Crisis and exceptionalityBy
Deux périls menacent le monde: l’ordre et le désordre
Few will nowadays deny that humankind experiences a moment of great trouble. Everything seems to point towards the growing relevance of the concept of crisis. First of all, we face an ecological crisis, an environmental crisis, and an energy crisis which challenge the prospect of a viable future for the human species. Besides, the prospect of financial and economic crises has been looming in the background for quite some time. The current pandemic now allows us to talk about a sanitary crisis. In line with these considerations, contemporary societies are best described as being subsumed in a ‘state of crisis’. Yet, the term “crisis” can be problematic whenever it is unaccompanied by a theoretically sound understanding of the concept it refers to. The goal of this blog post is to contribute to the debate about crises by focusing on Covid-19.
At first glance, the initial stages of the pandemic resonated with the medical meaning of the term krisis. As we will see in further detail below, the term designates a critical juncture for the life of a patient facing an illness. The analogy is particularly striking with regards to the first wave of mass death in Europe and across the world. The first epidemic wave caused societies to struggle between life and death, while a wide array of experts examined and took action to eradicate the disease from the social body. The doctors of the analogy were not just quietly establishing a diagnosis, they also had an awful task on their hands, one nobody would like to be responsible for. Both state institutions and concrete medical staff had to choose which lives to prioritize, and which to let die. The necropolitics involved in this sort of calculations turned the current pandemic into a full-blown and multi-layered crisis. The initial denial and inaction of governments was as deadly as their previous austerity-led dismantling of health institutions.
Regardless of whether the initial response could have been swifter, it seems that we are far from seeing the end of Covid-19. Sadly, the gloomy prospect of cadavers-filled containers might remain looming in the background for quite some time yet. As such, it seems pertinent to ponder what just and balanced measures against Covid-19 are, just as much as how they are enacted. On a more positive note, scientific evidence has been mounting against the sanitary threat caused by the recurrent epidemic waves. Notwithstanding heated debates, what works and what doesn’t is now much clearer than during the early stages of the pandemics. The list grows on, day after day. Covid is airborne. Masks are effective if used properly. Maintaining distance reduces risk. Meeting outside is best, leaving the windows open works, installing ventilation helps. Vaccines reduce hospitalization risk. And so forth. Functional non-pharmaceutical and pharmaceutical measures are becoming well-established – while their negative impacts and side-effects are only slowly being put on the table. However, none of the aforementioned practical solutions require to be accompanied with the sort of emergency politics that have become normalized during the last two years.
Leaving medical debates aside, this piece aims to focus on the relationship between Covid-19 and emergency politics. It does so by examining how the concept of crisis becomes entangled in pandemic discourses, hence facilitating that the exception becomes the norm. This creates the difficulty of studying a paradoxical ‘normalized exception’. Then again, the normalization of what was previously dubbed as emergency action does not impede new crisis narratives to be invoked. Quite the contrary, it seems that crisis-invocation stands at the core of current corona-virus discourses. Producing enemy figures and feelings of threat is a fundamental element of exceptionalism and emergency talk, and the pandemic is particularly prone to engender such discourses. The complexity of the task at hands lies in the polysemous nature of the concept of crisis, making the term both attractive and slippery.
Singling out the meaning of crisis
The noun krisis was most often used in the field of medicine, referring to the doctor’s observation of a decisive moment in a disease, during which the patient’s fate balances between life and death. Hypocrates’ (460 b.c. – 370 b.c.) first definition of krisis illustrates a moment of struggle in which an existential threat either substantiates or withers away. More precisely, the word crisis refers to the doctor’s assessment of the disease. The word krisis finds its origins in the verb krino, that means to examine, to judge, to decide. The action through which the doctor establishes a prognosis is thus essential to the concept of crisis. The term was also used in other fields by diverse Greek authors – such as Aristoteles (politics), Thucydides (war), law, etc. –, often without significant theoretical elaboration. It often related to a crucial development, such as a point in battle, or an abrupt change in nature, bearing imperative outcomes for humans. As centuries went by, the medical meaning prevailed, while the implication of an observer faded away with time.
