The Biopolitics of Immunity in Times of COVID-19: An Interview with Roberto Esposito

The Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito is the author of various influential books, including the trilogy Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community (translated by Timothy Campbell and published by Stanford University Press in 2004; originally published in Italian in 1998), Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life (translated by Zakiya Hanafi and published by Polity Press in 2011; originally published in Italian in 2002) and Bìos: Biopolitics and Philosophy (translated by Timothy Campbell and published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2008; originally published in Italian in 2004). In these works, Esposito examines the relationship between the community and mechanisms of immunization in modern biopolitics. He characterizes modern biopolitics through the tension between living in community and immunizing the population from threats to its health. Though these immunitary mechanisms are necessary, they also tend to undermine the demands of communal life. Taken beyond a certain limit, immunitary mechanisms can turn against the community they are supposed to protect. Given the centrality of the tension between immunity and community in the work of Roberto Esposito – who is currently working from his home in Naples – we asked him how he is experiencing the pandemic and all the related developments of the past months.[1]

Tim Christiaens (KU Leuven; t.christiaens@kuleuven.be) and Stijn De Cauwer (KU Leuven; stijn.decauwer@kuleuven.be)

How have the last few months been for you?

These have been sad months, as for all of us. Sad because of the pain of missing people. Sad because of the way we all had to live. Sad because it was impossible for me to go to Pisa, to the university where I teach [at the Scuola Normale Superiore]. In Naples the virus was not very strong and my daily life has not fundamentally changed, because when I am in Naples I stay at home a lot anyway and work from home. But, of course, the whole horizon has changed so much that even in my work I felt the impact of this situation, and so I had to change both the form and also some of the contents of my work. I could not simply ignore what was happening. Particularly my work on the category of immunization has become very topical, but also my more recent work on the category of the institution. Despite all the possible criticisms, without institutions we would not have been able to withstand this pandemic. Nevertheless, the situation in Italy is improving and, therefore, there is hope that all this will somehow come to an end.

You said that the notion of immunity that you have already worked on is very important in this crisis. How do you see the connection between virological immunity and political or biopolitical immunity?

The past months – in Italy at least, but I believe also elsewhere – this word “immunity” has been used continuously. We are all seeking immunity in one sense or another. There is even an app in Italy called “Immuni” that has been developed to track movements and notify people when they have been exposed to someone infected. Socially and politically speaking, even face masks and social distancing are part of an immunitarian attitude toward human interaction. So, immunity is at the center of everyday life today. Of course, immunity has various dimensions, politically, legally, socially, and obviously medically. So let us say the immunization process has a much longer history. In some ways, its history even coincides with that of modernity itself. Modernity arises precisely from the need to build protections when the religious dispositifs from the Middle Ages and their emphasis on transcendence lose their legitimacy. The moderns were the people who saw themselves exposed to so many risks and began to build immunitary dispositifs to protect themselves rather than relying on some kind of salvation from God. The most important one among these dispositifs was the state. The state is a great immunitary dispositif to protect life, as Hobbes said. The law is also an immunitary dispositif against conflicts that would otherwise destroy society. In modern times, there has been a very strong acceleration in the need for immunitary security and, today, immunity has become, in my opinion, the pivot around which all our entire modern symbolic universe revolves. However, immunity is something ambivalent: it generates its own risks and dangers as well. To connect this to the contemporary crisis, during the pandemic, the intertwining of politics and medicine has become absolutely central. On the one hand, medicine has become politicized in the crisis, as shown by the conflicts between virologists and epidemiologists on what seems like purely scientific questions. These are, in fact, also of a social and geo-political nature. On the other hand, politics has become medicalized, treating the citizen as a patient in need of perpetual care and turning social deviance into an epidemic disruption to be treated or suppressed. Of course, this has very significant consequences. Giving doctors the task of political decision-making, on the one hand, strongly reduces the scope for political action and, on the other hand, radically transforms the political arena, making deviance a pathological condition.

To stay on this matter for a while, do you see a difference between the political strategies of some European countries and, for example, the United States? In the United States or the UK, people had been talking about herd immunity, while in Italy or France governments quickly went for a lockdown.

