13 June 2023

On Privilege. The Syndemic between Individualism and Collectivity: Critical Notes on Agamben and Cacciari.

By Roberto Finelli and Tania Toffanin


The Covid-19 syndemic has brought to light the profound unease affecting contemporary society. It bears witness to the breakdown of the dialectical relationship between body and environment and – considering the inefficiency of the response to the spread of the virus – to the effects of the commodification of public health. While one would expect that this impasse would attract sharp materialist critiques, we are instead witnessing a debate that displays alternatingly reactionary and liberal-conservative traits. We address here the positions expressed by Massimo Cacciari and Giorgio Agamben, which, in our opinion, deserve some reflection. The distance of the two authors from a realistic understanding of the problem of the syndemic ultimately stems from their reliance on Martin Heidegger’s metaphysics of ‘ontological difference’, and from their deployment of the archaic and exhausted philosophical category of ‘Being’. In contrast to any immanent and materialistically critical reading of social life, the aristocratic-transcendent device of ‘ontological difference’ introduces a point of view on history and human society that is as apparently original and refined as it is dogmatic and regressive. 

  1. Freedom and Zeitgeist

We have decided jointly to write down some thoughts on what Giorgio Agamben and Massimo Cacciari published on 26 July 2021 on the website of the Italian Institute for Philosophical Studies (about the decree on the “green pass”[i]), because it seems useful to shed some light on the spirit of the time, on the Zeitgeist, of which the two authors mentioned appear to be only the most visible and accredited epiphenomena.

We would like briefly to try to grasp what is behind these assertions of individual freedom, removed from any conditioning and mediation with collective freedom – in a gesture that entirely ignores the definition given some time ago by Franco Fortini, according to whom “my freedom begins, not where it ends, but where the freedom of the other begins”. And thus, to understand why our historical and cultural time is characterised, more and more, by the multiplication and hypertrophy of individual rights, in contrast to common and social rights. 

The debate sparked in Italy by the compulsory nature of the “green pass” is part of an international situation that requires some consideration. We believe, in fact, that this debate is fundamentally centred on individual rights, in a context – the Italian one – in which individualfreedoms are fully guaranteed. On the other hand, what is happening in Afghanistan or on the Belarussian-Polish border requires us to reflect in less Eurocentric terms, starting from individual freedoms. We believe that acknowledging this distinction is necessary in order to escape from the provincialism of the Italian and European debate on fundamental rights and personal freedoms.

The gist of the accusation levelled by those who oppose the introduction of the green pass is largely based on the notions of limitation of personal freedom and discrimination against those who refuse it. 

In his various writings, Giorgio Agamben has raised issues regarding not so much the formal legitimacy but the substantive nature of the – in his words – “protective-repressive” measures put in place by government institutions. Together with Cacciari, he then compared the green pass (which we must remember is not just a certification of vaccination because it can also be obtained with a negative test if one is not vaccinated–an issue which was exploited to sow confusion) with discriminatory practices established within states, such as China and the Soviet Union, which turned population control into an organic instrument of territorial governance. These provocative statements recall those analogies frequently used by the conservative and liberal right to hail the imperatives of the market and induce the retreat of the state – and they are ill-suited to reflecting on the pandemic. We believe that comparing the population control mechanisms used in the past with those applied after the outbreak of the pandemic serves only to prefigure the argument by anticipating its conclusions: “we are preparing for a regime” (Cacciari) in which the green pass “turns those not possessing it into carriers of a virtual yellow star” (Agamben).

According to the two philosophers, the green pass implemented by the Italian government serves as a control device in order to differentiate citizenship on the basis of compliance with what is required by the vaccine plan. Cacciari further amplifies what Agamben has summarily outlined and articulates a strong criticism of the decrees which, by resorting to the formula of the state of emergency, would in fact represent a suspension of democracy. In order to articulate this criticism of the state of emergency and the consequent suspension of democracy, Cacciari invokes the (much abused) Italian Constitution in order to reiterate that the limits enshrined in articles 13, 16 and 32 on the inviolability of personal freedom, concerning restrictions on movement and the obligation to accept health treatments, have never been defined in formal terms. This vagueness, according to Cacciari, left wide discretion to the Italian government to pass laws reducing if not suppressing individual autonomy in the name of a state of necessity never clearly defined.