The definition of crisis as a critical moment prevailed for centuries, until the Renaissance. The meanings of the word then expanded between the XVIIth and the XIXth century, and started to refer to the dysfunctions of a system, as economists and historians elaborate crisis theories. From the mid-XVIIIth, a growing number of occurrences are registered, corresponding with a growing theoretical interest for its temporary implications. The concept of crisis becomes a useful tool to gauge change across certain periods of time. The use of the concept of crisis would later boom in the 20’s and 30’s of the XXth century. In all these meanings, the idea of a turning point prevails. The reference to a risky and uncertain moment is also most often shared by all definitions. Crisis invokes the notion of perturbation, either seen as a moment of decision or indecision.
Without going against any of the aforementioned definitions, I consider that, for an event or a period to be cast as a crisis, an observable dimension and a subjective dimension must be identifiable. Regarding the latter, Castoriadis insisted that ‘the crisis is the feeling of crisis’, bringing to the fore the perception of the crisis. There needs to be a collective perception of crisis in order for us to be able to say that there is a crisis. In fact, no objective measurements can certify threats’ existential character beforehand. This dilemma stands at the heart of the present blog post, and will be dealt with later on. On the other hand, the turbulence at stake needs to carry the implication of a system failure, making a certain societal model inoperative (or at least parts of it). Crises bring about the de-organization and re-organization of societies. As crises redefine social structures, the idea of progress is hardly detachable from the one of crisis. Koselleck (2006) makes this point brilliantly, while arguing that the prospect of crises is an ever-more present reality. The acceleration of time by new technologies, the multiplication of means of self-destruction or capitalism’s inexorable consumption of the earth resources are a few concerning trends in this regard.
It is thus unsurprising that the advent of neoliberal globalization from the 70’s onward marks a turning point for the concept of crisis. As the planet’s limits are reached and the biodiversity that sustains human life withers away, the handling of crises becomes key for the survival of institutions. Even if crisis management can be seen as a defensive move, the narratives involved conceal inequalities and legitimate oppressive policies. Neoliberal discourses are grounded in a logic of confrontation with threats and enemies. Aggressive crises narratives are bound to induce internal antagonisms, that are then concealed and neutralized. The permanent threat is fueled by crisis narratives and met with constant discretion by the executives, in a repetitive attempt to shield referent objects from annihilation. Arguably, the permanent character that crises have obtained imply that exceptionalism becomes the “new normal”, with wide-ranging and long-lasting consequences.
During the last couple of decades, terrorism and financial crises have reshaped the constitutional basis of our societies. Around the beginning of the millennium, the struggle against terrorism paved the way for juridical abuses. Guantánamo Bay became a symbol of the new spaces of lawlessness opened by exceptionality, leading to intense academic debates about the state of exception and Schmitt’s works. The 2008 global financial crisis then expanded the scope of extraordinary politics and constitutional changes. Economic threats and domestic enemies become more elusive, the periods over which they operate expand, and extraordinary measures are no longer the object of discussion. Now, with Covid-19, the image of an internal enemy has been upgraded again: an ever-present and invisible virus threatens to collapse health services and bring the economy to a grinding halt. This state of affairs comes hand in hand with great efforts to discredit those opposing the “new normality” founded by extraordinary measures of all sorts. As Gerardo Nicoletta’s blog post astutely posits, the “no-vax” has become the enemy figure around which Covid-19 crisis narratives articulate.
Meanwhile, a consensus for politics of emergency seems to be developing, or at least settling in. These debates suggest the need to take a closer look at crises and disentangle their relationship with exceptionalism. I do so here by paying attention to the verb krino from which the noun krisis was derived, as it necessarily includes the agency of an observer. This observer must prove capable of integrating complex processes in a narrative structure to identify a point of inflection. More crucially for this piece, decisive action must be undertaken to face up to an (often existential) threat.
