John Barclay, in his prophetic novel Argenis (1621), defined in these terms the security paradigm that European governments would later progressively adopt: “Either give men their freedom or give them security, for which they will abandon freedom”.
In other words, freedom and security are two antithetical paradigms of government, between which the State must always make its choice.
If he wants to promise his subjects security, the sovereign will have to sacrifice their freedom and, conversely, if he wants freedom he will have to sacrifice their security.
However, Michel Foucault has shown how security (la sureté publique) should be understood, which the physiocratic governments, starting with Quesnay, were the first to explicitly assume among their tasks in eighteenth-century France.
It was not a question – then as now – of preventing catastrophes, which in Europe of those years were essentially famines, but of letting them occur in order to then be able to intervene immediately to govern them in the most useful direction.
Governing here regains its etymological meaning, i.e. “cybernetic”: a good pilot (kibernes) cannot avoid storms, but, when they do happen, he must still be able to steer his ship according to his interests.
- In this perspective, it was essential to spread a feeling of security among the citizens, through the belief that the government was watching over their tranquility and their future.
What we are witnessing today is an extreme development of this paradigm and, at the same time, its punctual overthrow.
- The primary task of governments seems to have become the widespread diffusion among citizens of a feeling of insecurity and even panic, which coincides with an extreme compression of their freedoms, which finds its justification precisely in that insecurity.
The antithetical paradigms today are no longer freedom and security; rather, in Barclay’s terms one should say today: «give men insecurity and they will give up freedom».
- Therefore, it is no longer necessary for governments to show themselves capable of managing problems and catastrophes: insecurity and emergencies, which now constitute the sole foundation of their legitimacy, can in no case be eliminated, but – as we are seeing today with the substitution of the war between Russia and Ukraine for the one against the virus – only articulated according to convergent modalities, but each time different. A government of this type is essentially anarchic, in the sense that it has no principle to abide by, other than the emergency that it itself produces and maintains.
It is probable, however, that the cybernetic dialectic between anarchy and emergency will reach a threshold, beyond which no pilot will be able to steer the ship and men, in the now inevitable shipwreck, will have to go back to questioning their freedoms they have so recklessly sacrificed.
December 8, 2022
Source: Giorgio Agamben – Quodlibet
Header: Security personnel with dogs stand guard outside Saks Fifth Avenue, Wednesday, June 3, 2020, in the Manhattan borough of New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)