Bíos: Biopolitics and Philosophy 
by Roberto Esposito, translated by Timothy Campbell.
Minnesota, 230 pp., £14, April 2008, 978 0 8166 4990 7
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No man is an island; unless, Donne might have added, he becomes a whale: ‘Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were.’ But even if the whole feels the loss of a part, the part may not feel the loss of the whole. It is what happens to the clod or the promontory that counts, and in his earlier poem about metempsychosis, ‘The Progress of the Soul’, Donne describes the soul entering a whale so vast that it is as if ‘seas from Afric’s body had severed/And torn the hopeful promontory’s head’ (the Cape of Good Hope), allowing it to swim off into the southern ocean. The whale is not just a floating island: he is an entire world for the swallowed dolphins that swim inside his belly ‘without fear,/ And feel no sides, as if his vast womb were/ Some inland sea’.

Likened to a great officer receiving supplicants in court, Donne’s whale is a ‘tyrant’ who falls victim to the plots of little fishes, and finally a ‘slain king’ whose death goes unrevenged. In these respects he could be a precursor of Hobbes’s Leviathan – that other ‘confusion of a man and a whale’, as John Bramhall (one of Hobbes’s early critics) described it – and Hobbes, who knew Donne, may have had the poet’s image in mind. Bramhall almost certainly did, taking Donne’s account of the conspiracy of the swordfish and the thresher fish against the whale as the model for his own assault on Leviathan.

For the modern reader, the most striking passage in Donne’s poem is probably not this bizarre piece of whale-lore (the swordfish and thresher attack simultaneously, one piercing the whale from below, the other beating him down from above), but the extraordinary picture of individual freedom within the state offered by the description of dolphins sporting within the body of the whale, oblivious of their own confinement. For Hobbes, liberty was the potential for unimpeded motion, and his examples of its absence were creatures ‘imprisoned, or restrained, with walls, or chains’, and water ‘kept in by banks, or vessels’. To ‘feel no sides’ is the epitome of freedom as he defines it.

But there is obviously a difference between the freedom the whale enjoys in the ocean and that of the dolphins in their inland sea. Apart from anything else, inside the whale there are, as Orwell pointed out, ‘yards of blubber between yourself and reality’, with the result that you are quite unaffected by events outside and probably unaware of even the whale’s own movements. The whale and the dolphins may be swimming in different directions without even knowing it. What is the meaning of freedom if you are carried along in one direction while swimming as fast as you can in the other?

Hobbes’s answer was that those within the Leviathan had, through their covenant with one another, made themselves the authors of the actions of the state. It might appear from this that the liberty of subjects is co-extensive with that of the state. But Hobbes argued that you couldn’t measure the freedom of the subject by the freedom of the state; just because a commonwealth was free ‘to resist or invade other people’, it did not follow that individuals within the commonwealth had equal liberty: ‘There is written on the Turrets of the city of Lucca in great characters at this day, the word libertas; yet no man can thence inferre, that a particular man has more Libertie, or Immunitie from the service of the Commonwealth there, than in Constantinople.’

The claim went to the heart of the republican theory of liberty, and James Harrington quickly picked up on it: ‘To say that a Lucchese hath no more liberty or immunity from the laws of Lucca than a Turk hath from those of Constantinople, and to say that a Lucchese hath no more liberty or immunity by the laws of Lucca than a Turk hath by those of Constantinople, are pretty different speeches.’ Immunity from the law is found in whatever areas of life fall outside the law’s jurisdiction or enforcement, a space that will inevitably exist whatever the government. Immunity by the law means that the law itself creates the freedom that the citizen enjoys. And in this respect, Harrington claimed, there was a decisive difference between Lucca and Constantinople: ‘The greatest Bashaw is a tenant, as well of his head as of his estate … the meanest Lucchese … is a freeholder of both … not to be controlled but by the law, and that framed by every private man to no other end … than to protect the liberty of every private man.’