In our opinion, attacking the government’s response in the name of an abstract idea of collective interest, which can be wielded against any legislative provision, is not a worthy pursuit. Of course, the Italian government has managed in a totally objectionable way the timing, means and resources for the containment of the pandemic! But this is another story, and it requires a specific examination of the mechanisms put in place, of the relationship between the central government and Italy’s various regions, and of the resources available in the healthcare system. However, the government’s legislative initiative is part of a historical framework that must be taken into account. Did we just discover the abuse of emergency decrees with the pandemic? The issuing of decrees that have the weight of law is covered by article 77 of the same constitution that Cacciari invokes repeatedly and is granted in extraordinary cases of necessity or urgency. Since the 1980s, the use of decree-laws has been increasing, even to regulate issues that require parliamentary discussion. The government’s use of emergency decrees in managing the pandemic outbreak is not a preeminent issue in our view, if we really intend to examine what is at stake.

  1. Medicine and Capitalism

From our critical perspective, we think that the syndrome produced by the SARS-CoV-2 virus is an expression of what Freud would call the ‘malaise of civilisation’. In even more explicit terms, we think that the current syndrome is closely linked to the circuits of capital.[ii] In this way, it is perhaps more appropriate to define the current wave of outbreaks as a syndemic, and not a pandemic. The term syndemic was coined in 1994 by the American anthropologist Merrill Singer, who observed the close relationship between the spread of AIDS and other pathologies linked to social, political and economic factors. In our view, this syndemic approach is entirely appropriate for defining the dynamics at work in the present. We believe, in fact, that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is a pathological condition that should be interpreted with a view capable of integrating its clinical phenotype with environmental, economic and political factors.

The debate on the efficiency of vaccines and on the usage of population control devices are based on misleading questions. At least for those who wish to uphold a materialistic perspective. In relation to the first point, we think that – as Vicente Navarro has pointed out in is masterful work Medicine Under Capitalism – at this stage of the capitalist development of societies.

The expropriation of political power from the citizenry that takes place in the political process, and the absence of control over the product and nature of work that workers face in the process of production, are accompanied by the expropriation of control from the patient and potential patient over the nature and definition of health in the medical sector. And it is the bureaucracy – the medical profession – that is supposed to administer and remove the mass of disease. In this respect, the medical profession is assigned an impossible task, i.e. to solve something that because of its actual economic and political nature, is beyond its control.[iii]

In essence, medicine is being asked to solve problems that are general in scope and linked to the political and economic dynamics of late capitalism. Dynamics which pertain to the relationship between man and the ecosystem and between capital and labour. Of course, medicine makes a substantial contribution to mitigating these. However, it is only a tool. A tool that, as Navarro notes, can only legitimise the interests of the capitalist system and the capitalist class. It should come as no surprise, then, that, in our era, the process of capital accumulation has penetrated the sphere of public health. This penetration is not instantaneous – it is a long-term process. Stating this is not at all to say that it is acceptable or immutable, quite the contrary. 

From our perspective, the potential for change is based on an analysis of reality focusing on the totality of ongoing material processes. This perspective must start from the observation that – since the 1980s – public health has been gradually impoverished at the global level, with obvious repercussions on collective well-being. Although the division of labour and knowledge characteristic of neoliberalism have resulted in an increasing inability to connect the study of the parts of society to the whole, there have been improvements in medical science that have produced significant advances in the discovery of new diagnostic techniques and treatments. However, these advances have taken place in parallel with severe setbacks. The privatisation of national health services and the reduction of health care services have stripped preventive medicine of the resources it requires and increased the number of people suffering from chronic diseases. The gradual erosion of public health care has widened social polarisation, helping to embolden reactionary forces in many countries.

The crisis in the health system is first and foremost a crisis of legitimacy brought about by decades of cuts to public spending. This is an area that is indispensable to our individual psychological and physical integrity – and, more than this, to the well-being of society. Let us not forget that public health is a lever for the redistribution of economic and political power and thus for reducing inequalities and increasing collective well-being. Why else would progressive forces fight to strengthen and extend it to the entire population, regardless of class, gender or race?

