Dan Bristow, Tom Hobson, and Kaajal Modi discuss the states of exception that have been imposed across Europe, the racist imaginaries surrounding the pandemic and why it’s more important than ever to make sure this crisis is seen as deeply political.
The lockdown measures that came into place in the United Kingdom on March 23, 2020 have been seen, and experienced, in various ways. On the one hand, they have been viewed as ‘Draconian’, in their curtailment of certain ‘timeless’ liberal ‘freedoms’; ironically, and most pertinently, as a curtailment to those of movement, which only a few months ago was the form of freedom that Home Secretary Priti Patel took as her main target for eliminating ‘once and for all’, for ‘low-skilled’ foreign workers, for whom her points- and earnings-based system classes many health-sector and NHS jobs (which have subsequently proven to in fact be somewhat useful, and highly skilled, as extensions to visas are proving). On the other hand, they have been seen as lax, in their untimely lateness, following a laissez-faire approach that enforced a ‘freedom’: the freedom to become infected, and to infect others, in an explosion of contagion billed as the ‘build[ing] of some kind of herd immunity.’ Here, Jean-Paul Sartre’s dictum, ‘to be free is to be condemned to be free’, is as relevant as ever. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels deliver the kicker to questions of such freedom in The German Ideology: ‘th[e] right to undisturbed enjoyment, within certain conditions, of fortuity and chance has up till now been called personal freedom. These conditions of existence are, of course, only the productive forces and forms of intercourse at any particular time’; or – as Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre would phrase it – the situation.
This situation – the trajectory of the UK’s quarantine measures – has also been read as the imposition of a ‘state of exception’. The idea of the state of exception derives from the thinking of the far-rightwing juridical and political theorist Carl Schmitt and is developed at length by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben; it refers to an investment of constitutional power granted to a sovereign authority within a crisis, or state of emergency. In his book The State of Exception, Agamben describes the form of totalitarian governance that grows out of the state of exception as ‘allow[ing] for the physical elimination not only of political adversaries but of entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system.’
Agamben’s deployments of his state-of-exception theory to measures enacted in Italy’s quarantine lockdown have become a controversial common currency, because of their conspicuously ill-judged applications – and we have read Agamben, against himself, in our first Everyday Analysis article concerning the pandemic – whilst in Hungary, for example, extensions to constitutionality in the service of complete, dictatorial, political control have come into place, through state-of-exception manoeuvring. Giving an indication of the global picture, the International Centre for Not-For-Profit Law have produced a ‘Covid-19 Civic Freedom Tracker’, whilst locally the ‘Coronavirus Bill (HC Bill 122)’, rushed through for establishing emergency powers in the UK – a deal of which extend exceptionally beyond the bounds of rational ‘crisis management’ – demands thorough scrutiny, interrogation, and open debate. It comes amidst perennial calls not to ‘politicize’ the crisis. In resistance to this, we must reverse the terms, and demonstrate how there is nothing more conducive to the maintenance of political (capitalist) realism than to ‘crisisize the political’ (which is being carried out in a supposed ‘teleological suspension of the political’, to play on Søren Kierkegaard’s ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’, the clauses of which we have previously reversed in an attempt to show that the ethical must become the privileged category of the now). That is to say, to (ostensively) exempt the political from the crisis is precisely to (attempt to) reinscribe a state of exception as the norm.
