State of Exception

I’m not recommending that anybody read Giorgio Agamben because his writing is very academic and indigestible. So I’ll briefly retell in normal language.

Agamben is a very leftist philosopher, by the way.

Agamben says that declaring a state of exception is very convenient. It allows to deprive citizens of individual rights. States of exception tend to become the norm. Once you agree to the idea that a state of exception justifies suspension of rights, you are done. It’s not going away. One obvious example is 9/11. Has anybody bothered to give back the rights taken away under the pretext of a terrorist threat? Of course, not.

The state of emergency never ends. The exception becomes an everyday reality. Some of your rights get taken away. Then another emergency arises. More rights disappear.

It’s always some “unprecedented crisis” that is used as an excuse to deprive us of our rights for a supposedly short period of time (“two weeks to flatten the curve”) but then the emergency extends (just until we get enough ventilators, just until we set up contact tracing, just until we get the vaccine). New reasons come up to prolong the state of exception. Then the emergency becomes the new normal. The rights never come back. A new emergency arises to deprive you of more rights. And so on.

Agamben wrote this in 1995, by the way.

5 thoughts on “State of Exception”

  1. Sometimes there is no expressed intention that restrictions be temporary. For example, we no longer have the right to teach ourselves how to fly an airplane the way Orville Wright did. This right will not likely return. Within the last decade or so, we have lost the right to smoke cigarettes in restaurants. As an ex-smoker, I hope this right never returns. Having to breathe other people’s smoke is most unpleasant.

    In the early 20th century, we lost the right to smoke marijuana. This right does seem to be coming back, slowly. It is the only exception I can think of to your observation.

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    1. This isn’t about rights disappearing through deliberation and policy, this is about rights disappearing specifically through the general political process being hijacked through the appearance or institution of an exception. It’s probably not even the only way to hijack politics, but it’s certainly a powerful one.

      So. History hasn’t solidly been just rights disappearing and polities becoming ever more degenerate. States of exception do end, both legal and practical human capacities do seem to develop rather than diminish in the long span of things. What do you think actually does make states of exception reverse or human dignity take deeper root?

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      1. ” the general political process being hijacked through the appearance or institution of an exception”

        I remember a history teacher who said the exceptional thing about the US wasn’t that general civil rights were curtailed during times of war (a normal occurrence that happens in most countries, but that they were restored soon afterward.
        That ended with W’s eternal “War on Terror”…

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      2. The grandchildren of the people who accepted the state of exception will get fed up and won’t take it seriously. That’s all it takes. People start mocking it, making fun of it, ridiculing it, and then it’s gone. This is the good news. The state of exception is very easy to put an end to.

        The bad news is, as I said, it takes a couple of generations to figure out how ridiculous the “threat” that is used to clobber us is.

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  2. “State of Exception” sounds like another name for the “Authoritarian Tip-Toe” which itself just describes the quote “never let a good crisis go to waste” which has been attributed to Marx.

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