government is responsible for all that's wrong. If we cannot blame God, we can blame the government. Yes, governments are killing people, some much more than others, for example in the 'war' against so-called illegal immigrants. But not all the dead are killed by the state.
The choice is most often tragic, and with this crisis the tragic choice became visible.
The fight against overzealous governments today is mainly voiced by right wing extremists and conspiracy theorists, who unfortunately appear to have influential and powerful supporters. History taught all of us that security measures usually remain in place, even long after the threat has gone, see 9/11.
The war against terrorism can easily become the war against viruses.
Virus as metaphor might be dangerous, but war as metaphor is at least as dangerous. And don't blame Carl Schmitt or other messengers.