From the state of law to the security state: Giorgio Agamben on the state of emergency in france

Giorgio Agamben‘s reflections on sovereignty and the state of exception as mutually interdependent concepts in western political thought and practice are fundamental tools in the understanding of the contemporary “war on terror”, as this has been assumed in various countries, and most recently and explicitly in france, after the november 13th attacks in Paris.  With the declaration of a state on emergency in the country, close to three thousand searches have been conducted without judicial warrant, 360 people have been placed under house arrest, and 287 people held in prison under provisional detention, with none of these actions leading to prosecutions for terrorism.  (Periodico Diagonal 24/12/2015) Indeed, in the wave of arrests, dissidents of any stripe have become the targets.  And with a ban on all public protest, it is politics itself which is suspended.

We share below, in translation, a chronicle written by Agamben for Le Monde (23/12/2015) …

From a State of Law to a Security State

One cannot truly understand what is at stake in the extension of the state of emergency [until the end of February] in France, if one does not situate it in the context of a radical transformation of the model of the State with which we are familiar.  The claims of irresponsible politicians according to which the state of emergency is a shield for democracy must be before all else contested.

Historians know perfectly well that the opposite is true.  The state of emergency is precisely the instrument by means of which totalitarian authorities installed themselves in Europe.  Accordingly, during the years that preceded Hitler’s taking of power, the social-democratic governments of Weimar often had recourse to the state of emergency (or the state of exception, as it is referred to in German), such that one can say that before 1933, Germany had already ceased to be a parliamentary democracy.

Now Hitler’s first act, after his nomination, was to proclaim a state of emergency that was never revoked.  When one is surprised by the crimes that could be committed with impunity in Germany by the Nazis, it is forgotten that they were perfectly legal, because the country was subject to a state of exception and that individual freedoms had been suspended.

There is no reason why a similar scenario cannot reproduce itself in France: it is not difficult to imagine an extreme right-wing government taking advantage, for its own ends, of a state of emergency to which socialist governments have hitherto habituated their citizens.  In a country that lives in a prolonged state of emergency, and in which police operations progressively replace judicial power, a rapid and irreversible degradation of public institutions must be expected.

Maintaining the fear

This is especially true when the state of emergency is today part of a process in which western democracies are already evolving towards what must be called a Security State … The term “security” has so impregnated political discourse that one can say, without fear of mistake, that “reasons of security” have taken the place of what used to be called “reasons of State”.  An analyses of this new form of government is however lacking.  As the Security State has nothing to do with the State of law, nor with what Michel Foucault called “disciplinary societies”, it is useful to suggest a few markers on the way to a possible definition.

In the model of the Britain Thomas Hobbes, which so profoundly influenced our political philosophy, the contract that transfers powers to the sovereign presupposes reciprocal fear and a war of all against all: the State is that which effectively brings an end to fear.  In the Security State, this schema is reversed: the State is durably grounded in fear and must, at all cost, maintain it, because it draws from it its essential function and its legitimacy.

Foucault had already demonstrated that when the word “security” appeared for the first time in political discourse in France with the pre-revolutionary physiocratic governments, it was not a matter of preventing catastrophes and famines, but rather of letting them occur so as to govern and lead them in a direction that was deemed profitable.

Without judicial meaning

Likewise, the security which is in question today does not aim to prevent acts of terrorism (which is in fact extremely difficult, if not impossible, because security measures are only effective after the fact, when terrorism is by definition a series of original facts), but to establish a new relation with men and women, which is that of generalised and unlimited control – thus the particular insistence on instruments that permit the total control of citizen’s computer and communication data, including the complete seizure of the content of computers.

The first danger that we can cite is the drift towards the creation of a systematic relationship between terrorism and the Security State: if the State requires fear for its legitimacy, then it must at the very least produce terror or at least not prevent it from occurring.  We are thus witness to countries that pursue a foreign policy that feeds the terrorism that must be fought against domestically and which maintain cordial relations with, even sell weapons to, States which are known to finance terrorist organisations.

A second point, that it is important to grasp, is the change in the political status of citizens and the people who are supposedly the bearers of sovereignty.  In the Security State, an irrepressible tendency is evident towards what must be called the progressive depoliticisation of citizens, whose participation in political life is reducible to electoral polls. This tendency is that much more disturbing in that it was theorised by Nazi jurists, who defined the people as an essentially a-political element that the State must assume the protection and growth of.

Now, according to these same jurists, there is only one way to render political this a-political element: by equality of origin and race, which will distinguish it from the stranger and the enemy. This is not to confuse the Nazi State with the contemporary Security State:  what must be understood is that if citizens are depoliticised, they cannot leave their passivity unless they are mobilised by fear of an enemy stranger who is not only external to them (as were the Jews of Germany, and as are the Muslims of France today).

Uncertainty and Terror

It is against this background that one must consider the sinister project depriving bi-national citizens of their nationality, which recalls the fascist law of 1926 on the de-nationalisation of “unworthy citizens of Italian citizenship” and the Nazi laws on the de-nationalisation of Jews.

A third point, whose importance must not be underestimated, is the radical transformation of the criteria that establish truth and certainty in the public sphere.  What is above all striking to an attentive observer in the reports of terrorist crimes is the complete renunciation of the verification of judicial certainty.

While it is understood in a State of law that a crime cannot be confirmed except by judicial investigation, under the security paradigm, one must be content with what the police, and the media who depend on them, say – that is, two bodies whose reliability was always considered limited. And thus the incredible and patently contradictory wave of hasty reconstructions of events that knowingly elude all possibility of verification and falsification and that have more in common with rumour  than with inquiry.  This means that the Security State has an interest in having citizens – who it must assure the protection of – remain in uncertainty with regards to what threatens them, because uncertainty and terror walk hand in hand.

It is the same uncertainty that one finds in the text of the law of the 20th of November on the state of emergency, which refers to “all persons with regards to whom there exist serious reasons to think that their behaviour constitutes a threat to public order and security”.  It is more than obvious that the expression “serious reasons to think” has no judicial meaning and that to the extent that it appeals to the arbitrariness of s/he who “thinks”, that it can be applied at any time to anyone.  But then in the Security State, these indeterminate formulas, which were always considered by jurists as contrary to the principle of legal certitude, become the norm.

Depolitisation of the citizens

The same imprecision and the same equivocations reappear in the declarations of politicians, according to whom France is at war against terrorism.  A war against terrorism is a contradiction in terms, because the state of war is defined precisely by the possibility of identifying, and this in a way that is certain, the enemy that must be fought.  From the perspective of security, the enemy must – on the contrary – remain vague, so that anyone – at home, but also beyond – can be identified as such.

The maintenance of a generalised state of fear, the depoliticisation of citizens and the renunciation of all legal certainty: these are three characteristics of the Security State that should trouble our spirits.  For this means, on the one hand, that the Security State into which we are presently slipping does the opposite of what it promises, because – if security means the absence of worry (sine cura) – it sustains rather fear and terror.  The Security State on the other hand is a police State, because with the eclipse of judicial authority, it generalises the discretionary margin of the police who in a state of emergency made normal, acts more and more as sovereign.

Through the progressive depolticisation of the citizen, in some sense becoming a potential terrorist, the Security State finally leaves the known domain of the political to steer itself towards a zone of uncertainty, where the public and the private are confounded, and between which it is difficult to define the frontiers.

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