In the last few weeks, governments all over the world have been declaring states of emergency to deal with the coronavirus. Given the remarkable powers that governments at all levels have been acquiring through these measures, it’s not surprising then that both state leaders and commentators are talking about this moment being akin to a state of war.
Although this comparison is powerful—and in many ways correct—it only tells part of the story. Yes, governments are invoking emergency powers and imposing a state of exception of the kind that we usually see in wartime. Yet, if the goal is to save the lives of citizens against and attack, as it is during wartime, then why would government leaders like British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, have delayed social distancing measures so long for fear of their economic consequences? And why does President Trump continue to flirt with the idea of opening the economy back quickly in some parts of the country in spite of the likely impact on the number of COVID-related deaths?
The answer to this puzzle lies in the fact that the kind of exceptionalist policies that we are seeing being put into place are, for some leaders at least, as much about protecting the economy as it they are about ensuring the public’s security.
Although we often forget it in calmer times (remember those?), liberal democratic governments do reserve for themselves the power impose a state of exception in times of crisis, such as a war. Such exceptionalist measures are designed to temporarily suspend normal liberal democratic rights and processes in order to respond to a supreme threat to the state and its people. The last time we saw this occurring on a broad basis was of course after 9/11, although many have also drawn parallels to the Second World War.
In many ways, the current emergency declarations and measures do bear important resemblances to these wartime measures. Governments have acted with extraordinary speed, rushing legislation through or using executive powers to give themselves the flexibility to act to fight the virus’ spread. They have partly sealed off their borders, turning inwards and actively seeking to manage the supply of essential medical equipment. We are also beginning to see the adoption of subtler, more technocratic measures that are closer to those we saw after 9/11, like the use of data surveillance in South Korea and other countries to map, track and control populations deemed a danger.
All of these exceptionalist measures suspend or constrain normal democratic processes and liberal civil rights in the same of the security of the state and its people.
Yet there are also several key ways in which the exceptional measures being proposed and introduced today are different from these war-time emergency policies. This time around, governments are simultaneously seeking to secure their population’s health against attack while also protecting their economy from ruin.
Governments have historically invoked states of exception not only to fight wars but also to tackle economic crises. Confronted by the ravages of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt famously argued in his inaugural address in 1933 that he was willing to use “broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” During the 2008 global financial crisis, political and economic leaders again called for exceptionalist measures ranging from bailouts to stimulus measures in order to respond to what they described as an economic emergency.
This time around, governments are facing two existential threats at the same time—a public health threat to their citizen’s lives which can only be treated through a series of measures that themselves pose an existential threat to the economy. The Second World War’s mobilization of a wartime economy helped to rescue western states from the prolonged crisis of the Great Depression. This time around, mobilizing against the health threat means partly suspending the economy, not energizing it. These two sets of emergency responses are necessarily in tension with one another.
While political leaders’ willingness to sacrifice some individuals’ lives for the sake of the economy may strike us as a fresh horror, it actually has a long history. Over a decade ago, I wrote an article entitled “Why the Economy is Often the Exception to Politics as Usual,” in which I suggested that neoliberal international institutions, like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, had proven willing to suspend the political rights and freedoms of the citizens of poorer countries in the name of re-establishing a sound economy. In these countries, the supreme goal of economic stability, not political security, was treated as a sufficient ground for exceptionalist measures, even if the consequences were often extreme poverty and deprivation—and yes, very likely, death—or some.
In the Global North, while we remain on average the lucky ones, these recent twin crises have revealed just how vulnerable we have made some of our population in our pursuit of a mythic “sound economy”— including those in the gig economy, without secure employment, and working in essential but unrecognized jobs. These crises have also shown just how willing some political leaders are to require the ultimate sacrifice of some of our citizens in the name of that same “sound economy.”
Responding to these twin public health and economic crises, while also ensuring that we come out the end of this process in something that still resembles a democracy, will not be easy. What’s clear, however, is that those who insist that that the economy’s survival trumps the right of its people to life are mobilizing a particularly vicious form of economic exceptionalism—one that must be recognized and resisted.
This post was originally published on the SPERI blog on April 17, 2020.