Donatella Di Cesare 

Interviewed by Jonathan Thomas

Immunodemocracy: Capitalist Asphyxia, translated by David Broder (Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2021)

Donatella Di Cesare is Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at the Sapienza University in Rome. One of the most significant voices on the Italian intellectual scene, she is a contributor to numerous newspapers, websites, and journals in Italy and elsewhere. Her books have been translated into eight languages.

Jonathan ThomasImmunodemocracy is a book you wrote during the initial outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. It opens with a description of society grinding to a halt in the spring of 2020, when people around the world were told by their governments to stay at home, to avoid contracting or spreading an airborne virus that has now killed millions of people. With this global event, “the twentieth century,” you write, “suddenly seems to have become remote, like it never had been before. Hence why anyone who uses twentieth-century lenses to decipher what’s going on risks quickly running into trouble.” I wonder what you mean by this? 

Donatella Di Cesare: Already by the end of February 2020 I had the impression that the pandemic was a much more serious event than we had imagined, an epoch-making event. And so it was. The first European country to be affected in a brutal way was Italy. There were no respirators, no masks, no oxygen. It was a catastrophe. In those days I started writing my book. Everything was suspended, almost at a standstill. I live in a very busy neighbourhood in Rome, like all the neighbourhoods in big cities and metropolises. But the streets were empty; people moved with distrust and the fear that the other could bring contagion. Never before had this powerful society of advanced techno-capitalism come to a sudden halt. A victory of what I have called the “sovereign virus.”

The 21st century was marked by two other events: 9/11 and the great financial crisis of 2008. But this pandemic really marks a before and an after. Furthermore, it is not over and we do not know what will happen next. We may have to learn to live with viruses and bacteria and their variants for years and decades. From what I have called the “breathing catastrophe” we have learned that oxygen is a precious commodity, that we must protect the air together. It is the task of everyone. Otherwise an apocalypse lies ahead of us. That's why I believe that in order to interpret this new and very complex scenario, we need new means and new concepts. This does not mean that the traditional ones are no longer indispensable — on the contrary! But they are no longer enough. This happened already after the Second World War, when philosophy had to expand its philosophical inventory by introducing new figures, such as that of the refugee, or that of bare life. The examples here are Hannah Arendt and Giorgio Agamben. 

JT: Your book was published in Italian as Virus sovrano? L’asfissia capitalistica, which translates as Sovereign Virus? Capitalist Asphyxiation, but when it was published in English translation you changed the title to Immunodemocracy. Your subtitle was consistent in both editions and I was wondering why it was important for you to subtitle the book in this way? If I understand you correctly, when you describe the "breathing catastrophe" you are referring to a condition wherein breathing as such became dangerous. To breathe is to live, but Covid made breathing dangerous, indeed deadly. You give other examples too, such as the development of chemical warfare and toxic clouds. But when you say "capitalist asphyxiation," is this what you mean? Or are you instead referring to the velocity of contemporary society? Because you also refer to “temporal asphyxiation" and the "asphyxiating present of a windowless world" where the need to keep pace leaves us "breathless and exhausted.” 

DDC: I must say that I like much more the title of the English translation, because Immunodemocracy is the key concept of my book. I admit that I wanted to title my book The breath’s catastrophe, but the Italian publisher preferred the other. To breathe is to live, to exist. Breathing has always been the symbol, the metonym, the marker of existence. To exist is to breathe. There is nothing more natural, more emblematic. Yet, already at the beginning of the last century, breathing was systematically targeted. We need only think of the ever wider and more sophisticated use of gases and poisons: from chlorine on the front lines of war, to the use of cyanide acid for extermination; and from radioactive contamination to chemical weapons. The manipulation of the air put an end to the naive privilege enjoyed by human beings before the caesura that was the twentieth century: namely, the privilege of breathing without worrying about the atmosphere surrounding them. No one could have imagined this catastrophe of breathing, prompted by a virus that nonetheless seems to stand out against the backdrop of a troubling continuity. The air had lost its innocence for some time already. Viruses and bacteria are among us. These new and aggressive co-occupants invade even intimacy itself, besieging this ancient abode and trying to settle here. But there is no option other than to coexist. The catastrophe brings to light all the limits of neoliberal governance. It is an interruption that marks the course of history, makes a dent on existence, changes habitats, inhabitation and cohabitation. Nothing will be like it was before. Yesterday’s world appears as a remote, collapsed world that has now slipped away. But we should have learned in the meantime the importance of the air and of our communal breathing.

By capitalist asphyxia I mean the era of advanced capitalism, in which no one can escape the dizzying economy of time. We are apparently free and sovereign. But taking a closer look, the growth imperative, the compulsion to produce, and the obsession with productivity combine to ensure that freedom and coercion subtly end up coinciding. We are living in coercive freedom and in free coercion. That is the only way of coping with the challenge of everyday life, which leaves us exhausted and breathless. If at night we feel a vague sense of guilt, this is not because we have transgressed the laws of ethics or eluded religious commandments. Rather, it is because we have failed to keep pace and remain in step with the breakneck rhythm of a world running at highspeed. In this sense the coming ill had in fact already arrived. One had to be blind not to see the catastrophe lurking around the corner, not to recognize the malign velocity of the capitalism.

