With the measured, Olympian gravity of the philosopher, well-known Italian political thinker Giorgio Agamben reminded readers of Le Monde (Paris) on Sunday that it is extremely naive to believe that the state of emergency that the government of President François Hollande is trying to write into the constitution of France's Fifth Republic is anything other than a preliminary to "a rapid and irreversible degradation of public institutions."[1]  --  A complete translation of Agamben's piece is posted below....


By Giorgio Agamben

** For Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the state of emergency is not a shield protecting democracy, but something that has always accompanied dictatorships **

Le Monde (Paris)
December 27, 2015

http://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2015/12/23/de-l-etat-de-droit-a-l-etat-de-securite_4836816_3232.html (original French)

What is at stake in the extension of the state of emergency in France is not truly understood if it is not situated it in the context of a radical transformation of the state as we know it.  It is especially important to give the lie to the claim of irresponsible politicians who say the state of emergency is a shield for democracy.

Historians know perfectly well that it is the opposite that is the case.  The state of emergency is, in fact, the instrument by which totalitarian authorities were set up in Europe.  Thus in the years preceding Hitler’s seizure of power, Weimar's social-democratic governments made such frequent use of the state of emergency (or the state of exception, as it is called in German), that many claim Germany had already, in 1933, ceased to be a parliamentary democracy.

Hitler’s first act, after his nomination, was to proclaim a state of emergency that was never revoked.  Those who are surprised at the crimes that were committed with impunity in Germany by the Nazis forget that they were perfectly legal, because the country was subject to a state of exception and individual freedoms were suspended.

There is no reason why a similar scenario cannot repeat itself in France:  it is easy to imagine an extreme right-wing government using for its own ends a state of emergency to which socialist governments have now accustomed the citizenry.  In a country living in a prolonged state of emergency, in which police operations gradually replace judicial power, we must expect a rapid and irreversible degradation of public institutions.


This is all the more the case in that the state of emergency is today part of a process that is causing Western democracies to evolve toward something that can already be labeled a "security state," as American political analysts say.  The word “security” is now such a deeply rooted part of political discourse that we can say with confidence that “reasons of security” have taken the place of what used to be called “reasons of State.”  An analysis of this new form of government is, however, still lacking.  As the security state is neither a state of law nor what Michel Foucault called a “disciplinary society,” it is appropriate here to offer a few contributions toward a possible definition.

In Thomas Hobbes's model, which has so deeply influenced our political philosophy, the contract transferring powers to the sovereign presupposes reciprocal fear and a war of all against all: the state is, precisely, what ends the fear.  In the security state, the pattern is reversed:  the long-term basis of the state is fear and it must do whatever it takes to maintain fear, because it draws from fear both its essential function and its legitimacy.

Foucault showed that when the word “security” first appeared in political discourse in the France of the pre-revolutionary physiocratic governments, it was not to prevent catastrophes and famines, but rather to let them occur so as to take charge of them and steer them in a direction deemed profitable.


Similarly, the security we are talking about today does not aim at preventing acts of terrorism (which is in fact extremely difficult, if not impossible, since security measures only work after the event, and terrorism is, by definition, a series of first strikes), but rather at establishing a new form of social relation, namely one of a generalized, limitless control -- hence the special insistence on arrangements permitting the total control of citizens’ computer and communication data, including complete access to the content of computers.

The first danger to be noted is the drift toward the creation of a systemic relation between terrorism and the security state:  the state requires fear for its legitimacy, so it must, ultimately, produce terror, or at least not prevent it from taking place.  Thus we see countries pursuing foreign policies that feed the terrorism that has to be fought domestically and maintaining cordial relations and even selling arms to states known to finance terrorist organizations.

A second point, one that it is important to grasp, is the change in the political status of citizens and the people, which is supposed to be where sovereignty resides.  In the security state there can be seen to appear an irrepressible tendency toward what has to be called a progressive depoliticization of citizens, whose participation in political life shrinks to polls in political campaigns.  This tendency is all the more worrisome in that Nazi jurists already theorized it, defining the people as an essentially apolitical element whose protection and growth the state is supposed to ensure.

These same jurists held that there is only one way to politicize this apolitical element:  by equating origin and race, in that way distinguishing the people from those who are foreigners and enemies.  We do not mean to confuse the Nazi state with the contemporary security state, but it must be understood that if citizens are depoliticized they can only become active if they are mobilized by the fear of a foreign enemy, one that they feel is not merely external (in Germany it was the Jews, in France today it is the Muslims).


It is against this context that we should consider the sinister plan to deprive dual citizens of their nationality, which recalls the 1926 fascist law on the denationalizing “citizens unworthy of Italian citizenship” and Nazi laws on denationalizing Jews.

A third point, one whose importance should not be underestimated, is the radical transformation of the criteria that establish truth and certainty in the public sphere.  What above all strikes an attentive observer in reports of terrorist crimes is a total renunciation establishing guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

It is a given that in a state of law a crime can only be certified by a judicial investigation, but under the security paradigm we have to be content with what the police, and the media who depend on them, have to say -- that is, two sources that have always been considered unreliable.  Whence the incredible vagueness and obvious inconsistencies in hasty reconstructions of events that consciously evade any possibility of verification or falsification and that are more like gossip than investigations.  What this means is that the security state has an interest in citizens -- whose protection it is supposed to ensure -- remaining in doubt about what is threatening them, because doubt and terror walk hand in hand.

It is this doubt that we see in the text of the law of November 20 on the state of emergency, which refers to “any person with regard to whom serious reasons exist to think that their behavior constitutes a threat to public order and security.”  It is perfectly clear that the expression “serious reasons . . . to think” has no legal meaning, and, insofar as it appeals to the arbitrariness of the person who “thinks,” can be applied at any time to anyone.  In the security state, these indefinite formulas, which have always been considered by legal scholars as contrary to the principle of reasonable doubt, become the norm.


The same imprecision and the same ambiguities recur in politicians' declarations that France is at war with terrorism.  A war on terrorism is a contradiction in terms, because it is precisely by the possibility of certainly identifying the enemy to be fought that a state of war is defined.  From the securitarian perspective, however, the enemy must remain vague so that anyone -- domestically, but also abroad -- can be identified as such.

Maintenance of a generalized state of fear, depoliticization of citizens, total renunciation of the principle of reasonable doubt:  these three characteristics of the security state should make us think twice.  Because what this means is, first, that the security state into which we are slipping does the opposite of what it claims to do, since -- if security means the absence of care (sine cura) -- it maintains fear and terror, the opposite of security.  And second, that the security state is a police state, because with the eclipse of the judicial power it generalizes the margin of discretion of the police, who, when a state of emergency becomes normal, act more and more as the sovereign power.

In the end, via the gradual depoliticization of the citizen, who in some sense has become a potential terrorist, the security state leaves the domain that we know as politics and heads toward a dubious realm where public and private are confused and whose frontiers are hard to make out.

--A philosopher whose theoretical works are known and translated around the world, Giorgio Agamben was born in Rome (Italy) in 1942.  He has just published La guerre civile : Pour une théorie politique de la Stasi ['Civil War: Toward a Political Theory of the Stasi'] (Points, 96pp., 6.50 euros) and L'usage des corps: Homo sacer, IV, 2 ['The Use of Bodies: The Outlaw,' IV, 2], translated by Joël Gayraud (Seuil, 396pp., 26 euros).

Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447
Phone: 253-535-7219
Webpage: www.plu.edu/~jensenmk/
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