I had two conversations with friends yesterday who are very upset by the failure of the justice system to protect unarmed black men (and boys) from those who act on behalf of the law.
I have not been blogging much as I am in preparation for my qualifying exams in the Spring. Part of my reading has been in ‘political theology’ so I thought I might share some relevant items that I have gleaned from my studies.
“Sovereign is he who decides on the exception” is a sentence by Carl Schmitt that introduces ‘political theology’. That word ‘exception’ is a key to understanding what is going on in our nation right now.
In the last four centuries ‘sovereignty’ has shifted from God and the King to the Nation and State. In that same work, Schmitt also says that “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.”‘
The State* now has both the ceremony (pledge of allegiance – national anthem at all sporting events, etc.) and the power (rightful claim to foreign and domestic violence).
In a fantastic article by Bruno Gulli examining Schmitt, Gulli explains “any person with special powers (or even simply a special sensibility) could be recognized as sovereign. This would be an honorary status conferred on him.”
The State, and those who defend it – whether police or military – have the power of exception. It is important to understand it that:
- The playing field is not level. It is slanted.
- The rules do not apply equally. There is an exception.
Citizens who are upset are not permitted to be violent. They must protest in an orderly and civilized manner.
The police/riot-squad/ military are seemingly allowed to escalate and utilize violence because they have the exception of the state behind them.
We are not all playing by the same rules. Citizens have an asymmetrical relationship with the State when it comes to violence.
It is vital here to understand the insight of Max Weber when he talks about the State’s monopoly on violence. The link explains that:
“Weber describes the state as any organization that succeeds in holding the exclusive right to use, threaten, or authorize physical force against residents of its territory. Such a monopoly, according to Weber, must occur via a process of legitimation.”
Violence is a one-sided relationship. The State – and those who act on its behalf – may behave in violent ways because it will always be construed as exceptional.
Bonnie Honig, in Emergency Politics, says “The state of exception is that paradoxical situation in which the law is legally suspended by sovereign power.”
The problem is that we now live in a permanent state of emergency.
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 violence and excessive forced used by law enforcement. They are more likely to turn a ‘blind-eye’ or call them ‘isolated incidents’ and claim that they are being ‘blown out of proportion’.
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).
What do we do now, however, when communities are not sure they are being protected by the police and in fact need protection from the police?
In the article cited earlier, Gulli 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 hear people asking about the current protests, “What are they hoping to accomplish?”
One thing they could accomplish is 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. The supposed ‘war on terror’ and ‘war on drugs’ are but two examples of this.
None of us want to live in a police state.
No one I know wants to live in a state of fear.
That it why we must question the exceptional violence and emergency politics that have become too normalized and quietly accepted in our society.
The people are raising their voice in protest of this exceptional violence.
* I will be capitalizing ‘State’ to illustrate its elevated and exceptional status.
** I know four people in law enforcement and they are all amazing, loving, kind, people. My concern is about a larger mechanism in our society.
For a powerful response to Schmitt, see Paul Kahn’s Political Theology: Four New Chapters On the Concept Of Sovereignty