When the notion of ‘biopolitics’ was first introduced into public discourse, it was greeted with some skepticism. It seemed like a hardly verifiable concept. But, then, the situation changed rapidly. The evidence kept growing, until it became astounding. From biotechnological procedures, aimed at modifying events which were previously considered natural, to suicide terrorism, right up to the most recent ‘migration crisis’, matters of life and death occupied the center of political agendas and conflicts. Now, the coronavirus outbreak and the geopolitical consequences that arose from it have brought the direct relationship between biological life and political interventions to its culmination.
There are three fundamental dimensions that characterize this process.
The first is a shift of the political focus from individuals to certain segments of population. Whole sections of the population – considered at risk, but also bearers of contagion – are now affected by prophylactic practices with a twofold objective of securing their safety and keeping them at a distance. This is also the result of a veritable immunization syndrome that has long characterized the new biopolitical regime. What is feared even more than the disease itself is its uncontrolled circulation in a social body already exposed to general processes of contamination. Naturally, in a world where all internal borders are permeable, the dynamics of globalization have heightened this fear. The sovereignist parties’ (partiti sovranisti) violent opposition to immigration should be interpreted in light of this immunization paradigm, rather than as a continuation of traditional nationalism.
The second dimension of the ongoing biopolitical dynamic has to do with the double process of medicalization of politics and politicization of medicine. Again, this is a development that dates back to the birth of social medicine. But the current phase of acceleration seems to have crossed a dangerous threshold. On the one hand, politics, deprived of its ideological coordinates, has increasingly assumed a protective character against real and imagined threats, chasing fears that it has often helped create. On the other hand, medical practice, despite its scientific autonomy, cannot fail to take into account the contextual conditions within which it operates, i.e., the economic and political consequences that public health measures may determine. This explains, in part, the surprising diversity of opinions among the most important Italian virologists regarding the nature and possible outcomes of the coronavirus outbreak.
The third and, perhaps, even more disturbing symptom of the intertwining of politics and biological life is a shift from ordinary democratic procedures to emergency measures. The use of emergency decrees also has a long history. At its core there is the idea that in situations of high risk, it is the state of necessity, and not the will of the legislator, that should prevail. If, for example, an earthquake devastates a country, a state of emergency is determined which can easily translate into a state of exception. This is what is happening these days, as the measures passed both by the central government and regional authorities are creating a dangerous overlap between the two political bodies. This drift towards a state of exception is all the more disturbing because it tends to bring the political procedures of democratic regimes into conformity with those of authoritarian states, such as China. On this political terrain, however, authoritarian regimes, due to the very nature of their power, will always be ahead of democratic governments.
Translated by Antonio Cerella