Kritische Blicke auf die Coronakrise und ihre Folgen
Kritische Blicke auf die Coronakrise und ihre Folgen

Giorgio Agamben’s Visions of the End Time

Karl Heinz Roth: Im Bann des ‚Großen Lockdown‘: Giorgio Agamben‘s Endzeitvisionen (Under the Spell of the ‘Great Lockdown’: Giorgio Agamben’s Visions of the End Time), Bremen 2021.

During the first pandemic year, there was considerable turbulence in the field of political philosophy. In particular, the opinions of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben caused a stir.[1] At the beginning of the first wave of the pandemic, he declared, referring to an expert opinion of the Italian National Research Council, that Covid-19 was an ‘invented epidemic’, since the actual events did not differ in any way from the seasonal influenza that had been occurring for a long time. It is therefore a deliberate scaremongering by the authorities and the media, who are aiming for a comprehensive state of emergency. Behind the restrictions on freedom of movement and on normal living and working conditions, the tyrants’ old dream of a frightened, docile and unrestrictedly manipulable people was making itself felt.

In the following months, Agamben expanded his fundamental critique with new aspects in numerous articles and interviews. He established a reciprocal relationship between the panic concepts of the political decision-making centers and a ‘state of fear’ of the individuals that had been intensified for years, which by itself tended to collective panic reactions and expressed an increasing willingness to surrender all personal, social and political rights in favor of ‘naked survival’. This, in turn, is accompanied by an upgrading of medicine to a religious cult that has taken possession of the whole of life. Governments had been only too willing to adapt to these changed lifestyles. They have used the epidemic storms of the past decades to establish a kind of international ‘health terror’. Even the economy has been forced into the new paradigm of ‘biosecurity’. The latest epidemic is now being instrumentalized for this purpose: Case numbers and death rates would be detached from their explanatory contexts in order to be able to reduce truths to a moment in the movement of the false and to legitimize extreme government action with a constantly potentiating health hazard. Thus, in addition to freedom of movement and the right to assemble and demonstrate, the human right to truthful information is eliminated in order to transform the state of emergency into a normal state. This, however, is the hour of the procurers of legitimacy under constitutional law. It is no coincidence that lawyers are now resorting to Carl Schmitt, the intellectual forerunner of German fascism, to help the managers of the Corona emergency stage the transition to dictatorship. Superficially, he said, this involved the temporary goal of establishing a ‘provisional dictatorship’ to protect the constitutional right to health. However, according to Agamben, this is only the beginning. Ultimately, he said, the ‘sovereign’ placed outside the law strives to use the epidemiological emergency to permanently subjugate its subjects and to bring about a new order, namely a ‘sovereign dictatorship,’ out of the temporary normality of the state of emergency in the West as well.

In the fall of 2020, Agamben raised his pessimistic findings to a kind of vision of the end times. He wrote in an essay published in the online edition of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung that the countries, cities and houses had burned down, but people continued to live in them as if they were still standing.[2] They had plastered the ruins shut, blindfolded their eyes and covered their faces so as not to have to perceive this. Civilization and barbarism, however, had irrevocably perished so as not to rise again. But how were historians later to describe this collapse, when the castaways believed they were in control of the wreckage, and when the political systems collapsed in fear and infamy? When everything was subjected to the technocratic dictatorship of controls, prohibitions, experts and doctors, there was no longer any need for the new horizons of promise. Only panic and villainy as well as their personifications, the monks and villains, would determine the newly emerging age.

It would be a worthwhile undertaking to illuminate these findings and their eschatological extensions in terms of their philosophical-historical backgrounds, which reach back to Walter Benjamin[3] and culminate in Agamben’s reflections on the ‘homo sacer’, the aporias of ‘naked survival’ and the abysses of the ‘state of exception’.[4] There is not space for this here, although it would be urgent given the failure of his philosophical critics – both the sarcastic and the respectful.[5] In what follows, I will confine myself to critical engagement with those arguments that relate directly to the Corona pandemic.