For Hobbes, to be considered the author of the actions of the sovereign it is sufficient to have made a covenant; for Harrington, it is necessary for citizens actively to frame the laws themselves. The point on which Hobbes and Harrington agree is that no man enjoys immunity without being part of the sovereign body. This idea is still enshrined in the conventions regarding various forms of legal immunity, notably parliamentary immunity (which has proved particularly controversial in Italy) and, perhaps most notoriously, diplomatic immunity, which gives the representatives of sovereign states immunity from the laws of the countries where they reside, and so allows them not to pay parking tickets and sometimes to get away with more spectacular crimes. The only way to deal with such situations is for the person concerned to be stripped of their immunity by the sovereign body to which they belong, for he or she enjoys immunity not as an individual but as part of a larger whole. Or, to put it another way, no man is an island unless he is part of the main.

This is the paradox that lies at the root of the recent work of the Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito. In a sequence of books – Communitas (first published in 1998, and probably the best introduction to his ideas), Immunitas (2002) and now Bíos – Esposito has developed an account of modern politics in terms of immunity, where immunity is defined as the negation of community. The interpretation is derived from the linguist Emile Benveniste, who showed that, etymologically, ‘if munus is a gift carrying the obligation of an exchange, immunis is he who does not fulfil his obligation to make due return … Consequently communis does not mean “he who shares the duties” but really “he who has munia in common”.’ A community is therefore ‘a group of persons united by this bond of reciprocity’.

It is precisely this sense of the word that is found in Hobbes’s reference to ‘immunity from the service of the commonwealth’, but Esposito cites the reference without making use of it, for he is concerned not with immunity from the commonwealth, but rather the immunity from community afforded by the commonwealth. His starting point is the precarious communal life of human beings in the state of nature, where each has the potential to kill or harm every other, and there is a war of all against all. Despite appearances, this is a form of community, except that ‘that which men have in common … is their shared vulnerability: the fact that anyone can be killed by anyone else.’ What unites mankind before the existence of any commonwealth, and what inclines them towards its formation, is the awareness that communitas brings with it the ‘gift of death’.

The covenant that creates the Leviathan is, above all, the refusal of that gift. No one now has to die, because the sovereign will protect them and make them immune to the contagion of death. Instead of the gift there is the contract; in place of gratitude, the law; where there had been a community there is dissociation. This is immunity’s ‘terrible price’, for the contract ‘coincides with the dissolution of every community tie’. It ‘preserves individuals through the annihilation of their rapport’. Sovereignty is therefore ‘the not being in common of individuals, the political form of their desocialisation’.

It is easy to detect here an echo of the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s account of community, not as a form of ‘common being’ based on some shared characteristic, but rather as a ‘being-in-common’ of finite creatures who share nothing but mortality itself. Nancy, along with Giorgio Agamben, is one of Esposito’s major influences, but his insight wouldn’t have been out of place in the 17th century. Donne’s meditation presses home the same point: if it is true that ‘any man’s death diminishes me,’ it is because mankind is that aggregation of people whom the death of others diminishes, for whom ‘this bell tolling softly for another, says to me: Thou must die.’ To become an island, to become immune to the contagion of death, is also to become separated from the community of those who die – the only community there is.

This understanding of community allows Esposito to align immunity as exemption with immunity as invulnerability. If what is common to the community is the fear of death in a world where life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’, then that from which men are exempted by the covenant is vulnerability to death itself. In Hobbes, invulnerability is itself a form of exemption, and so immunity ‘transfers its own semantic centre of gravity from the sense of “privilege” to that of “security”’, leaving the ‘immunitary self-preservation of life’ as the central issue for subsequent political theory and praxis.

For Esposito, this is the origin of modern biopolitics, in which individuals are for the first time truly singular, ‘surrounded by a boundary that simultaneously isolates and protects them’. The paradox is that the boundary around the individual body is drawn at the same time as we are incorporated into the larger body of the Leviathan. Physical integrity in the face of the needs of others is not our natural right – on the contrary, as Hobbes admitted, in the state of nature ‘every man has a right to every thing; even to one another’s body’ – but rather what we get in exchange for transferring our natural right to the sovereign.

The connection between immunisation and sovereignty is illustrated by the fact that the modern state not only defends our bodies against the needs of others, but also that it prevents us from disposing of them as we will. There is, as Ronald Dworkin puts it, ‘a prophylactic line that comes close to making the body inviolate’. The line is not easily crossed in either direction. There is perhaps no better example of the working of the ‘immunitary paradigm’ than the fact that one person can die from the lack of a donor organ, and another can die from poverty while unable to sell their own bodily resources: each is trapped within their own prophylactic line, unable either to give or receive.

