States of Emergency and States of Exception

Image of woman with face mask.

Image by engin akyurt.

1. The etymology of emergency

On May 5, the World Health Organization declared an end to the COVID global public health emergency. For its part, the Biden administration allowed the US national public health emergency to elapse on May 11. Having lived through a seemingly interminable pandemic, four years of the Trump administration’s incessant chaos and malignancy, and January 6’s attempted coup d’état—all of which demarcated evident states of exception from ordinary life—it’s an opportune moment for us to meditate on the true meaning of the word emergency and reflect on the serious philosophical and political repercussions of our tendency to misunderstand and misuse the term, at least conventionally.

Emergency derives from the union of the Latin e-, meaning out, and mergere, to dip or to plunge. The etymology of the word, cognate in English, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, isn’t especially illuminating. It might even be misleading, since the word emerge is associated in English with gradual motion as opposed to disruption and exigency. What distinguishes an emergency from an issue to be treated matter-of-factly is its abruptness and urgency. While crisis (the noun form of the Greek krinein, to choose or separate) captures an element of this charged quality, this demand for action, “crisis” doesn’t quite conjure the same alarm and immediacy as “emergency,” perhaps because “crisis” has been deployed so often in contemporary political discourse that its urgency has almost totally eroded. Unlike an emergency, a crisis can be slow boiling, the product of decades—if not centuries—of missteps and inaction.

Emergencies evoke a state of terror, of sympathetic nervous response and hormonal reaction. The logic of the moment, which impels us to act swiftly and decisively to bring the state of exception to a close, encourages reactionary behavior. This is true literally—we behave reactively instead of proactively—but perhaps also figuratively, as terror management theory suggests. Reminders of mortality prime people to adopt more conservative stances. Clinging to tribal and ethnic identities is an effective means of reducing cognitive dissonance. As Hannah Arendt and Erich Fromm both noted in their analyses of fascism, it’s not a coincidence that the masses often are drawn to strong leaders and simplistic thinking during moments of extremity. And as evidence from various modern revolutions’ reigns of terror suggests, emergency can easily justify bloody, self-defeating short-termism.

What is accepted as ordinary, part of the normal order of things, and what is extraordinary, worthy of making an exception on a grand scale, is itself a political and ideological question, determined almost entirely by who wields power. As Walter Benjamin famously wrote in his essay “On the Concept of History,” in a passage which is worth quoting at some length,

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. – The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are ‘still’ possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.

The status quo, in other words, is already an emergency for those crushed underfoot by the juggernaut of racial capitalism. Hookworm hasn’t been eradicated in some pockets of the rural South. In some areas of the United States, life expectancy is comparable to countries in the global South (whose parlous health and insufficient healthcare systems are the direct consequence of centuries of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalist extractivism). Portions of the US population, generally members of the working class and disproportionately people of color, are subject to structural violence and what theorist Lauren Berlant terms “slow death,” levels of physical violence, environmental pollution, disease, malnourishment, deprivation, and state abuse which should be intolerable in any country, let alone the richest country by GDP in the world. The US’ vast carceral system, coupled with the execrable loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment which bans involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” normalizes slavery and civic death for millions of people. But as Michel Foucault sagely noted, prisons and jails are but a microcosm: they reflect the society which approves and reproduces them.

2. Emergency as apocalypse

As the term apocalypse, which comes from the Greek for uncovering, suggests, emergencies can be clarifying, moments of revelation that compel self-reflection. Emergencies underscore our fundamental epistemological limitedness: we cannot predict the future. We don’t know when misfortune will befall us. They also highlight the inescapable subjectivity of our world, the gap which invariably and ineradicably separates our phenomenological experiences. We often have the unthinking tendency, borne of human psychological vagaries and our automatic efforts to minimize expenditure of mental energy, to project onto others.

When we’re on intellectual autopilot, especially if we’re accustomed to living in environs insulated from radical difference by self-selection bias and assortative mating patterns, we assume that most people—even those outside our immediate milieu—share a common mentality and harbor similar perceptions of the world. It is obvious that this isn’t true. Attending a book club, watching a play or viewing a painting with a friend, listening to talk show radio for two seconds, or watching interlocutors talk past each other on cable TV as they “debate” issues of the day is sufficient to confirm that people—even our good friends—have radically different understandings of the world we cohabit. Though we all know this on some level, confronting this fact head-on—and reckoning with its disturbing implications vis-à-vis political persuasion—can still shock us, jolting us from our usual torpor.

