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Opinion | Giorgio Agamben, the Philosopher Trying to Explain the Coronavirus

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.

When a society loses its collective cool this way, the cost can be high. Rich, atomized, diverse, our society has a weak spot, and the coronavirus has found it. “For fear of getting sick,” Mr. Agamben writes, “Italians are ready to sacrifice practically everything — their normal living conditions, their social relations, their jobs, right down to their friendships, their loves, their religious and political convictions.”

In fact, “the threshold that separates humanity from barbarism has been crossed,” Mr. Agamben continues, and the proof is in Italians’ treatment of their dead. “How could we have accepted, in the name of a risk that we couldn’t even quantify, not only that the people who are dear to us, and human beings more generally, should have to die alone but also — and this is something that had never happened before in all of history from Antigone to today — that their corpses should be burned without a funeral?”

Mr. Agamben has always been fascinated by such instances of common customs or historic institutions getting emptied out of their long-held meanings. In books less punchy and direct than the present one, he has described this process with the word inoperosità. It means “idleness,” but idleness of a kind that can generate new systems of belief and new dangers. Whatever it is, it has made itself felt not just in Italy but in all Western societies in recent months, perhaps in the United States most of all.

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