Whether such a state of affairs is defensible is a contentious issue. As Cécile Fabre, the author of Whose Body Is It Anyway?, a provocative defence of organ confiscation, points out, any serious egalitarian will find it difficult to avoid the conclusion ‘that the sick have a right against the able-bodied that the latter give them some of their body parts’.* This would leave us, to use Harrington’s phrase, as tenants rather than freeholders, if not of our heads, then at least of our blood, bone marrow and kidneys, the use of which we would enjoy until such time as someone else needed them.

But what sort of state would be required to enforce the confiscation of live body parts? Most countries rely on a mix of live and cadaveric donation, which means that the supply of organs is grossly inadequate: in the US about 7000 people die every year while on the waiting list. China used to find a good source of willing donors among its executed convicts. More successful are those countries where the consent of the deceased is presumed (subject to the approval of relatives), and most successful of all is Iran, which encourages the state-regulated sale of kidneys by living donors to other Iranian nationals.

Confiscation would be another matter. According to Hobbes, the body effectively remains outside the covenant, for ‘covenants not to defend a man’s own body are void.’ So whereas the state guarantees the invulnerability of the body against others, the individual may still defend his own body against the state. In practice, of course, individuals are poorly equipped to do so, but Hobbes’s intuition has rarely been challenged. And while we meekly allow the state to drain our bank accounts, the idea that the state might as easily open our veins, help itself to a spare kidney or nationalise our livers is slightly horrifying.

The contradictions here are not just inconsistencies within contemporary bioethics, but are intricately interwoven with the logic of modern sovereignty, and resolving them potentially involves rethinking the nature of the state. This is a challenging prospect: the only previous attempt to rethink the nature of the state to accommodate a novel conception of bioethics was made by the Nazis. Transplant surgery was in its infancy during the 1940s, and although some Nazi surgeons at Ravensbrück amputated the limbs of prisoners in an unsuccessful attempt to transplant them, the issue hardly arose. Had the science been available, however, there is every reason to suppose that large-scale organ harvesting would have taken place, for the Nazis had reconfigured the relationship between the individual and the state in such a way that organ confiscation would have been perfectly natural.

According to Esposito, the key elements of this change were a biologisation of the law which meant that medical personnel increasingly decided the legal status of individuals, and a juridicalisation of life which ensured that medical decisions were made in conformity with legal rather than scientific criteria. The result was the complete superimposition of the two senses of immunity first brought into alignment by Hobbes, and now cemented by the idea of race. The law determined what set of hereditary characteristics constituted biological immunity, and biological immunity ensured legal immunity.

Alongside this was what Esposito calls a ‘double enclosure of the body’, which asserted ‘the absolute identity between our body and ourselves’ and so undermined the long-standing distinction, preserved in Hobbes, between one’s legal identity as a person and one’s physical body. The effect was ‘the biologisation of politics to a point that had never been reached previously’; it effected ‘a co-presence between the biological sphere and the political horizon’ in which ‘the state is really the body of its inhabitants.’

This changed the relationship of the part to the whole. As one Nazi manual of eugenics put it: ‘The biological unity of people is the foundation of an ethnic body, an organic structure of totalitarian character whose various parts are nothing less than the components of the same unity.’ But there was no escape from the logic of immunity: all this meant only that the prophylactic line was now drawn around the whole rather than the individual parts. The state could now treat ‘the German people as an organic body that needed a radical cure’, moving parts around or sacrificing them as necessary in order to preserve the immunity of the whole.

In practice, this involved extending the logic of immunity from vaccination to sterilisation (most eugenicists already accepted that ‘the principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes’), and from sterilisation to euthanasia: from the eradication of disease to an eradication of the diseased in which non-birth is prevention and death a cure. Esposito argues that the programme of sterilisation was both the pivotal moment in the development of Nazi racial hygiene, and its enduring model. It was not only a therapy aimed at ‘preventing or extirpating the pathological agents that jeopardise the biological quality of future generations’. The anticipatory suppression of birth was also an attempt to make the nation ‘immune’ in the original sense of the word, for ‘birth is the first munus,’ the gift from the outside that opens a collective subject ‘to that in which it does not recognise itself’. By refusing to accept that gift, the Nazis believed ‘that they were filling up the originary void, that they were destroying the munus and so definitively immunising themselves’.