That’s an interesting word. In Italian, we call this “immunità di gregge”, which literally translates to “flock immunity”. It recalls Foucault’s concept of pastoral power insofar as the government functions as a shepherd for the population as a flock. And yes, there is a quite clear difference between the policies of the Latin countries, like Spain, Italy, and France, which all went into lockdown, and some other countries. Initially only Italy went into lockdown, but then the others followed quickly. On the other side of the debate, the United Kingdom, the United States and even some Northern European countries like Sweden initially tried to follow this path of herd immunity. But this choice is, honestly, a form of eugenics, and in some ways even thanatopolitical, because it entails the deaths of a considerable number of people who would otherwise live. For herd immunity to develop, many of the weakest people are destined to die, as Boris Johnson also admitted. He said that “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time”.[2] However, these countries quickly changed course. The UK and the US also chose lockdowns eventually, albeit in different forms than what we have experienced in continental Europe. Let’s say that my assessment of herd immunity is a rather negative one: it acts as a form of autoimmune disease, that is, it tries to protect life through the death of a part of the population. The only non-negative population-wide form of immunity – i.e. one not based on the sacrifice of innocent victims – depends on the discovery of a vaccine. That is, if we ever get one. The lockdown strategy, on the other hand, has its own problems, by the way, and other risks linked to desocialization. The immunitary lockdown conflicts, beyond a certain level, both with individual freedom and with the exigencies of life as a community. So lockdowns are also risky immunitary dispositifs causing many problems we are only discovering since a few weeks. But, in my opinion, it is still preferable to herd immunity.

It is said that the measures of social distancing and isolation undermine the social fabric. Would you agree with this criticism?

The expression of social distancing is quite paradoxical. Distancing cannot be social and distancing always produces effects of desocialization and a reduction of communal forms of life. In my opinion, as with immunity, it is a matter of measure, of finding the right balance, in the sense that all human and social bodies need a certain degree of immunization, but should be cautious of extremes. There is not one individual or social body that does not have an immune system. It would die without protection and a certain degree of immunization. The immunity system is necessary for survival, but when it crosses a certain threshold, it starts destroying the body it aims to defend. That threshold is crossed exactly when social distancing demands a total rupture of social bonds. At that moment, it becomes an anti-communitarian propensity. Beyond a certain level, the social fabric, obviously, does not hold up. It becomes unravelled and then it breaks down. The most significant characteristic of the human condition is that of social relationships. A form of life without such relationships, a life that coincides with bare survival, cannot sustain a community for long; it would be a society completely based on bare life, but it would not be worth living.

An area deeply affected by this crisis is the university. At the moment, all research and teaching is done online. What do you think about this digital transformation of the higher education system?

I believe that, up to a certain degree, this method also has some advantages today. It, for example, still allows for contacts like the one we have at the moment [the interview took place via Skype]. But even this method I consider to be, in itself, predominantly negative, because it also leads to desocialization. All research groups, study groups, libraries, campuses, university colleges are in danger of disappearing. Giorgio Agamben has published a text on this issue, which, in my opinion, starts from correct premises.[3] He emphasizes this problem of desocialization, claiming that entirely digital classrooms are no proper substitute for student life. But then he goes so far as to say that those who use digital media are comparable to fascists and this seems to me at least exaggerated. However, I share the analysis of the risks that accompany digital didactics. In my own situation, for example, I teach at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, which bases its teaching on continuous contact between students and teachers. This is only possible when people can be physically present to each other. If that remains impossible, this model is lost and, with it, thousand-year-old university traditions will be lost. I repeat though, this does not exclude that, in some cases, online teaching is necessary. It is still better than nothing, but it should be limited in time and in its application.

Let us turn to the economic side of the pandemic for a moment, such as the relationship between medical interests and economic interests. On the one hand, the economy is shut down for medical reasons, but, on the other hand, there are some sectors that benefit from it, like the digital sector. Companies such as Amazon benefit from the crisis, while workers in these sectors have to work very hard and expose themselves to considerable risks of infection. This also applies, for example, to medical staff and factory workers. What do you think about this?

