By Slavoj Žižek (philosopher), The Philosophical Salon
(Suggestion by Dr Giorgos Charalambous)
Many liberal and Leftist commentators have noted how the coronavirus epidemic serves to justify and legitimize measures of control and regulation of the people that had been till now unthinkable in a Western democratic society. Is the total lockdown of Italy not a totalitarian’s wet dream come true? No wonder that (at least the way it looks now) China, which had already widely practiced modes of digitalized social control, proved to be best equipped for coping with catastrophic epidemics. Does this mean that, at least in some aspects, China is our future? Are we approaching a global state of exception? Have Giorgio Agamben’s analyses gained new actuality?
It is not surprising that Agamben himself drew this conclusion: he reacted to the coronavirus epidemic in a radically different way from the majority of commentators. He deplored the “frantic, irrational, and absolutely unwarranted emergency measures adopted for a supposed epidemic of coronavirus” which is just another version of flu, and asked: “Why do the media and the authorities do their utmost to create a climate of panic, thus provoking a true state of exception, with severe limitations on movement and the suspension of daily life and work activities for entire regions?”
Agamben sees the main reason for this “disproportionate response” in “the growing tendency to use the state of exception as a normal governing paradigm.” The imposed measures allow the government to seriously limit our freedoms by executive decree: “It is blatantly evident that these restrictions are disproportionate to the threat from what is, according to the NRC, a normal flu, not much different from those that affect us every year. /…/ We might say that once terrorism was exhausted as a justification for exceptional measures, the invention of an epidemic could offer the ideal pretext for broadening such measures beyond any limitation.” The second reason is “the state of fear, which in recent years has diffused into individual consciousnesses and which translates into a real need for states of collective panic,for which the epidemic once again offers the ideal pretext.”
Agamben is describing an important aspect of the functioning of state control in ongoing epidemics. But there are questions that remain open: why would state power be interested in promoting such a panic, which is accompanied by distrust in state power (“they are helpless, they are not doing enough…”) and which disturbs the smooth reproduction of capital? Is it really in the interest of capital and state power to trigger a global economic crisis in order to reinvigorate their reign? Are the clear signs that not just ordinary people, but also state power itself is in panic, fully aware of not being able to control the situation – are these signs really just a stratagem? […]
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