JT: You say that the model of democacy that prevails today can be summarized by the formula Noli me tangere, which translates as “Do not touch me.”  “The whole tradition of liberal political thought has insisted on this nagative conception of liberty,” you argue. Noli me tangere is a phrase with biblical associations, and it also plays an important role in Alain Brossat’s 2003 conceptualization of immunitary democracy. Can you talk about the genealogy of this formula and how it came to play an important role in your thinking around the question of democracy today?

DDC: Noli me tangere, do not touch me, is an expression which comes from the gospel, but which is jokingly used in modern culture to invite the other to stay away – stay away from me, from my body, from my private sphere, from my guarantees, from my rights. Why is this formula so important? Because it summarizes all that the citizen requires of democracy: do not touch me. And it is not so much! The whole tradition of liberal political thought has insisted on this negative conception of liberty. The demand is not for participation, but for protection. The citizen of the ancient democracy (which had its limits, which we should not forget: first of all the exclusion of women) was interested in having a share in public power. Nowadays, the citizen of  immunodemocracy prioritizes his own security. This is precisely the gravest limit of liberalism, which thus confuses guarantees with liberty. This negative vision undermines democracy, which is reduced to a system of immunity which has to safeguard human lives, in their multiple aspects. But we know very well – all the more after this terrible pandemic – that the condition of immunity reserved for some, the protected, the preserved, the guaranteed, is denied to others, i.e. the exposed, the rejected, the abandoned. I’m sure that everyone can imagine examples. In my book I mention the case of Las Vegas, where homeless people were lined up like cars on the floor of an open-air parking lot. The virus cast an unsparing spotlight on social apartheid. But in Europe we have the dramatic case of the refugees massed together in makeshift shelters in Lesbo, in Moira, or in Lybian camps. European public opinion had other things to worry about. The disparity between the protected and the defenseless, which defies any idea of justice, has never been as striking as in the crisis of the coronavirus. This is no longer only an apartheid against the poor. The discrimination lies precisely in the immunity, which itself digs the furrow of separation. This is already true within Western societies, and even more so outside, where the losers of globalization live. This other humanity is inexorably delivered up to all kinds of violence. Delivered up to wars, genocides, famines, sexual exploitation, new forms of slavery, diseases. The immunitarian paradigm explains (but does not justify!) our unperturbable frostiness when faced with the pain suffered by “others.” The more exacting and exclusive the immunization of those within, the more implacable becomes the exposure of those superfluous creatures on the outside. We see this now by the vaccination – only 0.9% of the not-occidentalized countries in the world have been vaccinated.

JT: For a time during the pandemic, distance was the only hope. But here in Los Angeles, pandemic restrictions were officially lifted last week, which for the state of California means “no more physical distancing.” California is  “reopening” its economy and fewer people are wearing masks in shared spaces. Last month Italy “reopened” its borders to vaccinated tourists from certain areas, and on June 07 Spain announced that it was “reopening” its borders to vaccinated travellers as well. "They're welcome — more than welcome — without restrictions nor health controls," Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said.

What are your thoughts on this process of “reopening”? On the one hand there’s the re-activation of the public sphere and what for many people feels like the beginning of the end of the Covid pandemic — returning to classrooms, cinemas, music venues, and so on. But this is also a question about the status of political borders and the movements of people. In that sense I wonder if the discourse around “reopening” raises any important concerns from your perspective?

DDC: In Italy, as in California, restrictions have been lifted. It is time for reopening. There is great enthusiasm, as in all European countries. People are going to the sea, to the mountains, they are breathing freely again and meeting others freely. Here we speak of "ripartenza" and this Italian term indicates precisely the fact that we had stopped and that we are now walking again, or rather running. I believe that, as you rightly point out in your question, this means a recovery of public space, which is what was missing during the second lockdown. However, there is also the awareness, despite the easing of restrictions, that the pandemic is not over. The hope that the vaccines will be sufficient against the delta variant or other possible variants does not erase the fear of another lockdown and other crises.

On the question of borders, as I said in answering the first question, I think nothing has changed. On the contrary! The division between those who are protected and those who are abandoned, between those who are already vaccinated, immune and those who may never be is still in place. The borders continue to be impassable frontiers. The problem is this sovereign virus, which makes a mockery of sovereign governments, which crosses borders and which has taught us covulnerability. I cannot pretend to be immune if the other is not — unless I want to live in isolation. In a touristic country like Italy this would mean suicide. Then we must — perhaps selfishly — also think of the immunity of the others, of the poor, of the weakest.

JT: Will you be returning to the classroom to teach in the fall? And if so, what will your class be about? 

DDC: Yes, I’ve introduced this new word phobocracy, which has been accepted by the Encyclopedia Treccani, in Italy the most important authority for language and culture. By phobocracy I mean the realm of fear, the power exercised through the systematic emergency, the protracted alarm. We know very well that fear is a political category. Machiavelli has shown it clearly: the prince governs by this means and so preserves his sovereignity. But I think that fear has become an atmosphere in our time. Life appears to be trapped between the threat of being attacked and the need to defend oneself — or better, to ward off the attack. Fear grows, and is a dark fear of the other, in which a variety of worries and anxieties combine. The immunitarian democracies are characterised by a culture of fear. This is no spontaneous emotion. Rather, it is borne of the diffuse suggestion that there is some omnipresent danger, accustoming people to threat and a sense of extreme insecurity, up to outright terror. Power threatens and reassures, whips up the flame of danger and promises protection — a promise it is unable to keep. Hence the perverse circularity of this phobocracy.