This epidemic crisis shows just how profoundly our society is marked by inequality. The economy and public health now have a negative impact on each other, with medical demands effectively undermining the economic cycle, like you said. Some jobs continue, many others do not. But, more importantly, weaker workers, like immigrants, are exposed to risk, while the more protected workers are allowed to avoid these risks. The public health measures split the economy in two, as it were. It exacerbates a distinction already present in our economy between exploited workers and certain privileged groups that financially even benefit from this pandemic. Google, Amazon, but also large industrial groups are taking advantage of this crisis to increase their profits. The workers of these companies, such as delivery drivers, warehouse workers, and many others, are in a condition that has become almost a kind of semi-slavery. They do everything to keep their jobs, but they are forced to work in increasingly dangerous environments. In my view, this shows that our capitalist society is fundamentally an unequal society. In critical situations, this inequality becomes more pronounced, but also less and less bearable. What is happening in America right now with the protests following the death of George Floyd is not merely the result of a history of racism. It is also a protest against a society that has dismantled the welfare state, social security services, and publicly available medicine. Trump’s policies have undermined even the timid reforms Obama made in the past. So we must be aware of the fact that Western societies today risk sliding off into generalized social conflict. There’s no doubt about it.

What kind of economy would you suggest? How should the economic recovery be organized? Should it still be based on capitalism or would you have something else in mind, like the commons?

My evaluation of capitalism remains that it produces inequality and suffering. On the other hand, no one has imagined a really viable alternative model, unless we return to bartering, which seems a little difficult. In fact, all the communist systems of the 20th century either failed or became capitalist, as in China. To criticize the capitalist model as such, one would need have another model in mind, which we do not have. Critique should hence rather be formulated within the framework of the capitalist economy. Here we can make some important steps in the direction of the commons, as a third option beyond private and public ownership. Private goods belong to private individuals and public goods belong to the state, but the commons are the goods that belong to everyone alike because they do not allow for any claims of exclusive ownership. There is a lot of reflection and an entire social movement comprising jurists, philosophers and economists that have for some years now relaunched this theme of the commons. I won’t go into a lot of detail right now, but the decisive point, for me, is to think not about replacing the category of ownership with that of use, but of promoting common use as an alternative besides existing forms of private and public ownership. Ownership implies that only one person can consume and even destroy goods, whereas use means that goods are available to anyone. That would be one part of my answer. On the other hand, I think the capitalist economy should move towards a model that is more compatible with environmental values. It should undergo radical ecological reform, a green reform. For some people, digitization is even part of the answer here. In any case, I personally am in favour of what in Italy we call “la tassa patrimoniale”, a tax directly levied on personal wealth. It is predominantly a form of taxation for those owning a lot of private assets. Almost everyone is against this policy, even many left-wing parties. There is a fear that the rich will move abroad. But, in my opinion, a strong tax is crucial to combat wealth inequality. Right now, there is an enormous disproportion in wealth, both between countries and within each individual country. This is a situation that can hardly be sustained in the long run, even without having to imagine the overcoming of capitalism or a revolution. Those options are rather unlikely, so one can and must operate within the capitalist model. Even then, however, the capitalism of the New Deal can hardly be equated with the capitalism of Thatcher and Reagan. Even within capitalism there exist different ways of understanding the relationship between economics and politics.

The European Union is particularly absent in the response to the pandemic, but do you think it has a role to play in organizing the economic recovery?

