Interview by Diego Ferrante and Marco Piasentier

Interviewer: ‘Biopolitics’ is a recurring term in your work and in your latest book, From Outside. A Philosophy for Europe (a translation of Da Fuori. Una filosofia per l’Europa, forthcoming with Polity Press). In it, the European crisis is not only conceptualized as a purely economic or politico-institutional crisis, but also as a bio-political one, since it affects the very life of Europeans. In particular, the increase in migratory flows and terrorist attacks represent two paradigmatic figures of the crisis on the continent. These phenomena reveal an overlap between inside and outside, thus challenging the nexus, which has been taken for granted, between population, territory, and processes of identification. If we look at the legal responses to these crises put in place by the EU and its member states, what emerges is the reactive nature of norms and their casuistic logic. More specifically, regarding the measures to prevent and combat terrorism, intervention has been characterized by a widening of the thresholds of protection and punishment. How it is possible to “disable the apparatuses of negative immunization, and to enable new spaces of the common,” as you put it in your article, published in Angelaki, “Community, Immunity, Biopolitics”? How do you conceive these spaces, this dimension of the common? And how would it be possible to prevent a deactivation of the apparatuses of control from turning into a form of isolation?

Roberto Esposito: The thesis presented in the book is that the current crisis affecting the whole world, and especially Europe, is not just economic or politico-institutional, but also more dramatically bio-political, since it involves and endangers the biological life of large numbers of human beings. In fact, the effects of the economic crisis have already begun to manifest their thanatopolitical implications to the extent that they have pushed entire populations to the brink of starvation, as was particularly evident in Greece and in the other weakest links of the EU. Moreover, the escalation of Islamic terrorism, on the one hand, and the uncontrollable rise of migration, on the other — in turn caused largely by wars for which the responsibility of Western countries is undeniable — have radically intensified the bio-thanatopolitical character of the crisis. For the first time, the European population is subjected to a pressure that will change profoundly its characteristics, and our ruling classes are not able to deal with the situation, not even to perceive its import. Nowadays, in dealing with immigration, they have to face a decisive biopolitical decision: the extreme choice between keeping alive or abandoning to death a growing number of human beings.

As a matter of fact, European countries have mostly adopted an immunitarian strategy, designed to strengthen or build barriers capable of containing the migratory influx that is often, even intentionally, confused with the risk of terrorism. Certainly, the existence of the EU’s external borders is not only inevitable, but also somehow essential — otherwise the Union would no longer exist. Indeed, the opening of its internal borders, established by the Schengen Agreement, which is today called into question, is only possible if the external borders are monitored. But it is completely unrealistic to believe that this would be enough to handle the question of immigration, especially if a number of policies adequate to the importance and extent of the problem are not put in place.

Your trilogy — Communitas, Immunitas, Bíos — redefines the issue of inclusion/exclusion in light of the immunization paradigm. To simplify a little, you identify three possible ways of understanding the relationship between inside/outside. On the one hand, there is a dynamics of hyper-immunization activated by the raising of barriers and the intensification of identity politics. On the other hand, a complete absence of immunization spurred by the abolition of all borders and the subsequent loss of identity. Both possibilities are considered politically unacceptable because they cause the annihilation of the body politic (in the first case identity is so self-enclosed that it ends up smothering itself; in the second case it is so open that it ends up dissolving itself). Finally, the third option proposes a form of immunization by means of ‘contamination’, which both enriches and strengthens identities. This logic of inclusion/exclusion seems to be a bio-logic, as it anchors its ontology in the functioning of the immune system. If German critical theory and French post-structuralism were characterized by a progressive politicization of biology, showing the historico-political character of any definition of the human being, what relation does Italian thought establish between politics and biological life? How would it be possible to avoid both a politicization of biology and a biologization of politics?

As a matter of fact, this is precisely the twofold risk to which Europe, but generally any political and even biological organism, is exposed. The first risk is that of an autoimmune disease — i.e., a process of immunization so strong that it affects the very organism that produced it, eventually ending up by destroying itself. What I mean is that an excess of security apparatuses may constitute a danger in itself, as has often happened in European history. But also the opposite attitude is self-contradictory. The complete abolition of borders, instead of strengthening differences, ends up dissolving them in a total homogenization. Only if taken together, can identity and difference be productive. Drawing on biological dynamics, in my book Immunitas I have indicated a path toward a different interpretation of the category of immunization. In this regard, the decisive reference is to the phenomenon of pregnancy. As is well known, the female immune system not only does not reject a foreign element (the fetus, which takes on genetic foreignness from the father) but it also protects and develops the embryo, even though the DNA of the fetus is partly different from her own. If it were possible to apply the same logic — the logic of life — to international relations, things would be much better.