So doing has achieved substantial and perennial success in media discourse and representation down through the ages (and notably so over the latest austerity era, in the UK); most tellingly, in representation of race, gender, sexuality, disability, class, and ideological issues, or more precisely, by giving representation to racist, sexist, homo- and transphobic, ableist, classist, and ideologically bigoted voices. This has to with narrativisation, how stories are set, or framed. The importance of narratology in this sense can be seen, for example, in the (however unconscious) catastrophising of governmental and media response to the covid-19 crisis in relation to the economy (and these institutions’ understatements in relation to public health). We might look at the closure of pubs and restaurants: initially, they were kept open in the UK (specifically on St. Patrick’s Day, whilst Ireland’s had all been closed), but with the advisory to the public not to visit them (whilst the Prime Minister’s father Stanley Johnson proclaimed he still would); then, emphatically regrettably, they are closed. There was no armageddon-mitigation in this narrative: how much simpler, and more reassuring to the proprietors of these businesses, would it have been to suggest that this is not the end, but a suspension, sabbatical, or breather; to suggest that at the end of all this the first thing we’ll all do is go to the pub, and the first pint will be on the government…? We could even imagine the same narrative being given with the regard to the economy, and as did happen in Denmark.
As a way-in to discussion of the media’s narratological exceptionalising, let’s take a single example from the past year: TV historian David Starkey appeared alongside Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar on the BBC’s Politics Live programme in April 2019, during which this startling exchange took place:
Starkey: ‘[Jeremy] Corbyn and his branch of the left fundamentally hate Britain, hate Britain’s allies…’
Sarkar: ‘Wait, wait, wait…’
Starkey: ‘They do! They do! And will do everything to damage them…’
Sarkar: ‘This is absolute nonsense.’
Starkey: ‘On the contrary, the evidence is overwhelming.’
Sarkar: ‘I’m sorry, but…’
Starkey: ‘Give me some evidence that I’m wrong.’
Sarkar: ‘Ok. I can give you some evidence. The other week I was at a talk where…’
Starkey: ‘That’s called an anecdote…’
Sarkar: ‘Anecdotes are a form of evidence, Professor Starkey…’
Starkey: ‘Oh, are they really?’
Sarkar: ‘Yes, they are…’
Starkey: ‘Isn’t that fascinating? I thought you were an academic. Shall we move on?’
Starkey’s snarky, smug, and idiotic retorts – on the laurels of which he takes his rest as self-assumed victor of the argument – are delivered in a puerile and purely anecdotal form, lack utterly in any evidence to back themselves up, and succeed only in blusteringly cutting their interlocutor short; and yet they get taken up, and become rallied behind, by their disingenuous supporters and commentariat (‘‘I thought you were an academic’… ROASTED’, etc.). Beyond the echo chambers of these proximities, however, questions as to how the masses of media-consumption receive this debate, and its framing, are of the essence, and are where considerations of states of exception reemerge.
Starkey is prone to be taken, precisely because he is presented, as a reasonable voice, a reliable commentator, a pundit worthy of consultation on political topics. In 2015, Cambridge University staff and students campaigned to have a fundraising video removed from their website, which featured Starkey – amongst other notable alumni – because of his ‘aggressively racist’ views. His racism was most pronouncedly stated in his response to the rioting in 2011, on the Newsnight programme, in which he said: ‘the chavs have become black. The whites have become black; a particular sort of violent destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion.’ In his equation of ‘black’ with ‘violent destructive, nihilistic gangster culture’ Starkey is being unarguably racist; in his next statement – that if one listens to MP for Tottenham David Lammy on the radio, because he is well-spoken, one would assume he is white – Starkey is equating attributes of respectability solely with whiteness, and ejecting these attributes in a black person into the state of exception, and in so doing is being unarguably racist. Ergo, Starkey is unarguably racist. And yet, this proof dissolves in the media state of exception.
The state of exception underwriting media consumption in this manner is thus able to maintain a double-narrative, a doublethink, in Orwellian terms; its contradictory thought-process being: as we witness racism, we cannot possibly be witnessing racism. It would seem that in the unconscious mechanism of the media’s discursive state-of-exception, through its narratological framing-of-the-debate, the media consumer relies on, implicitly trusts, the media provider, and implicitly believes that the media provider would not court or promote racism, that if racism were to make it into its content, it would be called out, by the media provider, who are statedly opposed to racism, hate speech, etc. Racism is disseminated, without being called out by the content-provider; no state of exception is declared, because the state of exception that allows for and maintains the infiltration of racism and bigotry has been allowed to creep in, and cover its tracks, like a virus, or parasite; because it is already in place and in operation.