Emergencies—apocalyptic in the literal sense—also often represent moments of societal reevaluation. The Black Death and Europe’s concomitant economic collapse strengthened peasants’ hand economically and may have led indirectly to the Renaissance and the end of feudalism. Much more recently, although disastrous on numerous levels, the economic crises of 1929-1933, 2008, and 2020-2022 unlocked new possibilities and expanded the Overton window, in principle if not in practice in the latter two cases. The New Deal realignment in the United States and the construction of European social democracy wouldn’t have happened without the Great Depression’s capitalism-discrediting effects. The US government’s emergency response in 2008, including its temporary nationalization of much of the automotive and banking industries, afforded us a momentary glimpse into a world where national industrial policy and economic planning formed parts of our political economy.

Similarly, as numerous observers on the Left, including the late David Graeber, noted, the recent COVID state of emergency presented us with a window into an alternate universe where the government plays a much more active role in economic planning and takes responsibility for healthcare. Pandemic-era social policies provided widespread relief and temporary economic remedies for millions of poor and economically precarious people in the US, offering a tantalizing vista onto a world where child poverty is nonexistent and the American debt epidemic has ended forever. These three epochal challenges to capitalists’ hegemony demonstrated that “government interference” in markets is a rule, not an exception. The success of social programs in alleviating and eliminating economic instability illustrated that poverty, indebtedness, and insecurity are socially constructed, not immutable decrees of God or nature. The society-wide mobilization that these emergency situations demanded, as well as World War II’s extended emergency, gave people a much better appreciation of the concrete meaning of solidarity and interconnectedness. The expansion of the welfare state and social democracy in the West in the wake of the Great Depression also materially increased people’s freedoms.

Zones and times of exception can likewise be liberating and socially productive. Institutions like Carnival, religious holidays and festivals like May Day, Lords of Misrule, and the Sabbath and holy time in Judaism and Christianity all have posed threats to the status quo. They provide pointed counterpoints to the presumption that secular, linear time is the natural way to measure our lives and that relations of domination and subordination are the only mode of organizing the social order. In addition to their Carnivalesque festival Saturnalia, in the political sphere, the Romans had dictators, leaders with extraordinary powers who were granted such powers for a specific, limited time of exception to accomplish an important task, usually defending the city in times of war and extremity.

3. Emergency as a pretext for authoritarianism & state repression

Just as the word dictator has assumed a new denotation which would have been quite foreign to the early Romans, one of the exceptional characteristics of the 20th and 21st centuries is how moments of exception and emergency have crept into normal life, colonizing the quotidian in worrisome ways. As Hannah Arendt famously theorized in the Origins of Totalitarianism, the Germans’ institution of concentration camps in Namibia and other European imperial powers’ commission of atrocities in their colonies in the global South had a vicious boomerang effect which came back to haunt the European metropole. As a zone of exception, the periphery was a laboratory for refining techniques to use in the homeland.

Constitutional emergency clauses have also offered a vehicle for unleashing a state of extrajudiciality. The Weimar constitution’s fateful emergency clause provided fodder for Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt’s theorizing about a “state of exception” and, after the staging of the Reichstag fire, licensed Hitler and the Nazis, bestowing a façade of constitutionality on their overthrow of the Republic. From 1975 to 1977, Indira Gandhi proclaimed an Emergency in India and ruled by decree, censoring the press, jailing opponents en masse, and violating civil rights on a large scale.

More recently, as Giorgio Agamben has discussed, the poorly named “war on terror” and the prolonged state of emergency it occasioned in the aftermath of 9/11 accelerated the widespread privation of human rights and civil liberties in and outside of the United States, exacerbating “legal black holes” at US military bases and other zones of exception. The abuses at Guantánamo Bay, Bagram, and Abu Ghraib served as a testing ground for the expansion of domestic surveillance and police powers that manifested itself legally in the long-lived PATRIOT Act and the continued existence of the Guantánamo Bay detention center, which exists on land taken from Cuba under duress, and illegally in the CIA’s horrific waterboarding and torture program, drone strikes around the world, and the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping.

The Bush administration’s vast arrogation of powers has paved the way for a elephantine bureaucratic and legal structure which threatens civil liberties and legal rulings that have stunningly denied the right to due process to Guantánamo detainees. During the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations, the foundation which the Bush administration laid has facilitated the alarming metastasis of Immigrations & Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which now claims the power to conduct warrantless searches in an 100-mile radius of the border, an area which encompasses 200 million people. According to extensive reportage, ICE and CBP have engaged in physical abuse on and off the ground and sexual abuse of immigrant detainees, misuse of agency records, solitary confinement, medical negligence and unwanted surgical procedures, and illegal deportations.