The twofold process of the politicization of biology and the biologization of politics is the outcome of the bio-political dynamics set in motion at the beginning of the twentieth century. On the one hand, it represents a necessity determined by a number of historical, even cultural factors — e.g., the development of the discipline of biology. On the other hand, if left to its own devices, it constitutes a danger. This process, which cannot be avoided, as Nietzsche knew well, should instead be kept under control, since it can easily take thanatopolitical forms, as happened in the most disastrous manner during the Nazi era. In the mid-70s, Michel Foucault was the first to grasp in its full extent both the affirmative and negative sides of this phenomenon. Italian philosophers have worked on the Foucauldian paradigm, developing it in a different direction. Some have insisted on the positive character of the relationship between politics and biological life, while others have emphasized its negative aspects. Personally, I have tried to articulate the biopolitical paradigm in respect to that of immunization, reaching the conclusions that I mentioned earlier. If the processes of the politicization of biology — such as biotechnological practices aimed at controlling and managing births and deaths — and the biologization of politics cannot be stopped, they should at least be governed.

In the final part of the book From Outside, you discuss the widespread criticism that the EU lacks legitimacy and suffers from a profound democratic deficit. Contrary to what is imagined by those who expected the spread of supranational forms of identification, we are witnessing a strengthening of national and regional identities: the success of Eurosceptic or anti-European parties and positions slows down the process of constituting a European political subject. The results of the Brexit referendum or the threat by Austria to close its borders with Italy are just recent examples. The EU seems to lack a project that favors a strong identification among its citizens. In your book, you explicitly refer to the notion of ‘European people’. What are the philosophical and historical conditions that may lead to the emergence of this political subject? How does democracy fit in with the picture so far presented?

The ‘identity syndromes’ and the construction of exclusionary barriers, like the results of the Brexit referendum and Austrian nationalism, are the pathological reactions triggered by the dynamics of globalization. Indeed, they are a form of rejection of the ‘global contamination.’ They are very similar to the autoimmune disease of which we spoke earlier. Naturally, these phenomena not only delay the process of European unification, but jeopardize it, disrupting the integration that has already taken place. And this makes the constitution of a European people all but impossible. Unlike many European countries — such as France, Germany, Italy and many others, whose peoples were formed in parallel with the process of nation-building on the basis of common ideas, languages, and challenges — Europe does not have only one people. Furthermore, the peoples of the various European nations have furiously fought each other until the middle of the last century. In a Europe dominated by the worst nationalist instincts, how could a European people possibly have been born? Of course, as Habermas has argued, the people does not need to be a traditional Volk. It could also constitute itself voluntarily, on the basis of common values and interests, as Europe has tried to do at the end of World War II. But this would require a series of objective and cultural bonds, such as a single language or a common media network, which is exactly what is missing.

How can we get to the bottom of this difficult situation? The decision to prioritize economy, which led to the adoption of the single currency in most EU countries, turned out to be both insufficient and counterproductive, to the extent that it is creating more problems than it solves. The process is now irreversible. For, historically, all U-turns are harbingers of more problems to come. But the negative consequences of financial integration not supported by a political unity are there for all to see. The only way that seems to me to be open is the political construction of a European people. However, this presupposes a harsh confrontation between two ideas of Europe that run across individual nations, which are themselves divided by too many different living conditions to be unified a priori. In this regard, in the book, I refer to the need for a social conflict that restores political strength to the European constituting process. After all, as Hegel pointed out, conflict, if kept within the limits of political confrontation and struggle, has always had a constituent function.

Translated by Antonio Cerella

[Part I of this interview was published on Monday, July 11]

This interview was first published in Il Rasoio di Occam.

Roberto Esposito’s From Outside: A Philosophy for Europe, a translation of Da Fuori. Una filosofia per l’Europa (Turin: Einaudi, 2016) is scheduled for publication by Polity Press in 2017.