Since the neoliberal turn of the 1980s, public health, has been under attack by conservative forces that have contributed to depoliticising it; reducing its problems purely to managerial and technological questions. A materialistic critique of the state of public health in this syndemic phase cannot, in our opinion, be separated from the need to re-politicise it. What is required, then, is a movement that asserts this demand forcefully, spurring broader mobilisations for the enlargement and strengthening of social rights. The contemporary scene offers us a picture of reality that is still very fragmented and thus incapable of structuring public discourse in a way that can break the stranglehold of dominant economic groups.  

The second point we want to address is that of population control mechanisms. The attack from various political factions on the measures put in place by national governments for limiting the proximity of individuals and by extension the spread of the virus has been justified as a necessary stance against the ‘tyranny’ of elite groups over the people. In our opinion, this stance has two major limitations. On the one hand, it does not undertake any detailed analysis aimed at fully defining the dynamics at work. On the other hand, it excludes any reference to the class dimension, in the name of a generalised reference to the conditions of subordination and limitation imposed on everyone. In concrete terms, who benefits from controlling the mobility of the population? Which groups particularly benefit from the restrictions imposed on the population as a whole? Are certain groups more disadvantaged than others, and, if so, why? How can the right to health for all be guaranteed without infringing on individual freedoms?   

These are just some of the questions that arise from the contemporary debate. 

Let us be clear: from a materialistic perspective, opposition to government-imposed efforts to restrict mobility, such as that of Agamben, might have some value if it concerned itself with the impact that these measures have on the conditions of the population with respect to class, gender, and race. But, to embrace an anti-materialist stance is ultimately self-defeating. Indeed, in affirming the rise of a New World Order (NWO) based on a worldwide conspiracy to undermine democracy, by removing the materialistic analysis of ongoing processes, those movements which wish to suppress individual and collective participation in decision-making processes are legitimised. Moreover, it seems to us that Agamben’s denunciation of the state of emergency stems, beyond the event of the syndemic, from a theoretical apparatus that is rigidly presupposed in all of his thought: namely that the foundation of law is always extra-legal. As he has stated since the first volume of the Homo Sacer series, legal order and institutions are established by a sovereign power that at the same time retains the possibility of suspending them. Therefore, at the centre of the state order, throughout the 20th century, there exists an authority that – through the use of the ‘state of exception’ – has the capacity to impose emergency statutes. Within this ontological structuring of law, law is always shadowed by its reverse–the immanence of its own suspension.

  1. Public Health and Individual Rights

In our view, the fundamental questions we must ask are different, and all have to do with the materiality of the processes at work. For example, the right to self-determination when it comes to healthcare is strongly upheld by Agamben and Cacciari, but there is no equal emphasis on the fact that this right can be exercised only because a choice is given between vaccination or treatment and no treatment at all (whereas the latter puts others at risk). Perhaps it is worth remembering that the extension of restrictions on mobility was necessary due to the rapid saturation of intensive care units, produced by years of underinvestment in the name of containing public spending.

The statistics pertaining to the Italian healthcare system belong to the category of facts, and it is on this basis that we can make incisive criticisms and advocate correspondent actions. So far, in our opinion, both criticism and action have been very modest and thus completely inadequate to the fundamental needs of all of us during the syndemic (and not only then). In fact, it is crucial to be aware of the state of the healthcare system, beginning with the organisation of hospital facilities – above all the capacity and equipment of intensive care units – but also basic medicine, and to understand how the disease has implicated it.  Have new resources been invested in the national health system? How will the relationship between the central government and regions, which has contributed to loosening the grip on the spread of the syndemic, be managed in the future? Which and how many resources have been allocated to scientific research? Which and how many resources have been allocated to the salaries of healthcare personnel? Do we have to wait for an undesirable reprisal of the syndemic in order to have answers to these legitimate questions?!

The good state of the health system is the prerequisite for widening the sphere of rights and for expanding that self-determination to which Agamben and Cacciari continually refer – but to do so in substantial and not just formal terms. Self-determination is crucial. However, it should be examined on the basis of the objective conditions that promote it and not just by analysing the measures that limit it. And, here, we come to the crux of the matter.

There is a question in the writings of Agamben and Cacciari that is continuously and deliberately evaded. Who can exercise the right to opt out of the vaccination plan and under what conditions can they do so?

