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‘Expertise’ Seizes Power

From Bill Evers’s Facebook page I learned of this recent New York Times op-ed by Christopher Caldwell.

Caldwell discusses the left-wing Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s assessment of governments’ reaction to the coronavirus. That I agree more with Agamben’s take than I do with that of many people whose ideologies and priors are much closer to my own is a sign of these horrible times. (I imagine that Caldwell feels the same way as I do.)

Here are slices from Caldwell’s op-ed, but I recommend that it be read in its entirety (emphasis in bold added by me):

This is a common pattern in the Western countries (and American states) where Covid-19 fatalities are dwindling. The arguments for freedom may be strong — but they are put awfully crudely. The arguments for discipline and prevention may often be resented — but they have a lot of scientific authority behind them, and they carry the day. Better safe than sorry. Late last month, Italy’s parliament voted to extend the government’s state of emergency until Oct. 15.

In a society that respects science, expertise confers power. That has good results, but it brings a terrible problem: Illegitimate political power can be disguised as expertise. This was a favorite idea of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who used it to explain how experts had expanded definitions of criminality and sexual deviancy. One of Italy’s most celebrated thinkers, Giorgio Agamben, has recently applied similar insights to the coronavirus, at the risk of turning himself into a national pariah.

His argument about the coronavirus runs along similar lines: The emergency declared by public-health experts replaces the discredited narrative of “national security experts” as a pretext for withdrawing rights and privacy from citizens. “Biosecurity” now serves as a reason for governments to rule in terms of “worst-case scenarios.” This means there is no level of cases or deaths below which locking down an entire nation of 60 million becomes unreasonable. Many European governments, including Italy’s, have developed national contact tracing apps that allow them to track their citizens using cellphones.

Wars have bequeathed to peacetime a “series of fateful technologies,” Mr. Agamben reminds us, from barbed wire to nuclear power plants. Such innovations tend to be ones that elites were already agitating for, or that align with their interests. Epidemics, he suggests, are no different. He believes that the fateful inheritance of the coronavirus will be social distancing. He is puzzled by the term, “which appeared simultaneously around the world as if it had been prepared in advance.” The expression, he notes, “is not ‘physical’ or ‘personal’ distancing, as would be normal if we were describing a medical measure, but ‘social’ distancing.”

His point is that social distancing is at least as much a political measure as a public health one, realized so easily because it has been pushed for by powerful forces. Some are straightforward vested interests. Mr. Agamben notes (without naming him) that the former Vodafone chief executive Vittorio Colao, an evangelist for the digitized economy, was put in charge of Italy’s initial transition out of lockdown. Social distancing, Mr. Agamben believes, has also provided Italy’s politicians with a way of hindering spontaneous political organization and stifling the robust intellectual dissent that universities foster.

The politics of the pandemic expose a deeper ethical, social and even metaphysical erosion. Mr. Agamben cites Italians’ most beloved 19th-century novel, Alessandro Manzoni’s “The Betrothed,” which describes how human relations degenerated in Milan during the plague of 1630. People came to see their neighbors not as fellow human beings but as spreaders of pestilence. As panic set in, authorities executed those suspected of daubing houses with plague germs.