Debate on the Green Pass: Roberto Esposito
Interview with Roberto Esposito by Francesco Borgonovo
(Published in Italian at La Verità: https://www.laverita.info/roberto-esposito-limite-stato-emergenza-2655178070.html)
Francesco Borgonovo: You have written a fundamental book on immunity. Today it seems to be the central theme of our existence. How do you assess the current situation and the climate of these days?
Roberto Esposito: In fact, reality has not only confirmed, but also surpassed, what I had argued twenty years ago. Of course, I do not derive any satisfaction from it, given that this confirmation has passed through the most dramatic contemporary crisis. Of course, it is striking that just when the process of medicalization of politics has spread everywhere, we continue to criticize the paradigm that had predicted it well in advance.
Are you in favor of what in Italy is called the “green pass”?
Yes, I’m in favor. It restricts the freedom of a minority, to protect, at least partially, a majority. All political decisions have costs. As is well known, since Good or Justice cannot be achieved on this earth, one must responsibly opt for the lesser evil. Of course, trying to contain the negative effects as much as possible in terms of time and intensity.
The so-called super green pass is about to be introduced. Those who do not get vaccinated are suspended from work, and free tests are refused. Wouldn’t it be slightly less authoritarian to allow the non-vaccinated minority to take a swab for free?
Once the green pass is introduced, it is inevitable that those who do not vaccinate (without firing them) will be suspended. Regarding the non-gratuitousness of tests, this is a measure of a political nature: an additional pressure to get vaccinated through an economic sanction. Those who do not vaccinate for free, must pay for their choice. In times of crisis, politics reveals its original connection with force. Only beautiful souls do not know or pretend not to know.
Does it not seem to you that the burden of proof has been reversed, that is, that today we are considered sick until proven otherwise?
The biopolitical transformation of contemporary society risks, in the long run, to approach the role of the citizen to that of the patient. But this transformation has not been studied carefully by the Power to subjugate life – the conspiracy version. It is required by a society that for some centuries has placed the problem of conservatio vitae (preservation of life) in the first place. Just read a few pages of Hobbes to understand it. Can I observe that the current debate is culturally very fragile?
In another splendid book you wrote: “Immunity, although necessary for the preservation of life, once brought beyond a certain threshold, forces it into a sort of cage in which not only our freedom, but the very meaning of our existence ends up being lost.” Well, don’t you think that we are dangerously close to that threshold, assuming that it has not already been exceeded?
I agree that this threshold is quite close now. But whether it is achieved or not does not derive from the decisions of a government. It depends on a set of historical needs and contingencies that can be faced each time, but not exorcised for ever. When Max Weber spoke of the ‘steel cage’, he was well aware of this character of destiny – which we can cope with, but not remove.
Some of your colleagues, including Giorgio Agamben and Massimo Cacciari, have expressed serious doubts about the green pass. Did you read what they wrote? What do you think?
I respect them both and with Cacciari I have been friends for forty years. But I do not agree with what they said. With an important difference. In the case of Agamben, his position logically stems from what he has always maintained. In particular, from an overlap, in my opinion forced, between the state of exception and the state of emergency. The difference does not concern quantity, but their origin: the state of exception arises from the subjective decision of a sovereign will. The state of emergency is an objective necessity, as the great jurist Santi Romano explains well about the earthquake in Messina and Reggio (Italy) in 1909. Of course, the definition of necessity always requires a subjective interpretation, but it seems clear to me the difference between a coup and a pandemic. Cacciari, on the other hand, also in his latest, beautiful, book on Max Weber (The work of the spirit), recognizes the complex dialectic that links on the one hand politics to science and on the other ethics of conviction and ethics of responsibility. And no one knows more than Cacciari the tragic character of inevitable political choices. Here, with respect to this realistic awareness, it seems to me that on his part there has been an ‘impolitical’ reprieve.
These colleagues of yours (if I may use the term) have been very much attacked. Doesn’t it seem to you that raising questions and doubts has become a little more difficult than before the pandemic?
Asking questions, even disagreeing with others, is a fundamental act in a democracy. Personally, when a large majority attacks someone, even if they are wrong, not only do I not follow the hateful criticism, but I feel a form of solidarity for those who are under attack, while disagreeing, as I am doing now, with them.
You point out the difference between the state of exception and the state of emergency. But don’t you think we should put a limit? That is, that we must set a border within which the situation is no longer an emergency and we live with the virus? The feeling is that we continue to prolong the emergency indefinitely: first the “pass”, then the “super pass”, then further doses, then the vaccine to minors … And in the meantime the restrictions are not followed by openings.
Yes. A quantitative and qualitative limit must be set – beyond which the boundary between the state of exception and the state of emergency tends to blur. The institutionalized emergency effectively changes the legal system. However, any comparison with what happened in the thirties of the last century is grotesque. At that time, the viruses that they wanted to eradicate – and that eradicated themselves – were human beings. Such comparisons, even implicit, weaken the position of those who make them.
This new category in Italy is often referred to: no-vax, no-vaccines. It becomes no-vax who is against the green pass, who talks about treatments, in short, anyone who does not just say “vaccinate”. It seems that the perfect scapegoat has been created, the deviant category that is good to hate. Is that so?
It seems to me that the so-called ‘no-vax’ should be distinguished into at least three categories: those who are actually afraid of the vaccine, those who fan the flames for political reasons – that is, to gain their votes instrumentally – and those who say what they think, such as Cacciari and Agamben. When someone supports something he believes in, which clearly does not benefit his image, he must be respected, listened to and refuted on the merits of what he says, not on the fact that he says it.
You also wrote about the community. It is often said that the “green pass” is fundamental precisely because we are in a community and we must save or otherwise protect others. I have the feeling, however, that the speech is misleading. It seems to me that in reality the real discourse is: protect yourself, your physical survival, at the cost of discriminating against others. What do you think?
These two things are not necessarily at odds. You can defend yourself and others as well. We must be careful not to oppose ‘community’ and ‘immunity’. Although on the paradigmatic level they are opposed, on the historical level they are always intertwined. There is no society that does not have immune devices, starting with the Law. The point is that, beyond a certain threshold, immunization can harm society, turning the necessary protection into a form of autoimmune disease. It’s all about identifying that threshold. Never as in what one finds in a crisis situation, balance and articulation of judgment must be maintained. And this happens quite rarely, if you listen to TV talks.
Are you in favour of the vaccination obligation?
No, or only as a last resort. In any case, to pass it, we would need a special law. Secondly, if only one country of the European Union decided to do so, it would be problematic on the one hand and useless on the other, unless the borders were closed – which of course I do not hope.
October 13, 2021