Elsewhere, the United States abuses its colonial possessions with impunity, in particular Puerto Rico and Vieques, which was used by the US Navy as a target practice site and whose Puerto Rican population suffers elevated cancer rates and economic and educational deprivation. Meanwhile, the people of Guam, the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Marianas Islands lack political representation and are disproportionately poor and medically underserved, and American military bases on Guam and Okinawa have harmed Chamorro and Ryukyuan indigenous communities.

To all this imperial cruelty and abuse, in the Middle East, American colonies and military enclaves, and within the US, the mechanism of international law limps along. The US enjoys a global hegemon’s impunity. International legal organizations and the UN are largely impotent, issuing occasional condemnations here and there, but powerless to effect change and enforce compliance. Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld were never tried for their crimes against humanity, crimes which they committed under the aegis of our 9/11-fueled state of emergency, a legal creation which licensed the Obama and Trump administration’s imperial excesses and which continues to this day.

Elsewhere, states of emergency continue to be abused to authorize state overreach and repression. In Bolivia in 2019, Jeannine Áñez’s illegitimate government used claims of an emergency to justify massacring protesters and violating human rights. In Peru earlier this year, Dina Boluarte used the proclamation of a state of emergency to violently suppress mass anti-government protests. And in France right now, Emmanuel Macron has used Article 49.3 of the French constitution, an exceptional, antidemocratic clause which allows the government to bypass parliament, to ram an extremely unpopular retirement and pensions overhaul down the French people’s throats. Though Macron’s antidemocratic machinations have considerable precedent—Article 49.3 has been invoked nearly 100 times during the Fifth Republic, largely to shoehorn through a right-wing agenda of austerity and deregulation—the maneuver nonetheless illumines Macron’s strong authoritarian streak, one further confirmed by his recent suggestion that the French government should block social media access during periods of protest.

4. Returning to Walter Benjamin: the distinction between crises and emergencies & a Left politics for the Anthropocene

Though the word crisis invariably conjures a considerable degree of severity, crises are often less immediately apparent. Humanitarian crises in Cuba, Venezuela, and other countries suffering the brunt of US sanctions and blockades have been slow burning, developing over years or decades. Yet their results are just as catastrophic as if they were inflicted overnight. A gradually emerging disaster can be just as calamitous as a cataclysm which arrives with the abruptness of a cyclone. Structural violence—poverty, inequality, political disempowerment, and healthcare deprivation—produces catastrophic outcomes for billions of people worldwide, including large swathes of the US. But the constancy and often slow tempo of these apparently eternal, intractable problems—as well as their indirect, mediated causation and the power of omission bias—lulls people who aren’t direct targets of the violence into complacency. This complacency calls to mind the adage which contrasts the frog who’s dropped in boiling water and leaps out instantly, recognizing the danger, with the frog in a gradually boiling cauldron who remains in place and boils to death because the temperature increases almost imperceptibly, over a long stretch. It’s as if normalcy confers a certain imprimatur to problems, making them tolerable through the magic of long exposure.

Yet the distinction between crises and emergencies is illusory. Today, we face both. They are intertwined and dialectically joined: crises spawn emergencies, and emergencies deepen crises. Global warming and the pandemic are cases in point. As was predicted by the IPCC decades ago, and as we now see daily, the global warming crisis is accelerating the frequency and intensity of catastrophic climate emergencies, including storms, flooding, droughts, and resource shortages. These emergencies then deepen preexistent crises in our economic, political, transportation, and food systems. The pandemic laid bare how fragile international supply chains are under late capitalism and demonstrated how alarmingly vulnerable our food system is.

Considering all this, moves to proclaim an end to the pandemic, while psychically understandable given our inability to live life at a constant fever pitch, are misguided in the extreme. They provide official approval for us to consign the memory of the pandemic to oblivion, thereby increasing the chances that the world is caught unawares when the next pandemic arrives, as it surely will in an age of global mobility and deforestation marked by capitalism-driven encroachment on animal habitats. But beyond the immediate danger of further deadly pandemics, gradualism is a luxury which the poor and the planet cannot afford. Martin Luther King’s famed warning about the “fierce urgency of now,” his declaration that “this is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” rings just as true now as it did in the 1960s. We are living in a kairos moment. As Benjamin counseled us, the sooner that the Left succeeds in popularizing the idea that normal life is itself an emergency, that “the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule,” the sooner we will be able to build a working-class coalition powerful enough to “introduc[e] a real state of emergency” through strikes and mass actions which disrupt daily life’s normal functioning and challenge the economic basis of Anthropocene capitalism. One can only hope that Benjamin’s prediction that “our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve” will then prove true.

Scott Remer has published in venues such as In These Times, Africa Is a Country, Common Dreams, OpenDemocracy, Philosophy Now, Philosophical Salon, and International Affairs.