Immunitarian Democracy

By Roberto Esposito

1. Does “community” refer to democracy? If not, could it or is it too deeply embedded in the conceptual lexicon of the Romantic, authoritarian and racist Right? This is the question, one already asked by American neo-communitarianism, that is emerging again in Europe at the precise moment when, some, especially in France and in Italy, are risking thinking community anew. At issue is not only a legitimate question, but in some ways even an inevitable one, in which democractic culture deeply examines its own theoretical precepts and future. This doesn’t change the fact though that it’s the wrong question or that it’s badly put. Wrong or badly put because it takes as its term of comparison — in order to be related to the category of community – a concept, that of democracy that is utterly incapable of “understanding” it, not only because its modern meaning at least, arrives much later, but also because it is flatter and increasingly overwhelmed in a dimension that is entirely political and institutional.

With respect to this lack of depth and substance of the politicological notion of democracy, community has a very different semantic width, both on the vertical level of history and on the synchronic one of meaning. This isn’t the place to attempt a complete reconstruction, though my recent research beginning with the etymological origins of the term communitas and even more before that of munus in Latin does confirm the historical and semantic richness of the concept (R. Esposito, 1998). What we can infer from the above discussion, however, is that the correct question isn’t whether the community can become a part of the democratic lexicon, but whether even democracycan be a part or at a minimum acquire some of its meaning in the lexicon of community. Without wanting to show my hand too quickly, a first step is required, which focuses more on the second term. Here we aren’t helped at all by the conceptual dichotomies with which 20th century philosophy has tried to define community, one that lost along the way the original meaning of community. I’m not talking only of the one constructed by the so-called American communitarians with respect to their presumed adversaries, the liberals, who constitute rather their exact interface in the specific sense that they unconsciously share the same subjectivist as well as exclusively partisan lexicon, applied not to the community but to the individual (where communities like individuals are distinguished between them, one from the other). But also in the more entrenched juxtaposition between “community” and “society,” a juxtaposition that reaches its greatest point of typological elaboration in Fedinand Tönnies’s Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. And this because here too, despite being better elaborated than the first, community remains completely inscribed within one of the two terms — that of society — such that it emerges as completely produced by it. This idea of community not only is born with modern society, but doesn’t acquire meaning except in contrast to it. It is the Gesellschaft that “constructs” its own proper and ideal-typical reversal so as to be able to found itself — in apologetic or slanderous terms depending on the point of the one who observing and judging. The fact is that the organic Gemeinschaft of which Tönnies and his many (and some less judicious) 20th century imitators speak has never existed as such is seen both as the sign and the confirmation of the mythological character of the dichotomy that founds it: it is nothing other than a figure of the self-interpretation of society in the phase of its maximum development, which coincides with it and its incipient crises.

Does this mean that one can’t really say anything about community, that it doesn’t have a logical or historical opposite that is capable of defining it categorically? As I have tried to show elsewhere, the situation is somewhat different, only that what is at issue refers to a meaning which has the same diachronic profundity and the same semantic power of the concept to that which it refers by way of contrast. Rather than being opposed to it from the outside as happens with the modern ideas of “individual,” “society,” and “freedom, it corresponds to it in a sort of originary co-belonging. This is why it shares, even if by way of contrast, the same etymological and conceptual foundation. Such a meaning I believe I’ve linked to the idea of “immunization,” derived by way of extension from the Latin term immunitas, which is precisely tied to that of communitas from the relation, in the former negative and in the latter positive, with the lemma munus. If the members of the communitas are joined together by the same law, by the duties or gift [dono] that they have to give — which is what precisely munus means– immunis is instead he who is exempt or exonerated from them: he who does not have obligations with respect to the other and who can therefore conserve entirely his own proper essence [sostanza] as subject who is owner of himself (cfr. R. Esposito, 2002). What are the advantages of such an etymological-paradigmatic choice? Above all, there is the fact that the perfect co-implication of the two concepts means that one can line them up in a historical succession, in which one would follow the other, substituting it according to the optimistic (or pessimistic) modalities of any philosophy of history. Any individual, society, or kind of freedom that is based on the “progressive” or “regressive” attitude of the interpreter — would prevail or would leave behind the ancient community. Furthermore it also opens up a larger horizon with which to see the same dynamic of democracy, understood not only in a politological key, but also and above all in a socio-anthropological one. This is because if there is something in the endless contemporary debate on democracy it is precisely this long gaze on the constitution of the homo democraticus that Tocqueville had launched with incomparable forcefulness (cfr. for one of the few exceptions, M. Cacciari, 1997).

