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Nuno Castanheira

In a 2012 interview to the newspaper Ragusa News, Giorgio Agamben said that «[…] today, “Crisis” means only “you must obey!”», thus emphasizing the transformation of the concept into the motto of contemporary politics with the aim of forcing people to accept restrictions to their freedom that they would not accept otherwise (Agamben 2012). Following Agamben’s insight, the purpose of these paragraphs is to provide some elements to a cursory understanding of the mechanics of crisis and domination, a mechanics which is seemingly becoming the core structure of contemporary politics.

To this effect, besides the aforementioned Agamben, I will rely on thinkers as Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, and Carl Schmitt. The goal is not to discuss their contributions and implications in a detailed fashion, but simply to present a brief outline of the issue. The etymological relation between crisis (krisis) and judging (krinein) is well-known and I will take it for granted here.



According to Hannah Arendt, a crisis takes place when the standards, laws and measures inherited from the past to guide us in the predicaments of the present are no longer reliable (Arendt 2006a). This seems to indicate that “crisis” is the occurrence of a rupture with a given, handed down past, a tradition, whose function was to judge that which is worthy or not of being preserved. “Crisis” is the experience of the interruption of a willed continuity in time, an experience where the distinction between past and future becomes blurred (Arendt 2006). However, this does not necessarily mean that the unreliability of past standards to judge new conditions entails an interruption in their use. If left to its own devices, this blurring will simply reproduce its own indistinctness, becoming a kind of sempiternal present (Arendt 2006a).


The dangers associated with this process of acritical reproduction become clearer when seen from Arendt’s views on judgement.


According to Arendt, the word “judgement” has two meanings (Arendt 2005, 1993):


1. To organize and subsume the particular and the individual under a given general, universal rule (what Kant called “determinative judgement”). On the basis of these kinds of judgements there is a pre-judgement (Vorurteil) or prejudice. Prejudices are something we share with others, are considered self-evident, are part of everyday life, and enable us to recognize each other and our commonality

(this they share with judgements). Their function is to protect and shield us from having to experience, confront and judge anew every facet of reality. In fact, they are used as standards for judging in everyday life, that is, in a limited, non-binding context. Prejudices are the basis of public opinion, of our partial ways of viewing the world; they are not judgements per se, since these require their own legitimate ground in lived experience. Prejudices have a past judgement at their origin, which means they once had an experiential ground,

but this ground is now covered by the passage of time. And this allows them, in extreme cases – as in the case of crisis –, to prevent both the experience and judgement of present events, particularly those which resist subsumption to past judgements and are, therefore, altogether new.


2. Dealing with the new requires “judgement” in a different sense, since it means that there are no standards available capable of accounting for its novelty. This is what Kant called aesthetic judgement, over which we can debate and try to persuade others, but which we cannot dispute or impose on others as logically irrefutable.


For Arendt, a crisis occurs when prejudices are no longer deemed self-evident and reliable in the limited, non-binding context of everyday opinion, undergoing a process of “naturalization” that can turn them into all-encompassing and all-explaining ideologies which,

unlike genuine prejudices, claim universality and aim at completely shielding us from reality. This claim to universality is also the signal

that our standards of judgement and the prejudices based on them are no longer appropriate to deal with events. Standards have no compulsory nature, they are valid and in force based on nothing else than agreement, although they seem compulsory as a result of their application’s presumption of their validity.




This tension between the ability of judging anew, for oneself, without given, constituted standards, and the prejudicial need for judgements to have a compulsory, deductive-like nature capable of categorizing and ordering reality is, in a way, the red thread running across European Modernity, a thread which seems to have totally unravelled in our time and whose relevance to an understanding of the relation between crisis and domination should not be underestimated.


In Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe European Modernity itself as crisis, manifested in two opposite ways.


On the one hand, Modernity is characterized as a radical revolutionary process brought about by the emancipation of human beings from transcendent standards and the affirmation of a new ontological dignity to the realm of immanence translated into a power of constituting science, history and politics according to human experiences, determinations and actions. Human beings begin to be seen as singularities, that is, as absolute finite beings able to transcend their finitude and not just to conceive, but to potentially exist as universals. Citing Duns Scotus, Hardt and Negri state: «“[…] every entity has a singular essence [...]”», a singularity which is not accidental or ephemeral, but ontological (Hardt and Negri 2000, 71). This new humanity is the multitude, the presentation of singularities through their actions without recourse to external mediation and impossible to reduce to an identity.


On the other hand, it gave rise to a counter-revolution whose aim was to shape, control and dominate the rising dynamics of re-foundation on the basis of the newly discovered human dignity by establishing a transcendent power whose internal logic was not to return to

pre-modern conditions, but to provide a new order for the exploitation of the newly released forces of immanence.


