The Biopolitics of Immunity in Times of COVID-19: An Interview with Roberto Esposito, Antipode online, 16th June 2020
Interview conducted (via Skype on 3 June 2020) and translated by Tim Christiaens and Stijn De Cauwer.
The Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito is the author of various influential books, including the trilogy Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community (translated by Timothy Campbell and published by Stanford University Press in 2004; originally published in Italian in 1998), Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life (translated by Zakiya Hanafi and published by Polity Press in 2011; originally published in Italian in 2002) and Bìos: Biopolitics and Philosophy (translated by Timothy Campbell and published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2008; originally published in Italian in 2004). In these works, Esposito examines the relationship between the community and mechanisms of immunization in modern biopolitics. He characterizes modern biopolitics through the tension between living in community and immunizing the population from threats to its health. Though these immunitary mechanisms are necessary, they also tend to undermine the demands of communal life. Taken beyond a certain limit, immunitary mechanisms can turn against the community they are supposed to protect. Given the centrality of the tension between immunity and community in the work of Roberto Esposito – who is currently working from his home in Naples – we asked him how he is experiencing the pandemic and all the related developments of the past months.
How have the last few months been for you?
These have been sad months, as for all of us. Sad because of the pain of missing people. Sad because of the way we all had to live.
… do you see a difference between the political strategies of some European countries and, for example, the United States? In the United States or the UK, people had been talking about herd immunity, while in Italy or France governments quickly went for a lockdown.
That’s an interesting word. In Italian, we call this “immunità di gregge”, which literally translates to “flock immunity”. It recalls Foucault’s concept of pastoral power insofar as the government functions as a shepherd for the population as a flock. And yes, there is a quite clear difference between the policies of the Latin countries, like Spain, Italy, and France, which all went into lockdown, and some other countries. Initially only Italy went into lockdown, but then the others followed quickly. On the other side of the debate, the United Kingdom, the United States and even some Northern European countries like Sweden initially tried to follow this path of herd immunity. But this choice is, honestly, a form of eugenics, and in some ways even thanatopolitical, because it entails the deaths of a considerable number of people who would otherwise live. For herd immunity to develop, many of the weakest people are destined to die, as Boris Johnson also admitted. He said that “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time”. However, these countries quickly changed course. The UK and the US also chose lockdowns eventually, albeit in different forms than what we have experienced in continental Europe. Let’s say that my assessment of herd immunity is a rather negative one: it acts as a form of autoimmune disease, that is, it tries to protect life through the death of a part of the population. The only non-negative population-wide form of immunity – i.e. one not based on the sacrifice of innocent victims – depends on the discovery of a vaccine. That is, if we ever get one. The lockdown strategy, on the other hand, has its own problems, by the way, and other risks linked to desocialization. The immunitary lockdown conflicts, beyond a certain level, both with individual freedom and with the exigencies of life as a community. So lockdowns are also risky immunitary dispositifs causing many problems we are only discovering since a few weeks. But, in my opinion, it is still preferable to herd immunity.