It seems to us that their approach replicates a Eurocentrism that is as feeble as it is useless for explaining the current impasse, but which also incapable of proposing solutions that are truly able to avoid discriminating and creating new divisions between those, for example, who can use healthcare services that are expedient and reliable, and those who have to be content with contingent availability and long waiting times.

Where does the Eurocentrism of Agamben and Cacciari lie? It is expressed in the attack on what they consider to be a form of stigmatisation via legislation. Aren’t there other forms of discrimination in our country (and elsewhere)?  Have the categories of class, gender, and race been superseded by reflections on discriminatory norms and practices? Wouldn’t it be good to know how the syndemic affects the population on the basis of class, gender, and race?  Do we want to ask ourselves or do we really think that the syndemic, like all pathologies, acts on all and affects everyone equally? Or perhaps the discrimination expressed by Agamben and Cacciari applies only to white, wealthy, adult males? Again: how do the discriminatory practices inflicted by the state on the individual stand in relation to the collective interest? Who is this “everyone” who is “threatened by discriminatory practices” mentioned in the piece that appeared on the website of the Italian Institute for Philosophical Studies?

There is no reference to collectivity in the writings of Agamben and Cacciari. The pivot of their invective is the individual and the attack on individual self-determination.

This syndemic is raising many questions, even radical ones if we wish to grasp them, about our lifestyles and consumption, our relationship with the territory and – last but not least – the relationship between production and social reproduction. The reflections of Agamben and Cacciari are in this sense completely outdated. They take us half a century back to when the paradigm of unlimited growth was hegemonic and, together with it, the idea that we could relate to nature and ecosystems in a completely despotic way. 

Their argument reflects the squeamishness of a wealthy class accustomed to a welfare state that, despite repeated attacks, has guaranteed universal healthcare coverage.

We know that this is not the case in many other parts of the world. The ability to relativise one’s own existential condition is an essential part of the understanding that should emerge in situations such as the present, in which we are called to ask ourselves not how deeply limited and endangered our freedom is by the impending drift of securitarianism in the name of health monitoring, but how committed we are to expanding the space for social justice.

This syndemic reminds us that we have physical and cognitive limits and that we have contributed extraordinarily to their contraction, for instance by disinvesting in scientific research and in the cultivation of a proper relationship with science. Is investing in the study of the aetiology and pathogenesis of diseases attributable to governmentality or to regard for collective well-being?

  1. Precious Pilgrims of the “Outside”

On the other hand, more generally, it must be said that Agamben and Cacciari have always been thinkers of the Elsewhere, in other words, they think and speak fromanother world, far from that of ordinary people. They therefore participate, by definition, in a culture of theáristoi, of the best, which–following Nietzsche–enables them to be superior and indifferent to the feelings of the masses.

Giorgio Agamben has told us, at least since the publication of Homo Sacer, that the reality we live in is that of the “camp”, the Nazi concentration and extermination camp, since for decades we have been in apermanent state of emergency, ofexception, which allows the power of the state and its institutions to liquidate our rights in exchange for the maintenance and protection of ourbare life.

In order to allow us to keep on living, to keep surviving – endowed with a “bare life” that is biological, animal – the democratic state, through the continuous use of emergency legislation, strips us of all our other rights that would allow us to live a socially and culturally dignified life. And it subjects us to the discipline of a biopolitics that invades and decisively controls every existential space we inhabit. Since the most troubled historical phase of the last century, between 1914 and 1945, this obverse of the legal and political institutions of modernity has become increasingly explicit, to the point that “the state of exception has today reached its maximum planetary deployment”.[iv]

For Agamben, this is the Elsewhere, theOutside, the principle and locus of political power in society, according to the great theoretical lesson of the right-wing philosopher of politics, Carl Schmitt, who – in his closeness to Nazism – always affirmed that the source of power lies in those who, by placing themselves outside of constitutional norms, are able to proclaim a state of emergency and suspend the rules of ordinary sociality. In other words, that state power does not originate from agreements and conventions between social partners, mediated by their representation, as has happened in most of the constitutions of modernity, but from the person who is able to determine and impose the “decision”.

