I used to read the business section of the China Daily as if it were a window into the unconscious mind of PRC entrepreneurs. Since the coronavirus outbreak, however, their reporting seems to offer a sneak peek into something more: maybe we are seeing a new turn of the screw, a post-COVID-19 economy. From the beginning of this crisis, we have been told how robots, drones, and AI are being deployed to contain the spread of the virus. While not all that surprising, this trend has become strikingly blunt. It is not overly shocking to read things like “Big data plays major role in epidemic control,”but the boosting of big-tech solutions in the China Daily has become more pervasive and overwhelming in the face of the epidemic: “Blockchain technology improves coronavirus response,” “Robots help enforce health safety in Shenzhen,” “Internet TV sector buoyant as online demand surges,” etc. The most revealing statement appeared on China Daily’s online site on February 20, 2020 under the title “Virus could hasten digital currency launch.“
This appeared as a pingback to the comments to the Agamben translation. We are linking it here to further draw attention to this thoughtful blogpost by John Paul Ricco, which includes a translation and discussion of Jean-Luc Nancy’s response to his “friend Giorgio,” originally published in Italian and French. https://unbecomingcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/02/29/viral-intrusions-and-other-friendships/
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:
- A prohibition against leaving the affected municipality or area for all people in that municipality or area.
- A prohibition against entering the affected municipality or area
- 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.
- The suspension of educational services in kindergartens and schools at every level, including higher education and excluding only distance learning.
- 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.
- The suspension of all kinds of educational travel, in Italy and abroad.
- The suspension of all publicly held exams and all activities of public offices, except essential services or public utility services.
- 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.
Historical Knowledge, Historians’ Categories, and the Question of “Fascism”
In this piece, a preview of his in-progress book manuscript, Federico Marcon questions whether our generalized use of the term “fascism”—covering both the historical phenomena of the 1920s-30s and the contemporary resurgence of right-wing populism all over the globe—is justified or helpful as a category for analysis. For Marcon, this is not a question of semantics, and possibly not even of historical accuracy, but a crucial issue of theoretical precision and political strategy. “Fascism,” he tells us, is a term that is simultaneously meaningless and overloaded with meaning(s). As such, it cannot illuminate the political character of historical or contemporary movements. And furthermore, it obscures the fact that revolutionary conservatism is not an outside threat to liberal democracy; rather it originates within and is produced by liberal democratic institutions.
Let's Talk About Hong Kong: A Guide
Here is a very useful booklet that distills some recent experience of discussion forums involving Hong Kong and mainland Chinese students at universities in Australia (Sydney) and the US (Columbia) in 2019. We thank the organizers for sharing it with us: http://www.tiny.cc/letstalkabout