It is the same state of affairs that gives rise to the general acceptation of the preposterous article that appeared in The Critic on March 17, by Toby Young, calling the overwhelming of the UK health service an ‘unlikely event’, and arguing that ‘spending £350 billion to prolong the lives of a few hundred thousand mostly elderly people is an irresponsible use of taxpayers’ money’, these people becoming Agamben’s ‘categor[y] of citizens who […] cannot be integrated into the political system’; that of Young, the supreme (mis)fit in mad monk Dominic Cummings’ band of ‘assorted weirdos’; this is thus equally something that can only have been gotten away with (and he’s been getting away with it for years) via the structures of the discursive state of exception within media consumption.
Considering the prominence in the media of Starkey, Young, and others, and the elevation of their discourse, it becomes clear that there is a fundamental problem with an understanding of exception that postulates a limit as a given; or fixed, inevitable, and inalienable point. Such an understanding only furthers the depoliticising agenda of the exception, and thus risks naturalising and reifying exceptions and exceptionalism as ‘latent structural inevitabilities.’
In this respect, it is useful to turn to Judith Butler and to Stuart Hall. The first in psychical-political and power-relation terms, as she provides an account – in Precarious Life – of exceptionalism as a ‘tactic’ and a practice, rather than as a product of a pre-existing and essential limit. Exceptionalism, she argues is the culmination of various instrumentalizations on a number of levels. Thus, whilst the exception is seen to be located in the practices of governmentality, in bureaucracy, and in the technologies of security, we can extrapolate from these structural relations to see how the roles of (firmly establishmentist) commentariats, and the ‘common senses’ and narratives they mobilise, operate to invoke and sustain an exceptional politics as the norm. Butler’s analysis allows a relocation of the problem of exceptionalism away from the deterministic and transcendental, instead understanding it as a discursive, contingent and socially-constructed state; one that is discursively formulated, subjectively defined, and existent-in-practice.
In contrast to Agamben, for whom exceptional sovereign power is an inevitable product of the structural limits of politics, Butler uses her concept of performativity to argue that exceptionalism has no structural ontology ‘apart from the various acts which constitute its reality’. In this understanding, extra-judicial acts or policies justified on the grounds of exceptional circumstance do not themselves become exceptions; rather, they are to be understood as repeated acts which ‘serve to performatively constitute exceptionalism as a legitimate and normalised form of government.’ This revised, contingent understanding of the ‘state of exception’ remains (or perhaps is even more) crucial during these times, in which the urgency and scope of crisis seems incontrovertible. If we interrogate the exception as being constructed in discourse and practice, then the necessity of recourse to, and the consequent nature of, the exception becomes contestable. In short, what this revision would enable is a repoliticisation of the exception itself. If the state of exception is no longer seen as a necessary and inevitable condition of a fixed limit, it can instead be interrogated as the product of a particular kind of discourse, one that veils its having been underwritten by a particular politics, one which always seeks to cover over its tracks by manufacturing its representation as natural, common–sensical, and as as rationally responsive and responsible as possible. It is thus this politics that constantly fights to establish and delimit the possible itself.
These conclusions play back into racial discourse: in 1994, Stuart Hall concretely stated his theoretical position on considerations of race during a tremendous series of lectures he delivered at Harvard University. In one of these, he
advance[d] the scandalous argument that, socially, historically, and politically, race is a discourse; that it operates like a language, like a sliding signifier; that its signifiers reference not genetically established facts but the systems of meaning that have come to be fixed in the classifications of culture; and that those meanings have real effects not because of some truth that inheres in their scientific classification but because of the will to power and the regime of truth that are instituted in the shifting relations of discourse that such meanings establish with our concepts and ideas in the signifying field.
