Microbial Storms

Tempêtes microbiennes: Essai sur la politique de sécurité sanitaire dans le monde transatlantique.

Translation: Microbial storms: Essay on health security policy in the transatlantic world.
Book at Amazon by Patrick Zylberman
Gallimard 2013

In the West, something new…


At the end of September 2005, the coordinator for the fight against avian and human influenza in Geneva predicted from 2 to 150 million deaths in the world during a next pandemic, ‘as in 1918!’ he wanted to clarify. Certainly, a new spectrum haunts the transatlantic world: biological terror.

States are working on catastrophic scenarios, so that the world economy is not hit overnight by the dismissal of executives and ordinary workers weakened by infection. This painting of ‘microbial storms’ reflects a considerable amplification of the idea of ​​health security and a dizzying plunge in fiction (exaggerated figures, baseless analogies, etc.) when it comes to defining prevention against microbial threats and procedures for managing epidemic crises.

Patrick Zylberman identifies three main areas of health security:

– The growing place given to scenarios (fictions which feign reality by proposing imaginary situations but conducive to the learning of reflexes and behaviors aimed at controlling events);

– The systematic choice of the logic of the worst as the rationality regime for the microbial crisis. However, the event thwarts the forecasts: it is always something else. Worst case scenarios become a handicap for thinking, because they remain trapped in modeling;

– The organization of the civic body: in the hope of strengthening membership in political institutions and of coping with the social disorganization engendered by the epidemic crisis, democracies are more and more tempted to impose civicism on the superlative ( the emphasis is placed on the duties and obligations of the citizen as on the need to be selfless), whether quarantines, vaccination, even the constitution of health reserves on the model of reserves of civil security.

In doing so, transatlantic health security contributes to the crisis of the nation state. In order to master problems that are precisely international in nature, states adopt global solutions, even those that, like the United States or China, are usually extremely touchy in terms of national sovereignty.

Video by Corbett Report


Biosecurity and Politics

What is most striking about the exceptional measures that have been set in motion in our country (and in many others too) is the inability to see them outside of the immediate context they apparently function in. Hardly anyone seems to have attempted—as any serious political analysis would require—to interpret these measures as symptoms and signs of a broader experiment, in which a new paradigm of governance over people and things is at play.

Already in a book published seven years ago (Tempêtes microbiennes, Gallimard 2013)—one that now merits an attentive rereading—Patrick Zylberman described a process by which medical security, previously relegated to the margins of political calculations, was becoming an essential element of national and international political strategies. This involved nothing less than the creation of a sort of “medical terror,” as an instrument of governance to deal with a “worst case scenario.” Even back in 2005, in line with this kind of “worst case” logic, the World Health Organization warned that “avian influenza would kill 2 to 150 million people,” pushing for political responses that nations were not yet prepared to accept at that time.

Zylberman described the political recommendations as having three basic characteristics: 1) measures were formulated based on possible risk in a hypothetical scenario, with data presented to promote behavior permitting management of an extreme situation; 2) “worst case” logic was adopted as a key element of political rationality; 3) a systematic organization of the entire body of citizens was required to reinforce adhesion to the institutions of government as much as possible. The intended result was a sort of super civic spirit, with imposed obligations presented as demonstrations of altruism. Under such control, citizens no longer have a right to health safety; instead, health is imposed on them as a legal obligation (biosecurity).

That which Zylberman described in 2013 has today come to pass quite exactly. It is evident that over and above any emergency connected with a certain virus that could in future make way for another, the design of a new paradigm of government is discernible; one far more effective than any other form of government that the political history of the west has known before.

Due to the progressive decline of ideologies and political convictions, the pretext of security had already succeeded in getting citizens to accept restrictions to their freedom that previously they were unwilling to embrace. Now, biosecurity has taken things further still, managing to portray the total cessation of every form of political activity and social relationship as the ultimate act of civic participation. We have witnessed the paradox of left-wing organizations, traditionally known for demanding and asserting rights and denouncing constitutional violations, unreservedly accepting restrictions to freedom decided by ministerial decrees, devoid of any legality. Even the pre-war fascist government would not have dreamed of imposing such restrictions.

It also seems obvious that so-called “social distancing” will remain a model for the politics that governments have in store for us, as they constantly remind us. It also seems clear (from the pronouncements of the spokespersons of “task forces” consisting of people with flagrant conflicts of interest with their purported roles) that wherever possible this distancing will be leveraged to replace direct human interactions—now so suspect due to the risk of contagion (political contagion, that is)—with digital technologies. As the Ministry of Education, University and Research has already recommended, university classes will be conducted online permanently from next year. Students will not recognize their peers by looking at their faces, which may well be covered by a sanitary mask. Identification will rely instead on digital technologies that process mandatorily relinquished biometric data. Furthermore, every kind of assembly, whether for political motives or simply for friendship, will continue to be prohibited.

The entire concept of human destiny is at stake and we face a future that is tinged with a sense of apocalypse, of the end of the world—an idea adopted from our old religions, now nearing their twilight. Just as politics was superseded by the economy, now the economy too will have to be integrated into the paradigm of biosecurity, for the purpose of enabling government. All other needs must be sacrificed. At this point it is legitimate to ask ourselves whether such a society can still be defined as human, or whether the loss of physical contact, of facial expressions, of friendships, of love can ever be worth an abstract and presumably spurious medical security.

Article by Giorgio Agamben


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