Three years ago, as the novel coronavirus was making its way from Wuhan to every corner of earth, so did the novel mode of emergency management pioneered in that city: the mass quarantine of healthy individuals, now known by the prison shorthand of “lockdown.” Just as remarkable as the rapid worldwide embrace of lockdown was the dearth of critical reflection on its unprecedented character. Not only had confinement on this scale never been attempted, it had been overtly rejected in most pandemic-response guidance before 2020. In January of that year, the world looked on with shock as China confined more than 10 million of its citizens to their homes overnight; yet by the end of March, most governments and many citizens had come to accept this approach as normal and necessary. Within three months, the “Covid consensus”—as Compact columnist Thomas Fazi and his co-author, Toby Green, call it in their book of that title—hardened into unassailable orthodoxy.
One major exception to the uncritical posture toward this new policy regime—a posture that became especially inflexible among intellectuals of the left—was Giorgio Agamben. The Italian philosopher had been writing for decades about the use of the “state of exception” to suspend normal freedoms and restraints on the exercise of power. This same line of analysis, which secured his intellectual influence in the aftermath of 9/11, made him a pariah during the Covid era.
On Feb. 26, 2020, just five days after the provinces of Lodi and Padua enacted the first lockdowns outside China, Agamben published a column entitled “The Invention of an Epidemic” in the communist daily il manifesto. A considerable portion of the column is taken up with simply enumerating the severe limitations on basic freedoms facilitated by Italy’s emergency decree, which permitted such measures to be taken as soon as a single positive case was registered in a given region. As Agamben aptly noted, “such a vague and indeterminate formula will allow for the rapid diffusion of the state of exception.”
At that point, lockdowns weren’t yet widespread, and the consensus in favor of the new public-health regime hadn’t solidified. Even so, Agamben’s intervention met with instant repudiation from longtime friends and allies. A day after his first salvo against Italy’s Covid measures appeared, the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy issued a counterblast, arguing the real state of exception was the one set in motion by the virus itself (the “viral exception”), not the one imposed by the Italian authorities. Moreover, emphasizing their long friendship, Nancy recalled that Agamben had once advised him against receiving a heart transplant without which he “probably would have died soon enough”—the implication being that the Italian philosopher’s suspicion of biomedical interventions was irrational and dangerous.
Nancy’s rejoinder to Agamben already revealed certain rhetorical habits of the “Covid consensus” that soon became commonplace. For instance, his analogy between a heart transplant and untested containment policies anticipates the fetishization of a generic “Science” that must be trusted to preserve life. Or consider Nancy’s position that the virus itself represented an immediate and severe threat, and therefore any criticism of the extreme measures merely detracted from its significance; as he wrote, Agamben’s “taking it out on [governments] seems more like a diversionary maneuver.” This became a major strategy for suppressing criticism of Covid measures. We were told again and again that it was the virus, and not the measures adopted in response to it, that had caused mass impoverishment, learning loss, and other dire effects.
Other early critics focused on the headline of Agamben’s column. To claim that the epidemic was an “invention,” for the philosopher Benjamin Bratton, was tantamount to calling the virus a “hoax.” But Agamben never denied the virus existed; he merely offered the Italian National Research Council’s estimate of its fatality rate at the time, which put it in the same range of severity as influenza. The sense in which the epidemic was “invented” was political: It had become the basis of a novel mode of emergency politics. Likewise, it was one thing to acknowledge that the 9/11 attacks had occurred, and another to accept that the War on Terror followed as a necessary policy response. Yet many who had criticized that rhetorical slippage in 2001 engaged in it themselves in 2020.
One might reasonably quibble with the numbers Agamben cited to establish that the measures adopted against Covid were far out of proportion with the virus’s danger; the virus’s fatality rate remains a subject of live scientific debate. But this would be to miss the point. Pandemic influenza consistent with or deadlier than the higher estimates of Covid fatality rates is both a historical reality and something that was considered highly plausible when pandemic response plans were devised in the years before 2020. But as Fazi and Green note, in “all the pre-2020 influenza pandemic preparedness plans drawn up by the WHO or by national governments, the notion of city-wide, and certainly of nation-wide, quarantines wasn’t even conceived of.”
In other words, the notion that the measures implemented in Italy in February and across the world in subsequent months would be necessitated, even in the case of an infectious disease with a far higher death toll than Covid, was by no means obvious—yet all of the criticisms of Agamben’s anti-lockdown position, from Nancy’s on, seemed to take for granted that it was.
The denunciations he faced from erstwhile friends and allies—including his longtime English-language translator—didn’t deter Agamben. He continued to reflect critically on the ever-expanding restrictions on basic human life legitimated by the threat of the pandemic, from forced confinement to the mandatory covering of the face—the very “site of politics,” he argued in one essay—to the mass exclusion of the unvaccinated from public life. Three years on, most of what Agamben said has been vindicated. Many of the policies in question are accepted to have been ineffectual at achieving their ostensible aims at best, and disastrously counterproductive at worst. The only thing these measures unquestionably achieved—as Agamben foresaw—was a vast expansion of the power to confine, exclude, and censor.
Nonetheless, Agamben remains persona non grata in the academic precincts where he was once celebrated. Near the end of last year, for instance, a planned symposium on his pandemic writings at Stanford, whose university press has published much of his work in English, was canceled due to complaints from faculty members and students. To this day, much of the academic left remains in thrall to a fantasy that the pandemic was an opportunity to forge solidarity around shared vulnerability. Agamben saw early on that the opposite was true: “Bare life, and the fear of losing it, is not something that unites people.” This is because “fellow human beings … are now seen only as potential [plague] anointers whom we must avoid at all cost.”
In a reflection written a month after his initial column, Agamben asked why, given the imposition of unparalleled restrictions on basic freedoms with so little evidentiary support, there hadn’t been more opposition—and why the little criticism that did surface was so easily dismissed and marginalized. His tentative answer was that, before most of us had even heard the word “coronavirus,” “the plague was somehow already present, even if only unconsciously, and people’s life conditions were such that a sudden sign could make them appear as they really were.” This remains true three years later, even as much of the destructive and tyrannical public-health apparatus improvised in early 2020 has finally been dismantled, even in China. This is one reason why the return of lockdown, perhaps even for new “emergencies” such as “climate,” is entirely plausible, despite the measure’s evident discrediting.
For Agamben, the only “positive dimension” of the situation he contemplated in early 2020 was that “it may be possible that people will start wondering whether their way of life was right in the first place.” The opposite is true today, as we come full circle three years after the remarkable events of early 2020: The only negative dimension of the “return to normal” is the risk that we fall back into the unreflective drift from crisis to crisis that made lockdowns possible.