Yet the category of “immunization” is able to restore to the analysis of democracy the same breadth and the same interdisciplinary transversality with which the great social philosophy of the 1930s and 1950s surveyed the anthropology of the homo totalitarius — I’m thinking here, in addition to the Frankfurt School, of the work associated with the Collége de sociologie in Paris and in particular of the monumental essay of Bataille’s on fascism (G. Bataille, 1981). With one perspective there clearly comes into view the profound relation that joins in a single aporetic knot community and democracy: modern democracy speaks a language that is opposed to that of community to the degree to which it has introjected ever more into it a demand for immunization.

2. That the category of immunization, in direct opposition with that of community, was the most fruitful interpretive key for reading modern political systems was already apparent to the important negative anthropology of the last century (cfr. B. Accarino, 1991): from Plessner to Gehlen to Luhmann, through the systemic reconversion of the “Hobbesian paradigm of order” undertaken by Parsons (cfr. M. Bortolini, 2005). In an essay titled precisely The Limits of Community, Plessner will juxtapose the immunitary logic of the “democratic game” to community (H. Plessner, 2001): in a world in which individuals who are naturally put at risk face off against each other in a competition whose stakes are power and prestige, the only way to avoid catastrophe is that of instituting between them enough distance to immunize everyone from everyone else. Against every communitarian temptation, the public sphere is that site in which men enter into relation with each other in the form of their dissociation. Here arises the need for strategy and control apparatuses that allow them to “live nearby” without coming into contact, and therefore to increase the sphere of individual self-sufficiency through the use of “masks” or “armor” that protect them from undesirable and insidious contact with the other. As Canetti reminds us, nothing frightens the individual quite like a being touched by what threatens to penetrate his own proper individual borders (E. Canetti, 1981, pp. 17-19). In this anthropological framework, one dominated by the principle of fear and the persistence of insecurity — the very same politics winds up being identified with an art of diplomacy that conceals the relation of natural enmity in the civil forms of ceremony, tact, and conduct.

What in Plessner still maintains a constitution that oscillates between art and technique in Gehlen takes on a decisively institutional character. He too starts with the Hobbesian (and Nietzschean) consideration of the natural lack of man with respect to other animal species and of the need to transform this biological lack into the possibility for preserving life (A. Gehlen, 1986). But with respect to his predecessor he is keen on stabilizing this immunitarian option in a true and proper theory of institutions (U. Fadini, 1995). In a situation of environmental impact and pressure, institutions have the task of freeing man from the weight that the contingency of events places on him. This requires in the meantime a sort of “plasticity,” which is to say a capacity to adapt to a given situation that doesn’t expose the individual to unbearable conflict, but also a mastery of his or her own proper instincts that inhibit the drive to fragment and which channels them in a self-reproducing sense, in the same way in which the satisfaction of needs is contained and put off in a framework of rigidly controlled compatibility. Only through this double renunciation can man be immunized securely against the respective dangers determined by his own structure of lack: to occupy that initial void that distances it from itself, to re-appropriate that which isn’t naturally his own [proprio]. But to occupy the void and to make proper what is improper, is the equivalent of reducing to extinction the “common.” And in fact the exemption from environmental contingency which institutions ensure coincides for the democratic individual with a distancing from the world in which it is rooted and for that very reason, with a lifting up from that common munus that compels it with respect to others. In this way the individual is led to close his originary opening and to be circumscribed within his own proper interior. What else is immunization if not a form of escalating interiorization of exteriority? If the community is our “outside,” the outside-of-us, immunization is that which leads us again within ourselves breaking every form of contact with the outside.

