Giorgio Agamben, “The state of exception provoked by an unmotivated emergency”

This is a translation of an article that first appeared as “Lo stato d’eccezione provocato da un’emergenza immotivata,” in il manifesto, 26 Feb, 2020.

In order to make sense of the frantic, irrational, and absolutely unwarranted emergency measures adopted for a supposed epidemic of coronavirus, we must begin from the declaration of the Italian National Research Council (NRC), according to which “there is no SARS-CoV2 epidemic in Italy.”

It continues: in any case “the infection, according to the epidemiological data available as of today and based on tens of thousands of cases, causes light/moderate symptoms (a variant of flu) in 80-90% of cases. In 10-15%, there is a chance of pneumonia, but which also has a benign outcome in the large majority of cases. We estimate that only 4% of patients require intensive therapy.”

If this is the real situation, 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?

Two factors can help explain such a disproportionate response.

First and foremost, what is once again manifest here is the growing tendency to use the state of exception as a normal governing paradigm. The executive decree (decreto legge), approved by the government “for reasons of hygiene and public safety,” produces a real militarization “of those municipalities and areas in which there is at least one person who tests positive and for whom the source of the infection is unknown, or in which there is a least one case that is not connected to a person who recently traveled from an area affected by the contagion.”

Such a vague and indeterminate formula will allow [the government] to rapidly extend the state of exception to all regions, as it is practically impossible that other cases will not appear elsewhere.

Let us consider the serious limitations of freedom imposed by the executive decree:

  1. A prohibition against leaving the affected municipality or area for all people in that municipality or area.
  2. A prohibition against entering the affected municipality or area
  3. The suspension of all events or initiatives (regardless of whether they are related to culture, sport, religion, or entertainment), and a suspension of meetings in any private or public space, including enclosed spaces if they are open to the public.
  4. The suspension of educational services in kindergartens and schools at every level, including higher education and excluding only distance learning.
  5. The closure of museums and other cultural institutions as listed in article 101 of the Statute on cultural heritage and landscape, and in executive decree number 42 from 01/22/2004. All regulations on free access to those institutions are also suspended.
  6. The suspension of all kinds of educational travel, in Italy and abroad.
  7. The suspension of all publicly held exams and all activities of public offices, except essential services or public utility services.
  8. The enforcement of quarantine and active surveillance on individuals who had close contact with confirmed cases of infection.

    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 other factor, no less disquieting, 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.

Therefore, in a perverse vicious circle, the limitation of freedom imposed by governments is accepted in the name of a desire for safety, which has been created by the same governments who now intervene to satisfy it.

71 Replies to “Giorgio Agamben, “The state of exception provoked by an unmotivated emergency””

  1. What a sad sad situation! In the name of public health and safety,we have given up our desire and aspiration for freedom and democracy, without hesitation!

  2. Is this a state of exception as G Agamben claims? I don’t think so. Constitutional law has not been superseded or suspended. Yes, there is an executive decree at work. What is really happening, I submit, is the creation of new borders, or again, a proliferation, multiplication, dislocation, and consolidation of borders, rather than a state of exception. To paraphrase B Neilson and S Mezzadra, authors of “Border as Method”, even the quarantine zone is a social institution. While the quarantine will surely not become a permanent state of exception (an important potential for the Agambenian state of exception), it could, in the form of the proliferating border, become a permanent neoliberal social institution. Oh wait, it already has.

    In gratitude and admiration for the swift English translation.

    1. The two are not exclusive. We have both operating together: there is a suspension of the normal constitutional order and fundamental rights due to the exceptional/emergency situation that “justifies” the proliferation of new borders.

    2. You literally demonstrate a complete misunderstanding, misreading, or just trollish ignorance of the theory of the state of exception as voluminously explored by Agamben. First, your interpretation that the constitution has not been suspended merely emergency measures taken is… LITERALLY A STATE OF EXCEPTION. Agamben’s project on the Homo Sacer is in no small degree a project to expose so called constitutional liberal democracies as not true enemies of fascism and then to ask: how to we get passed fascism and have freedom and potentiality and be like… yah know, a society.

  3. The crackdown on free movement and activities is not permanent; it is an emergency measure.

    If it reduces the spread of this virus, which is 20 times more deadly than an ordinary flu and spreads more quickly, then it will more than compensate for the inconveniences caused.

