The sovereign virus

Never before has the common good been so global

Vittorio Emanuele centre in Milan, Italy, is empty these days. / MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

Where I live, between Rome and the southern tip of Italy, so far we have been spared the coronavirus pandemic which has erupted in the north. Nevertheless, it’s only a matter of time: the attempt to seal off the worst affected areas wasn’t enough to stop the spread of the infection. The first cases are now appearing all over Italy and the risk has increased in the south thanks to the flood of young people who were studying in Milan and decided to return home instead of being ‘held captive’ in the city with the highest number of cases. The North is tormented by an avalanche of cases resulting in hospitalizations and deaths, which have grown exponentially over the past few days, in line with the most negative forecasts. If the infection hits with the same strength the south, where the healthcare system is not up to the task of dealing with it, then the catastrophe will be overwhelming.

Everything the government, virologists and doctors are urging us to do —washing hands frequently, staying at home, teleworking, holding meetings on Skype, not visiting cinemas, theatres and museums, no football and no gym, no drinks and nightlife, no hairdresser, no kissing or hugging— is designed to avert this catastrophe. Many of us have adapted to these rules, though the government’s emergency decrees border on breaches of the Constitution. But there are still too many people, mostly youngsters, who are not prepared to sacrifice a piece of their freedom to beat a virus which is especially deadly for the elderly: they don’t understand, deny the evidence of facts, mistrust the political and scientific authorities, and fail to follow the guidelines which have been issued. It is mainly due to such people that last Monday the measures designed to limit social contact and the freedom of movement and assembly were extended from the Lombardy-Venetian area to the entire Italian peninsula. The first time such measures have been seen in a Western democracy, the New York Times announced with a mixture of astonishment and admiration, just while Trump was finally stopping to claim that the coronavirus is “neither substance nor accident” and, therefore, does not exist, as Don Ferrante referred to the plague in Alessandro Manzoni's I Promessi sposi [ The Betrothed].

As everyone knows, any emergency has the immediate effect of exposing the problems which normality manages to hide under the carpet. We didn’t need the coronavirus to know that Italy is a country divided in two, with outrageous inequalities of income, productivity and public services between the north and the south. We didn’t need the coronavirus to see that the national health system, once Italy’s pride all over the world, has been demolished by neoliberal governments: €37 billion in cuts over ten years, and a regionalised healthcare management based on a competitive approach that rewards the wealthiest regions. We didn’t need the coronavirus to realize that in the globalized world, the economy of a formerly industrialized nation which is now mainly engaged in tourism is susceptible to a falling leaf. We didn’t need the coronavirus to be aware that an aging population due to a very low birth rate becomes more and more vulnerable. We didn’t need the coronavirus to see that the decision-making political process is engulfed by a muddled distribution of powers between states, regions and municipalities resulting from a wrong constitutional reform in 2001. We didn’t need the coronavirus to realize that the precariousness of the labor has given rise to an army of workers without rights or guarantees, who will be the worst hit by the lockdown of the country that is necessary now. We didn’t need the coronavirus to notice that the prisons were overcrowded and would erupt at the first sign of an emergency, as was the case. Finally, we didn’t need the coronavirus to know that the golden rule of European governance, a balanced budget, was in turn a pressure cooker ready to blow. We knew everything, yet pretended not to know, because, as they have preached to us for forty years, "there’s no alternative" to neoliberalism. Now that we are counting the fatalities, we can no longer pretend not to see what’s before our eyes: the emergency asks and commands us to change the normality. How to change it, whether with a leap or with a mend of the system, is played the whole game opened by the coronavirus.