The above-mentioned tension is referred by Hardt and Negri as a civil war fought between two paradigms of Modernity: the immanent, constituting forces of desire and association, and a transcendentally constituted order imposing authority. This civil war was mediated and somewhat resolved by the sovereignty of the state, which then became the locus of crisis in European Modernity and meant the victory of the counter revolutionary paradigm (Hardt and Negri 2000).
The “resolution” of European Modern crisis came not with the end of the conflict, but with its internalization. To use a Hegelian concept, crisis was sublated (aufgehoben), that is, simultaneously abolished and preserved by removing it from its immediacy and turning it into

a mediating transcendent, necessary, ideological a priori standard whose purpose was to dominate the of immediately self-constituting, potentially equal subjects under a pre-constituted order, both internally – i.e. intra-Europe – and externally – by imposing European domination to non- European populations. According to Hardt and Negri, crisis is the permanent state of Modern European domination and it became the mediating ideological core of European hegemony, disputes regarding its characteristics notwithstanding (Hardt and Negri 2000).




The presupposition of a civil war as the original condition of human relations (Hobbes’ war of all against all) demands a transference of power from the subjects to a sovereign power which transcends it, representing and ruling it for the sake of peace and survival: «Sovereignty is thus defined both by transcendence and by representation, two concepts that the humanist tradition has posed as contradictory» (Hardt and Negri 2000, 84). The transcendence of the sovereign is founded on the presupposed internal logic of human relations, which is represented and preserved – since the sovereign remains in a state of war – by depriving the subjects of their constituting power through an implicit contract of association which is inseparable from the contract of subjugation (Hardt and

Negri 2000).


To return to Arendt’s considerations on judgement and prejudice, this sublation of crisis into sovereignty is the original judgement of European Modernity, a judgement which became, initially, a self-evident prejudice and, after, an ideological mechanism of control and domination.


The result was the transformation of politics into administration or political economy, essentially coupling sovereignty – the transcendent, pre-constituted, presupposed victorious form of European Modernity – with capitalist expansion – its immanent content, ordering and guiding the constituting power of social relations in accordance with the rulings of the hegemonic, pre- constituted standard, turning both the singularities and the multitude into productive functions of its development and validators of its “success”, i.e., of its effectiveness.


Capitalist sovereignty and its administrative, bureaucratic state machinery are the core elements of the modern nation-state, according to which politics is only a function of social interest, represented by the figure of the sovereign, that transcendent “invisible hand” ruling private, conflicting interests.


Through the fiction of the “interest of society as a whole”, the creative, productive forces of singularities are disciplined, mobilized and organized to be put at the service of the continuous sublation of private conflicts – of sectorial crises – and the preservation of the status quo, translated into the exchange market. The sovereign standard, to whose mediation the different sectorial crises are subjected in order to be legitimized, normalized and prepared to fulfil their role in perpetuating the constituted order of things, becomes both the measure of progress and its ultimate end.


In a way, sovereignty preserves the ability of crisis to rupture the continuity of willed time, thus blurring past and future, but purposefully and exclusively with the goal of reproducing itself and its own conditions indefinitely, in a paradoxically ever-changing sempiternal present, while producing a set of new figures whose sole function is to validate and perpetuate its existence. 

Paraphrasing Arendt, the couple sovereignty/capitalism – and its mechanics – is the dead monotony of sameness in the process of

its historical unfolding (Arendt 1994).




Given their insightfulness and implicit or explicit influence on contemporary democracy and its techniques of government, Carl Schmitt’s reflections on the state of exception and the character of exception are key to understand this process of transforming crisis into a device of domination.


In his preface to Political Theology, Schmitt describes the political as “the total” (Schmitt 2005), thus making the unpolitical, that is, the private life of citizens – which, in the Modern liberal political framework, is supposedly beyond the boundaries of politics – explicitly dependent on political decision. The decision is the prerogative of the sovereign: “Sovereign is he who decides onthe exception” (Schmitt 2005, 5). This not only means that a constitutional order of some kind must be presupposed, but also that the sovereign has the power of suspending the rule of law in the name of his own preservation. That is, in Schmitt’s view, the distinguishing trait of sovereignty (Schmitt 2005). In the state of exception, the state has priority over the law; in fact, it continues to exist even when the law is suspended, while the law is dependent, in its applicability, on the field of application constituted by the sovereign’s power.


In this sense, the exception is literally a Grenzbegriff, i.e. a borderline concept, as Schmitt intends (Schmitt 2005): by deciding on the exception, the sovereign is, in a single act, not only creating a zone of indistinctness from which to determine who and what is within the constitutional order of the state and who and what should be excluded from it for the purpose of the state’s preservation and security,

thus being the abnormal ground of the norm, but also producing and sustaining the field of its application by constantly putting the life

of the subjects themselves within the scope of its absolute power.


In this framework and since there is no given rule to anticipate and subsume crises, the sovereign decides with unlimited authority on whether or not there is a crisis – a state of emergency – and what should be done to address it, including suspending the constitution in

its entirety. The decision on the exception cannot be derived from the constitutional norm, which is a mere guideline on how to deal with crises and on who is entitled act on critical cases, that is to say, who is the sovereign.