A philosophy of the Elsewhere, the one that drives Agamben’s discourse, manifests itself in his complete obliviousness to Karl Marx’s lesson thatlabour power is the real and truebare life of modern capitalist society, since it is originally abstracted from any possession and use of the environment and since it is obliged, so as to safeguard its existence, to provide abstract, standardised and impersonal labour in the places of production.

In the same way, Agamben, remote from any serious engagement with dialectical philosophies, seems to have never been able to understand how the real power of capitalist society lies in the dialectic of essence and appearance. That is, in the ability to conceal relationships of ferocious inequality and exploitation (lodged in the depths of social being) through relationships instead of cosmetic equality, regulated by the universal freedoms that accrues to being subjects of both law and the market. Therefore, that the dominion of capital as atendentially total and all-pervasive subject of contemporary society has as its primary foundation – from which all its other articulations of power derive – the operation of an accumulative/abstract, inhuman wealth, which conceals the protocols of its action through the staging of human subjects, capable of self-determination and freedom of consumption. However, understanding this would have meant producing a reading – even a rudimentary one! – of Marx’sCapital as chronicling the implementation of a socio-historical formation characterised not only by contradictions and class struggles. But also by a prevailing and dominant vector of universalisation, which constructs totalisations on par with Hegel’s ‘Spirit’.

But Giorgio Agamben is as far from dialectical difference as he appears to be close to theontological difference of Martin Heidegger, supposedly the greatest philosopher of modernity. But, as is well known to all, he too had the whiff of Nazism about him for many years. And, in fact, at the core of Agamben’spolitical philosophy, as a perpetuation of the concentration camp and the state of emergency, there is apolitical ontology. That is the reprising of, through Heidegger, such a completely archaic and exhausted philosophical category, in our opinion, as that of “Being”, with the consequent handing over of all reality, human and non-human, to a principle – Heidegger’s specific conception of Being – which isindefinable and non-determinable. From which we can only expectdestinal sendings, that is non-debatable impositions of sense, and treatments of history where what is valid is precisely the nexus of exclusion-implication that Agamben uses and repeats, obsessively, for every area of his thinking. Modelled precisely on the original and abysmal fracture betweenBeing and Dasein, that is, betweenontological principle andanthropological principle, for which human beings remove from their horizon – now reduced to the mercantile and utilitarian – that Being (sacred but not religious) that also founds them: thus excluding what is the implicit premise of their living.

In this way, the state of exception, the possibility of reducing every subject to bare life by subordinating him to a sovereign authoritarian power, is the true reality, the immanent principle of the established order of democracies. Just as Heidegger’s Being is, in its extreme remoteness, the immanent principle – even if removed and forgotten – of human existence.

This is the original theoretical background in which to situate and evaluate the plea that Giorgio Agamben addresses to us in his battle against biopolitical vaccination; in his resistance to collective and public norms in the name of the rights of the individual.  With the implicit but undeclared conviction, we might add, that, in reality, this discourse can be truly understood only by one who places himself in the nobility of the Elsewhere, of the absolutely Other. And is therefore able to thinkpolitical philosophy only by placing at its base apolitical ontology: sinceit is possible to act in history and society only if one thinks and faces the question of Being (which issues from the aristocratic philosophy of Parmenides of Elea in the 5th century BCE and, from there, all the scholastic and ecclesiastical philosophy of the Middle Ages).

It is not by chance that the figure of Giorgio Agamben, who has always been obsessed with the state of emergency, has been associated, in his vindication of self-determination against the biopolitical and authoritarianstate, with another, less refined and profound pilgrim of theElsewhere and Outside, Massimo Cacciari.

Since his 1976 text Krisis, Cacciari has given his support to Martin Heidegger’s reactionary revolution, theorising that, when faced with the nihilistic failure of reason and science in their claim to fix objective truths, the only approach in the context of a reality traversed by nonstop catastrophes and confrontations between forces is that of “decision”. Specifically, in the case of our contemporaneity, the decision to oppose the will to power of “technology”, and its deployment as an apparatus which governs our lives, with the values of a humanism deeply mediated by the thought ofBeing and by the comparison withonto-theology.