The virus’ revelatory effect doesn’t end here. Lombardy and Veneto, the regions most affected by the outbreak, are home to Berlusconi's joyful neoliberalism, which over time has mutated –as all viruses mutate, even political ones- into Salvini's xenophobic sovereignism. In both of these regions the economy is the undisputed king, protected as it is by security policies: the promise of security is at the service of revenue, efficiency and consumption. Indeed Salvini’s slogan “Italians first” , though conceived as a nationalist brand, basically expresses the need to protect from the immigrant’s “invasion” the privileges of northern Italians. But now, paradoxically, these same regions which have spread a securitarian pandemic all over the country are facing a biological pandemic that overturns the narrative: Italians are the "first" to be affected by the coronavirus and the "first" to be turned away as unwanted guests at the borders with other countries. The perspective of security changes: the security releases, at least partly, from the dictatorship of the economy. Following uncertainty over choosing between "Close everything down" and "Save the GDP", the health safety has finally prevailed over all else. Rather, we are now confronting a more classic version of the security-freedom binomial, that is, the relationship between collective security and individual freedoms: in the name of health, enshrined in the Constitution as one of our fundamental rights, other basic rights, such as the freedom of movement and assembly and the right to study have been temporarily restricted —albeit with a formula which is not based on prohibitions but rather on an appeal to collective responsibility. The question is, can a democracy withstand such a contradiction? Or are we, through this health crisis, witnessing an illiberal, if not authoritarian, twisting of democracy?

Immediately after the first restrictive measures were put in place by the Italian government, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, working on the assumption that we are dealing with an "invented epidemic", relaunched his well known thesis on the liberticidal effects of a form of sovereignty which transforms any emergency into a state of exception, so that the exception becomes the norm. As far as such effects are far from unlikely, this time Agamben has received more criticism than support (beginning with Jean-Luc Nancy and Roberto Esposito, two philosophers who can’t be called hostile to his way of thinking). Because if the sovereign, according to Carl Schmitt, is the one who decides on the state of exception, this time the sovereign is the virus, not the State or the government: the latters get by as they can into the state of exception emergency triggered by a microorganism, one that even in its name, “corona-virus” competes for the sovereign’s crown with the state and the government. In a global world, the exception -whether biological, technological or financial- is systemic and endemic, and doesn’t depend on political will, but rather by imponderable events of a biopolitical nature. Therefore, it makes little sense to analyze what is going on in terms of the traditional paradigm of sovereignty. The very risks of an authoritarian drift following the handling of the coronavirus emergency are linked to the transformation of tools of social control and the production of consent; two in particular. First, the use of big data and artificial intelligence in the fight against the virus in Wuhan, the more dangerous the more a growing fascination with the "Chinese model" increases worldwide. And second, the experiment of “medial totalitarianism” implemented in Italy during the last weeks, with the whole TV schedule dedicated to the epidemic 24 hours a day -and not even a minute dedicated to grieving for the victims.

Even more so, the coronavirus crisis dismantles the political ideology known as sovereignism, which is nothing but an outdated attempt to restore the lost sovereignty of both the state and the ego by erecting walls, drawing borders, closing ports, restoring the primacy of the western white man over the different-other and the woman-other. Viruses know no borders, they are not stopped by walls or closed ports, they do not bow to the will of the sovereign state nor to the sovereign self’s desire to know. They blur the boundaries between human and animal species, rebel against the devastating rule of man over nature, spread by contagion with a total disregard for national identity cards. They remind us that we are all vulnerable and fragile and that we are all linked to one another, because for each of us the other is both a danger and salvation. They escape the rhetoric of war, which has been abused in recent days, as they may well only withdraw as a response to antibodies which will allow us to deal with them in order to achieve a non-belligerent coexistence.

Never before has individual self-interest coincided so closely with the common good, nor has the common good been so global as it has with the current threat. In a crisis there is always the darkness of the catastrophe and the light of change. It is up to us, and in this darkness one can make out a ray of light. We can find it in the beauty of deserted cities, in the air cleared by the lack of traffic congestion, in the spontaneous networks of solidarity and care which are created every day, in the relationships which rediscover the fruitful interval of a bearable distance, in a time removed from the frenzy of doing and performing. Maybe the virus has come to tell us this very thing, that it's time to stop.