Against this model, Esposito seeks to trace the contours of an affirmative biopolitics capable of turning the Nazi politics of death into a politics that is ‘no longer over life but of life’. He takes the categories of Nazi biopolitics and opens them to that which their boundaries exclude: flesh beyond the confines of the body, the norm freed from the law, fraternity beyond the borders of the nation. In this way, he suggests, the category of bíos will become ‘open to a more originary and intense sense of communitas’.

The details remain obscure, however. Just what would ‘immunity’s opening to its own communal reverse’ actually involve? Perhaps something like the community of organ donors envisaged by some bioethicists, in which each person would acknowledge the claims that others have on his or her body in return for having a claim on the bodies of others. Within such a pool of suppliers and receivers of organs, it is unlikely that anyone would be in the position of giving, receiving and returning (as in the classic Maussian paradigm of gift-exchange), but everyone would be a potential giver, receiver or returner, willing, in the most literal sense, to make themselves vulnerable in the process – a perfect example of the ‘self-dissolving gift giving that communitas names’.

An even better model might be a community of surrogate mothers operating on the same principle, for Esposito’s clearest example of a positive relation between community and immunity is pregnancy. In Immunitas, he highlights the fact that the mother’s immune system does not reject the foetus, as it would a transplanted organ, but develops antibodies that disguise its foreignness. This is not a case of the immune system not functioning. The mother’s immune system acts both against the foetus and against itself. The latter response is triggered by the genetic incompatibility of the father, with the paradoxical result that the foreignness and acceptance are positively linked.

Striking as this analogy is, it is hard not to see it as a version of the old republican model of liberty to which Harrington appealed against Hobbes. During pregnancy, the mother’s immune system constitutes the unborn child’s immunity, both from external threats and from the mother herself. The foetus is therefore not just immune from the mother but made immune by the mother, in Harrington’s sense that it is the foetus that triggers the protection that the mother’s immune system provides against itself. Like the citizen, the unborn child is able to defend itself through its active involvement in the larger body of which it is a part.

The parallel is not fortuitous. Long before he focused on the relationship between immunity and community, Esposito was concerned with the relationship between order and conflict. And in Ordine e conflitto (1984), he contrasted Hobbes’s dichotomy of order or conflict with the republican tradition represented by Machiavelli, which required acceptance of order and conflict. The immunity/community opposition is another way of approaching that debate, for ‘generalised conflict’ is always a ‘horizontal relation’ that binds those involved to a ‘communal dimension’. In place of Hobbes’s insistence on the absolute separation between conflict and community on the one hand, and order and immunity on the other, Esposito seeks a synthesis, an order that arises out of conflict, an immunity that arises from community.

That objective is, of course, widely shared. But the problem of how we are to become more open to each other (which creates risks that only the state can control) while becoming more closed to the state (which puts us at risk from each other) remains. The question takes on added significance if it is the body rather than the person that is at issue, and Esposito argues that in this respect the continuities between Nazism and contemporary liberalism are more striking than the discontinuities: ‘Nazism emerges decisively defeated from the war both militarily and politically but less so either culturally or linguistically in the sense that the centrality of bíos as object and subject of politics is reaffirmed.’ The only difference is that Nazism is ‘the biopolitics of the state … liberalism the biopolitics of the individual’. If Nazi Germany was a state reimagined on eugenic principles, so too are liberal democracies, for (as Steven Levitt, one of the authors of Freakonomics, suggested in his study of crime and abortion) eugenics may be just as effective when privatised.

Esposito’s maternal model of immunity may represent an attractive alternative to Nazi biopolitics, but his response does not meet its full challenge. If ‘the state is really the body of its inhabitants,’ as Esposito claims the Nazis believed, then the individual bodies concerned are also the state. Either the body is outside the covenant or else the state is in some sense inside the body, and even within liberal states the body is at best a public-private partnership. In the camps, Esposito writes, the ‘body without a soul belonged to the sovereign’. But that does not go quite far enough. The cruel genius of Nazism lay in the realisation that the state is trapped by the physical limitations and deficiencies of its population, that the body is the prison of the state, and that science at last has the potential to liberate the prisoner. Esposito’s maternal model of immunity gets things the wrong way round. Like Blake’s Leviathan, writhing within the womb of the world, the state lies curled inside us. The problem is not being inside the whale; it is the whale within.

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