The state of emergency in which we live

This morning I taught Benjamin’s On the Concept of History to some baffled students, and I was struck by the contemporary relevance of Section VIII:

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, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.

The basic attitude Benjamin is critiquing seems remarkably similar to that of contemporary “progressives,” who always seem to believe that if we simply wait out the current “emergency” of conservative governance, they will ultimately undermine themselves — or else simply die off, leaving the more liberal younger cohort to take over and set things right. Hence we hear continually that the gay rights movement is bound to triumph in the end, that it’s impossible for Roe v. Wade to be reversed, that once a major government program such as health care reform is promulgated it can never be taken back, etc., etc. There’s even a sense in which the conservatives themselves don’t believe their proposals are workable and are cynically promising, for example, to restrict abortion rights while in fact recognizing that fulfilling that promise would be disastrous.

Conservative ideas, in this reading, are simply out of date and won’t “work” — hence conservatives can by definition only discredit themselves when in power, and indeed there were many who were eager to declare the 2008 election the definitive death of conservatism. What’s more, we often hear that the reason Obama has suffered such setbacks is that he did not push hard enough for progressive policies, which necessarily would’ve “worked” and thus propelled him to greatness.

I’m not arguing that Obama couldn’t have done things differently — indeed, I do think, for example, that a bigger stimulus would’ve “worked” much better and likely led to better results in the mid-term elections. But what would it have “worked” to achieve? To promote economic growth along capitalist lines.

That would definitely be better than the economic stagnation we’re currently experiencing, but there’s no reason to assume that under capitalism, even a well-managed capitalism, the “state of emergency” represented by bigotry, demands for cuts in social programs, etc., would naturally whither away. Even in the supposed welfare state utopia of Europe, I’m pretty sure racism and homophobia exist! And I’m pretty sure that the welfare state is not automatically invulnerable to cuts and even outright privatization, even there.

What it would take to create a “real state of emergency” is perhaps not entirely clear, but I don’t think that the strategy of “waiting it out” and hoping conservatism discredits itself is going to deliver the desired results.

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7 Responses to “The state of emergency in which we live”

  1. bob mcmanus Says:

    “State of emergency?” “State of exception” the people, being sovereign, can declare the SoE as individuals or groups

    “In every case, the state of exception marks a threshold at which logic and praxis blur with each other and a pure violence without logos claims to realize an enunciation without any real reference” …Wiki on Agamben

    And so…Tsunetomo;Hagakure;shinigurui

    That intuitional action is assigned to fascism and forbidden to the left seems conveniently disarming.

  2. Evan Says:

    This is interesting reading alongside the recent Chicago election thread, where I take it you weren’t so interested in action towards a real state of emergency. Not that your argument there amounted to the same thing as those progressives you describe here who want to “wait it out” (quite the opposite, actually, you intended to perpetuate the neoliberal status quo for various reasons)… but there certainly does seem to be some distance between the two reflections.

    So, while the answer to Benjamin’s current application remains “not entirely clear”, are we supposed to just maintain the “orderly succession” of the current exception/rule?

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    So you understood me to be saying we should preserve neoliberalism, simply for its own sake?

  4. Evan Says:

    No, not at all. I understand you to have justified the intentional preservation of neoliberalism for various reasons (though not for its own sake) in your other post. This just doesn’t seem like an obvious practical response to the idea that “it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency”.

    You recognize that the appropriate practical response isn’t entirely clear, so I wouldn’t have expected a four point plan from you to bring Chicago to a state of real emergency or anything… but why justify a vote for Emanuel, in light of this word from Benjamin, is what I’m asking. Is it just a holding pattern for the moment? And when does the holding pattern become indistinguishable from the progressive “wait it out” strategy that you mention?

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    My goal was the near-term preservation of Chicago as a vibrant urban center, which I believe to be an important resource for any future progressive movement and (here’s the big difference #1) which I believe to be potentially under threat or at least not automatic. I’m also not subscribing to a viewpoint where people will necessarily reject neoliberal policies once they see them in action, so that progressive forces can only gain from neoliberals holding power. (This is in part because most “progressives” are basically neoliberals in the first place, but that’s another issue.) Indeed, I would say that the greater danger is in putting forward lame candidates who don’t seem ready for prime time, leading people to think that progressives are just idealists who don’t “have what it takes.” So again, the opposite analysis to where progressivism automatically “works.”

    Obviously we need to build up stronger left-wing coalitions, etc., so that we’re ready for another moment like this. In the meantime, I think it’s necessary to stick to the formula that appears to be holding the city together, and on coming to this conclusion, I decided to act on it by voting for the candidate who seemed to me to have the best chance of holding things together in the near-term. I may have been wrong about every level of that analysis, but at no point was it based on the logic critiqued in this post.

  6. Gabe Says:

    Sorry, maybe my irony detector is faulty, but could you expand a bit in this?:

    “Even in the supposed welfare state utopia of Europe, I’m pretty sure racism and homophobia exist! And I’m pretty sure that the welfare state is not automatically invulnerable to cuts and even outright privatization, even there.”

    Automatic invulnerability would seem to set the bar rather high, no?

    “What it would take to create a “real state of emergency” ”

    Doug Henwood in Wall Street had an interesting idea about everyone writing ‘non serviam’ on their credit card bills (I guess you would have to add mortgages and student loans too at this stage)

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I refer to “automatic invulnerability” because I’m discussing a viewpoint that argues that progressive gains are, in the long run at least, both inevitable and basically irreversible once achieved.


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