War and Peace

Giorgio Agamben

It is worth taking seriously the thesis, repeated time and again by governments, that humanity and all nations are presently in a state of war. It goes without saying that such a thesis serves to legitimize the state of exception, with its drastic limitations on the freedom of movement and its absurd nomenclature such as “curfew,” which are otherwise difficult to justify. The tie that binds governmental powers to war is, however, more intimate and consubstantial. The fact is that war is something they can in no way do without on a lasting basis. In his novel Tolstoy contrasts peace, in which men follow their desires, their feelings and their thoughts more or less freely and which appears to him as the only reality, with the abstraction and the lie of war in which everything seems to be dragged along by an inexorable necessity.  And in his fresco in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Lorenzetti depicts a city at peace whose inhabitants move freely according to their occupations and pleasures, while in the foreground girls dance holding hands. Although the fresco is traditionally entitled The Good Government, such a condition, woven as it is from the minor daily events of common life and the desires of each, is in reality ungovernable in the long run for power. However much it may be subjected to limits and controls of all kinds, such a condition tends in fact by its nature to escape calculation, planning and rules — or, at least, this is the secret fear of power. This can also be expressed by saying that history, without which power is ultimately unthinkable, is closely associated with war, while life in peace is by definition without history. By naming her novel La Storia [History], one in which the vicissitudes of a few simple creatures are set against the wars and catastrophic events that mark the public affairs of the twentieth century, Elsa Morante had something like this in mind.

For this reason, sooner or later the forces that aim to govern the world must resort to war, no matter whether it be real or carefully simulated. And since in the state of peace the life of men tends to disappear from any historical dimension, it is unsurprising that governments today never tire of reminding us that the war on the virus marks the beginning of a new historical era in which nothing will be as before. And among those who blindfold themselves in order not to see the situation of unfreedom into which they have fallen, many accept this precisely because they are convinced, not without a touch of pride, that they are entering — after almost seventy years of peaceful life, i.e. without history — a new era.

Even if, as is all too evident, this will be an era of servitude and sacrifice, in which everything that makes life worth living will be forced to undergo mortifications and restrictions, they willingly submit to it because they foolishly believe that in this way they have found for their lives the meaning that they had unwittingly lost in peace.

It is possible, however, that the war on the virus, which had appeared to be such an ideal apparatus, allowing governments to dose and direct as need be far more easily than in a real war, may nevertheless end up getting out of hand, like any war. Perhaps at that point, if it is not too late, mankind will once again seek the ungovernable peace it has so carelessly abandoned.

February 23rd, 2021

Translated by Ill Will