Niklas Luhmann was surely the person who carried this logic to its extreme. Hi theory, situated at the intersection between the functionalism of Parsons and the regulative paradigm of cybernetic models, his theory constitutes the most refined explication of the immunitary logic as a specific form of modernization. In addition he argued not only that “a series of historical tendencies indicate a growing concern from the beginnings of the modern epoch and especially from the 18th century on, with the actualization of a social immunology (N. Luhmann, 1990, p.588), but also that the immunitary system which coincides originally with law [diritto], was extended to all areas of social life, from economics to politics. Such a tendency was already manifested in the initial Luhmannian definition of the relation between system and environment, where the problem of system control of dangerous disorder caused by the environment is resolved not by a simple reduction of environmental complexity, but rather through its transformation from external complexity into internal complexity within the system itself. But a second strategy with even graver consequences for environmental difference is added to the first of interiorization activated by the immunitary process. And that is its complete inclusion within the system, which is to say, its objective elimination. Such a development in Luhmann’s perspective, which is determined by the adoption of the biological concept of autopoiesis consists in shifting the lens away from the defensive level of systemic governance of the environment to that of a self- regulation within the system, which is completely independent and autonomous with respect to environmental pressures: the system is reproduced in a form that is always more complex, itself constituting the elements that make it up. It’s clear that this perfectly circular logic has the effect not only of breaking apart any form of relation with the outside but also calling into question the very idea of “outside.” If the contradictions that ensnare democratic systems have in the final analysis the function of alarming their immunitary apparatus so as to set in motion a defensive reaction against every threat of destruction, this means that these contradictions no longer pit outside against inside. They are nothing other than the outside of the inside, one of its simple folds. But this means at the same time that the immunitary system has “immunized” the very same communication, including it in its referential mechanism. It also means that the entire communicative flow is nothing other than a self-reproducing projection of the process of immunization: “The immunitary system,” Luhmann concludes, “deploys ‘no’, in the event of the refusal to communicate. Such a system operates without communication with the environment” (ivi, p.613).

If we compare the passages within Luhmann’s immunitary theory with the history of that ever more important branch of bio-medicine, namely a true and proper immunology, their similarities are striking. We know that the object of immunology is the capacity of vertebrates to react to the introduction of substances extraneous to the organism is to produce anti-bodies that are able to defend their bio-chemical identity, in system terms of adequately responding to the challenges of the environment represented by outside antigens. But this general overview –with the move from chemical immunology to molecular immunology — undergoes profound modifications that move in the same direction of meaning as those of experienced in the theory of systems, namely from the defense from the outside to self-regulation within. The underlying question pivots on the role of the antigen, which is to say the virus received from outside for the production of the antibody. In what way is the reaction of the antibody connected to the antigenic action? The response which from the middle of the last century begins to make headway beginning with Ehrlich and then until Erne is that the immunitary antibody isn’t determined by the introduction of the antigen but pre- exists it. Without being able to trace (and not even partially at that) the most salient aspects of a long and controversial debate (on this score, see A.I. Tauber, 1999), what matters for our reconstruction is that in molecular immunology, as exactly in Luhmann’s theory, the central problem isn’t the organism’s capacity for distinguishing its own components from those outside it, but rather that of the self-regulation within the immunitary system itself. If anti-corporeal cells communicate even in the absence of the antigen, which is to say, if external stimuli are lacking, this means that the immunitary system takes on the characteristics of a network of internal recognitions [riconoscimenti] that are absolutely self-autonomous. It is the final result of an immunitary war that modernity fights from its very beginning against the risk of communitarian “infection.” There is no longer an outside that it must defend itself from; that the other doesn’t exist except as a projection of the self. This is the same as recognizing that the immunitary system doesn’t have limits of time or space. It always exists and it is to be found everywhere. It coincides with our identity. We are identified to ourselves as us — definitively drawn away from our being altered by community.

3. And so? If this is the condition that characterizes the present moment, where ought we to look for relief? Is it still possible to activate a thought of community in our democracies? Can we join community and democracy again but this time differently somehow? Can we imagine a democracy that doesn’t immunize, one that isn’t already immunized or has the process of a generalized immunization destroyed both community itself as well as the possibilitiy for thinking it? I don’t think so. I don’t think that the first order of the day is closing down thinking community, but on the contrary it’s my view that never more than today is a reactivation of community called for. What else are we told, what else do we talk about, if not the question of community, of its absence, but also of its demands: bodies, faces, the gazes of millions of starving, of deportees, of refugees whose images, terrible in their starkness, flash across our television screens from every corner of the globe?

(…) We know that immunization functions through the controlled incorporation of the communitarian “germ” that it wants to neutralize. But what if we were to reverse the operation? What if we tried to rethink community precisely by completing the process of immunization? At bottom a world without an outside, a world completely immunized — by definition doesn’t have an inside. The culmination of a successful immunization can also be extended further as well so as to immunize it from itself: to reopen the breach, or the time, of community.

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