Since the existence of the sovereign and the state itself depends on the decision on the exception, the only way to assert and guarantee its power seems to be through the recurrent production and reproduction of the means of its preservation, that is, of crises.

This is achieved by conceiving social relations as a constant state of insecurity – as a war of all against all – in which all parties in dispute paradoxically seem to aim at a common good. Despite the faint Kantian flavour of this view, unlike Kant – who argued that the good constitution of the will envisaged the common good independently of particular intentions, including those of the sovereign –, Schmitt claims that the common good is determined by sovereign decision, thus granting the sovereign absolute power over the constitution

of public interest (Schmitt 2005).


To use an Arendtian formula, this would be tantamount to equate the common good with the will of the Führer (Arendt 2006b), that is,

the sovereign as the holder of absolute power. To act in accordance with the common good would be «“to act in such a way that the Führer, if he knew your action, would approve it”», a command to which Arendt called, in one of her several analyses of totalitarian rule, «the categorical imperative in the Third Reich» (Arendt 2006b).

In a similar vein, Agamben states that, in a totalitarian state, the state of exception is a device to establish a legal civil war with the purpose of physically eliminating entire categories of citizens who somehow are unable to be included in the political system (Agamben 2005).

In the current global civil war, refugees and displaced persons, deprived of civil rights and political protection in consequence of the collapse of their sovereign states, are the best example of this device in action, even considering the distance between the world’s current state of affairs and the totalitarian state.


The fact is that totalitarianism led, in the post-totalitarian world, to the adoption of the state of emergency – of crisis – as a recurrent device of government in democratic states, whose main advantage for government purposes is to justify the temporary suspension of the division of powers between legislative, executive and judiciary and its transference to a single, absolute sovereign whose executive powers are then extended and who then becomes capable of ruling by decree. According to Agamben, this transference is becoming systematic and commonplace in contemporary democratic states, even in parliamentary democracies, whose parliament is increasingly limited to ratifying executive decrees.


To Agamben, a good example of this tendency is the political appropriation of the metaphor of war by the executive power in the United States of America – the war on drugs, the war on terror, and so on –, given the intimate relation between the President’s sovereign powers and the state of war (Agamben 2005).


Exploring the consequences of this state of permanent crisis in the present situation, Hardt and Negri argue that the legitimation of violence – of war – in our time requires the presence of a constant threat to the security of our way of life. This threat seems to come from an immaterial enemy constantly haunting us, thus reinforcing our need for security and the necessity of the status quo and its means of violence as the only way to maintain security (Hardt and Negri 2004).


This transformation of crisis into an ideological device of domination by the state is achieved by assuming the imminent threat of an always lurking, evanescent enemy with a logic of security that reinforces the expectation of threat to the point of making its concrete experience irrelevant. Besides the permanent state of war, the result is a paradoxical sense of security – of peace –, produced not in virtue of the elimination of the concrete threat, but in virtue of the continuous validation of the expectation of threat and concomitant insecurity, which is ever-present and completely independent of the threat’s actual presence.

If this is the case, then it seems that Walter Benjamin was right in saying that «the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the

“state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule» (Benjamin 2006, 392).


Unlike the Arendtian “crisis” – which is an event, contingent by definition, essentially linked to experience and its conditions and therefore unable to be produced and sustained at will –, the state of exception is nothing other than the sovereign’s fictitious, self-produced indistinctness between past and future turned into a sempiternal present with the purpose of preserving the status quo and preventing the emergence of the new. Benjamin’s above-quoted sentence recognized the state of exception as the rule in contemporary society; however, he also added that “[…] it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency [...]” (Benjamin 2006, 392), that is, to dispel the prejudice of sovereignty grounded on Modernity’s appropriation of the experience of crisis by critically re-examining it and bringing to light the past judgements that brought it about and
constituted it. This is perhaps the most urgent political task of our time.

Agamben, Giorgio. 2005. State of Exception. Translated by Kevin Attell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2012.

“Giorgio Agamben, Intervista a Peppe Savà: Amo Scicli E Guccione.” Ragusa News. 2012.

Arendt, Hannah. 1993. Was ist Politik?: Fragmente aus dem Nachlass. Vorausgegeben von Ursula Ludz. Munchen: R. Piper.

1994. Essays in Understanding: 1930-1954 Formation, Exile, and Totalitarianism. Edited by Jerome Kohn. New York: Schocken Books.

2005. The Promise of Politics. Edited by Jerome Kohn. New York: Schocken Books.

2006a. Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Viking Press.

2006b. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. London: Penguin Books.

Benjamin, Walter. 2006. Selected Writings. Edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Vol. 4, 1938–19. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2004. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin Press.

2000. Empire. Cambridge, Massachusetts & London: Harvard University Press.

Schmitt, Carl. 2005. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Translated by George Schwab. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


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