Giorgio Agamben: The Arbitrary and the Necessary

[Translation posted December 5, 2021. Original at Quodlibet.]

The question of whether governments consciously make use of the pandemic for declaring a state of exception that reinforces their power beyond every limit or whether emergency is their only choice is poorly posed. What’s happening today, as in every decisive historical crisis, is that the two things are both true: the use of the state of exception as a strategy and the impossibility of governing in any other way coincide. The sovereign, while acting in an absolutely arbitrary way, is at the same time bound to the unending decision on the exception that, in the last analysis, defines his nature. The time in which we’re living is, that is to say, that in which the illegitimacy of the powers that govern the earth appear in plain sight: because they have lost every possibility of taking form in a recognizable symbolic order, they are obligated to suspend the law and the constitutional principles that should define it. The state of exception becomes, in this sense, the normal state, and he who governs can’t govern in any other way. It is perhaps possible that the state of exception will be formally revoked: but a government of national safety, like that which has taken shape, in which all opposition ceases, is the perfect continuation of the state of exception. Our diagnosis of a definitive decline of the age of bourgeois democracies is in every case confirmed. It remains to be seen how long the suspension of politics and the emergency as a paradigm of government will be able to continue without assuming a form different from the health terror on which they have, until now, been founded.

February 12, 2021
Giorgio Agamben