Human reason, Cacciari theorises, tries to think the empirical, the multiplicity of phenomena in the world, searching for laws and causality. But it fails in its explanation of what should give legitimacy and original strength to this proceeding. That is, in explaining not how things exist, butwhy they exist. To put it in the words of Heidegger again, why is there Being rather than Nothing? Knowledge can legislate on what exists by explaining it causally, but it is silent on the subject of Being, or how it came into existence. For this reason, we must resolutely face the problem of theBeginning, of theAbsolute Beginning; of “an absolute, unconditional Prius […] The idea of being that precedes all thought, the idea-limit of the unconditionally existing [which] is the ‘abyss’ of reason”.[v]

Like all contemporary neo-Parmenideans, Cacciari has shown himself to be unaware of the long tradition of critical philosophy which, in modernity, has taught that speaking in this way of Being and Nothing means – as masters such as Adorno, Wittgenstein and our own Guido Calogero would have said[vi] – falling into the error of objectifying words; that is, falling into the trap of mistakingwords for things, or rather the fireflies for the lantern. Moreover, he has consistentlytrans-humanised the storied problem of the possible relationship betweenabsolute Beginning and the world. In a way almost analogous to Agamben’s, Cacciari came to theorise that theBeing of theBeginning must not be forced to enter into relation with so-called concrete reality – it must not be burdened by the question of the creation of the world. Because, in its absolute indifference with respect to the world, it must also imply thepossibility of non-being: that is, of being perfectly free to be apotentiality-of-being that translates into existence, as well as being thepotentiality of non-being that remains in Nothingness and does not pass into existence.

This is so much the case that Cacciari, recovering the theological radicalisation of the last Schelling, can tell us that the Beginning as the absolutely unconditioned includes not only being but also non-being. It is indeed the ‘Com-possible’ that includes all the possible and therefore also its own impossibility. “Every possible is in the Indifference of the Urmöglichkeit of the perfectly equivalent Beginning. Omni-compossibility could sound, in a Leibnizian way, like the name of the Beginning, but keep in mind that in this term there is no longer indicated any constraint of passage to being – it is perfectly compossible that the Beginning is also the possibility of non-being”.[vii] And it is precisely in this originally infinite field of possibility as the Beginning of every beginning that the authenticity of each person’s life as “decision” and free self-affirmation is inscribed.

Now, letting Aristotle – who would, perhaps, have recoiled when faced with a potentiality that is not destined to be realised inactuality – rest in peace, what has been said here about questions of ontology and metaphysics, passingly and almost jokingly, was only worthwhile for us to highlight how distant thisElsewhere andOutside is. From that privileged position, Agamben and Cacciari claim to talk about human pathologies and earthly matters, unaware of the distance that separates planet Earth from their ontological constellations.

Translated by Ludovica Mancini and Conrad Hamilton

Works cited

Agamben, Giorgio 1998, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford: Stanford

University Press.

Agamben, Giorgio 2005, State of Exception, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Cacciari, Massimo 1976, Krisis. Saggio sulla crisi del pensiero negativo da Nietzsche a

Wittgenstein, Milan: Feltrinelli.

Cacciari, Massimo 1990, Dell’Inizio, Milan: Adelphi.

Cacciari, Massimo and Giorgio Agamben 2021, ‘A proposito del decreto sul green pass’,

26 July, available at:

Calogero, Guido 1967, Storia della logica antica, Bari: Laterza.

Calogero, Guido 1977, Studi sull’eleatismo, Firenze: La Nuova Italia.

Navarro, Vicente 1976, Medicine Under Capitalism, New York: Prodist.

Singer, Merrill 1994, ‘AIDS and the Health Crisis of the US Urban Poor; the Perspective

of Critical Medical Anthropology’, Social Science & Medicine, 39, 7: 931-948.

Wallace, Rob, Alex Liebman, Luis Fernando Chaves and Rodrick Wallace 2020,

‘COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital’, Monthly Review, 1 May 2020, available at:…



[ii]See Wallace et al. 2020.

[iii]Navarro 1976, p. 208.

[iv]Agamben 2005, p. 87.

[v]Our translation. Cacciari, Massimo 1990, pp. 135-136.

[vi]Calogero 1967, pp. 109-170; Calogero 1977, pp. 1-67.

[vii]Cacciari, Massimo 1990, p. 142.