The European Union cannot do much with its powers limited by its individual member states. It simply does not have that kind of power. The European Union could tax Google or Amazon, but for a wealth tax it would need resources that it does not have at its disposal. That is, the European Union needs a central bank similar to the US Federal Reserve, but the European Central Bank does not have the same level of authority. But above all, it would need a political legitimacy that it doesn’t have at the moment. If you remember the failed referendums about the European constitution, it is clear that the democratic legitimacy of the European institutions is inadequate. Since then, Europe has lost its political soul and has become an aggregation of countries in which, let us say, there are three types of states. At one extreme, there have been fragile member states such as Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Then there are states that naturally pursue their own interests, but do so with a more open mind, like France and Germany. And then there are the so-called frugal states, the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden and Denmark, together with the countries from the Visegrad Group, that want to weaken the Union. They want to ensure that Europe has no chance of development. In my opinion, those states would do better to leave the Union or at least leave the EU free to develop its own course. The EU is trying, however, to do better despite the odds stacked against it. It has made a number of billions available for the economic recovery and has removed some past restrictions on weaker economies. However, as long as the mechanism of voting unanimity for European decision-making remains in place, it will be difficult to move forward. There will always be one state blocking everything. Having said that, however, Europe remains the only possible hope for the European countries. I find it very difficult to imagine a return to sovereign nation-states. They would have no leverage with respects to Russia, China, or the United States. The European Union is a necessary institution, but it must change.

In your writings you regularly mention “affirmative biopolitics” as an alternative way of living with each other. In contrast to thanatopolitics, affirmative biopolitics would know how to affirm life without creating autoimmunitarian reactions. What would that mean today?

The virus is a fact, unfortunately, and we won’t be able to escape it any time soon. As long as there is no vaccine, we will have to live with the virus out of necessity. But this is not an affirmative biopolitics. An affirmative form of biopolitics would instead focus on heavy investments in public health facilities, building hospitals, making medicine affordable or giving medications free of charge, maintaining comfortable living conditions for the population, and protecting doctors and nurses who have died during the epidemic. For example, everyone knows that in Africa, even before this pandemic, there were serious problems with endemic diseases, such as AIDS and Ebola. To confront these crises, pharmaceutical companies should decrease the price of medication. These are now artificially increased via intellectual property rights at the cost of African lives. A lot of lives would be saved if prices went down. This fight against the pharmaceutical industries is crucial. This is what I would call an affirmative form of biopolitics. From my point of view, affirmative biopolitics also means, for instance, de-privatizing the water supply, reclaiming and protecting forests, and also combatting the inequalities I just mentioned. In Italy, there has been a significant battle about keeping water supplies public and about defending public lands. But these initiatives are currently interrupted by anti-pandemic measures. These struggles should be resumed as part of a green restructuring of the economy. At the moment, living with the virus is the condition we are in, but it is not our choice. The other measures I have mentioned could establish an affirmative and beneficial policy for human life.

What do you think is the main obstacle to cultivating this attitude of affirmative biopolitics?

The conservatism of the ruling classes in Western countries who lack the courage to make radical reforms. On the contrary, my impression is that some countries and some leading industrial groups are already trying to make money from the crisis. Some groups have invested heavily in the development of the vaccine and now they are hoping that the virus will not go away, because they want to secure the returns on their investments. There is the fear that the virus will disappear sooner and then their vaccine will never be sold. This is, of course, very sad; the fact that someone could hope for a deadly virus to spread so that one can make a profit out of it. My impression is that in the face of an emergency such as this, the entire way of doing politics should change. Instead, we seem to be moving back to the way politics was done before. A policy of profit, of competition, and therefore of power, does not consider the tens of thousands of deaths that have occurred, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, and it cannot adequately face the economic challenges ahead. In Italy, the number of unemployed people has grown enormously, but also in the United States. The only upside for the United States is that it could lead to the electoral defeat of Trump, but even that is not a given.

How to convince the ruling classes, then, to change their minds?

In politics, convincing people has never been the best option. In political philosophy one distinguishes between politics and the political. The former refers to the official institutions of political government, while the latter refers to the fundamental conflicts of the modern condition. I’m not talking about violence here. I just mean that society is instituted through deeply embedded political conflict. This also opens the way to new forms of solidarity, by the way. At this stage of the crisis people are united because they face the same difficulties and, therefore, they also try to help each other wherever they can. Think about how the doctors have conducted themselves during the crisis. Even wearing a mask can be understood as a form of solidarity, because you are protecting others by wearing it. But this form of solidarity is, in my opinion, not enough to radically change politics. These forms of community are temporary and limited. For there to be real and effective change, a political struggle is needed.