Hall’s deployment here of Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of ‘will to power’ and Michel Foucault’s of the ‘regime of truth’ tells us everything. ‘Truth’ (and news, which itself has become a sliding signifier like never before, between the parameters of ‘factful’ and ‘fake’) is discursively set, set by functors or modulators, such, indeed, as that of race.
Let us return for a moment to the ‘weirdness’ touted by Saint Dominic, and the dialectic of its supposed exceptionality and actual banality; as well as encompassing out-of-touch pundits such as Starkey, Young, Katie Hopkins, et al, his definition of weirdos includes anyone who regularly commits acts of narrative and conceptual eugenics, as a form of ‘speaking hard (or ‘herd’) truths’, and by so doing reinforce and further entrench hegemonic power relations that (continue to) disenfranchise the already disenfranchised in our society. This seems to exclusively mean people who experience their lives in bodies that are constructed through biopolitical discourses of racism, ableism, gender, sexuality, and other subject positions; and material realities that delimit the categories of which lives they might consider to be ‘grievable’ (as per Butler), or those which could be reduced to what Agamben calls ‘homo sacer’ (a life deprived of any rights). Here we might also refer to the cabal of incels, 4chan trolls, transhumanist tech bros and other such ‘misanthropes’ that coagulate around the likes of Jordan B. Peterson, the misanthropy of whom only extends to those categories of humans that they feel are curtailing ‘their’ rights, through the expression or reclamation of their own: people who they implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) barely consider to be human – and therefore worthy of fundamental human rights – at all (i.e. people of colour, women, the queer, trans, fat, disabled, neurodiverse, ill, and/or elderly). Thus, the ‘truths’ spoken within these fora, and through and by the media, consist of (at best) spurious empirical claims to ‘fact’, and (at worst) sensationalist click-bait constructed around racist tropes that enable a ‘definitely-not-racist’ British public to feel exceptional in their perspicacity, and vindicated in their bigotry (often disguised as concern for the planet or, ironically, care of the ‘vulnerable’, or the ‘ignorant’).
Take, for example, the ecofascism of the ‘nature’s return’ style of memes that have gone viral online since covid-19 went viral in Europe. These show such imagery as long-lost fauna and flora ‘returning’ to cities, crystal clear Venice canals, dolphins off the coast of Italy, and graphics that detail reduction in air pollution above China. While some of these may be real phenomena, many have proven to be either fake or contextually misleading. More problematically, however, the suggestion that somehow this is a positive net outcome for the climate overlooks the real structural impact of the virus on climate justice; for example, the negative impact on renewable transition, the suggested mass government bailouts for the fossil fuel industry, not to mention the postponement of vital climate conferences such as Cop26.
The insidious corollary, that potentially tens of millions of already vulnerable humans are an acceptable sacrifice for ‘Mother Nature’ to do her healing is difficult to digest, or, often, to pin down. A recent post on XR (Extinction Rebellion) East Midlands’ Twitter account called coronavirus the ‘cure’ for the ‘disease’ of humanity (this post has since been deleted by Twitter). Subsequent calls by climate justice activists to reconsider the message were met by a denial of wrongdoing, with links to such ‘healing’ posts as the abovementioned as ‘evidence’ of their claims.
Critics have noted time and time again that XR’s biggest strength, its distributed structure, leaves their platform open to just this sort of co-option when combined with their disavowal of politics, compliance with state and governmental structures, and Eurocentric positioning of climate justice. This was amply illustrated towards the end of last year when right-wing XR members in Leeds used the distinctive hourglass symbol to advocate against ‘White Genocide’, and for population control in the ‘third world’. Once again, while XR as a whole was quick to deny affiliation with this eugenicist position, they did nothing to address the criticisms, with that particular form of political ‘opting out’ that their privilege as a predominantly white, predominantly global north climate activist organisation has (until recently at least) afforded them.