Giorgio Agamben mixes accurate observations with false premises and exaggerated conclusions. No one will deny, for example, that a vehement drive for collective ‘biosecurity’ developed in recent decades, stemming from a fear syndrome of ‘naked survival’. Moreover, no one will deny either that political regimes appropriated the basic need for healthy living in order to disenfranchise parliaments and endow their radical countermeasures to contain SARS-CoV-2 with the trappings of omnipotent ‘biopolitics’.[6] But in doing so, were the political regimes really following a script that cultural philosopher Michel Foucault, Agamben’s role model, had been working for decades to decipher?[7] Undoubtedly, since the 19th century, political regimes have always used advances in medicine and hygiene in a bipolar fashion – to promote the human right to health and well-being, but also to refine the control and management of the behavior of their subjects. This ambivalence has been inscribed in ‘homo hygienicus’ ever since.[8] In it, civil society progress and authoritarian state paternalism constantly clashed, and it always came down to asserting the emancipatory goals of civil society against the pretensions of the authoritarian state. In this respect, the Corona pandemic placed Agamben, who borrowed from Foucault’s cultural pessimism, in a severe dilemma. On the one hand, Agamben was unfamiliar with the alternative concepts of public health that could do without emergency decrees,[9] so he could not invoke them. On the other, he recognized the disastrous effects of the authoritarian ‘hammer’, which he feared – and rightly so. He therefore had no choice but to invoke false premises in order to be able to stand up to the onrushing executive power. For this reason, he continued to maintain the thesis of the harmlessness of the pandemic even after it had been clearly refuted in view of the growing evidence of the aggressiveness of the pathogen and the rapid dynamics of its spread. The thesis that governments were using the pandemic to perpetuate a state of emergency proved to be just as exaggerated. The hectic pace with which they pushed ahead with the development of vaccines in order to emerge from the state of emergency alone argued against this. The fact that the actors of the political system temporarily paralyzed their own material power base, the entirety of the social reproduction process, and triggered a severe economic and debt crisis also calls for other explanations instead of Agamben’s hypothesis of an absolute display of power by ‘rogue sovereigns’ destroying sociality.


[1] Cf. to the following Archiv der Stiftung für Sozialgeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts (SfS-Archiv), Bestand III.79 (Corona-Krise), Forschungsapparat Akteure – Giorgio Agamben. The materials consist mainly of printouts from the online section ‘Una voce’ on the website of the Italian publisher Quodlibet, which has been publishing Agamben’s commentaries and contributions on the Corona crisis since March 2020. Some of the contributions have meanwhile also been printed in German translation: Giorgio Agamben, An welchem Punkt stehen wir? Die Epidemie als Politik, Wien / Berlin 2021.

[2] Cf. to the following Giorgio Agamben, Die Zivilisation wird nicht mehr dieselbe gewesen sein: Was es bedeutet, Zeugnis von unserer maskierten Gegenwart abzulegen, in: NZZ Online, 28.10.2020.

[3] Cf. to the following Walter Benjamin, Zur Kritik der Gewalt (1921), Neudruck nach dem Manuskript, in: Ders., Angelus Novus, Ausgewählte Schriften 2, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp 1966, S. 47-66; Id., Über den Begriff der Geschichte (1939/40), in: Id., Gesammelte Schriften I.2, Hg. Heinz Tiedemann / Hermann Schweppenhäuser, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp 1980, p. 691- 704, in particular Thesis VIII, p. 697.

[4] Cf. Giorgio Agamben, Homo sacer. Die souveräne Macht und das nackte Leben, Frankfurt a.M.: edition suhrkamp 2068, 2002; Id., Ausnahmezustand (Homo sacer II.1), Frankfurt a.M.: edition suhrkamp 2366, 2004.

[5] Cf. for example Maurizio Ferraris, Die Philosophien und die Maske, in: NZZ, 7.11.2020, S. 19; Slavoj Žižek, Pandemie! COVID-19 erschüttert die Welt, Wien: Passagen Verlag 2020, p. 61-63.

[6] The term ‘biopolitics’ goes back to a discussion on ‘bio-power’ initiated by Michel Foucault. It dominated intellectual discourse for a long time, replacing a far more critical and precise debate that had been conducted since the late 1970s in the discussion of population and health policy, using the example of the Nazi dictatorship.

[7] Cf. Michel Foucault, In Verteidigung der Gesellschaft. Vorlesungen am Collège de France (1975-1976), Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp 1999 (especially lecture from 17.3.1976), p. 276 ff.; Id., Die Geburt der Biopolitik. Geschichte der Gouvernementalität II. Vorlesungen am Collège de France 1978/1979, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp 2006.

[8] Cf. Alfons Labisch, Homo Hygienicus. Gesundheit und Medizin in der Neuzeit, Frankfurt / New York: Campus Verlag 1992.

[9] Cf. to this Karl Heinz Roth, Blinde Passagiere. Die Corona-Krise und die Folgen, München 2022, Kap. V.2, p. 300 ff. (im Druck).