The function of exceptionalism in crises-prone societies
Moving away from the realm of crisis towards the one of exceptionalism requires dealing with the notion of security and threats. Securitization studies prove useful to do so, as this strand of literature provides insight into the expansion of emergency measures throughout the last decades. Buzan, Waever and de Wilde coined the concept of securitization to designate a process by which certain political decisions are no longer bound to standard procedures responding to an alleged exceptional situation. It was observed that, once the Cold War ended, securitization processes were no longer only tied to the military sector, and indeed spread to other sectors of society. As its name suggests, security lies at the heart of these works. Successful securitization brings the issue into the realm of security, in which decisions are no longer subject to the scrutiny of parliamentary deliberation. Engaging with Carl Schmitt’s work, securitization studies’ have criticized the fallacious legitimation of exceptional political action.
Of course, not all securitization processes correspond to crises, but the opposite is often true: most crises tend to imply securitization processes of all kinds. Securitization studies have the virtue to highlight the importance of scrutinizing threat management. Even if crises have become our daily bread, the concept of crisis retains the capacity to frame the current context as problematic, leading to an identification of threats, and hence, making room to act against them. Most often, when threats are deemed to have an existential nature, going beyond the scope of the law will come to seem necessary. Gross (2002, 1023) underscores that “there may be circumstances where the appropriate method of tackling grave dangers and threats entails going outside the constitutional order, at times even violating otherwise accepted constitutional principles, rules, and norms.” Going against securitization’s traditional emphasis, Elena Dück’s thought-provoking blog post discusses the contours of “just securitizations”, highlighting that exceptional action can sometimes be legitimate.
Yet, threat perception remains ultimately a subjective issue. An existential threat cannot be objectively identified until it materializes, as by then, it is too late to act. In fact, one could argue that even when a threat materializes, it remains non-objective, since competing interpretations over the causes and ways of dealing with the situation might arise. The preemptive turn in criminal law that came about with anti-terrorist legislation is a token of both the difficulty to solve this issue and respect democratic principles – such as the presumption of innocence. Whenever threat diagnosis and emergency measures reveal themselves to be excessive, exceptionality becomes an unjustified abuse. In fact, making appeals to the constitution and the law is also problematic when considering historical facts. In practice, the assumption of constitutionality has served as a rhetorical, more than a real, check on governmental powers during times of great crises. A pragmatical approach to the issue of exceptionality suggests that emergency powers were more commonly used for the purpose of securing capitalist order. I thus stand with securitization studies’ distrust of exceptionalism.
As we’ve been arguing, the emergency measures implied in crisis management are a core aspect of contemporary governmentality. Permanent threats imply that responding to the illegitimacy stemming from allegedly preventive actions is postponed, as the enemy/threat immediately reappears. This war-like logic relates to the Schmittian concept of the state of exception, that consists in suspending the law (in liberal regimes, the constitution) to protect the law. Drawing from Schmitt, Agamben’s influential contribution to the field has shown how the normalization of exceptionalism brings about a space of lawlessness which tends to perpetuate itself (Agamben, 2004). But again, the idea that the permanent emergency involves a suspension of the law encourages the idea of a ‘return to legality’. In fact, returning to the ‘normal’ mode of governing through the rule of law – that is to say, regular parliamentary politics – is the normative ideal underpinned by securitization theory.
With Agamben and securitization studies, I would like to conclude by underlining that exceptionalism is politically undesirable. Still, it is misleading to do so by defending a return to (previously existing) normality. Neocleous (2008) argues that the concept of emergency is preferable insofar as it has a sense of “emergence” – as opposed to exception’s implication of ex capere (being taken outside). The genealogy of “emergency” points towards what is emerging, coming out of concealment or issuing from confinement by certain events. Are emergency powers then located outside of the law, as Agamben argues, or instead emerging from it? Neocleous makes a strong point when arguing that far from suspending law or bracketing off the juridical, emergency powers lie firmly within the legal domain. Emergency politics are paramount to liberalism, insofar as exceptionality is invoked whenever the law becomes too narrow to maintain existing power relationships. In this light, the tactical invocation of crises enables the authorities to implement extraordinary measures which will in turn allow for a redefinition of constitutional law in accordance with dominant interests.