So, who do these people mean by humanity, when they call humanity a disease? Whose rights (to life, to liberty, to be grievable) are they willing to deprive in order to promote an agenda that doesn’t, at close examination, even comply with their proposed ethics? Which ‘facts’ are they interested in, and what narratives do these facts support? The people who share these memes ‘aren’t’ racists, because they view racism as something that is intentional, and their intention is never to be a racist (we live in a world where racism exists, but no one ‘does’ racism). In their particularist utilisation of the universal signifier ‘humanity’, they dehumanise vast swathes of people. Yet at the same time, they take for granted a human exceptionalism that would suggest that we, as humans, exist as distinct from ecology, and therefore cannot coexist with nature in any meaningful way (an idea that, compellingly, requires us to take little to no responsibility for how we live, or to hold to account the extractivist structures of capital, in order to care about the world).
The construction of covid-19 as a ‘Chinese’ disease justifies the scapegoating of people of East Asian descent, the avoidance of ‘oriental’ or even other ‘ethnic’ businesses, and the idea that the virus was caused by ‘alien’ food, and practices of eating. The more recent conspiracy theories that links 5G to covid-19 are rooted in a similar Sinophobia, and the same anthropocentrism. The ‘origins’ of both the ‘Chinese’ virus and the ‘Chinese’ technology are suspect. There is an extremely telling crossover between the two groups (Facebookers sharing pictures of gleaming ‘Venetian’ canals and ‘wild’ elephants in Chinese villages, ecofascists advocating for population control) within these ranks. There is nothing exceptional about the ways in which these groups cross over; they are merely the extrusions that illustrate a larger whole. And in both of these instances the unexceptional racialising and anthropomorphising of invisible entities—a virus and a phone signal—goes only to show up the paucity of the structural imaginary that invites these responses.
To return to the Marx and Engels of The German Ideology – and their addressing of the question of humanity and nature – they state:
History does not end by being resolved into “self-consciousness” as “spirit of the spirit”, but […] in it at each stage there is found a material result: a sum of productive forces, an historically created relation of individuals to nature and to one another, which is handed down to each generation from its predecessor; a mass of productive forces, capital funds and conditions, which, on the one hand, is indeed modified by the new generation, but also on the other prescribes for it its conditions of life and gives it a definite development, a special character.
Along precisely these absolutionist lines, nearly everywhere in the ‘West’ during this crisis the invocation of ‘nature’ has been in the service of denying human responsibility, and that of ‘humanity’ in the service of blaming unavoidable natural conditions. It’s a form of scapegoating familiar to us not only from earlier inscriptions of ecosociality, but from deployments of racism in crisis-managerialist politics.
Near the end of March, The Washington Times published a purposely silly article called ‘I’m not an epidemiologist, but…’; earlier in the month, Ryan Broderick wrote an article for Buzzfeed under the same name, which explored the phenomenon of ‘the rise the coronavirus influencers’, and centred on how Twitter engagement was taking more active interventional measures than government in certain Western countries. The shared title is striking. In relation to the state of exception, we might complete it: ‘I’m not an epidemiologist, but I do understand structures of racism…’ Watching from afar the epidemic unfold in China, the pandemic begin to engulf Italy, the trajectory of ‘the foreign virus’, might we finally ask what more than racism makes ‘us’ the exception…
Daniel Bristow is co-editor of Everyday Analysis.
Tom Hobson is an academic and researcher, currently based at the University of Bath. He writes, mainly, about the relationships between technology and politics.
Kaajal Modi is a multidisciplinary designer and socially engaged artist, with a background in political design, community food activisms and collaborative future-making. Kaajal is currently based at the Digital Cultures Research Centre at UWE, Bristol, where they are pursuing a PhD in Design Futures. They use historic fermentation techniques and speculative making to invite playful interactions in the kitchen that look to disrupt normative imaginaries of science and technology, by reclaiming domestic, indigenous and feminist knowledges as emancipatory and necessary for imagining a just and inclusive global food system.