We need to be careful about this language of a war against the virus. In the last 30 years war has migrated in meaning it has become too easily appropriated for anything we are concerned about.

We could talk about varieties that have global implications like the war on terror, to more seasonal and trivial instances like the so-called war on Christmas, and everything in between.  We could talk about the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on women, and so many other instances of war migrating in dangerous ways.

There are two primary reasons for concern:

  • First, whenever war is invoked emergency measures are implemented and we are in danger of losing our rights at citizens. I will talk about emergency politics below.
  • Second, because of global capitalism and our pervasive consumer society the victory in these wars is somehow always linked shopping.

You will remember the now famous exhortation by then President George W. Bush after the events of September 11 to not let the terrorists win by … going shopping.

A brilliant article came out this week about the impending call “return to normal”. We would be wise to pay attention to how that phrase is going to be used–not everyone means the same thing when they use the same words.

American politicians have become very comfortable invoking the war analogy but it really got my attention this past weekend when the Prime Minister of Canada used to the phrase. As a dual citizen between Canada and the US it always gets my attention when something that I had thought was unique to the American military mentality shows up north of the border.

Then yesterday during the extended media circus of a Covid 19 press conference, the current President of the United States repeatedly claimed that the powers of his office were total.

This is the danger of our exceptional times–exceptions get made that are nearly impossible to retract later. They get codified and instantiated, which sets the precedent, which then moves from being a fluid situation due to an emergency to a solidified expectation that is written in stone. 

The problem is that we now live in a permanent state of emergency.

I write about Emergency Politics every so often. It is far more ominous than its news coverage. Here is a snippet for those who are new:

Bonnie Honig, in Emergency Politics, says “The state of exception is that paradoxical situation in which the law is legally suspended by sovereign power.”

September 11, 2001 ushered in a state of perpetual exception. This applies to racial profiling, police brutality, State surveillance of its citizenry in the NSA – to name only a few.

When people are scared they willingly sacrifice their freedom and privacy in exchange for safety. The State benefits from a frightened population and people are more willing to accept the exceptional measures.

A population is more willing to view as exceptional the excessive tactics and escalation of violence precisely because we now live in a permanent state of exception (or emergency).

Gulli [in this article ] reports, “At the end of his critique of the state of exception, Giorgio Agamben addresses the question of contingency, which is very important in all of his work, when, with a reference to Benjamin, he speaks of “the urgency of the state of exception ‘in which we live’” (2005)

In his eighth thesis on the philosophy of history, Walter Benjamin says:

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency.” (1968)

I bring this up in the hopes that our current crisis might help to create a real sense of emergency that will call into question in the larger American conscience a question about the permanent state of exception that has crept in over the past decades.

We must question the exceptional State and its emergency politics that have become too normalized and quietly accepted in our society.