Giorgio Agamben’s recent interventions on the Covid-19 pandemic have triggered a heated debate that extends well beyond the boundaries of academic discussion. It has been said that the Italian philosopher is slipping into paranoia, that he is a negationist, and that his ideas edge closer to conspiracy theory than to the Western philosophical tradition. Yet, when a thinker of Agamben’s caliber receives criticisms from almost all political directions, except right-wing populists (a fact that gives us something to ponder and to which we shall return), we should think seriously about what the subject of the dispute is.
To clarify his position, Agamben recently published a pamphlet that collects his writings on the pandemic. The fundamental question that animates his reflections is: “How could it happen that an entire country is, without realizing it, ethically and politically collapsing in the face of a disease?” The question is legitimate if we consider that in Italy, as in other countries, restrictions on civil liberties have been accepted without strong resistance. Moreover, at the time of his early writings on the subject, the risk of contagion had never been specified, and the data on the incidence and mortality rates of Covid-19 varied heavily within and between countries. How, then, to explain this ‘unconditional surrender’ in the face of the limitations of freedom that had never been imposed before, “not even during the two world wars?”
According to Agamben, the pandemic shows that we have entered an acute biopolitical phase – the paradigm of “biosecurity” – which emerges at the intersection of two governmental apparatuses: the state of exception and the religion of health. This new political paradigm is not simply coercive but productive: medical terror spread by the media has made manifest the latent aspiration to mere survival that afflicts our societies. The “plague was already there,” so to speak, and the wave of panic triggered by the new coronavirus demonstrates that “human beings no longer believe in anything – except in bare biological existence that must be saved at any cost.”
Agamben’s analysis raises at least two issues that are worth discussing. The first relates to what he calls, following Ivan Illich, the religion of health. For the Italian philosopher, human self-subjection to the logic of the exception has occurred because modern science, “through resuscitation machines”, had made it possible to divide life’s wholeness into discrete entities (biological, cultural, emotional, political, etc.). This fragmentation, in turn, has facilitated the flattening of experience into a mere biological dimension: with the “invention of the pandemic”, survival has become an acceptable form of life.
Regardless of the genealogical correctness (or otherwise) of this reconstruction, it should be noted that Agamben’s new interpretation of biopolitics is in contradiction with his own Homo Sacer project. ‘Stripped’ by the coronavirus, bare life is no longer described as a trans-epochal paradigm, attributable to figures from ancient Roman law, but, rather, as something exclusively modern (but this is old news, for, as Yan Thomas has brilliantly argued, “in Latin legal sources, the word vita refers either to the fact of life or the way of life … The extravagant idea of an ‘institution of life’ is rigorously unattested in any text”).
In fact, for Illich – whom Agamben explicitly follows – the religion of health is the modern outcome of a dynamic of immanentization, of a metaphysical reversal, through which the quest for salvation in the afterlife has been replaced by an obsession with health in the earthly world. However, this ‘life’ which is at the heart of the contemporary technologies of power is not strictly ‘biological’, a word as vague as it is counter-intuitive. Rather, through probability assessments, data analyses and statistics, ‘health’ has been transformed into a conceptual abstraction, into “the optimization of a risk.” It should be noted, then, that for Illich the pursuit of health does not lead to what Agamben calls survival at all costs (which is a normal reaction in a system of induced fears), but rather to forms of active disembodiment, to pathologies by ‘imperfection’ that the search for earthly immortality constantly produces: “The greater the provision of ‘health’, the more people respond with problems, needs, diseases, and demand to be secured against risks […] The social acceptance of ‘objective’ diagnosis has become pathogenic at the subjective level.”
In short, the religion of health is a paradoxical and iatrogenic ‘cult’. On the one hand, it creates disembodiment by pushing individuals to live according to statistically determined probabilities and risks; on the other hand, it causes new pathologies because the search for earthly immortality becomes the impossible goal of a modern homo medicandus. Even more fundamental is the fact that these practices are not simply imposed on the population but, on the contrary, result from the self-disciplining of the modern subject and her desires. And this brings us to the second issue.
When it comes to naming the forces that guide these processes, Agamben has no doubts: he almost obsessively repeats that “the powers that be”, “the ruling powers”, “the powers that govern the world” have seized the opportunity of the pandemic “to transform from top to bottom the paradigms of their government of men and things.” Here, Agamben’s analysis is dangerously similar in tone to the discourses of some populist groups on the so-called “deep-state” (like QAnon, for example, whose members believe that Donald Trump is fighting against a secretive and evil global cabal). In effect, Agamben ends up replicating the abstract and universalizing logic he wishes to oppose: by following his path, one is left ‘intellectually naked’ before a faceless and nameless Power, which is everywhere and nowhere. But the dynamics of abstraction and disembodiment of modernity cannot be resisted by means of new abstractions (biological life, the powers of this world, etc.).
Moreover, as Illich and Foucault have demonstrated in different ways, neoliberalism is, essentially, a form of governmentality that privileges the management of productive subjects over their repressive control (the carrot instead of the stick or, to speak more directly, the constant stimulation of a libidinal and hedonistic pursuit of ‘health’ through practices of self-esteem, self-management, self-respect, mindfulness, etc.). The processes of subjectivation activated by the religion of health are, first and foremost, a form of self-discipline of the modern subject that has been shaped by the rationalities of the market economy. There is no need—indeed, it is politically counterproductive—to think of Power as evil in itself, thus underestimating and hypostatizing the crude dynamics of (self)individuation produced by economic interests and social practices.
In sum, the apodictic character of Agamben’s reflections dazzles the reader in both sense of that word, because, for all its brilliance, at his level of abstraction ‘reality’ becomes so rarefied that it is possible to subsume it within general notions. And, in fact, when pressed by a journalist about the proximity of his ideas with those of right-wing politicians such as Bolsonaro and Trump, Agamben defends himself thus: “A truth remains true whether it is uttered by the left or by the right. If a fascist says that 2 + 2 = 4, this is not an objection against mathematics.”
Yet, Agamben should be reminded that ‘2 + 2 = 4’ is not a ‘truth’ but a mathematical convention, just as it is conventional to think of history in terms of paradigms and empty abstractions. “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality” – Albert Einstein argued – “they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” Faced with the fact of human suffering, philosophical reflection should, perhaps, abandon apodictic assertions in order to make room for the analysis of concrete historical realities.
 Giorgio Agamben, A che punto siamo? L’epidemia come politica (Macerata: Quodlibet, 2020).
 Ibid., p. 47.
 Ibid., pp. 48, 55.
 Ibid., p. 61.
 Ibid., p. 35.
 Ibid., pp. 55, 87.
 Yan Thomas, La Mort du père. Sur le crime de parricide à Rome (Paris: Albin Michel, 2017), 286, note 147, emphasis added.
 Ivan Illich, “The Obsession with Perfect Health”, Journal for Cultural Research 21, no. 3 (2017): p. 290.
 Ibid., p. 289.
 Agamben, A che punto siamo, pp. 15, 20, 11.
 Ibid., 96.
 Albert Einstein, Sidelights on Relativity (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1922), p. 28.