You recently wrote a new book, Pensiero istituente: Tre paradigmi di ontologia politica (Piccola Biblioteca Einaudi, 2020), which deals with the philosophy of Claude Lefort, one of the thinkers of political conflict, and the need to create political institutions. How do you think Lefort might have responded to this situation today? Is he a thinker relevant to this situation?

In that book I used Lefort’s model mainly to criticize other models: the political ontologies of Heidegger and Deleuze. Some interpret Lefort in a liberal sense and others in a more radical sense. I obviously try to follow the radical interpretation. He basically says that political order, as well as a democratic order, requires conflict, but this has also been written by other authors. I am thinking, for example, of Jacques Rancière, but in some ways I am also thinking of Machiavelli, an important thinker for Lefort, who wrote that the power of ancient Rome arose out of the presence of social conflicts. Lefort and Machiavelli argue that the idea of the people as a whole, as a sovereign people, a democratic people, is an abstraction because the people are always divided by conflicts between various interests and values. This element is, in my opinion, fundamental to the political. What I call “the number of politics” is never one, but two. Politics is not about political theology, which tries to reduce two to one, subsuming political conflict eventually under the power of a single sovereign, but it is rather about agonistic republicanism, radical democracy or conflict, because it is fundamentally marked by division and opposition. This Lefortian approach sees in conflict the very form of the social, that is, the social as such is conflictual. If there were no political conflicts, the social would be undifferentiated. It would be a mass made up of many disconnected individuals lacking a political form. The political form institutes an arena that grants space to opposition and struggle at the heart of the social field. Carl Schmitt, who is certainly not a leftist theorist, made a similar argument. According to him, if there are no conflicts, there are no communities, and if there is no adversary, people do not even identify each other as friends.

Could we say that, for example, in the United States, after the death of George Floyd as a result of police violence, the pandemic opens a field of conflict that has spun out of control?

Yes, because it is precisely when the social sphere collapses without finding adequate political forms or institutions that it leads to chaos. I do not know the American situation very well, but let us take the French situation of the “gilets jaunes”, the “yellow vest” movement. They certainly gave Macron a blow, but I do not think they have gained any significant political victories, because in modernity, as well as in the present, social conflict must find political forms in order to be productive. Their suspicion of political institutions has in the end become an obstacle to their demands. They could have accomplished more if they had been less suspicious of inventing and cultivating more long-lasting political platforms. It is inevitable to think about the question of institutions when the situation becomes explosive, as in America. There, endemic racism and growing inequalities have created a dangerous situation. It risks manifesting itself violently at every moment a local incident like George Floyd’s death occurs. Politically, indeed, it can be used by Trump to spread more racism and violence, so I think we should be careful with this development. Political conflict needs special institutions to achieve real political reform. And yes, institutions are full of flaws and limitations. They are often conservative and sometimes they are reactionary, but imagine how this pandemic would have developed without institutions. Without them, the consequences would have been disastrous. Institutions are necessary. But the point is that, with institutions, we should not only think about the state or state apparatuses. An institution is also a non-governmental organization or a volunteer group. The university or the dialogue we are having right now are, in their own ways, also institutions. It is a matter of thinking about institutions not as fixed and stable units, but as institutive practices, that is, actions that produce innovation, but also grant some level of stability in the long run.

Notes

[1] Interview conducted (via Skype on 3 June 2020) and translated by Tim Christiaens and Stijn De Cauwer.

[2] The Guardian (2020) Johnson: Many more people will lose loved ones to coronavirus. 12 March https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/12/uk-moves-to-delay-phase-of-coronavirus-plan (last accessed 11 June 2020)

[3] Giorgio Agamben (2020) “Requiem per gli studenti.” Diario della Crisi, Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici, 22 May https://www.iisf.it/index.php/attivita/pubblicazioni-e-archivi/diario-della-crisi/giorgio-agamben-requiem-per-gli-studenti.html (last accessed 11 June 2020)