Each new epidemic “wave” contains the threat of developing into a crisis, but now that the initial scare lies behind us and that prevention means are becoming well-established, it becomes pressing to think about how to make exceptionalism retreat. It would seem that an increasing number of governments are betting on “stop-and-go” strategies, even if technical means exist to reduce the need for such measures. With regard to prevention, the limited availability of CO2 detectors and mechanical ventilation shows a generalized unwillingness for long-term investment. Even temporary extraordinary measures aiming to flatten the curve – such as school shut-downs – are being frowned at. Returning to the medical analogy, one is left wondering about the role played by the “doctors” and their interest in the patient’s recovery. When disasters are allowed to happen while knowing about them in advance, an emergency might arise, but not a crisis – as governmentality is not rendered ineffective, and society is not reorganized.
Then again, the initial blow of Covid-19 is still being processed, and as such it is not far-fetched to talk about the capacity of the epidemic to cause a long-lasting cultural crisis, for example. One could go on and on about the different aspects of human life that have suffered dramatic changes and are yet to be integrated and processed by our species around the globe. It is worth mentioning by passing that the cultural shock is probably greater for the privileged Global North, until now often preserved from the most destructive trends of climate change. But dwelling on how Covid-19 anthropologically transforms our way to inhabit the world is out of the scope of this blog post. What matters, I think, is to bear in mind that there can be no end to the pandemic without global solutions. The war-like mentality bundled with exceptionalism doesn’t favor this approach at all, quite the contrary. Crisis narratives denying agency and portraying ineluctable change should then be examined with skepticism.
Crises have become the normal mode of government. Having discussed the many-fold meanings of this word, the present piece has argued for distinguishing it from exceptionalism. At the time of writing [February 2022], there is an increasing pressure to start treating Covid-19 as a flu-like, mild disease. At the time of writing, masks mandates are being dropped, quarantine requirements lowered or eliminated, state-subsidized testing questioned, and so on and so forth. Meanwhile, a growing number is facing long-haul Covid’s persistent and many-folded symptoms. Covid-19 should not be allowed to cripple and slaughter the old, the weak, the sick and the poor. If this was to happen, then another sort of exceptionalism is needed. One that would re-appropriate the concept of crisis while disavowing repression and scaremongering. One that would call for strikes to shut down infectious hot spots such as schools and workplaces. Or for the squatting of unused buildings, such as hotels, to accommodate contact cases. A popular exceptionalism could consist of re-purposing factories to manufacture low-tech preventive equipment.
Heading towards a conclusion, it seems useful to recall Castoriadis’ understanding of the crisis as the feeling of the crisis. In fact, the affect of fear has been circulating even faster than the virus causing it. As the piece has shown, emotion is key to making sense of how emergency measures are enacted, and become normalized or remain contested. The emergency mentality feeds into and feeds on an overwhelming insecurity consciousness, making it easier for states to enact exceptionality. Meanwhile, the far-right is leading resistance to constitutional changes, extreme executive-led measures, restrictions of civil rights and basic human rights. It is unlikely that the situation reverts without effort, given the strong feelings of confusion and threat experienced by a big share of humanity. It is precisely over the condition of fear, insecurity and disorder at the heart of civil society that states preside over the permanent state of emergency. But there is room for hope, as the affect mobility that we witness since the early days of the pandemic suggests a gigantic scale for the many possible and unforeseeable futures awaiting us.
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 Many thanks to Hannah Broecker for pointing this out.
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How to cite this blog post:
Debelle dos Santos, Galvão (2022), “Crisis and exceptionality”, Crisis Discourse Blog (CriDis), URL = https://www.crisis-discourse.net/en/2022/06/crisis-and-exceptionality/.