    1. Is it really 20 times more deadly than the flu? Does anyone really knows? Is there reliable data on this?
      Drastic measures are been taken without reliable information.

  4. in Iran, we are experiencing a whole different situation: the epidemic has spread to our country from a region in that we are historically and culturally less familiar with: because of our government’s political and economic relations and despite people’s opposition to such commercial and political relations, the disease became widespread in Iran.
    Another issue for our people is discrimination in the health and medical system. Iranian authorities have consumed medical supplies for themselves and their families. People are deprived of many medical facilities.
    Can the actions of the Iranian government be described as terrorist and bio-terrorism?

    1. Of course not!
      First, I find many assumptions and presuppositions in your argument. I would say Qom is historically and culturally an important city for Iran, with the shrine being located there and the religious importance of the city. Who are ‘people’ in your discourse while you talk about people’s oppositions? and what are those commercial relations? This is not a way to build an argument through which you conclude such a strong closing of terrorism! All governments could be called terrorists if we follow your lead…

      1. Let me clarify the issue.
        We know that China is known as the main center and source of the corona virus outbreak.What is the common history and culture between Iran and China?Is there a land or water border between Iran and China? Is there a common language culture between the people of Iran and China?Are there any kinship ties between the people of Iran and China?What caused the virus to enter Iran as a souvenir?The answer to all the questions is that the main policies of the Iranian government are leaning towards China because of human rights sanctions.
        Mahan Airlines had many flights to China and Wuhan city, but all countries canceled their flights due to the outbreak in China.Iranian officials have increased the number of victims of the virus by hiding the spread of the virus in the country.Finally, the question arises: How did the Iranian authorities manage the crisis?Do they provide people with adequate medical facilities? The answer is no.
        So we conclude that the Iranian authorities have acted deliberately against the health of the people and that this is a terrorist act.

          1. The Chinese government has just announced that China is not the cause of spread of the virus!
            Isn’t that weird ?!The Chinese government denies responsibility for the disaster
            Tyrannical governments are similar in theory and practice.

  5. This is clear-headed thinking and honest insight from one of our most important living philosophers. How have Western people become so completely infused with fear, leading to “a real need for states of collective panic”? And more importantly, how can this fear be made to vanish?

  6. I have deep respect for philosophers, and the ideas expressed here have been known for a long time: how people in power use the fear to dominate masses. However, as facts have demonstrated since this was published in feb 26, Mr Agamben couldn’t be more wrong in this case. Intellectuals sometimes are taken away by their intelligence, to the point that they fail to see reality in front of their noses. hope this gentleman will publish another article soon acknowledging that what he calls a simple flu is killing (and will kill manymore) thousands of human beings around the world.

  7. I think we are being disciplined by neoliberal forces. We are to understand that our living/survival is dependent upon the smooth functioning of the dominant system, justifying its totalizing urge. The state of emergency may or may not be lifted in the future, but the lesson will have been given and learned: we need the system and the system is good.

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  9. Fear is a powerful vector for control, but that does not mean the application of it is always negative. Please note however, that the media has not been in the driving seat of public heath directives, but rather experts who seek to preserve health systems to protect the most vulnerable, namely older persons. I am quite happy temporarily to place myself under restrictions, as not to infect others who deserve the protections and resources during this difficult time.

  10. As a life-long Agamben fan, who reads him in the original Italian as a hobby, I can only say, “OK, Boomer…”

  11. Nicaragua has a Health system that is “considered” one of the best in the region, (I take this new initiative, where 1 million Nicaraguans are being organized to create awareness and educate our neighbors and communities in a massive outreach about COVID-19) I love this idea and it points out to the difference in our approach to health care in Central America, while other hide and wait for it, the Ministry of Health chose to educate precaution while dealing with fake news or “Scientific Media harassment” as it’s called here. All communities are working in conjunction with the local health authorities to contain, with the little they are able to influence and control. We have to be careful, but not install a collective panic like most are doing, I just hope that we don’t lose our basic rights like job searching, going out, walking out, protest, playing sports, which are no longer basic rights in most countries today. Has anyone thought of the physiological effects it will have on everyone, once things are back to normal, who measures that? For now, we have our basic constitutional rights, but that’s because we have anticipated that future phycological effects with awareness through community networks. The message here is everyone needs to be engaged, informed and Fairless.

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